A man has an idea. The idea attracts others, like-minded. The idea expands. The idea becomes an institution. What was the idea? – The Crow (1994)
Several years ago, I read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and it was, for lack of a better term, a revelation. I had always been an atheist but this was the first time I was exposed to atheist literature. I quickly gobbled down Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, Hitchens’ God is not Great, and Dawkins’ The God Delusion. It was like not being able to speak and suddenly having an entire language downloaded into my head. For the first time in my life, I was able to make sense of something I instinctually understood (organized religion is bullshit) but wasn’t able to articulate.
I started watching atheist Youtube channels like Thunderf00t and his hilarious “Why do people laugh at Creationists?” series. I started reading atheist blogs like PZ Myers’ Pharyngula. I didn’t go full bore New Atheist but I was much less reluctant about poking fun at religious beliefs. Hey, I respect your right to believe whatever you want but that doesn’t mean I have to respect your actual beliefs.
But over the course of the next couple of years, I drifted away from the movement surrounding New Atheism. I’m not big on belonging to movements in the first place and I had a lot of work to do raising my kids and writing about politics. Pushing back against religious fundamentalism was important but that’s just a part of the enormous fight against the toxic influence of America conservatism. I just didn’t have the time or inclination to stay in touch with the direction New Atheism was taking.
So imagine my surprise to find out that it’s drifted away from reason and morality into the fever swamps of misogyny and white supremacy:
Just consider a recent tweet from one of the most prominent new atheist luminaries, Peter Boghossian: “Why is it that nearly every male who’s a 3rd wave intersectional feminist is physically feeble & has terrible body habitus?” If this is what it means to be a “reasonable person,” then who would want to be that? Except for the vocabulary, that looks like something you’d find in Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. The same goes for another of Boghossian’s deep thoughts: “I’ve never understood how someone could be proud of being gay. How can one be proud of something one didn’t work for?” It’s hard to know where to even begin dissecting this bundle of shameful ignorance.
Perhaps the most alarming instance of irrationality in recent memory, though, is Sam Harris’ recent claim that black people are less intelligent than white people. This emerged from a conversation that Harris had with Charles Murray, co-author of “The Bell Curve” and a monetary recipient of the racist Pioneer Fund.
I had vaguely taken note that some of the thought leaders of New Atheism came down hard on the wrong side of GamerGate, the opening salvo of the alt-right. During Gamergate, female gamers were targeted for the kind of vicious harassment that is the bread of butter of Trump’s army of wannabe Brownshirts. It was exactly the sort of thing that supposedly enlightened New Atheists would stand against. After all, there is no scientific basis for sexism much less misogyny. Yet, a large enough part of the movement followed people like Thunderf00t (anti-feminist) and, later, Harris (recently white supremacist) far enough into the realm of xenophobia and rampant sexism that a schism formed, with the progressive “Atheist Plus” movement standing in opposition to the now-deeply twisted New Atheism.
There is no direct line from extolling the virtues of science and rationality over religion to postulating that men are superior to women and whites are superior to blacks. It’s unlikely that the New Atheists of 2007 would recognize the New Atheists of 2017.
The Tea Party
A few years before Gamergate, back in 2009, the Tea Party magically roared into existence in the wake of the dismal failure that was the Bush administration. Millions of Republican voters suddenly forgot they’d voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 and refused to take responsibility for the trainwreck that the result of the GOP’s policies while still insisting that those policies worked. The result of this was an confused mob that knew they were angry that a black man was elected and little else. They couldn’t say that, of course, so they latched on to the lie that Obama was taxing them to death despite their taxes being lower than they’d been in decades.
In the span of just a few years, the American right wing went from bigoted dog whistles to a wild free-for-all of conspiracy nonsense and incoherent racist rage. So much so that when Trump and the white nationalists of the alt-right came along, they found a lot of fertile ground to spread their hate. The right, given permission by Trump to indulge their racism in the open, frantically jettisoned everything they once believed in in their haste to eschew “political correctness.”
This is how a political movement that once stood for Christian family values, “real” America, law and order, and loathed Russia and “East Coast values” came to virtually worship a confessed serial adulterer with 5 children from three wives from New York City who has never worked an honest day in his life and is very obviously in bed with Russia’s kleptocratic government.
In the 1960’s William F. Buckley led the conservative movement away from the insanity of the John Birch Society, the precursor to the Tea Party. Today, even Ronald Reagan, the most revered modern Republican, would be considered a treasonous wild-eyed liberal by most conservatives.
It started off as a lark, more or less. Bernie never thought he could win the nomination; he simply wanted to move the Democratic Party further to the left. After a few early wins, Sen. Sanders believed he could do more than just move the needle and mounted a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton.
But somewhere along the way, Bernie went from running a clean and positive campaign (that first debate was glorious for its emphasis on ideas) to running a scorched earth war against Clinton and the Democratic Party he ostensibly was campaigning to lead. We’re still not entirely clear how it got so ugly but we do know that Russian trolls infiltrated Bernie’s movement and fed it increasingly unhinged propaganda. By the time the primaries were over, a painfully large amount of ostensibly intelligent liberals were absolutely convinced that Hillary was the personification of all evil in the world.
And after he lost, far too much of Bernie’s revolution went from being about universal healthcare and getting money out of politics to being about the destruction of Hillary Clinton and the DNC at all costs. Again, part of this was fed by Russian propaganda but not all of it. Enough progressives allowed themselves to be consumed by bitterness that they actually saw Trump’s election as worth it just to punish “neoliberals.”
If you told a progressive from 2008 that one day they would cheer for the election of a white nationalist working against the United States on behalf of Russian gangsters, they would spit in your face. But here we are anyway.
Beware intellectual and moral drift
The preceding cautionary tales are examples of what happens when you place too much emphasis on tribalism instead of what you know to be right. Movements are helpful for articulating and advancing a set of ideals but they can also be used to lead people very far away from those same ideals. This is not to say blind adherence to an ideology is preferable; that can be just as dangerous and counterproductive. It’s also not to say that you shouldn’t have any ideals at all. Who wants to go through life with no belief in anything?
But you can hold your ideals, even compromise on them in the short run if necessary, without chasing a rabbit down a hole into the Upside Down. If you can’t look back at your social media postings from a few years ago and recognize the person looking back, there’s a good chance you’ve lost your way. But it’s not too late for you! It may be difficult but step outside of whatever bubble you’ve fallen into and listen to how people talk about your movement without immediately dismissing it. Ask uncomfortable questions of your cohort and see if you’re branded a heretic. Any movement that cannot accept any kind of criticism without a violent reaction is going to spin out of control and take you with it. Next thing you know, you’ll be red-faced and ranting at the very things you used to believe in.
What was the idea?
Note: I didn’t set out to pick movements mostly dominated by white men and although there is surely a thread to follow there, that is beyond the scope of this particular piece so I didn’t address it.
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