Thursday, February 12, 2015

Second Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Murders

As is usual on the internet, some of the responses I received to my last post seemed to be missing my point, so I’d like to clarify a few things.

Jumping to Conclusions

One of the most dismaying things I saw online was the number of people castigating the media (always inexplicably seen as some monolithic entity,) for not declaring this to be a hate crime before the police had finished (or barely even begun,) their investigation. In my post I said that there seems to be some evidence that it might have been a hate crime, and that whether it was or not it should be an opportunity for atheists to reflect on the possibility that someone who identifies as an atheist did this and what that might mean for the rest of us. But the scorn people poured on news outlets for being careful and saying that they weren’t yet completely sure of the motive was scandalous. Many people seemed to be of the opinion that if a white man who claimed to hate religion kills three Muslims there can only be one conclusion. This is a terrible precedent. If we were to assume that every time a Muslim is attacked by a non-Muslim it’s because of their religion that would be a complete abandonment of fair-mindedness, and just as ridiculous as assuming that every time a Christian is attacked it’s because of their religion or any time a gay person is attacked it’s because they’re gay. It’s perfectly understandable for individuals to have those suspicions, but to demand that our news outlets report on motives they can’t possibly yet be certain of is awful. People also claimed a double-standard, saying that if a Muslim man had killed three atheist students the media wouldn’t have hesitated to call him a terrorist and declare religious hatred to be the motive. That’s just not true. Mainstream news outlets (with some exceptions, of course,) are usually very circumspect about these things because if they jump the gun and end up being wrong they have egg on their face and lose credibility. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings the media did exactly the same thing they’re doing now: they wrote that there was some suspicion that the suspects may be radicalized Muslims but that it was too soon to confirm. Even in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks western media was impressively fair-minded, reporting that some at the scene had said that the suspects had shouted “Allahu Akbar,” and that based on previous threats and attacks there was reason to believe the magazine was targeted due to their criticism of Islam, but they didn’t confirm it until more facts were in. In the case of Chapel Hill, most of the media did the same thing: reporting that some people (including the victims' father,) suspect it might be a hate crime based on the victims' religion and some of the suspect's previous writings and that the police are investigating that possibility, but that so far the police say that most of the evidence is pointing toward it being the result of an unhinged person involved in a dispute over a parking space.

It just so happens that I have a perfect example of when this kind of speculation goes wrong: the 2005 massacre of the Armanious family in Jersey City, which I took as the topic of my Journalism School Master’s project. The Armanious family - a husband, wife, and two daughters of 8 and 15 years old - were found brutally stabbed to death in their home. The family were Coptic Christians, members of an Egyptian sect of Christianity and one of the oldest surviving churches in the world. Jersey City has a large population of Egyptian immigrants, about equally divided between Copts and Muslims. That’s not the case in Egypt, however, where the Copts are a long-suffering minority, often the target of persecution and religious violence. Many Copts moved to New Jersey to escape that life. For some, the murder of a peaceful family of four Coptic Christians could only lead to one conclusion: the persecution their people had faced living under a Muslim majority in Egypt had followed them to America. The leaders of some Coptic organizations immediately denounced the murders as the obvious acts of Islamic extremists (the Coptic Pope, Shenouda, urged people not to jump to conclusions, which is good advice in general, but probably pragmatic, too, because he knows that the continued existence and relative safety of the Coptic community in Egypt depends on their being rather meek and deferential to the Muslim majority.) Rumors flew that the father, Hossam Armanious, had been warned and threatened for speaking against Islam in the past, that the family had been slaughtered like Halal livestock, that Christian cross tattoos on the families arms had been stabbed and gouged and cut out. The relatively comfortable co-existence between Copts and Muslims in Jersey City (and America at large,) was in serious jeopardy. At the family’s emotional funeral procession through the streets of Jersey City, an Imam and Muslim delegation who had shown up to offer their condolences was attacked by angry mourners.

As it turns out, the family was found to have been murdered by a drug dealer named Edward McDonald, who had rented an apartment from them and seems to have been under the impression that they had lots of money in their home. He broke in to the house wearing a mask and tied the family up. It is believed that while he was searching for valuables, the youngest daughter broke free and saw him with his mask off. His cover blown, he brutally murdered the whole family. Religion had nothing to do with it.

Atheism had nothing to do with it.

I heard this from several people - the killer’s atheism is entirely irrelevant. After all, atheism is just the lack of a belief in god, it isn’t a positive philosophy or moral system at all. Discovering that someone is an atheist doesn’t tell you anything about what they do believe, only what they don’t believe. I had thought I’d been pretty clear that I agree with this in my last post, but apparently people either hadn’t read or hadn’t understood me. There is a distinction between passive atheism (simply not believing in a god,) and active anti-theism (a dislike or hatred of religion, in which camp I absolutely place myself,) and this distinction is not being made or acknowledged. Religion, and particularly its intrusion in public life, is something that I believe needs to be resisted with argument, debate, and reason. There’s no reason why a thoroughly unbalanced person might not take his own hatred of religion to violent extremes. His lack of belief in god doesn’t technically have anything to do with it, but his proactive hatred of religion might. I was somewhat surprised to see that many of the things he’d written on his Facebook page are things I might have said (albeit more eloquently, I hope,) in my own angrier moments. Nothing on his Facebook page advocated violence against religious people, but there were plenty of frustrated and angry denunciations of faith which were not illogical and with which I can more or less agree.

The point I had been trying to make is that atheists would be unwise to dismiss out of hand the idea of a madman killing “in the name of” atheism. We might know that atheism means nothing but a lack of belief in a deity, but for plenty of other people who don’t know or care about that distinction, atheists might as well be a religious group of their own, or at least some kind of watered-down religious interest group. The fact that atheist and secularist political groups have become more politically active, vocal, and organized in the past several years is bound to fuel those kinds of misapprehensions. The point is that even if this has nothing to do with the victims’ religion or the killer’s hatred of religion, these days an accusation or correlation is enough to convict people in the court of public opinion, including by association. Whatever the result of the investigation, there will be people who remain unswervingly convinced that it was a hate crime committed by a self-identified atheist and therefore it must be because of his atheism, and that is going to make things very tough for the rest of us who hate, mock, ridicule, and insult religion without resorting to violence. And it may well encourage the people who cry “Islamophobia,” and want to make criticism of Islam hate speech. They’ll have an argument at hand, weak and unfounded though it may be, that there are atheist terrorists, too. We’d be stupid to ignore that. Of course even if this one lunatic did commit these acts because of a hatred of Islam specifically or religion in general, it’s nothing compared to the theocratic government-sanctioned violence and intolerance in many Muslim countries, and it’s much harder to imagine American non-religious school children refusing a moment of silence for the victims as many French Muslim students were reported to have done after the Charlie Hebdo atrocity. People in the West overwhelmingly condemn these horrific acts. In many parts of the world religious murderers are all too often celebrated as heroes and martyrs. My concern is that if some psychopath with a gun who happens to be an atheist slaughters people and it turns out he did it because he hates their religion, then it’s going to be much more difficult for us atheists to say with indignation (as I often have,) that we find religion just as offensive as any cartoons or novels but you don’t see us attacking random believers.

Atheism is not a religion

It is obviously true that atheism is not a religion and I never said anything even remotely suggesting that it was, and yet people seemed to think that that’s what I was implying when I talked about the possibility of someone killing in the name of atheism. Reference was made to Stalin, as though I’d repeated the canard about atheism being responsible for many atrocities of the 20th century. I never said any such thing. The charge of Hitler’s atheism is easily refuted by reference to his speeches, the slogans and language of the Reich, the teutonic mythology of National Socialism, and international fascism’s mutual sympathy and alliance with the Catholic Church. Stalin is a slightly tougher refutation but only slightly. It’s true that the ex-seminarian extensively persecuted religious people and advocated atheism. But rather than any deep atheist conviction this was almost certainly another all-too-typical extension of Stalin’s paranoid and cruel repression of any ideology which might threaten his power or the state’s official ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Stalin was ultimately a pragmatist, if a misguided and brutal one. Kruschev was the first to suggest after Stalin’s death that Soviet Communism and the cult of personality had simply become a religion of its own, with just as much dogma, unwavering faith, and heresy hunts as any other.

Which brings me to my final question and concern. If Stalin made state communism into something so closely resembling a religion, is there a danger that “organized” atheism as it exists today in the West could be vulnerable to such perversions? There are now atheist, secularist, and humanist meetings, clubs, support groups, lobbies, events, specialty magazines, conventions, and a huge market for books and films on related topics, not to mention a thriving online “community.” I’ve participated in all this to varying degrees at different times and I’ve overall seen it as a positive development in the resistance to theocracy, religious power, and faith-based thinking. But the “organized” part of it has always made me slightly uncomfortable. And while I think that most atheists are probably relatively free-thinking and individualistic and broadly skeptical, I was always sure to meet a few people who were a little too sure of their own convictions, people for whom doubt wasn’t a major factor in their worldview, people who, rather than debate, were content to self-satisfyingly quote Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris as incontrovertible authorities rather than intellectual thinkers to engage and possibly disagree with on some things. In fact, I was even more uncomfortable with those who wanted to saddle atheism with some of the outward trappings of religion - that seemed a distinctly creepy impulse to me. People who wanted cringeworthy “un-baptism ceremonies,” or regular sunday non-belief services, or people who wanted atheists to have a table at Mayor Bloomberg’s interfaith breakfast were always missing the point in my eyes. I wanted to avoid everything about religion and I certainly didn’t want atheists to start treating their lack of belief as something doctrinaire or remotely resembling a religion. I didn't want atheism to have the same special status as religious groups, I didn't want religious groups to have special status of any kind.


But I’m beginning to wonder if when any group goes from being merely speculative or philosophical to being actively political it runs the risk of extremism. I think that people of no faith and their religious allies who support secularism absolutely do need to be more political. In fact, I don’t think we should shy away and maybe even encourage more “extreme” and unapologetic ideas in our discourse, and I don’t think we should play nice or water down our own convictions, opinions, or beliefs. But I also think we need to at least consider the troubling possibility that some people who sympathize with our goals may have radically different ideas about methods. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

First Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Murders and "Atheist Extremism."

Three young, attractive, and by all accounts bright, loving, and wonderful students were shot dead last night in Chapel Hill. They were all Muslims. Many online are complaining that that fact isn’t yet mentioned in the headline of the New York Times article on the tragedy. In their defense, the New York Times is probably just doing an ultra-diligent covering-their-ass fact-checking thing where they reserve judgement on the crime’s motive until the police have announced it. If they were to make religion the focus of the article and then for some reason turn out to be wrong they’d be in even more trouble. But for the rest of us, there seems to be compelling evidence that the victims’ religion wasn’t a mere coincidence. My immediate thought was that it was probably a right-wing Christian nut (not very fair-minded of me, perhaps, but I was basing my prejudice on previous cases like that of Anders Breivik.) Then my heart sank when I read that the killer, based on his Facebook postings, appears to be a staunch atheist, even an anti-theist like myself: someone who not only doesn’t believe in god but thinks that religion is overwhelmingly a negative force in the world.

I remember on September 11th my mother said that the first thing that went through her head was “I hope it was a white guy like Timothy McVeigh who did this.” I’ve also heard Muslims say that when news of a violent terrorist act breaks they fervently hope that it doesn’t turn out to have been committed by Muslims. They’re tired of evil people committing acts in the name of their shared faith and afraid of a backlash. Aside from the fact that the backlash (in the United States, at least,) was usually limited to a few redneck idiots shooting at convenience stores or calling people racist names, I’d always found this thinking strange and oddly solipsistic - why would the first thing you think of in the face of horror and atrocity be about you and people like you? I confess, that’s the way I’m feeling right now. And I feel slightly embarrassed that some of my first thoughts were immediately about what this might mean for atheists.

The police are currently saying that the triple murder might have been over a dispute about a parking space. Maybe that’s true. But even if it is, an atheist murdering three Muslims is not going to be dismissed so easily. This will likely be considered in the court of public opinion to have been a hate crime even if it is found to technically not be. Whatever the final case, the very possibility of an atheist killing people over faith is something we need to consider.

The thought of an atheist murdering three innocent people because of their religion sickens me to the core of my being. I’ve always been quick to point out that atheists weren’t blowing up mosques or churches or temples or shrines in the name of atheism - what a laughable idea! - other religionists were committing those crimes in the name of their competing faith claims. But now there’s a chance that one of us has and it’s probably going to be flung in our face and held against us for a long time to come. Many polls show that atheists are already one of the most mistrusted (if not the most mistrusted,) groups in the United States. People are far more likely to vote for a Muslim or a gay person than an atheist. Although we’ve been vocal of late, we’ve usually been on our best behavior and not committed atrocities. Leave it to the Christian fanatic to attack Gurdwaras (betraying his ignorance along the way by conflating Sikhs and Muslims.) Leave it to the lone wolf Islamic radical to behead his elderly Christian co-worker. Atheists use words, reason, and argument to prove their point. Possibly not this time.

Some people have defensively pointed out that atheists can’t be considered ideologically similar in the same way that religionists can - we don’t have codified dogmas, clergy, or creeds. Someone said that collectively blaming atheists for the act of one atheist is like blaming the act of one person who doesn’t like baseball on everyone who doesn’t like baseball. This might on the face of it be logically true, but there are some of us who are committed and active secularists, who push back on the influence of religion in the public sphere - and that’s not a shared ideological commitment to be taken lightly. It appears that the killer may have identified as one of us, and that’s something we need to reckon with.

I’ve received criticism for saying that the people who need to combat Islamic extremism are, first and foremost, Muslims. Radicalization is something which arises all too often within their communities so they need to take some responsibility in stopping it. Some people have ironically asked for all atheists to condemn the atrocity last night, in the same way that people ask Muslim leaders to condemn any act of Islamic terrorism. We atheists should, and we will. Richard Dawkins already has. I think it’s important that those of us who are involved in the fight against theocracy, unreason, and superstition, speak up and say that a killer of innocent people in no way speaks for the rest of us. I happen to be at the less friendly and respectful end of the atheist spectrum. I think religion is wicked, and I think it causes far more harm than it does good in the world. I also think that at this time in history Islam is the most problematic religion on the planet and to pretend otherwise is to be willfully ignorant. I’ll even admit that when I read about the horrors committed by groups like Boko Haram and ISIS I think it would be a rather good (possibly even quite satisfying,) act to kill one of their fighter-rapists. But killing innocent people because of their beliefs is the opposite of secularism. It’s what religions have done throughout their history and its one of the reasons I’ve proudly called myself an atheist: we don’t do that. This time one of us may have. And we need to face that and show that a killer - atheist though he may be - who murders innocents for their beliefs is not the face of unbelief. He would be a perfect example of the unreasoning mind and a traitor to the secular ideals of the enlightenment.

Recently I responded to the fatuous argument from religious apologists who, referring to extremist Muslim groups say, “you wouldn’t claim that the KKK represents all Christians, would you?” Of course not. But just because the KKK wasn’t representative of mainstream or majority Christianity doesn’t mean they weren’t a Christian organization. They “self-identified” as Christians, and they justified their actions with fairly straightforward interpretations of scripture. In the same way, those who say ISIS don’t represent all Muslims are missing the point. Of course they don’t. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t an Islamic group. They justify their acts with rather uncomplicated interpretations of scripture and doctrine. Who gets to decide that they aren’t true Muslims? I now find myself in an unexpected position. I’ve laughed off charges of atheist “fundamentalism” and atheist “extremism” in the past. Maybe we can’t afford to do that anymore. Even if this does turn out to be a one-off and incredibly rare example of an atheist taking their hatred of religion to a violent extreme, it goes to show that atheists, secularists, and anti-theists like myself have no reason to expect to be immune from extremist tendencies. It’s something we need to accept, confront, and fight just as strongly as we fight the violent excesses of religious radicals.


My sincerest condolences are for the families of the three victims, whatever the killer’s motive. When innocents are hurt, humanity itself suffers. There's no question that #muslimlivesmatter just as much as anybody else's.  

Monday, February 9, 2015

Wonder Theaters New York Times Feature


In case you missed it, my first New York Times feature was published on the front page of the Metro Section on Sunday, January 15th. The article, about the Loew's Wonder Theaters, involved a lot of research and reporting (75% of which, including my favorite historical episodes, sadly did not make it into the final piece.) The online version includes some beautiful 360-degree hi-definition panoramic photographs of the theater interiors. Read it below:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/nyregion/across-the-new-york-area-restoring-wonder-theater-movie-palaces-to-glory.html?_r=0

The Secular Life

Last week David Brooks wrote a breathtakingly condescending op-Ed in the New York Times about the Sisyphean struggle we poor secularists have to face in order to find meaning and morality in the world. The Times published some responses from secularists, but they didn't publish the one I sent them, which you can read below.

When I was involved in secular activism I noticed a split. Those of us raised religion-free didn’t crave the comforts of faith, didn’t hunger for the community of a church, and were perfectly capable of finding meaning and making moral decisions without divine guidance. Those who had left religion, however, occasionally looked like David Brooks’ idea of a secular person – unmoored, seeking the community they’d lost, saddled with “unprecedented moral burdens.” Their lives as believers had stunted them and ill-prepared them to stand unaided by faith. For those of us not lucky enough to be raised fearing a vengeful god, this usually isn’t an issue.


Brooks is right that secularism can’t rest on rationalism alone. Fortunately, it is ably buttressed by humanism, another enlightenment value. We faithless have countless sources of morality and transcendence (most religions only have one.) Our scriptures are the stories humans tell, the ideas and histories we record, the art people make. All of these can inspire, warn, and provoke debate and reflection. The holy books are full of stories, too (written by men as well,) but the only reasons to exalt the questionable moral examples of prophets and patriarchs over the ideas, struggles, and choices of say, Sydney Carton, Mary Wollstonecraft, Huckleberry Finn, or Thomas Jefferson are faith, dogma, and the easy comfort of consensus.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Je Suis Charlie; suis-je Islamophobe?

A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
-John Stuart Mill

Like most people, I was upset but not surprised by the attacks in Paris last week, when several pious men with Kalashnikovs slaughtered cartoonists, editors, journalists, policemen, and customers at a Kosher store in the name of their god’s will. Just a few weeks earlier, at the height of Hollywood’s indignation over Kim Jong Un’s de facto veto of “The Interview,” I had wondered to myself where the people speaking up so defiantly for free speech were during the Danish cartoon controversy, or after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, or during the Rushdie affair. I’m surprised but pleased to see that in the aftermath of this bloodbath, the record numbers of people marching around the world seem to have got the right idea: free expression is not to be met with violence or intimidation. This is because these freedoms are essential to any functioning society. Rosa Luxemburg, the Communist hero, once said that “without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element... Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must cause a brutalization of public life...”

Soon enough, however, the caveats came. There were some Imams who more or less openly said that Charlie Hebdo got what was coming to it. A few Muslim leaders came down unequivocally on the side of free speech (usually getting lavish praise for this - condemning violence is the least a person in authority should do.) But there are also plenty of “moderate” Muslim leaders who have said that violence is the wrong answer to mockery and insult but that the insult and mockery are dangerous, too. Some of these leaders have even called for the introduction of (or in some cases enforcement of existing,) blasphemy and hate speech laws. The current pope has, unsurprisingly, said that freedom of speech has limits and that people should treat religions with “respect,” (offering no explanation as to why.) As an example he said that if someone insults his mother he should expect a punch. Perhaps Francis was trying to be playful, but the idea that an insult should naturally be met with violence doesn’t sound like the sort of justification a religious leader should be making. And it is an excellent example of blaming the victims. Orthodox Jews are getting in on the ecumenicism by photoshopping all the female world leaders out of the Paris march. This has been held up as an example of hypocrisy on the matter of free speech - it is that, but it is first and foremost evidence that what religions all too often have in common is the urge to repress the things they deem unclean. Something should be made clear: the desire for state or religious restriction on speech is not a moderate view. Although those calling for it may not be violent, the demand being made is an extremist one, one which would require rolling back hundreds of years of legal and ethical progress in most western nations and, in the case of my country, violating the cornerstone of its constitution.

The American version of free speech, which is meant to be absolute and protects even hateful speech, is sometimes confusing to people from other countries. I once attended a conference on secularism in Utrecht, Netherlands. It was around the time some hillbilly preacher in Florida was threatening to burn a bunch of Korans and people around the world were bracing for the inevitable holy consequences. The panelists at the conference, all of them Dutch, were incredulous at the idea that the President of the United States had to phone this guy up and personally ask him not to do it for the safety of Americans overseas. How backward and secularly hopeless America must be if idiots like this preacher have to be groveled to by the President! I told them that they’d missed the whole point of the story: the President had to call him on the phone and ask him not to do it - he couldn’t force him not to. Why couldn’t they see how wonderful that is?!

It’s this concept of free speech and secularism that I like most about America, even if it isn’t always upheld. Secularism looks different in different countries. In the U.S. it’s supposed to be a sort of laissez-faire situation - although I would argue that religious groups not being taxed is special treatment. In India secularism is a tissue-thin barrier, regularly breached and stained with blood. In the United Kingdom it involves equal government approval, accommodation, and even support of religious groups - a policy that has come under some much-needed scrutiny after it was discovered that several faith schools were pushing fundamentalist beliefs.

In France, the laïcité version of secularism has become quite extreme in the past few years, most notably with their ban on religious apparel or symbols in schools. This is too far, as it curtails free speech and free exercise of religion, both of which need to be present in a truly pluralistic society. I dislike the burqa as much as Nicolas Sarkozy does, and I would understand a ban on full-face coverings in certain places purely on grounds of security, but this sort of aggressive reaction is the wrong response and will only dampen public debate and dissent and further divide the polity into aggrieved groups who feel persecuted. It will make integration more difficult.

France and many European countries have an even greater blot on their ledgers: hate speech laws. These are the products of a guilty conscience, chiefly regarding the horrors of the last century, and it opens them up to justifiable charges of hypocrisy, and reinforces the arguments of those who claim that certain groups are singled out for censorship more than others. France is the nation of Voltaire but it is also the nation of Dreyfuss, and of Vichy, and it has made a cardinal mistake in thinking that the way to prevent future horrors is to stifle dissent about past horrors. Holocaust denial is illegal. The Nazi salute is illegal. And as we have learned this week, people in France are being arrested for expressing anything which might be construed as approval of terrorism. This is a travesty.

Most notably, the controversial comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala was arrested for a tweet which could be interpreted as him saying he identified with one of the terrorists. Dieudonne is a provocative tight-rope walker, often slipping from the line into outright anti-Semitism. The jokes of his I’ve seen and read aren’t particularly funny, but the French government’s response to his offensive jokes - often canceling his shows - is a huge mistake and the height of hypocrisy. Dieudonne might be a gross bigot, but he’s exactly the kind of person whose speech needs to be protected. His infamous “quenelle” gesture (a sort of inverted Nazi salute,) is understandably disturbing to many French people, but it does serve a higher function: it proves the prohibition on Nazi gestures is ridiculous. If someone can make a new gesture up, and it can arguably mean the same thing, and people are equally outraged by it, what’s the difference? Indeed, lawmakers have called for the banning of the “quenelle.” Where does this end? And what purpose does it serve? Will banning one gesture after another as well as holocaust denial and racist slogans end racist thoughts or feelings? Will it make up for the holocaust or Vichy France’s complicity in it? Of course not. It will drive these ideas underground where they are immune from counter argument. It will make martyrs of their proponents and do the public a disservice by not letting them learn what these people think and believe. As Mill points out in “On Liberty:” The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Or, as Milton once said, “Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

Blasphemy is a thought crime. According to the texts of the great monotheisms, one needn’t utter something that displeases the merciful yet jealous man behind the curtain in order for him to hear you - he conveniently and terrifyingly hears your thoughts, too. Blasphemy is, to the religious, a sin, usually a very serious one. But should a religious ban on blasphemy (a victimless crime to we atheists,) be incumbent upon those who don’t share the faith in question? Thankfully, in the wake of these attacks, countries such as Canada and Ireland are re-examining their own dusty and rarely-invoked blasphemy laws, but, just as religious groups rebranded creationism as intelligent design, zealots try to get criticism of their god or faith categorized as “hate speech” or “religious defamation.” (I confess to having a fantasy in which a hate speech law is passed in the United States and millions of atheists file suit to have the Bible and Koran banned for their hateful slander of unbelievers - not to actually ban the books but to prove an important point.)

Hate speech and religious defamation need to be protected, otherwise we’ll live in a world where, because some things are unutterable they are unquestionable and, as a result, unchangeable - the sort of static, pious, and stultifying world religious fundamentalists would apparently like to see. Many Muslims have said that we in the west simply don’t understand how it feels to have our deeply-held beliefs insulted. On the contrary, my most deeply-held belief is outraged when anyone is persecuted, attacked, or murdered just for saying something. I contend that my belief in freedom of speech is just as strong as their belief in god and his prophets, just as dear, and even more worth defending for being based on reason rather than faith.

I defend my right to criticize any religion I like, fully acknowledging that its adherents are free to criticize (but not persecute or attack,) me. So here goes:

I don’t like Islam. There really shouldn’t be a problem with me saying that, and yet there are plenty of people in the world who think I shouldn’t: some who consider it blasphemy, others who consider it racism, and more who consider it needless provocation. But it is my opinion, and believers around the world are welcome to the opinion, expressed often enough in their holy books, that I should suffer for holding it. As long as they don’t act on it (besides, surely their all-powerful god can smite me on his own, can’t he?) I should be clear that I don’t like any religions. First of all, I don’t believe any of them are true. I don’t believe the children of Israel were lost for 40 years in a tiny patch of desert, I don’t believe a galilean carpenter was born of a virgin or resurrected after death, and I don’t believe in angels, much less one of them dictating stories from the bible to a man in an Arabian cave. I think it’s ridiculous to genuinely believe any of that and I reserve my right to say so. In the case of Islam I find its holy book to be morally empty where it isn’t downright cruel, its prophet to be vicious, violent, and venal, and certainly no exemplar or role model, and I take issue with the way it is practiced in all too many parts of the world.

This doesn’t mean I hate or fear Muslims. I have no problem with any devout person believing what they like, wearing whatever they like, or following any rules which I may find ridiculous or arbitrary. And if it gives them some comfort or pleasure, that’s their business. But if anyone suggests that my right to voice such opinions is more dangerous than their religion and should be restricted as a result, they are an enemy of mine and in no way a “moderate” voice.

The question lately has come down to a controversial word: Islamophobia. It should come as no surprise that I don’t like it. I tend to agree with Twitter user Andrew Cummin’s definition: “A word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons.” A phobia is an irrational fear of something. Acrophobia is an irrational fear of heights, and arachnophobia is an irrational fear of spiders. By the same measure, Islamophobia would be an irrational fear of Islam. Of course, just because people can have an irrational fear of something doesn’t mean that there aren’t some perfectly rational reasons to be worried about the same thing. Some spiders are venomous. Some precipices are more dangerous than others. And parts of the Koran are disturbing. And some people who claim to be members of the Muslim faith are openly calling for hideous and immoral things in its name. People who claim that I’m judging the many by the actions of the few are wrong: I’m not criticizing individual muslim people, I’m criticizing the dogmas and teachings of their faith. They might hold those beliefs very dearly indeed, but I have just as much conviction in my beliefs and free speech is paramount among them.

The fatuous examples are often repeated: ISIS and the Paris murderers are no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboro Baptist Church are representative of Christianity. But the KKK and the WBC are perfectly representative of certain aspects of Christian teaching and belief. They derive their authority from the bible and can quote chapter and verse in order to do so. Just because the majority of Christians in America have successfully shucked away the more barbaric aspects of their faith (after hard-fought generations of often-suppressed criticism and - you guessed it - blasphemy,) doesn’t mean that the fundamentalists are any less Christian. Could it be that religious moderates are so afraid of the taint of these extremist groups because they know these groups are hewing closer to the word of the lord than they are?

Not liking Islam, even hating Islam, is not racist, and not just because Islam is an ideology rather than a race. Muslims are unsurprisingly proud of their religion’s global and multi-ethnic makeup. One can’t boast about how universal and pan-racial your ideology is and then call any criticism of it racist. And to hate Islam does not automatically mean hating Muslims. The people who fail to understand this don’t seem to have any trouble with this same concept when they rightly point out that criticizing Israeli policy isn’t anti-semitism. PEGIDA in Germany, UKIP in Great Britain, and the Front Nationale in France are disturbing right-wing populist parties that do often capitalize on ideas about national culture and a fear of “otherness” in order to further their anti-immigrant agenda. But criticizing Islam, Islamic doctrine, or Islamic leaders, or saying that a person’s horrific crimes might be related in some way to their belief system isn’t racism.

Sam Harris, who was the beneficiary of many insults and mischaracterizations when he said “Islam is the mother lode of all bad ideas,” defended himself by asking whether it would be as controversial if he had said “Communism is the mother lode of all bad ideas.” Obviously not, but why? The analogy isn’t exact (few analogies are,) and I certainly hold no paranoid right-wing delusions that Muslims in the West are fifth-columnists controlled from Mecca, but there are enough similarities for the analogy to be useful and relevant. Communism is an ideology that was put into practice in countries around the world. The implementation of communist government was done differently in different places (although the Comintern did have undue influence,) and it would be impossible to speak of all communists as being the same. But the foundational texts were the same the world over, even if they were interpreted in different ways, and to criticize the ideas found within them was obviously not the same thing as making blanket statements about all communist countries or all communist people.

In the case of Russia there were communists the world over who had blind faith in the Soviet system, who ignored reports of its horrors, who considered any questioning of the Comintern to be blasphemy. Those who were imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the likes of Yezhov and Beria, driven mad by their ordeal, repented for crimes they never committed, and even thanked their persecutors for bringing them back to the light of the party. Once the horrors and extent of the Soviet purges were public and couldn’t be ignored any more, those still sympathetic to Communism have always made a clear distinction between it and Stalinism, much as we distinguish between Islam and Islamism today. This is a very useful and important distinction. But the fact remains that from the USSR to Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, to Cuba to Vietnam to North Korea to China to Laos to Cambodia to the Balkans and beyond, self-declared communist countries seemed to have inordinate amounts of oppression and censorship and very few guarantees of personal liberty or individual rights. This should have sent up flags (in this case literally red ones,) that something could be amiss with the fundamentals of the ideology.

Of course, correlation is not causation and the fact that all of these different states exhibited some of the same severe totalitarian tendencies during their tenure as communist nations could be coincidence. But to swear outright that communism has nothing to do with it and shouldn’t even be considered as a possible cause of such horror is about the same as saying that Islam has nothing to do with Islamic terrorism (a term that the Obama administration is admittedly uncomfortable uttering.) In many places in the world, Communism became a secular religion with the state as its god. The writings of Marx and Lenin were its testaments, the apocrypha being supplied by the likes of Stalin and Mao. Today, we seem to have a similar situation in the world of Islam: where it holds the most power, people suffer more, rights are trampled on or non-existent, minorities are persecuted, and dissent is almost impossible. When Arthur Koestler published the testimonies of ex-Communists he called the book “The God that Failed.” When Ibn Warraq published his book of testimonies of ex-Muslims, he considered calling it “The Allah that Failed,” but ended up settling for “Leaving Islam.” Communism had its defectors and Islam has its apostates - we should learn from the past and not ignore their stories, or try to shut them up as so many frightened people do to the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It took decades of unspeakable human suffering before glasnost confirmed the horrifying reports of Soviet defectors, who had been urgent Cassandras, willfully ignored by fellow-travelers who thought that the U.S.S.R. surely couldn’t be that bad. And besides, these people are criminals with a grudge, how can we believe their testimony? And after all, the U.S.S.R. is opposed to American capitalism and therefore the good guys - how could it possibly be so brutal? And even if it is, it must be for a good reason. We ignore the testimonies of those desperate and unable to leave their faith at our own risk.

A common argument seen these past few days is that while Charlie Hebdo was an equal-opportunity offender, it’s one thing to mock those in power and another to mock a downtrodden minority. Of course, that isn’t what Charlie Hebdo was doing - the magazine was famously anti-racist and pro-immigrant - it was mocking an authority figure who they thought was being given undue respect: the prophet Mohammed. Globally Islam is not a tiny minority voice but a major player, a powerful ideology, the official religion of many states, and the beneficiary of a great deal of oil wealth by which its messages are often spread across the globe to disaffected youth, teaching them violence, sexism, and racism. Muslims in France and most other Western countries are, of course, a minority group, albeit usually one with legal protections and rights of the kind a Jew wouldn’t expect in Jeddah nor a Homosexual in Homs. Of course, the rights of minorities are infringed upon in western nations all the time, but the fact that provision is made for legal recourse is important, and it gives people a fighting chance at justice. No such chance exists where the religious judiciary holds sway.

I obviously don’t believe that all Muslims are terrorists, or extremists, or sexist, or homophobic. But I do think the Koran and the life of Mohammed are horrible moral guidelines that could go some way to explaining why some Muslims are those things. I appreciate that the religion has been shaped and altered and interpreted through time and culture, and that many Muslims practice a less strict or orthodox faith that preaches tolerance and respect. I think that that’s a comparatively good thing. But you’d have to dilute Islam to the point of atheism for me to actually approve of it, because one of the ideas at its core (and which it has in common with most other religions,) is submission to a higher power, a worshipful personal relationship with a ruler who demands you love him while threatening eternal suffering. I believe religion is the wish to be a slave and I’ll have none of it. I'm willing to tolerate another person’s religious beliefs quite far. But asking me to respect them is asking me to do something I cannot do. And aside from all that, even in its mildest form there’s no reason to believe that it’s true, thank god.

Perhaps more depressing than the Imams who blamed the dead or called for stricter censorship, were those in the West (many of them friends of mine,) who immediately laid the blame for this at their own feet. In recent years a certain portion of the left has become increasingly disappointing for caving in to religious sentiment and for only seeing evil in the mirror. There is a creeping tendency, masochistic and solipsistic all at once, to say “this is because of what we did.”

Almost immediately after the recent attack in Sidney, a tweet went viral about someone who, seeing a Muslim girl looking nervous and removing her headscarf on public transportation, told her to put it back on and offered to ride the bus with her for her protection. Many people praised this gesture and soon the hashtag #illridewithyou was trending, its users offering to accompany worried Muslims anywhere they needed to go for fear of anti-Muslim violence. I found the whole thing as self-hating as it was cloyingly sentimental. No threats had been made against Australian Muslims, no violence against them had yet occurred, and the corpse of the man who had kidnapped several terrified hostages in a cafe was barely cold before legions of Australians and westerners made it all about them, wallowing in contrition over things that hadn’t actually happened. Why, when these tragedies happen, do so many people immediately focus on, if not what they see as the western source of the problem, then at least what they see as the inevitable, ignorant, and hateful western response to the problem. I, for one, don’t like being spoken to that way. In any society there will be some idiots who retaliate with violence, but I’m not one of them and to immediately assume that the typical response to terrorism will be great waves of anti-Muslim violence is as unfair as saying that all Muslims will react violently to a cartoon of their prophet. Perhaps #illridewithyou was some sneaky way of introducing a bleating #notallwesterners protestation next to the perfectly banal and uncontroversial #notallmuslims. Of course, anti-Muslim sentiment and incidents of anti-Muslim violence can and often do escalate after a terrorist attack like this, and that should be fought against, resisted, and punished with as much force as possible. But the rapidity with which some westerners tear their shirt and demand to be flagellated for their crimes and ignorance in order to prove their own ideological purity and sympathy can be impressive sometimes (the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner focuses on this topic in his book-length essay “The Tyranny of Guilt.”)

But the best thing about the values of the Enlightenment is that they contain within them skepticism and a potent self-criticism. Much to it’s credit, this country is a place of incredible contradictions. America was the last western state to outlaw slavery, but it was also the only one which almost tore itself completely apart over it (the John Stuart Mill quote at the top of this article was written in reference to that.) America has both the legacy of Jim Crow and a black commander-in-chief. Several commentators have brought up the CIA Torture Report as evidence of American hypocrisy. But the very existence of such a savage and damning report, demanded by elected members of our government and their constituents, the public shame and condemnation, and the many calls for punishment of those involved goes to show that America is different, even better, than some countries where the idea of a government (especially a theocratic one,) ever admitting its failures, much less acting to redress them, is a fantasy. Christopher Hitchens once said that he decided he wanted to become an American citizen when he saw black police officers defending a Ku Klux Klan rally. The point is made well and at length in Aryeh Neier’s book “Defending My Enemy,” documenting the American Civil Liberties Union’s legal fight defending the right of the American Nazi Party to march through the town of Skokie, Illinois, home to many holocaust survivors. The existence of our constitutional right to free speech, the legacy of people’s struggles for freedom and equality, and the various avenues of redress through a free press and a public court system are something we can still be proud of, even if administrations have betrayed them at times. Calling on our states to impose censorship on us is a demand for tyranny, and we should never lose sight of just how dearly won our freedoms are and how they need to be defended at all times, whether from religious bullies claiming immunity from criticism or government fanatics seeking to curtail dissent. I’m reminded of James Fenton’s poem “The Exchange:”

I met the Muse of Censorship
And she had packed her bags
And all the folk of Moscow
Were hanging out the flags.

I asked her what her prospects were
And whither her thoughts did range.
She said: ‘I am off to Dublin town
On a cultural exchange.

‘And folk there be in Cambridge
Who like the way I think
And there be folk in Nottingham
Whom I shall drown in ink

‘And when we reach America
The majorettes will sing:
Here comes the Muse of Censorship -
This is a very good thing.’

I went to the Finland Station
To wave the Muse goodbye
And on another platform
A crowd I did espy.

I saw the Muse of Freedom
Alighting from the train.
Far from that crowd I wept aloud
For to see that Muse again.

Melting turtle impersonator, alleged plagiarist, and all-around zealot Chris Hedges is the prime example of the self-hating liberal, and in his grandstanding statement which did all but absolve religious extremists of their sins because of the crimes of the West, he quotes an Islamic scholar: “It is a sad state of affairs when Liberty means the freedom to insult, demean and mock people’s most sacred concepts...It’s no excuse for murder, but it explains things in terms of honor, which no longer means anything in the West...Now we are not allowed to feel insulted by anything other than a racial slur, which means less to a deeply religious person than an attack on his or her religion. Muslim countries are still governed, as you well know, by shame and honor codes. Religion is the big one. I was saddened by the ‘I’m Charlie’ tweets and posters, because while I’m definitely not in sympathy with those misguided fools [the gunmen who invaded the newspaper], I have no feeling of solidarity with mockers.”

Liberty absolutely means the freedom to insult, demean, and mock anything you want to. If others don’t like it, they’re free to ignore you or talk back. Religion may be more important to someone than their race, but religion is an ideology, and not a biological occurrence - it needs to be open to criticism. Of course Muslims are allowed to feel insulted. I hope some of them are as insulted by the cartoons as I am by their holy books and the clerics who claim to represent many of them. And the range of recent Islamic outrages, from banning snowmen in Saudi Arabia to the massacre of villagers in Nigeria, are crying out for mockery, contempt, and ridicule. But if the author thinks that we should be returning to a culture based on shame and honor codes, as he seems to be suggesting, he should be met with some much-needed resistance.

According to the New York Times, Egyptian Family House, a Coptic Christian and Muslim organization, denounced the cartoons on the grounds that they “increase the gap between people and religions.” I’d say they just about hit the nail on the head, there. That was the point. It’s perfectly correct and understandable for religious leaders to be afraid of satire and criticism because they loosen, even if only slightly, the stranglehold religion and the clerisy has had on humankind for thousands of years. Blasphemy has been one of the most reliable catalysts of progress in the western world - it’s only by openly challenging the dogmas and orthodoxies of religion that people have been able to assert their own rights as humans outside of a divine framework. Censoring oneself isn’t an act of respect to those you might offend - it’s an act of infantilization. It presupposes that the target of one’s satire or criticism isn’t grown up or strong enough to handle it. Every time a cleric says that some cartoon or novel or painting or film offends their faith deeply, they’re saying that their faith isn’t up to the challenge of a single work of art. And some members of their religion will be such crybabies and children that their tantrums will involve guns and bombs.

This is a battle over freedom of speech, between those who believe in laughter and those who believe in literalism. It isn’t only an issue of terrorism or west vs. east or the oppressed vs. the oppressors. The two sides in this war are those who believe that freedom of thought, belief, conscience, speech, and expression are inviolable rights, and those who believe not only that there are circumstances in which they should be curtailed or proscribed but that they known what those circumstances are. The possible threat of violence is a convenient background hum for anyone who wants to insist that they condemn such attacks but they can’t be held responsible for what other people do and after all why insult the deepest beliefs of millions of people? It allows the demagogue and censor to say that he didn’t pull the trigger but the murdered man should have known better.

If all the countries in the world made it illegal to show or insult mohammed, if all the foreign troops (and aid workers, and journalists, and foreigners in general,) left Muslim countries, if all support for Israel ceased today, would the likes of Richard Reid, the Tsarnayev brothers, the Kouachi brothers, Jihadi John, Nidal Malik Hassan, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Man Haron Monis, and the countless other jihadis who have attacked or attempted to attack westerners (to say nothing of the exponentially greater number of jihadis making life a living hell for Muslims in their own countries in the name of their shared religion,) be satisfied and stop what they’re doing? If we just agreed to leave them alone and not make them angry would they be content to stay in Muslim-majority countries and focus on their campaigns of rape, violence, repression and terror safely “over there?” If we allow that female circumcision, anti-secular Madrassa education, forced marriages and honor killings are valid cultural expressions would that appease them? Would we have any right to call ourselves moral if we accepted any of this? Of course most Muslims don’t do any of these things or even dream of doing them, but the fanatics are the ones making these demands, and they won’t stop making them, no matter what we do. And if we give in to even one of them we’ll have to forfeit more because they’ll know we’re afraid of them. We shouldn’t seek to accommodate barbaric totalitarianisms. They need to be resisted.

As Oscar Wilde once said: “Progress in thought is the assertion of individualism against authority…Mankind has been continually entering the prisons of Puritanism, Philistinism, Sensualism, Fanaticism, and turning the key on its own spirit…”

But political genius Russell Brand said “The right of free speech is important, but it isn’t as important as 'we’re all human beings together, let’s find solutions together'.” What he doesn’t understand is that the second is impossible without the first. One sometimes hears a comparison between Islamic terrorism and the IRA. But there’s a crucial difference, and it isn’t just that the IRA sometimes called ahead to warn people: the IRA made concrete political demands. There was some possibility of a compromise worked out without recourse to violence. What the jihadists demand in the case of Charlie Hebdo and others like it is not only unacceptable but impossible, because it violates the principle most important to the evolution and development of a civilization, and laws that seek to regulate speech are the first step toward laws against freedom of belief.
All the many religious figures who said that the cartoons were needless provocation and that it would be better if we all sought common ground, they should understand that the existence of such this common ground is thanks to the right to offend, to blaspheme, to criticize and condemn. I would like to be able to debate with Muslims on an equal footing. I’d love to tell them why I think they’d be better off abandoning superstition, submission, and a moral code based on archaic scripture and I’d like to hear them tell me why they think I’d be better off adopting Islam. But that conversation can’t take place with the threat of violence looming, or the charge that to question, criticize, or ridicule the teachings of a faith is tantamount to racism. That is unacceptable and non-negotiable.


I am not Charlie Hebdo, but I aspire to be. I hope that if I am ever told to shut up or else I’ll choose freedom over fear.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Of Dress Codes and Speech Codes

I don't always write about dandies or menswear, although I seem to have better luck getting published when I do. One might suspect that magazines and websites are hesitant to publish opinion pieces by people who don't specialize in specific fields, but a brief survey of many websites will show that expertise is rarely the standard, avowing allegiance to a particular group - biological or ideological - is often mistaken for something like a credential, and rational argument is valued less than the ability to use phrases like "I can't even," "so many feels," and "because ____." So I've decided to use this blog to publish those essays I can't help but write whether anyone publishes them or not. I write them partly to stay in practice as a writer, and partly to focus and organize my own thoughts about particular issues. If anybody reads them I hope they get some pleasure out of doing so and recognize that argument, disagreement, and dissent can be very good things. 

Of Dress Codes and Speech Codes


Recently, people have been writing an awful lot about what men are wearing. Not the usual red carpet reportage, but the sort of debate once reserved for Jayne Mansfield’s décolletage. In this case, the controversy is over two shirts (of very different styles,) worn by two men (both of whom work the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields, or STEM) and whether their sartorial choices are examples of institutional sexism (particularly in the male-dominated STEM fields.)

The first shirt was a plain gray cotton t-shirt seen on the torso of Facebook CEO and life-size Lego figurine Mark Zuckerberg. Asked at a press conference why he always wore the same plain outfit, Mr. Zuckerberg replied: “I’m in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I’d feel I’m not doing my job if I spent any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” This may seem like typical Silicon Valley productivity-worshipping egotism to most people, but New York Magazine’s fashion site The Cut published a blog titled “Zuckerberg Explains His Gray T-Shirts, Sounds Pretty Sexist” in which Alison P. Davis, perhaps nervous that an editor would discover that she hadn’t yet been outraged by anything that day, does some sexism exegesis and concludes: “Of course, male CEOs are far too focused on changing the world or building the next Big App to care about something as “silly” or “frivolous” as dressing professionally — they’ll just leave that to Marissa Mayer.” The comments section of the article shows that most readers saw this as a clear case of outrage overreach, considering that Mr. Zuckerberg said nothing about gender at all, and if anything it revealed more about the author’s own ideas on gender roles and the relative vanity of men and women after she crowbarred open the lines in order to not only read between them but insert her own prejudices. Some feminists winced at the article, saying that people should avoid leaps of logic and knee-jerk accusations of misogyny lest the movement be caricatured as a gang of eggshell-skinned puritans examining every statement with a sexism decoder ring.

I was offended by Mr. Zuckerberg’s statement, too, because it revealed a deep-seated prejudice against a small but gorgeous minority group: dandies (and their female counterparts.) As the co-author (with photographer Rose Callahan,) of I am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman and the co-founder of the Secret Empire suiting company, I take umbrage like snuff at the suggestion that paying attention to what you wear is necessarily superficial, frivolous, or inconsequential. As Lord Illingworth in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance says, “People nowadays are so absolutely superficial that they don’t understand the philosophy of the superficial.” Mr. Zuckerberg’s anti-dandyism bias is one tentacle of the insidious “normcore” pseudo-trend, exemplified by The Gap’s stultifying “Dress Normal” ad campaign. These are microagressions that scuff the shoe and chill the soul.

Shirt number two was a short-sleeve black button down with a large repeating print of scantily-clad buxom women with guns, and it was worn by Dr. Matt Taylor on the occasion of the Rosetta team of the European Space Agency landing a probe on a comet 6.4 billion kilometers from Earth. The shirt, worn during a television interview, was blasted as a sexist “microagression” and cited as a prime example of the macho atmosphere that discourages young women from seeking careers in STEM. Dr. Taylor was soon at the center of an online firestorm that distracted from the scientific achievement and resulted in a humiliating and tearful public act of contrition on his part.

Some suggested that anybody discouraged from studying science by something as inconsequential as a novelty shirt probably wasn’t cut out for a career in the sciences anyway. Feminists responded that this was merely one example of a pervasive sexist culture in the sciences. The opposition asked why women don’t run in fear from art history or English literature because of odalisques or Lolita. The feminists replied, archly, that men were getting a taste of their own medicine now that people were scrutinizing and criticizing their appearance, too. Their critics asked, arch-archly, if they were suggesting that Dr. Taylor had been “asking for it,” because of what he was wearing?

One could continue adding arches to this arcade, but there were other points, chiefly that it wasn’t the “appropriate” thing to wear for the occasion. Some asked why his colleagues (including several women,) hadn’t said anything to stop him. This slightly more subtle argument has more to do with occasion than intent: “don’t wear a pin-up shirt to your rocket science interview, it isn’t appropriate - this literally isn’t rocket science.” Dr. Taylor’s ersatz defenders said that it obviously wasn’t his intention to offend anybody and the women on his team didn’t seem to mind. Feminists argued that this just proved that sexism is so ingrained that an obviously offensive shirt wasn’t seen as such by the team, including women. Casual sexism was their watchword.

As in the case of Mr. Zuckerberg’s words, I found Dr. Taylor’s shirt mildly upsetting, but the “casual” bothered me far more than the “sexism.” A man who just helped achieve a scientific marvel wore that on the big day? If a presumably brilliant person’s idea of the perfect celebratory outfit is a nudie-lady bowling shirt, slightly more dignified than a piano-key necktie without rising to the same level of kitsch, we may have crossed the casual-wear Rubicon. But the pro-Taylor camp had a more interesting point than it knew when it said that he had a right to dress however he wanted and it was nobody’s business to tell him otherwise: this is a matter of free speech.

It has become axiomatic to the point of cliché to say “I express myself in how I dress,” but there is truth to it (although, to extend the speech metaphor, unless you’re designing and making your own clothing you’re expressing yourself by quoting others.) Clothing choices are generally protected as free speech by the First Amendment. Exceptions might be made, as in the case of incitement to violence (a swastika t-shirt is completely legal in public, one reading “Kill the Jews” might have a harder time in court,) but for the most part we can wear what we want. And we live in a time and place of unprecedented sartorial egalitarianism: women wear pants, men occasionally wear dresses, and female “topless rights” advocates continually insist on reminding everyone that they’re legally allowed to be just as obnoxious as the sweaty men who walk around in public bare-chested.

So why does the average Western person’s sartorial spectrum begin with Mormon and end with refugee? Some feminists online recently lionized a male Australian newscaster who wore the same suit every day for a year; when nobody commented on it, he concluded that he’d proven a double standard of appearance. As far as I can see, what he really proved was that men’s clothes have gotten so boring that you can’t tell them apart. If he’d worn a different, exciting, thoughtful outfit each day, people would be commenting on it. This summer President Obama departed from tradition and wore a light-colored suit while addressing the nation about ISIS. He was promptly pilloried by pundits who argued that his attire did not reflect the gravity of his message. Again, the important point was missed by most: that suit was an awful Ahmedinejad taupe, the color of the drop ceiling of a strip-mall MRI office. Kudos to the President for trying something different, but it was an awful suit, and it looked shabby and un-Presidential no matter the talking points.

Which brings us back to “appropriateness.” If clothing is protected First Amendment speech, then it follows that an abridgment of sartorial rights is censorship. In other words: dress codes are speech codes. Naturally, private institutions have some control over their dress codes: a restaurant can refuse a topless rights activist of any gender, a church can ask that women cover their tantalizing shoulders, a school can insist on a uniform to keep students focused.

When it comes to dress codes (and speech in general, for that matter,) I’m a First Amendment absolutist. I object to banning the headscarf for the same reason I object to making it mandatory: in both cases it’s an authority telling someone how to dress, a government in the first place and a deity (or his cronies,) in the second. I do appreciate some exceptions - it seems right to me that full-face coverings shouldn’t be permitted in government buildings for security reasons (and frankly, that strictest of dress codes, the Burqa, is the apotheosis of everything I’m against.) Ideally, our permissive and ostensibly equal-opportunity sartorial culture should inspire people to experiment, to take the opportunity afforded by freedom to clothe themselves with some personal panache and a modicum of intellect. Instead, most people are trend-chasers and sartorial agnostics, the sweat-panted and flip-flopped multitudes who consider ease a greater virtue than style.

Perhaps it was the stricter, pre-Woodstock, pre-JFK, pre-Silicon Valley dress codes which allowed dandies and eccentrics to so magnificently push and bend the box they were put in. Maybe dress codes are the convent’s narrow walls, the scanty plot of ground where they paradoxically find freedom. When I interviewed the men in my book I asked each one if he would dress the way he does if everyone else dressed that way. About half of them were excited at the thought of more people dressing up, but the other half confessed that they’d have to find some other way of standing apart from the crowd. One can only hope that the excremental state of dress in America will be apt fertilizer for new, bolder sartorial expression.

What needs to be refuted is Mr. Zuckerberg’s cop-out dismissal of dressing as something separate or distracting from the important things in life (like online socializing, presumably.) Clothes are important - if you opt out you might freeze to death or get arrested. Like food, they can be fun when approached with passion and thought. The Zuckerberg theory that seriousness and dressing well are mutually exclusive is a complete reverse of the previously accepted idea that dressing well is a sign of professionalism, self-respect, and dignity. Look at the civil rights marches of the 1960’s and you’ll see men and women deliberately dressed their best, even when being attacked by dogs or hit by high-powered hoses. For black Americans fighting for their human rights, nice clothes were a powerful symbol of dignity, a repudiation of the dehumanization their ancestors endured as chattel - naked livestock at auction.

One of the dandies in my book, Dr. Andre Churchwell, tells a story about his father Robert Churchwell, the first black reporter on the Nashville Banner. Although he was covering the civil rights beat he wasn’t allowed a desk at the paper’s segregated offices and had to work from home. But each morning he still put on his Brooks Brothers suit and tie, even if he wasn’t leaving the house. He was a professional, and that’s how his children learned about the power of dressing well. Nowadays people may scoff at style as a superficial affectation, and insist that it’s wrong to judge people by how they dress. But dress, like religion and philosophy and unlike race and gender, is a personal choice, and for people like Robert Churchwell it was anything but superficial; it was a way of insisting that they be taken seriously as people who care enough about themselves to put effort and intellect into every aspect of life no matter how mundane.

Should we judge Dr. Taylor by how he’s dressed? Or should we be hypocrites like the dreadlocked hippy who screams, “don’t judge me,” one minute and calls someone a “suit,” the next? At one point it may have surprised people to see that the ESA doesn’t have a more “professional” dress code, but people didn’t even notice until something as gaudy as Dr. Taylor’s shirt assaulted their eyeballs. We take it for granted that scientists in our time wouldn’t wear old-fashioned clichés like lab coats and neckties. In fact, Dr. Taylor’s shirt may have been an example, like NASA’s “Mohawk Guy”, of scientists trying to show the public that they’re not a bunch of stuffy nerds.
“Hey,” they seem to say, “We’re just like you!”

“No you’re not!” I shout back, “You’re rocket scientists and you just put a probe on a comet! This is the feat of a lifetime. You could be wearing gold tuxedos right now. Why are you dressed for a barbecue?”