Skepticism

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life….and then again, it’s not.

Yesterday was a big day in America.  Maybe even a big day all over the world.  President Barack Obama was sworn in, you might have heard.

Regardless of your political persuasions, there was excitement in the air yesterday.  Like maybe many of you reading here, I was glad to hear President Obama say “We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders…”  It was inspiring listening to him say “and non-believers” when listing the patchwork heritage of this nation.   

For me, all that warm glow was somewhat diminished, not 15 minutes later, when Reverend Lowery delivered a derisive, divisive, racist benediction. In the last minute of his “prayer,” he diminished all Americans by carving us up into over-simplified, narrow-minded, hateful, rhyming parts.  We deserve better. He deserves better.

I understand the President is not the Reverend.  I appreciate that the benediction is a long held tradition, and is not written by the President or his team.  I have no issue suspending my preference for no magical thinking in this traditional moment of prayer.  It’s not my moment, after all.

Still, hearing Reverend Lowery cast suspicion and vitriol at me so soon after the science/tech/non-believer shout-outs brought me right back to the modern day reality:  Politicians are politicians.  By design, they speak politics, not truth.  And honestly? I’m ok with that.  I understand the need to politic the body politic.

So I’ll wait to see.  See how President Obama embraces science. And technology. And non-believers. And Americans.   As a rationalist I don’t doubt that he can do it, but I’ll wait for the evidence that he is doing it.

Of course, not everyone sees it my way:  I caught a little heat yesterday for interrupting everyone’s bliss with my curmudgeonly Tweets. Fair enough.  As citizens, their right to think magically is as valid as my right to think rationally.  As humans, we’re all inclined to think emotionally sometimes, too.  As an American, I am grateful and humbled to have the right to public discord with my fellow citizens. 

Maybe like fellow citizen (and rapper) T.I., waxing poetic at Young Jeezy’s Official Inauguration Celebration, “Presidential Status,”  where he claimed to have lost his prepared notes, and went with this instead: 

“I want to thank God for somehow … I know he perfect. So I’mma thank him for everything. I’mma thank him for making me drop out of school. I’mma thank him for making me run the streets. I’mma thank him for making me sell crack. I’mma thank him for making me have shoot-outs. I’mma thank him for allowing me to watch my partners die in my arms, So I’d be fearful enough for my life and paranoid enough to go out and cop machine guns and silencers so I catch a fed case and I have to put up $3 million for my bond so I have to spend seven months of my life in my house, so I have to spend a year of my life in prison just so I be validated enough to get out there and touch the youth because they know that I done been through it, and if I say it, it means something. You know what I’m saying?”


a.real.girl

A B Kovacs is the Director of Døøm at Empty Set Entertainment, a publishing company she co-founded with critical thinker and fiction author Scott Sigler. She considers herself a “Creative Adjacent” — helping creative people be more productive and prolific by managing the logistics of Making for the masses. She's a science nerd, a rabid movie geek, and an unrepentantly voracious reader. She doesn't like chocolate all that much.

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29 Comments

  1. Political words are words. They may inspire if you are in agreement. They may paint a version of the truth. They may be deceptive. They may anger if you are not in agreement.

    We, here, nod and cheer when Obama discusses the promtion of science. We, here, cringe when we are pounded with religious dogma.

    Governing is about the creation and execution of policy and law. Politics is about the strategy behind the creation and execution and, just as important for the politician, the pandering to the populace that elected you and will or will not elect you in the future.

    Thus the mixed message; this was politics.

    I will judge this regime based on what policies he creates and how those policies are executed. Actions amongst politicians for me definitely speak louder than words.

  2. I’ve been enjoying some conservative commentators muttering about the inclusion of “nonbelievers” in Obama’s speech. And by enjoying, I mean clutching my stomach to stop myself from vomiting with rage.

  3. A “derisive, divisive, racist benediction?” I do think that the closing of Rev. Lowery’s benediction (which I know I’ve heard before, although I can’t find the source) could have been rephrased to reflect upon how far we’ve come. His tone was not spiteful, however, and people laughed approvingly. At 87, he’s also a veteran in the struggle for civil rights, and for better or for worse I’m willing to give him a bit of a pass because of that.

    Keeping a religious tradition in a government event is of course a larger issue, so in that I can see divisiveness, but I wouldn’t call it a derisive or racist speech.

    Of course, to paraphrase Jeff Lebowski, that’s just…my opinion, man.

  4. @A – Rev. Lowery was quoting a song from the 60s. It was a gag, and meant to be lighthearted. You’ll note people (including Obama) were laughing and smiling.

    I’ve had the honor of meeting Rev. Lowery several times and working with him on community issues, and I can assure you, the guy has a quirky sense of humor, but he ain’t a racist.

  5. See, I understand people were laughing, and it might have been simply quoting something else, but neither of those things change the fact that, at that moment, that moment for us to be unified, for us all to be Americans, he suggested I (as a “white”) don’t embrace what’s right. And that the “red man” hadn’t yet be able to get ahead. As if each were a monolithic block in the melting pot.

    So, now instead of being marginalized for being a rational thinker, I’m marginalized for belonging to a specific race. For me, yesterday, I would have preferred not to be marginalized.

    Do I think he’s a racist? Don’t know enough about him to say, but I know and love you @Cleon, so I’m willing to trust your word that he’s not.

    Do I think that was a ill-timed, poorly thought out, and indeed racist choice of words? I do.

    Do I think it diminished the sense of belonging and unity that President Obama created just minutes before? I do.

    So, still in all, I’m going to wait and see how President Obama walks the talk regardless.

    And, on the advice here, perhaps I’ll look up Rev. Lowery too.

  6. @a.real.girl:
    Of all the times I felt like an outsider in political discussions in the skeptical circle, you said what I feel. I want to trust what Obama says about non-believers (even though he is extending Office of Faith-Based Initiatives) and science; I still know that he is a politician.

    I really want to be optimistic about it, but I haven’t been able to let myself be. I don’t have a reason to trust Obama, so I haven’t been able to, so I am also on the I’ll wait and see what happens.

  7. I hold on to this thought: we aren’t important enough for carrots.

    I think the religious people, the right wingnuts, the jesus train, THOSE people… there are a lot of them. And they are loud, and ornery, and they cause more trouble than Michael Newdow ever could. So they get carrots. Rick Warren, Lowery, lots of god talk.

    But us? We don’t rate. We aren’t worth it. Obama doesn’t really need the sci-tech crowd, and I think he knows it. Worse, he can count on us just by failing to support intelligent design stickers on textbooks.

    So maybe a shout in our direction means more than a benediction in theirs.

  8. The last part of reverend lowery’s benediction is apparently, according to this source based on a poem (which is based on a song by Big Bill Broonzy) that is often recited at African American churches.

    I think that quoting this as Lowery did was mostly inappropriate and something that doesn’t translate well to those who have never heard the song or the poem, and so can’t appreciate the sentiment behind it. Lowery, as a reverend and long-time civil rights activist, seems to me to have been trying to make the point that there is still much more work to be done in combating racism, he just chose a ridiculously clumsy way of saying so. The rhyming of the words and simplicity of referring to races of people by colors we have historically associated with them might have made for interesting rhetoric, if you knew what he was referring to, but ends up being a rather unproductive statement that doesn’t mean anything in the context of an inauguration speech, which should speak to a larger audience.

    So, I think being offended at this might be a bit of an overreaction, given the context of the quote and the person saying it. Lowery is 87 years old, a civil rights leader and someone who has experienced a lot of racism himself. I also think it’s a bit overstating to call it “suspicion and vitriol.” It was a riff off the song/poem, and was a call for unity, tolerance, and equality, however badly worded and however badly it comes off. It’s also worthy to note that Lowery’s quote was the only part (as far as I know) of the Inauguration that at all alluded to the fact that racism still exists even now that Obama is president. Which is something that is important to consider, even if the words themselves strike an outdated, civil rights-era tone.

    I would wager, too, that there is a linguistic element to this too. As old as Lowery is, the use of words such as “red man”, “yellow man” and “the Negro” (for instance) would not be as offensive, because in the prime time of the civil rights era, the 60s, there were legitimate non-racist uses for such terms. Indeed, Martin Luther King said in his I Have A Dream speech “No, I hope you will allow me to say to you this afternoon that God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men”. So I believe Lowery is less attuned to how younger people will hear and interpret the words he said.

    So overall: I give Lowery a bit of leniency in my opinion of him due to his age and history as a prominent civil rights leader which certainly affected how he thinks and talks. While I don’t defend the appropriateness of the words he used, I don’t think it makes sense to interpret his words as hateful.

  9. For my (white, male, atheist) money, Lowery wasn’t being the least bit divisive, vitriolic, racist, or cruel with the rhyming bits of his speech. He was using something called wit to compare the past to the present and show how far we’ve come as a nation. Words that might seem corny or inappropriate now once had real power, were desperately needed at the time, and played a major role in creating the events that have recently transpired.

    Moreover, I’d say the period of American history called “The Civil Rights Era” is not over, and it’s perfectly appropriate to remind the nation that it’s still going on, and not just for gay people and atheists.

    (Now I’d have been thrilled it we could have dispensed with religiosity altogether, and of course the proof of Obama’s administration will be in the pudding. But for the time and the context, Lowery did nothing wrong, in my opinion.)

  10. See, I heard that as someone who was bussed in the 70s as part of forced school integration. I went to Booker T. Washington High, and I am very grateful for that experience. I learned a lot, and I’m still learning.
    I was sitting in Michigan, thinking of Detroit on fire (http://www.67riots.rutgers.edu/d_index.htm ) while I watched a man of color put his hand on a book of the dude who ended slavery.

    I loved Lowry’s part of the speech, because I could see how very joyful he was. He opened with the “Negro National Anthem” and then ended with a reference to a blues song by Big Bill Broonzy (“Black, Brown, and White” Blues).

    He was celebrating something he thought he’d never see. I’m Ok with that, because he was also reminding us we aren’t finished yet.

    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lift_Every_Voice_and_Sing )

    I heard it all very differently.
    But that’s me, and clearly your reaction was not unusual, from the discussions I’ve seen online.

  11. There are a lot of perspectives here, just as there are around the country. I think that halincoe pretty much summed it up. Obama is a politician. Politics is neither a clean or fair game and we all know that. Obama will do the best he can, I feel, given the realities we face. He will say and do what he must to achieve what he can. I’m more worried that he will lose support if he doesn’t “produce” fast enough to please his more vocal followers. Anyone that has been reading the news knows that the far-Right is already sharpening their knives for his first misstep. (Rush Limbaugh has said he hopes that Obama fails miserably. So much for patriotism. I guess when you only stand behind your President when he’s from your party. And he whines about the “haters.” )

    I’m more than willing to give Obama all the time he needs to effect change. It may well take more than one Administration’s worth of time and effort. It’s going to be an uphill battle against a well financed and entrenched opposition. They’ve had over 25 years to dig in.

    “He was celebrating something he thought he’d never see. I’m OK with that, because he was also reminding us we aren’t finished yet.” I agree with bug_girl’s. Who would have thought on the day that Rev. King was assassinated that a mere 40 years later, an African-American would be inaugurated as President of the US? He was celebrating something marvellous in the only way he can as a man of faith. I’m willing to shrug it off.

    There is more than a grain of truth to sethmanapio’s comment that we atheists as a group aren’t yet big enough to “count” for much in political calculations. That is as much our fault as anything else, because freethinking people don’t seem to form PACs for some reason.

    Perhaps it’s time for that to change. If 20% (a guess on my part based on Wikipedia) of the US population are agnostic/atheist, the consequences of our becoming a voting bloc are far too great for any politician to ignore. If we want to affect public discourse, we have to a) unite effectively and b) make our desires known.

  12. @bug_girl: “He was celebrating something he thought he’d never see. I’m Ok with that, because he was also reminding us we aren’t finished yet.”
    That’s how I took it, too- a reminder both of how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. Sure, it wasn’t grandly eloquent but it was a nice moment of levity addressing a serious topic.

  13. Great post, A! You know from twitter that I was mostly in synch with you on your reaction (big surprise). I’m not a U.S. citizen so I think in some ways, I have less of a stake in the game, at least in my mind. (In reality, I live in the U.S. and probably always will so I actually have a HUGE stake in the game.)

    But while I was very pleased to hear about science and nonbelievers, it still felt like we were being thrown a bone amongst ‘the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness,’ and ‘the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny,’ and ‘God’s grace upon us,’ and ‘God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.’

    Jon Stewart did a great bit on his inauguration coverage where he compared some of the language that Obama was using to the words that Bush used. Very funny, and a little sad but a lot of the rhetoric is the same.

    The difference is, Obama has the ability to inspire people. He’s charismatic and charming and, thankfully, well-spoken. We *feel* like it should be better.

    I am cautiously optimistic and waiting for the evidence. That’s all any of us can do, really.

    Oh, and I wanted to scream at Rick Warren. He was far, far more offensive to me than the crazy Dr. Seuss dude… :)

  14. First of all, while I disagree with Mr. Warren on a lot of things, one thing I realize is..he is a pastor, sent to pray. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t expecting him to sing and dance. Just kinda par for the course.

    Also, I’m really irked that us white folks get pegged for racism all the time, but what they fail to mention is that other groups are just as racist. I’m not saying we aren’t to blame, but we should hog the blame, there’s enough to go around.

  15. I don’t feel warm and fuzzy about Obama (see Jimmy Carter), but on the other hand, he represents an improvement over the prior administration and most of the tangible power of the U.S. Presidency in the modern era is vested in foreign policy. (The economic matters will or will not fix themselves, when all is said and done.)

    I was more interested in his choice of the unequivocally anti-gay Rev. Rick Warren opening invocation, for which an Obama spokesperson responded, “While the president-elect disagrees with Warren on gay rights issues, he wants this to be the most inclusive inauguration ever.” Hmmm. Is such a large constitutency really in need of a feeling of “inclusion”? Will Obama be so considerate of that constitutency when he considers his campaign promise to try to get the Defense of Marriage Act (infinitely more significant than Prop 8) repealed? Or will Obama pull a Clinton (going back on his own campaign promise in 1993 and sticking to a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy in the military)?

  16. I believe 100% that the ending of Reverend Lowery’s benediction was not at all divisive. His quoting of the Negro National Anthem at the beginning and that blues song at the end were meant to show how far we have come and how far we have to go. It was meant to be light hearted way of saying “we should still strive for a time where all of us are better people”. As a black gay man, I know Reverend Lowery has been a vocal advocate for the civil rights of all, not just black people. He even going on record saying that gay people deserve all the rights and privileges of straight people. Which is a controversial stance for a minister. However, he believes in the dream he and MLK fought for, that we ALL (including, gays and atheists) deserve the same rights and opportunities.

    Not many people knew the origin of his beginning remarks either. But to call his lighthearted ending divisive and racist is a bit of an overreaction.

    There is a thing called having a sense of humor, and wit isn’t something reserved exclusively for british comedy.

  17. From a practical standpoint if Obama needs to use available public support for some otherwise unpopular policy it would behold him to have the support of the religious community as opposed to the non religious community. I think issues like CAM can be one area of policy debate where the skeptical community should seek support from the vast majority of Christians and religious persons who support evidence based medicine.

    @TheSkepticalMale: Any correlation between Carter and Obama would cause cold chills that would suck the hope right out of me.

  18. Hmmm. As someone who actually exists as a minority in the US, I can’t really sympathize with the idea of a white person being marginalized by a black person. I mean, I can’t decide if I should laugh or just scream. Given some of the things I’ve been reading and seeing on TV and in papers the past few days, I’m wondering if we really have to live the next four years with white people claiming that, at 75% of the country and the dominant power holders, they’re being oppressed by the rest of us.

    It seems a little nitpicky, when he was recalling civil rights rhymes and songs from the 60s – when those were the terms in use. I viewed it as him poking fun and saying how far we’ve come. I’m an atheist, but I used to be even worse off before – a Muslim. I understand, intimately, the drive to be offended, and how things that seem offensive aren’t, and what it is like to be left out of the big picture except when a villain is called for. That’s what this comes off as.

    When I was a Muslim and living in the United States, I accepted that I would never be represented in any normal or positive light except a token reference here and there, like yesterday. I think atheists should be used to this as well, and just work with it. I learned to care a lot less if politicians were visiting mosques and saying what nice people we were, than if they were trying to take more money out of my very thin wallet, denying me health insurance, and bombing people overseas on very false pretexts.

  19. @mathurine: I’m an older white male and I had no problems with what he said. I wasn’t in the US at the time the Civil Rights battle was raging, but I took what was said in the spirit of the occasion and in the light of an amazing and wonderful occasion.

    I think the last 10 years or so have made people in the US so politically polarized and overly sensitive that many look at every statement (especially from a leader) with a jaundiced eye, wondering if there is a subtext or ulterior motive. It’s going to take some time (and practice) to shed that habit. I hope you will be patient with us, mathurine.

    @James_Fox and Skeptical_Male: As far as comparisons between Carter and Obama go, I think there is no comparison. I see Mr. Carter in retrospect as a good man trying to do his best in a job that was not suited to him. I think he would have been better off in a scientific business like the nuclear power industry where his engineering background would have been more appropriate.

    Mr. Obama, OTOH, appears to be a much shreweder politician than Carter. He has already grabbed the reins of power and started changing things in a very dramatic way, for example. Mr. Obama seems to have the courage of his convictions and appears to be very confident of what he is doing. I, for one, am very relieved to have a man of his caliber and judgment at the helm right now. And a fellow Chicagoan – that doesn’t hurt, either. ;-)

  20. @QuestionAuthority:

    As far as comparisons between Carter and Obama go, I think there is no comparison.

    Well, let’s look at the circumstances when both of them went into office –

    1. A country in the midst of a significant recession marked by high unemployment … check.

    2. An electorate unequivocablly aching to vote for any candidate other than a Republican … check. (Remember Watergate? Remember the hit Ford took for pardoning Nixon?)

    3. A candiate with no foreign policy experience … check. (Foreign policy is where the only direct power of the U.S. President lies, like it or not.)

    4. A candidate with little or no federal legislative experience … check. (You have got to have friends in Congress to realize those policy goals, and Obama was a U.S. Senator 2 years before announcing his campaign for President.)

    5. Grandiose liberal policy proposals in the Johnson/Mondale save-the-world-through-bigger-goverment vein … check. (Contrast Bill Clinton, the more social liberal/fiscal conservative-style moderate Democrat)

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