Saturday, May 20, 2006

How I write and why I wrote that "awful" thing!

I'd like to begin with the Raw Story headline that caused so much consternation and offense, "The Left's Own Religious Whackjobs" and the image which accompanied the piece, the crusader's cross. I chose neither. Most non-journalists probably don't know this, but the writer of a column doesn't usually pick the headline. Headlines are written at the publication. This is why the same piece can appear in different publications under different headlines. As I'm not a part of that process, I don't know how or why that particular headline and image were chosen and will therefore make no attempts to explain them further. I will only say that I, personally, would not have used the word "religious" in the headline nor would I have chosen a cross to represent anything I've written. I am, after all, a practicing Jew.

As for the different versions of the column, (two here on Liberals In Exile and one on Raw) that was part of an experiment I undertook to show the unfolding of the writing process and to be a bit more open about how these things progress from rough draft to finished piece. I'll admit here that I filched this idea, in part, from a former professor and old friend, Mitch Stephens, who is writing a blog as he works through the process of writing his book. Readers of his blog will get to see Mitch work through the ideas that will ultimately make it into the book, which is (coincidentally) an examination of the history of disbelief. (Yes, I'm in the preliminary stages of working on my own book.) There was no attempt on my part or Raw's to mislead or confuse anyone with multiple versions. In fact, when I published the second draft, I made clear that it wasn't necessarily the version that would appear on Raw.

As for the use of my experiences and conversations with friends as part of the support for my opinion, well, it's my opinion not a factual, scientific, or academic treatise. Most of you are probably familiar with the standards for writing academic papers and judged my column by those standards. I'd be the first to admit, I would never have submitted this column to an academic journal for peer review or to a professor expecting an academic work with footnotes and citations. But columns aren't academic and should be judged by a very different set of criteria. For instance, relying on personal experience and informal conversations rather than official sources, reference materials, and formal interviews is perfectly acceptable for an opinion column.

The content of an opinion column is ultimately determined by what is on the writer's mind, what has provoked her thought processes or emotional responses, how she views things at the moment. One example rather than another is picked not based on academic criteria but on personal preference, individual perspective, and (again) what happens to be on the writer's mind at the moment. Did she read a book on a certain topic lately that sparked an emotional or reasoned response? Has she been thinking about something because of the time of year or an incident in her personal life? These things determine how things will be written and what types of things will be discussed, not formal criteria on authoritative sourcing or representative sampling. Yes, it's perfectly reasonable to expect an opinion column to reflect a reasoned examination as the topic requires. However, sometimes, opinion columns will be predominantly or completely emotional response. Usually, they're a mix of the two.

So, how do I write and why this topic in particular? That is, after all, what you probably want to know.

First, I read a lot. I always have. Even in my childhood, it wouldn't have been unusual to see me holed up in my room all weekend with a book of plays or poetry, a short fiction anthology, a philosophical text, a few science magazines, and a used college psychology textbook. And that's when I was 12. Right now, the reading materials on my desk include: There's a Hair in My Dirt by Gary Larson, Who's Afraid of Schrodinger's Cat?: All the New Science Ideas You Need to Keep Up with the New Thinking, Albert Einstein: Ideas and Opinions, Nine Crazy Ideas in Science: A Few Might Even Be True, Voices of American Muslims (which I read for a review) and a few copies of Newsweek. I've been going through a science period following a few months of devouring mountains of texts on politics and history. (As for Gary Larson, it is Gary Larson after all. It's just funny.) Any or all of the things I read can spark ideas for things to write about or discuss with my friends.

One of these lovely friends of mine described me once as "militantly engaged in the world" and, personally, I think that's the shortest and simplest explanation. I want answers, but not just one for each question. I want multiple answers, different perspectives, myriad possibilities. I want to examine things from dozens of angles and to see how those angles work with or against each other. I read and read and discuss and discuss and come to provisional ideas about one thing or another. (Sometimes, an idea is in process for years before it makes it onto the page or the computer screen.) I see the gaps, the things people aren't saying for one reason or another. Then, if I think these things should be said, I make a point of saying them myself. Sometimes, it's easier just to rush off a piece along the party lines or opposing the latest right wing propaganda, but I don't really like easy. Easy is boring.

So. I read. I discuss. I think. I write. That's it.

So, why this topic? My personal experience with it began years ago. I'd had many atheist friends at that point. As many of you have pointed out, you can't spend too much time in liberal activist circles without running into atheists. Most of the atheists I've encountered have been just people. There's no good or bad, no black or white, just people.

One day in the fall of 2002, I believe, I was at a peace protest in Union Square when three guys standing a few feet from me got into a very loud argument. Well, one of them was being loud. The other two seemed perfectly calm and were talking so quietly as to be inaudible in the crowd. (Of course, they may have been very calmly saying very horrendous things.) Anyway, I have no idea what these two guys were saying, but everyone within a ten yard radius could probably hear what the third guy was ranting about: All religion is evil! Religion has been the cause of all of the wars in human history! He was actually screaming this stuff at these two guys, who continued to stand there calmly disagreeing. It was obvious from the third guy's loud comments, red face, and wild gesticulations that they were disagreeing. I thought for a moment that there would be a fight... at a peace protest, no less. I also thought that this young man was obviously poorly educated. I believed that my atheist friends would laugh at this guy then cringe to hear their beliefs so horribly misrepresented.

That little moment set me to thinking about how uneducated some people were about atheism, theism, religion, history, human nature, etc. After all, one guy screaming usually represents more than just one guy unless he's wearing a tin foil hat. So, the idea rested in the back of mind for a while until an atheist friend went over the edge. (I'll have to call this former friend X to be fair and to maintain some respect for someone who once meant a great deal to me.) X was an intelligent and reasonably well-educated person. Sure, we disagreed on many things but I generally respected X's opinions. Even if I didn't agree, I could understand why X believed this or that.

Years into our friendship, I realized things were off. Whenever we'd get into a discussion, X would pull up web sites specifically set up to espouse the opinion s/he held. Well, that seemed normal until I realized that X only read things that supported his/her opinions and actually became angry at the very idea that anyone could reasonably disagree. X had come to hold anyone who disagreed with him/her in contempt, including me. Suddenly, X began to speak of all human beings as if they were of a lower order and s/he was not one of us. X even went so far as to repeat our conversations on his/her blog but completely misrepresent anything I said in disagreement so that s/he'd come off the winner of the "argument" which had never been a real argument but a discussion between friends who were supposed to respect and even love each other. The last straw was when s/he referred to me not as a person or by my name or by a reasonable pseudonym but as "Jew" in a manner that indicated s/he felt that my being a Jew completely delegitimized me and my ideas. I was completely stunned.

These experiences fed into questions that have plagued me for years: How does one become extremist? How do you go from a regular person to a ranting whackjob? How do you make the leap from believing something to be true to believing you "know" something to be true to hating anyone who believes or lives differently from you to taking violent action?

For the most part, I've examined Muslim and Christian extremism. Muslim extremism because I was in Manhattan on 9/11. And Christian extremism because I've lived as an openly gay person in America for more than a decade, most of that in the Deep South. Somehow, I came to the idea that I'd only ever truly understand extremism if I examined the extremes found closer to home: the left. I also felt that it was only honest to do so. I can't just pretend that the left is completely wonderful while the right is completely evil. I can't just walk in lock step with the party line that makes me feel good about being a "good" liberal fighting against "evil" conservatives. That would be too easy. In this case, easy isn't just boring, it's frightening.

Hence, the atheist extremist and the other types of extremist viewpoints I'll be examining in future columns. The column that sparked so much furor was never a stand alone in my mind. (Perhaps that was part of the problem.) It was always part of a greater whole. The series was to end with an attempt at answering some of my questions about extremism or at least to get others thinking about the questions. Maybe someone else could answer them better than I could.

In the end, for a variety of reasons, I didn't present the column as well as I could have and much confusion arose. It is the poor presentation of the idea for which I have apologized. I still believe that the overarching idea had merit and will attempt, again, to do it some justice with my next post. For those who questioned whether I would write such an article about lesbians or feminists, etc., claiming that I was "picking on" atheists because they were an "easy" and "acceptable" target, you'll be surprised at the rest of the series. Hopefully, I'll be able to complete the next column and my next post soon.