July 25, 2012

#GnuAtheist fail: Being obscenely rich is OK

Ron Lindsay
Paul Kurtz was pushed out from the Center for Free Inquiry several years ago for a variety of reasons,  but one of them was surely the desire to make CFI more focused on Gnu Atheism rather than old-fashioned secular humanism.

The sure death knell for that older era has to be this blog post by new CEO Ron Lindsay. He says, in essence, the rich can be as rich as they want and it's no skin off my atheist teeth. He calls the post "Humanism and Wealth," but there's no humanism that I see in it.
The way I interpret humanism, it has no problem with wealth per se, or with significant disparities in income and wealth. Humanism does commit one to support democracy and equal rights for all, however. Failure to curb the influence of money on our political process could turn us into an oligarchy in all but name and devalue the rights of the majority. 
So, like some versions of libertarians (Glenn Greenwald comes to mind), Ron is only worried about how money affects political campaigns.

But, politics, in a democracy, simply cannot be disaggregated from larger social issues.   And Lindsay, as a lawyer who's worked in D.C. and who is a philosopher, knows that. Or, if he doesn't, we have a new example of the Peter Principle.

Beyond that, wealth influences politics in many ways, well before Citizens United. We're talking lobbying. The money to pay for tax lawyers to find loopholes, etc.

It's simply unbelievable that Lindsay has about zip on critical thinking skills on this issue. (It's also clear that his personal definition of humanism is pretty narrow; more on that below.)

Indeed, that  lack of critical thinking is enough  that my snarky/joking thought at one point was, Ron's either writing a Poe, or else this is a way of proving CFI's "diversity," even regarding money, and insulating itself from the next #skeptatheistchick controversy.

But, to be serious again, let's get back to the first half of that pull quote:
The way I interpret humanism, it has no problem with wealth per se, or with significant disparities in income and wealth.
So, as long as your money doesn't influence politics (and we've already seen how wealth influences politics in ways he's myopic about), Ron Lindsay doesn't care how stinking, filthy rich you are. Or how little you give to charity. Or even how much you bash the poor for causing their own poverty, allegedly. Doesn't that sound like the Success Gospel version of modern Religious Right Christianity?

However, the libertarianism of Lindsay's thoughts is attractive to at least some commenters, which also proves P.Z. Myers wrong when he claims all good Gnus are good liberals. (I've blogged previously on Gnus' lack of political critical thinking; my most recent previous thought on that is here.)

For example, a Craig talks about "petty jealousy" by the less well off. Yep, that's why class warfare is usually actually started by the rich, who then pretend they've done no such thing, and, when called to account, trot out  phrases like that..

Others, though, "get it." Jake talks about income inequality in the U.S. versus Europe. Reality? MEXICO has less income inequality than the U.S. Yes, you read that right.

Commenter Matt gets it right, otherwise, in part related to that. Money, in such cases, is ultimately about power. Power, influence and fame that money can buy are often stock-in-trade for the rich.

Or, I can be snarky again. Lindsay is trying to recoup all the donor money lost after CFI shoved Paul Kurtz out the door, and is saying, "we love the rich." 

Let's get back to more seriousness, though.

If Ron isn't soliciting rich, new donors, this is another good example of how Gnu Atheism as an evangelistic movement continues to shoot itself in the foot.

I start with Jen McCreight, and others, wearing T-shirts talking about wanting to "destroy religion" at the skeptics' rally in D.C. this spring. Well, many people of atheist leaning have religious family and friends, still. Even if they have disagreements with them, they still normally want to remain on speaking terms.

Then, there's claims that the young former atheist at Harvard who became a Catholic never could have been a "true atheist." Really? How do you know.

Related to that is the claim that Faux News talking head S.E. Cupp isn't an atheist. There, Gnus are probably right; she's probably using the word "atheist" to mean "nonreligious" if she's sincere about the claim. That said, since Gnus seem to wrongly equate "atheist" with "ANTIreligious," they're not really in a good place to judge others' language use.

And now, this. The "this" includes Lindsay's narrow definition, or calculating redefinition, of what "humanism" is. That, too, possibly relates to shoving Paul Kurtz out the door at CFI.

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and Gnus either don't get that ... or don't care.

It may be, for some at least, the latter.

In that case, we probably, in what will make Islamophobic Gnus like Sam Harris vomit their lunches for sure, should call Gnu Atheism a "jihad" of sorts, not just evangelistic, at least among the McCreights and Myerses of the world. Neither one is good tactically in a pluralistic America, though.

UPDATE, July 13: Lindsay has responded. More below the fold, along with some broader observations.

Comment 1:
I think rates can be much more progressive for the top end than they are today. I favor repealing the Bush era tax cuts for those making more than $250,000.

That said, I think a taxation rate of 75% or 80% for high earners (as has been discussed in France) may not be prudent policy. Certainly, given that humans respond to incentives, at some point the rate of taxation will inhibit productivity and risk-taking. Therefore, some radical leveling of the differences in wealth and income could produce negative consequences. That’s essentially the point I was making in my discussion under my second heading.

Re the post-war boom, many factors contributed to that, including the pent-up demand following a lengthy depression and a multi-year war.
Lindsay promises more later. He later notes that, as part of a second comment, Sweden has a top marginal rate of 56 percent, which he doesn't find confiscatory. So, that's halfway good, or better. (Oops, in later comment, he seems to indicate that's confiscatory, too.) That said, will he advocate such rates as part of policy to reduce income inequality in a future post? We'll see. (Later answer: not likely.)

He also seems to more politely, and indirectly, agree with commenter Craig and say that a lot of this (to be fair, he did in the body of the post say it was "irrational") is ... class envy. Well, that hints at something I wonder in more detail below ... if you do corporate labor law, aren't you choosing which side of the class bread you're buttering on?

And, sure, he did pro bono work, including for Kurtz! Big deal. There's pro bono, and there's pro bono, just like one can do charitable contributions to a soup kitchen or to a symphony promoters' league.

Comment 2:
Anyway, nothing in my post, which focused on relative income and wealth, should be interpreted as suggesting that absolute levels of wealth are unimportant.
Then why didn't you make that clearer at the start? And, if they're not unimportant, how important are they? Again, stay tuned. Again, Lindsay should have been smart enough to include this in the original post.

And, while his blog posts have a "personal views only" disclaimer, how true is that?

Meanwhile, looking at the bigger picture, this isn't a blanket defense of Paul Kurtz, either. I myself have said that, having as much of CFI's funding stream in the hands of one donor, as he did, was not good financial management. (At the same time, I've also said that this was also a problem with the board at that time for not noticing, and for not being informed; that's what a board treasurer is for.) I've even said Kurtz probably had a bit of "founder's syndrome," and I'm not alone there.

And, per a Lindsay blog post about Kurtz's resignation of CFI positions, if someone like an R. Joseph Hoffmann had problems with Kurtz (unless his quote was taken way out of context), there's reason for CFI's board to have moved in a new direction, as far as management.

(But, oops here too. Contra Lindsay's citation of Hoffmann as being in his corner, very soon afterward, at least, he was nowhere near Lindsay's corner.)

But management is one thing; philosophical direction is another. I'm guessing Kurtz would have opposed Lindsay had he known half of this in advance. I think others would have, too.

Related to that, Orac reminds me that, beyond Kurtz's well-placed worry and concern over Blasphemy Day, Lindsay either didn't get it, or, per somebody with his smarts, was deliberately "going Gnu" over issues related to Park 51 and Ground Zero.

The positive, if there is one, is that the Kurtz exodus was a seminal moment in exposing the Gnu Atheist movement for what it was.

Arguably, this blog post over Kurtz's resignation, and the many comments about it, along with the current Lindsay post, expose well his years of experience as a corporate lawyer — being as vague and imprecise with his language as he wants. 

For people seeking more background, albeit with a lot of he said, she said, there's parallel interviews of Kurtz and Lindsay by attorney/freethinker Eric Vieth.

Of course, we've had additional years of bruised and hurt feelings since then, and intemperate language, mainly, but not entirely I'll note, on the Gnu side. 

UPDATE 2, July 13: One other curiosity which I haven't solved so far is, who's among the corporate clients of Seyfarth when Lindsay was there?

(They're not listed, as far as retained clients, at least, on the company website.)

Especially if you're not willing to be more specific about how to address income inequality and other issues, the question of what corporate employers you might have represented in employment law, over what issues, is a legitimate question. ("Goes to motive" is, I believe, the legal phrase.)

I also note that several years ago, I was one of the first people to ask what the then-wingman of Markos Moulitsas, aka Kos, one Armando Llorens, was hiding when he didn't want to talk about his legal work. Well, we eventually found out he wasn't all that liberal, at least in terms of legal counsel/issues.

One final note to Ron: It's the Internet. I have Hoffmann as a Facebook friend, too (tho I strongly disagree with whether or not Jesus' possible nonexistence is a historically viable issue, and whether or not it as an issue is driven almost entirely by Gnu Atheists.)

And with that, I've written more than enough for some time. Per Hoffmann, Gnus didn't have to want to rebrand CFI. Also per Hoffmann, the deed's been done; pointing out when the emperor is wearing Gnu Atheist clothes (Daniel Loxton, I think you could be more skeptical!) is then part of the task. 

UPDATE 3, July 16: Lindsay has yet to offer any more specific answers on his original post; we'll see if he does a follow-up, and if he gets more specific there or not. I, on the other hand, HAVE done a follow-up

And, Lindsay needs to read this twin book review column from The Nation.

This all said, if his version of humanism includes guilt-free entree to any and all rich, no matter how they got their money, no matter their take on income inequality, no thanks. Real humanists need to wash their hands of CFI.

1 comment:

dhoelscher said...

"Lindsay has about zip on critical thinking skills on this issue."

Exactly right.