Ophelia Benson has a post up looking at an interview between Benjamin Nelson (a sometime commenter here) and Chris Mooney. Nelson summarizes the interview, and the broader accommodation/confrontation conflict, by writing:
[Mooney’s] stance is self-consciously political. At least to some extent, there is a “difference in goals” between Mooney and the activist atheists — by which, I think, he means a difference in priorities. Mooney does not think that speaking out against religion is a priority, and that it is on the whole detrimental to science education; while others think it is a priority, and that it supports science education in some respect.
That sounds in the ballpark to me, and apparently to Ophelia as well:
I think that’s right, and it is the self-consciously political aspect that I have always found somewhat alien. I say “somewhat” because I can’t possibly reject all politics. I realize one has to weigh consequences (as we were just discussing with reference to the Vatican and a life-saving abortion) and consider priorities. But I think when serious discussion becomes too entangled with politics, then it simply stops being serious discussion and turns into some form of campaigning.
But this is exactly what I find so strange – the ambivalence and even aversion to politics [see update below]. I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know why she, and many others in the gnu camp, seem to equate politics with “campaigning” with some sort of sleaze or dishonesty, and think that this is totally distinct from the bullshit that bloggers do on blogs (including gnu atheist bloggers on gnu atheist blogs).
For the last 5 years or so, I’ve been looking for a relevant quote, one from a Pete Seeger album I listened to as a kid. I don’t remember which it was, but somewhere he describes a song – a seemingly innocent and apolitical song – as being about politics because (and I’m obliged to paraphrase, unless you, dear reader, know the quote): “Politics is what happens whenever two people get together for whatever reason. They can be bowling together, and that’s politics.”
And that’s basically my view. The State of the Union speech is politics. Knocking on doors and phonebanking is politics. But so are blogs, even knitting blogs or mommyblogs. Defending science education is politics. Dawkins’ “Out Campaign” is politics, and so are the fights about accommodation vs. confrontation. Publishing a paper is politics. It may be no more consequential than academic politics, but any time you are trying to change someone’s mind, you are doing politics. And if you’re writing something – and I mean anything: poetry, fiction, fantasy, slash fic, polemics – and don’t intend to change your reader’s mind in some way, you should just burn your keyboard.
I don’t think anyone in the gnu camp will disagree with that last sentence; gnus value writing and arguing quite highly. And they should! I think they might disagree that that means any writing for a public audience is inherently political. But it is. I don’t see a way in which it isn’t.
Too many people, and I’m talking about society at large here, think politics is a dirty word. It’s associated with all the horrific things Congress does, the mudslinging campaign ads and the sausage-making that produces our laws. And that is politics. But that’s not all politics means, and it’s not what politics should be. If we come to believe and accept that that sort of douchebaggery is all politics is or all it can be, then that’s all it will be. It can be more, and it must be more. And we make it something better by getting involved, and being open about the fact that politics is good and worthy.
Despite the protestations, it seems obvious to me that gnu atheism is deeply political. It’s not two people bowling, it’s a bunch of people at a rally. It’s people writing op-eds and racking up endorsements. It’s people looking to political movements built around civil rights and gay rights for guidance. It’s people turning to advertising for guidance. It’s politics by any measure, and the sooner they accept that, and accept all that implies, the sooner we can move past the debate about whether it’s politics, to a more interesting discussion of how to make it into effective politics.
Update: Ophelia says I misread her, that she is not uncomfortable with politics writ large, only to being self-consciously political. I don’t know what difference that actually makes since the term is undefined, but I appreciate the correction. I’m in the comments at her place and here trying to sort this out. To be clear, though, I read the adjective, and my understanding of that phrase led me to write what I did. She says I misread her, and I may have, though certainly not on purpose. On the other hand, her meaning may not be objectively clear, and that can’t be my fault.