Monday, April 7, 2014

First they came for the pagans and the queers

The upside of Mozilla's purging of Brendan Eich is various folk are getting the point that penalising opinion and purging workplaces is so not a good idea.

The downside is a lot of folk just don't get the bigger issue. This piece, for example, First They Came For The Mormons, exemplifies the common notion that "this" started with gay activists or modern progressivism, or whatever. This post mostly gets the bigger issue, the comments below mostly do not.

An old, traditional pattern
No, this is not a "new" thing, moral exclusion started much earlier and is deeply entwined with the Judaeo-Christian tradition. What happened to Brendan Eich is actually a relatively mild version of what was done to queer folk for centuries. The habit for much of the C20th, for example, of whenever bars catering for a queer clientele were raided, having all those apprehended listed in newspaper reports was exactly the same as finding out who contributed to the Proposition 8 campaign and then targeting them. (Ugandan newspapers are continuing that inglorious tradition.)

It is the modern, scaled-down, version of the theology of Deuteronomy 13Deuteronomy 13 enjoins the killing of those who have wrong beliefs--i.e. worshipping pagan gods:
If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. 9 You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 11 Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.
Thoughtcrime was Biblical long before George Orwell. Purifying society by purifying public belief by outcasting the wrong-thinker is entirely Biblical.

The Christian right's social model
And enforcing social conformity by boycotts and outcasting is entirely something the Christian right perfected long before the Brendan Eich case. There is a long history of Christian boycotts targeting the (extremely vulnerable) queer minority and those who stood up for them. The attempts to block TV shows and plays that dared to present them positively. To block openly employing them. To block any form of legal protection. Declaring permitting access to the ordinary amenities of life to be "promoting homosexuality".

It cannot be said often enough: the purging of Brendan Eich is the Christian right's social model in operation. The notion that you can cut a group out from the herd and deny them ordinary amenities of life is precisely what the Christian right did, attempted to do and continues to demand the right to do. When Scalia J wrote from the bench of US Supreme Court that "Americans" should be entitled to show their "disapproval" of "homosexual conduct":
Of course it is our moral heritage that one should not hate any human being or class of human beings. But I had thought that one could consider certain conduct reprehensible–murder, for example, or polygamy, or cruelty to animals–and could exhibit even ‘animus’ toward such conduct. Surely that is the only sort of ‘animus’ at issue here: moral disapproval of homosexual conduct, the same sort of moral disapproval that produced the centuries old criminal laws that we held constitutional in Bowers.
he was endorsing the practice (though not the direction of the targeting) that the purging of Brendsan Eich represents. Being denied ordinary amenities for failing to conform is exactly what was meant in the above passage (except the doers and target has changed); expressing moral disapproval for conduct is what has now been done to Brendan Eich, and was done to queer folk for generations.

MICKEYoneThose who see this purging as somehow something new, or a speciality of the left, are, at best, ignorant of this Christian history of boycotting and denial of ordinary amenities of life to enforce conformity; so that they literally do not see that it is precisely what the Christian right wanted and did and still seeks the right to do. For part of moral exclusion is an impoverished epistemology; the notion that what happens to the morally excluded literally does not count. That what was done to the queers has no implication for "real" people.

But there are no "proper" and "improper" persons, nor are there any "do not count" folk who are different from "real" people so that what happens to them has no implications for "real" people. What happens to any group counts, because it is a model that can be used against others--any others. is a deep sense of entitlement here--that people like us are entitled to do this to "them" but no-one is entitled to do it to people like us. Sorry, that sense of entitlement is entirely in your head and it will be taken over (and inflicted on) whomever has enough social power, and feels sufficiently entitled, to do it too.

There is, of course, a notion operating that traditional outcasting is somehow different. But that is simply a persistent flaw in conservative thinking--by valorising the past, one is blinded to inconvenient aspects of it. Yes, queers did have this experience and yes it did count. Both in itself and in providing a model for others to follow. The historical, very traditional, chickens are coming home to roost.

Fetishes of order
Which leads to another persistent flaw in conservative thinking--creating fetishes of order which are in fact causes of disorder. In the late 1920s and 1930s, a fetish of order which was a (disastrous) creator of (economic, then social then political) disorder was the gold standard. Nowadays, narrow inflation targeting performs the same role--a fetish of order which is a creator of (pdf) (economic) disorder.

A-Parents-Guide-To-Preventing-Homosexuality-193x300The denouncing of homosexuality and homosexual pairing is also a fetish of order which creates social disorder. It tears apart families, leads to youth suicide and other self-destructive behaviour; when reflected in law, makes people vulnerable to blackmail and strips them of legal protections (as going to be police over any crime becomes so fraught), makes them vulnerable to criminal exploitation; makes building stable relationships harder. But you only notice this if the experience of queer folk counts; experience (and aspirations) which moral exclusion excludes from counting in its impoverished epistemology.

Acts above people
A moral exclusion which puts acts above people. Christ spends much of the Gospels criticising acts-based religious authority. Catholic, Orthodox and other Christian priests and clerics quarantine that by claiming Christ that was just attacking Jewish religious authority--the well-known blame the Jews move. And then promptly contradict that quarantine by saying that (the rest) of Christ's teaching was for everyone.

Let's not engage in the blame-the-Jews quarantining of the inconvenient past. This is all an excellent lesson in the power of the Gospel teaching--don't focus on acts and fail to see the person. In particular do not fail to see them as a person, as an object of moral concern and protection, just like you. Which means listening to their experience and aspirations as you would want to be listened to. Which means permitting them access to the ordinary amenities of life as you would want access. Do as you would be done by. Love thy neighbour as thyself. Do not delude yourself that there is someone or some group out there who can be stripped of moral standing and protections, and access to the ordinary amenities of life, and yet this has no implications for you and yours.

A delusion which the Christian right has bought into for decades and the progressive left is doing now. Asterisked Christianity as its own reward.

Repeatable patterns
There is a certain amount of velvet rage in the purging of Eich. A cry of rage and pain over past and present miseries. Understandable but not helpful.  Well, perhaps a helpful moral lesson but not in the sense the purgers intend.

Brendan Eich apparently also donated to folk such as Patrick Buchanan, who said that:
... our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide ...
... homosexuals have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution ...
That expressing of moral disapproval for homosexual conduct Scalia J that judicially opined is just fine. Eich also donated to the cause of denying queer folk access to ordinary amenities of life (i.e. marriage). Well, having a career is an ordinary amenity of life too. And folk have expressed their moral disapproval for Eich's anti-equality-before-the-law conduct. For his failure to successfully recant as, say, Hillary Clinton has done.

blog4But recantation of their homosexuality and homosexual conduct is precisely what was and is demanded by the Christian right of homosexual folk. Which is yet another way in which queer-hatred is like Jew-hatred: making an utterly unreasonable demand (give up your sexual nature, give up your religion) as a requirement for full moral standing and equal protection of the law. Along with pretending it is not hatred, it is just "moral concern".

The velvet rage is understandable, as the "moral disapproval" of homosexuality still tears apart families and ruins lives. But however useful the moral lesson from the Eich case that the moral exclusion beloved of the Christian right is a force for social disorder--not merely for queer folk, but by providing an example for anyone to use--it is still not a path to take.

The Jewish roots of homicidal purification
For we should remember that the Holocaust had Jewish roots. The notion that society is rightfully purified by blood and fire destroying a corrupting and perverse minority was part of Catholic and Orthodox teaching for generations: that was (and remains) the mainstream Christian reading of Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather than the traditional rabbinical reading that the cities of the plain were destroyed for withdrawing moral protection from the vulnerable--indeed, were so anti-moral that they punished those who protected the vulnerable.

And from whom did Christians learn to read Genesis 19 as moral purification by slaughter of a vulnerable minority? From Jewish natural law philosopher Philo of Alexandria, in On Abraham: XXVI-XXVII and Special Laws III:VII.

Nuremberg_chronicles_f_097r_3Now, I am sure God-fearing family man Philo had no inkling that this notion that society was purified by slaughtering a corrupting and perverse minority had any implication for folk such as him; that homicidal denunciation of pagan degenerate queers had no implication for "right-thinking" and "right-acting" folk. But, of course it did. Because one person's proper thought and conduct is another person's corruption and perversion. The constant iteration by the Church down the centuries of Philo's notion of moral cleansing by slaughter of a targeted "corrupting" and "perverse" minority very much had implications for folk such as him, as centuries of Christian pogroms proved.

k5182.gifA notion of moral-cleansing-by-slaughter that the Catholic Church happily took up as a tool of preaching; endorsing (and, where they had temporal power) practicing "purifying" judicial murder of corrupt and perverse sexual actors and corrupt and perverse thinkers. Indeed, happily spreading the idea, in a compilation compiled by a (later beatified, mainly for doing so) prince of the Church, that Christ insisted on having all the sodomites killed--purifying the world--so that the Incarnation could happen. The Gospels as born in purifying massacre.

All leading up to the greatest pogrom, the starkest purifying massacre of all, the Holocaust. (Though the slaughters of Leninism also come from this root.) If you constantly preach that some vulnerable minority is corrupting, perverse and against God; if you preach that God endorsed purifying slaughter of such a minority, then there will be consequences. Not least because you also set up and inculcate the example for others to follow.

Just as pro-gay-rights folk are practising the outcasting that the Christian right has so long practised and still endorses. The Christian right that set up the example for others to follow.

And now really does not like the consequences. However tempting it might be to say "tough", stew in the social juices you prepared, it is still not the way to go. Because moral exclusion is a moveable feast, a social game anyone can play, if they have the power.

Let's not (also) go there
A game that does, as has been pointed out, greatly increases the cost of losing social struggles. Part of the civility of a good society is to not make politics mean that much, to have such profound implications. Nor religion, for that matter.

Yes, the sense of righteous entitlement involved is intoxicating. Yes, it is great to be a gatekeeper of righteous, enforcing a moral gulf between correct and incorrect acts and beliefs.

LGBT-Protest-2Philo's natural law reworking of Genesis 19 had such appeal precisely because if sexual acts mattered so much that God would destroy entire cities over them, then you really had to listen to the priest and clerics as they led you through the divinely ordered moral universe of correct and incorrect acts and beliefs. To be pharisaical in the sense that Christ denounced is to be a needed source of entitled authority. Which, like other aspects of Judaeo-Christian belief and practice, can be happily secularised.

But the real lesson in rejecting the entitled moral bullying and outcasting of the Christian right is not to practice some "new improved" version for oneself--to take you your own sense of entitlement--but not to practise it at all. Yes, stand up for people's rights, support equal protection of the law, but not as a new litany of "correct" and "incorrect" acts and beliefs, but because you do morally see the person, even when they do not morally see other people; do so even when, in some ways especially when, they are wrong.

To buy into error having no rights is to buy into the social tyranny of whoever has the power to deem what is right. A free society means having the liberty to be wrong. Just because the Christian right persistently refuses to grant that, does not mean the rest of us should not.

Boycotts work through social power. Part of the conservative outrage over the Eich case is the display of pro-queer social power and the evidence of the loss of anti-queer social power. A profound sense of moral entitlement encased in a fading sense of social significance is not a pretty sight.

Even so, social might does not equal moral right. The conservative Christian attempt to deny access to the ordinary amenities of social life was and is not right, and neither is the reverse.

ADDENDA: Some grammatical infelicities have been fixed since the original posting.
[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. Very well put. I pointed the freedom to hold a belief is essential, even if the belief is of the most out there, weird, or painful one, to a free society to a friend on Friday.
    I followed up with the point that making something officially a thought crime is the first step towards gulags.
    As far as I'm concerned you can hold any position you want, but acting physically on that belief is where the line gets drawn.