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Decoding the Gurus

I’m a podcast junkie, and have been for– wow– fifteen years now. I listen to podcasts while traveling, going for walks, cleaning, and performing any other action that could be tedious if not for having interesting voices in my ears. When I think back to a portion of a podcast, I visualize where I was and what I was doing when I heard it, which seems like a rather useless talent except for how it also sometimes works in reverse (while in a place or doing a thing, I sometimes remember content from a podcast I listened to in that context).

But I wouldn’t call myself some kind of expert or connoisseur of podcasts, because I just listen to what I like. I get to know a podcast and then listen to it regularly, usually no more than a rotation of eight or so. Sometimes I’ll listen to a new show because one of its hosts was a guest on a show that I already listen to, which happened when Chris Kavanaugh appeared on Embrace the Void to talk about the Intellectual Dark Web.

Chris is someone I’d been following on Twitter on the basis of regularly saying stuff I found interesting, but I didn’t know that he’s an anthropologist who did his PhD with Harvey Whitehouse at Oxford on a topic within the realm of cognitive science of religion, seven years after I completed my own PhD in CSR at the University of Aarhus. That makes us, like…EU CSR buddies, or something.

I feel a bit guilty writing a blog post about Decoding the Gurus, having not written one on Embrace the Void or indeed any of the other podcasts I’ve been listening to, because it’s not as though they’re not worthy– I would definitely recommend EtV, for example. Its host Aaron Rabinowitz is a philosopher currently working on a PhD in moral education, and I’ve found his discussions with various guests fascinating and entertaining. It’s just that I’m trying to break out of a very long hiatus from writing, and took the last several days off work to do a lot of chores and other activities that were ripe for podcast binging, and DtG was what I binged on, and I have thoughts.

And here are my thoughts!

First, I should note that the other co-host of Decoding the Gurus is Matt Browne, a professor of psychology at Central Queensland in Australia and who, combined with Belfast-born Chris, make for a very qualified and diversely-accented duo to host a podcast on this subject. One benefit of this arrangement for new listeners is that it’s very difficult to confuse one co-host for the other. Yes. of course there are many differences between Chris and Matt, but when you’re just starting to listen to a podcast you don’t know what those other differences are, so it can be difficult to differentiate the hosts if they sound the same. That is not the case here. Just saying.

So what’s a guru, for the purposes of this podcast? What type of people are being decoded here? As of this writing, the gurus that have been decoded thus far are:

  • Eric and Brett Weinstein
  • James Lindsay
  • Jordan Peterson
  • JP Sears
  • Rutger Bregman
  • Russell Brand
  • Scott Adams
  • Contrapoints (Natalie Wynn)

While Chris and Matt have discussed factors that would cause a particular person to rate highly on a “gurometer,” they haven’t (to my knowledge) given a clear and concise definition of what it means to be a guru, and they might never do so– which, frankly, would be fine by me. But generally speaking, the people they’re “decoding” are cultural commentators with large followings on the internet, who engage with those followers primarily via the internet (especially Twitter), and create content in podcast or Youtube video format.

This working definition is functional– the structure of a podcast episode is generally that Chris and Matt consume content by the guru in question, like a couple of podcast episodes or Youtube videos, and then dissect it on DtG. This approach has an upside and a downside.

The upside is that you know exactly what content they’re referencing, and they actually play clips and react to them. With Scott Adams this was particularly painful, but it was bearable because I knew that I wasn’t listening to this stuff “alone.” I have a strong aversion to actually listening to people say some of the reprehensible things I can read in print much more easily, to the point that I avoid listening to Donald Trump speak whenever possible. However, in the context of a critical discussion of that person’s ideas, it’s all right. Since each episode of DtG is quite lengthy, it also affords them the opportunity to engage in the kind of deconstruction that invariably, stereotypically, takes a good deal longer to both create and consume than the quoted statements themselves.

The downside of this approach is that you (the listener) don’t really get some kind of comprehensive view of the ideas expressed by the guru under discussion. Each episode begins with a summary of why a particular person was chosen. But, for example, the episode on Jordan Peterson centered on a particular interview that JBP gave, which really limited the discussion to the subject of JBP’s “poetic” obscurantist language and double-speak regarding his actual beliefs on religious concepts in response to direct questions. That’s absolutely a worthy topic deserving of scrutiny, but it doesn’t by half address the reasons for JBP’s appeal to his enormous audience. That’s fair enough– if you want to read a comprehensive account of JBP’s online agenda, those do exist. If you want to hear a podcast version, those exist also.

So this is not necessarily a fault in DtG, but it does seem to encumber the hosts in drawing a through line addressing the ideological and social situation of the gurus they choose to discuss. Prior to and beginning the episode on Natalie Wynn/Contrapoints, Chris and Matt noted that they were trying to branch out from the otherwise straight white male choices for gurus, but they didn’t really reflect on why such traits would typify someone who pursued a “guru” status to begin with.

There’s a reason why the person I chose to depict in my doodle of a “heterodox iconoclast” is a white man, and it’s not (just) because he’s loosely modeled on Eric Weinstein. One thing that should become abundantly, ridiculously clear upon listening to the clips from the Weinstein brothers and other gurus selected for this podcast is that these are, broadly speaking, a collection of privileged people claiming that they’re being oppressed because of the content of their ideas is threatening.

Not only is this clearly not the case, but there are a host of people across the globe who absolutely are being oppressed for this reason, and those people are not typically privileged in the way that these “gurus” are. There are people being censored for their anti-establishment ideas, and they are not exactly prospective members of the Intellectual Dark Web.

It’s bitterly, absurdly ironic that the types of people adopting a “guru” type of position in Western countries are not only not the ones typically actually being persecuted for their speech, but who also actively tend to position themselves as stalwart defenders of the right to free speech, and (bonus) in some cases actively seek to suppress the freedom of speech of their critics via specious lawsuits that nevertheless create a silencing effect because (surprise) some people just can’t afford to be sued. And, surprise again, those people tend to not be especially privileged.

This is not something that has really been stressed on DtG, and it might well be because the free speech hypocrisy element is not as noticeable or as important to the non-American academic hosts. One thing to note about this podcast is that it’s not really about politics, although since politics are central to the ideologies of the respective gurus, it does invariably become part of the discussion.

So I’m making those comments not as a criticism of the podcast, but as a supplement to the material presented in it. I think it’s always important to critically examine the persecution narratives of people like the gurus chosen for this podcast, because a persecution narrative is so commonly central to the moral justification that oppressive classes use for…well, their oppression. It’s just textbook, because the strongest argument you can make for waging war against Group X is to claim that Group X has already declared war against you.

But on the other hand (there are always more than two hands), it’s a relief that Chris and Matt don’t belabor this point, because humor is critical. We have to laugh, or else we’ll cry. This is the philosophy of political cartoonists, a society to which I ostensibly belong. It’s something I require in my podcasts, because again– spoken language. A different impact than written words. As a podcast listener, I look for context, analysis, insight, and relatable commentary, and I find all of these in DtG.

AAEC 2019 meeting at CXC in Columbus recap, and some rambling semi-related personal musings (Part II)

This post is a continuation of Part I– if you haven’t read that yet, click this link.

Though I unfortunately missed Kal’s presentation, I did make it to the two AAEC panels that took place on Saturday afternoon (Day 3).

The panel “Cartoonists’ Rights and the Free Speech Situation Facing the World” was moderated by Terry Anderson (again, acting director of Cartoonists’ Rights International) and included Ritu Gairola Khanduri (board member of CRNI), Ann Telnaes, Zunar, Pedro Molina, and Charles Brownstein (of the Comic Books Legal Defense Fund).

Photo credit: Mike Peterson

Ritu described the United Sketches Women Cartoonists International Award, and justification behind it– 5% of political cartoonists across the globe are women or nonbinary.  (I submitted cartoons for this award. The deadline was September 15, and the judges are currently deliberating.)

Pedro told of the desperate state of political protest in Nicaragua, with newspaper offices and TV stations being raided and shut down. Pedro is a tireless advocate for independent journalism, even at great risk to himself, and that risk was evident in his talk. You can read more about him in this interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas or on his own site.

Malaysian cartoonist Zunar told stories of his repeated arrests in that country that were both horrific and hilarious, such as how once the police chief ordered his arrest by tweet, and Zunar’s cartoons for the next year or so all featured some tiny depiction of the police chief tweeting on his phone. Zunar is known for photos of him smiling in handcuffs during these arrests, though the risk has been significant considering that in 2015 he faced up to 43 years in prison for criticizing the Malaysian government. You can read more about Zunar at his site, where you can also find his new book recounting his experiences, Fight Through Cartoons.

Ann described the fallout in 2015 when she published a cartoon mocking Ted Cruz for using his daughters to promote his presidential campaign. You can see the cartoon here, as well as read the AAEC and CRNI reactions to the Washington Post’s decision to pull the cartoon after receiving complaints about it. Telnaes depicted Cruz’s daughters as performing monkeys, which (it seems painfully obvious to me) was not actually an attack on his daughters, but on Cruz for using them as props– something politicians do all of the time, and is off-putting every time and completely deserving of criticism.  The title of the cartoon was literally “Ted Cruz uses his kids as political props.”

But after Cruz himself complained, and Marco Rubio joined him, the Post took the cartoon down and replaced it with an editor’s note (visible at the above link). That didn’t end things for Ann, however– she received a torrent of messages via email and social media that were abusive and sexist. To convey the nature of these messages, she played a video of similar harassment received by sports reporters Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro.  It is of course a good thing that the Washington Post didn’t react to complaints about a political cartoon in the same way that the New York Times would do four years later, but their capitulation in taking the cartoon down almost certainly enabled the harassment against Ann. That of course didn’t remove the ability of people to see the cartoon– all it did was tacitly agree, apparently without any consultation at all with Ann herself, that her cartoon was inappropriate.

Charles Brownstein described the power of social media influences in regulating content related to social justice issues. Charles is executive director of the Comic Books Legal Defense Fund.

The next panel was titled “The Legacy of Trump,” discussing the impact of Trump’s presidency on political cartooning during his tenure and anticipated effects in the future. The moderator for this panel was Mike “Comic Strip of the Day” Peterson, and the panelists were Patrick Chappatte, Nick Anderson, and Nancy Ohanion.

This was more of a free-flowing discussion than the previous panel. If you read part I of this post or my previous post “On the death, dearth, and demographics of political cartoons,” then you know who Patrick Chappatte is. You may also recall that Nick Anderson is the founder of Counterpoint.  He attended this meeting with his wife Angel, who I got to meet at the Billy Ireland museum and talk about life in Texas, how the two of them came to settle in Houston, and much bodices cost at the Texas Renaissance Festival, the largest (to my knowledge) ren faire in the country that takes place yearly in November just outside of Houston. (Answer: Yes, bodices cost a lot, but they’re kind of a ren faire staple and well worth the investment if you’re a ren faire junkie like I used to be.)

Anyway, Counterpoint! The condensed version of the origin of Counterpoint is that Nick Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was himself subject to the ongoing purge of political cartoonists, having been let go at the Houston Chronicle after eleven years of cartooning in 2017. Nick saw Rob Rogers undergo the same experience in 2018, recognized and was alarmed by the trend, and wrote up a statement for the AAEC board. Pat Bagley (Salt Lake Tribune, also at the AAEC meeting this time but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to meet him), was president at the time and apparently brought the piece to the attention of Jake Tapper (occasional cartoonist himself) and therefore CNN, who published the piece on their Opinion page.

There it was read by Vivek Garipalli, venture capitalist and co-founder of Clover Health, who orchestrated a meeting of minds with Nick that resulted in the creation of a cartoon email newsletter with a theme of dialogue between cartoons and cartoonists with opposing viewpoints known as Counterpoint. Currently I believe subscribership is at something like 130,000, and the plan is to become self-sustaining with advertiser support in the future. Newsletters are emailed free to subscribers twice a week.

I’d gotten the chance to speak with Nancy Ohanion when we were tabling on the vendor floor, and learned that while she’d been doing political cartoons for decades (since before I was born) and is syndicated, she’d been doing all of it, including a full-time career in advertising, on her own until recently.  Since I’d never so much as spoken to another cartoonist prior to this meeting, it was amazing and gratifying to talk to her about the community aspect of AAEC, and what it could become in the future.

In this panel, she noted that Donald Trump is not some kind of singular force in modern American politics– that he’s more like a symptom of a disease that leads people to seriously bring up the word “sedition” when talking about political dissent, that makes calling someone a “member of the media” a near-slur, and generally speaking makes the country a more dangerous place for the kind of critique and mockery that are essential, indispensable even, to editorial cartooning. And, as Nancy hastened to add, even when (please don’t say “if”) Trump goes away, this national attitude will not. So we need to decide how to respond to it. Post haste.

This panel also contained a lot of discussion about “offense” and its impact on cartooning, and I found myself pulling my iPad out of my bag and doodling a cartoon of my own as I listened.

Because we should never forget, in the discussion about how oppressive offended people can be, that offense is not itself oppressive. Offense is simply the feeling of being bothered by something that seems to insult you, or someone you care about, or a principle that you hold dear. I’ve seen artists of many kinds– comedians, musicians, cartoonists, and others– react to criticism in really ugly ways.  And it’s not entirely their fault, because we do live in a country, in a world, where offending the wrong people can be career-ending. Sometimes life-ending. But that isn’t the fault of the offended, generally. You cannot simultaneously say that cartoonists should be free to push boundaries (which I forever will maintain that they should), and also raise a fuss when people react to seeing those boundaries pushed. Nobody gets to be infallible. Everybody screws up sometimes.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Elbert Hubbard: “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” I do not, however, interpret this quote to mean that we should resent criticism, avoid it, or ignore it. Rather, we should distinguish it from harassment, attacks, abuse, trolling, etc. which are not criticism, and once we have identified it as authentic and made in good faith, we should wrestle with it. Sit with it. Consider it. That’s how we become better artists, and better people.

And there is of course a corresponding obligation for critics, to make their critiques in good faith, exercise charity, and recognize that even legitimately offensive speech is not necessarily an occasion to go beyond criticism into advocacy for more punitive measures (or, in case it needs to be said, harassment and death threats).

Since I already blathered on at length about this subject in the previous post, I will cease blathering here and show you this shelf at the metropolitan library next to the vendor floor.  See that book on the lowest shelf on the left, Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels? I must have that book. But no, in case you’re wondering, I did not grab it and run from the library. I have more self-restraint than that.

That Saturday evening of Day 3 was the final evening for many of us. We converged on Hotel LeVeque for a reception and the AAEC awards, much of which I covered in Part I.  In addition to the CNRI awards, however, there were some other highly important honors. Before the awards began, I briefly got to meet Liza Donnelly, cartoonist for the New Yorker (okay, actually meet again because I’d met her earlier in the day along with talented David G. Brown and not realized it), and enthuse over a piece she’d written in 2017 for Medium entitled Editorial Cartooning, Then and Now, which was excellent and really should’ve been part of the “Legacy of Trump” discussion earlier in the day.

The Rex Babin Award for local cartooning was presented by Jack Ohman to Kal Kallaugher, with Nate Beeler as finalist. Nate was a previous winner of the Locher Award, which you may recall was this year given to Chelsea Saunders.

The Ink Bottle Award for outstanding service to the AAEC and to the profession generally, was given to the very deserving Ann Telnaes. Ann’s acceptance of the award was predicated on her being able to share it with Signe Wilkinson, who also contributed immensely to this year’s meeting organization. I love Signe’s work and very much regretted not being able to meet her this year– circumstances prevented her from being there to accept the award along with Ann.

Dr. Robert “Bro” Russell (seated) with (top) Pedro Molina, Terry Anderson, Ted Rall, Kal, Jake Thrasher, Matt Wuerker, and (bottom) Ritu Gairola Khanduri, Adewale Adenle, (I believe Robert’s wife, whose name I don’t know– sorry!) Ann Telnaes, and Zunar
AAEC president Kevin Siers showing off his vest signed by AAEC members.

As a new member I hung back for most of this ceremony, delighted and touched by the camaraderie but reluctant to insert myself. I gravitated to fellow new member the immensely talented Tamara Knoss, with whom I’d had dinner the previous evening, along with NC cartoonist Ross Gosse and “Mr. Fish” Dwayne Booth, who had unfortunately been compelled to head back to New York by this time.

The evening was not nearly over with the reception, however– from there we proceeded to the Columbus College of Art and Design’s Canzani Auditorium for the Save the Nib event!

I don’t know that any of us truly knew what we were in for with this event. Seated next to Cullum Rogers, with Ann Telnaes and J.P. “Jape” Trostle behind me, AAEC members and college students throughout the audience, we witnessed what turned out to be a sort of live-action play/testimonial/Powerpoint presentation/tribute/fundraiser/stand-up act/Q&A performed by Nib editor Matt Bors, deputy editor Eleri Harris, associate editor Matt Lubchansky, contributor Chelsea Saunders, contributor Jen Sorenson, contributor Rob Rogers, and contributor Dan “Tom Tomorrow” Perkins.

Matt Bors, Matt Lubchansky, and Eleri Harris first told us the history of The Nib, its rocky excursion as a publication, gaining and then losing funding, repeatedly, until the most recent upheaval when First Look Media bailed and The Nib became Matt Bors’s reader-funded project earlier this year.  They talked about story arcs in their comics, their venture into animation, and the emergence of themes such as “Gotcha Guy” and depictions of Trump as a quasi-“Immortan Joe” character in their imagined apocalyptic wasteland scenario in both comics and animated cartoons.

Matt Bors talking as Eleri Harris and Matt Lubchansky listen.

If anything became clear in the course of this presentation it’s that The Nib has been WORK. Blood, sweat, tears, and long periods without health insurance for everyone involved. This was, and is, a labor of love– that much is more than obvious.

They were dedicated to keeping the mood of the presentation light, in spite of the dire stakes that came through in the retelling, but things authentically lightened up even more when we proceeded into Chelsea Saunders, Rob Rogers, Jen Sorensen, and Dan Perkins each in turn describing their personal histories in cartooning and literally narrating selections of their comics. Rob Rogers read and commented on the entire comic he did on being fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for criticizing Trump for The Nib, which I’m sure was exponentially more fun to rehash as a result of his cartoon artistry than it was to go through as an experience.

That’s what cartooning can do– frame an experience as a story, told by a storyteller, for an audience viewing and listening to the story as much as for the teller him or herself. That’s something that all cartoons have in common, fiction or non-fiction, “political” or otherwise.

That is, it turns out, the ultimate reason why I don’t think political cartooning will go away– we humans will never get tired of being told stories about politics, about the exertion of power by some people over other people, mocking the “jerks in power” and sticking up for the little guy, the underdog.

I can’t say I know the future of these underdog stories, and it would be hubris to claim otherwise. But I can say that I’m invested in the telling of these stories, and probably will be for the rest of my life. That’s why I joined the AAEC. If you’re a cartoonist with a passion for politics who happened to come across this post, considering joining up. Then we can see, and perhaps play our own role in determining, what the outcome of this story will be.

Jen Sorensen introduces herself and prepares to read some of her comics.
Q&A with Matt Lubchanksy, Eleri Harris, Chelsea Saunders (speaking), Jen Sorensen, Rob Rogers, Dan Perkins

AAEC 2019 meeting at CXC in Columbus recap, and some rambling semi-related personal musings (Part I)

After devoting myself to editorial cartooning at a rapidly increasing pace since the end of 2016, following the work of several cartoonists to the point of being able to identify a new cartoon’s artist without looking, and recording my reflections on the current state of the whole enterprise from an outsider’s perspective, I decided that maybe it was time to become an insider.

So in mid-August, anticipating the upcoming AAEC (Association of American Editorial Cartoonists) meeting in Columbus, Ohio, coinciding with CXC (Cartoons Crossroads Columbus), I submitted a membership application. Honestly, I didn’t know if it would be accepted considering that in spite of sending out the occasional pitch, I’m currently only published on my own site (this one), Patreon, and the various social media sites where I post my stuff.

But as it turns out, I was accepted. I would’ve attended the meeting even as a non-member, but it certainly helped to have membership established beforehand. It also helped tremendously that I received a job offer here in Wichita shortly before the trip, having spent several months unemployed. So I no longer had that hanging over my head and could make the trip with a lighter heart, although unfortunately with quite a light wallet as well.

I’ve attended multiple cons without knowing anyone very well beforehand, so in spite of my intense social anxiety, that part didn’t bother me so much. What bothered me was the possibility of not being heard– the chance that I might self-sabotage a very important networking opportunity, an opportunity for discussion, for being “with your own kind” in the way that people who attend cons much more frequently like to put it, by being too shy to meaningfully interact with anyone.

Turns out I needn’t have worried.

Being on the top (12th) floor of the Holiday Inn meant taking some extra time to get downstairs, but did also provide a nice view.

Although I didn’t actually interact with any cartoonists on the first day– and that was my fault. Since I had to be at the airport at about 3:30am for my 5:50am flight to Columbus from Wichita on the 26th, I’d opted to stay up the entire night beforehand, and so was basically running on fumes by the time of arrival at the Holiday Inn in downtown Columbus. As it happens, the designated locale for the first events that evening was also about a 30 minute walk away, and I had (to my knowledge) no other way to get there, so I sent regrets, did a little exploring of the area, and then went to bed.

(For a recap of what happened on Day 1 while I was wandering downtown Columbus in a daze/passed out, please see Mike “Comic Strip of the Day” Peterson’s take at this link.)

On Day 2 I was pleased to discover that the AAEC business meeting was being held close to my hotel, at the Columbus Metropolitan Library. I arrived at the meeting room on the second floor to find a gathering of cartoonists seated around a large U-shaped table, as if planning an international invasion, determining the fate of a captured prisoner, or discussing the fate of an organization dedicated to ensuring the future of political dissent in visual satire form. As it happens, only the latter turned out to be true.

Throughout the meeting, roughly 50% of my brain was devoted to thoughts along these lines: “Holy SHIT! Is that…..?” And yes, dear reader, it was. Here are some of the cartoonists I identified during that meeting:

  • Ann Telnaes – Pulitzer Prize winner and also one of the organizers of this conference. Co-curator of the “Front Lines” exhibit on freedom of speech and editorial cartooning in America at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. She authored the mission statement we’d been handed at the beginning of the meeting.
  • Matt Wuerker – Pulitzer Prize winner (am I going to get tired of typing those words? Probably) and editor of the Front Lines book based on the exhibit.
  • Patrick Chappatte – Former cartoonist for the The International New York Times. He was fired when that institution decided to cancel syndicated cartoons in the aftermath of the uproar over an antisemitic cartoon drawn by another cartoonist altogether.
  • Rob Rogers – Cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette until he was fired for criticizing Trump.
  • Jen Sorensen – Nationally syndicated cartoonist (I usually see her work on The Nib or Daily Kos).
  • Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher – Pulitzer Prize winner and cartoonist for The Economist and Baltimore Sun. Co-founder of Counterpoint.
  • Ed Hall – Nationally syndicated cartoonist who happened to be sitting right next to me.
  • Jack Ohman – Pulitzer Prize winner and cartoonist for the Sacramento Bee.
  • Ted Rall – Nationally syndicated cartoonist who is currently doing a series of cartoons about his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease.

I’ll try to be circumspect since I’m not entirely sure how much of what was discussed should be considered private business, but I think it’s fair and permissible to say that the AAEC is going through a bit of an identity crisis. Because really, editorial cartooning itself is going through an identity crisis. In 2019 cartooning in general is proliferating, and not just because of the nostalgia angle (most of us adults today being former children who grew up both delightedly reading comics on the “funny pages” of the newspaper at the kitchen table, and then moving to the couch to watch animated cartoons on TV). Traditionally, however, editorial cartoons are associated with the editorial section of the newspaper, and print media generally is suffering. All too frequently it appears that the first, easiest place to cut financial corners is to can the editorial cartoonist.

This, at least, appears to have been the thought process behind New York Times editorial page editor James Bennett deciding to cancel syndicated political cartoons from the international edition of the paper, after receiving considerable criticism for publishing a cartoon deemed antisemitic (which you can view here). Cartoonist Patrick Chappatte, who is a member of the AAEC and attended this meeting, was dismissed in this process despite his total lack of association with the cartoon in question. Chappatte gave numerous interviews and presentations about this incident, including a TED talk entitled “A Free World Needs Satire” which you can view here.

I won’t go through the litany of political cartoonists in America who have been fired, laid off, or had syndications cancelled over the last few years, but rest assured, it is lengthy and significant. And yet, as was repeatedly acknowledged at the AAEC meeting, cartoonists in other places have it much worse. Read the stories of Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart, Nicaraguan cartoonist Pedro X. Molina, and Malaysian cartoonist Zunar for examples.

I’m getting ahead of myself here, but near the end of this trip I had the chance to speak with Terry Anderson, acting executive director of Cartoonists Rights Network International— an organization affiliated with AAEC for the last twenty years (and many other cartoonist organizations around the globe) that works to defend political cartoonists against retaliation by the governments of the countries where they live, and whom they criticize.

I’d been following CRNI passively previously, but was truly walloped by the impact of their mission on Saturday evening when, at the AAEC reception, it was announced that founder of CRNI Dr. Robert “Bro” Russell would be retiring, and their annual award for courage in cartooning renamed to the Robert Russell Courage in Cartooning Award. You can read more about that at CRNI’s site here, and/or watch the video for yourself:

Dr. Robert Russell’s comments:

Very people in this room have not contributed in some way and to some degree and at some time to helping some cartoonists in a number of places in the world. It has been my great pleasure to do this job. I never have a problem looking in the mirror and saying ‘What good are you?’ and ‘What have you done lately?’ I have developed, as I’ve said a number of times before at these events, such an incredible admiration for the work that you do– the unique, unbelievable work that cartoonists do.

And as I was fishing around for what to say– one of my favorite expressions came from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. When the union was falling to pieces, there was no hope left at all. It was only a matter of days before something happened somewhere, and at Sumter it finally did. . . he appealed that the better angels of your nature. And while there are millions of Americans and billions of people all over the world who are these better angels, there are no better angels than those people in this room, and the fellows that we work with across the world, who approach life with a sense of righteous indignation, but how could I make that a little bit funny? [laughter: ‘You just did!’]

So I just want to thank you for being there. That I could work with so many of these better angels. And I will never forget you– I’m still around. . . [here he thanks several people, including his wife, and Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher, who was a past president at CNRI]. I just want to leave you with that– that you are magical people.

And even though you really need to leave this goddamn coalmine– it’s time for you to bail out of the coalmine, all of you canaries. Because your days are numbered. I wish you all of the best on developing and finding new models and new ways to survive. Who was it who said that the universe bends towards justice? Martin Luther King, but someone else may have said it as well. And I do hope that the universe bends a little bit towards justice, and you all will be rewarded as I have been. So thank you all.

The first recipient of the newly-named Robert Russell Courage in Cartooning Award was announced on October 2– Chinese cartoonist and dissident Badiucao. Here’s Terry Anderson’s comment:

Badiucao is an exemplary cartoonist of courage. He was specifically targeted by a censorious regime — in person, online and, most disturbingly of all, via pressure applied to family members — but has persevered and removed the leverage his adversaries thought they could exploit by actively dismantling the anonymity they assumed he cherished most.

Thankfully Badiucao is an Australian resident and so cannot be abused as readily as some other cartoonists seized by China in recent years, most notably Jiang Yefei and Zhang Dongning, both of whom have been arrested, criminalised and essentially disappeared. However he is not immune and believes he has been followed, hacked and even had his home invaded by agents of the state. As China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic it’s worth contemplating how far they have come in terms of economic development and international relations, weighed against the minimal progress made on fundamental and individual freedoms.

Reporters Sans Frontieres places China 177th of 180 nations on its Press Freedom Index. Committee to Protect Journalists places it 5th in its Top 10 Most Censored Countries. It is ironic that so many modern Chinese citizens enjoy the trappings of middle-class life — abundant consumer goods, lavish weddings, pampered pets and much foreign travel — while they are denied the simple act of expressing dissatisfaction with their government. China is mighty. It has nothing to lose and everything to gain by loosening its grip on discourse.

Badiucao has seen his cartoons removed from Instagram for supposedly violating community guidelines, and tweeted on the irony of this happening while death threats against him, also made on Instagram, had not been removed in spite of his reporting them.

So now it’s time to talk about freedom of expression and social media. You’ve got time for a little tangent on this, don’t you? Of course you do.

Social media companies– Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and so on– are privately owned. They are not, despite the complaints of conservatives in America who have found themselves banned from such platforms, public utilities. And yes, in America it’s generally the conservatives (Alex Jones, Milo Yiannoppulos, etc.) we hear trying to make this argument, not in the slightest dissuaded by the clarity of First Amendment case law.

I would strongly recommend Ken “Popehat” White’s episode of his Make No Law podcast “Deplatformed: Social Media Censorship and the First Amendment” for an informative, authoritative discussion of this subject.  I’ll give you a quick spoiler: moderation of content on social media by the companies who own those platforms is not a violation of anyone’s First Amendment rights.

HOWEVER (you knew a “however” was coming)…the subject is not that cut and dry, for several reasons.

Governments, such as the government of Pakistan recently, have been known to try pressuring private platforms to remove content that isn’t protected under the laws of their respective countries. Cartoonist Clay Jones experienced this when Pakistan demanded that WordPress remove one of his cartoons judged to be “blasphemous,” and leader of the South Asian Free Media Association Imtiaz Alam was threatened for tweeting a cartoon by Afghani artist Atiq Shahid mocking Saudi Arabia’s prince Muhammad bin Salman. Shahid also reported that he’d been suspended from Facebook (more information available on this at the above link).

While their right to moderate content is not in dispute (at least, not by me), social media sites tend to do so much in the way of your 4th grade teacher when a fight breaks out– they don’t care who started it or who is right and who is wrong; all they want to do is make things settle down. They operate by a heckler’s veto standard– whatever and whomever get the most complaints (or, in some cases, complaints from the most powerful and influential people) will be removed, regardless of the reasoning behind those complaints.

Sloppy algorithms also result in content intended to criticize hatred and bigotry getting removed along with actual hatred and bigotry, because the algorithm can’t distinguish between them. As you might expect, this is a particular problem for cartoonists because we rely on symbols as visual shorthand, and it’s often necessary to depict those symbols in order to say something about them. Obviously not all depictions of a thing are endorsement of that thing, but if your algorithm says “Person in a pointy white hood means racism, and racism is bad, so any depiction of a person in a pointy white hood is bad,” then say goodbye to any cartoons attacking racism by showing a guy in a pointy white hood.

And of course operating by a heckler’s veto standard enables the haters and bigots to be extremely effective hecklers, getting people and posts removed and videos on Youtube demonetized or taken off the site altogether. Sometimes an appeal by the content creator can get their work reinstated, but when your livelihood is literally dependent on links and shares, that’s not good enough.

Here is where, of course, I would expect a reader to say “Well, don’t make your livelihood on social media then.” To such a reader I would say– did you read the part above about how print media is dying, and cartoonists (being frequently the ones who get the most grief in response to their content, which is after all designed to provoke), are generally the first to be let go? If political cartoons are too controversial for print media, and also too controversial for social media, then where exactly is the cartoonist supposed to go?

Removal of content and cartoonists from social media may not be a violation of their right to freedom of expression, but it is censorship. It is silencing. It is suppression. Therefore it is important, and a threat that goes well beyond the individual artist’s funding. Open dissent is critical to the preservation of a democracy regardless of whether its platform is public or private.

To return, finally, to the AAEC meeting– see? I do have a link-up– after a hearty discussion on how to clearly establish the AAEC as an advocacy rather than just professional organization, whether to change its name and many possible suggestions about what to change it to, and how to attract new, younger, diverse membership to this gathering of “old white guys,” (hey, they said it, not me!) on Day 2, I found myself talking Jen Sorensen’s ear off about how frustrating it is to see the language of “triggering” and “safe spaces” used when talking about these subjects. Because like it or not, that’s the terminology used by someone who interprets criticism as censorship and whines in his next Netflix special, New York Times column, or best-selling book about how the humorless offended mobs have ruined his career.

The “humorless offended mobs” are not the problem. Sometimes they’re offended for a good reason– offense is not all created equal. And a “mob” in this context is simply a critical mass of people talking about the same thing. If we blame humorless offended mobs for cartoonists losing their jobs, then we are exculpating the people who are actually responsible (namely, the editors and other parties who did the firing), and tacitly suggesting that no one should speak up when they find a cartoon offensive, even legitimately, because then it would be their fault if the artist loses his or her job.

And this is a slightly more contentious subject, but I argued that even when offense is legitimate, anyone whose job is to issue statements on a daily basis, such as a political cartoonist, should be judged by their body of work rather than by what they produced on one specific day. I actually agree with disgraced former SNL actor Shane Gillis that we all occasionally have “comedic misfires,” and that the appropriate reaction to such is forgiveness and understanding. Where we differ is in his apparent belief that repeated racist and homophobic jokes over a lengthy period constitute “comedic misfires.”

I didn’t even argue that cartoonist Mike Lester of Counterpoint should be “fired” for this cartoon, published in edition 24 of the cartoon newsletter on August 22. I absolutely complained about it, though, noting that in 2015 Robert Lewis Dear killed three people and injured nine at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, specifically citing their alleged agenda of performing abortions in order to profit from selling fetal organs. Counterpoint was founded with the mission of providing subscribers with cartoons expressing “strong opinions from the Left and the Right,” and promising that “One thing we never do is play it safe.” However, for any political issue there are generally far more than two sides, and often the most dangerous thing a cartoon can express is the truth.

Provocative lies are easy. Dangerous truths are hard. The two should never be confused. And no, in case you’re wondering, I am not proposing myself as the ultimate arbiter of which is which– just asserting, forcefully, that it is the eternal right of the cartoon-consuming public to make that determination for ourselves. And even if in America political cartoonists enjoy the relative luxury of being able to express themselves without government censure, we experience the same chilling effect as print journalists when the president declares that “the media” is the enemy of the people and suggests that the “liable [sic] laws” should be re-examined for the purpose of more effectively punishing purveyors of “fake news.”

Photo credit: Mike Peterson

After the business meeting some of the cartoonists filed outside to participate in the “Chalk Slam” event sponsored by AAEC in conjunction with the Columbus Metropolitan Club, with a theme of “freedom of expression” for AAEC members. I found a spot on the sidewalk next to Ann Telnaes, currently absorbed in creating one of her trademark depictions of Trump. Jack Ohman was seated next to her providing entertainment and critical commentary.

In the afternoon we were treated to a screening of the documentary Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End, which really drove home for me how in spite of the “Intellectual Dark Web” and its fans and hangers-on making money hand over fist by claiming to distribute dangerous truths when they’re really just repeating stale conservative talking points, the actual dangerous truths are still…well, dangerous to tell.  In it, Dwayne Booth (Mr. Fish) expressed frustration at how “sports team” partisanship in politics drives backlash against his work that criticizes corruption, warmongering, and bigotry regardless of the affiliation of the guilty party. His cartoons are frequently graphic because the violence of an authoritarian state is graphic, and he mocks the hypocrisy of the agents of that violence clutching their pearls over artistic depictions of tragic circumstances of their own making.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the result of doing this work has not been a life of unqualified appreciation and financial success for Booth. You cannot derive from this that the only tellers of truly dangerous truths are the ones visibly struggling, but at the very least it should drive some abiding and healthy skepticism of the persecution narratives told by those rolling in dough. The backlash against Booth’s work doesn’t make him right– it does, however, show that saying the right thing or the wrong thing can earn you a backlash, so the determination of right or wrong cannot depend on the reaction, on the number of people outraged or delighted, or the degree of their fervor in either direction. You have to think beyond that.

The other thing that Cartooning from the Deep End reiterated for me is that “cheap offense” is the other side of “cheap laugh” coin. It’s really not difficult to offend people, just as it’s really not difficult to make people laugh. That’s why satirists of all kinds who lazily rely on hackneyed bigoted tropes will always outnumber those who strive to say something revealing and thought-provoking. As author John Scalzi famously noted, the failure mode of “clever” is “asshole.”

After the movie screening we filed over to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, which was hosting an exhibit titled “Front Line: Editorial Cartoonists and the First Amendment” curated by Ann Telnaes and Lucy Shelton Caswell (Professor Emerita and Founding Curator at the Billy Ireland museum). Lucy conducted a tour for the AAEC cartoonists, describing the history of the rocky relationship between editorial cartoonists and the governing bodies that were their job to pillory.


Let me repeat that– it’s the job of editorial cartoonists to mock, satirize, ruthlessly parody, and otherwise ridicule powerful people. Barry Deutsch, political cartoonist and sometimes mentor to me, says on his Patreon page:

I’m pissed off. I’m pissed off about so many things– about homophobia, about sexism, about racism, about transphobia…the list goes on and on. And when I get pissed off, I draw political cartoons.

Dwayne “Mr. Fish” Booth told the audience at his film screening:

I start with outrage and then I render what that outrage looks like.

My own Patreon page says:

And then the election happened, and I found myself furious. I went through the stages of grief, hit “anger,” and held onto that one while proceeding through the rest. I wanted to find a productive way to express that anger, and to play out the conversations that were going on in my head in case they resonated with anybody else.

So of necessity, the history of political cartooning in America– really, anywhere– is a history of artists speaking truth to power in cartoon form because injustice pisses a political cartoonist off, and the cartoon is their counter-argument. Their counterpoint, if you will. In retrospect, I realize that this is why Dr. Robert Russell called us canaries in a coalmine. This is why he called us magical people, filled with righteous indignation.

Phew. That’s some heady stuff, isn’t it? With great magic comes great responsibility, after all.

Responsibility carried faithfully by The Nib over the years, for which editor Matt Bors was recognized at a reception in the museum following our tour. The CXC gave him the Transformative Work Award, and Nib contributor Chelsea Saunders received the AAEC’s Locher Award for outstanding young cartoonists. I briefly met Bors and Matt Lubchansky at the reception and asked what was obviously the most important question of the evening– whether Bors had been forced to give up the Ignatz Award brick given to The Nib in mid-September for outstanding achievements in cartooning by small press creators. Bors had tweeted that he was challenged about it at the airport (which does kind of make sense– it’s a brick, after all) and not allowed to bring it with him onto the plane. Fortunately, as he told me at the reception, he was allowed to stow it in his checked bag, so the prestigious award was not, in fact, forcibly abandoned.

On Day 3 I rushed back to the Metropolitan Museum in the morning to complete my Chalk Slam drawing on the sidewalk, only to discover that the rain overnight had caused everything to fade considerably. It was poor planning on my part all around– I’d intended to contribute to the free speech-themed AAEC collection by drawing my friend, comedian Keith Lowell Jensen, accompanied by text from one of his performances:

In junior high I took band. The teacher was upset when I wouldn’t say the pledge of allegiance. He made a heartfelt speech about his visit to East Germany (which used to be a thing) and how sad and oppressive it was on that side of the wall, how they lacked the freedoms that I took for granted. I asked him “On what side of that wall do you think they’re more likely to force children to pledge their allegiance?” And that is the story of why I don’t know how to play the clarinet.

If you’ve done any sort of chalk drawing recently, you will immediate grasp the flaw in my plan– however hilariously apt for the occasion, that message is way too long. I managed to draw Keith and write the first part of the quote on the first day, but on the second day erased the text and replaced it with a much simpler (but hopefully still worthy) message. My apologies, Keith!

Inside the library, the AAEC meeting that morning began with nominations for office within the organization, which was followed by presentations by Middle Eastern cartoonists invited to the meeting. Unfortunately I had to duck out of the room early, as these presentations were just beginning, because I was scheduled to be among the first group to man the AAEC tables at the CXC vendor floor, but again I will link you to the CSOTD blog where you can read about these visiting cartoonists and see some of their work.

I’d never been to a comic con of any kind before, so the vendor floor of CXC took me by surprise– it seemed huge. I didn’t have anything to sell, but at the last minute managed to get some prints of four of my cartoons and brought them along with me to give away. Seated on my left was Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press, expertly inking a cartoon at the table, and on my right was Nancy Ohanion, selling prints of her beautiful “cut paper” style caricatures. Since I’d been silent during the business meeting on Day 2 and absent for much of it on Day 3, I took this opportunity to seek out Kevin Siers and give some suggestions on how the AAEC should find new, younger members. Those fell under three general categories:

Photo credit: JP Trostle

Feedback and discussion: Starting out as a cartoonist is rough. All you have to go on are what you’ve seen from existing cartoonists, and it isn’t always obvious why they made the choices they made, and whether/when you should emulate them or try to strike a new path. So I suggested some kind of internal feedback mechanism on the new (sometime in the next couple of weeks) AAEC website, enabling cartoonists to comment on each other’s work and also see the existing comments for that work, allowing for a discussion. Kevin broached the idea of a private Facebook group for AAEC members instead or in addition to the commenting mechanism, which I enthusiastically supported. Community in some form or another is absolutely essential.

Publication: Given the state of print media, but also given the subject matter that young political cartoonists want to comment on, there is no real expectation of someday becoming a newspaper editorial cartoonist. To interest new members, the AAEC should suggest career paths outside of traditional print media. This is an excellent opportunity to name and praise alternative print and online media sources who do solicit and publish political cartoons.

Experimentation: Perhaps the AAEC could even create its own publication, similar to how comedians have certain clubs where they try out their new bits, and feel comfortable pushing the boundaries a little. For cartoonists, this would be a site where they’d have the freedom to be edgy, try out cartoons that mainstream publishers might not want to risk taking responsibility for themselves, but could view a cartoonist’s existing portfolio, both the stuff in the edgy category and otherwise, to have something to go on when considering whether to work with that cartoonist on future projects.  I mentioned that as a blogger it can be difficult to pull people to your site on a regular basis, but group blogs with multiple bloggers tend to be much more successful in that regard, and an informal “alternative” group cartoonists blog might be something with considerable appeal.

I spent so long at the AAEC tables that I missed Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher’s presentation, which was disappointing because over the last couple of years I’ve fallen in love with his use of dimension and detail to create wild farcical scenes that make complete sense according to their own logic. Looking at a Kallaugher cartoon is like falling down the rabbit hole into an Alice in Wonderland scene where people have huge heads and expressive faces that look like they’re carved out of wood, and you might find yourself witnessing a court proceeding, assembly line, or pirate ship battle that analogizes real life but is equally a product of Kal’s ever-fertile imagination. Fortunately I did manage to speak with Kal later on at the AAEC reception (the one described completely non-chronologically at the beginning of this post).

There was, however, time to both peruse the CXC vendor tables and attend other presentations, so I made a beeline to Nate Powell’s panel discussion after hearing Kevin Siers recommend his three book series March, documenting the civil rights advocacy of Rep. John Lewis. Powell illustrated the graphic novels, and the writing was done by Lewis himself as well as Andrew Aydin.

Wandering around the vendor floor, I also came across a table with a familiar book– Monkey Chef, written and illustrated by Mike Freiheit. I remembered Freiheit from a comic on Steven Pinker that he illustrated for Current Affairs last year. At that time I remember adding Monkey Chef to my list, but wasn’t flush with cash so didn’t buy it. This time I wasn’t any better off, but buying the book in person gave me the chance to talk with Freiheit a bit as he doodled a charming drawing of a monkey in the front pages of the book for me. The Pinker comic was authored by Lyta Gold, and Mike commented that he actually wasn’t very familiar with Pinker, so I tried to offer a brief summary of how Pinker had been an intellectual hero of mine some years ago, but unfortunately he suffered from that tendency of American public intellectuals to hold forth on issues well beyond his actual area of expertise, which as it happens was the subject of the comic that Mike had illustrated (If I’d read Anand Giridharadas’s book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, I might’ve been able to offer an even better take, but again– on the list).

I feel the need to emphasize, though, that Mike and Lyta’s cartoon about Steven Pinker was also a political cartoon. Just as Nate Powell’s illustrations of John Lewis throughout the three-book March series were, in a sense, political cartoons. In my previous blog post about the state of modern political cartooning, I quoted Signe Wilkinson’s lovely definition of editorial cartoons as “making funny pictures about the jerks in power.” The “jerks in power” are never just the people occupying the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court.  They’re also Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos, and Jeffrey Epstein, and Harvey Weinstein, and the Koch brothers, and all of the people who receive funding from those oligarchs for various reasons….such as Steven Pinker. I think that if editorial cartooning is to survive, it’s critical to acknowledge that.
Here ends Part I of my recap– click here for Part II!

iZombie and intuitions about spirit possession

So I’ve been binge-watching the show iZombie on Netflix recently. It’s a supernatural legal drama type show in which zombies exist, and the protagonist has been turned into one against her will. She’s not your typical mindless shambler, however, and actually is pretty much a normal human, apart from the incessant need to consume human brains, a penchant for spicy food, and her pallid appearance.

As a human, Liv was a doctor, which is beneficial to her in finding a way to continue existing as a zombie without murdering anyone, because she’s able to find a new “life” working in the morgue. There she can feast on the brains of the already-dead, and in doing so discovers that she experiences “flashbacks” of memories from the deceased, and also takes on some of their personality attributes.

Yesterday I got to an episode in which Liv does something that grievously upsets her romantic partner (also a zombie), and she “blames the brain”– she attributes her actions to the character remnants of the brain’s previous owner.  Suddenly I was reminded of my dissertation, which examined how the concept of the soul works in moral psychology. I loosely defined the “soul” as an immaterial essence of a person which is the locus of moral responsibility, and spent some time discussing how intuitions about spirit possession work– “spirit possession” being (again, loosely) defined as any time someone’s soul is wholly or partially transferred to a different body.

So to my eyes, the effects of eating a human brain on iZombie appeared to be similar to the imagined effects of being possessed by a spirit. I decided to pull up my dissertation and revisit the discussion on spirit possession. The remainder of this post will be that excerpt.

Once we have acquired the ability to recognize others as having an identity which is separate and distinct from our own, we can begin to practice true cognitive empathy, imaginatively projecting characteristics of that person’s mind based on both our simulation of what we imagine they think and feel as well as our accumulated knowledge—our “theory”—of how other minds work. That being the case, I think it is important to consider for a moment how this projection works when it comes to separating a person from their body.

Possession—the occupation by one person of another person’s body—is a familiar concept to most people. The film Freaky Friday told the story of a mother and daughter swapping bodies and trying desperately to play it off so that no one would realize. In the television show Quantum Leap, main character Sam Beckett leaps through time to land in the bodies of random people, faced with the task of solving some problem in their lives. In Being John Malkovich, a nerdy puppeteer discovers a portal that leads directly into the mind of the famed actor, allowing him to take over Malkovich’s body and change his career. The term for this storytelling device when used in television and film is “body swap” and it is an easy concept for the viewer to grasp.

We can accept what has happened and move on with the plot without stopping to think “Wait a minute, so which traits of the original character will now be displayed in this other body?” We can easily understand what is happening when, in the 2003 version of Freaky Friday, the mother’s character (who now occupies the body of her teenage daughter) suddenly realizes that she can eat French fries with impunity despite having denied herself the pleasure before, since her daughter’s teenage body can metabolize them much faster and won’t put on weight like her mother’s body would.

Anthropologist Emma Cohen (now Emma Hathaway) has been investigating folk concepts of spirit possession from a cognitive standpoint, in order to find out where inferences about theory of mind come in when we think about people switching bodies. In order to do so, she traveled to the city of Belém in northern Brazil to study a community of Afro- Brazilian (culto afro) cultists whose rituals involve trance and possession. In these rituals, the mediums would become possessed by one of the orixás, or personal spirits, for a temporary period. Mediums are capable of channeling different orixás for different purposes.

Cohen was particularly interested in finding out if, during this period, the observers and the mediums themselves perceived the medium’s agency to be displaced by the possessing spirit, or if rather there is some fusion of the two which takes place. Cohen spoke to the pai de santo (the leader of the worship community where she was staying), who told her that when the spirit possesses a medium, it merges with the essence of that medium. This would explain why the same spirit could possess different people with differing results each time, as well as that if Cohen spoke to the spirit Ogum while he possessed person A, and then again the next day when he possessed person B, Ogum might not remember some of the things she had discussed with him.

When Cohen spoke with other mediums, however, who had been exposed to much less of the culto afro teachings than the pai-de- santo, the depiction of possession was notably different.  Cohen reports that “a senior member clearly described possession as the joining of the body of the medium with the spirit of the entity. These two parts, he claimed, make up the new (possessed) person. Another senior ranking member described possession as the moment in which one’s own spirit withdraws ‘and another spirit comes and throws him/herself into your body.’ Drawing a clear demarcation between medium and spirit, another member describes her possession episodes as follows: ‘I don’t know where my spirit goes. I don’t know. I only know that I switch off. I don’t remain in me.’ Another person stated, ‘Possession for me is a state of unconsciousness… in which we are  not answerable for our actions, our bodily movements …we don’t have control of our bodies anymore. It’s the total loss of control of the body and the mind. Something else controls – it is the spiritual being.’”

If you were unaware that a person was currently possessed, Cohen notes, and addressed them by the person’s name rather than the name of the entity possessing them, the person would say “I am not [person’s name]; I am [entity’s name].” Mediums spoke of  their spirits lying down or dreaming while possessed, allowing the possessing spirit to take control and dominate them. This would seem to indicate that when speaking non-reflectively, the mediums viewed possession strictly as a matter their spirit being displaced, even if the more “theologically correct” version of the event said differently. After describing this, Cohen notes an intriguing aspect of possession as displacement from anthropologist Erika Bourguignon: “When the spirits take over, women can do unconsciously what they do not permit themselves to do consciously. The demands that are made, the orders that are given, are those of the spirits’ doings and sayings. They are neither responsible for nor aware of what is going on and do not remember it after the fact. They have ultimate deniability.”

Cohen and Barrett then decided to examine beliefs about minds and bodies in a community which does not (presumably) practice rituals involving possession—undergraduate university students in Northern Ireland. They wanted to find out if there was a strong inclination either way concerning which aspects of a person are subverted when possessed and which are not. The participants read ten different scenarios about two characters, Ann and Beth, in which hypothetical mind-switching takes place. One example: “Ann is very good at maths. She regularly gets excellent marks on 7-point quizzes – usually around 6 out of 7 of her answers are correct. Beth is very poor at maths. She regularly gets poor marks on 7-point quizzes – usually around 2 out of 7 of her answers are correct. Once when the girls were in maths class, somehow Beth’s mind went into Ann’s body. How well do you think that the girl will do in the maths test?” Each scenario included typical Ann behaviors and typical Beth behaviors, as in this example.  Subjects could then give their answer to each question on a seven point scale.

What Cohen and Barrett found from this experiment appears consistent with what initiate mediums in the afro culto told Cohen about being possessed. They treated possession as a kind of displacement when talking about behaviors with a strong mental component (such as doing well on a math test). When asked about behaviors with a strong physical  or biological component, such as seeing with precision, respondents were much less likely to treat that behavior as being subverted in the possessee by the possessor. “These results suggest a tentative conclusion,” reported Cohen and Barrett. “ Northern Irish young adults tend to spontaneously infer that when one person’s mind is transferred into another person’s body, the normal ‘host’ mind is displaced. Displacement was spontaneously inferred significantly more frequently than fusion, even though both options were equally available as valid responses. This suggests that participants’ responses were guided by a tacit one mind-one body principle.”

The reason for this, Cohen and Barrett went on to suggest, may be that dualism truly is intuitive and therefore children come to understand a principle that only one mind is responsible for the behaviors exhibited by one body. This might explain why displacement theories are advocated even by people who have been given authoritative teachings to the contrary.

Sources for this section:

Cohen, Emma

2007 The Mind Possessed. Oxford University Press

Cohen, Emma & Justin Barrett

2008 “When minds migrate: conceptualizing spirit possession.”

Journal of Cognition and Culture, Volume 8, No. 1-2, 23-48


Dragon Tears










A book written and illustrated by Gretchen S. Koch in the seventh grade.


It was the year 2095, and the people of Zodak were announcing the annual hunt for dragons, and the counsel had selected the men to do so. All men over seventeen were eligible to be chosen.

Larkotyell had turned seventeen in March and was eagerly looking forward to the dragon hunt. The counsel was trusted to make wise decisions as to who would go on the quest.

The dragons fled to Zodak when their planet was destroyed thirteen years before. They brought their riches with them. As the dragons had no particular season for bearing young, their race was still not noticeably increasing on Zodak. They had the hunt to thank for this.

The yearly hunt was organized to collect the treasure of the dragons, and many of their skins as well.

Larkotyell’s father had been killed on one such hunt by a crazed dragon, as the son was told, and Larkotyell was determine to go on the hunt to avenge his father’s death. He knew little of his father, not anything of his values, as Larkotyell was quite small when his father had died, but he believed this was what his father wanted. Every day he waited impatiently for the invitation to come; every day it did not.

His coin bag jangled against his leg; his leathery boots made no sound on the soft turf of the dusty road. Mikyeren had eight more people to tell of the hunt, and his breath was running out.

The tall, silvery dome house of Larkotyell was his destination, and it shimmered in the distance.

The messenger cursed. “Drat! I should have brought my shorgum.” Mikyeren’s shorgun was at home sulking from a long ride and refused to wear his saddle. “Oh well,” Mikyeren thought. “I’ll need him for the hunt, so he might as well rest up.”

Presently the dome house of Larkotyell was reached. It was the house of the late Mansotyell, the deceased father. Mikyeren was admitted into the house and waited in the entry hall until a form appeared out of the wall near him.

“Greetings, friend. What message do you bring?” Larkotyell’s voice remained level in spite of the excitement behind it.

“Larkotyell, I bring tidings of the great hunt. Several warriors are listed on this invitation.” He pulled a list out of his pocket and offered it to Larkotyell. “And you are included.”

With this, the messenger sped out the door, eager to deliver the rest of his summonses.



At the saddle shop, old Mekkle turned to his carrying boy. “There’s gonna be a hunt– have ‘ya heard who’s goin’?”

“Some, sir. Larkotyell is.”

The old man’s eyes widened. “Even with his father’s actions? It’s been years since someone’s tried to save those dragons– boy, he paid for it. And with a son so sensitive, too.”

“The counsel believes he can handle it, sir. They want to turn him to their way of thinking before his father’s side takes over.”

Swords lay in rows gleaming on the table at the armory, and one caught the master’s eye. It was there to be polished– he couldn’t make one that splendid himself. The tip was slightly curved; the blade had some kind of inscription on it– “To Larkotyell, my son. Always listen to what’s in your heart.”

All sorts of precious stones adorned the handle, but one stood out the most. It was a perfectly round stone– odd enough in itself, since they were so hard to carve– but even more strange was the appearance. The stone looked almost like an eye.

“The bearer of this sword is one I wouldn’t want to reckon with,” the master thought. “And rich, too. I bet that one on the end is worth many gold pieces.” He fondled it– drat, it wouldn’t come out. The master left for home, vaguely wondering what kind of jewel it was that glowed on its own.

Down at the stables, Talorman’s fur ruffled. His master was uneasy about something, that was for sure. But what? He had a feeling Larkotyell didn’t know, himself. What was there to be worried about? There was a hunt coming up– no big deal. Dragon hunts were always easy before– why wouldn’t they be, now? Talorman figured it must be something more than that. He and other shorgums had always been able to read their masters’ thoughts before. What was happening in Larkotyell’s feelings?



His mother weeping by the door, Larkotyell donned his best armor and readied Talorman’s saddle.

“But why do you have to go?”

“Mother, this is a duty of honor. Do you not want me to prove my skill?”

“Well, no, but– ”

“Then don’t worry. I won’t be hurt.”

“But you– ”

She couldn’t finish. The door had closed before the words came out. Sari-tyell sat down and let the tears roll down her face.

“He’ll be killed, he’ll be killed, he’ll be killed…”

Riding to camp had been difficult. Rocks were everywhere, but though the shorgums’ hoof-hard feet could feel them, they could not be hurt by them. Talorman needed a good rubbing down. His muscles under the thick white coat were getting stiff.

Shorgums had no mane as our horses do, and their faces were quite different. More cat-like, although the body was too upright to be a horse and too low to be that of a kangaroo. Shorgums were shorgums, and that was that. Shorgums were used for the hunt primarily for their endurance and good ability of sniffing out dragons.

Dragon blood was what the hunters were after, that and dragon gold. Dragons collect gold only for its beauty and nothing else, though men have much different purposes for it. The hunters were eager to come back rich men with the booty of the dragon treasure. Not much was known of the dragons, only that they stored piles upon piles of treasure in their lairs and sometimes lived for thousands and thousands of years. When the rarity of a dragon cave was discovered on a hunt, nothing was spared in the taking.

The rocky terrain seemed to go on forever as the dragon hunters rode along in silence.

“Heads up, men! My shor got a whiff of one!” the leader suddenly called from the head.

Sure enough, a red dot appeared to the east. The hunters readied their swords, preparing to wound the witless animal severely but not kill it, so that they could make it lead them back to its lair. Larkotyell yanked at his father’s sword, only to discover that it wouldn’t come out of its sheath. He pulled again, and still the blade would not give. He quit trying and looked up.

A magnificent sight greeted Larkotyell’s eyes. The dragon was a male; this was revealed by his fiery red scales. Female dragons had scales of emerald green, bright contrast to their mates. Larkotyell knew this from the schoolbooks he had studied, learning year by year how to rid his planet of these loathsome creatures. But as he gazed up now upon the flying apparition, it did not seem so loathsome.

“Thou hast murdered by mate!” it screamed down in a hawk-like voice. “I have waited for your next hunt, for your race hast slain my mate for thy greed! Where dost thou get thy evil?” The dragon’s voice cried out to them now, beautiful tears falling quietly from his violet eyes.

Larkotyell was amazed. In all of his studying of the dragons on his planet, the real truth had never been revealed. The sword stone glowed brightly. His father’s feelings had been carefully guarded since his death. The son had never heard the real story as to how his father had died. Larkotyell had heard numerous stories in childhood about dragons stealing babes and snatching children off the streets. “Stories to feed man’s greed,” he thought. “There is love on this planet, and its beauty is hidden by lies.”

Thinking this, Larkotyell realized his group was at the ready to slaughter this creature, swords drawn and shields bared. Shouts of hunting and war cries filled the air…


It took a moment to realize he had said this. Larkotyell spoke to his friends.

“Do you not see what this creature is saying? We are fighting for greed, on the side of evil. How can you witness what love and life are all about and then destroy it? Friends, gold is worthless compared to the life of one who loves.”

Larkotyell’s sword stone shone with a full power and brightness it never had before– for you see, some of his father’s soul was still contained within, and he was proud of his son.


Larkotyell never returned home after that hunt. His hunt mates abandoned him for a lunatic. But Larkotyell had done what his father had, and escaped when his father had been murdered by his comrades. Larkotyell kept his sword to the day of his death, which was at the side of the dragons.


On the death, dearth, and demographics of political cartoons

As you may have noticed, I’ve been off the blog for quite some time, as I’ve thrown myself pretty completely into political cartooning (the results of which are posted on the main page of this site). But today I wanted to do some more writing– about political cartoons. Mine and other people’s, but mostly other people’s.

Way back in high school, when I was taking journalism, I was given the assignment of performing and writing up an interview. I opted to interview Richard Crowson, editorial cartoonist for our local paper the Wichita Eagle. I don’t remember a great deal of what we talked about, but I remember lying on the floor of my bedroom (it was a phone interview, and I was a teenager), trying to quell my nerves, ask coherent questions, and record the answers at the same time. I remember that Richard was friendly and easy to talk to. I remember that he encouraged me to pursue the field myself if I was interested in it. And I remember that his name is pronounced like “ow,” as in, what you say if you get hurt, and not “oh” as in Son of Crow.

Crowson is still the editorial cartoonist for the Eagle, and it didn’t occur to me at the time of the interview to ask how common it was for an editorial cartoonist to be employed by one specific paper. I know that today, at least, it is extremely rare– today in the U.S. there are apparently fewer than 25 full-time cartoonists employed by papers, and most of them are getting up in years. They probably won’t be replaced with full-time cartoonists when they retire. A number of pieces have been written recently noting the grim prognosis for political cartooning– one such item by cartoonist Ted Rall went so far as to say “In the United States, political cartooning as we know it is dead. If you draw them for a living and you have any brains, you’re working in a different field or looking for an exit.”

Rall went on to provide a list of reasons for the demise of political cartooning in the above link, appropriately titled Political Cartooning Was Murdered. Here’s the Autopsy. It’s a good read. Though I don’t necessarily agree with all of his conclusions, I find it difficult to disagree with his thesis.

Recently Canadian cartoonist Michael de Adder lost his contract with New Brunswick papers (New Brunswick also being where he lives) in a dispute that conspicuously coincided with the publishing of a cartoon featuring his characteristically detailed caricature style applied to Donald Trump, pictured on a golf course, coming across the immigrants Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, drowned face-down in a river as they were in the photo most of us have been horrified by at this point.  In the cartoon Trump is depicted looking down at the deceased father and daughter and asking “Do you mind if I play through?”

Prior to that, the New York Times notably decided to cancel editorial cartoons altogether in response to outcry against its publishing of a clearly antisemitic cartoon in the newspaper’s international edition, a move that cartoonists have protested as a harmful overreaction, particularly Patrick Chappatte, a Lebanese-Swiss cartoonist who lost his job with the NYT due to factors entirely beyond his control. He wasn’t the one who drew the antisemitic cartoon, after all.

But those are far from the only recent job losses for editorial cartoonists. You can see a breakdown of them at Ted Rall’s piece above, which notes

Individual cartoonists are under fire around the world. Only in the United States, ‘land of the free,’ has the art form as a whole been targeted for systematic destruction by ruling elites and cultural gatekeepers. After decades of relentless, sweeping and never-reversed cutbacks there are now far more political cartoonists in Iran than in the United States. After terrorists murdered 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, a single publication in France, hundreds of U.S. newspapers ran editorials celebrating the power of cartoons; 99% of these hypocritical blowhards didn’t employ a single cartoonist.

Not too long after Rall published that piece, I received an email from Matt Bors, editor of The Nib which recently completed the fifth edition of their print publication, stating that First Look Media had dropped funding for The Nib as of the end of this month (July). Bors is continuing the site based on donor funding, however, which means that you can and absolutely should sign up for a membership to keep The Nib going.

Not long after that, rumors began to spread that satire magazine MAD, which has been around since the mid-1960’s and was beloved by so many of us, is coming to an end. I had recently been scanning eBay for books of Al Jaffee’s famous “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” series, because I’d decided to come up with my own take on it.

In truth, though, I hadn’t been an avid consumer of Mad since I was kid. My experience was reflected in a Facebook post by cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, who noted

Mad Magazine closing was sad for geezers like me who grew up with it. I loved it so much I haven’t purchased a copy in the past several decades. Oddly, they apparently couldn’t live on nostalgia alone. Cartooning in which the cartoonists actually get paid is going through a dire rough patch. However, the impulse to make funny pictures about jerks in power will always be with us. I look forward to finding ways to pay the next generation of satirists. Perhaps the emperors of the Internet who circulate our work for free might have some suggestions.

Wilkinson’s official reflection in the Philadelphia Inquirer depicts two older-looking men sitting in a coffee shop with sad expressions on their faces, one of them remarking “What’s going to happen to visual satire NOW?!” with tears exploding from his face, while at a table immediately next to them, a female Alfred E. Neuman with a ponytail sits gleefully working on a cartoon on her tablet, stylus gripped in one hand and caffeinated beverage nearby. The implication being, clearly, that making “funny pictures about jerks in power” will continue, albeit perhaps in different forms and created by different authors/artists.

Now would, I suppose, be a good time to note that while I made a dedicated effort to start following editorial cartoonists when I took up that pursuit myself in earnest in 2016, I’ve noticed that the field is overwhelmingly populated, in America at least, by straight white men. (I may have gone on a couple of Twitter tears about the ramifications of that demographic representation.)

Indeed, some have gone as far as claiming that political cartoons should go away entirely, and be replaced by memes, whose production is (or at least, might be) more democratic. I don’t consider that likely, because memes and political cartoons are fundamentally different in their purposes, production, and audience. A meme is produced quickly, using photos or stills from video footage accompanied by text, usually for a niche audience. Political cartoons are hand-drawn by artists, intended for a broad audience. I can’t imagine memes replacing political cartoons in the places, in front of the audiences, where political cartoons have traditionally been consumed. But then, those places themselves are endangered.

One interesting solution to this exists in Counterpoint, a political cartoon newsletter launched in April by cartoonists Nick Anderson, Kal Kallaugher, and Rob Rogers. According to their press release, posted on the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists site,

We are pleased to announce the publication of Counterpoint, a revolutionary new approach to the publication and distribution of editorial cartoons.

Our motto: Seeking Truth Through Diverse Perspectives

Editorial cartoons have played an important role in American history, and have been an integral part of newspaper opinion pages. But, as evidenced by several recent firings, newspapers are killing editorial cartoons. If the fate of editorial cartoons is tied to newspapers, they are doomed.

For the past few months, Counterpoint, an email newsletter, has been quietly testing this new approach to distributing editorial cartoons. We are more than just a roundup of recycled editorial cartoons from syndication; Counterpoint pays for original content. When we publish our newsletter, these are a collection of cartoons that haven’t been seen anywhere else.

We’re the world’s first cartoon-led news media company, pioneered by the most talented and thought-provoking political cartoonists. We bring you strong opinions from the Left and the Right. One thing we never do is play it safe.

At Counterpoint, we feel it is neither possible nor desirable to be completely objective in discussing the news. To be human, is to have a point of view. Some news sources are more biased than others, but the problem is no one admits it. By showing multiple viewpoints on the news, with a deliberate attempt toward ideological balance, we hope to create more meaningful discourse. Our goal with this newsletter is to seek truth through diverse perspectives.

In practice, what this means is that the weekly email newsletter you receive (edition 15 arrived in my inbox this morning) contains a brief introduction with news, followed by a collection of cartoons from various artists (this edition had ten). These cartoons are apparently drawn specifically for Counterpoint, although the artists who drew them may be employed by newspapers as well.

Their diverse perspectives include those of Michael Ramirez, who drew this, Rick McKee, who drew this, and Mike Lester, who drew this. These are examples that appear to exemplify their general body of work, not exceptions from it. Which leads me to ask– how diverse do perspectives need to be, in order to create meaningful discourse, and when do they actually become impediments to such discourse?

Cartoonist Darrin Bell, who according to his Wikipedia profile is the first African-American to have two comic strips nationally, and incidentally also won the Pulitzer Prize this year, is one of those artists, and a lively discussion broke out on his Facebook page when he made a post encouraging people to sign up for Counterpoint that featured one of McKee’s recent cartoons. The cartoon portrays a vampire being scorched by the sun above him, screaming “AHHH..!! IT BURNS!” The sun is shaped like a capital letter Q, and inside it are the words “Are you a U.S. citizen?” On the vampire’s t-shirt is printed “The Left.”

Commenters on the post were unimpressed, and Bell had to edit the post to clarify in all-caps that he did not draw this cartoon. In response to one commenter who vowed to stop allowing co-founder Nick Anderson to promote Counterpoint on his page, Bell replied ” …or, you could watch the cartoonists you agree with rebut the cartoonists you DISagree with. Counterpoint is for those who enjoy seeing *competing* points of view. Anyone who’s not interested in that, shouldn’t sign up.”

The cartoonists on Counterpoint don’t really rebut each other, though– they just publish alongside each other. Which is probably just as well, considering that a political cartoon isn’t really an argument. It’s an expression of a viewpoint, certainly, but the purpose of a political cartoon is not really to persuade, or even to inform. It’s to provoke, whether a thoughtful response or an emotional response, or both.

Offense is certainly an emotional response, but I will maintain until the day I die that all offense is not created equal. Patrick Chappatte blamed his firing from the New York Times on “a world where moralistic mobs gather on social media and rise like a storm, falling upon newsrooms in an overwhelming blow. This requires immediate counter-measures by publishers, leaving no room for ponderation or meaningful discussions.” But in that same blog post, he acknowledged that the antisemitic cartoon never should’ve been published in the NYT in the first place. The problem is not that “moralistic mobs” were offended by the cartoon and left the NYT no choice but to stop carrying political cartoons altogether– it’s that the NYT made the unwise choice of publishing the cartoon, and then reacted to legitimate offense by punishing the wrong people for its decision.

I would never argue the point that Twitter can be a place where “moralistic mobs” gather in a way that resembles a natural disaster in both impact and lack of predictability, but that is precisely why the simple fact that people got rowdy on Twitter about something in no way necessitates that someone should lose their job as a result. And in Chappatte’s case, it certainly did not necessitate that if someone should lose their job, that person should’ve been him.

But if moralistic mobs are going to be offended by something, bigotry is a pretty good thing to be offended by, isn’t it? We’ve seen what happens when people aren’t offended by bigotry, and it isn’t pretty. And bigotry is basically hateful, dehumanizing generalizations made by powerful groups against disempowered groups, and political cartooning is making funny pictures about jerks in power. So if your cartoons are taking the side of the jerks in power, it seems like you’re doing it wrong.

That’s when your cartoons slip from satire into propaganda, according to a recent post by cartoonist Clay Jones. You should read the whole thing, and I’d buy a signed print of the cartoon there if I could afford it. Jones is talking about notorious right-wing political cartoonist Ben Garrison, he of the many labels, when the latter was invited to the White House social media summit:

Trump and other conservatives claim their voices are suppressed on social media. Basically, they scream suppression whenever one of their racist posts, personal attacks, or lies are removed. This is a very popular conspiracy theory among those who believe they’re the most oppressed segment in today’s society. You know, white, Christian, male conservatives. The summit will be an airing of grievances for conservatives without the Festivus pole. The only pole they’ll be dancing around will be Trump’s. . .

One guy who was invited, then uninvited is conservative-conspiracy-loving Ben Garrison, famous for using anti-Semitic images in his cartoons and for loving him some Trump. If Donald Trump could draw himself, it’d look like a Garrison drawing. Strong face, large hands, muscles, regular tie, and hair only slightly ridiculous. How much of a right-wing lunatic is Garrison to be uninvited to this troglodyte shitshow? . . .

I don’t have a problem that he’s a conservative cartoonist or that he even loves Trump something fierce. While I’m not a fan of his style, which consists of labels, labels, labels, and more labels, I respect that’s his thing and he’s not witty enough to write an idea that doesn’t need label overload. I can appreciate he doesn’t know how to actually draw a cartoon. I don’t care that he’s obsessed with Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and in case you can’t identify them in his cartoons, they’re labeled).

My problem is he’s mistaken for a political cartoonist when he’s a propagandist. What’s the difference? For starters, a political cartoonist would NOT accept an invite to help a politician advance their agenda, even one that wasn’t based on conspiracy theories.

Garrison also bases his cartoons on conspiracy theories and not facts which is not something any journalist would do. And, yes. Political cartoonists are journalists. There are journalism awards for it. Although we engage in opinion journalism and satire and make a mockery of our targets left and right, a political cartoonist bases his work on truth. You can disagree with an opinion. You can find that the cartoonist left something out. The cartoonist is biased. The cartoonist is unfair. But, the cartoon is based on a fact. Benjy bases his shit on shit Donald Trump says. For Benjy, Donald Trump is truth.

In the post Jones goes on to differentiate Garrison from Ramirez, McKee, Scott Stantis, and Nate Beeler by saying that the latter group are conservative political cartoonists, while Garrison is a hack.

Benjy does not just drink the Kool-Aid. Benjy is on a Kool-Aid IV drip. If you don’t believe me, Google the guy. I’m not sharing a link here because he’s famous enough and today’s cartoon has done enough to increase his name recognition. But, the guy is a hack. He is extremely talented as an artist, but a hack.

Michael Ramirez, Rick McKee, Scott Stantis, and Nate Beeler are conservative political cartoonists. I can pick apart any argument they push into a political cartoon, but they’re still political cartoons. I love reading their work. I love reading Benjy’s work too because it’s inadvertently funny. It’s funny how much of a hack he is.

So in trying to cobble together an idea of what specifically differentiates a political cartoonist from a propagandist (or a hack, I suppose), I see these possibilities:

  • A political cartoonist should not push bigotry (I take this from Chappatte’s acknowledgment that while political cartoons can offend, the antisemitic cartoon should never have been published in the New York Times).
  • A political cartoonist should comment on the truth (I take this from Jones’s statement about political cartoonists as journalists).
  • A political cartoonist should not push conspiracy theories (I take this from Jones’s criticism of Ben Garrison).
  • A political cartoonist should be critical of the powerful (again from Jones, and also Wilkinson).

That might seem fairly clear-cut, especially if we were to take all of these stipulations as correct, but of course it isn’t clear-cut in practice. Two reasons for that:

  • Reasonable people, and certainly unreasonable people, can disagree about what counts as bigotry, the truth, conspiracy theories, and/or “the powerful.”
  • Neither political cartoonists nor propagandists/hacks create one piece of work and are done with it. I wouldn’t even want you to take my word for it that the single examples I linked to above for Ramirez, McKee, and Lester are actually representative of their work. It’s entirely possible for a cartoonist to create a couple of hacky pieces among what is otherwise a respectable body of work, just as it is for a stand-up comedian to have some hacky jokes in an otherwise great act.

So sadly, this post is not going to end with a firm, objective declaration of which people currently working as political cartoonists actually qualify to be such and which aren’t.

But that really isn’t the point regardless. The point is to share with you some of what I’ve learned about the state of political cartooning over the last couple of years, and also give you some tools to use evaluating political cartoons that you come across, or perhaps even draw yourself. Even though the cartoons don’t themselves contain arguments, or at least not especially elaborate ones, it’s a valuable thing to argue about those cartoons.  That is, as I see it, where the “meaningful discourse” can be found.

Student claims in-class tirade against trans woman pastor Constitutionally protected

Hey, did you hear? A student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania was kicked out of class for saying there are only two genders! This is just another example of how universities in America are just bastions of social justice warriors trying to brainwash and browbeat everyone into sharing their views! That student’s First Amendment right to free speech was violated!

Yep, that’s totally what happened. Not at all an account that relies solely on the perspective of the student in question, which was reported by Fox News as the objective story, resulting in harassment and threats being directed at the lecturer who evicted the student, other lecturers in her department, university administrators, and even undergraduate office workers.

There appears to be an irony here in the contradiction of the “safe space, coddling students to protect them from rigorous debate” narrative. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What actually happened? Well, that’s a tougher question to answer than you might expect, because the lecturer in question, Dr. Alison Downie, is bound by FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974) and can’t speak directly on the student, Lake Ingle’s, behavior that caused him to be evicted from her class.  But she did issue a statement concerning the nature of the class itself, Christianity 481: Self, Sin, and Salvation, and another student from that class, Katherine Bradshaw, who is not bound by FERPA offered her perspective on the matter as well.

Downie’s description of the nature and goals of the class is as follows:

Here is part of the course description as it appears in my course syllabus: “Selecting representative diverse thinkers, this course requires students to understand a range of Christian perspectives, while focusing upon the selected three themes [self, sin, and salvation], in order to provide for depth of analysis. Students will gain an understanding of Christian history and tradition as well as an understanding of the many contemporary challenges evident in diverse Christian positions.”  

We discuss Biblical texts and early Christian thinkers as well as the positions of those in major Christian traditions writing about these topics today. We consider these questions: How do Christians understand what it means to be made in the image of God? Is sin best understood as a wrong act of an individual, or a condition inherited from Adam and Eve or systemic and structural forms of injustice? Is salvation about going to heaven after death or about how one lives in the here and now? 

There is not and never has been one answer to any of these questions in Christianity. 

Students are expected to listen to and understand a variety of approaches in order to develop depth of understanding of the complexity of Christianity, beyond one historical period or a particular church or Christian group.

Toward this end, Downie said that for this class she likes to present the views of Christian thinkers by allowing them to speak for themselves, and allow students to consider and discuss them:

When I have the opportunity to teach a small, upper level course such as this, I rarely lecture; instead, I craft various structures in different sessions so that all students, especially those most hesitant, feel welcome and able to have a safe space in which to speak, as we discuss class material. 

I also occasionally use short video clips as a way to have Christians speak for themselves in class, in lieu of guest speakers. In a university setting, students are expected to have the maturity and self-regulation necessary in order to listen to, understand, and respectfully discuss positions which they may find threatening or with which they may disagree.

Students are often surprised to discover the extent of the diversity of experiences and teachings among Christians, and students are expected to pay attention to all views, not only those with which they are already familiar. Furthermore, students are expected to prepare for and attend each class session, so that any particular session is understood in relation to the whole. 

While not a current university lecturer myself, I can say as a former religious studies major, graduate teaching assistant in comparative religion, and adjunct lecturer of my own course, that this course concept and structure sounds absolutely bog standard.

And what’s more, it should be clear from Downie’s description that her class is intended to foster precisely the sort of critical examination of ideas that has been near-outlawed in universities according to people like Steven Pinker, who would probably be too apoplectic right about now upon seeing the words “safe space” in Downie’s description to notice that she’s providing a safe space to allow for productive discussion rather than to squelch it.

But wait! She did squelch it! She kicked Lake Ingle out of class for having the temerity to express ideas at odds with the liberal ideas with which she was trying to indoctrinate the class!

Well, let’s talk about that.

According to Ingle, as Fox News writer Caleb Parke dutifully reported, this is what happened:

After showing a 15-minute TED Talk by transgender ex-pastor Paula Stone Williams discussing the “reality” of “mansplaining,” “sexism from men,” and “male privilege,” the professor asked the women in the class to share their thoughts. 

When no women in the class said anything, Ingle spoke up, challenging the professor on biology and the gender wage gap. He told the class that the official view of biologists is that there are only two genders. 

The feminist professor booted him from class and asked him not to come back. She referred him to the public university’s Academic Integrity Board (AIB). Ingle needs to complete the class to graduate at the end of the semester. 

“You are barred from attending this class in accordance with the Classroom Disruption policy,” IUP Provost Timothy Moerland told Ingle in a March 2 letter. “My professor is violating my First Amendment rights because of the fact that my views and ideology is different from hers,” Ingle told Fox News. “So she took it on herself to silence and embarrass me – bully me – for speaking up in class.” 

Downie accused the conservative libertarian student of “disrespectful objection,” “refusal to stop talking out of turn,” “angry outbursts in response to being required to listen to a trans speaker discuss the reality of white male privilege and sexism,” and “disrespectful references to the validity of trans identity and experience.”  . . .

Ingle objected to Downie’s “overall abuse” as a professor “indoctrinating” students because she won’t listen to the other side of a controversial argument. “You can’t say that anecdotal evidence is fact,” Ingle said. “My professor pretty much just tried to shut me up because she was just letting women speak. I brought up the fact that biologists don’t agree that there’s more than two genders and I said the wage gap she’s referring to – 77 cents on the dollar – that even the New York Times debunked that.”

Why did Downie ask the female students in the class to speak first? That’s not entirely clear, but I’m assuming it’s because she suspected that they might not get a chance to speak otherwise. Even Ingle does not say that only female students were allowed to speak, but that they were specifically asked to speak first after watching the video. And Ingle seems to acknowledge, implicitly, that he spoke out of turn– unless, that is, he identifies as female.

It’s important to point out here that IUP is a public university, and students do have a First Amendment right to speak their views. However, that does not mean that every class period is the equivalent of a simultaneous soapbox for students and lecturers alike, for the duration of the class, for obvious reasons. You can simultaneously retain your First Amendment rights and not be allowed to say anything you want, at any volume, at any time, while class is in session.

Further, it does not sound like a discussion on the gender wage gap, or the specifics thereof, were particularly germane to the conversation. Here’s a link to the Paula Stone Williams TED talk— she makes a passing reference to a woman “working twice as hard for half as much,” but that’s it.  It’s a talk about the differences between how Williams was treated as a man before she transitioned to being a woman. It talks about mansplaining as a thing that Williams experiences now that she’s a woman. It talks about the importance of listening to people in other groups in order to recognize how they are treated by members of your own group, and yes, it talks about privilege. And gives ample evidence of it. It’s a really good talk, and only fifteen minutes; you should listen to it.

Apparently when Ingle listened to it, there was a voice in his head saying “No, wrong, wrong, no, wrong” throughout, and that voice was so loud that he felt compelled to argue with a woman who wasn’t in the room, about statements she didn’t make (perhaps the “No” voice was just too loud to hear her), when the video was over.

Fortunately since fellow student Katherine Bradshaw was part of that class and published her thoughts on what happened, we can hear her perspective on how that went. First, some interesting context:

On Feb. 26, two days before the conflict, the class discussed the Nashville Statement. For those unfamiliar with this document, the Nashville Statement is a statement of faith published in 2017 by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The document articulates the signatories’ views on sex, gender, gender roles, homosexuality and transgenderism. We spent an entire class period talking about this brief reading and some response tweets sent out by a prominent Jesuit priest. 

Article 10 of the document states, “WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.” 

Article 5 of the document states that there is a “God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female” and that “WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.” As the class discussed the document, there were no melting snowflakes. No one raised their voices. 

No one turned red in the face. It was a class period like any other. 

Ingle missed class that day.

Then the next class:

The following class period, Feb. 28, Downie showed a TED talk by Paula Williams, a transgender woman and minister. In the TED talk, the speaker recounted her decision to transition after she had married and built a highly successful career within various Christian organizations. She and her wife got a divorce, and Paula lost all of her jobs. 

To me, it was evident that this video and the Nashville Statement were meant to illustrate the diverse views of transgenderism within Christianity. The course syllabus states that students will be expected to engage with “diverse thinkers” and “understand a range of Christian perspectives.” 

Downie said that the floor would be opened for discussion for women first, and then once the women who wanted to make a comment were finished, the floor would be opened to the whole classroom. 

After a brief pause, Ingle began speaking. As I recall the event, this pause was less than 10 seconds long. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s article on the incident said the pause was 30 seconds long. I cannot accept the assertion that the class was silent for three times as long as I recall. 

In an interview with Henrik Palmgren of Red Ice TV, Ingle summarized his comments during class: “When the video concluded in class, I objected to the professor’s use of anecdotal evidence in a classroom setting as if it was factual evidence. And, of course, it is a topic of much dispute and debate. And I also brought up the fact that not all biologists agree that there are more than two genders, as well as many entities like the Economist, as well as The New York Times, even have put out statements saying that the gender wage gap myth is how it is portrayed to be.” 

At various intervals during Ingle’s comments, Downie attempted to tell him to wait his turn to speak, brought up the fact that he had not been present the previous class period and said that he had created a toxic environment. I recall that Ingle claimed Downie “couldn’t just make up rules,” referring to Downie’s decision to have women speak before men. Downie countered by claiming professors do make up rules when guiding discussion. As Ingle continued to express his views, he raised his voice and became red in the face. One student walked out of the class during Ingle’s comments. Other students engaged with him at Downie’s behest. One student said that Ingle sounded highly privileged and as if he failed to understand the video. Ingle responded that his only privilege is that he is extremely intelligent. 

Another student made the point that privilege often doesn’t have to do so much with intellectual ability, so much as opportunities individuals are given to show off their abilities.

She also says:

I would like to bring attention to Ingle’s claim that he disagreed with the speaker and/or the professor regarding the claim that there are more than two genders. This is the part of the story that Fox, Breitbart, The Washington Examiner and many other news sources chose to use as their headline. At no point in Paula Williams’ TED talk does she even broach the subject. To my memory, the viewpoint which Ingle claims to have rebutted was never introduced by either the professor or the speaker in the TED talk.

Bradshaw’s remarks are very well-expressed and should be read in full.  It’s clear that she saw this as an important chance to speak up and set the record straight.

Bradshaw does note that she disagrees to some extent with the punishment that Ingle received upon being kicked out of class, which entails not being allowed to return to class until he writes an apology that specifically references each charges of disruptful behavior against him. One of these charges is that he claimed that “a low score on any classwork would be evidence of a professor’s personal prejudice,” which Ingle steadfastly maintains he didn’t say, and Bradshaw didn’t hear him say either, so she maintains that he should not have to apologize for it. Seems reasonable.

So, lacking Downie’s personal account of what happened in the class but having a description of the course syllabus and accounts from both Ingle and Bradford, I’m going to make a wildly speculative, shot in the dark analysis of this situation:

  1. Lecturer sets up a course to allow students to engage with radically different standpoints across the political and moral spectrum through a lens of Christian thinking, both traditional and modern.
  2. Student misses the class where the views expressed apparently line up very close with his own but are presumably diametrically opposed to the views of at least some other students, and the class proceeds without disruption.
  3. Student attends the next class where the views expressed are diametrically opposed to his own, and throws a tantrum. 
  4. Lecturer gives student the boot pending a change to his behavior: no more tantrums.
  5. Student goes to the right-wing media yelling about his freeze peach.
  6. Media yells “HIS FREEZE PEACH!”
  7. University officials, from the lecturer herself to administrators to students, get harassment and threats.

And then…what happens next? We don’t know.

But can I suggest what might happen, and shouldn’t? What might happen is that the university decides that while Ingle’s punishment is legitimate, it just isn’t worth the bother of having a huge incident like this every time a student encounters beliefs that he deems tantrum-worthy, and therefore Downie and other lecturers must modify their courses to omit these controversial ideas.

That is the silencing effect we should be concerned about.

Oh, and Ingle? According to the Fox News article, he says he wants to be a professor himself. I’m sure he’ll be great.

In which I interview myself about American Atheists Con 2018

Who are you, and what’s your history re: religion and stuff?

  • Raised Lutheran (ELCA) in Wichita, Kansas.
  • Became an atheist in 1997/1998 (holy crap, 20+ years ago)
  • Got my BA in religious studies in 2000 (Texas Christian University). MA in religion and culture (University of Manchester, UK) in 2002, and PhD in cognitive science of religion (Aarhus University, Denmark) in 2009.
  • First skepticism/atheism conference: Skepticon 3, 2010 (I had mixed feelings, but as it turned out, I would go on to attend Skepticons 5, 9, and 10).  I’ve also attended Skeptics of Oz conferences in Wichita. I will be attending the Secular Women Work conference in Minneapolis this August.

Why did you go to American Atheists Con this year?

  • It was in Oklahoma City, which is only about two and a half hours’ drive away.
  • Curiosity. Never been.
  • Some interesting talks to listen to, new perspectives to hear, new ideas to ponder.
  • A chance to meet some people with whom I’ve only corresponded online thus far, see some old friends again, and make new friends.
  • The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, made a statement following the trainwreck of Mythcon last year that impressed me. He said, in part:

We can’t tolerate intolerance. We can’t abide elevating those who spend their time trolling, and harassing, and alienating the very people who we’re in this fight to help. We have serious work to do and we need serious conversations about how to do that. I don’t have time to waste on people whose only interest seems to be provocation for provocation’s sake and not on making the lives of our fellow atheists better.

Our convention next year is March 29 to April 1 in Oklahoma City. Like every year, we’re going to have new people you’ve never heard from. We’re going to talk about tough subjects. But we’re going to do it without making people feel unsafe at our event. We’re going to have a great time celebrating our community and the people in it. And we’re going to do it while working to help people.

Can you give me a quick overview of the issues with sexism and sexual harassment in atheism/secularism/skepticism (hereafter referred to simply as “atheism”)?

AA Con took place in the aftermath of multiple allegations of sexual harassment coming out against Lawrence Krauss, which you can read about here.  Krauss is a well-known and highly-sought-after speaker at atheist conferences and other speaking engagements, and has continued to be even though rumors of his behavior have been circling for years prior to the Buzzfeed article. The allegations against him are only the most recent in atheism’s long history of big name male figures being accused of sexual misconduct often at conferences, which includes one of them suing an entire blog network along with specific people for publishing allegations against him.

In the face of these revelations, individual atheists have had to divest themselves of hero worship and tribalism…or have not done so, and decided to instead just double-down on those things in defense of figure being accused. At the conference level, Mythcon basically picked up the pro-sexual-harasser/misogyny banner and ran with it, which is what prompted Silverman’s Facebook comment that I quoted above, and which brings us back full circle.

So atheism is a hotbed of sexual harassment, and you went to AA Con because you thought you’d get harassed at some other atheist con?

No. Atheism probably isn’t any more of a hotbed of sexual harassment than any other movement or group, actually.  If sexual harassment is a disease, then people speaking up about it and holding each other accountable is the treatment.  An organization or movement that is led largely by men (as atheism still is) that isn’t having a #metoo kind of reckoning probably isn’t that way because it has no disease, but because it hasn’t been diagnosed yet. 

Okay, then how about you get around to actually describing AA Con?

Righto. Well, the number I heard a few times was 850 attendees, which meant that they had to sell overflow tickets because that many people wouldn’t be able to fit into the Century Ballroom at the downtown Sheraton in Oklahoma City when it was time for the keynote conversation between David Silverman and Hugh Laurie.

Hugh Laurie? You mean House?

Yup. The keynote conversation turned out to be Hugh Laurie doing a bit of stand-up and then being basically interviewed by David Silverman about his atheism. It was enjoyable and actually reminded me of why it took me so long to get involved in movement atheism. Laurie’s British, as you know, and he described the culture shock in going from England to America in terms of rampant religiosity. He noted that Tony Blair is a Catholic, and described how that was actually a liability in getting elected in the UK as a “god botherer.” “God botherer” is a pretty common, benign term of ribbing in the UK for a devout Christian of any sort, perhaps a devout religious person of any sort.

It is not, I would note, Hugh Laurie’s personal insult of choice for Christians, something misunderstood by a preacher who apparently attended AA Con and wrote this charming review of the experience. Which you should read, because it’s kind of amazing. I’ll wait.

Okay, I’m back. Wow. So, how did Hugh Laurie remind you why you didn’t get involved in movement atheism forever?

He said that there’s not really anything like American Atheists in the UK– not just because it’s the UK, but because religion isn’t nearly as pervasive in politics and social life, meaning that it’s not such a big deal to not participate in it, meaning that movement atheism isn’t really a “thing.” If nobody’s trying to pass laws requiring you to follow their religious rules and generally applying social pressure to be religious, then getting all gung-ho about not being religious can seem kind of pointless.  When I was studying religion in grad school in the UK and then in Denmark, practically everyone around me was some form of non-religious, but the idea of joining an atheist movement seemed ridiculous and rather…petulant.

I absorbed this view so thoroughly that when I got back to the States, I brought it with me.  If you read the post I wrote after attending Skepticon for the first time in 2010, shortly after moving back to the US, you’ll see that my main objection was that it was just too…..atheisty.  I saw Skepticon as a big party for atheists, which it was in part, but I missed that if you live in the United States, particularly in a place like the South or the Midwest (like Missouri or Oklahoma), a big party for atheists that happens once a year might be the only time you actually feel comfortable being an atheist. That’s important.

And Skepticon isn’t, and AA Con isn’t, just a party for atheists. The focus on church and state issues, which now includes social justice issues, that comes with both conferences carries the premise that atheists should be engaged in areas where an injustice is being committed and in which religion plays a role. That encompasses myriad issues– LGBTQIA rights, Black Lives Matter and institutional racism generally, reproductive rights, sexual harassment and misogyny, immigration issues, sex workers’ rights, the drug war, and so on.

If people on the side of injustice, whatever it is, are claiming that God’s on their side, then there’s a natural place for atheists to fight for justice. In David Silverman’s talk entitled How the Mighty Get Back Up, he outlined how American Atheists would back initiatives in these areas, none of which are specifically about atheism, if the people involved in them self-identify as atheists. That’s a big deal. The community charity event that took place at the end of the conference on Sunday afternoon, packing up 30,000 meals for the hungry in Oklahoma City, is a big deal.

Says who?

Well, says Brian Fields of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers (American Atheists affiliate), with whom I spent quite a bit of time talking. Brian’s one of the people I’ve known on Facebook for quite a while, and seemed like an excellent person, and proved to be equally so in person. He was excited about the meal-packing event because it was a chance to do activism/charity work at the conference, instead of just talking about it.

Who else did you meet? 

Lots of people. Russell Glasser (The Atheist Experience), Thomas Smith (Opening Arguments, Serious Inquiries Only, Philosophers in Space….he has other podcasts, but those are the ones I listen to), Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield, Victor Harris (emcee for the conference), Jamie (Talk Heathen, a new call-in TV show out of Austin), Aron Ra, Andrew Hall (Laughing in Disbelief blog on Patheos)…..

I got to see Mandisa Lateefah Thomas (founder/director of Black Nonbelievers) again, and she gave a killer talk on Saturday called Who Says Community is Dead? reminding everyone how incredibly important community is, and how standards for appropriate behavior within that community are not only permissible but critical to avoid pushing out good people by holding onto the trolls. I got to meet a bunch of people from Wichita Oasis for *cough* the first time, and promised to attend a meetup soon. Josiah Mannion was on duty taking photos for the conference most of the time, but it was nice to see him again. Other people too, whose names are not occurring to me right now– apologies.

(Oh, also I was giving out freeze peaches. Everybody listed above got one. If you don’t have one, you should totally buy one. No pressure or anything though.)

What was your favorite talk?

That’s difficult to answer as there were many very good ones, so I’ll name three that stood out:

  • Gavin Grimm gave an amazing talk on how his Christian upbringing impacted his process of coming out as a trans man called Losing Religion and Finding Myself.
  • Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at Snopes, talked about the need for skepticism in journalism and everyday life in a talk called, appropriately, Be Skeptical About Everything, Including Skepticism.
  • Andre Salais, a political analyst, described his work on campaigning for atheist candidates for office in Arizona in a talk called Atheist Candidates Project: Meeting America’s Demand for Non-Religious Representation.

Were there any talks that made you cringe?


I looked ahead in the program on Friday, and saw that on Saturday morning there would be a talk called Islamophobe delivered by Mohammed Alkhadra. Note: The title was what caught my attention; I’d never heard of Alkhandra before. I enjoyed myself at the comedy show the night before (Leighann Lord, Andy Wood, and Victor Harris), but made sure not to have too much fun so that I’d be equipped to listen to Alkhadra the next morning.

Alkhadra was born in the US but lived in Jordan most of his life, and founded the Jordanian Atheist Community when he deconverted. According to his profile on the American Atheists web site, “after giving a speech in the United Kingdom about Islam, Mohammed faced arrest and even death at the hands of the government and Islamic extremists, prompting him to move to the United States.”  I am guessing this is that speech:

The talk he gave at AA Con was kind of an extended version of this speech, and the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end. I didn’t blame them. He described the horrors of criminalizing apostasy and blasphemy eloquently and passionately, and left no doubt concerning the value of free exchange of information (he credits learning about evolution from Richard Dawkins via Youtube for his deconversion).

So what made me cringe about his talk? Well, his conclusion was basically that if speaking out against the barbarism of an Islamic theocratic government is Islamophobia, then dammit he’s an Islamophobe and we all should be as well.

But he said this in Oklahoma, where voters approved a ballot measure to amend the state constitution to ban Sharia law from state courts in 2010.  He said this while three white men from a Kansas militia are on trial for plotting to bomb a building housing Somali Muslim refugees and a mosque. He said this in a country whose president campaigned on, and then tried to make good on, a promise to ban Muslims from entering the country altogether.

I don’t actually care if “Islamophobia” is the term of choice for hatred of and discrimination against Muslims. But we need to have some term for it, because it isn’t collapsible into racism, although bigotry is messy (hence intersectionality) and the two frequently bleed into each other.

To be as clear as possible, I feel like I need to return to bullet points:

  • Hatred of and discrimination against Muslims needs to be distinguished from criticism– however vehement– of Islam. The former is bigotry (whatever you call it); the latter is not.
  • Discrimination against Muslims is and should be illegal, but bigotry against Muslims, while reprehensible, should not. You don’t need to concede that hatred of Muslims for being Muslims should be illegal in order to call it bigotry.
  • The necessity of keeping even bigoted speech legal, even when it’s bigoted speech against a minority in one country, is underscored by the need to speak out against abuses committed by that minority when it is a majority elsewhere. Supporting Ahed Tamimi does not make one anti-Semitic. Supporting ex-Muslim organizations, especially in Muslim-dominated countries, does not make one an Islamophobe.
  • Real Islamophobia– real hatred of and a desire to discriminate against Muslims– belongs to the alt-right in America. American atheists should not flirt with the alt-right, much less shack up with it, by catering to its anti-Muslim sentiments.

I understand why the audience at AA Con gave Alkhandra a standing ovation. I hope that whoever reads this can understand why I was conflicted throughout his talk.

Well…..okay then. Any other thoughts?

I’m really glad I went. So much to chew on, so much to be inspired by, such friendly and excellent people. Thanks, AA Con.

A great mythtake

Recently I was listening to the Embrace the Void podcast episode “Tolerate Me Bro!” about Popper’s paradox of tolerance. Hosts Aaron Rabi and GW were talking about how this paradox plays out in the context of platforming or deplatforming speakers, which is to say, the decisions that providers of platforms (talk show hosts, conference organizers, etc.) make about whose voices to amplify, and the reasons they have for doing so or refusing to do so.

Rabi made the point that if your intent as the owner of a platform is to allow for a productive debate, the paradox of tolerance suggests that you are justified in establishing a threshold of expertise and/or viewpoint acceptance for those who participate in the debate. So, for example, if your goal was to have a meaningful, good faith discussion about evolution, it would be reasonable for you to exclude creationists from the discussion because they would not be able to participate from a place of knowledge and honesty.

Rabi wasn’t talking about MythCon, and I’d like to make that clear so that it doesn’t look like I’m putting words in his mouth as I apply that “threshold of good faith” concept to a skepticism conference held in Milwaukee.

Last year’s MythCon was preceded by skeptics arguing in various places online about the fact that the organizers chose to invite Carl Benjamin, otherwise known as Sargon of Akkad, an alt-right Youtube rabble rouser known for his strident antifeminist views and flirtations with white supremacy.  Many people encouraged the more respectable skeptic figures to drop out, which “Thinking Atheist” Seth Andrews did after significant grousing about the so-called “outrage brigade” raising the alarm about the conference.

Others, such as Matt Dillahunty and Thomas Smith, stayed in, relaying their displeasure about the experience afterward. Smith was especially condemning after having been faced with the prospect of “debating” someone who had once tweeted “I wouldn’t even rape you” at a sexual assault victim. When this fact was brought up on stage the audience cheered for Benjamin’s tweet, making it clear that if there was any faith to be found, it wasn’t the good kind.

Fast forward to last week, when the organizers announced the speaker list for the 2018 conference. Did they learn their lesson from last year? Not even slightly; rather it’s clear that they chose to double down. Their GoFundMe page for this year’s conference explains it thusly:

We lost $12k on #Mythcon 2017 and are raising money to support the cost of #Mythcon 2018. We cannot stop talking about, listening to and challenging ideas and issues that are important to us. We will not find progress talking only to those who agree with us. We need to explore beyond our comfort zone, ask difficult questions, criticize ideas and try to find common ground in order to work on conflict resolution.

Under this pretense we see that the schedule for 2018 features the following panels:

  • How has the political climate divided the atheist community? — Includes “Armoured Skeptic,” an antifeminist and “SJW” antagonist who also featured in the 2017 conference, and David Smalley, an atheist podcaster who apparently originated the term “screeching left.”
  • What is the impact of intersectionality? — Includes Peter Boghossian, who submitted a fake academic paper on the “conceptual penis” to a paid journal in an attempt to demonstrate that gender studies is based on hatred of men. 
  • Where do social justice, the secular community and identity politics meet? — Includes Carl Benjamin and Richard Carrier, the latter of whom is actually a mythicist, apparently the only one at the MythCon conference…who is also currently suing two blog networks and multiple individuals for reporting on allegations of sexual harassment by him. 
There are other panels, and other speakers, and I do not intend to impugn any of them here. Good people inevitably seem to get sucked into bad conferences sometimes.

That’s kind of the point, though– the inclusion of qualified speakers lends a veneer of respectability and legitimacy to others. The people participating in good faith, by their inclusion and through no fault of their own, lend their halo effect to the trolls and charlatans.

There are important, nuanced debates to be had about intersectionality, social justice, the secular community, identity politics….all of it, but many of the people chosen to have a platform in these discussions are not qualified, and they are disqualified not only by their lack of expertise but by their rejection of the entire subject matter.  There is no threshold of good faith at this conference, because participants are given a platform not based on their expertise and willingness to engage in productive discussion, but virtually based on the opposite– their willingness to stir the pot, to say inflammatory things that upset reasonable people and delight the sort of people who like to see reasonable people get upset.

MythCon has gone full troll, which wouldn’t be a big deal– skeptics interested in meaningful discussion can just look elsewhere; there are plenty of other opportunities– except that they’re still trying to maintain a facade of credibility in the process. That’s something they shouldn’t be allowed to do. We do not have to tolerate the intolerant. We do not have to lower the threshold of good faith for those who have no intention of or ability to practice it. We do not have to, and we should not. 

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