Archive for the 'Religion' Category
Melanie Kroll probably doesn’t appreciate the irony of her situation.
She was fired this week from her job at 1-800-Flowers.com, a floral delivery service, after a death threat was sent to popular science blogger PZ Myers from her work email address. The irony stems from the fact that she most likely heard about Myers only because the Catholic League had attempted to get him terminated from his job at the university where he teaches.
Myers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, had published a controversial blog post on July 8 titled “IT’S A FRACKINÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ CRACKER!” The cracker in this instance was referring to a Eucharist — a small wafer considered by Catholics to be the body of Christ — that had been smuggled uneaten out of a church by a Florida man. The incident caused public outrage from some Catholics and after the Catholic League condemned the action the man received multiple death threats. He finally succumbed to the pressure and returned the wafer to the church.
Myers is a vocal atheist and his blog post expressed incredulity and anger that a person would be harassed in such a way over what Myers considered a…well, cracker. At the end of the post he called his readers to action. “Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers?” he wrote. “There’s no way I can personally get them Ã¢â‚¬â€ my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure Ã¢â‚¬â€ but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare.”
Eventually Myers’s writing reached Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, and in his typical fashion he went on the attack. The Catholic organization sent out a press release encouraging Catholics to email the president of the University of Minnesota and demand that action be taken.
But Myers received a large number of emails as well, many of which were vitriolic and hateful. A few of those threatened the blogger with physical violence or even death. Citing a disclaimer on his blog that he has the right to reprint any emails that threatened violence, he posted two such messages on July 13, making sure to include the addresses and other identifying information of those who sent them.
Many of his readers noticed that one of those two emails came from what appeared to be a work address — 1-800 Flowers. The subject of the email read “your short life” and in the body the person wrote, “… You have two choices my fucked up friend, first you can quit your job for the good of the children. Or you can get your brains beat in … I give you till the first of the month, get that resignation in cunt”.
Several people took the post as their cue to fight back. 1-800 Flowers was flooded with emails and phone calls alerting the company that one of its employees was using her work email to send potentially criminal messages. It wasn’t long before the floral company announced that Melanie Kroll — the employee using that address — had been terminated.
But did Kroll actually send the email? Greg Laden wanted to find out.
Laden is a researcher and adviser at the University of Minnesota — though he works at a different campus than Myers — and maintains his own science blog. In a phone interview he told me that he emailed Kroll shortly after Myers posted her message and asked if she had written it.
Laden received several emails from the address and in one of them a man claiming to be Melanie’s husband, Charles Kroll, said that he had been the one who sent the threat.
“It was basically saying ‘I did it, it wasn’t my wife. I was wrong for sending it,’” Laden said. “What I did then was publish a post called ‘PZ Myers Death Threat Confession.’ … I explained what I learned from the letter, that this guy is saying his wife didn’t do it. It’s not that I’m really supporting his position, I just thought it would be reasonable to do that.”
If Charles’s claims are to be believed, then at some point he either purposely or accidentally logged on to his wife’s email account to fire off his angry email. In a comment thread in another blog the husband said he made the threat “in the same way one does when saying ‘IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll beat your ass’, ‘or kick IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll kick your butt’ or other such niceties used by members of the unpolished masses, such as myself.”
Regardless of whether he sent it, Melanie was out of a job. When Myers learned that his readers were sending harassing emails to the address he seemingly became apoplectic, writing that he never intended for his readers to contact 1-800 Flowers. After all, he said, there was the very real possibility that someone had hijacked her address to send the threats.
But should he have been surprised? Shouldn’t he have expected his relatively large audience to launch a counter attack when he made it so easy to do so?
This is a question that many bloggers are facing as they consider whether they should reprint controversial and/or hateful email they receive. A few have experienced a fair amount of backlash after they engaged in such activity.
Gossip blogger Perez Hilton, for instance, is currently being sued for $25 million by a woman who claims she received hundreds of angry emails and was fired from her job after the blogger published her hate mail, address, and office phone number on his site. “Indeed, Mrs. Wargo would not have been fired, but for the publication of her email address,” her filing states. Whether her lawsuit holds any water is yet to be determined — $25 million is a ridiculously high number — but the incident highlights the question of who owns the text of an email once it has been sent. Does it automatically become the property of the blogger, or does the sender have any rights — copyright or otherwise — that could prevent the message from being posted?
Luke Jackson has been thinking about this question a lot lately. By day Jackson is a Los Angeles attorney but in his free time he writes and submits short stories to magazines and anthologies. Back in March he submitted a short story to Helix, a speculative fiction online magazine, and received a rejection from the publication’s editor, William Sanders, that same day.
The rejection languished in his inbox for several months until he one day posted it in the comments section of another person’s Livejournal blog. The thousands of people who eventually saw the rejection were shocked by its contents.
Referencing an Islamic extremist character in the story, Sanders wrote that he was “impressed by your knowledge of the QÃ¢â‚¬â„¢uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people – at the end we still donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can – and I was pleased to see that you didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.” Later in the email he wrote that “the narrator seems to be saying that it was this incident which caused him to take up the jihad, but heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s being mendacious (like all his kind, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s incapable of honesty);”
The Livejournal comment was soon linked to by dozens of blogs. Many who read it felt that Sanders had been referring to Muslims with his incendiary comments and quickly labeled him a bigot. It wasn’t long before the editor learned that the rejection had been posted and became angered, banning Jackson from ever submitting to the magazine again. What followed was a lengthy debate across several blogs and message boards over whether it was considered ethical for a writer to post his rejections in a public forum. Several bloggers engaged in a Post A Rejection Day, in which they published story rejections they had received on their own sites.
I contacted Sanders to get his thoughts on the matter, but after several exchanges we were unable to agree on interview conditions — he wanted to place restrictions on what subjects we would discuss and how I could incorporate his quotes into my article. I also emailed Jackson, who later told me in a phone conversation that he felt ambivalent over whether it was professional for him to have posted the rejection.
“If I was working in a professional capacity, like as an attorney, I would never copy something publicly,” he said. “Of course as an attorney I have client privilege and all of our emails have the caveat that it can’t be reposted or relayed whatsoever. In a business capacity, yeah if I worked for a business I don’t think I would post it as well. It’s just that I really didn’t necessarily see this as professional because this is William Sanders’s home front operation and writing is something that I don’t think pays a lot of money. I don’t see myself making a living as a writer, especially now. And I think that this realism kind of colored my actions as well. That’s probably why I didn’t react strongly, I don’t believe that the rejection was business correspondence.”
I asked Jackson whether he thought this had hurt his chances of being published elsewhere and if posting the rejection would have any long term effects. He replied that this remained to be seen, though he noted that a few fiction editors had reacted negatively to what he had done. What perplexed him most, however, was that he had seemingly been the first person who had encountered this problem.
“What’s strange to me is that it seems like this is the first time in history it’s ever come up,” he said. “Some people are saying that posting rejection letters is done all the time and there are people saying that people should be shot for doing it. Some people think it’s a generational thing … the idea is that older editors basically just expect privacy because they’re used to letters. That’s something that I certainly didn’t dwell on. Just as William Sanders didn’t dwell on his rejection letter before he dashed it out, I didn’t dwell on putting it up on Livejournal comments. In hindsight it’s shocking to me that this is an issue that hasn’t been resolved. I guess people have posted their rejections before but it’s never contained such controversial content.”
I asked Laden what his philosophy was on reposting hate mail and whether he believed that Melanie should be fired for sending Myers a death threat. He replied that while he considered it fine for the professor to publish the message he also didn’t think she should have been terminated. Laden argued that if it was true that her husband had sent it from her address without knowing, then the IT department for 1-800 Flowers was as much to blame as anyone else. They should have provided safeguards for this sort of situation, he said, and done more to educate employees on how to avoid it.
But as for his own policy on hate mail, he decided at some point that he would refrain from posting it.
“If you have a disclaimer on your site then you’re free to do whatever you want with an email,” he said. “With my own policy, I decided not to do it. I don’t want to scare people away from sending me email. I have not received any death threats, but in the chance I would, I report them to the IP abuse number or contact the appropriate police authorities. Then it’s up to them to decide whether anything should be done.”
Contact me at email@example.com
When the missionaries showed up at James Gurney’s house, the last thing they were expecting to do was play a game of baseball.
Here were a few well-dressed men who had probably spent the day visiting unwelcoming households, trudging yard to yard hoping to get a few words in edgewise before the homeowner, clearly annoyed, shut the door in their faces. If they were lucky they might be able to hand over one of their Watchtower magazines, a small victory considering the publications were no-doubt thrown away almost immediately.
They were likely expecting the same when they reached Gurney’s home. Best known for his bestselling Dinotopia books, Gurney is a renowned artist who has done illustrations for National Geographic and dozens of science fiction paperback covers. His sons were playing baseball in the yard when the missionaries arrived.
“When they came up to the door I just handed one of them a baseball bat and said ‘you’re up,’” Gurney told me in a phone interview last week. “I handed the other guy a ball and said ‘you’re pitching.’ And then I handed the third guy a mit and said ‘we’re playing outfield.’ And we started a baseball game that lasted about an hour or so.”
Though nobody realized it at the time, Gurney later told me that the occurrence could be considered a kind of performance art. He likened the “religion of baseball” to the religion these missionaries were trying to push, and in doing so understood he was engaging in a form of proselytizing of his own. “They seemed to be relieved that they didn’t have to do the hard sell,” he said.
This is not the only time he has met the door-to-door religious with such disarming artistic distraction. In Gurney’s blog, he published a post last week documenting his peculiar response to two Jehovah’s Witnesses who showed up at his Hudson Valley New York house.
The artist had grabbed his sketchbook on his way to the door and immediately asked one of them if he could sketch his portrait. “I just said, ‘why don’t you just read to me some of the stories from the Bible and that’s what they did,” Gurney recalled. “They were just reading from Noah and Genesis and the story of Lazarus. They’re great stories anyway. [The Jehovah's Witnesses] were kind of relieved too to just sit down and read stuff from the book.”
Because the artist had to concentrate so much on the drawing, he was unable to engage in any kind of back-and-forth religious discussion. And in avoiding that discussion, he said, he was able to humanize these two figures.
“I’m kind of a journalist with a pencil,” Gurney told me. “…Without thinking we all tend to fall into polarized positions when people come up to the door and I think it’s fun to just try to get outside that and talk to them as people. While I was sketching I could talk to them about raising kids and how they grew up and what kind of TV shows they watch. It got them off the track and they became like regular people.”
After Gurney posted the account and pictures of the two missionaries in his blog the response was immediate. His commenters began dissecting the situation, feeding on the ambiguity of his intentions to play a kind of guesswork art game. “I love stories where people engage strangers in a way only commonplace in the ‘good ol’ days’ where one was innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around,” one commenter wrote. “We all have a great potential to bring happiness to those around us, and you seem to use it to the max.”
Gurney launched his blog as a way of chronicling the tour for the last Dinotopia book. His publisher had recommended using a blog to take his fans along with him during his travels, but its focus soon expanded to cover a number of artistic topics.
“Whenever I have any kind of adventure that has something to do with art I try to weave it into the blog,” he said. “…I think out loud about my art on topics ranging from aesthetics to paint stroke mixing. I’m learning a lot from people who have commented…They give insights and tips and writing a blog post can be a form of rough drafting material where you have a thousand editors read it and give you feedback. It’s a real privilege as both a writer and an artist to have access to a group of like-minded people to critique your work.”
But not all who participate in his art projects are art aficionados. When Gurney played the three missionaries in the game of baseball, a few of their fellow church members climbed out of the vehicle they were waiting in to come and watch.
“After we were done playing they all started piling back into the car,” Gurney recalled. “One of the youngest of them turned to me as he was getting back in and said ‘this is the most fun we’ve ever had when we’re doing our rounds.’ And then he said ‘maybe that’s what the kingdom of Heaven is all about.’”
This is utterly bizarre. A car dealership in Mojave, California called Kieffe & Sons Ford has been running this advertisement on local radio stations:
["Did you know that there are people in this country who want prayer out of schools, "Under God" out of the Pledge, and "In God We Trust" to be taken off our money?"]
“But did you know that 86% of Americans say they believe in God? Since we all know that 86 out of every 100 of us are Christians, who believe in God, we at Kieffe & Sons Ford wonder why we don’t tell the other 14% to sit down and shut up. I guess I just offended 14% of the people who are listening to this message. Well, if that is the case then I say that’s tough, this is America folks, it’s called free speech. None of us at Kieffe & Sons Ford is afraid to speak out. Kieffe & Sons Ford on Sierra Highway in Mojave and Rosamond, if we don’t see you today, by the grace of God, we’ll be here tomorrow.”
First off, they don’t even have the statistics correct. As The Underground Believer notes, only 73% of the U.S. identifies as Christian. Secondly, what the hell does this have to do with cars? The dealership is voluntarily going out of its way to offend a sizable portion of its potential customer base with an advertisement that has nothing to do with its business.
Not only are you directly attacking 27% of the population, you’re also likely offending a good number of left-of-center Christians who would cringe at such unsubtle bigotry.
Here’s one way to strike back: Gather around five atheists in that area. Over the course of the week have each of them go in and show interest in buying some of the most expensive cars in the lot. Then, after they’ve wasted a good 30 minutes to an hour talking to you, bargaining with you, and getting ready for you to sign the contract and give them those great commissions, have sudden epiphanies that this was the dealership that had those offensive ads. Then have them walk out without buying the cars.
This way, not only does this get them thinking they’ve lost out on thousands of dollars in sales, but it also wastes their valuable time they’ve spent tending to you.
So who’s up for it?
A few months ago it was reported that an Afghan journalist named Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh was sentenced to death for blaspheming Islam. His crime was to print up a document that was critical of the religion and show it to a few of his colleagues.
But then we found out that after much outrage from the Western media, Kambakhsh would get to appeal the court ruling. Some social progress, no?
Perhaps not. We now know that though it is true that he gets to appeal the decision, he still has to prove that he didn’t commit blasphemy. So it’s not that the government came to its senses that it was utterly barbaric to kill someone for insulting Islam, it’s just giving him a second chance to profess his devotion to Allah.
I just received this by email:
The Second International Conference on Religion and Media will be held in Tehran and Qom, Iran, from November 9th to 12th, 2008. We cordially invite all media researchers and scholars, representatives from diverse religious traditions, professionals and students involved with the subjects of the conference to attend and submit a paper. Further information could be found at conference website: http://www.religion-media.ir/
A few scholarships are available to partially subsidize the costs of participants with selected papers.
Well, it certainly seems to have an impressive website. Still, can’t help but wonder if this is a way to lure atheists like me into their country so they can chop my head off.
“This is too clever to have been done by creationists.”
I thought this while watching a nearly four minute Youtube video called “Beware the Believers” depicting a rapping Richard Dawkins and headband-wearing Christopher Hitchens. After a brief prologue in which an animated Dawkins introduces an audience to a “glorious age, the age of the machine,” it launches into biting lyrics that tear into the “appeal to authority” arguments often employed during evolution-versus-intelligent design debates. The cast of this music video is comprised of prominent atheists and scientists ranging from Charles Darwin to anthropologist Eugenie Scott, and if there’s one thing this lyrical group wants to convey to you, it’s that Dawkins “is smarter than you, he has a science degree.”
At surface level, the video is targeting the atheists and scientists it depicts. Creationists and religious apologists have long complained of the supposed elitism of prominent atheists, and here is a two-dimensional rendition of the alleged snobbery. With non-believers constantly using the word “irrational” to describe religious belief, it’s not too far-fetched to think the religious would strike back at the very university degrees that give many of these scientists their stature.
But seen another way, the video is mocking those very believers. The characters appearing in the piece are literally cut-out, enlarged heads bobbling to-and-fro over dancing real bodies — they’re essentially caricatures. Viewed in this light, the video is riffing on the often-bizarre paranoia of creationists who think “Big Science” is actively trying to suppress scientists who don’t subscribe to some kind of mainstream scientific doctrine, e.g. evolutionary theory. Given that a new documentary touting this very thesis, Expelled, was soon to be released, the video seemed an appropriate way to address this play-the-victim assertion.
The fact that the video was of unknown origin (the username of the person who uploaded it didn’t give any clue) further enhanced the ambiguity of its message. Perhaps because of this almost-perfect balance, the piece was widely linked across the web, making its way onto a number of extremely popular sites. Rather than being offended by the video, much of the online atheist community embraced it. As one Digg user put it, “Whether you’re a person of science, a person of faith or a mix of the two I think we can all agree that this is one catchy song. Kudos to the guy who made this, it’s hilarious.”
As the video spread, its origin remained a mystery. Many of those who viewed it — including me — thought it was too well written to have been created by the people behind Expelled. After all, movie critics have already eviscerated the film for its lack of originality, boring use of stock footage and overall failed attempts at humor. Clearly something as sharp and well-written as this couldn’t come from a Ben Stein cohort.
Well, it turns out we were wrong — somewhat.
PZ Myers, a biology professor and vocal atheist who appears in “Beware the Believers,” received an email this week from a man named Michael Edmondson who outed himself as one of the creators. “The intent of the video has been questioned a lot,” he wrote. “Ã¢â‚¬Â¦I suppose the answer is that I tried to make something that was funny to me and It’s not really meant to convince anyone of anything.”
Edmondson is a 27-year-old film school graduate living in Vancouver. He previously worked creating marketing videos for Electronic Arts but left the company in 2004 to start Float On Films and do work on the side as a photographer providing artwork for the hospitality industry. From late last summer until the end of last week, he had done contractual work for Premise Media, the producers for Expelled. He has a visual effects credit in the documentary and was one of the main players behind the Youtube video.
I interviewed Edmondson this week and asked him how “Beware the Believers” came about. “Originally it was a six minute piece to be used within the film Expelled,” he told me. “It told the story of the ‘rise of the Machine’ (darwinism). When I had arrived the script was already written having passed through three sets of hands of writers directly or loosely connected to the film…In the editing room for Expelled the production team decided the film had taken a different direction in tone than expected and that the unfinished animation no longer fit the film.”
It was the producers who decided to shift the video online and make it a separate entity, with the hopes of it becoming a “viral piece,” as Edmondson put it. A person named Matt Chandler was brought in to write the lyrics. “Matt and I each wrote a version of the lyrics,” he said. “My version was the requested 90 seconds and well received. Matt’s was five minutes long but very layered and smart so we went with Matt’s and trimmed it to three minutes.”
To save time, he set up a blue screen in his kitchen and performed the dancing rather than animating the bodies of each character. It took him over seven months to complete, “worked on intermittently between other projects and tasks.”
Which brings me to the nagging question about the video’s origin: Was the creator — Edmondson — sympathetic to the Expelled thesis (that intelligent design is a legitimate theory and should be taught in the classroom), or was this a fly-by paid-for-hire production? To make matters even more confusing, at nearly the same time he outed himself Edmondson released a “sequel” to “Beware the Believers” in which Ben Stein is wearing a shirt that has the words “Poe’s Law” written on it. For those not familiar with it, Poe’s Law states that it is impossible to make a parody of fundamentalism without it being interchangeable with the real thing.
But which “fundamentalists” are being parodied here, the intelligent design proponents or the scientists?
I tried to get a reading on Edmondson’s leanings on this matter, asking him if he was sympathetic to Expelled’s cause. “The video wasn’t just meant to be funny. I think it has something to say,” he replied. “It was meant to spark debate and bring attention to the issue…What I meant was that the animation was not intended to convince people of anything. I hope no one over five years old learns really important things about the world through the song and dance of cartoon characters. In the second video there appears the text ‘In Vitro Vertas.’ It means ‘the truth is in the test tube.’ I think that is a true statement for this issue. If intelligent design is true the truth will eventually come out through the science. I think the film has a viewpoint that has the right to be heard.”
I pressed further, asking if the “Poe’s Law” written on Stein’s shirt meant that he was intentionally mocking the intelligent design promoters. “No… but yes,” he said. “Like many things we included in the videos what you see has everything to do with what you bring to it and can be interpreted a few different ways. A person’s world view colours how they see the world and these animations. We knew some people would see it that way. The animations make fun of everyone.”
Myers, who’s featured in both “Beware the Believers” and Expelled, seemed to agree with this notion, calling the video “equal opportunity mockery.”
“It’s a video that used wit and humor and irreverence and knowledge of contemporary attitudes that earned the attention given to it, no matter what view point it might have been pushing,” he told me in an interview this week.
I asked the biology professor about the possibility that Edmondson had crossed enemy lines to help out the Expelled people (it should be noted that I asked this question before I had been able to interview Edmondson). After all, many of Myers’s blog commenters had accused Edmondson of being just as guilty as the Expelled creators because he had helped out in the marketing.
“Most people don’t see the ‘enemy lines as sharply as an educated scientist or an ignorant creationist would,” Myers said. “To most people, the lines are pretty blurry and uncertain (although a little more education in biology would certainly help open their eyes), and the battle isn’t as clearly laid out as the actual participants see it. It seems to me that Edmondson is an artist who is playing around right on that boundary, and not so much an active transgressor.”
Besides, he said, the video “was an absolutely horrible piece of marketing.”
“It wouldn’t be a draw to Expelled‘s target audience, nor would it persuade critics to go see the movie,” he explained. “The Expelled producers wasted their money on it, if they thought they were getting a marketing tool. I hope Edmondson got paid a LOT of the creationists’ money.”
Sadly, when I asked Edmondson how much he got paid to produce the video, it was the one question he neglected to answer.