Freethought Today, October 2001

"Emperor Has No Clothes" Acceptance Speech

Katha Pollitt Tells It Like It Is

By Katha Pollitt

This acceptance speech was delivered on Sept. 21 at the national FFRF convention, Madison, Wisconsin.

I am honored to receive this fine statuette--he's wonderful! He's got a charming fig-leaf. And I am particularly honored to follow in the footsteps of Steven Weinberg, footsteps my feet are not large enough in any sense to fill. He is a great man who has done a tremendous service in writing so forthrightly and cleverly about his battles with religion, including that wonderful quote: good people do good things, bad people do bad things, but for a good person to do a bad thing, that takes religion.

I'd like to say I love the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It is my favorite, favorite organization. One of its lovelier lovely traditions is Clean Money, and I certainly plan to buy many raffle tickets. The other is the singing of that beautiful song, Die Gedanken Sind Frei, which is very important to me. I noticed I was one of the few people in the audience who seemed to know all three verses. That's because my parents sent me to Camp Woodland for Children, which was a "red diaper" baby camp. That was the song we sang all the time. So it connects me with my flaming youth, but I also like it because I think it carries another message, which is this is a German song of freethinkers. You know there are a lot of people who don't think of Germany as being the home of anything good now. But of course it was the home of many good things. It just shows that people are complicated and you can't stigmatize and demonize a whole group of people, as so many are doing in the wake of the World Trade Center attack.

I came here today from New York. It's been a terrible, terrible time. It's been very hard to work. We're all a little fragile, and we feel the need to wander the streets and hold candles and do all kinds of things that weeks before we couldn't have imagined doing. Hugging strangers, stuff like that. It's a very surreal landscape now, New York. I don't mean just the downtown.

In front of every firehouse there are huge memorials. More than 300 firefighters are missing, and every firehouse has this sort of embankment in front of it--flyers for the missing, candles, flowers, flags.

I want to lead off my remarks by talking about the flag. Because this is part of our American civic religion.

My daughter, who is going to be a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation any day, and is, has always been, the class atheist and the class radical, just started ninth grade. She goes to Stuyvesant High, which was the high school closest to the World Trade Center. She didn't see anything because she happened to be on the New Jersey side of the building, but the kids from the other side saw all kinds of horrible things. The school lost its power, was closed down, the kids were all just told to go home. Students walked six miles home. It was a frightening experience for her.

My daughter says to me she would like to fly an American flag out our window. And I said, "Definitely not. The flag stands for jingoism, it stands for vengeance, and it stands for war."

Whenever people start bringing out the flag, you know that someone somewhere is thinking of war.

And she said, "No, Mom, you don't understand. You're wrong. The flag stands for honoring and grieving for the dead. It stands for 'we're all together,' and it stands for 'we're not going to let terrorists get us.' "

In a way, I thought, we were both right. The flag is the only available symbol right now. It has to bear all these meanings. For a Pakistani cab driver decorating his taxi with the flag, it might mean "I'm American too" or it may mean "Please don't kill me." On a West End Avenue co-op building it might mean, "We're still here." I went down to Soho where all the most chi-chi art galleries and antique stores are--it's sort of your artistic shopping Mecca, and every art gallery had flags in the window, multiple flags. People have Xeroxed flags. The New York Times runs big do-it-yourself, cut-out-this-page, have-a-flag, flags.

It's quite remarkable how there's nothing but the flag. You can't run the Red flag anymore; the Red flag is too bloodied by history. What else is there? No one's going to be flying the UN flag, nobody even knows what it is. You'll see the peace sign around, but it's a retro fashion accessory now. To me it's too historical, it's too much part of the Cold War. And whatever we're having now is not the Cold War.

It's hard for me to explain to Sophie what the flag historically meant to me, because for her--someone who's 13 years old--I might as well be talking about the War of Jenkin's Ear, as talking about the War of Vietnam.

So what I said was, "All right, dear, you can have a flag if you buy it with your own money." I suspected that would never happen! "And you can fly it out your bedroom window, because that's your freedom of speech. But you can't fly it out the living room window, because that's our public space and I'm the Mom. I get a vote there."

It got me thinking of this whole business of symbolism. In many parts of our country, and of course around the world, the cross and the Star of David and the crescent are all logos for different brands of nationalist and sectarian hatred, so closely bound together I wonder if they will ever be separated.

Ann Coulter, who writes a syndicated column, called for carpet-bombing any country where people "smiled" at news of the disaster. She finished this war-like tirade by saying, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity."

What is this, the Crusades?

It was interesting that Jerry Falwell called the attacks God's judgment on secular America, because a tactful person, an ordinary, humane person, wouldn't have done that. Most people had the sense not to say anything divisive or narrowly partisan. Interestingly, President Bush, one in four of whose votes came from the Christian Right, had to disassociate himself from that remark. I think Falwell was strongarmed into issuing that "apology" by his political associates.

Does Ann Coulter really think that "we" should convert the Muslims? But it does not matter whether people believe what they say when they say it in a public realm. It's not who says it, it's who hears it, and what gets done with what they hear.

Ultimately our culture is committed to some good things, like civil liberties and civil rights, and some kind of mutual getting-along of all religions together or the people who don't have religion, as I said in my book.

George W. Bush, for example, last night, in his speech to the nation, made an effort to say "our Muslim friends, our Muslim brothers," and "this is not about ordinary Muslim people, this is about a particular brand of fanatics," et cetera. I thought his speech was much too bellicose, and I have a low opinion of him in general, but that was a good thing to say, because there has been a lot of anti-Muslim harassment and violence. That's another thing that the flag means now for some people: "I hate Muslims" and "I want to kill them and shoot people who are running 7-11 stores."

But today, the President was saying God was on our side. Let's bring out the old song: "You never ask questions with God on your side." It's remarkable how nationalism and war and religion always go together. When you think of religion, it's just a set of propositions--you'll go to heaven, you'll go to hell; the bible has the truth, or not--that doesn't even get at what is particularly destructive about it.

We all have strange beliefs. I know people, probably in this room, who take echinacea tablets to prevent colds, even though they have done studies now, which show it doesn't help. You couldn't get through life if you didn't have your little defenses against darkness and meaninglessness and helplessness. Religion is one of those defenses. But what's dangerous about it is that it connects with very terrible social energies that have lain in civilization for a very long time, and are always there ready to be awakened and ready to be manipulated by opportunistic politicians.

I write for The Nation, which is a wonderful magazine and a great home for me, and I hope to write my column forever. But one of the frustrating things about being on the Left is that you find yourself in the position at these crisis moments of having to bring out the same old truths. Then everybody hates you. Because they don't want to hear it.

Nobody wants to hear now that evil as the terrorists are, evil as Osama bin Laden is, horrible as is everything they represent, they come out of a destroyed world. Afghanistan is a destroyed country, and the reason it is a destroyed country is because the United States and Pakistan bankrolled the mujahedeen to fight the Soviets who were busy doing all kinds of terrible things in Afghanistan themselves when they took over after 1979. For 10 years the CIA spent more money on funding Muslim fundamentalists than it has spent on any other project in its history--$3.2 billion. That buys a lot of stinger missiles, that calls together a lot of religious fanatics from all over the Arab world, that trains them in modern methods of warfare. Then, after the Mujahedeen had succeeded in overthrowing the Soviets, they turned their guns on each other and destroyed the country further.

The Taliban came out of the displaced persons camps in or near the Afghanistan border in Pakistan. A lot of them were orphans. They went to fundamentalist religious schools of a particular variety of Islam, a very modern form that actually started in the '50s. These schools started up under the Pakistani military regime that of course our government loved.

There they are, growing up in a weird, poor, womanless environment. These people have no education, they're totally provincial, they've never been anywhere, they don't know what the world is like. The Minister of Education has an eighth grade education. They could no more be expected to lead Afghanistan back to normalcy than an army made up of kids raised from birth in Romanian orphanages. The joke that "we'll bomb the Afghans back to the Stone Age but they're already there," contains a sad truth.

It's not as if everything would be great in the Third World if America were up in Mars. All those countries have indigenous oppressive social structures, their own ruling class, and their own problems. That would be true even if America had a totally hands-off policy toward the rest of the world.

But America plays a crucial role around the world, with the Gulf War, with Israel, with Afghanistan, with propping up undemocratic regimes like that in Saudi Arabia. That's the part that Americans can do something about.

It's interesting that feminists and human rights workers have sounded the alarm about the Taliban since they took over in 1996. It is because of them that anybody in America knows about the Taliban's just unbelievable policies against women.

Afghan women are probably the most oppressed people in the world today. The Taliban's regulations against women really do remind one of the regulations against the Jews placed by the Nazis. It's much more than they have to wear the burqa, the long, shroud-like veil that was not traditionally worn by all Afghan women. It's not just that they can't work, it's not just that they can't go to school. It's that in addition to all that, women can't leave the house without a male relative. What happens if you're a widow and you don't have a male relative? There are 30,000 widows in Kabul alone! What do those women do? You even have to paint over the windows in your house so that men can't look in. Now they're finding that in addition to problems of suicide and depression and insanity, Afghan women are suffering from osteomalacia, a disease caused by malnutrition and lack of sunlight. Afghan women are being physically as well as mentally destroyed.

For every article in the Western press that pointed out all this, there was another article that said, "But the Taliban brought peace, their strictures are only a return to tradition, and everybody in Afghanistan likes the Taliban." If the Taliban were really so popular, how come they police the streets with Kalashnikovs? How come they beat people up in the streets all the time? How come they have public executions all the time? These are not signs of popular regimes.

When we start talking about our government bombing Afghanistan or people in the streets, it would be bombing the victims of the Taliban. It's not bombing the Taliban. The Taliban want to take Afghanistan back into the sixth century, so everybody else is riding in donkey carts, but they have cars. They're warlords, and they'll be fine. It's their victims who're going to suffer and who are suffering already.

It's interesting how uninterested the West was in doing anything about the Taliban until September 11. I love that Bush singled out as horrible and oppressive the fact that under the Taliban you can't own a television. Oh! All right, now we're interested. No TV, gosh.

The worst part of it is, who is this good news for? For the Northern Alliance, the other warlords, the other fundamentalists who are fighting the Taliban, Massoud (who was killed by a suicide bomber earlier this week) and his successors. In Europe, the Northern Alliance, and particularly Massoud himself, are regarded as heroes. This romance coexists with this terrible anti-Islamic bigotry--the romance of Central Asia, the romance of the noble tribesmen and warrior clans. It's cowboys and Indians, but with harems.

Remember when Dan Rather went over to Afghanistan and stood on some mountaintop with the mujahedeen, and said on TV these people are freedom fighters? William T. Vollmann, who's an interesting writer, went and fought with the mujahedeen and said "these are the noblest, best people I've ever met in my life." These are people who throw acid in the faces of women! Who've committed mass murders of civilians. These are people who will bring no good to anyone. Yet, for various reasons, the West is unable to disassociate itself from them.

There are plenty of people all over the Muslim world who want a secular society, civil rights, civil liberties, democracy, education, women's rights. They want people to have self-development, they want to modernize in a humane way, they want more economic equality. Yet those are never the people the West turns to. It always turns to the maniac with the great big gun. That's one reason the situation has taken this terrible new turn.

When I was thinking about what symbols we need now, a friend of mine emailed me and said that she had taken out her old Women's Pentagon Action button (pretty rusty there), to wear because it has a globe on it. She thought the globe is the symbol we need right now. I think that's really true. We have to start internationalizing our problems, internationalizing solutions, and internationalizing our minds. If we don't, we end up with religion being able to be used in these horrible, nationalistics ways to manipulate people, to kill neighbors, as in former-Yugoslavia, as in Northern Ireland where you have Protestants trying to prevent little six-year-old girls from going to Catholic schools. It's insane.

Yes, the globe is what we need. We need to think in a larger and less nationalistic way and try to solve our world problems in a world way. I think freedom from religion will definitely be part of that more global world.

Question: Talking about the war of symbols, what about the song "Imagine"?

Clear Channel Communications, which owns 1200 radio stations around the country, issued a "don't play these" list. Some of the songs had to do with death and slaughter and would hurt people's sensibilities at this time. But some of them were peace songs: "Blowing In The Wind," "Imagine," and some others. Shocking.

The media to a large extent is war-like these days. Somebody was saying to me this was just what you had before World War I--the sense that we have become fat and happy, there's no challenge, people aren't manly, we take everything for granted, we need to be tested. So when World War I came people were happy to sign up. You hear people saying the same thing now. "We've never been tested, now my generation's going to get a chance to fight." I just want to say, "Can't people ever learn anything from history?" Sometimes I think that they can't.

What do you think about the new Office of Homeland Security?

Even the name of it, "homeland"!

I think the World Trade Center attack has been the saving of the Bush Administration. Before Sept. 11, a lot of people were saying, "He'll never get reelected, all he wants to do is give money to rich people." Before the World Trade Center attack--how quickly people forget--he was trying to take a kind of political cheese-shaver and slice off particular tiny demographic slivers. He was making this big appeal to the most extreme anti-choice Catholics, remember? That's why he was so reluctant to permit stem cell research.

Now it's a whole new ballgame. Now he can wrap himself in a flag, he can call on God, he's the commander-in-chief, and he is leading the free world. Normal politics has totally gone by the board. And he'll get that missile shield--mark my words. People are saying how the rich will have to give back their tax cuts. I don't think so. I think that's the last thing that's going to happen. And I think this has been the saving of him.

What difference would it have made if Gore was President, given that Gore and other Democrats have embraced many of the same politics about faith-based funding?

But not just faith-based funding. For example, the most shocking thing to happen so far, the strongest bit of evidence that we really do have a one-party system in this country, was that Congress voted to give President Bush practically carte blanche to do whatever he wants after WTC, and there was one vote in dissent--Barbara Lee, she's the heroine.

What about the threat to civil liberties?

Polls say 85% of Americans think Arab Americans should have to carry a special identity card. That's fascism! I have to think cooler heads will prevail. But it could be a long time. The McCarthy era came to an end, but not before it destroyed a lot of people's lives and frightened a lot of people in a permanent way.

It's not starting out well when you only have one congressperson who is willing to buck the tide. We have our work cut out for us. That's the thought I'd like to leave everybody with: the people in this room are very powerful because they're not kept, they're not afraid, and they're not just going to go along to get along. We have to be very vocal and very active in trying to present the other point of view at this crucial moment in our history.


About Katha Pollit

Introduction by Annie Laurie Gaylor

Among the "atheists in foxholes" in New York City is Katha Pollitt, poet, author and columnist of the "Subject to Debate" biweekly column in The Nation.

Katha Pollitt is the second convention recipient of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's "Emperor Has No Clothes Award," instigated by a benefactor to recognize public figures who openly speak of their freethought views. The first recipient was Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg, the physicist, who received the debut "Emperor" award at the Foundation's convention in San Antonio in 1999.

In 1995, Katha Pollitt was designated the Foundation's "Freethought Heroine" for her willingness to forthrightly volunteer her atheism, and defend rationalism and the separation of church and state in her column, in interviews and on national TV programs.

Katha even wrote up the 1995 convention, in a column called "No God, No Master," one of the collected essays in her new book Subject to Debate (2001).

We rely on Katha Pollitt for such columns as "Catholic Bashing?", "Heaven Can Wait," "Get Thee Behind Me, Disney," "Vouching Toward Bethlehem," and one of my personal favorites, "Of Toes & Men," in which she wrote: "You'd think by now politicians would realize that promoting family values is like wearing a Kick Me sign on your back."

But of course, for our office, Katha Pollitt's recent piece de resistance was her column titled "Freedom From Religion, Si!" appearing last fall about Lieberman, et. al.

She analyzed: "What religion you may be is your own business--but it's society's business that you have one." Her wonderful columns, her outspoken, official dissent from the "official American civic religion," are why we consider her like the wise child who finally "told it like it is" in the Hans Christian Andersen fable, by saying: "The emperor has no clothes."


Photo by Brent Nicastro



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