Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kay Hagan: The Slanderous Accusation of Atheism

Apparently, we now have Democratic Senate candidate Kay Hagan’s response to her opponent’s charge that she pals around with atheists.

The North Carolina I was raised in would NEVER condone this kind of personal slander.

(See: American Chronicle, Dole Ad Attacking Hagan Christian Faith Called Fabricated, Pathetic)

In short, Hagan responded by saying that the accusation of palling around with atheist is so horrendous and awful that anybody who makes such an accusation (without proof) is guilty of slander - a wrong serious enough to be taken to court.

At their core, Americans aren´t Democrat or Republican, red or blue – they´re Americans, plain and simple. We ALL love our country, and we all value the role of faith in American life. Shame on anyone who says differently.

Consider reading Hagan's prepared statement, which can be found in the link above, and imagine Democratic Presidential Candidate Barak Obama giving the same speech in response to accusation that he is a Muslim. Imagine what such a statement would say about attitudes towards Muslims.

Hagan isn't making the claim that atheists are Americans too and have a right to present their views to perspective political candidates. She is not saying that the fault of Dole's advertisement is that Dole is lying and promoting bigotry and hatred. She, in effect, endorsed the hate and answered, "How dare you accuse me of not being just as bigoted against atheists as you are! You take that back!"

She is not making an ordinary political charge of wrongdoing, like the wrong of accusing Democratic President Obama of palling around with (domestic) terrorists. This is far, far worse. The accusation of palling around with atheists is, according to Hagan, more like the accusation that one molests children – something that deserves a response that is just as powerful as the accusation itself.

Why would she say something like this?

My guess is that the pollsters told her that Elizabeth Dole's accusations will be successful unless she made a forceful response such as this. Atheists are so hated that the people of North Carolina will certainly refuse to vote into office anybody who can be successfully labeled as a "friend of atheists"

Consequently, Hagen did not have the option of saying, "There is nothing wrong with meeting with atheists." That would be political suicide. The only option she had available was to treat the accusation of meeting with atheists to be an order of magnitude worse than an accusation of meeting with terrorists. In order to preserve her chance of winning the election, she opted to go before the cameras and give support to atheist bigotry by reinforcing the message that talking to atheists is one of the worst possible things a political candidate can do.

At least the people of North Carolina (and, in fact, the people across the nation) are getting the same message from this race. At least both Hagan and her Republican opponent and accuser Senator Elizabeth Dole are spending their campaign money promoting a common set of values – the view that atheists are worse than the lowest form of criminals on the political landscape.

I have written in past posts that it is unreasonable to expect people to form their beliefs entirely by appeals to reason – they do not have the time. Instead, it is human nature – part of the brain's programming – to look for (admittedly fallible) shortcuts that do not guarantee the truth of the conclusions, but are reliable enough to allow the agent to get by.

One of those shortcuts is to look at society and seek beliefs that are held almost without question by everybody. Even though people can be in near universal agreement on something that is mistaken, they still get buy. A vast majority of the beliefs a society holds in common are true, and good enough.

The message coming out of North Carolina is that atheists are such a despicable group of people that nobody – particularly nobody running for public office – should be caught in the same room as one.

One of the things that I have now learned about the event in which Hagan allegedly met with atheists is that this was a meeting among several advocates, one of which happened to be a member of the Godless Americans Political Action Committee. She did not go to this event specifically to meet with atheists. She went to a meeting in which one of the participants happened to have been an atheist.

You can well bet that, with this article now in the news, future politicians will be much more careful. If somebody wants to host any new events like the one that Hagan attended are going to be more careful about vetting the list of attendees, and to make sure that nobody associated with anything like a Godless American Political Action Committee is in the room. Failure to do so could cost the candidate the election.

Even if Hagan wins this election (particularly given the way that she has decided to respond to the accusation of meeting with atheists) the lesson will still be learned that one must exclude atheists from all future events.

At the time that the news first broke that Dole was going to appeal to anti-atheist bigotry, many of those who noted that fact decided to respond by contributing to the Hagan campaign. As it turns out, those people ended up funding a front page news campaign to cover North Carolina in specific, and ultimately the country, with a major news story that the accusation of atheism, or the accusation of meeting with atheists, is slanderous. This is the message that those contributions have ultimately funded.

Which brings me to a question that I have asked a couple of times now in recent posts.

Are you tired yet of being used as a club for attacking the very things that you claim to value?

Addendum

Here is an editorial that appears in the Greensboro, North Carolina paper, News-Record: Dole's attack on Hagan's faith drives heated campaign lower

Dole's ad forced the political debate into the realm of religious beliefs. It exploits what now looks like a campaign misstep by Hagan -- attending a Boston fundraiser at the home of atheist activist Woody Kaplan, a founder of Godless Americans.

Note that it is now being counted as a "misstep" for a candidate for public office to attend a function in which a known atheist is present.

It is not just a misstep to go to a function hosted by atheists or to talk to atheists directly. It is a misstep to go to a political event in which one or more promiment atheists has also been invited to attend - unless the atheist is there is an adversarial role (e.g., a debate opponent perhaps).

11 comments:

Dave said...

I see your point to a degree, but I think the issue isn't so much about Hagan "palling around" with atheists, rather, it's the last few seconds of the ad where the voiceover and text say "What did Hagan promise in return?" with a picture of Hagan in the background, then a female voice says "there is no god". The voice isn't Hagan, but it is clearly implied that it is.
I can understand why Hagan is upset about this ad. But keep in mind she did not react the same way when the Dole campaign sent out the mailer about her going to Boston to pal around with the “Godless American PAC”. Hagan is a person of faith (obviously) and I think she took offense to the suggestion that she isn’t, not so much because atheists are horrible, but that it implies that she is a phony and living a lie (Sunday school, church elder, etc…).
I am a North Carolina atheist and have received several propaganda mailers from the Dole campaign. I wrote her a letter to let her know that there are actual atheists in NC and if she ever spent any time here, she might know that. I've already cast my vote for Hagan.
Dave

Alonzo Fyfe said...

dave

I covered this in the article . . . the claim that Hagan believes that there is no God is no different than the claim that Obama is a Muslim. As I wrote above, imagine Obama responding to the claim that he is a Muslim so strongly.

notreallyalice said...

Slander is not a statement that a person doesn't like-- you can't take someone to court if they say something TRUE about you just because you don't like it (unless you live in England). Slander is when someone lies about you. So when someone accuses Hagan of being an atheist, it's not slander because atheists are mean and nasty, it's slander because its not true.

So while you're right in saying that Hagan could have stood up for atheists, she was making the point that it's slanderous to say she is an atheist. And again, while she could take the opportunity to say that atheists are just as American as anyone else (which she did say, in her way), she was responding to the accusation that she was a godless anti-American when she's actually a Christian patriot. I think that's her point here.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

notreallynice

Slander does not just mean false. If I say that Hagan won the Nobel Prize in 2003 that would be false, but it would not be slander.

Slander falls under the category of "defamation" is false and demeaning - like the accusation that one has committed a crime or done something that no good person would do.

Like, in this case, deny the existence of a God or associate (collect campaign contributions) from somebody who does not believe in a God.

Coogan said...

I see your point, but if Kay Hagan really is a Christian, I could see why she might take offense at the implication she's an atheist.

It's the same as claiming Obama is a Muslim, and it's just as wrong. Hagan's response is purely political, and as such I don't blame her (as much as I blame Dole for playing the atheist card in the first place). Just my humble opinion as a closet atheist. Yeah, I'm scum.

Holly Stevens said...

There once was a Kansan named Dole
who slandered to rise in the polls,
but her defamation
just caused a migration,
giving Hagan our state's heart and soul.

Kay Hagan an atheist? 'Course not!
Our outrage was sparked by Dole's cheap shot!
But when the dust settles,
we'll all still be nettled
that atheists get slammed by the whole lot!

Emu Sam said...

Brava, Holly! I applaud an entertaining bit of rhetoric that seems to have covered the major arguments.

BJ said...

As much as I appreciate your point, it's argued as though this race takes place in a vacuum. But the cold, hard fact of the matter is that North Carolina is a heavily Christian state, and Hagan is a devout Protestant (she's and elder in her church, after all).

Whether you (the royal you) like it or not, for Hagan to run a response ad that I'd like to have seen - "I'm Kay Hagain, and I think it's just fine if atheists support me, because they have the same rights as everyone else" - would be absolute political suicide.

Then you'd be stuck with six more years of Liddy Dole in Washington.

And the asking what the reaction would be if Obama reacted similarly to being called a Muslim is interesting, but irrelevant. First, because Obama is on the national stage, where the politics are completely different, while Hagan/Dole are at the state level. Second, because the community of dedicated, devout Muslims is much larger and more activist than the community (if there can be said to be such a thing) of devout, dedicated atheists.

In any case, atheism is North Carolina is a third rail. No one running for to represent the state at the Federal level is going to support it on television.

Lottie said...

Whether you (the royal you) like it or not, for Hagan to run a response ad that I'd like to have seen - "I'm Kay Hagain, and I think it's just fine if atheists support me, because they have the same rights as everyone else" - would be absolute political suicide.

Right. That's a major part of the problem. And why is that? Because of ignorance, bigotry and hatred which Hagan chose to pander to instead of doing the decent thing. She threw atheists who had supported her under the bus for the sake of politics. And she did it to save her own hide, and because she could.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

bj

You are correct in everything you wrote.

I did not argue that Hagan should have done something differently - I agree that, politically, she could not.

I wrote this directly into the article. If I may quote myself:

My guess is that the pollsters told her that Elizabeth Dole's accusations will be successful unless she made a forceful response such as this. Atheists are so hated that the people of North Carolina will certainly refuse to vote into office anybody who can be successfully labeled as a "friend of atheists" Consequently, Hagen did not have the option of saying, "There is nothing wrong with meeting with atheists." That would be political suicide. The only option she had available was to treat the accusation of meeting with atheists to be an order of magnitude worse than an accusation of meeting with terrorists.

So, yes, you are right.

That's the problem.

And that problem is not going to get fixed by relying on politicians to fix it for us. That problem will not get fixed until we find the courage to deliver a contrary message to the people themselves.

Lottie said...

Alonzo,

I agree that it is our fight and that we can't rely on politicians to fight it for us. Dole and Hagan have made that painfully clear. I also understand the point about it being political suicide. But I also think that, as part of the fight, we need to expose this kind of bigotry without handing politicians a pass. Engaging in or reinforcing bigotry is not justified simply because there may be personal consequences for not doing so. While it's an understandable explanation, it's certainly no excuse. Especially when it involves a politician whose responsibility it is to represent and serve some of the very people she just threw under the bus.