Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Guess Who Is not Coming to Dinner?

Guess who is not coming to dinner?

Atheists, according to North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole.

Campaigning for re-election, she complained in a fund raising letter to supporters recently that her opponent, Kay Hagan, has friends who, ". . . are friends most North Carolinians would not be comfortable having over for dinner."

(see Brother Richard's post, Elizabeth Dole Releases an Atheist Bigoted Press Release)

Many readers will recognize the title of this blog posting as a version of the title for a 1967 movie Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner? in which a young white woman (played by Katharine Houghton) her black fiancé (played by Sydney Poitier) over to meet her white parents.

The parents in this movie (played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) were certainly not comfortable with the situation. But that was the point of the movie. Their discomfort in this case was because of a deeply rooted prejudice – a cultural history of viewing blacks as inferior creatures that good white people just did not associate with, let alone marry.

The parallels to the bigotry expressed in this movie, and the bigotry expressed by Dole's concern over people "North Carolinians would not be comfortable having over for dinner" are striking.

I want to use this instance to make clear what does and does not count as bigotry in this case.

It is not bigotry for Dole to complain about her opponent dealing with people who are pursuing policies that she is against. If one person is in favor of capital punishment, and her opponent is against capital punishment, it is not bigotry for the former to point out that the latter is collecting money from a group that opposes capital punishment.

Nor is it an attack on a person to say that their views on a specific issue are mistaken. As a matter of fact, there is not one person on the planet that I do not disagree with on at least one issue. Anybody who cannot get along with somebody they disagree with – even love and respect people who are 'wrong' on at least one thing – is going to have a sorry and lonely life.

However, in this press release, Dole does not protest any of the policies that the people Hagan is visiting are pursuing. She does not even mention what those policies are. It is sufficient for her purposes to mention that Hagan is visiting the leaders of, "the national lobby for atheists, humanists, freethinkers and other nontheistic Americans with the unique mission of protecting their civil rights." These people are to be judged solely on the criteria that the average North Carolinian would not be comfortable having them over for dinner.

I am an atheist. I would wager that Elizabeth Dole does not know the slightest thing about me. Yet, she has decided to pre-judge me. She has decided by the simple fact of my beliefs that I am somebody that she would be uncomfortable having over for dinner. She has decided that I am somebody that any North Carolinian should be uncomfortable having over for dinner.

On this matter, it is important to note that Dole is not merely describing a sociological fact that happens to be true of North Carolinians. It may be true that most North Carolinians are uncomfortable having an atheist over for dinner – just as they might be uncomfortable having a black man over for dinner. She is not just describing this as a fact. She is endorsing it. She is saying, in effect, "Vote for me, because I am not somebody who would not hang out with these sorts of undesirables." She is teaching . . . promoting . . . encouraging . . . selling . . . bigotry to anybody who reads her letter.

She is saying the same type of thing that somebody from North Carolina might have said 50 years ago when that candidate wanted his constituents to, "Vote for me, because I am not the type of person who hangs around with blacks or people who support their civil rights."

It is also interesting to note that in her letter she describes the people that Hagan will meet as "anti-religion activists". This is a rhetorical trick, much like calling those people who fought for black civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s "anti-white activists." It is a trick that bigots are fond of using in order to stir up fear, hatred, and prejudice and to ride this wave of bigotry into political office.

It may work. It may be effective – just as it was effective 50 years ago for candidates to ride the wave of anti-black bigotry into office time and time again. But this blog is not concerned with what works or does not work politically. It is concerned with what is right and what is wrong. What Elizabeth Dole is doing with this letter and the language she puts in it is as wrong as similar bigotries used 50 years ago, and it puts her in the same moral category as the hate peddlers of the last century.

Of course, I feel compelled to point out that Dole is merely acting in accordance with the national motto, "If you do not trust in God, then we do not consider you one of us."

This should be brought to the attention to the people of North Carolina. If there is anybody from North Carolina in the studio audience, I would like to recommend that you put some effort into delivering this message to people of your state.

Addendum: Apologies revisited.

I am going to repeat something that I wrote about just a few days ago, because many opponents of anti-Atheist bigotry get this wrong.

IF Dole were to apologize for this statement of bigotry, I would give good money that the apology will take the form, "I am sorry that atheists failed to understand the true intent of my message." Which isn't an apology. It constitutes blaming the atheists. It says, "I am sorry that you are all idiots."

Atheists and their allies have a bad habit of responding positively to these types of insults.

Look for the four elements of an apology in any response before you accept it.

(1) A statement of the form "I did x and it was wrong of me to do so."

(2) An explanation that demonstrates that the person understands why x is wrong.

(3) A plan to make sure that similar lapses do not occur in the future.

(4) An offer to provide some sort of compensation for the wrongs done.

If any of these elements are missing, then the 'apology' is not an apology.

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