Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Perspective on Atheist Bus Signs in Des Moines

In Des Moines, Iowa, Des Moines Area Regional Transit (DART) arranged to have some signs put on local busses that said, "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." Immediately after the advertisements went up DART reports that it started to receive phone calls from people saying that they were offended by the advertisements. The advertisements were immediately pulled.

I would like to tell a little story that, I think, will put the incident into its correct moral perspective.

It is a story about the owner of a small night-club that likes to showcase local talent. He is presented with a singer one day. The singer is Jewish, but the owner gives little thought to this fact. She is as good a singer as many of the others he has hired so he signs the singer up for a couple of weeks.

The first night that this singer comes to the stage is when the people in the community discover that the tavern owner has signed a Jewish girl to perform. Some of the business’s regular customers are outraged and offended by the sight of a Jew on the stage. They express their outrage to the owner. More than this, some of them announce that they will not come to that restaurant so long as that Jew is performing.

So, the next day, the owner goes to the singer and fires her, quickly hiring a substitute act to take her place. Specifically, what he does is send her an e-mail telling her that the contract has been terminated. From that point on the owner refuses to take any of her calls or even talk to the singer about what happens. That is it – that is, as far as the owner is concerned, the end of the discussion.

Perhaps the owner is ashamed at what he felt he had to do. H does not want to face the victim of obvious bigotry and tell her that he is siding with the bigots. For the same of his own self-image he simply wants the situation to go away so that he can go on with running his business. That is what is important to him . . . running the business.

In the name of running this business, the owner next goes out amongst the crowd and tells them, "Look, I'm sorry. I made a mistake. Hey, I'm one of you. I would never have actually hired a Jew to sing at my supper club. I was distracted. One of my cooks quit last week and I had gotten a shipment of ingredients that clearly wasn't fresh and, with all of this going on, somehow this Jew got booked onto my stage for Monday night. I told them no . . . at the last minute . . . but somebody obviously did not get the message."

Now, the question is, "What happens next?"

If the story is allowed to end here, what has happened is that anti-Jewish bigotry not only goes unchallenged, it is reinforced. The incident creates positive reinforcement for the attitude of anti-Jewish bigotry, with the consequence being that anti-Jewish sentiments in the community will become that much stronger and that much more entrenched.

Furthermore, the publicity has sent a message throughout the community not to hire Jews. Every business owner will now have the memory of what happened to the club down the street when it dared to put a Jew on the stage. They will reference that memory whenever they have potential dealings with Jews, and be wary of those dealings, preferring, instead, to deal with regular Christians instead.

If the story stops here, then the message that the story itself will spread across the city of Des Moines is exactly the opposite of the story that those who arranged for the advertisement wanted. The story will spread to those who do not believe in God that they must shut up and remain silent to be accepted. The story is that those who hate atheists will make sure that any sign that there is an atheist in their midst will be met with hostility and protest until the atheist is silent – because the only good atheist is an invisible atheist.

So, it is important in this case that the DART (or, more precisely, the bigotry that DART has decided to patronize) does not win.

However, the method of victory is also important. If the victory is won through the courts, then all of this public hatred of atheists will be directed to the courts. It will then turn into action to reform the courts – by electing the right politicians who will appoint the right judges who will no longer side with the hated atheists.

The case has to be taken to the people themselves and explained to them in a way that they can understand the wrongness of it, and the vileness of those who were offended.

Perhaps one way to explain it to them in a way they will understand is to tell the story of the owner of a small night-club who, having no animosity against Jews, hired a Jewish singer, only to fire her the next day because the community is full of bigots who refused to patronize a place that would dare to put a Jew on the stage.


Dale said...

I'm not sure which part of this infuriates me more: the absurd prejudice of the people who called to complain, or the spineless cowardice of the bus company that caved at the first sign of trouble. If they weren't expecting some resistance, why did they put up the banners? I hope someone from DART reads your post and feels empowered to make a change, because you're right: this cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

Brian Westley said...

I disagree; the same situation in Bloomington, Inidiana was settled by filing a lawsuit. The city settled before the lawsuit reached the courts.

As for public support, in this case it looks like atheists already have it; some religious leaders have stated on television that atheists should get to advertise just like anyone else, and the local TV station pointed asked the DART representative if they have a double-standard after admitting that DART has run church ads.

With DART being a government-run entity, and now with the Iowa governor publicly stating that he's against the atheist ads, I think government officials are the main problem, and slamming them with a lawsuit is the best option. Politicians remember losing lawsuits that are surrounded by publicity.

Eneasz said...

Dale - why hope someone reads it? Hope accomplishes as much as prayer. Write a letter to the editor of a Des Moines paper, or post a comment on a Des Moines news website covering this. Maybe post a link to this article in the comments of some other blogs you read. If you know anyone in Des Moines, ask them to call/write their legislator, or call in to radio morning shows about this. It doesn't matter how small the effort, ANYTHING at all is better than just hoping.

Brian - no, politicians remember losing elections. Losing a lawsuit may even be a boon if, as a result of the lawsuit, they get more votes. Being voted out due to such bigotry will send a message orders of magnitude stronger than yet another lawsuit.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

To carry Eneasz' comment one futher:

Voting a poltician out due to such bigotry certainly sends a meassage. Voting a person into office or voting down a challenger who took an opposing view also sends a message.

This requires taking the case to the people, not to the courts.

Religiously right Republicans have gathered quite a few votes and hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contribution - and won elections - by being the party that promises to reform the courts and overturn previous decisions because people have learned to hate the courts because of unpopular decisions.

Ultimately, the argument has to go to the people. The argument has to be made on the street, in discussion forums, on talk radio, on signs carried during a march, and . . . well . . . and on the sides of busses.

Brian Westley said...

While I agree that politicians remember losing elections, this is a free speech/civil rights issue, and lawsuits are how you can exercise your rights, even if the current crop of politicians want to suppress your rights.

In the Bloomington bus case, a lawsuit got their ad on buses much sooner than the next election cycle would have (and that's assuming one election would fix the situation, which I'd say is very unlikely).

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Okay, Brian. Let me clarify.

The response should not be handled EXCLUSIVELY through the courts. The court case requires that the case be made on the streets as well, or anti-atheist bigotry will simply be translated into anti-court bigotry.

Brian Westley said...

But it's almost guaranteed that a court resolution would precede a political one (assuming the court rules for the atheists), leading to this situation that you warn against:

If the victory is won through the courts, then all of this public hatred of atheists will be directed to the courts. It will then turn into action to reform the courts – by electing the right politicians who will appoint the right judges who will no longer side with the hated atheists.

It's almost unavoidable that an actually illegal situation is resolved by the courts -- that's what they're for, after all.

When Loving v. Virginia struck down laws against interracial marriage in 1967, 75% of the public thought interracial marriages should be illegal. Approval of interracial marriages wasn't a majority until the mid-1990s. 25+ years is a long time to wait for civil rights to be granted through public approval (not to mention that the Lovings would've each gotten a year in prison).

Even though it took a long time for interracial marriages to hit 50%, I'd say that having legal interracial marriages in spite of public disapproval helped, rather than hindered, public acceptance.

I think court rulings are exactly the right way to go.

Gary McGath said...

That kind of bigot wouldn't be convinced by such an argument. They'd ban ads by "Christ-killers" as well, if they dared.