Florida Believers are Not Stupid, But the State Issuing the Liscence Plates Is

April 14, 2008

When it comes to defending science and rebutting creationist claptrap, biologist blogger PZ Myers is second to none. He’s rude, crude, and controversial, but by and large when it comes to debates over things like framing (i.e. “shut up, atheists, selling science would be easier without you”), I’m on his side. But not always. In his recent post on a proposal to offer cross-bearing “I believe” license plates in Florida, he steps over the line:

Look at it this way: the stupid people in Florida are going to be conveniently self-labeling themselves with the Mark of the Buffoon.

It almost makes me feel worse to know that if someone called him on it, he’d probably actually defend this language. I almost don’t want face how disappointing that would be.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a believer, and I spend a lot of time arguing against religious claims that I think are anything from pernicious to pathetic. But I don’t think believers are stupid: not even stupid to believe. As I argued, I’m in the skepticism game against bad ideas, bad arguments, even bad people. But belief isn’t itself an argument: it doesn’t even always claim to be supported by arguments, good or bad. So I just can’t justify the attitude of someone who runs around calling believers qua believers stupid, or saying that by wearing their belief on their sleeves that they are marking themselves as buffoons.

This isn’t about Myers inconveniently “mis-framing” some issue. He’s just wrong.

And it muddles the issue. The problem with these plates is not at all what they say, but where they say it. It’s simply yet another example of the government trying to get into the message business (and the especially dicey religious message business) when there’s simply no need or justification for it.

Citizens are perfectly capable of decorating their cars with messages about their religious convictions, political party, opinions on world peace, and attitudes towards fat chicks. They simply do not require, in any way shape or form, the aid of the government in expressing their views. Government issued materials should be strictly functional: serving some legitimate regulatory purpose and then getting out of the way. They have no business being promotional, and certainly not promotional for just one religion.

In the case of Florida, this has gotten particularly pernicious, because while there are many different plate designs to choose from, the range of messages allowed by no means open forum. Each design must be approved by the state legislature: i.e. politicians rule on what messages they like or don’t like. And the process for citizens to even nominate a design is both arduous and expensive, with a $60,000 application fee on top of market research costs and so on.

And while most of the selections are relatively banal, there’s an unavoidably political and sectarian slant to the selections. There’s the notorious “Choose Life” plate (I don’t see any corresponding pro-choice plate), and if the current lawmakers have their way, things like “In God We Trust” and the Christianity-themed “I Believe” will soon follow. The closest comeback to any of these I can see the is ambiguous John Lennon “Imagine” plate.

But even that’s sort of beside the point. If the range of plates really was wide and free enough to encompass all sorts of different messages, I’d still oppose this sort of thing. There’s just no reason for the government to play this game. Space on cars for promotional messages is hardly at a premium. Dull license plates are hardly a high price to pay for a government that knows its place, and leaves expression wholly up to the people, rather than trying to get in on the game.


Why “Where is the ACLU??” Often Ends in Intellectual Tragedy (Islamic School Edition)

April 10, 2008

The ACLU is not a perfect organization (though given that they are not monolithic, it’s hard to generalize). But by and large, they have the right idea about religious liberty, especially when it comes to preventing governments from superseding the rights of citizens to observe or not observe whatever religion they see fit and protecting private religious expression from government interference.

Unfortunately, there are a whole host of (mostly) conservative bloggers out there who seem incapable of distinguishing government action from private freedoms, and who rather ridiculously assert that the ACLU is out to destroy religious practice, rather than protect it from the government. Of course, the big problem for such people is simply all the rather awkward evidence to the contrary. What’s a crank conspiracy-theorist to do?

Well, luckily, they’ve hit upon a stopgap defense mechanism: anytime they come across a potential infringement of free speech or religious expression, an regardless of how much time has elapsed, whether anyone has even notified the ACLU, what the actual facts of the case are, or even if some other organization is already providing counsel, they cry “Where is the ACLU?!!” The implication is, of course, that the ACLU is deeply hypocritical: that their conspiracy isn’t savvy enough to at least pretend to care about this or that free speech/religious expression issue.

The problem is that this rallying cry so often ends in embarrassing tragedy. The latest case in point involves an Islamic school, sponsored by the government, which has apparently been caught coercing its students to pray, amongst other things. Part-time culture-warrior William Wallace raised the predictable cry: Where is the ACLU Now?

Where is the ACLU? The ACLU was all over the Dover PA school district for merely suggesting that life might have been designed by some unidentified creator as a violation of the so-called separation of of church and state. But here in Minnesota, it is “halal” (kosher) to fund Islamic schools.

This righteous outrage lasted for precisely one day, until a commenter happened to stop by and link to a letter from the ACLU to the school, asking them to stop exactly the practices that Mr. Wallace was complaining about. Oops.

And if that weren’t ridiculous enough, the letter is nearly a month old. So it’s Mr. Wallace that’s late to game in condemning the school: the ACLU might well have run their own blog entry entitled “Where is William Wallace on this issue, hunh?!?”

Mr. Wallace’s response?

The letter you cite is very interesting, in that is very friendly. It is as though the ACLU wants to teach the school how to continue to be a public Islamic school.

I’ll analyze the letter in more detail later; might make for an interesting blog.

This is what’s known as “changing the goalposts.” First the ACLU was evil because it was supposedly ignoring the controversy as part of some crafty plot to promote Islam and destroy Christianity. But when that implication became both ridiculous and even anachronistic, suddenly the ACLU is instead bad because their letter warning the school to stop its unconstitutional religious endorsement doesn’t call Muslims enough racial slurs in the process, or something.

I almost can’t wait for Mr. Wallace’s ‘analysis,’ but I suspect it may be delayed until he finds some means to remove the egg from his face.

More: If you’re interested in a vastly more sane analysis of the Islamic Charter School issue, Hemant over at Friendly Atheist has the goods.