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I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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Edmund White vs. David Blankenhorn, with Robert Silvers as referee

I get my New York Review in the mail, and read it on paper, so am late to every debate in its pages, but for the record let me say how unfair I think Edmund White was to David Blankenhorn in the latest issue. For the record, I know, slightly, Blankenhorn, the star witness in the California Prop. 8 trial, whom I interviewed for an NPR special that aired the day he reversed his position on same-sex marriage. I have never met White, although I’ve enjoyed the stuff of his that I have read. 

To begin, Blankenhorn gets White’s name wrong in his letter, calling him instead “Edmund Wilson.” Instead of doing the graceful thing and correcting it for Blankenhorn, on the principle that we all make such mistakes and magnanimity is the order of the day, White — and the New York Review editors — let stand Blankenhorn’s error, all the better to belittle him. I have to imagine that White gets called Wilson all the time (they are, after all, both high-middlebrow prep-school-educated Anglophone literary men named Edmund), and one wonders if White is always so tetchy about it. Perhaps he takes exception to being called “Bunny.”

But on to the substance of the letter, and White’s reply. Blankenhorn has written for one reason only, it seems to me: to say that the “admissions” wrested of him on the witness stand were in fact things he had stated for the public record for years. In other words, Blankenhorn did not fall victim to David Boies’s Jedi-like cross-ex technique, but rather freely admitted beliefs that he had long held. This is important not just as a matter of Blankenhorn’s dignity (who among us likes to be had on the witness stand?), but also as a matter of historical fidelity. What made Blankenhorn such a curious, and ultimately problematic, Prop 8 witness was precisely that he was not anti-gay, in the manner of somebody like the National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown, and he had no religious or moral objection to gay sex or partnering, as Maggie Gallagher does. But Blankenhorn is right to insist that these weren’t witness-stand revelations: they were facts on the ground.

White’s response is utterly baffling. In its entirety, here it is, beginning with his juvenile gotcha: “David Blankenhorn seems to have confused me with the late, great Edmund Wilson (so much for scholarly attention to detail). Nor does he seem to grasp that though he was presented as a witness for the anti-gay team, his remarks and writings actually strengthened the case for marriage equality.”

In fact, of course, Blankenhorn has grasped precisely that point, quite publicly. You can read him on it in the Times; you can listen to him talk about it. This is current events, people. It’s not my sense, reading the entire review, that White, is a fiction writer and memoirist and essayist and gay-sex pamphleteer (he co-wrote The Joy of Gay Sex), is particularly up-to-speed on the swirling winds of gay politics or marriage equality. For further example, he seems not to grasp the extent of the opposition to Jo Becker’s book, which he mentions, in slight passing, near the very end of the piece.

We all make mistakes, and sometimes a mistake is accepting a review assignment that is out of one’s comfort zone. But it could be one definition of grace not to double down when a letter-writer corrects you. 


The beggars of Lakewood

Imagine a city where the people are so generous that beggars fly in from the Middle East to go door to door and ask for money.

Go to hell ... for a little while

See that man, that man above? His name is Edward Fudge; Mackenzie Astin played him in a movie; and he believed that Hell will be maximally painful, but will not last forever. His ideas rankle some fellow evangelical Christians. Discuss.

What to do with the anti-vaxxers?



The very fine essayist Eula Biss — who, being sane, did vaccinate her son — has a new book out about the cultural ambivalence about vaccination. Dwight Garner reviewed it in today’s Times, and I had my say in The New Republic. I write, “Vaccinating children should not be up for debate, so to read an elegant, incisive book that takes the debate seriously is bound to be an ambivalent experience. This is a book fair to both sides of a debate that, among people who know the evidence, does not exist. That there’s a market for it makes it a curiosity, a time-capsuled bit of evidence for a hysterical fad that surely must pass.”



Atheism and misogyny

At long last, my reporting on misogyny in the atheist/freethought world has been published by Buzzfeed. Next week I will be on the Center for Inquiry’s podcast talking about the article, and tomorrow evening I will be on John Batchelor’s radio show. It’s a long (if worthwhile!) read, but it can be summed up here:

The reality of sexism in freethought is not limited to a few famous leaders; it has implications throughout the small but quickly growing movement. Thanks to the internet, and to popular authors like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Sam Harris, atheism has greater visibility than at any time since the 18th-century Enlightenment. Yet it is now cannibalizing itself. For the past several years, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and online forums have become hostile places for women who identify as feminists or express concern about widely circulated tales of sexism in the movement. Some women say they are now harassed or mocked at conventions, and the online attacks — which include Jew-baiting, threats of anal rape, and other pleasantries — are so vicious that two activists I spoke with have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. One of these women has been bedridden for two years.

To those outside the community, freethought would seem an unlikely candidate for this sort of internal strife. Aren’t atheists and agnostics supposed to be liberal, forward-thinking types? But from the beginning, there has been a division in freethought between the humanists, who see atheism as one part of a larger progressive vision for society, and the libertarians, for whom the banishment of God sits comfortably with capitalism, gun rights, and free-speech absolutism. One group sees men like Michael Shermer as freethought’s big problem, while the other sees defending them as crucial to freethought’s mission.

 The roots of today’s crisis can be found in the post-war history of the movement. The groups that make up the broader freethought community — atheists, who don’t believe in a god; agnostics, who are unsure; secular humanists, who seek to replace god-centered religion with a man-made ethical system; church-state separationists, who just want religion kept out of public life; and scientific skeptics, who work to overthrow superstition and pseudoscience — have two things in common. First, they oppose the hegemony of religious, including New Age, thinking in American culture. And second, they all have roots in very male subcultures.
The text below, in an image of Michael Shermer from the original article, reads, “One group sees men like Michael Shermer as freethought’s big problem, while the other sees defending them as crucial to freethought’s mission.”