Is sunscreen harmful?

Recently the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report on sunscreen recommending only 39 of 500 sunscreens investigated. The report has been picked up by media outlets and now sunscreen is being touted as cancer-causing and hormone-disrupting. The report is not fraudulent, but it is somewhat specious, inflammatory, and alarmist. I’ve researched some of the claims and there is no reason to run screaming from sunscreen, as we’ll see.

One of EWG’s concerns is that many sunscreens lack UVA protection. This was absolutely true at one time, but is quickly changing. Many sunscreens are now “broad spectrum” or “double barrier,” protecting against UVA and UVB radiation.

Ultraviolet radiation comes in UVB and UVA forms. UVB radiation is that type that gives you sunburns; UVA radiation is the type that penetrates deeper into the skin and causes breakdown and more permanent damage. Both UVA and UVB rays are known to cause cancer, so it is best to purchase sunscreens (and sunglasses) that protect against both forms of radiation.

Another issue raised by the EWG report is that SPF numbers on sunscreens are climbing higher and higher, but there is little proof that such products are necessarily better. Again, this is true.

The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) on sunscreen labels refers to how well the product protects against sunburn (UVB). For example, without any sunscreen at all it may take you 10 minutes to burn in the sun, but using SPF 15 sunscreen would extend that time from 10 minutes to 150 minutes.

There are a few important things to keep in mind. First, because SPF measures the amount of time it takes to burn, it is only a measure of UVB protection – not UVA protection. Second, as noted in this document from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, above SPF 15 there are not great differences in protection. SPF 15 protects against about 93% of UVB radiation and SPF 30 protects against 97%. It’s very gradual from there on up.

Therefore, more important than the SPF number are the amount of sunscreen applied and the frequency of application. SPF numbers are typically based on a recommended application of 30mL (about 2 tablespoons) for the entire body. Most people apply less than this. Also, sunscreen should be re-applied every two hours and always after swimming. If the correct amount of sunscreen and frequency of application are observed, it makes little difference whether you use SPF 30 or SPF 60.

Although the case is not 100% closed on the link between sun exposure and cancer, there is plenty of scientific evidence of a link between sun exposure and basal cell carcinoma/squamous cell carcinoma (the common but rarely fatal, non-melanoma cancers that cause ‘scabs’ that can be removed). Melanoma is much more rare, but frequently fatal. The direct link between sun exposure and melanoma is not as clear as it is with carcinoma, but this doesn’t mean that intentionally baking in the sun or in a tanning bed is a good idea.

The EWG report claims that there is “no consensus on whether sunscreens prevent skin cancer.” This is somewhat true. The research is not 100% clear on a link between sunscreen and protection against skin cancer, but it is fairly favourable so far; generally scientists agree that sunscreen can protect against cancer if, as stated earlier, it is applied in the amounts and with the frequency recommended. A quick slather in the morning may actually do more harm than good, providing people with a false sense of protection against the sun, causing them to have more exposure to dangerous UV radiation. (High SPF numbers may also provide this false sense of protection.)

Although I have been using the term “sunscreen” throughout this article, there actually is a difference between sunblock and sunscreen.

Sunblock, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, is more effective than sunscreen and is opaque (like the white stuff lifeguards often wear on their noses). Particulate matter in sunblock reflects and scatters the UV rays, physically blocking the sun. Sunblocks protect against UVA and UVB radiation, are safe, and are photostable (photostability refers to whether/how quickly the ingredients are broken down when irradiated). Vanity is essentially what prevents people from using such sunblocks – because it is opaque people don’t want to spend a day at the beach with a white coating all over their body. Although there are titanium and zinc products available now that are nearly transparent.

Sunscreen filters and absorbs UV radiation, converting it to heat. Although more and more sunscreens are being made with UVA and UVB protection (“broad spectrum” or “double barrier”), the ingredients in sunscreen are broken down more quickly when irradiated (they are less photostable). Not to belabour the point, but because most people will choose sunscreen over sunblock for aesthetic reasons, it is vital to apply it in the quantity and with the frequency recommended.

The EWG report claims that there is “some evidence” linking sunscreen usage with an increased risk of melanoma. This “some” is spotty at best and can more reasonably be explained by the false protection issue discussed above. People who use sunscreen likely spend more time in the sun because they feel protected, but most people are using sunscreen incorrectly (not enough, not often enough) and so do suffer greater effects of sun exposure. This is not a direct link to sunscreen, but to incorrect usage of sunscreen.

Another concern highlighted in the EWG report is that sunscreen will reduce vitamin D absorption. Vitamin D from the sun is very important, so if this is a concern for you (even though there is a lack of evidence for it), there are vitamin D supplements, but please – if you think you need to supplement your vitamin D intake, go to your doctor and get tested first, then get her recommendation for a product and a dosage. Don’t just buy some vitamin D pills from your local drug store and start popping them like candy, as most people do with vitamin supplements. You can overdose on vitamins; they’re not innocuous.

The EWG report cites the ingredient retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A) as a primary concern because “available data from an FDA study indicate that…when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, [it] may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.” The problem is that the FDA study of retinyl palmitate in mice is both inconclusive and incomplete (it will be completed and peer-reviewed in the next year or so). Reason suggests that in light of the lack of evidence, it would be more dangerous to avoid the use of sunscreen than to use sunscreen containing retinyl palmitate.

Retinyl palmitate is a very common “anti-aging” ingredient and is found in most skin care and beauty products. It is not, however, a necessary ingredient for sunscreen’s effectiveness. If it is a concern for you, then choose a sunscreen that does not contain retinyl palmitate. Problem solved.

The EWG report also cites the ingredient oxybenzone as a potential hormone disruptor. (More information on hormone disruptors exists than I can synthesize here, so I would suggest doing your own research if you are interested. Check out science and medical sites/books rather than “health” sites/books). Oxybenzone is an ingredient in some sunscreens and, again, most skin care and beauty products. It is also ubiquitous in our environment. Studies are inconclusive as to the health effects associated with oxybenzone, stating such effects as unknown and requiring more research. As with retinyl palmitate, good sense says that you should not avoid sunscreen due to the presence of oxybenzone because evidence for negative health effects is so lacking, but you can certainly choose a product that does not contain it. Again, problem solved.

The Environmental Working Group tends to be overly cautious and even at times alarmist; they discount far too many ingredients as harmful, hazardous, or risky based on false or inconclusive data. Running around like a Chicken Little knock-off suggesting that sunscreen will give you cancer is not productive. As I said, the EWG sunscreen report is not fraudulent, but it (and the media reports on it) does instill a little too much fear in the general public.

As any brochure on sun exposure will tell you, avoiding the sun and wearing protective clothing is the best way to protect against harmful UVA and UBV radiation. Your next best bet is sunblock (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide). If the aesthetic of that doesn’t appeal to you, then a broad spectrum/double-barrier (UVA/UVB) sunscreen will offer adequate protection if you wear enough of it and re-apply it often.

Check out the EWG report for some good sunscreen/sunblock recommendations, but if you’re going to read the whole report, take it with a grain of salt keeping in mind the things discussed here. And, as always, do your own (good) research.

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Pride continues!

On Thursday Argentina voted in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage nation wide, becoming the first Latin American country to do so.

Extremely contentious rival demonstrations were held outside of Congress in Buenos Aires, with pro-equal marriage demonstrators facing off against anti-equal marriage demonstrators, their respective ‘vigils’ lasting all night. The Roman Catholic Church, those bastions of what is good and right (ahem), waged an ardent and expensive campaign against passage of the law.

But after a 16-hour Senate debate, the vote was held after 4am and gays and lesbians won the same legal marriage rights and protections afforded to heterosexuals. (The law was already passed in the lower house, so once the Senate approved it and published it, the law became official.)

Buenos Aires has long been considered one of the most queer-friendly cities in South America and this new law will no doubt bring many gay and lesbian couples from throughout the region to Buenos Aires to marry. Uruguay and some states in Brazil and Mexico have legalized same-sex unions; in Mexico City gay marriage is legal; and in Colombia queer couples have inheritance and health insurance rights; but Argentina’s new nation-wide equal marriage law grants same-sex couples more rights than civil unions, such as adoption and inheritance rights.

Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez has been a strong supporter of equal marriage; speaking about the Catholic Church’s campaign of hatred and discrimination, Fernandez said, “It’s very worrisome to hear words like ‘God’s war’ or ‘the devil’s project,’ things that recall the times of the Inquisition.”

Sen. Norma Morandini, a member of Fernandez’s party, compared the discrimination queers face to the oppression under Argentina’s past dictators: “What defines us is our humanity, and what runs against humanity is intolerance.”

Congratulations, Argentina!

Happy Pride 2010!

I’ve posted about Iceland’s Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir before – she was the world’s first openly gay head of state.  And now she is the world’s first openly gay world leader married to her same-sex spouse.

Johanna Sigurdardottir

Iceland’s Parliament unanimously passed equal marriage legislation on June 12th. Sigurdardottir, 67, had previously had a civil union with her spouse, but as soon as equal marriage became legal she addressed a crowd of people celebrating the new law by saying, “I have today taken advantage of this new legislation.”

I still love you, Iceland. Despite some of your other woes, you are progressive when it comes to equal rights and all countries should aspire to that.

Happy Pride everyone!

“Torontonamo Bay”

Toronto just finished hosting the G20 Summit, which literally lasted about eight hours in our city. The meeting got started at around 9am on Sunday and by 5pm leaders were already on their way out of town. An eight-hour meeting sure cost a whole lot and wreaked a whole lot of havoc.

I was glued to live news coverage on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday I skipped out on plans and watched the news from about 5pm until midnight. On Sunday, after participating in the completely peaceful, happy, and fun bike rally protest for a couple of hours, I was glued to the TV again from about 5:30pm until 11pm. I want to say that CP24 did an amazing job…for those two days…covering the vandalizing and police standoffs. It would have been nice if they had also provided wall-to-wall, commercial-free coverage of the demonstrations that took place all week—thousands of people in the days before the summit peacefully demonstrating on the streets of Toronto, getting their message out. That wasn’t so interesting, you see, because there were no assholes lighting police cars on fire.

Where were the media for the “Shout Out For Global Justice,” which took place at Massey Hall and featured Naomi Klein, Amy Goodman, and Maude Barlow (among others)? And when Naomi Klein led the entire audience on a peaceful walk to the temporary “tent city” at Allen Gardens in solidarity with the homeless, where were the media? And when Allen Gardens became a peaceful dance party? That wasn’t so interesting to the media since there were no assholes smashing store windows.

What occurred this past weekend in Toronto was nothing short of a clusterfuck. These meetings should not be held in densely populated urban settings. They should not cost, for two days, what the United Nations spends in an entire year. They should be held in places that are already fortified and secure enough to protect the heads of state that reside in them—the White House, Parliament Hill, Downing Street, the Palace…or the freakin’ UN! And they should not pick the pockets of cities, small-business owners, and residents when it’s the federal government making the decisions.

There’s a lot to say about the G20, the politics, and what happened in Toronto on the weekend. There is a vast echo chamber now and there’s little chance I’ll say something that hasn’t already been said. Except for one thing.

Yesterday there was another demonstration, an extremely peaceful and massive “jail solidarity” demo for the 900+ people who were arrested and detained in the makeshift detention centre. I heard two or three people who were interviewed on the news refer to the detainment facility as “Torontonamo Bay.” And today I read the report of Cameron Fenton, a 24-year-old who was arrested and detained for 17 hours; he referred to the detention centre as “tantamount to torture.”

No one is denying that the conditions at the detention facility were bad—they probably were terrible. I would have been miserable if I had had to stay there for even 3 hours, let alone 24. I would likely be complaining about it to anyone who would listen. I might even be seeking legal representation. But let’s be reasonable and respectful. There are innocent people at Guantanamo Bay and other detention facilities overseas who have been held—without charges, without lawyers, without habeas corpus—for many, many years. There are innocent people in these facilities (and some who are likely not innocent) who have been tortured. Truly tortured. To compare your treatment for 12, 17, or 24 hours at a makeshift detainment facility in Toronto, Ontario, Canada to a military-run torture centre that exists in a legal no-man’s land is completely ignorant. It’s akin to comparing Barack Obama, Stephen Harper, or anyone besides Hitler, to Hitler. It’s like Gretchen Carlson comparing her job as a talk-show host to that of the President of the United States.

People who have been held in a legal abyss and who have truly been tortured would likely have a thing or two to say about your experience versus theirs. So no more of this “Torontonamo Bay” and “tantamount to torture” bullshit. If you want to have your issues taken seriously, then be serious.

“Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” not ‘real’ — but should it be?

According to a slew of recent articles, the frenzy started by a modest cartoonist was unintentional.

Molly Norris drew a cartoon (you can see it here) in which she depicted Mohammed as a spool of thread, a cherry, a box of pasta, and a domino, among other things, under the banner “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” The cartoon was drawn as a poster, and so thousands of people have taken up the cause believing that May 20th would be Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. The catch is that Norris only intended the cartoon as a one-off, a response to the ridiculous restrictions of free speech and cowtowing to religious fanatics by Comedy Central for censoring the recent South Park episode in which Mohammed was depicted in a bear suit (it turned out not to be Mohammed, however, but Santa).

Nonetheless, people glommed on to the idea of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, resulting in Norris having to publish this statement on her web site.

Here’s a good article about what has taken place.

Although Norris did not intend Everybody Draw Mohammed Day to be a real day, I don’t think the momentum can be stopped at this point. Norris has made it clear that she is not the point person for this project, so don’t send drawings to her. There is, however, a Facebook page (see the aforementioned article), so that may act as a conduit.

But I don’t think there needs to be a central organizing force. This thing has already gone viral and if everyone decides that May 20th is Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, then all it will take is for everyone to follow through and actually draw Mohammed, and post the results publicly (although I suspect anonymously—terror is still terror, and it’s still a winning strategy).

Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 9:33 am  Leave a Comment  

Is the film Precious racist? Parsing Ishmael Reed’s argument

CAUTION: This post will contain spoilers about the film Precious.

There is a ‘controversy’ over whether or not the Oscar-nominated film Precious (based on the novel Push written by Sapphire) is racist. I place the word controversy in quotation marks because I’m not entirely convinced it is a true controversy; I think it’s more of an overblown media contrivance. A couple of people wrote a couple of articles accusing the movie of being racist, and these articles then got repeated and appropriated and regurgitated in several different media (including blogs).

The other morning I tuned in to the CBC Radio 1 show Q hosted by Jian Ghomeshi. At the top of the show he hosted a debate between the writer of one of these articles, Ishmael Reed, and Cameron Bailey, a writer and the programmer of the Toronto International Film Festival. It should be said, because it’s an important nugget, that both of these men are black. (I’ll use the terms black and white, adopting Ishmael Reed’s usage.) Also, most of the actors in Precious, the director and main producer of the film, the author of the novel it is based on, and many of the film’s financiers are black.

I’m actually not writing this to weigh in heavily on whether or not the movie is racist. I’m more interested in the phenomenon of creating false ‘both-sides’ dichotomies. There is an effort in the media to appear fair and balanced (no evocation of Fox ‘News’ intended) by finding someone to argue ‘the other side’ of an issue that does not rightly have another side. For example, when celebrating the anniversary of the Apollo missions and the moon landing, it’s not necessary to balance out an interview with NASA scientists by hosting a conspiracy theorist who claims the moon landings were a hoax.

Furthermore—and this is the nut—if you are going to report on (or create!) a controversy, then have enough integrity to vet your guests.

Jian Ghomeshi and/or his producers at Q decided to have on one of the two men who created all the ballyhoo over Precious, Ishmael Reed, presumably without checking to see if maybe he’s a bit…eccentric. (Really I wanted to write nutjob-crazy-ass-freakazoid-hate-filled-bigot, but I’m trying to be polite and at least give this guy the benefit of the doubt. For now.)

If you read Reed’s screed (ha!) on Counterpunch, you may have little doubt that this man, far from being a balanced individual with apt intellectual opinions, is clearly a bigot.  He comes off as a racist (he doesn’t like white people or black people who aren’t the right kind of black), a sexist and misogynist (he displays great disdain and disrespect for women), and a homophobe (he is baffled that a gay character could be presented positively). Also, I don’t know if there is a term for this (sizeist?), but he seems to dislike obese people. Oh, and he questions the veracity of incest/rape victims, is a conspiracy theorist, seems to be a prude (expressing disdain for the prurience of thongs), is a bad writer, and is just a plain old bad arguer (he throws up mountains of non-evidence having nothing to do with his premise and often employs logical fallacies, his favourites being ad hominem and straw-man attacks).

These are heavy claims I’m making. Racist, misogynist, homophobe, conspiracy theorist. They are of course my opinion based on his words. But let’s take a look at the evidence and you can decide for yourself. I’m going to parse Reed’s screed:

“Seeing that no one had supplied women with panties that were meant to be visible while wearing low cut jeans, [Sarah Siegel] captured the niche and made a fortune. With five million dollars, she invested in the film Precious….”

This displays the aforementioned disdain for the prurience of thongs, and also the fact that Reed is a horrible arguer. How the hell does the fact that an investor made her fortune by selling underwear prove that the movie Precious is racist?

He also goes after Sapphire (choosing to out her real name, showing disrespect for her choice to have a pen name):

“…she joined in on the lynching of five black and Hispanic boys…. She made money, and became famous. They were innocent!”

This is a completely separate issue from the movie, but Reed seems to enjoy using ad-hominem and straw-man attacks. This particular personal attack seems to be setting up the argument that because Sapphire wrote a poem about a case in which five men confessed to and were convicted of brutally beating and raping a woman in Central Park—men who later recanted their confessions and turned out to be not guilty—she is a bad person and a racist and that her book and the movie based on it are also bad and racist. I suppose that’s his not-entirely-logical argument.

A case analogous to the West Memphis Three, this is an excellent argument for tidying up the justice system and against the death penalty (there was no “lynching,” by the way—this is just a term Reed misleadingly employs). What it’s not is in any way related to the movie Precious, the book Push, or the supposed premise of Reed’s article.

(For those interested here’s a synopsis of the Central Park Jogger case Reed refers to.)

Okay, back to the Reed screed:

“Precious, about a pregnant 350 pound illiterate black teenager….”

Keep in mind this first mention of Precious’s weight—it’ll come up again. And again. And again.

“…the image of the black male as sexual predator has created a profit center for over one hundred years….”

I won’t argue that there is a problem in society with the demonization of black men (and non-whites in general), but I will argue that this movie is not about Precious’s father, who rapes her at least twice and impregnates her twice. The father is not a character. He’s not meant to be. He is not given a back story or even a face. He is symbolic. He is symbolic of a sad and true fact of life—that men abuse, rape, and oppress women with shocking and alarming regularity.

“But politicians, the KKK, Nazis, film, television, etc, had done the black male as a rapist to death.”

Okay, I understand this feeling—I really do. I’m queer and I could happily go the rest of my life without seeing another movie in which the gay character has to commit suicide, or be killed, or kill someone in the end. But if we strip away the colour, it is again a sad and true fact that men rape and abuse women with shocking and alarming regularity. It’s not limited to race. I don’t know how proportionate the representation of white versus black men as rapists is to the actual numbers of white and black men in the world. It likely is disproportionate.

However, this is a story about an uneducated girl living in the poorest of poor environments. This is a movie about poverty and what it does to people. And like it or not, the poorest people in most North American cultures are often black, aboriginal, Hispanic—in other words, non-white. Why? That is the real question.

“… which they saw as selling a black film to white audiences (the people to whom CNN and MSNBC are referring to [sic] when they invoke the phrase ‘The American People.’)”

Ummm…where’s the evidence for that? Do you have proof that CNN and MSNBC mean ‘whiteys’ when they refer to “The American People”? If you state something as fact, you’ve got to have proof. If you don’t have proof, then you have to qualify your statement as opinion.

“Three standing ovations… at Sundance convinced some of the business people that although white audiences might decline to support films that show cerebral blacks [such as] The Great Debaters…they would probably enjoy a film in which blacks were shown as incestors and pedophiles.”

While I do know that “incestors” is not a word, I do not know the intricate political, social, and psychological reasons that someone would choose to see Precious and not The Great Debaters. I know that the financial success of movies rides on promotion and hype—how much money is put into promoting them. I don’t think I saw a single preview or commercial for The Great Debaters, but I saw many for Precious. This doesn’t answer the question of why a studio would put money behind one movie and not another, but that’s a question for the studio heads I believe.

Here I will point out that Reed obsessively attacks Oprah Winfrey throughout his screed, who (along with Tyler Perry and others) is an executive producer* of Precious. While Reed seems to indicate that Winfrey’s backing of the movie makes her an evil tool of white power, he says nothing of her also producing The Great Debaters. I guess that’s inconvenient to Reed’s chosen paradigm.

“…when Lionsgate’s co-presidents for theatrical marketing…said of Precious, ‘There is simply a gold mine of opportunity here,’ they were on the money. In an interview [Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the Sundance Film Festival] said that [Precious] might hit ‘a cultural chord’ because of all of the discussion about race prompted by the election of President Obama.”

Well, yeah. Sorry, dude, but welcome to the world of business and marketing. That’s it! It’s all about cynicism, manipulation, chasing the dollar, and using any political means necessary to rake in more and more of these dollars. I don’t particularly like that seedy world, but that’s what happens for every movie; it’s not some grand racist conspiracy—it’s business. The same thing happens whether a phone company tries to sell you a plan, a record label tries to sell you an artist, or Coca-Cola tries to sell you a Coke.

Reed doesn’t seem to have a firm hold on exactly what he’s arguing. Does he think the people who made the movie (black people) are racist? Does he think the people who financially backed the movie (some black, some white) are racist? Or does he just hate business and marketing? I’d be behind Reed if he were arguing that the money-grubbing politicking of marketing is icky. But that’s not his contention. He contends that the movie is racist, yet he keeps coughing up as ‘proof’ things such as the fact that the film had a marketing strategy.

Reed goes on to say that after learning about this marketing plan he wanted Sarah Siegel to change the name of her panty company from So Low to How Low. This is the second reference to the fact that one of the investors in the movie made her fortune from selling low-rise underwear. It’s also worth noting that Reed refers to Siegel as “Sarah” every time he mentions her, which is a clear if subtle indication of disrespect. The journalistic tendency is to refer to people by their last name in articles.

I have many favourite parts of Reed’s screed, but this is definitely among them—an entire paragraph describing Siegel’s appearance:

“…a manicured, buffed Sarah, who doesn’t go lightly on the eye shadow, looks better [than some right-wing, racist wingnuts Reed compares her to]. She is salmon colored and though middle-aged wears baby doll clothes and if you Google her name, Sarah Siegel, along with ‘images’ you’ll find her posing in photos some of which have blacks smooching her [sic].”

Really, need I say anything in response to this? It pretty much speaks for itself.

Okay, just one thing!

‘I would like to propose that the movie Precious is racist. My proof is that one of the financial backers of the film wears eye shadow and baby-doll clothes (whatever that means) and has even been photographed being “smooched” by black people. I rest my case.’

“Sarah Siegel has joined an innovative marketing plan that couples Obama’s name with the most extreme of sexual crimes.”

Whatthefuck? Somehow now Siegel, an investor in the movie, is being credited with creating the film’s marketing plan, and this marketing plan couples Barack Obama with rape?!?! Reed is the original Superman leaping tall buildings in a single bound! The leap he makes here is not only a complete trouncing of logic, but I’d go as far as saying that it’s potentially libelous.

Reed quotes Armond White, the other guy whose article arguing that Precious is racist has been bandied about, repeated, appropriated, and regurgitated. In his article White compares Precious to Birth of a Nation, a 1915 silent film based on the novel The Clansman, which promoted white supremacy and depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroic.

This alone should be an erratic enough statement to discount Armond White’s article. But not only does Reed endorse and freely quote from it, he one-ups it, saying that Precious makes the director of Birth of a Nation “look like a progressive.” Yikes. Seriously. I need a coffee….

Okay, I’m back. Sigh, just in time for Reed’s denial of rape and incest, or at least his seeming preference for keeping such things tidily under the rug.

“Indeed, the business model for both the book [and the film]…was the black incest product, The Color Purple.”

Reed seems to deplore anyone shining a light on the fact that women and girls are raped and molested with shocking and alarming regularity. How dare someone tell a story about a woman being raped or molested!

In the Q debate Reed denies that incest occurs in the black community and lays an unfounded ad hominem attack on his arch nemesis Sarah Seigel, all in one fell swoop: “There’s probably more incest happening in Sarah Siegel’s group than in the African-American community.” I don’t know what “Sarah Siegel’s group” refers to—Siegels? Women? Financiers of films? Underwear designers? Hollywood types?

More from Reed’s article:

“But even that incest film doesn’t go as far as Precious, which shows both mother and father engaged in a sexual assault on their daughter in graphic detail….”

This is false. The scene that shows Precious being raped by her father is shocking and disturbing, but there is not much graphic detail. First of all, it’s out of focus. Secondly, it quickly dissipates into one of Precious’s escapist fantasies—her way of disconnecting from the reality of her brutal existence. The scene that insinuates the sexual assault of Precious by her mother is just that—an insinuation. It’s unambiguous, but it shows nothing.

“The naked black skinned man Carl of medium built [sic] who rapes a 350 pound daughter, who elsewhere in the film goes about flattening people with one punch….”

Definitely one of my favourite of Reed’s nonsensical yet illustrative ‘arguments.’ Here Reed alludes to the fact that a 350-pound teenager could not possibly be raped because…what? She’s too fat? He repeats this claim in the Q interview by saying, “Not only does the father rape a 350-pound woman…” and then trailing off into derisive laughter. To his credit, Ghomeshi calls him on this, asking if that fact stretches credulity. Reed does not answer the question. Not to his credit, Ghomeshi lets him get away with not answering the question.

This is vile, offensive, contemptible stuff. I can’t think of words to describe the derision I want to heap upon Reed. I want every feminist, social worker, rape or incest survivor, at-risk worker, teacher, counselor, psychologist, cognitive scientist, women’s shelter worker, V-Day warrior, women’s rights advocate, anti-violence crusader, etc. to descend upon Ishmael Reed and school him in the realities of physical/sexual violence against women and battered-woman syndrome.

Women of all shapes and sizes can be and are raped and abused with shocking and alarming regularity. To suggest that because Precious punched some kid in the face means that she could not be raped is blatantly absurd and clearly contemptuous. To suggest that she could have overpowered her attacker because she may have weighed more than him is to ignore everything we know about the psychology of abuse.

Reed goes on to refer to Precious’s father as “a vile prop,” “a person with no story and no humanity,” and quotes someone as saying that he is “the real victim of the movie.” Vile, offensive, absurd, contemptible—these words just don’t seem enough. Yes, clearly the “real” victim of the story is the rapist who isn’t given a full arc, as opposed to the illiterate, poor, chronically abused, raped, teenaged mother of two who is infected with AIDS by her rapist father. Sure thing.

As I stated earlier, Precious’s father is not meant to be a character in the movie; that’s the whole point—he’s symbolic. The story is about Precious, about the abuse and oppression of women, poor people, and minorities. The story is not about the father, his character, his motivation, his psychology, his back story. That would be another movie. Perhaps Ishmael Reed should write it. But this movie is about the victim.

I want to show respect but I can’t: Fuck you, Ishmael. Fuck you for denying that a large woman could be raped. Fuck you for deploring stories of women’s abuse. Fuck you for painting the rapist character as the victim. Check out these (U.S.) statistics from RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network):  One in six women will be sexually abused in her lifetime. Every two minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. About 73% of rape victims know their rapists. Only 60% of sexual assaults are actually reported. And only about 6% of rapists will spend a day in jail for their crime.

So fuck you.

Hey, how about we lighten the tone with some more unproven ad hominem attacks?

TheRoot is The Washington Post’s black zine…. The zine’s black face is Henry Louis Gates, Jr…. TheRoot has provided cover for Precious probably because Gates is tight with Oprah Winfrey and wrote a kiss up book about her.”

This is an absolutely perfect example of the classic conspiracy theorist tactic: Anyone or anything that disproves your conspiracy is in on the conspiracy. The only possible reason that the “black face” (WTF?) of a black zine could support the film Precious is because the movie was promoted by Oprah Winfrey and said “black face” is a Winfrey ass-kisser. (P.S., Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is also the U.S. Commissar of African American Culture.)

Reed’s conspiracy-theorist craziness is on further exhibit in the Q debate. Reed says that the only people who praise the movie are white critics, which Cameron Bailey refutes by saying that the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) showered the film with eight nominations and six awards. Reed says, “He paid for that. He gave them a million dollars. Tyler Perry did.” Incredulous, Bailey asks, “You’re saying Tyler Perry paid for those awards?” to which Reed answers, “Yeah.” Also incredulous, Jian Ghomeshi asks, “He bought the NAACP?” and Reed responds, “He gave them a million dollars.” Gotta love Cameron Bailey for realizing the absurdity of the ‘debate’ at this point, saying, “Well once we enter the realm of conspiracy theories, I have to just leave it there.”

More from Reed’s article:

“The white characters are altruistic types, there to help downtrodden black people and are among those who are to be admired.”

Maybe. I’m going to maybe allow this argument, but I’m giving it a 5% strength as it pertains to the film Precious. There are hardly any white people in the movie at all. There’s Mariah Carey’s counselor character, whose race is questioned but never discovered. Every other character is black, although Paula Patton’s teacher character Blu Rain and Lenny Kravitz’s Nurse John are “light-skinned.” More on that soon.

“According to this film, if you’re a lucky black woman, a white man will rescue you from the clutches of evil black men.”

First of all, I repeat that there is no “white man” saviour in this movie. Second, no one is “rescued” in any real sense. Precious is perhaps semi-rescued by a black (though “light-skinned”), female teacher who shows her respect and caring and provides her with an education for the first time in Precious’s life. That’s hardly an example of “a white man” rescuing her from “the clutches of evil black men.”

If Ishmael Reed has such a problem with this very real issue—the clichéd story of non-whites being rescued and/or ‘domesticated’ by whites—why hasn’t he railed against other Oscar contenders The Blind Side or Avatar?

I’m not sure what Steven Spielberg’s admission that after reading The Color Purple he wanted to rescue Celie has to do with the question of racism in Precious, but it’s hardly surprising; it’s neither a white nor solely male instinct to want to rescue people who are being abused or oppressed. I felt this way when I read Bastard Out of Carolina and I’m a white woman—so was the character (her abuser was white as well). I have felt this way during every book I’ve read or movie I’ve seen depicting abused women or children. And sadly, there are many of them.

Oh, but Reed’s Steven Spielberg jag gets better:

“…while he has yet to make a movie about the Celies among his ethnic group.”

I’m assuming that by “his ethnic group” Reed is referring to Jewish people. And I can only laugh—truly, I laughed when I read this—because Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List! A movie about the Holocaust, a genocide that killed millions of “his ethnic group,” both male and female. Oy vey.

Earlier I alluded to Reed’s obsession with not-black-enough black people and asserted that he’s a sexist, so here’s some evidence: Reed refers to Paula Patton’s character as “light-skinned” and someone “whom the camera favors.” He refers to Mariah Carey’s character as “firm” and “of the same skin tone.” That he can think of no other way to describe these women (like perhaps their acting talent?) than their physicality is telling.

More on women: Reed refers to TheRoot’s female contributors, some of whom are professors, as “the types who are using the university curriculum to get even with their fathers….”

Wow. I don’t know for sure, but I would suggest based on the evidence in this article that perhaps Reed has some mommy issues he needs to work on with a therapist. Maybe they’re daddy issues, I don’t know, but he certainly seems to have a hate-on for women. How can anyone take this man seriously when he writes things like this?

Reed then goes on a tangent for a few paragraphs trouncing TheRoot some more and bringing up The Color Purple and Steven Spielberg again. It’s boring and has nothing to do with what is supposed to be his central argument. Although to be honest, I don’t know that he really has one. He purports to argue that Precious (the film and/or its marketing campaign?) is racist, but he seems to just be using that as a front so he can hate on women and light-skinned black people and fatties and queers (wait for it).

Reed condemns Precious for being “a film in which gays are superior to black male heterosexuals.”

Uh….

Okay. Okay, I get you. I’m with you. We all know (don’t we?) that “gays” are worse than every other segment of the population. How dare anyone make a movie in which the “gays” are depicted as superior to the black male heterosexual abusive rapist child-molester?

But wait! There’s more!

“Next to the whites, the male who treats Precious and her dysfunctional friends with the most understanding is John John, the Gay [sic] male nurse. (Lee Daniels, the Gay [sic] ‘director’ of the film once ran a nursing business.)”

Yep.

Okay:

1)      Again, there are hardly any white characters in this movie.

2)      Lenny Kravitz’s character John is not gay. The movie explicitly depicts him as straight.

3)      The “light-skinned” teacher, played by Paula Patton is, however, a lesbian and her partner is a “dark-skinned” black person. Not sure how this fits into Reed’s paradigm.

4)      I don’t know why Gay is capitalized suddenly, but I like it!

5)      Lee Daniels is the director of the film. The quotation marks around “director” are Reed’s. I’m not sure why, although he seems to be implying that Daniels did not direct the film. Is it because he’s gay?

6)      I am shocked—shocked!—that a film would contain a nurse character. And a male nurse at that! Lee Daniels once apparently ran a nursing business. This is clearly a conspiracy.

But wait! There’s more (on the not-black-enough or not-the-right-kind-of-black issue)!

“In this movie Caribbean Americans are smarter than black Americans.”

Shit on a stick!! How dare they?!?! What right do Caribbean-black Americans have being in a movie anyway, but then to have the gall to appear smarter than non-Caribbean-black Americans? It’s bullshit! It’s racist! It’s a conspiracy!

At this point I can’t ascribe any factual accuracy to anything Reed says, but he claims that Oprah Winfrey has only ever had a “few titles by black male authors” as part of her book club. This may or may not be true. If it is, then perhaps the title of Reed’s screed should have been “Oprah and sexism: Why so few titles in her book club have been written by men” (I’m not putting any more creative thought into it than that). That Reed seems to be accusing Winfrey of sexism is laughable given all that he has said about women, so I’ll take a page from Cameron Bailey and just leave it there.

Now Reed launches into an extremely long ad hominem attack on Oprah Winfrey, who is an executive producer* of the movie. Reed actually quotes the writer of an unauthorized Oprah Winfrey biography, quotes a woman who attended a taping of Winfrey’s show, and contends that the “real” reason Winfrey is quitting her show is because of another unauthorized biography that isn’t even out yet. Reed’s love of the illogical, nonsensical, and unrelated ‘argument’ is here coupled with his disdain for women and overweight people: “Like her addiction to food, Oprah does well for a little while but she just can’t help herself.”

Again, what’s his argument supposed to be? The problem with responding to an article like this is that every single thing he says is ridiculous, false, and/or offensive. I’m going to skip through some of it quickly. Reed says many more absurd things, but none such that my head will explode if I don’t respond to them. Besides, they really speak for themselves.

Blah, blah, blah…some ad hominem attacks on The New York Times Magazine for liking Precious; a condemnation of the magazine for featuring Gabourey Sidibe, “the 350 pound actor in the title role,” on its cover (that’s the third reference to her weight if you’re counting); a reference to this cover story as “black exploitation;” a reference to the Times Op Ed page as the “Jim Crow Op Ed” page; a subtle conspiracy theory about the fact that Lionsgate spent money advertising in The New York Times; an ad hominem (and potentially libelous) attack on A.O. Scott; a comparison of the Oscar-winning film Monster’s Ball to porn; and a truly beyond-absurd and laughable rhetorical question: “When [Daniels] went on the set to exercise his role as ‘director’ did the white people who own the movie and provide the crew for this film call security? Hard to say.”

Mmm. Hard indeed.

Reed then starts to make what could potentially be a fair and cogent point about the lack of black voices in pop culture, art, and media, but then just can’t resist the racism and ad hominem attacks—he refers to the Times Op Ed writer Orlando Patterson as “the kind of Jamaican who has nothing but contempt for African Americans.”

Seriously, I am not making this shit up. How could anyone—anyone—read his nonsensical article and not conclude that Ishmael Reed hates black people who were born outside of the United States, hates light-skinned black people, hates women, hates overweight people, hates queers, and denigrates anyone who disagrees with him?!?!

There’s some more conspiracy theory stuff, too. Sapphire claims that Precious was a real-life person, but Reed implies that it’s not true: “Don’t you think that if such a person existed that [sic] Lionsgate wouldn’t [sic] include her in its marketing plan….” Despite your wretched grammatical construction, I do understand your rhetorical question and the answer is no—not if the real-life Precious did not want to be outed. And that’s even assuming she’s still alive. She did, after all, contract AIDS in the 1980s.

(In the Q debate Reed rehashes this, saying, “…if she were a real person, they would have brought her forth and paraded her around like a baby elephant or something.” Don’t think for a moment that this isn’t yet another anti-overweight jab.)

Hey! How about some more nonsensical ad hominem attacks? It’s been, what, two sentences since we’ve heard one? What’s that, Ishmael? An ad for Precious appeared on your AOL home page you say? Please, tell me more about AOL’s coverage of black culture and politics since it’s so closely related to the premise of your article!

“Their coverage of black culture is limited to black NFL and NBA athletes who get into trouble outside of strip clubs.”

HA! Good one!

“Sapphire says that she was a former prostitute and a victim of incest (Lee Daniels does his pity party routine during the Times’ interview)…. In 1986, she began to ‘remember things.’ (Lee Daniels also ‘remembered’ abuse by his father.)”

I doubt that any woman has ever been a prostitute or a victim of incest. But even if this ridiculous supposition were true, why on earth would she be deserving of any compassion or sympathy? And how could she possibly have gone on to be a success in life? Furthermore, we all know that people who ‘remember’ being abused as children are clearly just vengeful adults trying to punish their parents for not buying them a car when they turned 16. Life can be so cruel!

Blah, blah, blah…more stuff that has zero to do with the movie. More ad hominems. More conjecture. Actually a pretty strong case against the death penalty. Some attacks on the F word (f-f-feminists!). More attacks on Sapphire. More attacks on Sarah Siegel. More bad grammar and writing (“…whose depiction of black men is worst than those…”). More equating of Precious to Nazis and the Holocaust. (Oh, and in the Q debate Reed tells a blatant lie: “There’s a subtle eugenics message at the end of the movie about sterilizing black women.” This is just not true.)

Reed then goes on a tirade in his article personally attacking NPR’s Terry Gross for liking Precious and for allegedly being racist (though providing no evidence). This is beautiful hypocrisy; check it out:

“When whatever is bothering Ms. Gross about black men gains entry in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, maybe the editors will name it after her. Gross’s Syndrome.”

Sure! And when whatever is bothering Ishmael Reed about women, rape/incest victims, white people, light-skinned/Caribbean/Jamaican black people, overweight people, and queers gains entry in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, maybe the editors will name it after him! ISHMAELIAN-REED SYNDROME, characterized by hate-filled, balls-out bigotry!

This has been a long post, I know. Thanks for riding it out (if you did). If you feel as strongly about this issue as I do, let your opinion be known. Post comments on articles. Write to Q and any other media outlet that has Ishmael Reed on as a legitimate guest.

Most importantly, raise the level of discourse. There are real issues buried somewhere here among Reed’s trite bile. There are serious issues about black representation and about the all-too-true state of affairs for women, poor people, and minorities. It sucks that the story of Precious is about a poor, forgotten, illiterate, abused, unhealthy, teenager who has slipped through the cracks, has been chronically abused and raped, and has never been truly cared about.

It sucks, but it’s a story that is lived out again and again every day all over the world. The fact that she’s black, that her story takes place in ‘the ghetto’ in the 1980s is just the setting. The abuse of women and children, the oppression of minorities, and the damage that poverty does are all real. They’re true. They happen to people. That a disproportionate number of these people are racial and sexual minorities is also true. This fact alone is evidence of systemic societal racism and sexism; a film depicting this is not inherently racist. In fact, it may help shine a light where too long darkness has maintained the status quo.

* For accuracy’s sake, I have edited the claim that Oprah Winfrey was a “financial backer.” She is, in fact, an executive producer and I do not know if she financially backed the film.

For more:

The attacks on Precious are starting to say more about the attackers. (“… the difference between a cliché and a portrayal of genuine life will always come down to the specificity of what you’re seeing…. Several points in Reed’s essay strike me as almost perversely wrongheaded…. I think he’s talking about a different movie.”)

The controversy over Precious. (“Precious takes people who are usually only depicted as stereotypes, hated and looked down at, if looked at at all—overweight, dark-skinned Black girls and women on welfare—and shows them as they are, full humans with complexity and humanity. In this way it contributes to understanding more deeply the depths of the oppression people like them face and the impacts of those stereotypes. This is the exact opposite of minstrelsy.”)

Ishmael Reed on the Movie Precious. (“So how does Reed’s us against them binary explain the legion of black folks and black women in particular that identify with the movie’s characterization of incest and sexual abuse? Simply put, it doesn’t. That is, not unless you believe that all black folks think alike, which apparently Reed expects us—or precisely the mostly white readership of the New York Times—to believe.”)

The problem with Precious. (“How else to explain that while the film is set in 1987, no one seems outraged that so little has changed in the inner city in the more than 20 years since? Precious is a period piece that feels like a documentary.”)

She’s Not Just a Fat Aunt Jemima on a Pancake Box. (“…it sounds like Reed’s central complaint is more about the lack of other similar portrayals of non-Blacks than an ACTUAL critique of this specific movie. In fact, based on his summary of the movie in his review, I’m not even sure he’s seen the film…. In any case, who gets to decide what serves as Black ‘reality’? Ishmael Reed? Is there a review board?”)

Precious attacked in the NYTimes. (“[Ishmael Reed’s editorial] is an extremely narrow attack on a very powerful and moving piece of art that truly is not about the demonization of Black men, but a work that shines a light on the many ways in which the potential and humanity of young Black women, poor women on welfare, victims of incest and abuse, victims of the American ‘educational’ system, dark-skinnned Black girls are squandered.  As the movie puts it, they are so often viewed as only as ‘Black grease to be wiped away.'”)

Precious Ignites a Debate on the Black Narrative. (“‘Black people are able to say Precious represents some of our children, but some of our children go to Yale. Child abuse is not black,’ [Sapphire] added. ‘What do you call the man in Austria who imprisoned his daughter for years?'”)

Published in: on March 5, 2010 at 10:14 pm  Comments (20)  
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Not waving but drowning

I’ve been getting mild flak from friends (unintentional alliteration!) about the fact that I haven’t been regularly updating my blog. I have wanted to write for a while now; I’ve known what I want to write about but I haven’t been able to figure out how.

One month ago today, on December 29th, a very good friend of mine committed suicide. It’s an extremely personal event and although I’ve felt compelled to write about it, about him, I’ve questioned how to make it universal and not self-indulgent.

I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counsellor, so I can’t write about suicide and depression from a clinical perspective. Here’s what I can say. About John personally: he was a great person and a great friend. He was loving; he always demonstrated and spoke his love freely. He was loyal and giving. He was intellectually curious like no one I’ve ever met. He was humble and not afraid to ask questions. He loved music. He was smart, hard-working, and driven. He was loved, and I believe he knew it and felt it. And he suffered from bipolar (or manic-depressive) disorder.

From the National Institute of Mental Health:

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. Bipolar disorder symptoms can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives.

John developed this disorder when he was a teenager and was medicated throughout his life. There were times when he experimented with going off his meds and I don’t know if he was off his meds when he took his own life.

But I don’t want to talk about brain disorders just now. I want to talk about suicide and what it does to the people left behind.

John didn’t leave a letter, an e-mail, or even a note scribbled on a scrap of paper. We who loved him will never know why he made this final choice. And we will never escape the questions or the guilt.

I know about John’s disorder and I basically understand it—and depression in general—but I still question daily what I could have done to have prevented this outcome. I had dinner with John less than a week before he killed himself (he insisted on paying). We talked for hours, as we often did. He talked somewhat hopefully about fences being mended with family members and somewhat excitedly about going to a cabin with friends for New Year’s. We made plans for the summer. And a week later he was dead by his own hands.

What did I not see during that dinner and in the months prior? What did I not hear? How did I not reach out and take his hand when he was clearly not waving, but drowning?

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him
his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith

I understand the feeling of going under, the feeling that you’re alone and no one cares. In those times we can feel resentful that people don’t reach in. They expect us to reach out if we need help, but how are we to reach out when we’re drowning?

(Warning: Two geeky yet completely apt paraphrases from Buffy and Firefly ahead. I apologize in advance. I wish I could use the excuse that John was a huge Joss Whedon fan, but he was more into Family Guy.)

The truth is that there’s culpability on both sides. As the person who is feeling the blackness encroaching, you have to reach out. When you can’t walk, you crawl; when you can’t crawl, you find someone to carry you. Pride may prevent this, but we all need some carrying from time to time—that’s what friends and family are for. Don’t feel resentful about having to reach out. You may think that people should be able to see your pain, but often others don’t see your pain because they’re too busy with their own.

As someone on the outside, you have to monitor your loved ones. You have to reach in and make sure everything is okay. Sometimes you have to prod. If you don’t, and if the worst happens, then you will never forgive yourself for selfishly ignoring the pain of others. Even if you are busy with your own pain, share your pain. Share theirs. Help each other.

Suicide is the worst thing you can do to the people you leave behind. I love John, but I’m angry with him for doing this to himself and to us. I’m angry at myself for not having seen it coming. I’m sad for everyone who cared about John who now has a gap in their life that will never be filled. I’m devastated that John felt he had no alternative. He had to know we loved him, didn’t he? Some have speculated that the reason he didn’t leave a note is because if he did, he would have had to face the fact that people loved him and would miss him, and maybe he would have changed his mind.

Still, although I believe John knew that we loved him, the lyrics from Lucinda Williams’s “Sweet Old World” have been rolling around my head for a month now:

See what you lost when you left this world,
this sweet old world
The breath from your own lips
The touch of fingertips
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train
Wearing someone’s ring
Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm, cradled in your arm
Didn’t you think you were worth anything?
See what you lost when you left this world,
this sweet old world
Millions of us in love
Promises made good
Your own flesh and blood
Looking for some truth
Dancing with no shoes
The beat, the rhythm, the blues
The pounding of your heart’s drum, together with another one
Didn’t you think anyone loved you?
See what you lost when you left this world,
this sweet old world….

Secular Christmas

Every year since I’ve become politically cognizant it seems I’ve had to endure people bickering about the ‘controversy’ over Christmas. Is it a war on Christmas, as right-wing TV and radio hosts purport? Is it offensive to say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” as opposed to “Merry Christmas?” Is being inclusive and saying “Happy Hanukkah,” “Happy Kwanzaa,” etc. a slippery slope? Is it hypocritical at best, politically or ethically untenable at worst, for non-theists to celebrate Christmas? Some non-theists don’t celebrate Christmas because of its religious connotations, and some theists think that non-Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. It’s a whole, annoying bog.

The fact is that all of the alleged controversy can be rendered irrelevant by accepting that Christmas has become largely a secular holiday.

Out of the gate let me say that of course there is certainly a contingent of religious people for whom December 25th is the birthday of Jesus Christ, and who celebrate the date as such. But generally the majority in the world who celebrate Christmas—even in countries with very few Christians—celebrate it as a secular tradition rather than a religious one.

Christmas is mostly about giving and receiving presents, eating a lot of food, getting shmammered, attending parties, and spending time with family and friends. For some, it is about all of these things and attending church. (Although in my experience I’ve found that many of the Christmas church-goers attend more out of habit, tradition, or ‘keeping up appearances’ than to worship a god. In many cases, the folks who attend mass on Christmas only go to church once or twice a year—the other being Easter.)

If the devoutly religious want Christmas to be purely about religion, then they must eschew all of the other Christmas traditions: gifts, food, lights, trees, etc. If they don’t and yet still complain about the secular ‘co-opting’ of Christmas, then they are nothing more than hypocrites.

But what is Christmas, anyway? Is it historically a purely religious, Christian celebration?

If it is true that Jesus were a real historical figure, it is the consensus of most historians and theologians based on available evidence that December 25th was not the actual date of his birth. (Most accounts place it in the spring.) December 25th was originally a Roman winter solstice festival known as Sol Invictus, which celebrated the “rebirth” of the Sun; several Sun gods were worshipped, including Sol and Mithras. Because it was already such a popular pagan holiday, it was claimed as the birthday of Jesus. Even so, celebrating the birth of Jesus was condemned and looked down upon by Christians for most of history, and Christians didn’t start celebrating Christmas as we know it until the 1800s.

The gift-giving part of Christmas—some would say the #1 Christmas tradition—was actually introduced long after the Church decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The tradition does not derive from the three wise men in the bible, as many believe. In fact, gift exchange derived from Saturnalia, a popular Roman holiday dating to 217 BCE that celebrated the god Saturn. Saturnalia involved sacrifices, a school holiday, and, yes, the exchange of gifts.

Even if we grant the war-on-Christmas types the two lies they claim as truth (that Jesus was born on December 25th and that the gift-exchange tradition comes from the three wise men), I wonder how Jesus would feel about people celebrating his birth by literally trampling each other to death in a Walmart in order to buy the $450 video game on sale for $350.

As for that exalted symbol the Christmas tree—it is a tradition that dates to 16th century Germany. It was considered good luck to hang an evergreen at the apex of a house, and over time this morphed into having the tree inside and decorating it. The tradition immigrated to North America along with the Germans.

Traditions are what society is based on, no matter where you live in the world or what your society looks like. Traditions are mostly benign. They are also malleable and tend to change over time. And generally society changes with them. We celebrate Halloween: kids dress up in costumes and beg for candy door to door; adults dress up in costumes and parade and/or party. We do not celebrate the Celtic festival Samhain, from which Halloween is derived, warding off evil spirits by disguising ourselves as them, or slaughtering livestock and casting their bones into bonfires. (At least I hope we don’t!)

Christmas may have meant one thing once upon a time, but now it means something different. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, but we can still celebrate Christmas. Even the non-religious can celebrate Christmas because it’s about tradition, merriment, nostalgia, and making new memories. It’s an excuse to get together with family and friends we don’t see very often. It’s fun to see the excitement and awe in children’s eyes. The food, candy, and chocolate are great and some people even like Christmas music. The sweaters are mostly bad, and feelings about egg nog are split.

As for me, I have grown increasingly weary of Christmas. It seems the magic goes out of it when you’re no longer a child and don’t have children in your life. But it’s the crass commercialism and pure gaudiness that I abhor more than anything. (But if that doesn’t bother you and you still have some names to cross off your shopping list, may I suggest The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, edited by the brain behind the atheist bus campaign, Ariane Sherine.)

Christmas is no Halloween, but if I remove the religiosity and the crass commercialism, it’s a pretty nice holiday. For whatever reason The Sound of Music is always on TV this time of the year, and that’s enough for me.

So Merry Christmas, Happy Festivus, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Human Rights Day, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy New Year, Happy Omisoka, Happy St. Lucia Day, Happy Winter Solstice, Merry X-mas …and Happy any-other-December-holiday-you-may-celebrate-that-I-may-have-inadvertently-left-out!

A few quotations from well-known scientists, skeptics, and atheists on this subject:

“But of course it has long since ceased to be a religious festival. I participate for family reasons, with a reluctance that owes more to aesthetics than atheistics. I detest Jingle Bells, White Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and the obscene spending bonanza that nowadays seems to occupy not just December, but November and much of October, too. So divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as happy holiday season. In the same way as many of my friends call themselves Jewish atheists, I acknowledge that I come from Christian cultural roots. I am a post-Christian atheist. So, understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.” – Richard Dawkins

“It seems to me to be obvious that everything we value in Christmas—giving gifts, celebrating the holiday with our families, enjoying all of the kitsch that comes along with it—all of that has been entirely appropriated by the secular world.” – Sam Harris

“My personal war on Christmas is fought in a way the Bill O’Reillys of the world don’t even recognize: I blithely wish people a Merry Christmas without so much as a germ of religious reverence anywhere in my body. I take this holiday and turn it into a purely secular event, with family and friends and food and presents. I celebrate the season without thought of Jesus or any of the other myths so precious to the pious idiots who get upset when a Walmart gives them a cheery ‘Happy Holidays!’” – PZ Meyers

Quotation of the week

“Lives of great men all remind us

greatness takes no easy way.

All the heroes of tomorrow

are the heretics of today.”

– Yip Harburg

Quotation of the week

“Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”  – Ani DiFranco