I was asked to discuss activism with our local group, CFI-Pittsburgh. Since my speech seemed to have been a success, I figured I’d share it in its entirety here. Please ask questions and add other ideas and I’ll share them with our group.
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.
We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be!
We know things are bad — worse than bad — they’re crazy.
It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.”
Well, I’m not going to leave you alone.
I want you to get mad!
I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.
You’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!” [pause]
So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell,
“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”
I want you to get up right now. Get up. Go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Things have got to change, but first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis but first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
That speech comes from a 1976 film called “Network” directed by Sidney Lumet and performed by Peter Finch. It was a satire on the media, and damn does that speech hold up. I can’t recommend that movie enough. And why did I start my speech this way? Well I’ve loved that monologue ever since I’ve seen it and always wanted to perform it. But again, truth be told, that’s what I feel in my heart. To me, that’s the essence of activism. This is not a time for passivity. This is not a time for quiet mumblings about about bad things are. This is a time to stand up and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
First, I’ll start with my story of atheist activism in regards to my brief bout with the state DMV. I’ll just use excerpts from my blog post to tell the story since I wrote that on the day I won and it was rather fresh in my head then.
I applied for a vanity plate in the state of Pennsylvania. The new activism and firebrand atheism has really taken me over. I was excited that a national convention was coming to my city. I was excited that I was going to volunteer. And a little, I was excited to meet Andrew Seidel. He’s a lawyer with the FFRF and through many interactions on Twitter, I grew fond of him and his work. He seemed like the nicest person and just as smart as could be. My goal was to thank him in person for the hard and amazing work he’s being doing. Anyways, I applied for the plate a few days before the convention. I checked the online database and all three of my selections were available. My number one choice “ATHEIST” (I have a soft spot in my heart for Penn Jillette AND David Silverman, who both have this one) was listed as already taken and unavailable. Therefore I applied for ATHE1ST, NO GOD, and N0 G0D, which were listed as available.
Smash-cut to Wednesday this week. I get a letter saying that all three of my choices have been denied! They gave no reason for this. Now pre-convention, I probably would have just sadly said “ok…I’ll pick something else.” But now I was emblazoned with a sense of justice and, like a person living in Gotham City being attacked by a guy with question marks all over his suit, I knew just where to turn. Mr. Seidel responded to a tweet I sent him regarding this and he told me to fill out a form on the FFRF website. I did so.
“And the evening and the morning was the first day”
I received an email from Mr. Seidel that he was going to take up the case. He asked me for information, which I provided. Then he wrote a letter and sent it off to Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary, Leslie Richards. I nearly had tears in my eyes reading it. Someone was standing up for me. My rights (however big or small they are) were being trampled just because I didn’t believe a particular version of a particular god. (Minchin…fuck yeah) and while I, as the most ordinary of dudes, couldn’t do much, someone with a lot more oomph was going to bat for me. The letter itself was overwhelming. There was passion behind it…passion I felt when I fight the small, everyday injustices we face. There was anger, not directed towards anyone in particular, but that fire in your belly, “I’m right and here’s why” volleyball-spike of anger. I’m keeping a copy of that letter in my fireproof box so I have it forever. It truly meant the world to me.
Along with that came the media attention. As I mentioned the FFRF posted an article about this. David Silverman; who is my activist hero, showed support for me on Twitter. Hemant Mehta, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Reason Rally, posted about it on his well-read blog. Again, this is little old me, who for once in his life, stood for something he believed in. I’m now not the middle school nerd who was bullied for having the audacity of reading books not assigned by the school. I’m now not the high school guy who was into drama & acting and not sports anymore. For once, I stood up for myself and what I believed in and fought. And damn it, there were others who supported me. I went to bed with a smile on my face. I may not win. I may not get my license plate. But I was part of something bigger and that made me the proudest person in the world.
“And the evening and the morning was the second day”
So I woke up today to more support on my social media platforms. Both Facebook and Twitter were filled with comments and retweets all about my story. And while my parents don’t even know about this (I might tell them at some point), my atheist family had my back and wished me luck. Around noon, I got an email from a local journalist. We met at the FFRF convention and she even included a quote from me in her piece on the event. She wanted to do a story on me. I agreed and we talked on the phone for about 15 minutes. She even asked me if I’d agree to meeting with a photographer. I got home from work early and met with the photographer. He was a nice fellow and while I’m unsure of his actual religious convictions, he supported freedom and wished me all the best in my fight.
A few hours later (and a few minutes before my writing of this post), the journalist contacted me and asked how my visit with the photographer went. She also notified me that she contacted PennDOT and asked about the situation. They told her that it was an “employee error” and that they’ve tried calling me and are sending me a letter to tell me they will issue ATHE1ST to me. And honestly, as I was writing this up I got another phone call from “NO CALLER ID” (Oh, which every atheist would answer right after the media proclaims him an out of the closet atheist *raspberries*). This time I answered and a Scott from PennDOT wished to inform me that they noticed I requested a vanity plate, and that after an “internal review” they deemed it was denied in error and that my plate would be issued. I thanked him, wished him a good day and hung up.
And that was the end of it.
And through that I’ve noticed social media light up. It was covered and shared by “The Friendly Atheist” a rather popular blog and the comments there were astounding. The majority were positive well wishes and the like but I was stunned by how many people said that my car and the plate itself were in danger now. In danger? For just proclaiming you’re an atheist? Yes, that absolutely exists. Not long after I won my fight a friend sent me a story about someone with an atheist license plate in florida who had their plate bent in half. I tell you all this to bring up my first tip about activism. I’m a white, heterosexual, single male. I might as well just get the word privilege tattooed on my forehead. And while that can get me in a lot of trouble if I’m not cognisant of it, obviously it carries power. To me and several other activists I’ve heard from, the single-greatest act of atheist activism you can perform, is being an out and proud atheist. I use that privilege that I was born into as a loudspeaker for those who can’t. I am in your face with my atheism, precisely for those people who HAVE to remain hidden.
And trust that they exist as well. As I mentioned my case was publicized and I got messages from people thanking me for taking up this fight. I’m reminded of one man, from our state, who could not be out about his atheism because of fears of losing his job, who told me he had tears in his eyes reading about my fight and telling his wife about how awesome that this was happening in our state. I felt honored, I felt sadness that he had to live in this way, and again, it made me mad as hell. That feeling is just one more heap of coal into this furnace ready to move onward and fight again.
And I completely disagree with those that say that my “in your facedness” harms the cause. If anyone is interested in that topic, I can address it in the discussion section after my talk, or you can search the term “Overton Window”.
As a side note to this, at the FFRF convention last year I met Justin Scott. If you don’t know his name, you might have seen his viral videos on YouTube. He lives in Iowa, the first state to hold a primary/caucus for the presidential race. Each and every candidate visits this state early and often as it makes or breaks a serious presidential run. Well, he recorded himself talking to every candidate. He first introduced himself as an atheist, and proceeded to ask about a secular value (ie. LGBT rights, Women’s rights, separation of church and state). He posted this to YouTube and they gained so much traction and notoriety in the atheist community and was even featured on CNN and Fox News. Anyways, he was awarded the “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” award in 2016 at the Pittsburgh convention and I got a chance to talk to him for about an hour. We shared ideas, became Facebook friends and I’ve been a fan ever since. Anyways, we got to talking a few weeks ago and he offered a challenge to me. He said it was now my turn to take on the mantle. It was my job to find local/state/national politicians who came to Pittsburgh and address the same questions, record them and post them on YouTube. He offered me all the help that he didn’t have and I’ve been having some enlightening conversations to say the least. That’s going to be one thing I will be tackling this year and if anyone would like to help out, let me know after the talk or get in touch with me online.
Another instance of how being out is helpful. I have a friend who is known in the local Libertarian Party community. He’s my age and works with me and he’s really rare in that he’s someone I can talk to at work about serious issues and not just the local sports team’s doings. Anyways, he’s in the process of setting up an event discussing the First Amendment and primarily what that means to people of multiple faiths. He’s going to have a catholic and a muslim and he’s asked me to represent the atheist point of view. I agreed and it should be an interesting event. It’ll be free to the public so I’ll post the information when it’s closer to the event and hopefully get some community support. But that wouldn’t have happened if this one guy at work didn’t what my “beliefs” are. If I remained closeted I wouldn’t have this opportunity and potentially there would be no atheist viewpoint at the event. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be out if you are able to. It is the single greatest activist thing you can do.So when people say, “What can I do?”, I always answer with, do the easiest but most effective thing you can, be an out and proud atheist. But if you want to take that a step further here are some ideas the activist community at large has come up with.
First, this is a political movement. There’s no doubt that we can make small changes here in the community, but that’s alone will not solve the problem writ large. As a result of that, who are your legislators? Do you know all the men and women who are in a position of power locally, statewide and nationally? I have a link to find your local/state legislators and if you wish to have it, I’ll be passing around a piece of paper to get your email address. I plan to have all of the links I discuss in one big email and I’ll send it to anyone who is interested. As a member of this community, please trust that this works. Even if your legislator does not align with you politically, there’s no reason to not call or email them about issues. If you are more tech savvy, you can even set up google news alerts that will email you when news articles come out with select key words. For instance, I have one with “Bill Peduto” and “god”, so if any news comes out with those tags, I’ll get an email. I read the article and shoot off an email or a phone call if it requires it. I can’t stress this enough, folks. This. Is. Effective! I’ve heard a story from a Texan ( I could be wrong and if so, I apologize) about their legislator. They contacted them about because of an issue regarding abstinence only education. And now the legislator themself wanted to support this, however over one hundred contacted them in support of abstinence only, whereas only 10 called in opposition. As weird as it sounds in these times, there are legislators who go against their personal views in support of their constituents. In my experience, calling is more effective than emails, but I don’t mean that to completely devalue emails. They are read and at times they are responded to. My one suggestion is to create a separate email address to send these types of emails because you’ll certainly get added to mailing lists and perhaps you don’t want that clogging up your inbox. But here’s a thing to keep in mind. If you make a phone call, either the legislator or someone from his staff is required to listen to you and respond in some way. That requirement doesn’t exist for email. It happens often, but it’s usually a simple form letter that gets returned rather quickly, and truth be told, doesn’t terribly make you feel like your voice was heard. I was just informed of this yesterday, but I thought it’s worth incorporating into my speech: There’s an app called “Countable”. I haven’t done too much extensive study into it yet, but it seems you can select your legislators and it will keep you informed of legislation that’s upcoming and an easy way to contact. It’s certainly something I’ll be looking into and reporting on its efficacy.
Second, if you have the time or the ability, get out of the house! Go for a walk or a drive and observe your community. Take a trip to the post office, or the courthouse. If you have a child in public school, see if you can take a tour of the school. Think of the places where we SHOULDN’T have references to god, and go there and see if they are. These laws aren’t instantly enforced. Just like speeding, only when you get caught is when you get a ticket. People who break this law, need to get caught and taught the proper way our government is run.
Third, yes, I’m the social media manager for CFI Pittsburgh. I wasn’t handed this position and went and learned all about it. For many years, I’ve used it and recognized its value. When I was in college was the time Facebook was just starting. It was meant as a way to meet people at your school and help with classwork and the like. Now it’s exploded and it’s stock being valued at over 120 dollars a share kind of shows this. Last year it was worth more than Wal-Mart. There is an amazing utility at our fingertips and we desperately need to get on board and maximize that utility. I started an anonymous atheist twitter account when I first got involved with the community a little less than a year ago. For personal reasons, I got tired of using my personal account and needed a fresh start. In that time I have over 1700 followers from all over the world. I’ve made friends I’ve never met before there. I’ve made friends who I’ve eventually met at the Reason Rally and the FFRF convention. When I got my new license plate, I tweeted a picture and it reached over 8 thousand people. Those are rather large numbers for one lone person making one lone tweet. Imagine the reach we could achieve if everyone in here shared news of one of our big events with everyone they knew. The word viral is the perfect representation of what goes on on social media. Combine that with the trend of crowdsourcing and microdonations, we could be on the verge of explosive growth of our community. But again, it takes effort. It takes a well-intentioned and cohesive core group to start this. This one is close to my heart because I’ve seen it work so effectively many times before. I am sincerely asking for your help with this one. Learn social media, connect with your family and friends across the world, and help spread our important message. You literally have no idea who you will meet or have conversations with and that’s the beauty of it all. And in these political times, we need every voice counteracting the “alternative facts”. You can always walk away if it gets to be too much, but resistance is critical and as unfortunate as you think this is, Twitter and Facebook is where the conversation is happening. We need as many people on the side of rationality as we can possibly get.
Let’s talk about the Women’s March for a moment now. This was a global protest, global. This event did not happen from a top down organization. It did not happen because it was plastered all over the news. It was a grassroots, social media effort. I can’t imagine the number of hours and dollars spent involved in achieving what was actually one of the most profound, empowering experiences of my life. Funny anecdote time, I was on the fence of whether or not to go to the one in Pittsburgh. I wanted to, but I was a little behind schedule on writing this speech. My friend texted me asking if I was going. I told him, “No, I’m probably going to stay home and write my speech”. Then I thought about the profound irony in not engaging in activism, to write about activism. That made me get up, put on all my proud atheist gear, write up a lackluster sign (Quick tip: Always have yardsticks, duct tape, poster board and a sharpie on hand at home. You never know when the protest spirit will grab you). And now, this is the thing to think about. Now, I don’t know if this is inappropriate so I’m still wrapping my head around the morality of it, but I’m on the pro side right now. Think about how your pet cause, whatever that may be, and can be tacked on to another cause. It was the Women’s march, a day of unity and peace and darn it, I wore my atheist t-shirt and hat, and my sign said “This is an atheist ally”. Was my message directly connected to the march’s intent? Not terribly. But I did meet one husband and wife who gave me a thumbs up and said that they didn’t know any other atheists. I happily gave them a CFI business card. And that’s the key, you don’t know who you’re going to meet out in the world that might be on your side, so you have to be the voice when others aren’t speaking. Precisely what this amazing demonstration proved. Now, I also marched because I believed in the cause. I’m not gonna team up for a Klan rally and go there, but we’re having events all the time in this city and us secularists NEED to be represented, because as my favorite picture taken of me that day can tell you, our opponents aren’t stopping.
Now say, for example, you don’t feel like getting off the couch and doing something in the world. If monetary donations is your preferred method of activism, there’s a plethora of organizations that will gladly take your money.
We all know about CFI as we’re members of this group and well, in my opinion, if you can you should be donating to this organization. They’ve helped us (to what extent can be another discussion for another time) and I feel we should give back. Our member Stephen Hirtle has already given a great talk about the FFRF and thus I won’t go into too much detail except to say, my fight that I spoke about earlier would not have existed without them and their Pittsburgh convention. They have a life member in me, even though I can’t afford the official “life member” designation, I’ll gladly give to them yearly (and at other times through the year), in fact they are currently my Amazon Smile charity. If you use Amazon.com at all, Amazon Smile is set up to take a portion of the purchase price goes to the charity of your choice automatically. So far this year I’ve donated 3 bucks to FFRF. It’s not a lot but it’s essentially a free donation to an organization I care about. I’ll include info on how to set this up in that email. The last organization I’ll discuss is the Secular Coalition of America. If you want to talk about activism, this is it. They are “a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to amplifying the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community.” And as always, the mission statement is a bunch of gobbledygook so here’s my breakdown. What the FFRF does on the legal side of things, the SCA is the more politically minded side. They are the ones that organize the lobby days, and the Secular Values Voter and the Congressional report cards and voter guides. They are activists of the highest order and it’s relatively simple to join their cause. You can sign up for their email action alerts and get a constant feed of activist things to do and threats to our viewpoint. And they have all the tools on their website to contact local elected officials and to get news about all the things that are going against secular values in government today. Secular.org is their website and please, if this interests you, go and sign up for their alerts.
Other good organizations to heap praise and more importantly money onto, include American Atheists, American Humanist Association, and of course, CFI-Pittsburgh. Even more political groups can use your money as everyone seems to be fighting nowadays: Planned Parenthood, The Trevor Project, the Pittsburgh GLCC.
Now, speaking of Pittsburgh, perhaps your interest of crushing organized religion and fostering a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values are not as global as mine and you want to focus on our little slice of the earth here. Well, here’s some ideas we’ve all been kicking around now, so let’s at least put a couple into action this year.
First, the Pride Parade. Just like me marching in the Women’s March in Pittsburgh, this is a prime opportunity to get our voices heard. Any chance where we can put our message in front of the public at large we MUST take. I was there last year and first, let me say, what an emotional experience it was. Starting the march was fun, but when we turned off Grant Street to 5th Avenue and saw this amazing wall of love and support, it figuratively knocked me off my feet. Here were people cheering and singing and dancing and applauding. And as we passed, they did the same with us and for us. We were atheists (the most distrusted group in America at the time) and yet we were allies. They knew we weren’t indoctrinated in bigotry and hate. We were welcomed into their world and that’s something that stays with you for a very long time. I tell this story because I want all of us there and more this coming year. If you can do it, mark down Sunday, June 11th in your calendars right now. All the organizational stuff will be coming down the pike and if you are interested in helping, let either me or Liz Vaughn know, but first and foremost, let’s get out in huge numbers to show that we are allies for the LGBTQ cause.
Now this is something I’d like to present to the community at large. I first heard about this organization on an atheist podcast and just fell in love with the idea. They have several chapters all across the country and are growing. This organization is called Atheist Helping the Homeless. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. They take donations and once a month, set up a table a public space and hand out necessities to homeless people. That’s all. They set up an Amazon account and instead of accepting money, citizens buy an item on the list and it’s send to a person who is in charge of collecting everything. And the group can put whatever on the list. In colder climates there’s tossle caps and gloves. In warmer climates, they have suntan lotion and handheld fans. This helps us get out and be a part of our local community. Also, these other groups have had a good amount of press and help from a diverse collection of the public.
So as you can see activism comes in all shapes and sizes, from something as big as a worldwide march for equality, to as little as eating pie and taking a few pictures. So, let’s engage in some activism today! I shall leave you in the good hands of fellow CFI member Ann Norman with the words of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men do nothing.” So let’s do something this year everyone. Let’s get mad as hell and say “We’re not gonna take this anymore”. Thank you.