Archive for the Social Justice Category

On the rebranding of hurtful names

Posted in Social Justice on August 30, 2017 by Austin Aslan

I know a little about this debate. In 2007 I successfully organized a grassroots campaign to rename a Sacramento middle school and county park. Charles Goethe was a rich American eugenicist who helped fund the involuntary sterilization of over 20,000 black women throughout CA in the 1920s. A group of school administrators in low-income inner-city Goethe Middle School, which served a majority black local population, were outraged when they learned of the namesake’s history. We got the school’s name changed to Rosa Parks, and later changed Goethe County Park to River Bend Park. goethe_photo2

These efforts were popular and received very little push back. But the opposing forces employed a familiar argument: the slippery slope. Where does the madness stop? Are Washington and Jefferson next? It’s a ridiculous argument on every level. In point of fact, our effort stopped with Goethe. There was zero appetite among any of the activists to target larger historical figures. Anyway, I’m proud of the ridicule I personally received from right-wing radio on account of this worthy campaign to make public spaces less oppressive and hurtful for significant portions of local citizens. Listen to the idiotic rant of the talk show host, as he calls me a “thin-skinned candy ass” by name, and then blithely makes the argument that Goethe was only caught up in something that was “popular” during his day, so, bankrolling a eugenics experiment not his fault? (I think he was poorly trying to equate Goethe with Washington, et al, who owned slaves when it was “socially acceptable” to do so. That comparison is strained, of course, as Washington and Jefferson, et al, are known historically for so much more than tossing big sums of money around Sacramento and doing experiments on vulnerable women.) Also, I’ll link to a Wall Street Journal article that was written about our effort. Tamara Keith, who’s now big on national NPR, also did a ten minute story on this campaign when she worked at KQED. So, it got plenty of coverage. This whole debate is certainly nothing new.

WSJ article: “The point is to close these hurtful chapters in this country’s past” said Austin Aslan, a community organizer who campaigned against the Goethe name. “It’s part of the great reconciliation this nation is going through.”

(PS. The efforts to wipe away Goethe’s name from Sacramento are some of my proudest campaigns back when I was a professional community organizer. Of course, these efforts were only successful b/c of the passionate activism of several dozens of local community leaders and churches.)




Ayn Rand Does NOT Support Christian Values

Posted in Book Review, Religion, Social Justice on November 12, 2009 by Austin Aslan

I find it extremely ironic to occasionally encounter Christians that laud atheist Ayn Rand, whose Objectionist philosophy was developed as a direct and scathing rebuttal not only to Socialism, but also to Christianity.

ayn-randI came across this article in Politico about the prevalence these days of all things Ayn Rand and I feel compelled to respond.  I don’t want to get into a big treatise about her philosophy of Objectivism here, nor do I really want to argue the various merits or follies of her beliefs or the influence she’s had on the American psyche since her “revolutionary” new ideas hit the scene in the early-to-mid 1900s.  I’m not really qualified to do so right now, and I’m too busy finishing up my 4th book to launch into the study it would require.  So, I’ll just speak briefly about what I can recollect of my personal impressions of her.

I read The Fountain Head and Atlas Shrugged when I was in the Peace Corps eight years ago.  I have to admit right off the bat that I LOVED the books.  They were awesome reads from the perspective of story and character.  I couldn’t put them down.  On the surface they were fun and inspirational, powerful and compelling.  Rand is a champion of the individual human spirit, and her protagonists’ rise to the top of the food chain within drab, stagnated regimes of repression and oppression are incredibly exciting.  Ayn Rand is a product of having grown up in Communist Russia, if I remember correctly, and her own journey to the U.S. (when 18?) and her rise to influence is a story that eerily mirrors the champions of her novels.  It’s not at all surprising that she would compare early 20th century Russia to the USA and come to the conclusion that it’s better to celebrate individualism over the common good.

But when I scratch under the surface of her Objectionist philosophy, and when I look at those two novels from a more analytical viewpoint, I become at best incredibly alarmed or, at worst, appalled.  In my opinion, she takes the celebration of individualism over the common good of the community to an extreme by suggesting that people are better off when they act and think for themselves at the express exclusion of considering others.

In general, this is clearly antithetical to Christian values and the message of the Gospels.

Indeed, her philosophy had never really existed before she espoused it, precisely because it fell so far out of the prevailing paradigm of social understanding, informed, in large part, by Christiandom.  By naming this idea and arguing it the context of Communism vs Capitalism and making it so entertaining and compelling in her novels, she gave countless people around the world permission and justification to be utterly selfish to a degree that had never before been permitted by the dictates of religious decency.

Before Rand lovers cry fowl I should address a major point:  (I think) she would argue that when a person strives for their fullest potential and fights tooth and nail for their own interests and success, that they inherently help society, and that this attitude, in the aggregate, lifts everyone up.

We’ve all been around the block enough times to see how this is true to an extent.  I HOPE that we’ve all been around the block enough to recognize that in its purest formulation, though, Objectivism has serious flaws from a stand point of social justice.  My principle criticism of Fountain Head, for example, is that she holds her protagonist up as this superhero of innovation and success without ever acknowledging in any way that while that works great for the Fords and the Trumps of the world, it doesn’t do a damn thing for everybody as a whole.  (Imagine a world in which EVERYONE was just as successful  and innovative as Donald Trump.  There’s just no room for it!)  She never addressed this concern to my satisfaction.

Again, there are entire institutions whose aim it is to debate and calibrate these ideas (The Rand Institute comes to mind).  I don’t want to get mired in that morass, here.  I’m simply trying to remind Christians that they tread on extremely precarious ground when they lean too heavily on the notion that you can best help others by being single-minded about your own success.  It is completely outside the context and spirit of Jesus’ teachings.  I’m reminded of Mathew 25, where Jesus runs down a long list of things that we should be doing for “the least” of our brothers and sisters.  There are countless biblical passages to point to that suggest Jesus advocates for caring for others, even–and sometimes especially–at our own personal expense.

Ayn Rand was a proud atheist who saw concern for others as a weakness brought on by a silly preoccupation for the afterlife.  She had no patience for those that advocated for and served others.  Her philosophy is clearly at odds with the very fabric of Christianity.

That is why I find it absurd to see so many “Tea Partiers” holding up her name with pride as they go about their business of protesting the Government. (From the Politico article linked above:)

Tea party protesters hoisted signs reading “Ayn Rand was right” and “Who is John Galt?” at the Sept. 12 taxpayer march.  …South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) penned a piece on Rand’s newfound relevance for Newsweek.

To be sure, there are probably many Tea Partiers who are not Christian at all, but there are countless examples of Christians who praise the merits of Ayn Rand.  I personally know of some.  And in fact, in the Politico article quoted above, Mark Sanford, the disgraced Governor of South Carolina (hardly a model Christian, I know) is a fan of Rand.

Most Christians, I suspect, who really understood that Ayn Rand developed her philosophy of Objectivism as a rebuttal to Christ’s very ethos, would never hold up a sign that says, “Ayn Rand was right.”

Enough Dead Teen Pirate Porn Already

Posted in Social Justice, Writing on September 27, 2009 by Austin Aslan

I originally posted this on Facebook on Tuesday, April 14, 2009 at 10:20am.  But I thought I’d repost it here because I think it’s helpful in illustrating my perspective on social justice and compassion, especially when showing compassion would be most difficult, themes that I try to touch upon in my writing all the time.


Yay! America wins! Obama’s got a bright new feather in his cap! It was an awesome feat on choppy seas. But, seriously, let’s have a little solemnity for the loss of life that occurred here… (Where are the Pro-lifers when you also need them?)This is from Lindsay Beyerstein, but I feel that I could have written it:

I’m relieved that the Navy SEALs rescued the American hostage from Somali pirates. Their skill and professionalism was indeed impressive.But really… Two days after the rescue, the banner headline on the front page of the Washington Post should not read “3 Rounds, 3 Dead Bodies.” And if that’s the front page headline, surely they don’t need a second story about pirate-shooting in the same edition.The American public is relishing the deaths of the pirates to a degree that’s downright unseemly…

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