THE TRADITION here at the Humanist is to devote our year-end issue to highlighting the wonderful individuals honored at the American Humanist Association’s annual conference, and this year is no exception. 2014 Humanist of the Year Barney Frank, Humanist Media Awardee Natalie Angier, Humanist Arts Award recipient Greg Graffin, Lifetime Achievement Awardee Eugenie Scott, Humanist Heroine Jessica Valenti, and Humanist Business Awardee Steve Rade all have smart, relevant, and entertaining things to say to their fellow humanists.
But before you go diving into those choice remarks, let me say this about famous and important people: they’re human. You know this, I know. But it happens often enough that membership organizations like the American Humanist Association (AHA) honor people for their contributions to the cause only to be criticized from some corners (in some cases, distant corners) for certain ideas or actions of said honorees perceived to be out of line with the group’s overall values and positions.
The story goes that either Julian Huxley or Erich Fromm left the AHA when it named B.F. Skinner Humanist of the Year in 1972. The 1993 recipient, former Governor of Colorado Richard D. Lamm, was considered controversial by liberals, and Alice Walker’s 1997 HotY acceptance speech, largely from her latest book at the time, made her sound too New Agey for some humanists. Jack Kevorkian was surely a controversial selection for the Humanist Hero award in 1994 given the media’s portrayal of him as “Dr. Death.” However, if those who heard his speech in Detroit were uncomfortable with it, they didn’t voice their dissent. Incidentally, I’m told the guy in Buffalo who used to make the award plaques for the AHA had never heard of any of its awardees before, even Isaac Asimov. But when he got the order for Jack Kevorkian’s plaque he expressed his admiration to the AHA for honoring Kevorkian, whose fight to afford people the right to end their suffering by hastening death continues today.
Of course, public figures are used to criticism and often they hear the same critiques again and again, so they’re able to respond in very reasonable ways. The comebacks that AHA awardees deliver during Q&A can also be pretty satisfying for their celerity and bite, which is just one reason you should get yourself to an AHA conference one of these days.
Now, I say all this not to suggest that any of this year’s honorees were controversial. There were a few grumblings from those distant corners that Frank didn’t come out as an atheist while in the House of Representatives, and one conference attendee suggested he didn’t do enough to include transgender Americans in employee non-discrimination legislation (a critique he dispenses with very clearly herein). More than anyone, politicians have to be pragmatic in their work. “Indeed,” Frank says in his speech, “it’s much easier to tell some right-wingers how stupid they are than to negotiate with a whole bunch of people to put together a constructive and complicated package in which compromise is inevitable.” He goes on to offer us some very practical advice for “what we have to do to complete the job … of making America totally equal for people who do not profess any religion, who are not theists, and who don’t believe that there is some power beyond human beings that we have to make nice to.”
Let us be reminded that the individuals we celebrate here are not being honored for their idealism but for their work—for what they’ve accomplished in the greater world in support of humanist values—and that we may not love every single thing they do.
What was it Gore Vidal said, always a godfather, never a god? That sounds about right.