David Silverman and the Wages of Whiteness

David Silverman and the Wages of Whiteness November 6, 2019

When I last wrote about David Silverman, in 2018, he had just been fired by American Atheists for acts of misconduct. A few months later, he spoke to the Washington Post and admitted to some (not all) of the allegations against him:

“I certainly behaved sometimes in a manner that was unworthy of the office of president of American Atheists,” Silverman, 52, said in a phone interview this week, the first time he has spoken publicly about being accused of nonconsensual sexual contact with two women, one of them a student, at atheist gatherings.

… “I was in a very adolescent place back then,” he said. “I objectified women. Other women may have been made to feel uncomfortable by me, and to those women, I am very sorry.”

After this, I hoped that Silverman would have the sense to quietly fade away. I should have known better. Even though he admits he behaved in a way that was unethical and unworthy of the position, it only took him a few months to decide that he was the victim and he was entitled to have his job back.

In September, Silverman – who’s claimed to be a feminist, mind you – appeared on Sargon of Akkad’s podcast to commiserate over “feminist tyranny“. Yes, that would be this Sargon of Akkad, the alt-right lowlife whom Silverman himself once denounced as “an asshole” and said of people like him, “I want nothing to do with you until you figure out how to have some empathy.” Apparently, Silverman’s standard of what behavior he’s willing to condone is more flexible than he let on.

Soon thereafter, he filed a spite lawsuit against American Atheists, acting as his own lawyer. It’s basically the legal version of the tear-stained letter you write to your ex at 3 AM after a night of heavy drinking, except in this analogy, he wasn’t smart enough to burn it the next morning.

In the suit, he complains that “the implication by the company that he stole or embezzled money… has made him unhirable”. Actually, American Atheists hasn’t said explicitly what they fired him for. Helpful tip for amateur lawyers: if you want to argue that someone defamed you, you’d better be able to point to a specific statement.

Silverman also whines that he wasn’t afforded “due process”. This is the latest fashionable complaint made by predators and creeps of all stripes, from Harvey Weinstein to Donald Trump. But this makes no sense. It’s a standard that doesn’t apply here.

If we’re contemplating depriving someone of their life or liberty, then yes, due process is essential. But to suggest that a private organization has to go through a laborious legal procedure to fire an employee – that, once it chooses a person to be their public face, they can’t dismiss him from that position without convening a trial, hiring attorneys to defend him, and getting a judge to rule that they’ve proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt – is a comical caricature of how the law works. You also don’t need due process to unfriend someone on Facebook, turn down a date, or take them off your Christmas card list. We’re allowed to make up our own minds about a person’s character without a judge’s say-so.

I didn’t expect this to go anywhere, even if it’s (yet another) infuriating example of a mediocre man lashing out with a lawsuit when his ego is bruised, forcing his erstwhile friends and allies to spend huge sums of money defending themselves. The famous playwright got it wrong: Hell hath no fury like a man who’s been denied sex, money or power that he thinks he’s entitled to.

But, yet again, that wasn’t the end of it. On October 10, I was sent a press release by a group called Atheist Alliance International:

Atheist Alliance International (AAI) is delighted to announce the appointment of David P. Silverman as Executive Director from Oct 11, 2019. David will report to AAI President, Gail Miller. He will oversee campaigns and assume responsibility for growing AAI so the organization can do more to make the world a safer place for atheists.

AAI’s press release was entirely laudatory, praising Silverman’s history of atheist activism, breathing not a word about his firing or the reasons for it. But the most astonishing thing was how they behaved when they faced a backlash on social media: juvenile insults and taunting their critics.

And if you think Silverman’s cry of “due process!” was bad, AAI upped the ante. They later published a lengthy defense of their own actions in which they cited, no joke, the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Denying employment because of unproven allegations infringes human rights”).

As commenters noted on AAI’s Facebook page, I wonder if they apply this principle consistently to priests and clergy who are accused of child molestation or covering up same. Other than the small minority who were convicted in a criminal court – as opposed to merely accused, sued civilly, or died without being charged – AAI ought to be arguing just as vehemently that we owe them an apology for violating their human rights.

But the cherry on the cake is that Silverman is AAI’s first ever paid employee. They actually created this position just for him and reached out to him to offer it.

Sikivu Hutchinson puts it well:

According to The Friendly Atheist blog, AAI reached out to Silverman via a friendship with a board member, then created a paid executive director position expressly for him. Must be nice. While women of color in all sectors are routinely shut out of entry level, middle, and executive management positions, white males get carte blanche, have positions of authority created for and handed to them; then receive multiple breaks and opportunities for redemption when they screw up.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a woman or a person of color getting the endless supply of second chances that are extended to white men. Just what Silverman has admitted ought to disqualify him from future leadership roles. But not only did AAI not hold his history against him, they went out of their way to reward him while sneering at the women who accused him of serious misconduct.

It’s worth mentioning that, as you might expect of a group that had no paid staff until now, AAI isn’t a large or prominent organization. They have partnerships with a handful of atheist groups around the world, but as to what they actually do, I can’t find a lot of information. Their own Facebook page doesn’t list much except a magazine they publish, an annual convention, and a vague declaration that they focus on “directly supporting atheists around the world who are excluded, disparaged, discriminated against and criminalized”.

I assume they’re gambling that hiring Silverman will boost their fundraising and raise their profile. But they should have thought more carefully about how this could go badly for them. There’s the obvious point that he’s proven he has no compunction about badmouthing and suing an employer if they don’t keep him happy. More importantly, if any new allegations against Silverman arise, they won’t be able to say they weren’t warned, and that could make them culpable.


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