Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pink Ribbons, Inc., and Wish Me Away: new documentaries

I have two documentaries to share - the first I saw several weeks ago and the other more recently.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. can be watched on Logo’s “What!?” series online. You don’t have to agree with every argument made in the film to take seriously the main themes: the depoliticization of the approach to breast cancer, the hijacking of this effort by corporations and their shaping of the research priorities, and the terrible “survivor” mentality that pervades this culture.

The second is Wish Me Away,

a touching film which tells the story of country singer Chely Wright as she prepares to come out as gay. I have a few observations about this film, aside from recommending it….

First, religion is unsurprisingly a major aspect of the story. Wright is a Christian who recognizes the sources of bigotry against gay people in her religion, but at the same time believes that her strength ultimately resides there. I remember someone a while back talking about Christianity as akin to an abusive relationship, in which people are told that they’re fundamentally awful BUT, amazingly, their god loves them (or they're only wonderful insofar as their god loves them). It’s all false, and the manipulation is detestable.

Second is Wright’s relationship to feminism. She’s right that a gay woman and even a gay activist doesn’t have to be a feminist, and of course not any specific vision of a feminist. This makes for tensions in her struggles with her book editor, and I smile at her “I’m a pop tart!” assertion of her identity. At the same time, she needs to examine the complexities of…poptartism and other conservative ideas in the same way she does homophobia.

Finally, it’s striking how much the quality of her music seems to improve in the course of her embracing her identity and resisting. To be sure, the early songs featured in the film are the pop hits, but still the songs about her experience living and coming out as a gay woman are far superior to her previous work. To me, this music (“you’re only shouting over you” is a great lyric) shows the promise of country, whose militancy and heartbreak have been strangled by bigotry and bosses. If country could reclaim real rebellion, it could be a fruitful and wonderful art form.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Readings for coastal storms

While I’m on the subject of reading in times of destruction and loss, I should mention two books that can provide some perspective on coastal storms and the damage they cause.

The first is Against the Tide, which I’ve been recommending for several years:

(Its proposals, as I recall, don’t fully appreciate the limited possibilities for real reform within our global capitalist system and culture, but the same can be said of many books.)

The second is The Outermost House, the classic by Henry Beston,

which I’ve had by my bedside on and off for half a decade. For some reason, I still haven’t finished it, but I tend to turn to it during storms.

Erich Fromm and losing computer files

Coincidentally, I was reading Erich Fromm’s To Have or To Be?

a few days ago when I lost pretty much everything on my computer. In this later work, Fromm contrasts what he calls the having orientation, dominant in our capitalist culture, with the being orientation, which he calls on people to try to realize in their own lives and in society. He writes:

Speaking of having something permanently rests upon the illusion of a permanent and indestructible substance. If I seem to have everything, I have – in reality – nothing, since my having, possessing, controlling an object is only a transitory moment in the process of living. (p. 77)

The cautious, the having persons enjoy security yet by necessity they are very insecure. They depend on what they have: money, prestige, their ego – that is to say, on something outside themselves. But what becomes of them if they lose what they have? For, indeed, whatever one has can be lost.

…The anxiety and insecurity engendered by the danger of losing what one has are absent in the being mode. If I am who I am and not what I have, nobody can deprive me of or threaten my security and my sense of identity. (pp. 109-110)

Fortunately, I’d recently backed up the files that are in productive use and actively relevant to ongoing work. I did lose quite a bit, including various collections of bookmarks and links and music, but at the time these were destroyed my relationship with them wasn’t entirely “alive,” as Fromm describes those characteristic of the being mode. I’d started to relate to most of this primarily in a possessive, passive way. I feared losing it all, even though I wasn’t engaged with it and found maintaining and organizing it to be a chore. Even my large collection of feeds (among them, funnily enough, mnmlist) had become somewhat burdensome – while I enjoyed and learned from much of what I was reading, I felt almost obliged to keep up with them.

A typical response to someone’s loss of computer files is to try to provide information on how to better “secure” what we have - backing up, backing up the backups, storing everything in the safest location or with the safest third party, and so on. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t back up the material with which we’re actively engaged. But maybe we should consider approaching digital material, like anything else, less as stuff that we have and more as something we’re either productively related to in the present or, if not, something we can let go of.

In any case, I can’t think of any other book that would have offered a better perspective at that moment.

Friday, November 9, 2012

On differences and mutual respect: Reply #4 to James Croft

[James Croft has responded, briefly, in the comments to my previous post.]

I think in order to continue this discussion you will have to go back to what I've written on all these topics, read it again, and then respond to me and what I've written and not to whoever you are responding to in these posts.

James, I’ve taken the time to quote long portions of your text and to respond carefully, while you’ve replied lately with short comments that haven’t quoted my words but just claimed in general that I have things all wrong.

You have repeatedly and consistently written long replies to somebody who is not in the room, splitting the minutest of hairs to find "disagreements" which are really just "differently-stated values".

OK, I’m going to narrate events as I understand them. I invite you to object to any parts of the narrative you find incorrect and explain how your arguments differ from my reading.

Over the past two years, Stedman and others connected to your organization have aggressively publicly criticized gnu atheists, including telling us that our activism is wrong and we should stop. Our anti-faith/religion work, or the caricature of it presented by Stedman, has been presented in negative terms: as rooted in a desire to mock and vilify religious people rather than humanistic values, alienating, lacking in human warmth, cruel, fundamentalist, intolerant, destructive, and failing to offer any positive vision. They’ve argued that through this activism we invite prejudice against ourselves, and by extension all atheists.

Stedman and others have made arguing that gnu atheism is contrary and hostile to everything humanists stand for into a veritable cottage industry, while at the same time gushing about the alleged benefits of religion and the importance of interfaith work to the humanist vision. This has included defining HCH Humanism in large part in opposition to gnus and in terms of a friendly relation with faith, minimizing and muting the atheist identity and presenting it as relatively peripheral to what humanists are about.

Recently, A+ has emerged. You, I think genuinely seeking some sort of rapprochement and common-cause building, suggested that it looked a lot like humanism to you, and you were happy about that. Since you saw these similarities, you wondered why A+ people didn’t identify as you do. For some reason, you were puzzled by the various statements from gnus+ about their differences with the humanists around them:

In the ongoing discussions around Atheism+ and its relationship with Humanism one issue crops up again and again: the perception that Humanists – at least some Humanists – have an attitude toward religion which the atheists who are excited by Atheism+ do not share. This is often expressed as a reason why a given blogger does not identify as a Humanist, or why they prefer the Atheism+ label to Humanism.

…Clearly, in the minds of these bloggers there is something troubling about Humanism’s perceived relationship with religion, and perhaps particularly of the approach taken by the Humanist Community at Harvard, where I work.

This really is an astounding statement. I don’t see how that perception is remotely disputable given the history of the past two years. You and your colleagues very obviously have “an attitude toward religion which the atheists who are excited by Atheism+ do not share.” How could anyone say this isn’t true? Stedman has sought to build the identity of your organization explicitly on distinguishing your attitude toward religion from ours. Whatever broad philosophical similarities might exist, it’s absurd on the face of it to claim that there are no differences in actual approaches to religion between the HCH Humanists and gnu atheists.

And of course this recent history is going to be a factor in many gnus’ reluctance to identify publicly or primarily as or with humanists, even for those who do see themselves as humanists. Even if it were possible and useful to subsume this activism under the humanist label, and I presented in my previous post the reasons why it isn’t (as others have as well), we would be stupid not to recognize that in the current context this would be a concession to those who think atheism is better discussed in hushed tones. We would be stupid not to appreciate the way in which the Humanist label has been used to distance the “good” atheists from us and to denigrate us by denying the positive elements of anti-faith work.

People haven’t been claiming that this reflects some inherent, natural antagonism between humanism and gnu atheism. It’s the case because some humanists, especially the HCH Humanists, have worked with definitions in this way because they thought it benefited them to do so. To better understand why maybe many A+ people don’t want to publicly identify as humanists, you need only look at how Stedman’s been promoting himself and your Humanism at our expense. Amongst other benefits, identifying centrally as atheists, as others have said, is a means of expressing pride in the inherent value of that work and showing that it’s animated by positive values.

I also noted in my first post that your claiming the similarities between your humanism and specifically A+ leaves intact the false notions about gnu atheism that HCH has been promoting. It wasn’t just condescending to imply that we were now “infusing” our work with positive values or now turning to social justice issues. It reflected the underlying assumption that I think you’ve had all along: that this activism is not itself animated by positive humanist values. This doesn’t necessarily lead you as far as to say what Stedman and his guest bloggers have, but this fundamental misconception is consequential. I know you weren’t trying to insult or condescend to us, but that’s how it reads.

And I have to wonder why you care - why you’re insistent about this identification. It would be just fine with me if you merely pointed out that you as humanists share similar values to ours despite our differences on the matter of religion, as long as you acknowledged that for many of us our approach to religion is animated by positive values just like yours. I’m not a member of A+, but I imagine they’re open to suggestions for collaboration. What difference does it make to you how people identify, if you’re not trying to marginalize the atheist identity or the specific issues we prioritize?

So people gave you various reasons for why they didn’t care to identify with you, among them that many humanists in practice take an approach to religion and to anti-faith work that’s not just different from ours but actively hostile to it. It’s bizarre. It would be one thing if you were unaware of what self-identified humanists and their organizations were saying, but among the humanists people are talking about are your own colleagues. Instead of appreciating the real context in which people were making these observations, though, you responded in abstract, generalizing terms:

But what is the relationship of Humanism with religion, and are these critics (most of whom are expressing their personal perceptions of the term “Humanism”, to which they are perfectly entitled) giving Humanism a fair shot?

Others pointed out that this isn’t about humanism in general – there’s no being called “Humanism” that thinks and acts - and that you don’t speak for it. A core commitment to reason, science, and secularism allows for a wide diversity of attitudes toward and relationships with religion, all of which can recognize themselves as humanistic.

Is it really true that there is a signifiant difference in view between Atheism+ people and Humanists like myself in this regard?

It’s strange. There are plainly significant differences between us and Stedman in terms of our relationship with religion. To deny that is ludicrous. There’s good evidence that there are significant differences between you and me on this subject. That’s fine. It’s not the only issue in the world, and we can disagree and still find much common ground regardless of how we identify. The problem is that your colleagues have made a practice of presenting themselves as champions and us as enemies of positive values and visions.

But I welcomed your effort to spell out your views, knowing, of course, that even if we reached complete agreement on the subject it wouldn’t mean we gnus would need to start identifying as humanists.

In order to try to answer this question I’m going to attempt to make a series of statements regarding how I understand the relationship between Humanism and religion, and I invite self-identified Atheism+ people to come give their views on the same points. Perhaps there is a real difference if view here, but perhaps the differences are overstated.

I responded to your statement at some length, focusing on the differences between your views and mine. My purpose in that post, as I said at the time, wasn’t just to show that there are significant differences between us on this subject but to explain the motivations for my specific priorities and how I see them as expressive of my larger social vision. I wanted you to acknowledge the differences, whether you came around to my way of thinking or not, but also to acknowledge that these arguments for my priorities and for why I see this work as advancing positive values exist. As I said, it doesn’t matter to me whether anyone identifies this as humanist or not, but it matters very much that people stop attacking my approach on the false premise that it isn’t based on or is contrary to positive values, or at least that others become aware that this premise is false.

Your response, as I read it, was all over the place. You claimed there were no real disagreements but at the same time acknowledged some. If the discussion had been about seeking mutual understanding and common ground, which it should have been and could have been in a more neutral context, I think this would have been a fruitful start, or just a solid basis for mutual respect. But for some reason you’ve been coming at it from an insistence on a common identification and thus a desire to minimize the differences rather than discuss them or simply accept them, so you’ve pretty much locked yourself into an argument that we’re all exactly the same.

That’s why more recently you’ve argued not just that the differences are trivial but that anti-faith activism is part of the humanist tradition (which is of course true) and even a part of the HCH’s approach. You have to know that last is a strange argument in light of the evidence of the past two years. I’m happy to hear you say it, even if you haven’t said that or why you personally see anti-faith/epist activism as a valuable expression of humanism. But it’s contrary to what Stedman’s been saying in public over months and months. And it’s just unnecessary: I’m not saying you have to do anti-faith work, just that you should be OK with it and understand our reasons as charitably as possible.

So what we have is this odd situation in which your colleagues continue to paint our approach as bad/immoral/negative/destructive and yours as good/ethical/positive/constructive, to seek to distance themselves from us publicly, and to denigrate and oppose our actions, while you insist in the face of all of this that there are no serious differences in our approaches so we gnus should just identify with you.

What I’d like to see is a situation in which our different approaches are acknowledged and respected. We could debate them or just accept that we have different priorities, while appreciating the values and goals we share regardless of labels. There will still be criticism and mocking, and occasionally serious disagreement, within and between the two “camps,” but neither group will seek to promote itself or build its identity by denigrating the other, claim that the other isn’t coming from a positive place, or insist the other stop its activities. Everyone identifies however they want. Common ground can’t be imposed by a label; it can only be prepared by respectful coexistence in practice.

How about we discuss this on a podcast or Google hangout or something? I have a feeling it would be more productive than my endlessly responding saying "no, wrong again, that's not what I believe".

No, thanks. I have zero interest in that sort of format, and prefer to discuss things in writing. I agree that your endlessly responding that way has not been productive.


And what is the question of funding about? Who have you asked and who has refused to answer?

I believe I’ve asked two of you (Figdor, I think, and I thought the other was you, but it could have been someone else or Figdor both times).

And what is the insinuation, precisely?

No insinuation. Just a high value on transparency.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

So we're all cool with anti-faith activism, then: Response #3 to James Croft

James Croft has responded to my most recent post in the comments. Since I hate trying to have a discussion in the comments here, I'm going to answer in a post.

Not sure where to go from here. You have completely and utterly misunderstood me, taking precisely the opposite meaning from my post to that which I intended to convey.

To be clear: It was a response to your post, but I was also referencing past statements and behavior from you and your colleagues.

You say:

"the basic thrust of your that anti-faith activism is not positive, constructive, loving, or oriented toward social justice."

No, no, and THRICE NO!

And that’s false. As I said before, if you really saw our anti-faith activism in these terms, you wouldn’t have referred (more than once) to our “infusing” our atheism with positive values. That’s clear evidence that you see our atheist activism as not inherently guided by and expressive of these values.

You wouldn’t have suggested (more than once) that gnu/A+ represented a new adoption of a social justice agenda. That’s clear evidence that you see what we’ve been doing as atheists as something separate from constructive social justice activism.

Stedman would not have spent the past two years defining your group in opposition to us, including an entire book in which he argues that our anti-faith efforts are “toxic.” He wouldn’t host guest posts saying things like the following from Andrew Lovley (“A Newer Atheism: The Case for Affirmation and Accommodation”):

…Let us lead by example by acting on humanist principles, and give those who deride our motives and actions no factual grounds upon which to base their biting criticisms. Angry and bitter atheist activists serve only to enflame the negative stereotypes we are plagued by. Atheist activists, who rhetorically exacerbate our differences and vilify theists in general, only encourage those theists to do the same and ultimately foster greater alienation of atheists….

If atheist activists care about progress and the betterment of the human condition, perhaps the ‘deconversion’ of theists should not be prioritized, but instead the promotion of humanistic values. Our socio-political agenda should not include or be premised on the universalization of our atheistic world-view. If the movement is more than apologetics and includes prejudice and proselytization, it is more destructive than worthwhile. Theists can be and often are humanists too, and society is better off for it. Atheist (or secular) humanists and theist humanists each find extremist ideology repulsive and dangerous, and should be willing to work together in stifling its spread.

...Atheist activists should reconsider their priorities and reevaluate their efforts. A sign of maturity for any group is a focus on what they are for rather than what they are not. It often seems as though atheist activists direct more of their attention to religious people rather than to fellow atheists. We are doing ourselves a disservice when we are preoccupied with critiquing religion instead of engaging in dialogue about how atheists can lead positive, fulfilling lives and contribute to a better world.

or this nonsense from Karla McLaren. That’s clear evidence that he regards our anti-faith efforts as negative, destructive, hurtful, harmful, and hostile to humanistic values.

My point is that Humanism has ALWAYS been committed to anti-faith activism AS PART of its broader commitment to social justice

It’s quite true that many humanists, by no means all, have been (and many people and groups that don’t identify as humanist have been similarly committed). I hope they didn’t have to put up with other humanists yammering about how toxic this was. But the person to whom you should be explaining this is Stedman. I mean, I don’t really care if my actions are consistent with your vision of humanism, but he does. If his attacks on anti-faith activists are actually attacks on an integral part of the humanist tradition,…

and to claim that it has not been (as some bloggers, to whom I was responding, had done) is WRONG.

If you define “humanism” extremely broadly and don’t talk about concrete priorities or the forms activism takes in practice, you can regard anti-faith activism as falling under the humanist umbrella. You could say the same thing about probably any movement of the left – feminism, anti-racism, anticolonialism, psych rights,…, even animal rights. But surely you can see the problem with suggesting that because many humanist thinkers and activists have been feminists or anti-racists, people who call themselves feminists or anti-racists should just acknowledge that they’re “really” doing humanism.

Aside from the distorting simplification involved, this ignores the fact that many humanists have promoted sexism and racism, and have viewed this not only as consistent with their humanism but as an expression of it. The same is true of anti-faith activism: many humanists and strains of humanism (ahem) have looked favorably on religion, been at best ambivalent about faith, or just not seen faith as a priority, humanistic or otherwise. This was certainly true of Fromm. Furthermore, humanists have had a variety of philosophies and priorities unrelated to faith that we might regard as incompatible with their own. These movements just don’t reduce to humanism in any meaningful way.

Hell, anti-faith and feminist work is even more in keeping with my anarchism. Both have always played a major role in anarchism (although there have been religious and faith-friendly anarchists, too). But to ask “How does that differ from simple anarchism? Why don’t you just call it all anarchism?” is totally useless. It’s consistent with my anarchism and grows from the same basic values, so when I call myself a feminist or gnu atheist I’m not opposing these to anarchism, but subsuming it all under anarchism provides no new information, loses the focus of my actions and the traditions of these specific movements, and carries with it the mistaken implication that all anarchists support and prioritize anti-faith and feminist activism.

Is that sufficiently clear?

Is the above?

Oh - and before you respond "I was addressing the HCH not Humanism in general", two things:

I wouldn’t respond that way, because I’ve said explicitly that there’s no point in talking about “Humanism in general” in this context. It’s not possible to do without the loss of any useful meaning, as I discussed above and in my previous post.

HCH explicitly endorses Humanist values, such that there is no difference in fundamental values between Humanism as a lifestance and HCH as an organization. We exist to promote Humanism and to provide a community of Humanists. We plan our community and our events around those core values.

No, you don’t get to do this. You’re one group that considers itself humanistic and promotes humanism as it interprets that tradition. But it’s a diverse tradition, and no person or group can declare itself the true heir or representative of the movement.

That includes what you call "anti-faith" activism as part of a suite of things that we do.

You’re kidding, right? Even if that’s true, any anti-faith activism would be utterly swamped by the faithy interfaith faitheism at the heart of your activities and identity, and counteracted by Stedman’s constant stream of criticism of the most vocal anti-faith activists. But I’d love to hear more about this anti-faith activism of yours (and that doesn’t mean science promotion or secular activities). Seems strange to be engaging in efforts you spend so much time condemning, but OK. Swell.

At this point, I’m liking the argument as you're stating it now, which seems to be that our anti-faith efforts are in keeping with humanistic values and in fact part of the humanistic tradition. This, which doesn’t mean that our efforts can simply be subsumed under the humanist label, is correct. But it seems to me like the people with whom you should be taking issue, if this is your view, are your colleagues at HCH.

…Oh – one more thing. Is it the case that no one there will give any information about the sources of your funding? Not even whether it comes all from small donations or there are one or a few larger donations that make up the bulk? Or whether it comes from individuals or other organizations or foundations?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Cosmopolitanism, rape, and family honor

So you might conclude that cross-cultural conversations about values are bound to end in disagreement; indeed, you might fear that they would inflame conflict rather than creating understanding. There are three problems with this conclusion. First, we can agree about what to do even when we don’t agree why. Second, we exaggerate the role of reasoned argument in reaching or failing to reach agreements about values. And, third, most conflicts don’t arise from warring values in the first place. - Appiah, Cosmopolitanism (KL 1174-1182)

Since we’re talking about absurd notions of “honor,” I was reminded of a book I read several months ago - Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.

My chin popped up reading some passages about “honor.” As these, from men to men, tried to distinguish “our culture,” they gave away the game (maybe as a woman I shouldn’t have been reading…):

In the Arab world, and in much of Central and South Asia, there are societies in which men believe that their honor is tied up with the chastity of their sisters, their daughters, and their wives. Now, men here, too, feel shamed, dishonored, when their wives or daughters are raped.

Oh, they do, do they, now? Why? It’s fascinating that the emotions noted are shame and dishonor. Men “here” don’t sympathize with women who’ve been horribly attacked. Their response is something different, something about themselves. An attack on a woman wounds their pride.

But, unless they [men] come from one of those honor-based societies,

But,…wait. What was the previous paragraph about? You, Appiah, come from one of those societies. If you aren’t defending these idiotic notions of honor, then present your own and defend them.

they [men] aren’t likely to think that the solution is to punish these women.


We [men] understand the reflected glory

The reflected glory. Note that.

of the achievements of our relatives, and we know that with the possibility of pride comes the option of shame.

What “achievements”? Not being raped? Are women and your "brothers" to glory in the pride of not having been raped while being ashamed of…I don’t even want to know what?

Yet family honor is not as important to us [!] now as it clearly is, and was, to others….

I think this shows just how deep the problem runs. “Family honor” should die a quick, painful death.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Same differences: A reply to James Croft's reply to my reply to James Croft

The relevant background can be found





I'll just dive right in...

Bracing the Salty Current – Reason is a Humanist Value!

The title is already a problem! How ridiculous to try to insinuate that I’m unaware that reason is a humanist value.

There are several basic problems with this reply aside from the central argument. First, you’re neglecting the fact that I was responding not to some generic or mainstream “Humanism” that includes any and all variants, but to your statement of your humanistic vision, with its particular emphases and priorities. And let’s be clear: The bone of contention here is specific. The disagreement is about how atheists should view and approach religion as an expression of our positive values. No one’s being accused of not valuing reason.

This is the crux of the matter. You (in part buying into religious ideology) have fallen into the belief that anti-faith activism is both separate from and contrary to our positive values. It doesn’t much matter whether you consider this cluster of values humanistic or not. The focus on this label is a distraction from the basic thrust of your argument, which is that anti-faith activism is not positive, constructive, loving, or oriented toward social justice. You might not make a statement as loathsome and misleading as those Stedman has hosted on his blog, but you concur with the gist of arguments that paint us in our anti-faith work as coming from a place of arrogance, negativity, and hostility.

A while back I got into a back-and-forth regarding Atheism+ (an explicitly social-justice oriented Atheism promoted by blogger Jen McCreight) and its relationship to Humanism. My view, in brief, is that Atheism+, by infusing atheism with a commitment to an explicit set of positive values, is essentially a form of Humanism which, through the name, puts more of an emphasis on atheism than Humanism has traditionally done.

A+ - or, as I’ve been talking about, gnu+ - isn’t “infusing” gnu atheism with anything. It’s simply doing what you note in the first sentence: making the social-justice commitments of the people involved and their centrality explicit. No infusion. Nothing new.

This is the problem. It’s not simply that we haven’t added positive values to our anti-faith activism. It’s that we view our anti-faith activism itself as an expression of our positive values. (This is especially aggravating to me because as an anarchist I often face the same sort of lack of recognition that anarchism is a movement founded in positive values.) I believe you share these values, but you refuse to recognize why or even that we see things this way, much less to engage with our arguments on this subject. At this point, I would be satisfied if you would simply acknowledge that we do see it that way, even if you disagree with our arguments.

As a passionate Humanist I think that’s fantastic: anything which genuinely promotes broadly Humanist values gets a thumbs-up from me.

Then you should have been with us all along, rather than defending your colleagues’ attacks on us, because many of us have been genuinely promoting humanist values, including through our anti-faith efforts, for longer than you have. Do you understand this? Your portrayal of what’s going on paints you as representatives of the causes of social justice and us as humies-come-lately. That is false. We – the people you’re addressing – have long seen our work in terms of social justice. We’ve seen our atheist activism in terms of social justice. It’s disrespectful for you to continue to misrepresent that.

Some atheist bloggers, however, took umbrage at this show of support,

It was a show of condescension. I don’t think you’re intentionally misrepresenting things, but this patronizing and confused “support” is frustrating.

unwilling to accept that the values which A+ activists are now promoting are fundamentally similar to those Humanism has long promoted. [emphasis added]

Try to understand: We are not promoting anything new for us. The bone of contention with your group is that you’ve tried to claim your form of humanism as the humanism – or, labels aside, your activism as the positive activism - while misrepresenting anti-faith activism as rooted in values and goals that are different from or opposed to positive values (whether you or I categorize these as humanist or not is fairly immaterial).

This could all be resolved if you’d simply recognize that there’s a broad range of social justice activism and that we see our atheist anti-faith activism as part of that range. Not apart from it or contrary to it or detrimental to it. Part of it. I view my anti-faith/epist work as an essential part of my social activism. Because I recognize faith as a serious social, political, ethical, and psychological problem, it’s a priority.

Why this is I cannot say, but one such – Salty Current – has written a long explication of what s/he sees to be the differences between A+ and Humanism, directed to me,

No, they’re differences between my views (and those of many gnu/atheists+, as I understand them) and yours.

(I’m a woman. I’m amazed that at this late date you don’t know that.)

First, to clear up an inaccuracy:

The criticisms I’ve read are not of humanism – the pompous capitalization still grates – but of the particular flavor practiced by the HCH group.

This is false. Numerous A+ bloggers, including Greta Christina and Jen McCreight herself, expressed views regarding what Humanism is… which did not specifically address HCH.

Then you can take those issues up with them. I was responding specifically to your post and your statement of your position specifically as it related to an approach to religion. And of course, you don’t speak for humanism.

(the capitalization is essential to distinguish the modern lifestance of Humanism from historical “humanism” which means something different)

I would accept that from someone other than one of you. I believe you’ve capitalized, so to speak, on that justification, because it suits your purposes. You want to align yourselves with religions – Humanism is but another faith in the interfaith world. Referring to secular humanism or even lower-case humanism in context would I think be enough. This is all entirely tangential in any case.

And I have no idea what a “lifestance” is.

I was responding to what I saw as broad misconceptions regarding Humanism itself – not any particular version of it – in much of the Freethought blogosphere.

This is where these discussions get annoying. You’re like soap in a bath. You responded to comments that you could not speak for all of humanism (apparently – I didn’t see your post until it had been changed) but only your own version by changing your post to reflect that you were speaking for yourself. I replied to your very plain statement of where you stand – your humanism. My arguments were with your humanism (particularly as it pertains to religion), not with every variety of humanism in existence.

I found those misconceptions troubling and surprising as Humanism has been the driving force of the Freethought movement in the USA for decades. I was frankly shocked to see well-respected bloggers demonstrate basic misconceptions.

Again, take that up with them. Given your response here, however, I’m not confident you’re following their arguments.

To the argument.


SC makes a lot of the fact that I

This is good. You should stick with the first-person singular in this conversation.

single-out the “supernatural” aspects of religious belief for criticism, and points out that s/he has a problem with any belief which is held without solid foundation. Agreed: there’s no difference of view here.

Well, there’s already a problem with your reading of what I’m saying. What’s of primary importance to me in this context is not individual beliefs but the epistemic practices through which beliefs are formed and maintained.

As I noted in the post to which s/he is responding, the list of Humanist values I offered is not exhaustive,

Of course it wasn’t. As I understood it, it was a statement of your humanistic vision, with its particular understandings and priorities, and you were specifically talking about your approach to religion. My vision as it pertains to faith differs from yours. I resent the suggestion that my choice is between your Humanism and something that is outside of and perhaps even hostile to positive, social-justice values. What I’m saying is that I have a substantially different vision from yours, and to the extent that the points on which we disagree make your vision more humanistic than mine, I’m not a humanist. The label isn’t all that important to me. What does concern me is the suggestion that my epistemic commitments are not positive, ethical, social-justice commitments. I resent that very much.

This is the crux of the matter, really. I recognize that you view your “interfaith” and religion-friendly work as an expression of your positive values, even when I disagree with it, but you don’t extend to us the same understanding. You, and Stedman even more so, persist in characterizing our anti-faith activism as something aside from our ethical and social commitments, and often something hostile to them. If this weren’t the case, Stedman wouldn’t present his cartoonish picture of gnu atheists, and you wouldn’t talk about “infusing” atheism with more laudable goals.

(The significance of your response to A+ is in what it reveals about your negative view of gnu atheism. The emergence of A+ is useful here in that it allows us to revisit this and get it out in the open.)

and a commitment to right-belief is a core Humanist value – one of the most central. There is no difference of view here.

It’s one thing to say something is amongst your core values in this abstract way. The discussion as I understand it was about different approaches to faith and whether these are or are not expressions of or consistent with positive values. You don’t view our anti-faith activism as an expression of or entirely consistent with our positive values. To be clear: I don’t think you’re saying that we lack positive values. The problem is that you fail to appreciate that we regard our anti-faith efforts as an expression of and means of promoting those values.

Where there might be a difference is when SC offers the following:

The defining feature of a religious belief is that it’s held despite (and often because of) the fact that it can’t be defended. That’s what makes it religious.

This is not how I would define “religious belief”.

You’re confused. I can see how that sentence out of context might be confusing, but, well, since you read it in context there’s really no excuse. My argument was not about individual beliefs, but about belief. About faith, specifically, as an epistemic practice and form of relationship we have with other beings and with the rest of reality. The defining feature of religion is faith: the practice of forming and accepting beliefs on a non-evidentiary basis. As I argued very clearly, faith as a practice is not exclusive to religion, but it is the defining feature of religion, and often claimed by the religious as a virtue.

I was taking issue with your focus on specific beliefs, and arguing that your humanism takes issue with “supernatural” beliefs and with what seem the more dangerous and harmful beliefs. While we of course distinguish amongst beliefs in terms of content and immediate harm, that isn’t all there is to my anti-faith writing. (I feel like I’m rewriting the entire post, and I’m sure I said it better the first time. Alas.)

There are lots of beliefs which cannot be defended which I do not think are properly termed “religious”: birthersim, for instance, or conspiracy theories regarding the moon landings.

And these are among the less dangerous! But that’s exactly what I was arguing. Faith is a practice that’s not the exclusive province of religion, but is religion’s defining feature. Religions are based on faith, defend faith as a practice, and often promote faith as a virtue. In a context in which this is accepted, it’s all the easier for (other) authoritarian and oppressive institutions to capitalize on that. That’s one of the reasons faith, and therefore necessarily religion, has to be opposed.

There are also beliefs which are central to religions which are perfectly tenable: the Mormon belief that their religion was founded by Joseph Smith, for example. Very important to Mormons, also true – as far as it goes.

I think we might be getting to the heart of the matter. Again, my emphasis on faith is not about specific beliefs. It’s about practices of believing. If people believe something for good evidentiary reasons, it’s not (a) faith belief. It might be related to their religion, but it isn’t the problem. If people believe something, and to the extent that they believe something, for non-evidentiary reasons, or contrary to the evidence, that is a faith-belief. Faith-beliefs are the defining feature of religion. Of course, some might be incidentally true, but a positive vision is not one that includes, much less encourages, bad, unethical, alienating practices of belief, regardless of whether some small portion might happen to be true (and of course, as Allen Wood notes, beliefs not founded on the evidence are far less likely, highly unlikely in fact, to turn out to be true).

That’s what I’m saying is the problem we’re trying to address. Not supernatural beliefs. Not bigoted beliefs. FAITH, as a practice of forming and holding beliefs and as a form of relationship we have with others and the world.

You could also trawl religious texts and find, I am certain, numerous ethical and aesthetic precepts which are defensible.

When speaking of ethical and aesthetic precepts, we’re using a different meaning of defensible. But any ethics has to be formed on the basis of reality, and this gives me a chance to explain my thinking in more depth, so I’ll talk about this a bit.

So for example, I recently started reading Dominion by Matthew Scully, former Bush and Palin speechwriter. So far every page, as could be predicted from the title, contains a faith claim (we know this because there’s no evidence we were created by a god who gave us “dominion” over other animals or has some plan for or loves any of us, etc., and we know the source of these beliefs). Many animal rights activists who aren’t believers nevertheless mention his book in glowing terms, and often celebrate various alleged religious traditions of animal care.

And, you could argue, why not? If some people believe in ethical precepts rooted in their religion or are (allegedly) motivated by their religion to fight for the welfare of nonhuman animals, shouldn’t atheist animal rights activists support and join with them, or at least not openly criticize those beliefs? On the surface, we share the same positive values, and together face a huge fight against powerful interests, so why would we want to alienate religious people by pointing out the problems with faith or their specific beliefs about animals? It seems counterproductive for the animals, and viewed naively it appears to be gratuitous and malicious to go after those with defensible ethical precepts, whatever their source.

But religious beliefs about nonhuman animals and our relationship to them, as I’ll be arguing much more extensively in the coming months (you’ve been warned), well illustrate the problems with faith-belief and faith-based ethics that I summarized in my previous reply. A faith approach to animals is alienating, as I’ve argued previously. Maintaining unevidenced beliefs about them and us and our relationship interferes with the formation of a genuinely respectful, objective (to the extent possible) understanding of all of these. This harms us as humans because we can’t have real relationships with them as they are and we are or learn about ourselves through learning about them. This serious problem isn’t captured by an abstract discussion about valuing truth, science, or reason or respect for reality, but I think it’s implicit when many anti-faith atheists speak in those abstract terms.

A faith approach to animals is unethical, because a faith approach to any ethical question is unethical. We all - not just atheists or humanists, but everyone - have a duty to believe according to the evidence. We’re not going to make the best ethical decisions possible if we’re doing so on the basis of faith-beliefs, which are extremely likely to be false. In this case, the beliefs underlying the ethical claims are clearly false. We can’t be complacent or silent about unethical approaches to ethics.

A faith approach to our relationship with animals is authoritarian, as is a faith approach to any question of ethics. People aren’t idiosyncratically forming these ideas about creation and our relationship to other animals. They’re coming to hold and maintain those beliefs on the basis of religious authorities and holy books. This is true regardless of whether they put their own spin on them: the fundamental beliefs underlying the ethical idea are accepted on faith. This contributes to relations of oppression, regardless of the particular content of the beliefs. It heightens the power of religious and all authorities, and supports not just bad epistemic practices but specifically the acceptance of beliefs based on what authorities say. That is not compatible with any position or approach that truly values practices of “right-belief” or seeks to subvert oppressive relations.

Respecting any faith-belief as a foundation for ethics, and celebrating faith as a motivation for ethics generally, of course bolsters the power of any faith-based ethics, including those we wouldn’t find even superficially “defensible.” And in this case the people who hold similar faith-beliefs which they see as justifying their cruel exploitation of nonhuman animals are far more numerous and far more powerful. If atheists/epists avoid aggressively criticizing the faith basis of ethical positions that are closer to ours in practice, we have no foundation for challenging the people who understand “dominion” to mean cruel exploitation. We also have no foundation for challenging faith-beliefs that aren’t religious. Respecting any faith beliefs disarms you against all of them.

This sort of respect in action additionally carries the implicit suggestion that powerful and convincing ethical arguments for ethical relationships with our fellow animals can’t be found outside of faith. It’s a backhanded rejection of the very humanist tradition of ethics and social justice activism you claim as your own.

All of these problems are independent of the specific content of the faith-beliefs in question, but in this case the content would appear to support a positive ethical idea: that we have a sacred obligation to treat nonhuman animals kindly. But the underlying belief - that we are unique, separated from all of the other animals by the possession of some special “human dignity,” that we’re in a hierarchical position above all other animals with divinely-ordained power over their lives - is profoundly arrogant. It alienates us from animal life, including our own, by seeing it and its value in terms of the interests of a fabricated deity. They and we, in our “brute materiality,” have no value outside of this divine fiction’s desires. Given that our brute materiality is reality, that’s the opposite of real humanism.

Furthermore, these beliefs about essential differences and hierarchies have contributed to virtually every other form of oppression (including prejudice against nonbelievers, who are seen as lesser or incomplete humans to the extent that we refuse to recognize our semi-transcendent status and reject our call to mastery). Again, religion doesn’t have a monopoly on arrogant and conservative beliefs like “human dignity” and human mastery, and it’s not the primary source of their persistence. But the set of oppressive beliefs can’t be challenged meaningfully unless faith itself is challenged.

(I beg of you, though, not to get hung up on the short discussion of content in the two paragraphs above. I’m well aware that there are other faith-beliefs about nonhuman animals, us, and our relationships. They all have their problems. But they all, as faith, share the generic problems I talked about in the previous paragraphs. Pointing to the diversity of faith-beliefs on this subject or any other would not be an argument against those points. The reason I raise the subject of the content of these beliefs in this context is that I think an estimation of the harmfulness of specific faith-beliefs has to go beyond the superficial. This is a case in which faith-beliefs might appear on the surface to be harmless and even positive, but when examined more rigorously they’re shown to be substantially harmful. Again – this is largely aside from the arguments about faith.)

These effects are real and consequential regardless of whether the people who follow or respect the faith approach are being jerks or not. They could be as polite and civil as can be, though they’re often not, and faith would still do this. Faith would still be alienating and unethical (in itself and as a basis for ethical decisions) and interfere with our genuine understanding of nonhuman animals, of ourselves, and of our relationship with and to them. It would still be inherently authoritarian, and justify and support authoritarian relations. Respecting faith-belief would still disarm opposition to the most malignant faith-beliefs and -actions. It would still promote the incorrect idea that defensible and motivating ethical arguments can’t be developed without faith. It would still carry an implicit suggestion that nonfaith understandings and approaches to ethics (and those who champion them) are lesser or incomplete, and that overt challenges to faith are therefore harmful to the cause. These beliefs would still be based on arrogant and false ideas that buttress ideologies of oppression.

This is just one example. I want it to be clear that I’m making a general argument about the inherent problems with faith. They’re why I see faith as a key social justice issue, and why I regard anti-faith activism (and not simply a vague commitment to science or reason) as essential to the realization of other positive social goals. You can disagree with any or all of the points I’ve made about faith or the importance I attach to anti-faith work as a part of social-justice activism. But you need to recognize, explicitly, that I’ve made this argument. The points on which you explicitly disagree with me in your reply are important ones, and acknowledging this means that you have to stop asserting that our positions on this are the same.

So I think we need a more sophisticated definition of both what makes something indefensible and what makes a belief “religious”. Being indefensible is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of religious belief.

I expect I’ve clarified this sufficiently above. If you still don’t understand, I’m not sure what to say.

No disagreement here either.

I hope you understand the source of the disagreement. We are saying different things, James. They don’t reduce to one another.

The Humanist commitment to reason is broader than a mere commitment to challenge beliefs which harm others: it is a full-bore devotion to seeking truth. That’s why Humanists are so often scientists and philosophers, working in are which don’t directly tackle harmful religious beliefs but any unwarranted belief at all. That’s why I gave a talk called “Lust for Truth: Reason as a Moral Value” at the “Skeptics of Oz” conference this year, and why I go on radio and debate apologists. The truth matters for its own sake.

That’s all quite fine. (Well, not exactly. "The truth" doesn't have a sake. It isn't a being or entity with which we can have a relationship, but an abstraction representing the set of individual, concrete truths about real beings and entities, including ourselves. It's important to understand this as it pertains to faith's alienating, unethical, and psychologically harmful qualities.)

SC seems to think I don’t believe this. Where s/he gets that view I cannot tell – s/he certainly doesn’t tell us. When s/he says “we have…an ethical duty to believe according to the evidence” s/he could be quoting both my talk and my dissertation, which is on the importance of Free Thinking and tackles the ethical necessity of truth-seeking.

A commitment to science and reason as a route to truth is unequivocally-stated in all three Humanist Manifestos (the crispest way to determine the consensus of Humanist thought on a given matter at a given time):

No one is disputing this. (OK, I'd dispute that any manifesto is going to encompass humanist thought in a way that I could say, “Yes, I identify completely with that program.”) But the difference on which this turns is not about having or lacking such a general commitment. It’s how we view faith from the perspective of having that commitment, what that commitment means in practice, and how we address religion – characterized by epistemic practices some of us consider bad, alienating, unethical, and authoritarian – within that framework.

Humanist Manifesto i

..."Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method."

“Religion” can’t, because it’s not a being. Religious people and institutions as such obviously can’t in any meaningful way.

Humanist Manifesto ii

"...critical intelligence, infused by a sense of human caring, is the best method that humanity has for resolving problems…"

This is problematic. The rest is fine and vague and not really relevant to our specific dispute.

The thinking behind that use of “infused,” as I’ve discussed above, is the problem. Human caring is at the core of my critical intelligence, including my anti-faith writing. I think others have made the same point to you, and I’m at a loss as to why you’re continuing to present things in these terms.

Humanist Manifesto iii

"...We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence."


It’s very difficult to claim that Humanists don’t have a problem with unwarranted belief in the face of such explicit statements.

That was not my claim, although some don’t prioritize faith as I do. (Whether this is due to ignorance of the arguments in favor of prioritizing it or disagreement with them I don’t know, since the people criticizing anti-faith activism, including you, don’t seem to acknowledge them.)

I was responding to your explicit statement of your principles. You’ve made the same arguments here, so I’m fairly confident they’re yours. Don’t try to bring in various humanist thinkers separate from your arguments. To the extent that they’ve influenced you, it should come through in your thinking and priorities.

when HCH people talk about confronting oppression, it seems clear that they’re placing themselves towards the charitable-service rather than the radical-social-change end of the spectrum.

Why does this seem clear? Why does SC make this assumption (for assumption it must be – no evidence is offered to support it). In actuality, while Humanism is compatible with many political outlooks, it has always had a radical aspect to it.

Humanists have played a significant role in both progressive and radical social movements, and Humanists thinkers come in radical and progressive stripes….

What the hell? Look, James, I’m an anarchist and consider many if not all of the anarchists I read to be humanists. Erich Fromm, about whom I’ve been writing extensively, was a humanist. I’m not saying anything about the incompatibility of humanism and radicalism. I was making a tangential observation about your group’s priorities and activities as I’ve seen them. It might be biased – I probably do tend to see “interfaith” charitable projects predominantly – but even if it’s wrong, it’s, as I pointed out, tangential. And you really have to stop expanding the discussion to the entirety of the humanist tradition, especially when you’re responding to a statement that is explicitly about you and/or the HCH group.

In sum, yes, there are differences. If this conversation is to proceed, the anti-faith position has to be fully recognized and treated respectfully (which doesn’t mean uncritically).

To reiterate and conclude, there is no argument here.

To reiterate, yes, there is.

A commitment to tackle what SC calls “faith” is central to Humanist thought and practice, and has been for many decades.

Oh, for the love of…

It is central to my work as an educator, philosopher, and activist.

It isn’t central to your group’s thought and practice. In translating an epistemic commitment into practice, we diverge, and I think quite early on. Your personal manifesto to which I was responding in fact tries to make a case against prioritizing the epistemic question.

You make a series of points in that post, and they’re consistent with your views as I’ve seen them expressed elsewhere. My views differ rather fundamentally on some important points. These differences make for different practical agendas marked by different priorities. I hope you’ll come eventually to agree with my arguments, but for the time being I’d be satisfied if you could merely appreciate our differences.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Superstition ivory

Thousands of elephants killed for creepy religious gewgaws.

[via Tim Zimmermann]

Bad choice, Philadelphia Youth Orchestra

[PYO president and music director Louis] Scaglione asserted that the “political or personal views” of PYO guests and supporters are not a “reflection of the beliefs of the nonprofit organization or its agents.”

“PYO celebrates the great diversity that is our community, our city, our nation and our society,” he added. “The musical arts transcend all political, cultural, religious and social constructs. It is through the musical arts that one teaches tolerance and respect. PYO does not align itself with any individual or entity by adoption of their respective viewpoints, philosophies or beliefs. PYO does not condone or condemn the viewpoints, philosophies, religious doctrine or political affiliation of others. PYO supports and encourages open dialogue and healthy debate of artistic, philosophical, political, religious and social issues.”

So they don't condemn bigotry. That should make the gay kids in the orchestra comfortable.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Blood TV

Writing in my previous post about The Silence of the Lambs, and, even more, watching CSA: Confederate States of America recently (or finishing it – for some reason I watched it in 15-minute bits over a period of months) reminded me that I’ve been grimly recording the various meat shows I’ve seen appear over the past several months.

A sample of the carnage on which we feed:

“Meat America,” on the History Channel

“Meat Men,” on the Food Network

The “American Hoggers” (A&E) “Get Snorty” game

“United States of Food” (“United States of Bacon,” “United States of Burgers,” “United States of Steak”), on Discovery

The whole celebration reeks of anxious masculinity and ideological propaganda. When future generations look back and judge our culture’s morality, and they will, this is what they’ll see.

Hannibal Lecter and subverting speciesism

Vegan Feminist Agitator recently posted “Serve With Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti: The Hannibal Lecterism of Happy Meat.” (You need to read through to the end to get the full picture.)

It was interesting timing, as I’d just previously read the chapter “Subject to Sacrifice: Ideology, Psychoanalysis, and the Discourse of Species in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs” in Cary Wolfe’s book Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory.

Wolfe and Elmer analyze what they consider “the most far-reaching and powerful discourse in the film: the discourse of species” (KL 1506-1507), arguing that the film, particularly through the character of Hannibal Lecter, upsets speciesist categories. They describe what’s at “the heart of Lecter's threat”:

In embodying a kind of unavowable "presymbolic other," Lecter exposes symbolicity as such (the assignations of otherness and sameness identified by Derrida) as the core mechanism of Enlightenment and humanist modernity. But in this exposure, it is made clear that Lecter does not respect the principle of the symbolic substitute, the sacrificial victim, the object of exchange, the metaphoric equivalent. Lecter's strategy in the face of these endless substitutions will be to deny their efficacy, to demetaphorize, to literalize, to substantialize. Most momentously, of course, Lecter's cannibalism flouts the originary substitution behind speciesist practice-the killing and eating of animals rather than humans.

…It is important to recognize that Lecter's exposure of the hypocrisy of humanist symbolic economies arises not from any kind of resistance to them but rather from his radicalization of those very economies, his relentless pursuit of them to their quite logical conclusions (KL 1714-1720).

As you can no doubt glean from the chapter and book title and what’s quoted here, the writing is very typical of lit crit. I’ve mentioned in the past that I have a pretty high tolerance for this sort of thing. If there are enough good points on offer and the questionable passages aren’t deeply offensive, I’ll just leave snotty remarks in the margins and keep going. In this case, there are enough insights to be found to make wading through the rest – even the “technoscience” references - worthwhile for me. I can’t say I’d recommend it in a general way, but if you have a similarly high tolerance and are interested in the subject you might find it of value. In any case, I’ll be writing more about the arguments.

The saddest ad

"…Money is the alienated ability of mankind.

That which I am unable to do as a man, and of which therefore all my individual essential powers are incapable, I am able to do by means of money. Money thus turns each of these powers into something which in itself it is not – turns it, that is, into its contrary.

…Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return – that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent – a misfortune." - Karl Marx, “The Power of Money,” Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Friday, November 2, 2012

Religious children's homes in Florida

"In God's name: Unlicensed religious children's homes"

There is no litmus test to determine whether a home is truly guided by religion.

Very much not the issue.

In this state, unlicensed religious homes can abuse children and go on operating for years. Almost 30 years ago, Florida legislators passed a law eliminating state oversight of children's homes that claim government rules hamper their religious practices.

Instead of state-trained child safety workers, these homes are regulated by the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, a private, nonprofit group run almost entirely by the same people who run the homes.

Very much the issue.

More must be done, says Robert Friedman, a psychologist and professor emeritus with the University of South Florida's Department of Child and Family Studies. Friedman founded an advocacy group to stop abuse in residential facilities and has given congressional testimony on the topic.

"For us not to be able to regulate these programs," he said, "for us not to be able to provide the oversight of these programs that's needed is just shameful.

"We don't know even the scope of the problem, and we allow these youngsters behind these closed doors."

Missing: extradition update

I wrote several months ago about the 1982 film Missing, mentioning current efforts underway in Chile to extradite a US military officer in connection with the murders of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been involved with the case since the 1970s when it filed a lawsuit against Henry Kissinger and others, reported recently that:

In a groundbreaking development, the Supreme Court of Chile has approved a request by an investigating judge to extradite retired U.S. Naval Captain Ray E. Davis for his role in the killings of two U.S. citizens, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi. Davis headed the U.S. military mission at the embassy in Santiago during the 1973 military coup. Horman and Terrugi were secretly arrested, detained and executed by the Chilean military in the days following the coup, and Davis is accused of having provided information to Chilean intelligence on the two men. The request to extradite Davis came as part of a lawsuit brought in Chile by Charles Horman’s widow, Joyce Horman.

Shut it down.

Last month, protesters chanting “Shut it down!” managed to (peacefully) storm the gate at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Canada. (In developments today, it’s being reported that Marineland is threatening to sue a former trainer for more than $1 million over her statements to the Toronto Star about injuries to an orca named Kiska confined at the park.)

In related news, yesterday was an important court date in Amsterdam for the orca Morgan, when more arguments were to be brought and reports submitted in favor of getting her released from Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. You can read more here, here, and here. I haven't found any updates, but I'll post them when I do.

Recommended: Created from Animals

I've mentioned it two or three times now at Pharyngula, but for the handful of hypothetical people who read this blog but not that one, I'll note it once again: I highly recommend James Rachels' Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, which is available free online.

Abortion rights developments in Uruguay and the EU

Recent developments in Europe and Uruguay reflect some progress in the realization of reproductive rights globally. The European Court of Human Rights has condemned Poland’s treatment of a 14-year-old who needed an abortion after she was raped, and a law was passed in Uruguay in October making abortion legal in the first trimester of pregnancy. Both of these stories mark positive developments in a country and a region that have become battlegrounds where women fight the Vatican’s denial of their most basic rights and where the Church will never retreat peacefully.

It’s important to recognize the people fighting for reproductive rights there (and here, for that matter), and to note that it does appear that the movement for reproductive rights is gaining momentum in Latin America especially. But reading the stories of girls and women in these two reports reminds you just how much suffering misogynistic cultures and laws are causing real people. I urge everyone to read them, especially the report about the Uruguayan law and its regional context.

The big BMJ clinical trials announcement, and more pharma spin

I suppose it’s possible for a public statement from a corporation or pharma trade group to consist of something other than self-serving manipulative rhetoric. It’s probably also possible to find a Van Morrison song that doesn’t contain some variant of “old,” “road,” or “soul.” Wouldn’t count on either.

The British Medical Journal has announced that beginning in 2013 it won’t publish the results of clinical trials if the detailed data are not made available. (How tragically backwards things have become that this would have to happen at all, and that it will be only one small step towards the transparency needed, even assuming it works and that other journals follow BMJ’s lead. We’re talking about the evidentiary basis on which governments, doctors, and everyone else are supposed to make decisions about medical treatments, and the powerful – despite overwhelming evidence of the human costs of their duplicity - have been able to build a system in which they control access.)

Pharma has relentlessly fought attempts to get them to make the data available to the public, and they continue, and will continue, to use every trick in their bag to evade disclosure requirements. They’ll continue to insist that the problem isn’t that serious, the problem used to be serious but isn’t any longer, clinical trials databases are sufficient even if transparency isn’t enforced, they’ve always complied with reporting requirements, they’ve already been addressing the problem, they support efforts to remedy the problem, the problem can’t be remedied ethically or efficiently, they mean well and are investigating the best way to cooperate, and so on, all simultaneously.

Ben Goldacre and One Boring Old Man report on pharma’s spinjinks, past and present. If there weren’t lives at stake, it would be funny to watch them and their shills at it. I did come across an entertaining response to one of their tactics – one which rings strangely familiar… - in the comments at Goldacre’s blog:

-The sky is blue.

-I can’t see how you can be so sure.

-I see it every time the clouds clear. I saw it yesterday.

-So your most recent observation was 24 hours ago. It was also based on scattered sunlight that takes several milliseconds to travel through the atmosphere, so your claim is old, based on even older data.

-There is no reason to think the colour of the sky has changed. The laws of physics are the same as they always were, human colour perception likewise. If you’re claiming there is any reason to doubt the colour of the sky, can you present your evidence?

-All you have shown is that the sky was blue slightly more than a day ago. I am not claiming the sky is any particular colour, just that we do not know the colour of the sky at the moment. If you cannot present evidence that the sky is blue now, I cannot see that your claim is supported.

-I’ve just looked outside again and there was a slight gap in the clouds. I could see the blue sky.

-You have not presented comprehensive evidence that the sky is blue right now.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Gary Francione talks about animal abolitionism on Philosophy Bites

I like these short interviews. Nigel Warburton asks intelligent questions, and the discussions are quite content-dense. You really get a sense not only of the interviewees' perspectives but of where they stand in current debates.

Peter Kropotkin in Slate

I hate the title: “The Russian Anarchist Prince Who Challenged Evolution.” Kropotkin didn’t challenge evolution, or intend to challenge evolution, as the author notes right in the piece itself.

I hate the inane subtitle - “Are we cooperative or competitive?” – and the claim in one of the opening paragraphs that Kropotkin “came to believe that…cooperation was the predominant evolutionary force driving all social life, from microbes to humans.” He stated right in the introduction to Mutual Aid:

It may be objected to this book that both animals and men are represented in it under too favourable an aspect; that their sociable qualities are insisted upon, while their anti-social and self-asserting instincts are hardly touched upon. This was, however, unavoidable. We have heard so much lately of the "harsh, pitiless struggle for life," which was said to be carried on by every animal against all other animals, every "savage" against all other "savages," and every civilized man against all his co-citizens -- and these assertions have so much become an article of faith -- that it was necessary, first of all, to oppose to them a wide series of facts showing animal and human life under a quite different aspect. It was necessary to indicate the overwhelming importance which sociable habits play in Nature and in the progressive evolution of both the animal species and human beings: to prove that they secure to animals a better protection from their enemies, very often facilities for getting food and (winter provisions, migrations, etc.), longevity, therefore a greater facility for the development of intellectual faculties; and that they have given to men, in addition to the same advantages, the possibility of working out those institutions which have enabled mankind to survive in its hard struggle against Nature, and to progress, notwithstanding all the vicissitudes of its history. It is a book on the law of Mutual Aid, viewed at as one of the chief factors of evolution -- not on all factors of evolution and their respective values; and this first book had to be written, before the latter could become possible.

His intention was plainly to focus on the evolution of mutual aid in order to counteract the biased view prevailing among many of evolution’s spokespeople (and also opportunistically adopted to this day by creationists) and to contribute to a comprehensive picture.

I hate the suggestion that Kropotkin was primarily taking issue with Darwin rather than challenging what he viewed as ideological distortions of Darwin’s ideas by Huxley and others as a means of defending Darwin’s theory against political misrepresentations.

And I hate that Dugatkin refers to Kropotkin as a prince here and in the title of his book on the subject - The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin's Adventures in Science and Politics – while noting even in this shorter piece that Kropotkin had renounced that title by the age of 12. I think his wishes should be respected.

There are other problems as well. These aside aside, though, I’m very pleased to see evolutionary biologists writing about Kropotkin on popular sites, and the article’s informative enough. I’ll also be reading the book

(only $3.99 for the Kindle version!) over the next few days.