Sunday, December 29, 2013

A blowfly goes into a bar...

Read the article for the punchline (how I love puns).

Karen Horney and Stalin’s institutionalized neurosis

Karen Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth

is one of those rare books capable of fundamentally transforming your understanding of the world. Horney’s work is also sadly underappreciated today,* even more so than Erich Fromm’s – added to the reflexive dismissal of anyone or anything connected to Freud (even of those like Horney who themselves came out against the most problematic aspects of Freud’s arguments, at a time when it was professionally difficult to do so) there’s the fact that she was a woman.

But the undeniable light her work can shed not just on individual psychology but on culture and politics has been appreciated by some. Recently, I ran across “Memoir of a Stalin Biographer” by Robert C. Tucker, published in 1982. As the essay’s title suggests, Tucker is best known for his three-volume biography of Stalin, of which two volumes were completed before his death in 2010. In this piece, he describes how reading Neurosis and Human Growth while living and working in Stalinist Russia led him to conceive the hypothesis that Stalin was an example of a neurotic personality, institutionalized in the political system. He offers a nice summary of Horney’s arguments (which, of course, doesn’t begin to do justice to the richness and nuance of the book):
Horney's subject was the ‘neurotic character structure’. To summarize the core of her argument, a person who experiences ‘basic anxiety’ resulting from adverse emotional circumstances in early life may seek and find a rock of inner security by forming an idealized self-image. Its content will depend upon the direction the child takes in relations with others -- moving against, toward, or away from them. For example, one whose tendency is to move against others may idealize himself as a great warrior, while one whose tendency is to move toward others may imagine himself as saintlike.

Gradually and unconsciously, if the anxiety-causing conditions do not change, the child moves from self-idealizing to adopting the idealized image as his real identity. Then the energies available for growth toward self-realization are invested in the quest to prove the idealized self in action. Horney calls this the ‘search for glory’.

Because the idealized self is absolute -- free of the faults, blemishes, and limitations that go with being human -- it can't be actualized. Hence, the individual begins to feel estranged from, and to accuse, hate, and condemn, the fallible, merely human ‘empirical self’ that he proves to be in practice. The drive to enact the idealized self is, however, compulsive, with extreme pain of anxiety and self-condemnation as the price of failure.

Consequently, the by now inwardly conflicted individual develops a system of unconscious defenses against the experience of failure. These include repression of the disparity between the idealized and empirical selves; various forms of rationalization; the seeking of affirmation of the idealized self by significant others; and the projection upon still others -- who can realistically be condemned and combated -- of both the repressed faults and the self- hatred that they arouse.

Repressed self-hatred is then experienced as hatred of others. The particular others on whom it is projected are likely to be those who have incurred the neurotic person's vindictive animosity by somehow failing to affirm him as the idealized self that he mistakenly takes himself to be. A ‘need for vindictive triumph’ is, therefore, a regular ingredient, according to Horney, of the search for glory, especially in those who have a tendency to move against others in a drive toward mastery.
Tucker continues:
When I was reading and rereading this book, my work consisted in directing a translation bureau operated cooperatively by the British, American, and Canadian embassies. It produced a daily bulletin of complete or condensed translations into English of articles selected by me from eight Soviet daily papers, and separate translations of articles selected from periodicals ranging from the Central Committee's monthly Kommunist to Soviet journals on history, law, philosophy and the arts. Because my Russian wife, Eugenia, whom I had married in 1946, was not given an exit visa to enable her to accompany me back home, I was, so to speak, serving an indefinite sentence in Moscow.

What would one day be called the ‘cult of personality’, with Stalin as the centerpiece, was at its zenith. Unlike Orwell's Big Brother, Stalin really existed. But he was a recluse and hardly ever appeared in public save for the parades in Red Square twice a year, May Day and November 7. Nevertheless, a heroic portrait of him, usually in generalissimo's uniform, appeared almost daily on the front pages of Soviet newspapers, and in a myriad other ways he symbolically figured in Soviet public life as an object of reverential tribute.

Two years earlier, in 1949, the cult of Stalin had reached a climax in the celebration of his 70th birthday. This amounted to what can only be described as his virtual deification….

One Saturday afternoon in 1951 I had been browsing in the Academy of Sciences bookstore and was walking down Gorky Street toward the U.S. Embassy on Mokhovaya. In full view below was Red Square and, off to its right, the Kremlin. It may have crossed my mind that Stalin was at work there. Suddenly the thought occurred to me: What if the idealized image of Stalin appearing day by day in the party-controlled, party-supervised Soviet press was an idealized self in Horney's sense?

If so, Stalin must be a neurotic personality as portrayed in her book, except that he possessed an unprecedented plenitude of political power. In that case, his personality cult must reflect his own monstrously inflated vision of himself as the greatest genius of Russian and world history. It must be an institutionalization of his neurotic character structure.

So this Kremlin recluse, this ruler who was so reticent about himself, must be spilling out his innermost thoughts about himself in millions of newspapers and journals published in Russia. He must be the most self-revealed disturbed person of all time. To find out what was most important about him there would be no need to get him onto a couch; one could do it by reading Pravda, while rereading Horney! I began to do just that, and in the process grew more convinced of my hypothesis….
As Tucker goes on to describe, he tried to be conscientious about respecting the uniqueness of the subject rather than simply trying to illustrate a conceptual framework: “Instead of dealing in such abstract categories from a book of psychology,…I was now using that book as guidance in a biographer's effort to portray his subject as an individual.”** (I haven’t yet read the biography, so I can’t attest to how successful he was.) This is perfectly in keeping with Horney’s own views; she regarded her categories and types as useful heuristics that shouldn’t be imposed on individuals but used to guide the understanding of their psychology as it came to appear from the evidence in each case.

This doesn’t mean, though, that Horney’s concepts don’t have great applicability for understanding cultural and political dynamics and how individuals are formed in conditions of oppression. They’re potentially extremely useful for understanding political cultures and social movements as long as glib extrapolations and identifications aren’t made between individual psychology and cultures, institutions, and systems. Horney wasn’t a revolutionary, but her ideas have revolutionary possibilities.

* A telling illustration of how dismal the situation is: last year, the head of the Karen Horney Clinic, Henry Paul, published a book entitled When Kids Need Meds.

** It’s noteworthy that in his discussion of how his loathing for Stalin grew in proportion to his knowledge of the man and his actions, he emphasizes Stalin’s use of torture (called by the euphemism “physical pressure”):
Khrushchev testifies in the secret report that on January 20, 1939, Stalin dispatched a coded telegram to high party and police officials throughout the country saying that ‘physical pressure should still be used obligatorily as an exception applicable to known and obstinate enemies of the people, as a method both justifiable and appropriate’. This is amply documented by other sources. ‘Physical pressure’ meant torture. Stalin was determined that those labeled enemies must be tortured. If, as I believe, the worst of human vices is cruelty, this man may have been the most vicious individual ever to wield power. Certainly he was one of them.
Even while the US government installed, funded, trained, and supported governments who systematically tortured presumed “enemies,” Tucker could still assume the reference to torture would be seen by a US readership as an indication of extreme cruelty and viciousness naturally to be greeted with the utmost contempt.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Near the other vultures

From Virginia:
Town manager Chris Lawrence tells The Roanoke Times that more efficient methods are being considered for the vultures' return next year.

The town could apply for a federal permit to kill one vulture. The remains would be hung near the other vultures.

Lawrence says the vultures would disperse because they don't like to be around their own dead.
I have no idea whether any of the claims in this story is true. The attitudes are important.

Winter fog

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Review of Cracked by James Davies

So I’ve now read James Davies’ Cracked: The Unhappy Truth about Psychiatry

While I’d read the Amazon sample and the chapter available at Salon, I was wary of the book because of some of Davies’ writing about suffering that I’d found online. I’d read several similar books, and didn’t want to waste my time on one contrasting biopsychiatry with some “positive” Christian vision. My concerns were eased sufficiently by Davies’ response to a review of the book by Andrew Solomon for me to take the time to read it.*

Cracked covers a lot of the same territory as other recent books critical of biopsychiatry and corporate psychopharmacology. In fact, Davies, a British anthropologist and psychotherapist, interviews several of the authors whose works I’ve discussed here - Irving Kirsch, Joanna Moncrieff, Pat Bracken, Ethan Watters,… - as well as some other interesting people (e.g., Paula Kaplan, who describes her opposition to the insertion of Masochistic Personality Disorder in the DSM-III). He also talks to the heads of the DSM-III and –IV task forces, Robert Spitzer and Allen Frances; former president of the APA and director of NIMH, Herbert Pardes; and Sue Bailey, current president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists; among others.

The interviews are probably the book’s best contribution. Davies asks the right questions, and receives some shockingly candid answers. He does a good job of recreating his own stunned reactions to the admissions of some of the top figures in psychiatry about the scientific vacuum at the center of the model. I knew about this going in, and even about the extent to which it’s acknowledged, but I was still taken aback when reading some of their statements.

I think this is why I’d probably now recommend this book first to people who haven’t yet read much or anything on the subject. Biopsychiatry’s basic premises are so widely accepted that when we’re first confronted with the overwhelming evidence against them we’re incredulous. “The chemical imbalance thing isn’t true?! Surely you mean it’s just part of the story…” After the reality has sunk in, though, it becomes easy to forget how new and strange and dubious this all sounds to those who haven’t seen the evidence. So Davies’ narrative inclusion of his own surprise and disbelief as he gradually discovers the reality about biopsychiatry could help people to be more open to learning about it.

Most shocking, of course, is how little biopsychiatry and psychopharmacology have to do with science, and how they in fact use the language and appearance of science to hide what’s really going on. The creation of diagnoses through voting and consensus and in response to corporate or social pressure, the secrecy, the manipulation of research, the suppression of data, the constant claims of future scientific vindication, the ignoring and spinning of unwelcome findings, the arguments from authority and popularity,… - none of this has anything to do with science, except to provide an example of what science is not. Ben Goldacre suggests that his arguments about the corruption of medicine by pharmaceutical corporations are general and not specific to any specialty, meaning that in theory it’s all redeemable through reforms. But biopsychiatry is special. There’s no scientific core to corrupt – as Davies’ and so many other works show, and as so many of the field’s leaders admit, it’s fraudulent at its very heart.

Cracked is, like several other books I’ve talked about here, primarily a critical work about biopsychiatry and psychopharmacology. And of all of the books and articles I’ve mentioned, it provides the best overview, synthesizing the other arguments and evidence within a general framework (another reason to recommend it to someone new to the topic). But, like so many others, Davies also devotes some of the book to the social and historical meaning of the rise of biopsychiatry and to advocating constructive paths beyond it.

As I’ve said, I don’t think this is necessary or that writers should feel obliged to provide it. In this case, though, despite the wariness I mentioned above, I was hoping for it. Since Davies is an anthropologist, I thought anthropological insights – about people in the field/industry itself and about its relation to the rest of the culture - would be the book’s most original and distinguishing feature. As it turned out, if I hadn’t known of his profession before I read it, I’d never have guessed it from the content. Though the discussion was interesting and my worst fears weren’t realized, it offered little beyond what others have said elsewhere.

The better aspects are found in the more critical portions. When it came to alternatives, though, the section was fairly disappointing. Davies’ general take, like that of several of his interviewees, is that (bio)psychiatry had filled the void left by the destruction – intentional or otherwise - of older social, especially religious, myths about the world, well being, and suffering. While this is true in one sense, his presentation suffers from two significant flaws. First, he mentions but then proceeds to ignore an entire tradition of secular political-humanist-liberation thought. He seems to be influenced by Jung (and some other strange choices), but where’s Erich Fromm? Where’s Ignacio Martín-Baro? Karen Horney? Albert Camus? Where are the anarchist, socialist, feminist, existentialist, anticolonial, environmental, and animal liberation thinkers who’ve written about these questions?

This picture of traditional-myths-versus-modern-pseudoscience gives the impression that our choices are pretty narrowly circumscribed,** which in turn can lead to fearfulness about rejecting the traditional myths. And Davies steers very close to the idea that psychological arguments are to be respected and valued not on the basis of their correspondence with reality but according to their presumed individual or social usefulness - not “is it true?” but “Does it help someone feel better and/or lead to positive individual or social action?” This is an argument I roundly reject, in this as in all other areas.

On top of being unnecessary (because reality-based alternatives exist!) and just plain wrongheaded, the instrumental attitude toward myth and falsehood undermines the critique of biopsychiatry at the center of the book. The same arguments with which Davies responds to those who would criticize him for calling people’s attention to the placebo mechanism of so-called antidepressants or to the pseudoscientific nature of biopsychiatry more generally could be turned against him: If it helps people, why shouldn’t they accept it? Furthermore, it provides ammunition for the stupid argument about how we need to continue to prop up biopsychiatry because its collapse would usher in a relativistic chaos in which any understanding of psychological distress – even other harmful, oppressive, reactionary ones – would have to be considered valid.

Despite these issues, though, Cracked as a whole is very worthwhile, and, like I said, I would put it at the top of the list for people interested in but not yet familiar with scientific (and social) criticism of biopsychiatry. It’s a good general, synthetic book, and very readable without being oversimplified. His personalized narrative should make the arguments more approachable, and the interview portions make it all the more interesting. At the end of the book, Davies describes asking Peter Breggin about how positive change will come about:
‘I think we need braver journalists and authors, dissident psychiatrists and psychologists’, answered Breggin. ‘This has got to be an educational movement, a political movement we need grassroots disillusionment among professionals, among consumers, and the sciences. From this we can only hope there will be manifested new kinds of organizations, research, and journals’.

Could this be the route to reform, then – a reliance on us? From everything I have learned from my encounters, I have to say as inadequate as this solution feels, it may well offer the most hope in the coming years.
I couldn’t agree more, and this work is a solid contribution to that project.

* He writes:
Stranger still is Solomon’s statement that I believe people, with respect to suffering, ‘should do more of it’. This is another example of Solomon misrepresenting my position: in my clinical experience many forms of suffering that are currently dismissed as medical disease are not disease at all. Rather are they often a call to change; the organism’s protest against inhospitable social or psychological conditions. Therefore, rather than turning to anesthetics as a first response there is often value in working through our suffering productively – trying to discern what it is seeking to communicate so that we can work to put things right. There is nothing in this view that either glamourizes or masochistically encourages suffering. I merely argue what my clinical experience has taught me; that it is oftentimes better to face ones suffering and work through it productively than have recourse to anesthetics.
** To be sure, as described in the note above, Davies does emphasize “working through our suffering productively,” individually and collectively, but he doesn’t discuss any larger frameworks through which this reality-based and constructive work can be understood.

“Miscarriage of Medicine”: ACLU and MergerWatch report on Catholic hospitals’ interference with medicine

The ACLU and the MergerWatch Project have released a short, informative report about Catholic hospitals and hospital systems* and their terrible effects on women’s health care.

From the introduction:
All across the country, an ever-increasing number of acute-care hospitals are Catholic- sponsored or are affiliated with a Catholic health system, with one in nine beds now in one of these facilities. Many of the largest health care systems in the country are Catholic-sponsored and they are expanding rapidly, in part by acquiring non-Catholic hospitals. In some states, such as Washington, one quarter or more of the hospitals are Catholic-sponsored or -affiliated, and entire geographic regions have no other choice for hospital care.

Religious restrictions govern care at Catholic-sponsored facilities. At these hospitals, health professionals are prohibited from providing vital health services or honoring patients’ health care decisions when they conflict with Catholic teaching. Often at these facilities health professionals may not even provide their patients with counseling and referrals for services prohibited on religious grounds. As a result, when it comes to reproductive health care, hospitals operating under these religious rules can provide care that falls short of expected standards of care. Historically secular hospitals or hospitals founded by other religious faiths are often required to adopt some or all of the Catholic restrictions when they affiliate with or are acquired by Catholic hospitals.

This report looks at the increasing number of acute-care hospitals that are Catholic-sponsored or -affiliated and the expansion of Catholic-sponsored health systems in the United States between 2001 and 2011.1 Indeed, 10 of the 25 largest health systems are Catholic-sponsored, with combined gross patient revenue of $213.7 billion. The report discusses the threat this growth poses to patient access to reproductive health services, including information and referrals. It further shows the degree to which these institutions rely on tax dollars, even as they limit medical care based on religious doctrine. At the same time, data also indicate that, despite their claims of service to the poor, Catholic-sponsored and -affiliated facilities actually provide only an average amount of charity care and report a lower percentage of gross patient revenue from Medicaid than any other type of hospital.2

In short, this report reveals how Catholic hospitals have left far behind their humble beginnings as facilities established by orders of nuns and brothers to serve the faithful and the poor. They have organized into large systems that behave like businesses — aggressively expanding to capture greater market share — but rely on public funding and use religious doctrine to compromise women’s health care. We make recommendations about how to ensure Catholic restrictions do not interfere with patients’ rights and protect access to comprehensive reproductive health care.
Even if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, you should at least skim the sample of items from the Ethical and Religious Directives in Appendix A. For example,
44. A Catholic health care institution should provide prenatal, obstetric, and postnatal services for mothers and their children [sic] in a manner consonant with its mission.
One would think a healthcare institution’s mission would be to provide these services.

On assisted dying:
60. Euthanasia is an action or omission that of itself or by intention causes death in order to alleviate suffering. Catholic health care institutions may never condone or participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide in any way. Dying patients who request euthanasia should receive loving care, psychological and spiritual support, and appropriate remedies for pain and other symptoms so that they can live with dignity until the time of natural death.

61. Patients should be kept as free of pain as possible so that they may die comfortably and with dignity, and in the place where they wish to die. Since a person has the right to prepare for his or her death while fully conscious, he or she should not be deprived of consciousness without a compelling reason. Medicines capable of alleviating or suppressing pain may be given to a dying person, even if this therapy may indirectly shorten the person’s life so long as the intent is not to hasten death. Patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering. [my emphasis]
This seems inconsistent with recent statements from Francis. Why aren't poor and marginalized people simply helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering? Problem solved.

* The report also shows the rapid growth of for-profit hospitals, which also poses a threat, if of a different sort. For-profit and healthcare shouldn’t be connected in any way.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Changes at the Vatican: more political opportunity

I’m as surprised as anyone that I’m posting about the Pope again, but the developments are significant enough to warrant some comment.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Francisremarks about global capitalism and their political significance. I welcomed the statements as providing a political opportunity for social justice movements, particularly in the Americas. (I wasn’t surprised to learn recently that he’d met with liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez back in September.)

At the time, I wrote that my position didn’t entail an end to criticism or skepticism, linking to this article at RH Reality Check and this report from Democracy Now!. Both discussed the church’s continuing anti-woman policies. Conservative US bishops have been a powerful force both in fighting reproductive rights and in suppressing progressive movements within the church, including the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. To a significant extent, Francis has continued his predecessor’s support for these bishops and their priorities.

This week, though, he’s made some changes that could have a meaningful impact for progressive Catholic movements and for reproductive rights. Most importantly, he replaced conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke with “ideological moderate”* Cardinal Donald Wuerl on the Congregation for Bishops. “Cardinal Burke still serves as the prefect of the Vatican’s highest canonical court, but analysts say his removal from the Congregation for Bishops will sharply reduce his influence, especially over personnel changes in American churches,” Jim Yardley and Jason Horowitz report.

Once again, responding positively is not a matter of celebrating Francis, the institution of the papacy, Catholicism, or religion, but of appreciating the ways these moves alter the political landscape, both symbolically and concretely. They open possibilities for women and progressive movements within the church and in society more generally. This is especially true since the conservative bishops, under a more supportive pope, argued that the uppity progressive nuns should submit unquestioningly to papal authority. They’ve boxed themselves into that corner, and now any opposition to Francis’ agenda is revealed as hypocrisy. Authoritarianism is unforgiving that way.

* “Father [Thomas J.] Reese noted that Cardinal Burke had been a leader of American bishops arguing that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be barred from receiving communion, while Cardinal Wuerl had taken an opposite tack.”

Monday, December 16, 2013

It concerns me... much Scandal resembles The Borgias.

Well, not the resemblance itself so much as the lack of attention to it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A secular animal liberation movement compelled to respect Christianity? I don’t think so.

Atheists are increasingly coming to respect and recognize the need for religion. For social justice movements, religion is part of the solution.

This is the theme, implicit and often explicit, of so many New York Times articles about interactions between atheists and religious people. It’s interesting because I don’t believe or suspect that it’s at all conscious, but the pattern is so clear that there has to be something behind it. A recent piece, “Scholars Explore Christian Perspectives on Animal Rights” by Mark Oppenheimer, is a case in point. The tagline reads: “As Christians ask how their faith requires them to treat animals, they may force animal rights activists, a mostly secular lot, to reconsider their views on Christians.”

Oppenheimer argues that these days animal welfare is “a lively topic among Christians in the United States and England.” He writes specifically about two religious men, David Clough and Charles Camosy, who’ve both written books about animal rights (more accurately animal welfare) from a Christian perspective. Clough’s argument is basically that humans and other animals are all “created by God, reconciled to God in Jesus Christ and will be redeemed by God in the new creation”: “‘Good theology ought to recognize one fundamental separation…between God and all God has created. We belong with dogs and cats and hedgehogs and trees and rocks.” In his book, Camosy “links his concern for animals to his beliefs on abortion, arguing that the Catholic ethics of respect for life and care for the vulnerable should make us reconsider how we treat animals.”

Oppenheimer argues, without citation, that the animal rights movement has historically been secular. As is standard for this type of article, he offers one sole reason for the rejection of religious perspectives: “some secular animal-rights activists were suspicious of Christianity, concurring with Peter Singer’s claim, in his 1975 classic, ‘Animal Liberation’, that Christian teaching about man’s dominion had been an impediment to animal rights.”

He acknowledges the truth of this assessment, and the negative response to Camosy’s and Clough’s arguments in other Christian circles. But he contends that the history of some religious involvement in animal welfare campaigns and these more recent theological initiatives should lead, and in fact are leading, secular activists to a reevaluation of religion. Of course, Oppenheimer focuses on Singer. And of course Singer obliges with exactly the sort of accommodationist pap the Times loves.
For several years, Professor Singer and Dr. Camosy have been in frequent communication, and last year Dr. Camosy wrote a book about his fellow ethicist, ‘Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization’. Last month, the two men spoke together in Maryland, at the national headquarters of the Humane Society of the United States. As a result of their conversations, Professor Singer says he has become somewhat more charitable toward Christianity.

‘I think Charlie’s helped me to see that that’s overly negative’, Professor Singer said, referring to his depiction of Christianity in ‘Animal Liberation’. ‘It’s not that the negative statements’ — giving humans permission to use and abuse animals — ‘aren’t there, because they are, and were made by major figures from Augustine to Aquinas and so on. But there is another side to it, and other Christians have different interpretations of man’s dominion’.
It’s settled, then. Professor Singer has spoken.* And since the only secular justification for rejecting Christian arguments is the negative content of some (in this case, the majority) of those beliefs, the existence of some positive beliefs should lead the movement to a greater opening to faith. (These articles like to conflate atheists’ ideas about faith-religion with our attitudes toward people. So, Oppenheimer can write that their books and arguments “may force animal rights activists, a mostly secular lot, to reconsider their views on Christians,” as though this were about dislike of Christians rather than an evaluation of religious ideas about ethical relationships with other animals.)

This is nonsense. I’m going to summarize the good reasons atheist animal liberation activists should continue to reject religion and any role for it in the movement. I’ve discussed several of these in more detail in the past and will talk more about others in the future, but here’s a sketch.

First, and most generally, faith as a basis for ethics is fundamentally a problem. As I’ve argued, whatever the content of any specific faith beliefs, faith as an epistemic approach is inherently authoritarian and conservative.

Second, respecting or accepting as valid ethical justifications those religious beliefs we find relatively palatable means respecting and accepting as valid any or all religious beliefs. As I suggested in the past with regard specifically to this movement,
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.
Third, suggesting that the animal rights movement embrace religion is politically regressive. It happens that I was reading Bob Torres’ Making a Killing when I saw Oppenheimer’s piece. Torres describes how after 9-11 “Many activists argued that we as a movement, needed to reach outward and rightward to draw in Christian conservatives, neoconservatives, and others from the Right who would be receptive to our message.” He was even warned about his open atheism being off-putting to these potential recruits. “The hope,” he suggests, “was that the ‘new blood’ would invigorate the movement and help to make it mainstream, yet no one seemed to consider the fact that this new blood was often happy to uphold exploitative and oppressive ideological positions on a variety of other issues.”

Torres particularly condemns the embrace of rightwing figures like Matthew Scully and Pat Buchanan by the large organizations in the animal rights movement. PETA gave a “Progress Award” to Buchanan, for agreeing with Matthew Scully about “compassionate conservatism” also applying to nonhuman animals. He makes clear that those who stand against oppression do the cause of liberation no favors by allying with “conservatives who have promoted policies that marginalize, exploit, and denigrate humans”: “Together, Buchanan and Scully promote a disastrous agenda for equality, regardless of what they think about animals.”

And in the case of one of the religious positions described in Oppenheimer’s article, oppressive beliefs about humans are linked to beliefs about animal welfare. David Clough, explicitly connects his animal welfare position to his views on women’s reproductive rights.** I’m annoyed that accommodationists expect animal rights activists to welcome these religious perspectives, especially as the movement is predominantly made up of women, many of them feminists. How condescending of Oppenheimer to suggest that some Christians’ “different interpretations of man’s dominion” should lead us to set aside our struggles against human oppression and ally with them.

In light of this, I’m more than a little disturbed that the person responsible for religious outreach at HSUS (Christine Gutleben) would declare that “Absolutely, Christianity is part of the solution,” and unhappy that HSUS even has such a position. As Torres points out, pandering to these people and beliefs unavoidably moves these organizations in a conservative direction, and away from an awareness of how different systems of oppression work together.

Fourth, religious justifications for animal rights or welfare don’t connect reasonably or consistently to a course of action – they’re compatible with many different personal or social actions. The people Oppenheimer describes as bringing an important new voice to the movement appear to hold similar and relatively conservative ideas about human-animal relations, but even they don’t seem to agree on the most ethical path. Clough doesn’t believe that humans should eat meat (the article doesn’t describe him as a vegan). But how this position is derived from the beliefs that animals are “created by God, reconciled to God in Jesus Christ and will be redeemed by God in the new creation” and that “We belong with dogs and cats and hedgehogs and trees and rocks” is unclear. In what practical ethical sense do animals belong with trees and rocks, and by what path does this lead to his decision not to kill and consume them? How does this categorization contribute anything to a theory of animal liberation?

Camosy, who bases his views on “the Catholic ethics of respect for life and care for the vulnerable,” argues that meat eating is OK (because permitted in Catholicism) but factory farming is unacceptable since animals should be treated “kindly” and not “suffer needlessly.” He isn’t a vegetarian: he “has given up meat — though he still eats fish, ‘half because Jesus Christ ate fish, and half because I am too weak to give up my grandmother’s tuna spaghetti sauce’.” As these examples show, even when Christians share similar welfarist interpretations, the connection between abstract belief and action is tenuous and unreliable.

Fifth, as I’ve described in the past, religious beliefs are alienating, which is of special concern when we’re discussing questions like animal rights or ecology.

Sixth, religious justifications for ethics are gratuitous and self-serving. They’re also divisive.

Seventh, most significantly, and at the root of many of the previous issues, religious arguments are false. You would think that being false would so obviously and immediately disqualify an argument from consideration as a basis for ethics or activism that it wouldn’t even require discussion. But it’s a sign of the deleterious effects of religious privilege in our culture that if you slap the faith label on any argument people think it has to be taken seriously. Their relation to reality pushed aside, religious beliefs are debated in terms of their so-called usefulness and their superficial desirability.

How authoritarian and condescending this idea is. It amounts to an acceptance of faith as a cultural practice. Even worse, it means taking advantage of that authoritarian cultural practice to promote the movement.*** Generally, it’s madness. Never in human history have false beliefs been a sound or positive basis for activism and social change relative to beliefs based in reality, and they never will be. Falsehoods have no place in a movement that seeks to overturn false supremacist beliefs and find ways to treat others ethically in reality. The duty to believe according to the evidence which we have to answer to in all aspects of our lives calls especially urgently when we’re seeking to overcome oppression and killing and develop ethical relationships with others: the tendency to cling to bogus claims from traditional or New Age religion or secular philosophy to justify oppression is very strong and every effort needs to be made to fight it.

Finally, the argument that religious arguments have something valuable to contribute that commands the respect of atheist-secular activists assumes compelling secular arguments are inexistent or insufficient. As I’ve argued previously, respect for faith-based arguments “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…humanist tradition of ethics and social justice activism….”

Times’ writers like to imply, for some reason, that secular arguments about ethics and animal liberation, like secular and atheist positions in general, have been widely covered and discussed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though attention is occasionally paid to specific issues and the coverage is sometimes fair (for example, Jedediah Purdy’s “Open the Slaughterhouses,”**** (April 9, 2013) and the positive review of The Ghosts in Our Machine), the arguments and theory of animal liberation aren’t featured.

In fact, the Times magazine last year hosted a contest called “Defending Your Dinner,” calling on people to make their best arguments for carnism. It wasn’t structured as a debate, because, as organizer Ariel Kaminer claimed, “In recent years, vegetarians — and to an even greater degree vegans, their hard-core inner circle — have dominated the discussion about the ethics of eating.” It seems impossible that anyone could take such a claim seriously, especially in a magazine full of recipes for animals and their secretions, spreads of clothing made from their bodies, and advertisements for animal consumption. Kaminer offered that “those who forswear meat have made the case that what we eat is a crucial ethical decision.” Indeed they have, but not generally in the Times. If you look at the links provided to show how vegetarians and vegans have “dominated the discussion,” you’ll see that they haven’t. In fact, among the recent articles under the “veganism” link is “Why I’m Not a Vegan” (May 21, 2013) by Mark Bittman, one of the judges on the all-male contest panel. (See also this and this and this.)

The claim that vegetarians and “to an even greater degree” vegans have dominated the discussion about the ethics of eating – in the Times, the media, or the broader culture – is about as congruent with reality as the claim that atheists have dominated the discussion about religion and belief. The secular arguments for veganism and ending the oppression of other animals have long been marginalized and the movement caricatured, while carnism has been presented as the normal way of things. Contests promoting carnism contribute to this marginalization.

But the secular justifications for veganism and the abolition of animal exploitation are absolutely sufficient to make the case. That you don’t see them in the Times doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’ve listed some books about animal rights and social justice here (to which I’ll have to add Animals & Women and Making a Killing), and posted about several of these individual themes, so I won’t elaborate on the arguments in detail. In short, though,…

Science (biology, ethology, ecology, neuroscience) has demolished the false beliefs, both religious and secular, that form the basis of speciesism, and thus removed the justification for denying other animals equal moral consideration. We’re an animal species, and all of our capacities are evolved animal capacities. Neither our species itself nor any particular characteristic makes of us a distinct category apart from other animals, allowing us to deny them equal moral consideration and giving us license to use or kill them at our wish. There’s no reasoned basis for denying beings equal moral treatment solely on the basis of their species, any more than there’s a reasoned basis for denying humans equal moral treatment solely on the basis of their gender or “race” or religion.

The evidence of animal suffering and the denial of their interests in human systems of exploitation is overwhelming. The oppression of nonhuman animals is deeply connected – in practice and ideas – to the oppression of humans. From a solely human-oriented perspective, participating in this system is harmful to us – forcing us to extremes of psychological denial, contortions, and bad faith; interfering with our compassionate and caring impulses; alienating us from other animals, from the rest of nature, and from ourselves; leading us to harm our environment; holding back science and existential understanding;…

Supremacist arguments are unfounded. No individual, group, or society has the right to oppress or exploit others for their own (perceived) ends. We don’t have the right to treat other beings capable of suffering and pleasure as things or property. We don’t have the right to enslave or kill others. These are all widely accepted positions concerning humans, and the need for solidarity amongst movements fighting human oppression is increasingly understood. The extension of these basic insights to our relationships with the other animals with whom we share so much is only logical and just.

All of these arguments have been developed in numerous books and articles by scholars and activists, and can be appreciated by anyone who fairly and reasonably considers the evidence. The New York Times would do well to present them fairly – and in much more detail, of course – to their readers. Only then can a real public conversation begin. And only after engaging in this conversation could anyone rationally attempt to declare the validity of or need for openness to religious arguments.

* I assume an invitation from the Harvard Humanists will soon be forthcoming. :)

** The argument is stupid in any case. The analogue to a human fetus isn’t an animal but an animal fetus; the analogue to a pregnant human is a pregnant animal.

*** This is especially grotesque when it comes to science advocacy movements.

**** Of course, given that ag gag laws affect not just animal rights or welfare activists and corporate whistleblowers but also journalists, you could suggest that the Times’ coverage is relatively muted.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Capitalism and medicine don’t mix: an illustration

Actually, just about any of my posts here related to health illustrates that principle. But this example is particularly good. Johnson & Johnson are paying their lawyers to fight to keep clinical trial data on Risperdal hidden from the public.

According to Law360 (where I can’t read the full stories), “Plaintiffs in a cluster of product liability lawsuits…told a Pennsylvania judge on Tuesday that documents detailing the medication’s risks were too vital to the public interest to remain under seal as part of court proceedings.”

Johnson & Johnson disagrees.


In happy academic union news, graduate workers at New York University have voted overwhelmingly (620 to 10) for union representation, and the administration has agreed to negotiate in good faith.

News sources are reporting that this makes NYU's (again) the “only" graduate assistants' union recognized by a private university in the US. I prefer to think of it as the first.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Can Harvard be shamed?

Philip Hickey had a good, thorough post at Mad in America this week - “Neuroleptics for Children: Harvard’s Shame.”

Hickey details the extraordinary rise in the bogus diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder and the concomitant increase in the use of hugely harmful neuroleptic drugs on children:
Most of the increase in mood disorder frequency was for bipolar disorder. In the period studied, admissions for children for depression rose 12%, but admissions for bipolar disorder rose 434% (from 1.5 per 100,000 population to 8.2). For children in the age group 5-9, the increase was 696%! – a seven-fold increase.

So, over the last decade or two, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of children being hospitalized for bipolar disorder and in the number of children being prescribed neuroleptics in office visits.
No single individual is entirely responsible for any social problem. The driver of the psychiatric coercion, stigmatization, and drugging of millions of people, including children, is capitalism. The companies profiting from the manufacture and sale of drugs attain the cooperation of governments (which themselves share an interest in social control), universities, medicine, and other institutions that will ensure the system’s maintenance and expansion. Hundreds of thousands of people working in these companies and institutions contribute to the outcome. In any paricular story of institutions coming to serve the interests of capital rather than - or in opposition to - human (or other animal) needs and rights, though, we can identify individuals whose choices and actions have contributed most significantly.

In this case, one name stands out. Hickey suggests that “most of the responsibility for that increase can, in my view, be laid at the door of one person: Joseph Biederman, MD, of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Biederman will go down in history as the inventor of pediatric bipolar disorder.” You probably couldn’t find a better example of the corporate corruption of academic medicine and how it has arrogantly and unapologetically caused the suffering and deaths of thousands of people than Biederman. Hickey tells the story of how Biederman pushed the pediatric bipolar diagnosis and the prescription of damaging neuroleptic drugs to children and adolescents, concealing his relationship with the drug companies while promising Johnson & Johnson favorable research results.

There are few areas of science with as weighty an ethical responsibility as pediatric medical research. The exposure of Andrew Wakefield’s misdeeds has justifiably made him a pariah. Even honest carelessness can result in children’s lives needlessly lost, suffering, or permanent harm. Scientists need to be relentlessly honest and careful, making sure that their methods are solid and unbiased and that their conclusions and recommendations don’t recklessly reach beyond the fairly obtained data.

But here’s a case of an influential physician researcher at an elite university openly flouting even minimal standards of scientific integrity in order to promote the diagnosis and drugging of children. And, as Hickey describes, Biederman was (rather mildly) “disgraced” not for scientific misconduct (or, of course, for harming children) but for failing to disclose $1.6 million he’d received from the drug companies. When his actions were exposed, he received the most minimal sanctions. These days, “Dr. Biederman is fully rehabilitated and is back in business. He’s receiving research funding from ElMindA, Janssen, McNeil, and Shire, and is once again churning out research papers on topics such as ADHD and, guess what? – pediatric bipolar disorder.” He’s “still at MGH, where he is Chief of the Clinical and Research Programs in Pediatric Psychopharmacology and Adult ADHD, and at Harvard, where he is a full Professor of Psychiatry, a position, which, by his own account, ranks just below God!”

And the “research” continues to be treated seriously. Hickey quotes Joanna Moncrieff:
Neither Harvard nor Massachusetts General Hospital nor any other psychiatric or medical institution has commented on the fact that prominent academics were found to be enriching themselves to the tune of millions of dollars through researching and promoting the use of dangerous and unlicensed drugs in children and young people. Although some individual psychiatrists have expressed misgivings…academic papers continue to discuss the diagnosis, treatment and outcome of bipolar disorder in children as if no controversy existed, with more than 100 papers on the subject published in Medline-listed journals between 2010 and 2012. Notwithstanding…the disgrace of Joseph Biederman, the practice of diagnosing children with bipolar disorder and treating them with antipsychotics remains alive and kicking.
Hickey offers that “Harvard is hallowed ground – America’s Oxbridge. It has acquired an image as a center of learning where educational and research standards eclipse all other considerations.” Given this reputation, he asks:
Why do Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital stand for this kind of blatant corruption and deception in the upper echelons of their psychiatry department?

…Has Harvard’s Psychiatry Department, in concert with their pharmaceutical allies, crossed this line? Have they now, implicitly or explicitly, adopted the ethical standards of the business world? Have they subordinated their sense of decency and shame to considerations of prestige and revenue?

And what of the MGH/Harvard leadership? Do they actually believe that the sanctions imposed on Dr. Biederman and his colleagues are adequate? Or do they reckon that the years of past and future pharma revenue are worth the cost? Have they crossed the line into the shady realm of business ethics?
There’s reason to hope that Harvard and other prominent universities will take a stand for scientific integrity, academic independence, and children’s health in this important context. Sure, there’s the involvement with imperialism and slavery; the opium money; the history of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and classism; the connections with eugenics; the cooperation with government efforts to silence opposition; the promotion of ideologies of oppression; the happy collusion with corporations in general; the...

Oh never mind.


Speaking of academics, Chris Clarke’s reposting of his What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? The Graphic Novel makes for a good moment to mention the latest Templeton news:
Texas Tech University’s Free Market Institute received a $1.7 million, three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study the origins of economic freedom and prosperity, according to a Tech news release.

The grant also will fund post-doctoral fellowships, visiting professors, doctoral student fellowships, guest lecturers, summer research stipends and a major conference.

“This will be the largest grant the Free Market Institute has received since the initial pledge of $4 million that founded the institute,” said Benjamin Powell, director of the institute.

…“We won’t just be learning more about how to make societies prosperous, but about the deeper culture and values that will sustain freedom and prosperity long into the future,” he said. “The main research project funded by the grant will study what causes countries or U.S. states to adopt institutions that support an environment of economic freedom that causes prosperity.”

How economic freedom is improved is much less understood than the benefits that freedom provides, Powell said, and the research project will address this major gap in that understanding.
Administrators are thrilled:
…Texas Tech President M. Duane Nellis said understanding economic questions such as the one covered in the grant make Tech’s FMI stand out as a research institute and can have far-reaching applications that impact millions of people.

“It will be interesting to see what Dr. Powell and others uncover as they work toward a better understanding of how economic freedom and prosperity interact,” Nellis said. “I appreciate Dr. Powell’s continued efforts to secure external sources for funding.”

…“In its first year since opening, the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech is already making a tremendous impact on our students, faculty and campus,” said Tech Chancellor Kent Hance. “This $1.7 million grant is just another example of the institute’s excellence, and we are proud of Dr. Powell and his team’s efforts to highlight the importance of free market thinking and economic freedom.”
I’m fascinated by how open they are about the Institute’s agenda, the celebration of external funding regardless of source or purpose or what it makes of the university, and the neoliberal politics of the administrators themselves.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Brave Genius 3: a study in contrasts

Looking again over the articles I mentioned last night, I clicked on a link to a letter from a Berkeley math lecturer, Alexander Coward, to his students explaining why he would be crossing picket lines to teach his class. It makes for an even better contrast with Jacques Monod.

The letter has gone viral and received a good deal of praise. It would be funny (and sad) in any context, if only for its presentation of political stupidity and ignorance as insight and sophistication:
Whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education[! - SC] because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for….

…Beyond practical matters, I think it’s also worth reflecting a little on the broader relationship between politics and your education, and I think I have some important things to share on this topic that may be helpful to you.

…If I’ve learned one thing about politics since I was your age, it is this: Politics, like most things in life worth thinking about, including mathematics, is very big, very complicated, and very interconnected. I’ve lived and worked in four countries on four continents, all with societies set up differently both politically and socially. I’ve discovered that there is no unique or obviously best way of setting up society. For every decision and judgement you reach, there are people who benefit and people who lose out.
How true. Fascism, democracy, Sweden, Afghanistan,... – just different ways of doing things, winners and losers in each, no point in opposing any one system or fighting for another. It’s all frightfully complicated, and who’s to say what’s better or worse? Who are we to claim that it’s better when workers receive decent pay and benefits and are treated with respect, or that this is a human right worth fighting for?

As responses have noted, Coward’s own working conditions and the students’ access to affordable public education (as well as the fact that they have the choice to speak out about political issues on campus) are the result of previous struggles and acts of solidarity. But no matter to Coward. He encourages students to put all of their focus on their education (which he defines to exclude participation in social justice movements, apparently):
And do not fall into the trap of thinking that you focusing on your education is a selfish thing. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s the most noble thing you could do.

Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning.
He could ask these scientists how people’s focusing on their own education and work panned out.

But what struck me most was the contrast between Coward and Jacques Monod, whose actions are described in Brave Genius. Monod delayed and interrupted his scientific work repeatedly to involve himself in social causes: to lead Resistance struggles, for example, to help Agnès Ullmann and Tamás Erdös escape from Communist Hungary, to support the student uprisings of ‘68,… It didn’t stop him from Nobel-worthy work, but it easily could have – he risked his life many times. Completely foreign to him was the idea that scientists or students were a special category of elites who were excused from struggles to end oppression and exploitation because of need to dedicate themselves to intellectual pursuits for the hypothetical good of future society, or that this was a noble path. What a difference from people like Coward.

Opposition for sale

Relevant to my last post about rightwing destabilization efforts in Venezuela is a recent investigation of the activities of Serbian activist leader Srdja Popovic, which
reveals that Popovic and the Otpor! offshoot CANVAS (Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies) have also maintained close ties with a Goldman Sachs executive and the private intelligence firm Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc.), as well as the U.S. government. Popovic’s wife also worked at Stratfor for a year.

These revelations come in the aftermath of thousands of new emails released by Wikileaks’ ‘Global Intelligence Files’. The emails reveal Popovic worked closely with Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based private firm that gathers intelligence on geopolitical events and activists for clients ranging from the American Petroleum Institute and Archer Daniels Midland to Dow Chemical, Duke Energy, Northrop Grumman, Intel and Coca-Cola. [links removed]
Stratfor saw Popovic’s main value not only as a source for intelligence on global revolutionary and activist movements, but also as someone who, if needed, could help overthrow leaders of countries hostile to U.S. geopolitical and financial interests.
These of course include Venezuela, and CANVAS apparently trained people in how to oust the country’s democratically elected president Hugo Chávez in 2007.

In response to critics, Popovic attempted to defend his actions:
Popovic…said CANVAS would speak to anyone and everyone—without any discrimination—about nonviolent direct action.

‘CANVAS will present anywhere — to those committed to activism and nonviolent struggle, but also to those who still live in the Cold War era and think that tanks and planes and nukes shape the world, not the common people leading popular movements’, he said.

‘If we can persuade any decision maker in the world, in Washington, Kremlin, Tel Aviv or Damascus that it is nonviolent struggle that they should embrace and respect – not foreign military intervention, or oppression over own population – we would do that’.
If this isn’t ridiculously naïve, and I don’t believe for a second that it is, it’s an admission that he lacks a political conscience. An activist mercenary, he’ll sell his tactics and, just as important, popular-movement whitewashing to anyone willing to pay, and for the past several years corporations and the US government have been his best customers. They’re expecting that people will continue to be misled by the rhetoric of nonviolence, democracy, and grassroots activism and fail to recognize what’s happening and who’s behind it.

“The ‘regime change’": British leading figures publish statement opposing destabilization efforts in Venezuela

British politicians, artists, and activists have signed a statement calling for vigilance of and opposition to ongoing rightwing attempts to destabilize Venezuelan democracy (a list of signers is provided at the link). Here's the full text of the statement:
STATEMENT: Opposing destabilization in Venezuela

Mayoral elections will be held across Venezuela on 8 December.

These are the first elections following the violence and destabilisation unleashed in April by sections of the Venezuela’s right-wing opposition in response to Nicolas Maduro being elected President.

This was an attempt by the right-wing opposition to unseat Maduro even before he was sworn into office. They immediately alleged fraud despite providing no evidence and having themselves signed off a dozen audits prior to the election. They continued to make these baseless allegations even after a 100% recount, that they had demanded, confirmed the results and after governments across Latin America, the UK, France, Spain and others in the EU recognised the results.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, emboldened by a US refusal to acknowledge the election results, used claims of fraud as a pretext to encourage opposition supporters to “vent their anger”. A wave of opposition political violence followed leading to the death of 11 innocent people and dozens injured as well as petrol bombings and arson of government funded health centres, National Electoral Council buildings and headquarters of parties supporting Nicolas Maduro.

Today, destabilisation attempts are ongoing. There is growing concern of the use of sabotage to exploit and create difficulties in the economy and damage key infrastructure. This has worrying echoes of US President Richard Nixon’s strategy to “make the economy scream,” initially used to try to overthrow the progressive government of Salvador Allende in Chile in the 1970s.

The aim of this destabilization is ‘regime change’ to replace the legitimate, elected Maduro government. In that context, we are especially alarmed by the recent statement by 45 Venezuelan retired military officers, including a dozen generals and admirals, and a former defence minister, supporting a military intervention to replace the Maduro government.

The elections in December should be another opportunity for Venezuelans to express themselves at the ballot box as they have done in 17 elections, all declared free and fair, since Hugo Chavez opened up a new political era in Venezuela in 1999. But there are fears that sections of the US backed opposition are already planning to use these elections as a focal point for further destabilisation.

We deplore the use of violence and other anti-democratic means to target and overthrow legitimate governments, elected in free and fair elections. We believe that respect for democracy requires accepting the outcome of legitimate elections even when you lose. We urge vigilance at this time against those who seek to abuse Venezuela’s democracy for their own ends.”

Friday, December 6, 2013

“These decisions are largely made by the faculty”

Corey Robin has a great, hilarious piece about a University of Chicago professor’s reactionary response to graduate student unionization (the article he discusses is also indispensable). It’s a perfect illustration of the authoritarian mindset:
…I found your co-signed letter to be naive, unconvincing, and, quite frankly, kind of offensive. It is naive in that you seem to really think a union would not change relationships between graduate students and the faculty. I don’t know if either of you have ever been members of a union or worked in a unionized environment, but unions inevitably alter the relationships between union members and the people the interact with, be they management, clients, customers, or what not. The formalization of such relationships is, in fact, the central goal of a union. Your letter says “Our goal is simply to gain a voice in the decisions that affect our working conditions.” Well, these decisions are largely made by the faculty. Thus, if you want a collectivized voice in these decisions, you will be unavoidably shaping your relationships to faculty members.
We make all the decisions around here. Check.
We also submit meekly to the administration, and if you don’t it will call attention to our feudal obedience.

Jacques Monod makes for an illuminating comparison…

Brave Genius 2: A profound imminent alliance

I’d enthusiastically hoped that Sean Carroll’s Brave Genius* might, in its discussion of the exchange of ideas between Camus and Monod, talk about how biology informed philosophy, politics, and ethics for the better.** And it does, somewhat, in the final chapters about Monod’s writing and activism after Camus’ death. But it also illustrates how, as they’ve entered the cultural vortex, important parts of biology’s message have been distorted and lost.

Carroll describes the central arguments in Monod’s 1970 book Chance and Necessity. He says that “Monod sought to establish the new biology’s place at the philosopher’s table, as well as in the minds, if not the hearts, of thinking people.” Monod was influenced by his friend Camus’ existentialist philosophy, particularly the ideas expressed in The Myth of Sisyphus. But, Carroll contends, while Camus drew only on philosophy, Monod “began with new empirical scientific facts” which he rightly believed had something important to contribute to our understanding of the human situation.

Monod’s argument had four “essential points,” which Carroll describes in turn. The first is that “Biology has revealed that the emergence of humans is the result of chance, and therefore not a matter of any preordained plan.” The second, that “All belief systems that are founded on a special place or purpose of man in nature are no longer tenable.” Religious and secular claims about a special status or cosmic purpose for humans are in fact, as James Rachels argues, shattered by biology.

So far, so good. But the trouble comes when Monod elaborates on the meaning of biological discoveries. In a surprising shift owing nothing to science and everything to culture, Monod interprets the recent advances in biology as confirming our alienation and isolation from the rest of the universe as part of our existential condition:
The common flaw in all of these systems, Monod underscored, is that they assume ‘between Man and the Universe, between Cosmology and History an unbroken continuity, a profound immanent alliance’. However, Monod argued, ‘the scientific approach reveals to Man that he is an accident, almost a stranger in the universe, and reduced the “old alliance” between him and the rest of creation to a tenuous and fragile thread’.

Moreover, Monod asserted that molecular biology had snapped the last thread: ‘It remained for modern Biology…blossoming into Molecular Biology, to discover the ultimate source of stability and evolution in the Biosphere [DNA and mutation], and thus blow to shreds the myth of the old alliance.”

…‘Man must wake out of his millenary dream…wake to his solitude, his fundamental isolation’, Monod urged. ‘Now does he at last realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien universe. A universe that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes’.

…[Monod argued that:] “The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance’. [emphasis added]
No, I say. No. We’re not strangers, isolated, alien, alone, with no imminent connection to the rest of life and the cosmos. Precisely the opposite. Monod’s own discoveries, and all of the biological and other discoveries preceding them from Darwin on, and all of those that have followed – including Carroll’s! - have only confirmed and deepened the human understanding of our relatedness to the rest of the natural world. Far from contributing to an appreciation of our supposed condition of alienation, they’ve chipped away at the notion of our separateness or isolation.

Science has destroyed old and arrogant myths about our place in the universe, “overturn[ing] all previous, long-cherished notions of humans’ special significance in the universe,” but has replaced them with real knowledge about our deepest relationship with the rest of nature. Scientists have shown that we’re wholly natural stuff. We’ve evolved, as have all of the other forms of life on the planet. We’re animals. The processes through which we develop are shared, as Monod himself recognized, with other living beings. There are no walls separating us, in any aspect, from the rest of life or nature. Science shows a deep connection, not a separation.

This reality is enormously consequential. It doesn’t just dislodge self-serving myths about our situation and relationship to the rest of nature. It also informs the conclusions that follow from the abandonment of those myths. If people believe that their only relationship to others in their community is that they’re living under the same absolute monarchy, and that monarchy falls, they might feel isolated and alone. But if they realize that they’re in fact an ancient community of common origin, sustained by a shared nature and characteristics, and united by action, they’ll find a community of truth to replace the mythic vertical identity.

The idea that our existential situation is one of abandonment and alienation is a sad relic of belief in a cosmic deity and human specialness. It was damaging to existentialist philosophy and morality, and has hobbled philosophy and morality ever since. Scientific reality contests it.

Monod felt, in his words, that “the most important results of science have been to change the relationship of man to the universe, or the way he sees himself in the universe.” And it’s true that modern biology has forever upset mythical views about a human-centered cosmos. But it has never challenged a vision of the cosmos in which we form a part and from which we emerge in every element of our being.

* I’ll probably post a full review in the future.

** This is territory covered, as I’ve discussed, by James Rachels.

Brave Genius 1: Monod, Jacob, Lwoff and reproductive rights

I’ve just finished Sean B. Carroll’s new book Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize

about the friends and heroes Albert Camus and molecular biologist Jacques Monod, their work, and their activism.

One section is highly relevant to current oppressions and events. Following Catholic dogma, hospitals and laws around the world have denied women life-saving information and medical care. Women and organizations have long fought back, and now there are new legal challenges to this criminal intrusion of religion into medicine. In the US, the ACLU has filed suit on behalf of a woman denied abortion care at a Catholic hospital. In El Salvador, several groups have filed suit against the government for the criminalization of abortion and specifically the treatment of Beatriz, also refused an abortion in a life-threatening situation:
Feminist organizations assert that Beatriz’s story reflects the consequences of the absolute criminalization of abortion and the institutional violence that is exercised against Salvadoran girls, adolescents, and adult women. According to data gathered by the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, between 2000 and 2011, a total of 129 women in El Salvador have been charged with abortion or aggravated homicide, with sentences ranging between two and 40 years in prison. Currently there are at least 30 women serving prison such sentences, the majority having suffered the loss of their pregnancies for various obstetric complications.
These examples of organized resistance point to the desperate situation for women’s reproductive rights in the US and elsewhere.

In the final chapters of Brave Genius, Carroll discusses Jacques Monod’s social justice activism after his receipt of the Nobel prize in 1965. One of the first political acts of Monod and his co-Nobelists François Jacob and André Lwoff after being awarded the prize was to speak out in support of the French Movement for Family Planning (MFPF).

He relates that in the 1960s in France, the availability of contraception and education about contraception were banned. The ban was supported not only, as would be expected, by the Catholic Church, but also by the French Communist Party (PCF)* and the medical profession. This led, naturally, to hundreds of thousands of illegal back-alley abortions, and in turn to untold suffering and deaths.

Approached by the MFPF’s founder Dr. Marie-Andrée Lagroua Weill-Hallé, the three scientists rallied to the cause of reproductive rights. They explained their endorsement:
Because of scientific and technical developments, the laws which govern relations among men [sic] can no longer be founded on an ethic dating back more than twenty centuries. One of the fundamental values of a modern, advanced society is the liberty of the individual under the law. Such a society cannot allow that women live as slaves to outdated principles.

When the movement that you lead reaches its objectives, many women and men will know a more harmonious and balanced existence, many tragedies will be avoided, in particular thousands of secret abortions, even the existence of which is a condemnation of a society.

Those who oppose you and ignore the hard reality, the tragedies, the mutilations and deaths, carry a heavy responsibility. No one should have the right to sacrifice the happiness, the health or the life of another human being to their own personal principles, however sincere and noble they may be.
Carroll writes that “Thanks in large part to the campaign by the MFPF, the ban on contraceptives was lifted by passage of the Neuwirth Act in late 1967.”

* A note: If your politics involves policing women’s reproduction or clothing, it isn’t a politics of liberation. You’re an authoritarian.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I just saw a Pileated Woodpecker

Right outside the window! I lunged for my camera, but she flew off before I could get a picture.

Gorgeous bird, especially in a wintry landscape.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The political significance of the pope’s apostolic exhortation in the Americas

John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope (1999) has been subject to criticism since its publication, especially from representatives of the Catholic Church. I’ve long thought that many of the criticisms, focused on particular questions about a direct relationship between Pius XII and Hitler or whether Pacelli was personally anti-Semitic, distracted from a central argument of the book, one with both historical and sociological importance.

It’s been about a decade since I read it and I don’t have a copy at hand, but as I recall a key theme in the book was the hierarchical, authoritarian relations Pius established in the Catholic Church and promoted in wider society. As Cornwell argued, “More than any other Vatican official of the century, [Pacelli] promoted the modern ideology of autocratic papal control, the highly centralized, dictatorial authority...”. This ideology paralleled fascist visions of social order and gave support to authoritarian movements during and after the war. It formed part of and gave voice to a longer rightwing tradition in the Church – beyond the conservative, authoritarian nature of Catholicism itself – and had powerful repercussions for Catholic leftwing movements like liberation theology and their work in local communities.

It’s a pivotal moment for Latin America. In Venezuela and Honduras in particular, popular social justice movements and politicians allying with them contend with rightwing oligarchical powers backed by the US government. So much depends on the outcome of these struggles: democracy and popular sovereignty, military power, corporate power, poverty, inequality, human health, education, the environment, women’s rights, indigenous rights, LGBT rights, the rights of other animals,… Millions of lives and futures are at stake.

In this ongoing struggle, the political Right has long been able to rely on the collaboration and support of the established church and its newspapers for their authoritarian and neoliberal projects. And over the past few weeks, they’ve continued to demonstrate their obedience, implicitly and explicitly appealing to the religious powers. Rightwing Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost Venezuela’s presidential elections in April to Nicolas Maduro,* flew to the Vatican just a few weeks ago to meet with the pope and ask for his intervention in Venezuela:
“‘This is a government that feeds off fear, hatred and lies, and aims to make all Venezuelans live in darkness and division’, Capriles said in an open letter he left with the pontiff on Wednesday, urging his mediation.”
He was hopeful and even confident that the pope, like the US, would be an ally in his continuing campaign to destabilize Venezuelan democracy and return power to the wealthy few.*

Conservative political candidates in Honduras have similarly acted on the assumption that the Church would be supportive of their projects. A campaign leaflet for military candidate General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez listed one of his qualifications for presidential office as a “great fear of God,” illustrating a politics of fear and hierarchy. Supporters of National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández produced and distributed a fake LIBRE flier featuring their caricature of the party’s plans for governance in order to scare voters. The program points range from those projecting the conservatives’ own existing authoritarian actions and fantasies onto the opposition to articles that are reasonable and just. The section on “Freedom of Expression and Religion,” for example, reads:
“Given that we the socialists don’t believe in the existence of any God, we will create a Law in which we will have the freedom to believe in the God the sovereign wishes, and we will completely Eliminate any relation between the church and the Government, since the church should not have any relation to the state due to its links to coupism and the bourgeoisie of this country ….”
This is actually quite fascinating (beyond the tactic of using the prospect of secular government to stoke fear), as it seems a clear admission of the reality of the collaboration of the Honduran church with the coup and the larger neoliberal and authoritarian projects of the oligarchy. Again, we see the Right confident in the unwavering support of the church. In the days before the election, Orlando Hernández pledged (like the police chief in Montgomery, Alabama) to give churches political power in enforcing obedience to the social order:
Involving the Churches as part of a plan to prevent young people from becoming involved in criminal activities is one of the key parts of the security plan of the National Party presidential candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández.

The candidate asserted that these groups dedicated to inculcating moral and Christian values in people must strengthen and lead programs that distance boys, girls, adolescents, and young people from the clutches of criminality.

‘The Catholic and Evangelical churches are fulfilling a very important role in prevention programs in very many of the country’s neighborhoods and districts. For me it’s critical that community leaders create a link with the priests and pastors in these prevention programs’.

He emphasized that if young people are raised with a base of Christian principles, it becomes more difficult for them to decide to join criminal groups.
Declaring his victory in the recent elections, Orlando Hernández and his supporters launched into a public prayer session so repetitive and prolonged that the reporters on teleSUR cut away from the video.

All of these efforts are as much about appealing to the church as about demonstrating their rightist aims – identified with church authority - to one another and to the population. On the other side, there’s a long tradition of leftwing Catholic activists, and the movements and parties of the Left in the region are largely Catholic. Francis’ previous public remarks about capitalism and the recent apostolic exhortation enter the scene at this crucial moment.

The Vatican had no public comment about Capriles’ request for Francis’ “mediation via the church.” But even if there are efforts behind the scenes that work with Capriles’ agenda, and even if the Honduran church hierarchy continues to side with the Right, the pope’s explicit condemnation of capitalism and neoliberal and authoritarian ideology and his calls for political leaders to work against its depredations and on behalf of the poor leave no doubt that he stands publicly against their political and economic projects.

I’ve argued elsewhere that for the Left, including atheists and secularists, this publicly stated position should be welcomed as a political opportunity. That doesn’t require a celebration of the church. It doesn’t mean an end to criticism of the pope, Christianity, religion, or faith. It doesn’t necessitate allying ourselves with the Vatican or with Catholicism, whatever that would even mean in practice. It doesn’t mean abandoning skepticism about his motives or nonpublic actions. It simply means appreciating that this statement changes the situation fundamentally for the better.

What’s more, since these aren’t religious ideas, we don’t need to engage in the sort of condescending sophistry used by atheists who champion theistic evolution. What’s remarkable is that these are secular arguments about well being, ethics, and compassion (and even economic reality) that have been given only the thinnest religious gloss. We can remove or ignore that gloss and find basic agreement about the principles themselves.

Francis’ moves toward decentralization in the church itself and his statements about capitalism will empower leftwing Catholics within the church to organize and mobilize and to keep pushing for further change. Because oppressions are linked, an invigoration of poor people’s movements, especially to the extent that it’s accompanied by real reductions in poverty, inequality, and authoritarianism and an increase in social security (and we know where that leads…), can strengthen the position of currently marginalized groups in the church and beyond, even when their goals go against church doctrine.

In any event, the key possibilities the statement offers relate to the breakup of elite alliances. It’s not that the Left has gained an ally, but that the Right has, in an important sense, lost one. It’s an explicit rejection of the ideology and politics of people like Capriles, Vásquez Velásquez, and Orlando Hernández and the movements they represent. The “Christian principles” and “good Christian morals” advocated by Francis are worlds from those Orlando Hernández wants to see at the center of anti-crime programs. In fact, the exhortation specifically addresses so-called security efforts based on authoritarian principles, rejecting them in favor of the compassionate programs to reduce poverty, inequality, and marginalization championed by the Left. The Right in the Americas can continue to push their agenda, but they can’t continue to claim publicly that they’re acting in the name or with the approval of the church.

It would be a shame if the Left, in the face of the (for once) rational fear of conservative authoritarians, lost this valuable political opportunity.

*Capriles still hasn’t recognized the results of the April presidential election. His destabilization campaign receives continuing support from the US government and its media lackeys.

Monbiot asks people to tell the BBC to disclose interviewees’ funding

This is an online campaign that has some chance of success.

George Monbiot wrote the other day about the BBC’s failure to follow its own stated guidelines about publicly disclosing the relevant funding received by interviewees:
…It's bad enough when the BBC interviews people about issues of great financial importance to certain corporations when it has no idea whether or not these people are funded by those corporations – and makes no effort to find out. It's even worse when those interests have already been exposed, yet the BBC still fails to mention them.

…Here's what the BBC's editorial guidelines say about such matters:
3.4.7: “We should make checks to establish the credentials of our contributors and to avoid being ‘hoaxed’.”
3.4.12: “We should normally identify on-air and online sources of information and significant contributors, and provide their credentials, so that our audiences can judge their status.”
4.4.14: “We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities) are unbiased, and we may need to make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”

Every day people from thinktanks are interviewed by the BBC's news and current affairs programmes without any such safeguards being applied. There is no effort to establish their credentials, in order to avoid being hoaxed into promoting corporate lobbyists as independent thinkers. There is no effort to identify on whose behalf they are speaking, “so that our audiences can judge their status.” There is no attempt to make it clear to the audience that contributors are funded by the companies whose products they are discussing.

I would have no problem with the BBC interviewing people from these thinktanks if their interests were disclosed. If these organisations refuse to say who funds them, they should not be allowed on air. Their financial interests in the issue under discussion should be mentioned by the presenter when they are introduced.
At the end of the article, he calls on people to complain to the BBC and gives information on where to direct your complaints.