Friday, July 31, 2009

Thanks, PZ!

My deepest gratitude to PZ Myers of Pharyngula for linking to my fledgling blog! A post about a mermaid fatwa seems a completely appropriate introduction to the site.

And thanks to everyone else for visiting! Hope you stay a while, take a look around, and stop back soon!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Remind anyone of anything?

So I've been putting together a short post on Lubna Hussein and responses to the situation I've found on this thread and elsewhere, and one of the posts offering the best information was here at ProgressiveIslam.Org.

Checking out the site, I couldn't help but notice this delicious post - "Fatwa on eating mermaids" - which made my day*:

I am a bit of a collector of what the 16th Century Humanist and Protestant Reformer, Sebastian Castellio described as the follies and vanities of theology. A rich source of ludicrous religious injunctions from Islam may be had at the "Islam Questions and Answers" site run by the Saudi shaykh, Muhammad Salih an-Munajid.

Now just when you thought it could not get any more absurd, the worthy shakyh discusses the permissibility of eating mermaids. He pontificates, inter alia:

"Many of the fuqaha’ mentioned mermaids and differed on the ruling concerning them. Some of them said that they are permissible (to eat) because of the general meaning of the evidence which says that whatever is in the sea is permissible. This is the view of the Shaafa’is and Hanbalis, and is the view of most of the Maalikis and of Ibn Hazm and others. And some of them regarded it as haraam because it is not a kind of fish. This is the view of the Hanafis and of al-Layth ibn Sa’d. "

The shaykh concludes:

"The correct view is that nothing is excluded from that, and that all the sea creatures which can only live in water are halaal, alive or dead, because of the general meaning of the verse – i.e., “Lawful to you is (the pursuit of) water game and its use for food” [al-Maa’idah 5:64]."

So, next time you sit down to a fine meal of seafood and your host dishes up roast mermaid, you can tuck in with great gusto, safe in the knowledge that mermaid is halaal.

Something oddly familiar about the whole thing...

*and reminded me of a certain piscine character who shall remain unnamed.

Democracy Now! interviews Zelaya, report on Iraq vets, martial religion film

Today's Democracy Now! features an exclusive interview with Manuel Zelaya:

I have to say, I didn't understand his answer to the question about whether he, returned to office, will continue with the matter of a constitutional convention. I don't know whether he misunderstood the question or was being intentionally evasive for one reason or another - motives for dodginess on this topic could be many.

Meanwhile, there continue to be reports of dissension in the military ranks...

Speaking of militaries, the following DN! segment - "The Hell of War Comes Home: Newspaper Series Documents Murder, Suicide, Kidnappings by Iraq Vets" - concerned US soldiers from Colorado Springs who fought in Iraq. Everything about it was horrifying and depressing.

And speaking of militaries and Colorado Springs, I learned recently that Constantine's Sword is now available on YouTube:

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The AP, NYT, Haiti, Honduras, and lies

OK, so I can combine two stories: an issue related to the Chomsky talk I mentioned in a recent post (which I’ve since discovered can be watched more easily perhaps here, although you miss the live introduction by Amy Goodman) and contemporary events in Honduras. Both involve media manipulation and misinformation.

I’ve been complaining of how the wire services in particular have been covering the situation in Honduras for weeks now. In truth, I’ve been complaining about their coverage of this part of the world for months. A year and a half ago, when Bolivia’s constitutional convention passed a draft constitution to send to the public for a vote (it passed earlier this year – see here, with some great pictures), the AP reports repeatedly contained the claim that the draft eliminated presidential term limits. (Reuters got it right in this instance.) The document was available to anyone online, and clearly limited presidents to two terms. I emailed AP about the error, and never heard back from them; nor, to the best of my knowledge, was this error, significant to how the document and its promoters would be seen internationally, corrected. I investigated at the time, and found several other recorded examples of AP misreporting, possibly innocent and obviously not so innocent.

One event Chomsky brought up and whose coverage he criticized in his NYC talk last month was the kidnapping of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. It happens that I recently read an article about the AP’s coverage of a series of issues at Media Freedom Intl., sponsored by Project Censored and the media Freedom Foundation. In the piece - “A Study of Bias in the Associated Press” - the authors describe the organization of the AP and analyze through the examination of several issues whether “story selection bias was widespread within US newspapers and if bias was evident within the AP system itself.”

One of the cases discussed is AP coverage of the ousting of Aristide:

On February 29, 2004 AP widely reported that President Aristide was ousted by Haitian rebels and that the United States provided an escort to take Aristide out of the country to a safe asylum. Within 24 hours an entirely different story emerged that placed the US at the center of a forced regime change. Instead of the US being the supportive facilitator of Aristide’s safety, independent news sources though Pacifica radio news were reporting that Aristide was kidnapped by US forces.

AP quickly changed their story. On March 1, 2004 an AP report by Deb Riechman said, “White House officials said Aristide left willingly and that the United States aided his safe departure. But in a telephone interview with the Associated Press, Aristide said: ‘No. I was forced to leave.’ ‘They were telling me that if I don’t leave they would start shooting and be killing in a matter of time,’ Aristide said during the interview, which was interrupted at times by static. It was unclear whether Aristide meant that rebels or U.S. agents would begin shooting. Asked to identify the ‘agents,’ Aristide said: ‘White American, white military.’ “They came at night … There were too many. I couldn’t count them,’ he added.”

Another account on March 1, 2004 by AP writer Clive Bacchus stated that “Aristide said he was being held prisoner at the presidential palace in Bangui, Central African Republic, according to Randall Robinson, former president of TransAfrica, a Washington-based group that monitors US policy toward Africa and the Caribbean and supported Aristide. ‘About 20 American soldiers, in full battle gear with automatic weapons, came to the residence … took them to the airport, at gunpoint, put them on a plane,’ said Robinson, who currently lives on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. ‘He said three times before he hung up ‘Tell the world it was a coup, it was a coup.’“

The last AP report of Aristide exclaiming he was kidnapped by the US in a State Department coup was on June 27, 2004. Since then there have been 60 news stories by the AP with Aristide mentioned in the articles. Of these stories none mentioned Aristide’s claim that he was kidnapped by the United States military. None mention the US backing of the coup. There have been no articles examining claims that the US government sent 20,000 M-16s to the Dominican Republic, many of which ended up in the hands of the Haitian rebels, nor about how the US blocked arms sales to Haiti during Aristide’s presidency. Nor has AP covered that Aristide was elected in 2000 by 92 percent of the vote in an election declared free and fair by the Organization of American States.

Continuing stories about Haiti on AP’s wire since June of 2004 say Aristide was ousted by rebel forces with no mention US involvement. AP’s bias in favor of the State Department’s version of the Aristide’s removal is a deliberate re-writing of history and a documented case of AP-sanctioned forgetting.

Here’s the story as told by author Randall Robinson.

(also discussed in his book, An Unbroken Agony:)

Not only has the recent Honduran coup been compared to the Haitian precedent – though with a different response – the coverage has shaped up quite similarly. In these cases, as we’ve seen most recently with reporting, and I use the term loosely, on Honduras, there’s simply no innocent explanation. There is no way so many important elements of the situation could be ignored, and nonsensical and unsubstantiated accusations – not to mention outright lies - repeated, without some degree of bad faith. The pattern, as I have no doubt a later analysis of all of the coverage following Honduras’ return to democracy will show, is too clear to excuse as the result of apathy, lack of resources, or incompetence. This is as true of the New York Times’ own stories as it is of those they pick up from the AP. This evening’s, for example, reports that Micheletti is showing signs of accepting Zelaya’s return to (limited) power...

But the nation is so polarized over the possible return that Mr. Micheletti is reaching out to other regional leaders for help in building support for such a deal, especially among the country’s elite, the officials said.

The elite, of course, is the only group of interest here. If a significant portion of the elite opposes it, that’s evidence enough of “national polarization.”

The officials said Mr. Micheletti warned President Arias that he had not been able to persuade other parts of the Honduran government, or the leaders of the Honduran business community, to go along with the proposal.

And of course they take his word for it. Why the hell should it be considered, let alone of central interest, what the “leaders of the Honduran business community” think? Zelaya is the democratically-elected president of the country. This whole report just shows how very deep the problems go (at least this one, like another recent piece in a different paper, doesn’t premise the claim of national polarization on conversations at the Tegucigalpa Country Club, so I guess we should be thankful for that).

Diplomats close to the negotiations said there was broad opposition to Mr. Zelaya’s return, led by some of the most powerful political and business leaders in Honduras.

Those leaders have felt misunderstood — some would say betrayed — by the international community’s condemnation of last month’s ouster of Mr. Zelaya, whom they accuse of illegally trying to change the Constitution to extend his time in power.

They’ve been doing that since before the coup, and the corporate media has been all too happy to parrot the accusation, which doesn’t even make sense. The oligarchs feel betrayed because they aren’t getting their way? Cry me a river.

The corporate media are a joke. A joke.

In related and more encouraging news, Al Giordano of Narco News has just arrived in Honduras, from where he’ll be reporting.


Several quick updates:

Zelaya has set up camp at the Nicaraguan border, hoping of course to return soon. Meanwhile, repression continues within the country, expecially in the border regions, as reported at Narco News.

Xiomara Zelaya, the president's wife, is one of the people prevented from reaching him. She was interviewed the other day on Democracy Now!.

A speaking tour has been organized by NALACC to several US cities beginning today in Washington, DC, through August 8th. (Leading the delegation is Dr. Juan Almendares, an extremely nice man I met briefly at the AAAS meeting last year.)

Several days ago, a preliminary report was released by an international human rights monitoring coalition describing the violations that have occurred since the coup. Here's a short report by Greg Grandin and the original in Spanish. The full report is to be released tomorrow.

Yesterday, the US Department of State revoked the diplomatic visas of four coup officials. They're more isolated than ever.

Women in Afghanistan, some revolutionary

I remember receiving a string of solidarity requests from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) on anarchist lists back in 1999 or 2000. They described conditions for women there, and I printed them out and would read them to people in horror, shocked that there appeared to be so little knowledge of or interest in the situation here in the US.

This video segment was recently sent me by Brave New Films:

There's still little concern with the real struggles of women in Afghanistan; worse, they've continued to be cynically used for imperialist aims while conditions deteriorate. But they fight on. Please pass on word about the film and support the Afghan Women's Mission if you can.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Leonard Peltier parole hearing today

As I understand it, it may take a few weeks for the parole board to reach its decision, but those involved seem optimistic.

Incident at Oglala is a film I've had in my tiny collection for a while now:

Noam Chomsky NYC Speech on BookTV

Noam Chomsky appears on C-Span2's BookTV* this weekend**, giving a talk sponsored by the Brecht Forum at the Riverside Church in New York last month. For some reason, their YouTube channel has just a small fragment of Chomsky's speech (and none of Amy Goodman's introduction), and even that can't be embedded - not that I can see why anyone would want to - but the entire thing can be watched here.

In terms of content, it seems largely a compilation of his talks and writings over many years, which is fitting as the occasion is the 40th anniversary of American Power and the New Mandarins.

Though it feels a bit disjointed at moments, Chomsky touches on many important points, and I plan to post one or two related items shortly.

The best part, I believe, is the end - the last 30 minutes or so. In this section (*SPOILER ALERT* :)) he talks about democratic worker and community control and the need to rediscover and revive these alternative ideas and futures that the powerful have done their best to make us forget. He argues that of all of the crises that beset us today, perhaps the most serious is the democratic deficit.

*A post about their airing of a Chomsky speech may seem an odd moment to do this, but there's something I'd like to mention that's been bothering me about BookTV for some time now. I've been receiving the weekend schedule for years, and it's always seemed in general heavily weighted toward conservatives, including denialists of all stripes. (Not to mention its rather martial and male-dominated flavor.) During the previous administration I didn't find this especially surprising, but I kind of expected a shift, for that ideological lock to loosen, under the new administration. So far, I haven't seen any perceptible change. I don't know who is reponsible for selecting the talks that are featured, but there definitely appears to be something going on there.

**Oh, by the way this weekend with also feature a talk by Peter Laufer about his new book, The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists.

I haven't yet read it, but I did see him interviewed on The Daily Show recently and thought it sounded fascinating.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Peter Laufer
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

Sunday, July 26, 2009


More Yes Men Videos

Here they are:

(Oh, the Yes Men have also introduced the Fix the World Challenge.)

The Yes Men Fix the World tomorrow on HBO

Damn! Scooped! OK, not really scooped, but while I was putting together videos for my post, Democracy Now! interviewed Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, The Yes Men, abut their film - The Yes Men Fix the World - whick, OK, has been out for a while and premieres on HBO tomorrow, Monday the 27th. I guess all that's left for me now is to provide the DN! interview and, in my next post, a few related vids. The post after that will be more questioning and critical concerning an issue related to the film.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A review of...well, a comment about Unscientific America

[It may seem odd to take time away from weightier issues to talk about this silly blip of a book, much less a single comment about the silly blip of a book on an equally silly blog. I’m doing so for two reasons. First, the actions of the Catholic Church (though not, of course, all individual Catholics) in promoting and supporting the criminal coup in Honduras, adding another link in its long chain of misdeeds in Latin America, and its role in promoting a bill passed by the Honduran congress to ban Emergency Contraception, vetoed by Zelaya in May.* This has me riled about organized religion at the moment. Second, because this comment, by Jean Kazez, so well encapsulated the problems with Mooney and Kirshenbaum and their approach.]

“Well look,” Kazez says,

either the NAs [the so-called “New Atheists”] have an impact on the general population, or they don’t. If they don’t, why do they bother writing books and chatting with each other on blogs? Surely it’s not just for the pleasure of talking to each other. So all parties ought to agree that they do have an impact on the general population.

This is a bit confused and/or disingenuous. “Have an impact” on the general population in what specific way(s)? Of course, it’s unlikely that Dawkins and Myers are affecting people’s choice of house paint. If we’re talking about effects, we should be very clear about the specific effects we have in mind, not to mention the fact that “the general population” consists of a wide variety of people – this needs to be broken down if we’re to talk about actions and effects intelligently (for example, “religious folk” below, now replacing “the general population” for some reason, needs to be defined).

So take the NAs who both bash religion and teach science–folks like Dawkins and Myers.

Again, we need to be clear about what “bash religion” and “teach science” mean in the context under discussion. Moreover, we need to take into account that, however defined, these might not be the only two activities in which these individuals (who specifically beyond one or two, and what characteristics specifically define them as “NAs,” are still unclear) are engaged.

How does the general population react? Well, there are the fence-sitters who might buy into both the bashing and the science. But what about the religious folk? How do they react to the coupling of science and religion-bashing? We all have experiences to draw upon. We don’t react well to a message with coupled with something we find insulting. So at the very least, C&S have very plausible hypothesis.

No. They – and you - have at best incipient conjecture based on a simplistic understanding of human psychology, itself grounded only in anecdote. A hypothesis, in contrast, would be based on an understanding on the relevant historical and sociological evidence, its terms would be clear, and it would specify the social mechanisms through which the (specific) actions of one group affected the (specific) attitudes or actions of another. And it would still be a hypothesis, which means it would set up a research program which could lead to its being found incorrect.

It just happens to be one [sic] they haven’t proven true by amassing empirical evidence.


But should we hold that against them? Should they try to get some NSF money and do a study before they make the conjecture that religion-bashing scientists probably alienate science students? Er, I’d think not.

And this is where I get angry. Yes, Jean, we should hold their failure to do that against them. That’s exactly what they should do if they wish to make claims about the social world and have them accepted or even taken seriously. As someone who has received NSF money for social research on a theoretically-related subject (and I can tell you, having gone through that tedious process, that a proposal that doesn’t do what I’ve described above would be laughed out of it), I very much resent Mooney and Kirshenbaum making claims that they’ve neither investigated themselves nor based on secondary literature on the social dynamics involved. (Here’s Austin Dacey on the subject a little while ago. Have they undertaken this research?)

Claims about the social world are – and should be! - evaluated on the same broad terms as those in the natural sciences: Are they based on logic and evidence? How was that evidence obtained and what is its quality? Have important aspects been fully considered and alternative explanations dealt with adequately? Like the great C. Wright Mills, I don’t care if people consider the social sciences as a “true science” or “social studies.” Nor do I believe that only professional social scientists can or should write about the social world (indeed, many of the most thoroughly-researched and illuminating articles and books I’ve read have been by journalists). I do, however, object to the idea that claims about history or social change can simply be plucked out of the air if they suit one’s prejudices and do not have to be subjected to rigorous questioning or defended. History and the social sciences are longstanding disciplines with developed methods by which empirical evidence is collected and analyzed.

In this sense, they don’t differ in methodological essence from the natural/physical sciences. Indeed, as Bricmont and Sokal point out in this piece I’ve mentioned recently (p. 6), science doesn’t differ fundamentally from the rational way of proceeding in any area of life; it simply systematizes the methods used and constructs research institutions in which human fallibility in knowledge acquisition is minimized to the greatest extent possible.

This fact is touched upon by the many individuals – none social scientists to the best of my knowledge – who have been asking Mooney and Kirshenbaum to provide evidentiary support or simply to define their terms (like “scientific literacy” – what the book is ostensibly about), to elucidate the mechanisms through which they believe change has occurred, is occurring, and might occur, and to address objections or alternatives to the historical and explanatory frameworks they’re proposing.

It is astounding that Mooney and Kirshenbaum have simply ignored the numerous requests for evidence to substantiate their claims, claims that form the basis of their verbal attack on particular individuals. These requests have come from PZ Myers (here, here, here, here, and here), Ophelia Benson, Jerry Coyne, Peter Beattie, a vast number of other commenters, and even many if not all of those who reviewed the book relatively favorably. (They’ve also ignored repeated attempts to get them to understand that people have more than one goal here, but that’s an inherently-related topic for another time...)

This is particularly inexcusable as Mooney and Kirshenbaum have been bloggers for some stretch. I watched a year ago in utter exasperation as they ignored comments asking them to do all of these things, basically countering, if at all, with “I don’t think I care for your tone.” Blogs offer a remarkable opportunity for writers to present their ideas-in-formation to others and to gain feedback, and Mooney and Kirshenbaum had an intelligent and knowledgeable readership who, had they engaged with people meaningfully rather than treating the blog as a self-promotion platform, could have helped them to compose a solid work with well-developed and substantiated arguments. Of course, this would not have been unassailable – nor should any book be – but it would have been vastly better than what they have produced.

In fact, we’d all be hopelessly crippled if we didn’t let ourselves make and live by such conjectures.

This is simply ridiculous. Not only would we not be hopelessly crippled by not living by unsubstantiated conjecture, we should never live by it. You may be interested in this:

(a bit of which here) Coming up with ideas – and theirs is not original by any means – is merely a first step in the process of developing knowledge.

So there’s nothing wild and woolly about what C&S are saying.

It’s vague, substanceless conjecture based on nothing more than personal taste and a belief that they are right and hold the moral high ground.

Now, it’s another matter what they think the solution is.

You can’t talk about solutions with any confidence until you’ve clearly defined the problem and its causes. And then, the solutions you propose have to take into account existing conditions and practical issues. Proposing tentative solutions to their commenter base would have helped Mooney and Kirshenbaum to develop solutions and useful ideas for practical implementation. They missed that boat. (Or, rather, the boat waited for them at the pier for days, sounding its horn while other passengers trundled back to shore to offer to carry their bags on-board, while they insisted, inexplicably, on remaining on dry land.)

I think they go too far when they tell scientists to teach that religion and science are compatible (in chap. 8 of the their book). They simplify that issue far too much. Far better to advise that scientist educators to just teach science, and just put religion on the back burner.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean religion ought not be discussed by anyone. It just might not be the best thing for our best science educators to be religion bashers.

“It just might be” is meaningless. Is that the case? How do you know? I’m quite tired of this kind of assertion, which is essentially the same I’ve seen used by various religionists and purveyors of all manner of New Age woo (lately, the panexperientialists). It’s exactly the sort of thinking reasonable people should avoid.

I think this is far from an outrageous thing to say–in fact it’s not even terribly exciting (with apologies to C&S).

Whether a claim appears exciting, outrageous, wild, prosaic, or any other subjective assessment is really irrelevant to its validity. The only way this can be established is through evidence – through clearly stating the claim and all of its elements and checking it through systematic empirical observation and analysis.

The funny thing about this situation – which hasn’t been lost on others – is how easily Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s own lack of respect for empirical research and evidence and their reaction to questioning along these lines melds with their argument that a certain class of beliefs in the public sphere should be immune from this requirement and that requests to describe them coherently, explain the method(s) by which they were arrived at, or support them with evidence are unconscionably rude and unacceptable in public discourse. Weak.

*I remember a cartoon from years ago, when many restaurants had small smoking sections. It was titled something like “a restaurant owner’s view of physics,” and showed people at a table smoking and above them the smoke remaining within a seemingly walled-off space, never drifting over to the diners at nearby tables. I was reminded of it when reading one of Mooney’s comments about how “Crackergate” attacked the wrong target, and people should be focusing their energy instead [!] on contraception or stem-cell research. As if all of the beliefs involved weren’t promoted by the same monster of an institution. As if each incoherent, unsubstantiated belief must only be addressed individually, in piecemeal fashion, letting stand the larger architecture of uncritical thinking and intrusion of incoherent, unsubstantiated beliefs into the public sphere. This view is simply absurd. If you accord respect or deference to one form of unsubstantiated belief about reality, you accord it to all unsubstantiated belief, and therefore to the rejection of the reasoned, critical, and evidence-based approach to reality that is science. You therefore forfeit any claim to oppose those particular unsubstantiated beliefs you personally find problematic.

HONDURAS: Democracy Now! Yesterday

Here's Democracy Now!'s report on Honduras yesterday, shortly before Zelaya made his move to enter the country:

(They all seem a bit confused on one point. Zelaya was not accompanied by his wide and children; rather they, along with his mother and his wife's mother, were inside Honduras and trying to get to the border to meet him, though thwarted by the military and police. In my own update last night, I said that the coupist Micheletti was on TV at that moment when in fact that was a video from earlier in the day. TeleSUR has an annoying habit of leaving "EN VIVO" on the screen when showing recorded footage.)

Al Giordano is right in pointing out that the real story here - unsurprisingly, ignored by the corporate media; also by TeleSUR to an annoying extent - is the large and increasingly well-organized movements for democracy and social-economic justice in Honduras, as well as the solidarity of unions and other organizations abroad.

Friday, July 24, 2009


People, including Zelaya’s mother, wife, and children, are still trying to make their way peacefully to the border with Nicaragua to meet Zelaya. Some were attacked by soldiers in El Paraíso this afternoon. Zelaya, accompanied by a caravan including numerous journalists, has asked the police and military to accept his return and has tried to talk with military leaders, but as his caravan organizes at the border – after briefly stepping over this afternoon – police and military forces (including, according to Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas a few minutes ago, Cobra snipers) continue in position in a series of points on the other side of the border.

President of the UN General Assembly Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann has called Zelaya’s move “heroic” and proper and expressed his regret that he couldn’t accompany him. Hillary Clinton, who has basically equated the criminal coupists with the legitimate president when discussing the so-called negotiations, has called it “reckless.” Apparently the US administration thinks the people of Honduras should just accept the kidnapping of their elected president and violations of their basic rights, and also abandon any hopes of participative democracy.

Micheletti is on television right now saying Zelaya will be arrested by the National Police if he returns. Closed with a quote from John F. Kennedy.

Watch live on TeleSUR (hopefully they'll return to the live coverage soon...)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

HONDURAS - latest news and where to go for updates

This is a nice piece by The Real News Network:

They mention Rights Action, which has been a great source of updated information. The Narco News Bulletin has also been providing regular updates and analysis, including in the comments. Here’s Al Giordano’s latest. For Spanish readers, Rebelión has a special section on the coup. As Giordano notes, Zelaya has said that he plans to re-enter Honduras on Friday. I can only assume that the best place to follow events as they develop will continue to be Telesur.

More analysis to follow soon.

At the Edge of the Memory Hole

Recently, the Russian government shut down the history web site, leading, as reported in the Guardian,* to protests from British academics. The Guardian piece contained these astonishing details:

The closure comes amid official attempts in Russia to rewrite some of the darkest aspects of its 20th-century history. School textbooks now portray Stalin not as a mass murderer but as a great, if flawed, national leader and an ‘efficient manager’ who defeated the Nazis and industrialised a backward Soviet Union.

…Much of Soviet history is now taboo. Particularly sensitive for the Kremlin is the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, under which Hitler and Stalin agreed to carve up Europe, with Moscow annexing the Baltics and two-thirds of Poland. The Kremlin also refuses to acknowledge Ukrainian claims that the Stalin-engineered famine of 1932-33 amounted to a genocide.

Looks like the site’s back up now (not being able to read Russian I can’t say for sure).

One of those speaking out against this censorship was Orlando Figes, author of the superb The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia:

In writing the book, distinct for its use of oral histories and its focus on ordinary people, Figes worked with and drew heavily on the archives of Memorial, a human rights, documentation, and humanitarian organization. In November 2008, Memorial’s St. Petersburg office was raided by authorities who seized computer disks containing the organization’s extensive archives of the Stalin era. The disks were returned in May, but the struggle continues on many fronts. The Guardian reports:

Today Figes said in an email the Kremlin had become ‘very active on the internet’ on history, claiming that it even hired bloggers to pose as members of the public, their task being to disseminate a Kremlin-approved version of the past and to ‘rubbish historians like myself’.

Speaking truth to power continues to be extraordinarily dangerous. Earlier this month, Natalia Estemirova, a Memorial worker documenting human rights violations in Chechnya, was kidnapped and murdered. Human Rights Watch recently released this video in tribute to her:

A few days ago, Memorial suspended its activities in Chechnya.

*I accept at face value nothing reported in the mainstream press. If I read one more article suggesting that Mel Zelaya was trying to extend his term in office or that the public consultation was a referendum on extending presidential term limits, or using the phrase “plots his return” or “threatens to return,” or describing demonstrations of tens or hundreds of thousands of people against a criminal coup as protests by “dozens of Zelaya supporters,” or ignoring human rights violations, or…I’m going to lose it. There is no way they could be unaware at this point that they’re repeating lies. It’s shameful.

Social Technology and Education Conference at Harvard

I just learned of this conference on social technology and education, to be held at Harvard in August. It’s free and open to the public, and I imagine that’s a topic of interest to a broad range of people. They’re already up to 139 registered attendees, and I believe I read somewhere on the site that the venue accommodates around 200, so if you’re interested you should probably sign up as soon as possible.


Welcome to my blog!

(Donations also most welcome. :))

I doubt anyone will beep you at the opera

…but if you’re a scientist you can be on-call for human rights!

“On-call” Scientists

are experts from all scientific fields and disciplines who are ready to contribute their time and expertise to the challenges faced by organizations that promote, monitor, and protect human rights throughout the world.

Through “On-call” Scientists, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP) seeks to encourage greater engagement of scientists in human rights efforts and to raise greater awareness within the human rights community of the specific tools, expertise, and other resources that scientists can bring to their work.

From its inception, SHRP has called attention to the wealth of specialized knowledge that scientists can bring to the range of technical and substantive issues critical to conducting human rights work. SHRP projects have included geneticists developing DNA analysis to identify the children of the “disappeared” in Argentina, anthropologists and forensic specialists examining the remains of victims of mass killings, statisticians analyzing the extent of violence against and displacement of civilians during war, and geographers using high tech mapping tools to document destruction of villages and mass displacement. Through these pioneering efforts, SHRP has developed extensive experience in bringing scientists, and their expertise and tools, to human rights work.

Here’s a short piece about the program in Nature (scroll down).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

atop the earth

The Lower East Side has become a gallery hub, and I was fortunate to tour them again (though not unfortunately this time the cool New Museum or ABC No Rio) with my local friend and host during my recent NYC visit. The best of the bunch was an exhibit at Anastasia Photo by Carlos Jiménez Cahua (see some of the photos here).

This latest urban revolution, about which more later, is a key subject for social scientists, and particularly those interested in sociopolitical change and ecology. These photographs speak to sociology while exploring our species’ relationship with the earth. Jiménez Cahua describes the series:

In places like the United States, when man assumes his archetypal role as builder, he acts as sculptor, taking the raw form, the earth, and shaping it to his needs, nearly unrecognizable in its final state. The earth is his clay and he the sculptor. For the people of Lima, their relationship with the earth is fundamentally different. They don't sculpt the land; the earth remains visible if not nearly unaltered despite their development. Whereas the people of developed nations affect the form and therefore identity of the land, the people of Lima quite literally merely scratch the surface—their relationship to the ground is not one of dominance, but of acquiescence. It is only in two dimensions that they can affect the land. They conform to the surface. Their relationship is comparatively inversed—it is the earth's will which is primary. In this way they do not sculpt, but can only paint the landscape, their presence forming just a translucent film atop the topography of the land.

But his description of his own work fails to recognize the art of the photos, considered in deep time. The contrast Jiménez Cahua draws here – of purposeful transformation vs. adaptation, power vs. impermanence – is in an important sense deceptive. It is the idea of an imposed human will, anywhere, that these beautiful images silently mock.

Each documentary photography exhibit at the gallery benefits a philanthropic organization, and in this case it’s one close to my heart: Partners in Health. For more, see:

“…how much things have changed”

On my way to New York on 26 June I finished Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel Senselessness.

As I turned the penultimate page and returned the book to my bag, I had no idea that events in Honduras two days later would drive some of its themes home.

I was initially drawn (who wouldn’t be?) to the book by the flyleaf description:

An alcoholic, atheist, sex-obsessed writer finds himself employed by the Catholic Church (an institution he loathes) to edit the testimonies of the survivors of slaughtered Indian villages. The writer’s job is to tidy up the 1,100 page report: “that was what my work was all about, cleaning up and giving a manicure to the Catholic hands that were piously getting ready to squeeze the balls of the military tiger.” Mesmerized by the eerie poetry of the Indians’ phrases, the increasingly agitated and frightened writer is endangered twice over: by the spell exerted over his somewhat tenuous sanity by the strangely beautiful heart-rending voices, and by real danger. The Church is hunting the military, but the military is still in charge of the country, and our booze-soaked writer is soon among the hunted – or is he paranoid? Or is he paranoid and one of the hunted?

If this synopsis (not to mention the elegant cover design) made the compact volume difficult to resist, the back-cover praise of Castellanos Moya by the late author Roberto Bolaño made it impossible. It was Bolaño’s By Night in Chile

which led me back to Latin American literature, and it’s easy to see what Bolaño appreciated in Castellanos Moya – these are the same qualities I admire in both authors.*

Like By Night in Chile, Senselessness is a first-person novella, featuring grounded, prosaic description, biting, misanthropic commentary, and paranoid, manic thought sequences spun out in sentences stretching on for paragraphs or pages. This mix, narrated by a difficult (and often alienating, to good effect) protagonist in Latin America,** where the history of real horror makes it difficult to dismiss even the most seemingly paranoid ravings, is powerful.

In this recent interview with Guernica,*** Castellanos Moya - born in Tegucigalpa in 1957 - discussed recent political events in his country, El Salvador, where popular movements are on the rise. In a region in which rumblings from below for democratic control and economic justice have shaken the fanged powerful – the wealthy, the military, and the Church - Castellanos Moya’s protagonist’s agitation and dread capture a real political condition. Whatever the psychological stresses on his fictional narrator, the events of the past few weeks in Honduras corroborate the relevance of this work. In the April Guernica interview, the writer offered a guarded hope for his country, warning however that “we shouldn’t overestimate how much things have changed.”


*(I believe Bolaño’s work implicated the reader in a way Castellanos Moya’s does not, but this may be an artifact of personal guilt.)

**Though set in an unnamed Latin American country, the novel is loosely based on real events. Some reviews, annoyingly, describe this in detail. I won’t, though I will soon write more about the historical inspiration.

***He speaks in this interview from the perspective of a disillusioned Marxist. I have questions and criticisms of his former and present political views and how they affect his literary perspective, but these are separate issues.