Sunday, August 23, 2009

90+ Scholars call on Human Rights Watch to publicize violations in Honduras

Recently, I posted about Amnesty International's report on the dire and deteriorating human rights situation in Honduras. In contrast to Amnesty, the New York-based Human Rights Watch has been silent about Honduras for the past six weeks. The other day, in an open letter to HRW Excutive Director Kenneth Roth, a large group of experts on Latin America publicly pressured the organization to document and report on conditions there:

...We call on your organization to fulfill your important role as a guardian of universal human rights and condemn, strongly and forcefully, the ongoing abuses being committed by the illegal regime in Honduras. We also ask that you conduct your own investigation of these crimes.

While Human Rights Watch was quick to condemn the illegal coup d'etat of June 28 and the human rights violations that occurred over the following week, which helped shine the spotlight of international media on these abuses, the absence of statements from your organization since the week following the coup has contributed to the failure of international media to report on subsequent abuses.

...If Human Rights Watch would raise its voice, it would be much more difficult for the Obama administration to ignore Honduras' human rights situation and maintain financial and other support for its illegal regime.

We know that there are, sadly, innumerable urgent human rights crises around the world, all of which require your attention. Addressing the deteriorating situation in Honduras, however, is of paramount importance given its potential to serve as a precedent for other coups and the rise of other dictatorships, not just in Honduras, but throughout the region. History has shown that such coups leave deep scars on societies, and that far too often they have led to the rise of some of history's most notorious rights abusers, such as in Pinochet's Chile, Videla's Argentina, and Cedras' Haiti, to name but a few. As human rights defenders with extensive experience in dealing with the appalling human consequences of these regimes, Human Rights Watch is clearly well placed to understand the urgency of condemning the Honduran regime's abuses and to helping ensure the coup is overturned, that democracy is restored, and that political repression and other human rights abuses are stopped. Your colleagues in the Honduran human rights community are counting on you, as are the Honduran people. We hope you will raise your voice on Honduras.

Will you speak out, HRW?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Amnesty International issues report on human rights violations in Honduras

As several members of the police force beat 19 year old “D” and “A” one of them shouted “Leave all this crap, you’ve got to know the consequences of demonstrating”. When “A” pleaded with the policemen to stop and reached out to touch the hand of her younger friend to see if she was alright, the policeman shouted ”Shut up, shut up, bitch!”

Amnesty International today issued the report "Honduras: human rights crisis threatens as repression increases." The report, which can be read in full at the links at the bottom of this page, documents the violations of human rights by the coup regime - peaceful protesters beaten, arbitrarily arrested, and shot; oppressive and uncommunicated curfews imposed; media outlets closed and journalists harassed and attacked; human rights defenders detained. The report, featuring testimony from victims and photos of injuries inflicted by police, suggests that women continue to be at risk of gender-based violence.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

From Honduras: "People of the world, don't leave us alone!"

From Adrienne Pine, via Narco News, comes an urgent appeal from Radio Progreso (link to the left) in Honduras:

Help! Our Voice, Radio Progreso and ERIC SJ

Our Voice in the political crisis:

Radio Progreso and the Team for Reflection, Investigation and Communication ERIC of the Jesuit community in Honduras

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Radio Progreso was placed under siege by an army contingent the very day of the coup d'etat. At gunpoint and without a warrant, the military penetrated our facilities and forced us to silence our equipment.

On August 14th, our radio sent two of its reporters to cover the protest that the resistance front had organized in the city of Choloma, between San Pedro Sula and Puerto Cortés, in the north zone of the Honduran Atlantic. Radio Progreso would cover the events when the protesters were savagely attacked by the police contingent.

At noon, our reporter Gustavo Cardoza transmitted the news about the teargassing, the arrests, the physical attacks that the police were carrying out right and left on the protesters. All of the sudden, Gustavo Cardoza said that a policeman was pointing his weapon at him and immediately reported that other police were coming after him. Our reporter tried to run, and told them that he was a reporter for Radio Progreso. It was then that we heard his cries, and the blows that our reporter was receiving.

The transmission from our reporter was abruptly suspended. The police kicked him, hit him in the back, in the stomach, they threw him in a vehicle and laid him face down, and in the trajectory they kicked him, hit him with rifle butts, and attacked him with the worst possible insults.

Luckily, the Association of Lawyers in Resistance to the Coup and the Association of Judges for Democracy acted with speed and diligence, and although some of them were shoved and insulted, at the end of the day they managed to get the police to free our reporter and some of the other protesters who had been captured and tortured.

Before the world, we give testimony of our defenselessness. We raise our voice, our clamor before the community of international human rights organizations, because here, all those of us who oppose the de facto regime are exposed to barbarities, while the organisms of the state that are responsible for overseeing justice and human rights, instead of protecting us, point their accusing finger so that they can exterminate us. People of the world, don't leave us alone!

(Note the existence of local organizations of anti-coup, pro-democracy lawyers and judges! I wonder if there's any way lawyers or legal organizations outside Honduras could help these associations...)

Justice campaigns in Bhopal and South Africa; commentary to follow

Two campaigns, at once local and transnational, that I think deserve more attention:

The first is the B’eau Pal Water campaign. This was organized by the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, the Bhopal Medical Appeal, and the Yes Men, whose new film I talked about a little while ago, followed by some more videos featuring the pair. As you can see from the videos, the stunt that received the most attention was an appearance on the BBC posing as a representative of Dow (which now owns Union Carbide) stating that the company had decided at long last to clean up the Bhopal site. Of course, this was not Dow’s intention, and people there continue to be poisoned.

The B’Eau Pal Water campaign is the most recent effort to raise awareness about Bhopal and the organizations involved in working for social justice there. They scared off the Dow people:

For those interested, here’s a short glance into the process involved in designing the “product”:

I think it illustrates well how people with a variety of skills can contribute to movements (including radical movements) for democracy, justice, and human rights.

The second is a campaign in the form of a tour. Abahlali baseMjondolo, the “Shack Dwellers Movement” in South Africa, has representatives in New York this week talking about the movement and their film in production, Dear Mandela:

Here’s their schedule in New York (note that there are events tomorrow and Thursday).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Butterflies and Wheels, Sokal, and National Rum Day

I see that Butterflies and Wheels has linked to my recent post, "Alan Sokal, science, and politics." Many thanks to Ophelia Benson, whose persistent challenging of Mooney and Kirshenbaum I noted admiringly in another recent post. And welcome, B&W readers!

As I said at the end of the Sokal post, I plan to develop several of those ideas in more depth in the upcoming weeks. I'll be traveling today, but hope to respond to comments and put up a few more posts this evening.

In the meantime...

As some people may be aware, I am a devotee of Gosling's Black Seal Rum from Bermuda.

I learned from their mailing list [!] recently that today is National Rum Day! (I assume that means in Bermuda, but today we are all Bermudians.) Here are some recipes for rum cocktails. They also recently teamed up with Polar Beverages here in Massachusetts to make their own ginger beer, as used in Bermuda's national drink, the Dark 'n Stormy.

Gosling's outlets tend to follow the sailing/sea-trade circuit, so a lot of places in the Boston area carry it (also the great Bar 89 in New York, where cool bartenders fix nice, strong drinks). Here's help finding a supplier near you (possibly).

Happy Rum Day!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Grandin replies to Lanny Davis' lies

Yesterday I posted a reply to Lanny Davis' lies in Friday's debate with Greg Grandin.

Later, Grandin published his own reply - "Fact Checking Lanny Davis on Honduras" - at the Huffington Post. It covers much the same ground, but a lot more as well. Definitely worth a read.

Honduras solidarity campaign on Twitter and Facebook today!

As I mentioned in a recent post, today is the Global Day of Action for Honduras. Now you can help to support the democratic resistance in Honduras on Facebook and Twitter! Grassroots International explains how:

On the Global Day of Action for Honduras, Donate your Facebook and Twitter Status

By Lindsay Shade

August 10th, 2009

Want to do something simple to help support Honduran democracy and keep the crisis in the public eye? Donate your status! It’s free, easy, and can make a huge impact. Right now, the corporate news media is mostly silent about what’s happening on the ground in Honduras and the role of US policy – both past and present. Even worse, some media outlets are spreading misinformation based on the junta’s campaign to justify their illegal coup.

Help people learn the truth behind the crisis and remember the plight of Honduran citizens by donating your Facebook and/or Twitter statuses on Tuesday, August 11th – the Global Day of Action for Honduras. Set your Facebook and Twitter status to:

“I stand in solidarity with social justice activists in Honduras. Get the facts and take action now by visiting”

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have backed down from their initial condemnation of the coup, and are now advocating for a return to the ‘status quo.’ The status quo of US relations with Latin America has thus far had disastrous consequences for social justice aims. Please join us at this pivotal moment: Donate your status and take action on behalf of the human rights of Hondurans.

Please consider this small gesture to make your voice heard and to join others in helping restore democracy to Honduras. (A good way to get the word out about a great Boston-area organization, to boot.)

I also noted earlier that a Honduran speaking tour was coming to the US. Here's a nice summary of what was discussed at the local appearance in Open Media Boston.

For anyone in the area who can attend, they provide more details about today's solidarity picket on Park St.:

Local immigrant, labor, religious and human rights organizations have called a Informational Picket in Solidarity with the Honduran Resistance for Tuesday 8/11 from 4:30- 6 p.m. at the Park Street T entrance on the corner of Tremont and Park Sts. in downtown Boston. Check out for more information.

[Please note that I've added a list of links to news and commmentary about Honduras on the left.]

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Without Sanctuary" online exhibit and talk on lynching and capital punishment in the US

It’s been a long time since I first learned of this exhibit and wanted to share it with people. Now I can.

It’s called Without Sanctuary, and it’s an exhibit of souvenir photographs and postcards from lynchings in the US. Some of the powerful images can be viewed as a short flash movie at the site. You can also look through the 81 photos individually; clicking on “more on this photo” provides important information about the specific cases and the practice of lynching in general. They are sickening.

Sociologist of law David Garland has written about the sociopolitical history of lynchings and their importance in the development of capital punishment in the country. This is an interesting talk on the subject given by Garland at Eastern Kentucky University.

Lanny Davis, Liar for Hire

As they say.

I finally had a chance to watch Friday’s debate between Greg Grandin and Lanny Davis on Democracy Now!.

While a debate between a scholar and a mercenary mouthpiece would seem rather lopsided, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the lobbyist. The golpistas themselves lie like so many rugs, but at least they’re relatively inept. Their attempts at dissimulation would be comical were the situation not so serious. But Davis, now he’s something to see – one of the most practiced professional liars I’ve ever had the occasion to witness in action.

His performance in this debate was a thing to behold. So brazenly mendacious, so slyly diversionary, so shamelessly willing to twist words and deny the truth was he that I think Grandin at moments was at a loss for words.

To counter at least some of the substantive mistruths:


Davis lied about Zelaya being the one to reject the Arias 7-point proposal. This was the second boldest lie of all, since the news reports are easy enough to find: Zelaya accepted the first Arias proposal; it was Micheletti’s coup regime that rejected it. For Davis to act as though Grandin was conceding that he had been untruthful when he said that Micheletti had later backpedaled, publicly avowing that they would accept some of the seven points, was masterful. The coupists rejected the proposal. Rejecting some points (after Zelaya had accepted all) meant rejecting the proposal. It wasn’t really even backpedaling at all – it was theater.

The coupmongers, as has long been apparent, have never had any intention of honestly negotiating, but have simply wanted to buy more time to try to entrench themselves. (Yesterday, they announced that they wouldn’t accept any OAS delegation that included OAS head Miguel Insulza, who insists, like Arias, on Zelaya’s reinstatement; this morning, they said they would admit the delegation if Insulza only participated as an “observer”; and around and around they go.) They genuinely seem to believe that they can hold out until elections in November, as if free and fair elections could really be celebrated in the repressive conditions that hold in Honduras, with a highly mobilized resistance under a coup regime that isn’t recognized by a single government on the planet.


Here’s the US State Department report on the Honduran judiciary from February of this year. Anyone can do a search on the word “corrupt.”


The point on which Davis was most obnoxious in his feigned indignance was the terms in which the plotters have attempted to justify the coup. He repeatedly shouted at a horrified Grandin “Take it back!”, trying to twist Grandin’s words to suggest that he had said the Supreme Court hadn’t “found” that Zelaya was acting illegally in distributing the survey. Grandin’s actual assertion, as he noted, had been that the claim that Zelaya had violated Article 239 of the Honduran constitution (barring politicians from seeking to change term limits) was a post hoc rationalization – that the Supreme Court decision made no mention of Article 239.

The page with the ruling appeared yesterday to have been removed from the Judiciary’s website, but I found it today. Search in vain for “239.” Jules Siegel at the Huffington Post, who read the documents, found no mention of Article 239. I found what appear to be all of the documents from the days before the coup. A search turned up no reference to Article 239. Two analyses of the so-called legal basis for the coup in Spanish can be found here and here. Perhaps Davis can show where in the documents Article 239 is mentioned, or provide some evidence of any basis for the allegation that Zelaya had violated it.

It is clear that the oligarchs feared the increase in power of the poor majority (and threat to their own rule) to come not only from a potentially new, more democratic constitution but from the process of public involvement itself, and exploited the megalomania, red-baiting allegations to put a stop to democratization. (The corporate media have of course been all too happy to assist.) The documents show that at in the period leading up to the coup they were well aware they had no evidence of Zelaya’s seeking to extend term limits (as Micheletti had done); else they would surely have included it in their decision, and the Congress wouldn’t have slapped together a law barring plebiscites and referendums during the months before an election (which didn’t, in any event, cover public-opinion surveys). I won’t even bother to again go into the fact that the charge is nonsensical.


Most risible were Davis’ attempts to challenge the assertion that the coup was the backlash of elites fearful of losing their grip over the country. At one point, he actually asks about the members of Congress who supported the coup “Are they elites?”, as though the idea were patently ridiculous. The question is so transparently disingenuous and absurd as to leave Grandin – a professional scholar of Latin American history – nearly speechless. And the context is so deliciously significant: Davis attempting to mock the claim that this was a coup inspired by business elites… in an appearance paid for by his client, the Business Council of Latin America (CEAL). (Grandin liked the recent New York Times article, “Honduran Coup Shows Business Elite Still in Charge.” I didn’t, though of course the headline is true. I thought it largely provided yet another opportunity for the business elites to have their say while ignoring the mass mobilizations of the population and to present them as representative of a large part of the population, setting up one-sided violence as “civil war.”)


Speaking of which, Davis was most disgusting when asked about the well-documented repression, censorship, human rights violations under the coup regime. Does he really think the DN! audience is that stupid?

By the way, in addition to the sources I’ve mentioned in recent posts, you can also listen - for the moment, at least - live to Radio Globo and Radio Progreso (I’m having trouble getting this one to play).

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Sunday, August 9, 2009


Via Campesina has called for a Global Day of Action in solidarity with the Honduran resistance this Tuesday, August 11.

I haven’t been able to find a list of events in different cities (I’ll post it if I do), but one is organized by a coalition of groups here in Boston:

Tue. 8/11 - 4:30pm - 6pm - Park Street Boston, Informational picket in solidarity with the Honduran resistance

International Day of Action Called by the Committee in Solidarity with the Honduran Resistance, Proyecto Hondureno, CISPES-Boston, Boston May Day Committee

(Please send a note to to endorse and to participate)

These events are coordinated with the culmination of large marches of Hondurans. For an interesting report on what’s happening on the ground there, see Al Giordano’s “Toppling a Coup, Part I: Dilemmas for the Honduras Regime.”

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Alan Sokal, science, and politics

I recently left a comment at Jason Rosenhouse’s EvolutionBlog (still in moderation, I assume because of the links), on a post containing Part III of his review of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s wiffle book, Unscientific America. In it, he discusses their stance on Alan Sokal’s famous hoax and the so-called “science wars.” I thought the comment should be expanded to cover some issues that have been on my mind, as the discussion of Sokal raises larger questions of science, politics, and ethics.

Rosenhouse notes:

Then there is M and K's strange antipathy towards people like Paul Gross, Norman Levitt and Alan Sokal, leading players in the great Science Wars. Recall that certain left-wing academics in the humanities had taken to saying some very silly things about science. Surprisingly, as ignorant and misinformed as these people were, they rose to levels of great prominence in their fields. Dismayed, a handful of scientists fought back by writing books and, most famously, by hoaxing the leading journal promoting this nonsense.

He quotes Mooney and Kirshenbaum:

The great problem with the Science Wars wasn't that they were ineffective but that they were ultimately irrelevant. The influence of post-structuralism within the academic realm peaked in the 1990's and has been declining since -- not because of Alan Sokal or Higher Superstition but because that is the way academic trends work. ...But all the energy spent fighting the Science Wars distracted from the real enemy at the gate -- the dumbing down of American culture. (p. 48)

Rosenhouse’s criticism is that this is yet another example of M&K forcing a complex history into a simplistic narrative in which scientists bear most of the blame:

Once again M and K are trying to fit things into a narrative rather than really get their hands dirty going after the real problems. Their story is that scientists, through their general tone-deafness towards the society around them, are seriously exacerbating the problem of science illiteracy. Sure, a certain subset of the humanities was making a good living telling lies about science, but it's the scientists who engaged them who were the real problem.

I agree with this more or less, but would like to add and clarify a few things.

M&K’s criticism of Sokal (among others, to be sure) actually at first appears surprising in light of Mooney’s co-authorship of this piece with Sokal as recently as 2007. However, the explanation may lie in Sokal’s more recent public statements about religion. Touring in support of his more recent book, Beyond the Hoax,

Sokal has come down fairly clearly on the side of those who view science and religion as fundamentally epistemologically incompatible and religion as one of the major hindrances to the spread of an evidence-based, or scientific, worldview.

This is easy to see, as Sokal likes repeating the same talk in different venues. You can watch the talk (which is not long, and quite good) here:

or at this link, or read the text from last year here.

In it, Sokal argues for the importance of the scientific worldview in deciding matters of fact in all spheres of life, and lists the social forces that promote muddled thinking and unreason. “At a superficial level,” he says,

you could say that my topic is the relation between science and society; but as I hope will become clear, my deeper theme is the importance, not so much of science, but of the scientific worldview - a concept that I shall define more precisely in a moment, and which goes far beyond the specific disciplines that we usually think of as “science" - in humanity's collective decision-making. I want to argue that clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence - especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence, evidence that challenges our preconceptions - are of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century. I aim to show that the implications of taking seriously an evidence-based worldview are rather more radical than many people realize.

In contrast to the accomodationists, and like Jerry Coyne and others, Sokal emphasizes that by “science” he means not only the group of professional scientists or the body of knowledge accumulated by professional researchers in certain fields, but a specific approach to questions of fact that, while highly refined in the sciences, characterizes (or should characterize) any and every factual investigation:

I stress that my use of the term “science" is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.) Thus, “science" (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives. (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)

Science – regardless of the subject of investigation or the specific methods used – is rational, empirical, skeptical, and critical. Sokal goes on to discuss four categories of people antagonistic to the progress of the scientific worldview, in order of increasing seriousness. The first is a category of academic postmodernists, the extreme social constructivists Bricmont and Sokal dealt with in their Fashionable Nonsense:

Today as then, Sokal doesn’t see them as a major threat, but still problematic in other ways, as I’ll discuss below. (He also notes the decline of the power of the more extreme variants of this intellectual movement and the contrition of some, including Bruno Latour - who published this a few years ago - unable to resist offering a quick “I told you so.”)

The second is the vast category of pseudoscience (focusing on what’s called complementary and alternative medicine). But it is the third category that likely roused M&K’s ire: religion. Unlike in the LA Times article he co-authored with Mooney, which pointed to the threat of specifically fundamentalist religion to science, Sokal is very clear here that in discussing threats to the scientific worldview he has in mind all religious truth claims:

Tonight I want to address only the most fundamental issue, namely, the intrinsic merit of the various religions' factual doctrines. And within that, I want to focus on the epistemological question - or to put it in less fancy language, the relationship between belief and evidence. After all, those who believe in their religion's factual doctrines presumably do so for what they consider to be good reasons. So it's sensible to ask: What are these alleged good reasons?

Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife. But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but they ultimately boil down to one: because our holy scriptures say so. But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are free from error? Because the scriptures themselves say so. Theologians specialize in weaving elaborate webs of verbiage to avoid saying anything quite so bluntly, but this gem of circular reasoning really is the epistemological bottom line on which all “faith" is grounded. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals." It goes without saying that this begs the question of whether the texts at issue really were authored or inspired by God, and on what grounds one knows this. “Faith" is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. “Faith" is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.

I believe public statements like this are at the heart of Mooney’s new-found interest in criticizing Sokal.

But the fourth category of opponents of the scientific worldview, political and corporate propagandists, also needs to be mentioned, especially as it seems Sokal’s defense of science is often either depoliticized or, worse, seen as an attack on the left. I’m not particularly familiar with Gross and Levitt, though the subtitle of their book alone suggests an agenda that differs from Sokal’s and fits with other things I’ve read about them. Sokal’s a different matter, though. He clearly sees states and corporations as the largest threat to the reality-based project:

Which brings me to the last, and in my opinion most dangerous, set of adversaries of the evidence-based worldview in the contemporary world: namely, propagandists, public-relations hacks and spin doctors, along with the politicians and corporations who employ them - in short, all those whose goal is not to analyze honestly the evidence for and against a particular policy, but is simply to manipulate the public into reaching a predetermined conclusion by whatever technique will work, however dishonest or fraudulent.

The scientific worldview, to Sokal, is subversive and liberating. It is an inherently left-wing approach, in that it rests not on acceptance of authority but on skepticism and empirical investigation. As he argues:

The affirmative side of science, consisting of its well-verified claims about the physical and biological world, may be what first springs to mind when people think about “science"; but it is the critical and skeptical side of science that is the most profound, and the most intellectually subversive. The scientific worldview inevitably comes into conflict with all non-scientific modes of thought that make purportedly factual claims about the world. And how could it be otherwise?

Science poses revolutionary challenges to entrenched power, as anarchists from Kropotkin to Chomsky have noted. In Sokal’s words:

The critical thrust of science even extends beyond the factual realm, to ethics and politics. Of course, as a logical matter one cannot derive an “ought" from an “is". But historically - starting in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and then spreading gradually to more or less the entire world - scientific skepticism has played the role of an intellectual acid, slowly dissolving the irrational beliefs that legitimated the established social order and its supposed authorities, be they the priesthood, the monarchy, the aristocracy, or allegedly superior races and social classes.

Indeed, Sokal's criticism of social constructionists in the ‘90s was not an attack on the left, but a voice from within the left challenging others whom he saw as acting in a manner contrary to their stated goals. As he wrote at the time in "Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword" (repeated in almost or exactly the same words in Fashionable Nonsense):

But why did I do it? I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them. (If science were merely a negotiation of social conventions about what is agreed to be ``true'', why would I bother devoting a large fraction of my all-too-short life to it? I don't aspire to be the Emily Post of quantum field theory.)

But my main concern isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you). Rather, my concern is explicitly political: to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist/poststructuralist/social-constructivist discourse -- and more generally a penchant for subjectivism -- which is, I believe, inimical to the values and future of the Left. Alan Ryan said it well:

It is, for instance, pretty suicidal for embattled minorities to embrace Michel Foucault, let alone Jacques Derrida. The minority view was always that power could be undermined by truth ... Once you read Foucault as saying that truth is simply an effect of power, you've had it*. ... But American departments of literature, history and sociology contain large numbers of self-described leftists who have confused radical doubts about objectivity with political radicalism, and are in a mess.

Likewise, Eric Hobsbawm has decried

the rise of ``postmodernist'' intellectual fashions in Western universities, particularly in departments of literature and anthropology, which imply that all ``facts'' claiming objective existence are simply intellectual constructions. In short, that there is no clear difference between fact and fiction. But there is, and for historians, even for the most militantly antipositivist ones among us, the ability to distinguish between the two is absolutely fundamental.

(Hobsbawm goes on to show how rigorous historical work can refute the fictions propounded by reactionary nationalists in India, Israel, the Balkans and elsewhere.) And finally Stanislav Andreski:

So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example) and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world.

In the more recent work, Sokal discusses the ethical dimension of epistemology that I referred to in a recent post when I cited Allen Wood. He discusses this specifically in the political realm, but as anarchists know, and Sokal of course appreciates, his four categories have historically often colluded. Moreover, they cannot be considered individually - the promotion of muddled, mystical, authoritarian thinking in any sphere bolsters it in others. Thus, the ethical dimension of epistemology is not area-specific: promoting muddled practice in one sphere makes you complicit in others, regardless of the alleged harmlessness of your particular set of unsubstantiated beliefs or their confinement in one part of your life.

I’ll have a lot more to say about several of these points in later posts.

I still hope to see a review of UA by Sokal.

*At the risk of sounding Courtier-like, I don’t believe this fairly represents Foucault.

Friday, August 7, 2009

CreoZerg Today!

PZ and the 300* are at Ken Ham's Creation Museum today!

Follow the action on Pharyngula here or on twitter: #creozerg. (You can go to Twitterfall and search for #creozerg on the left.)

Very entertaining.

*Almost. See the Secular Student Alliance press release.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

More AP lies about Honduras

I won’t be able to post here or at Pharyngula for a couple of days (and don’t really have time to be writing right now), but this had to be addressed: The Associated Press lies. They simply cannot be trusted to provide accurate information. The coupmongers in Honduras have shredded the country’s constitution while claiming to defend it. They have shut down media outlets and harassed journalists. And yet the AP persists in spreading their propaganda and manufacturing consent for the overthrow of democracy in Honduras.

A quick update before I get to the rant: The pro-democracy movements are planning a series of nationwide protests to begin tomorrow, which of course sends the gasping, grasping golpistas into paroxysms of fear. As Al Giordano of Narco News reports from Honduras:

The coup regime is frightened enough by the growing wave of peaceful protests across the country that it placed advertisements in pro-coup daily newspapers announcing new penalties against the redress of grievances nationwide:

“Anybody who calls for leads any meeting or demonstration illicitly will be punished by a sentence of two to four years in prison and a fine of 30,000 to 60,000 Lempiras (about $1,500 to $3,000 US dollars)."

In other words, one doesn’t even have to present at a protest to be imprisoned for it: Simply calling on others to attend now earns any citizen or broadcaster that honor.

A good article with some historical context appeared on the History News Network last week.

Meanwhile, what does the AP produce? A piece – “A look at efforts to extend term limits worldwide” – full of bullshit that of course is being picked up by a huge number of “news” sources.

From the second sentence

Referendums on term limits have been held worldwide in recent years. While they have failed in a handful of cases — including Honduras,...

they spread misinformation. When they get to discussing Honduras specifically, the problems continue:

HONDURAS: Before his ouster in a June 28 coup, President Manuel Zelaya had been trying to organize a referendum to gauge popular support for a constitutional overhaul, defying court orders declaring the vote illegal. Opponents say he was trying to extend his presidential term and used this as the rationale for the coup. Zelaya denies such intentions and is in exile in neighboring Nicaragua.

These statements are completely misleading. What Zelaya was conducting was a public consultation, a nonbinding opinion poll (allowed by the constitution), asking whether people would like to be able to vote in the November elections on whether to convene a constitutional convention to draw up a new constitution to be put to a later vote. The poll said nothing about presidential term limits. The vote on convening a constitutional convention, were it to take place, would be during the November elections in which a new president would be voted in. What Zelaya's "opponents say" neither holds water nor even makes sense. Stop repeating it as if it had any basis in reality, AP! Be journalists and investigate whether it’s true before saying it is in your second sentence!

They’re no better on Bolivia:

BOLIVIA: Voters approved a new constitution in January that gives President Evo Morales a shot at remaining in office through 2014 if he wins elections scheduled for December.

And the US constitution gives Barack Obama a shot at remaining in office through 2016!!!!!!eleventyone11!!! Seriously. The previous constitution allowed two nonconsecutive five-year terms; the new one allows two consecutive five-year terms. When the constitution had been approved but before it was submitted to popular referendum, the AP, despite its having been pointed out to them that they were wrong (as I noted in a previous post), persisted in claiming that the new constitution would allow Morales to run indefinitely.

They spread lies, and they do so in moments when the fate of democracy hangs in the balance, in a manner that strengthens the hand of antidemocratic forces.

…In other worrisome media news, Human Rights Watch reports on measures limiting freedom of expression in Venezuela. While I don’t take everything in the report at face value, it is certainly troubling, and they've been doing a good job on Honduras. I plan to investigate further.

(Oh, and PS: Thank you to everyone who has said nice things about the blog and encouraged me in my efforts. I'm touched and flattered, and couldn't appreciate it more. I have to turn off comments for a couple of days, but will be back soon.)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Profiles of the Godless": CFI's survey of nonbelievers

Two studies on nonbelievers were recently completed. A few days ago, the Center for Inquiry published “Profiles of the Godless: Results from a Survey of the Nonreligious.” They describe the survey, conducted by the Center with Associate Professor Luke Galen of Grand Valley State University, as “[t]he most comprehensive survey of the nonreligious to date, gathering data from nearly 6,000 respondents.” The results appear in a compact and readable summary in the latest issue of Free Inquiry magazine (click on the PDF link at the site above).

This questionnaire nicely complements the online survey conducted by Tom Arcaro at Atheist Nexus last fall, which he has reported on over the past several months. The Arcaro online survey analyzes the respondents demographically, draws from large samples from several countries, and focuses on the different pressures against coming out as an atheist, though it also touches upon self-identification. The CFI/Galen study, on the other hand, pays somewhat less attention to demographic differences, samples from a majority US population, and focuses on self-identification and psychological characteristics. Both have sampling issues but provide interesting insights. I’ll discuss the CFI survey in this post and the Arcaro poll shortly.

A strength of the CFI study is that it focuses on differences within the nonreligious community itself. The nonreligious segment of the population is growing and increasingly visible, Galen notes; however, “self-described religious believers constitute the vast majority of the American population, and so more attention has been paid by social scientists and survey researchers to distinctions such as religious denomination (say, evangelicals vs. mainline) or political leanings than to characteristics descriptive of a nonreligious orientation.” As CFI’s description puts it: “In general-population surveys, meaningful differences between distinct types of nonbelievers (atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc.) have often been neglected, with the broad category encompassing the nonreligious only included with the implication that they merely represent the ‘absence of religion’.” A more nuanced portrait of nonbelievers is quite welcome, as is a comparison with the religious, especially as nonbelievers are often dismissed with stereotypes, “e.g. that they are “‘angry loners’ or ‘asocial’.”

A pilot study was used to test the survey design prior to the larger survey of the nonreligious. The questionnaire was distributed to all of the subscribers of the Center For Inquiry’s Michigan branch e-mail and group newsletter as well as two good-sized local churches (responses n=333 and n=325 respectively), the latter in order to “provide some range on survey instrument items such as belief in God as well as to support the testing of hypotheses regarding characteristics distinguishing between religious and nonreligious individuals.”

The two samples of course differed in terms of beliefs, with almost all of the churchgoers reporting strong belief and the CFI-list sample exhibiting a range of beliefs, with about half self-described atheists and the rest divided among a variety of other labels. Despite some demographic differences, the two groups turned out to be quite similar in terms of “mental well-being.” One key dimension on which they did differ was “openness to experience,” with the nonreligious being “more intellectually oriented and unconventional.” “Even controlling for the large differences between religious and nonreligious individuals in regard to education, gender, marriage, and child-rearing,” Galen reports, “openness still was the strongest predictor of both lower religious belief and membership in CFI/Michigan as opposed to the churches.” In contrast, religious people were higher on “agreeableness” – “a quality of being amiable or nonconfrontational as opposed to skeptical of others.”

The larger study looked only at nonbelievers, sending an email request to CFI’s international membership, from which snowball samples emerged, with ultimately 5,831respondents, primarily in the US. The researchers were interested in demographic characteristics, psychological characteristics, and variation in self-labeling among the larger group. While Galen acknowledges that this is not a representative sample of nonbelievers but of more organizationally-active individuals, he notes that the demographic characteristics of respondents were consistent with those found in previous research: high education, mostly male, older, higher income (more about which in the later post).

When he talks about differences among nonbelievers, it’s initially a bit confusing. For example, he suggests that “meaningful differences between distinct types of nonbelievers (say, secular humanist vs. atheist) have been neglected.” This “vs.” is misleading in that these are, as Galen is clearly aware, not mutually exclusive or in opposition. Figure 1 at the bottom of page 42 is extremely confusing when you first see it, as what it describes is not explained for two more pages.

Here’s what they did:

Respondents were allowed to endorse multiple religious and philosophical views or labels (such as 'spiritual', 'agnostic', and 'humanistic'), but they were also asked to choose the single term that best described themselves. This self- identification term served as a basis for categorization. Despite the option of selecting among a dozen labels such as ‘deist’ or ‘polytheist’, the overwhelming majority of respondents were divided amongst four preferred labels: 57 percent atheist, 24 percent humanist, 10 percent agnostic, and 2 percent spiritual.

You can read the fuller description in the article, but the study found that while many selected non-atheist labels when allowed several choices, when forced to choose a “master label” people often jettisoned these other terms to master-label themselves as atheists, while the atheist label, chosen in the nonrestrictive phase by 77% of the respondents, was retained as a master-label by 57%:

Contrast the attrition from ‘spiritual’, ‘agnostic,’ and ‘humanist’ when reverting to a single label with the three-quarters who included ‘atheist’ as one of their multiple self-identifications; 57 percent of the latter retained ‘atheist’ as their as sole label. In other words, those respondents who included ‘atheist’ among other labels were most likely to end up retaining it when choosing one self-identification. Thus, atheist appears to be more of a ‘bridge-burning’ term; those who define themselves as atheists are less likely to shed that term or to dilute it with other labels. This indicates that although humanist is one of many hats that nonreligious individuals wear, when push comes to shove most of these individuals are ‘really’ atheists.
Ah! Now Fig. 1 becomes perfectly clear.

Galen continues:

This raises the question: are there individuals who are for all metaphysical intents and purposes either atheists or agnostics but do not label themselves as such? What characteristics distinguish those who otherwise metaphysically agree in unbelief but choose to describe themselves differently?
This is a bit more involved. Using the responses to philosophical questions, they created a category of “de facto atheists/agnostics.” Next they cross-referenced this with the master-labels, creating a category of “atheist/agnostic deniers” – those who were de facto atheists/agnostics but didn’t self-identify as such (using, e.g., “humanist” or “spiritual”).

They then compared the “deniers” and the “admitters,” finding some differences. The most marked, Galen suggests, was age:

Those nonbelievers who chose to self-label as ‘spiritual’ and ‘humanist’ were older (average of fifty-three and fifty-one, respectively) than those choosing ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ (forty-nine and forty-seven, respectively). This would seem to indicate a cohort effect, such that the term atheist is becoming more common despite a shared de facto philosophical outlook with self-labeled humanists.

I’ll discuss the matter further in the later post, but I’ll say now that this raised an eyebrow. Galen doesn’t describe statistical significance, but these ages are not far apart, and it seems a real stretch to me to suggest that they represent any kind of cohort effect. While I do believe the atheist self-identification is expanding (and Arcaro has something to say about this), this doesn't appear sufficient to support that claim.

Galen then goes on to describe psychological differences across the differently self-identified groups: spiritual, agnostic, atheist, humanist. I won’t discuss these findings in detail, but he provides a nice chart on page 44 (again, before the material is covered :)). Most interestingly, they found that “mental well-being” among nonbelievers was the mirror image of that among the religious:

Those nonbelievers most confident in their nonbelief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, relative to the ‘fence sitters’ who reported more negative emotions. Similarly, life satisfaction was lower among the spirituals relative to the other three belief labels. Therefore, having uncertainty regarding one’s religious views appears to be associated with relatively greater emotional instability.

This is a useful study, and I hope to see many more like it in the (near) future. I was left, though, with several questions, some of which were addressed by Arcaro (and some, like multivariate analysis, not – at least yet). I’ll discuss a few of these in the upcoming post and more later on.

Still chuckling Dawn Pitkin.



(OK, so technically she's too old, but it still makes me laugh.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lubna Hussein and rights action

So, where was I…?

Ah, as I mentioned in the mermaid-fatwa post, I came across the site ProgressiveIslam.Org in the course of searching for more information about and means of aiding Lubna Hussein.

As discussed on a recent Pharyngula thread, Hussein, arrested by the Public Order Police, is facing trial under the Sudanese General Discipline Law for - as it’s been translated - “sensational dressing up” in the form of wearing pants. (The trial appears now to be scheduled for August 4th, a few days from now.) This class of law is of course an affront to anyone who cares about human rights and freedoms, and those challenging it in their countries should receive all of the support we can give them.

I was somewhat disappointed to find that it was difficult to find ways to help concretely. I did find these three organizations/sites, with which I’m not really familiar, which seem to be following the case.

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information

Women living under muslim laws


The second, if you follow the link on their page, provides contact information (including email addresses) for protest missives. I’m sure more publicity won’t hurt, either.

A few thoughts on the matter:

1. Ideas don’t have rights – people do. This isn’t perhaps the most relevant point to be made in this specific case, but it does need to be made. (I also just like linking to the Center for Inquiry’s work on this front.)

2. The notion that this is a case of an isolated Islamic society whose culture(s) have developed in some vacuum, now requiring some benevolent foreign intervention in order to progress, is ridiculous. They are not at some stage of a teleological process awaiting the gentle nudge or violent shove of their benighted “Western” brethren to move them along. The cultures in question have been part of the rapacious world political and capitalist system for centuries, and imperial intervention has played a major role in shaping them.

3. Further, the more we understand, the more complex things appear. It is dangerous to paint people, especially women, as helpless victims in need of rescue by the powerful.* Often, those who appear initially as voiceless and powerless victims come to be recognized, as in this case, as brave fighters. Lubna Hussein is a reporter who has long been an outspoken critic of the government. Reports say she’s resigned from her job at the UN so that her status as a UN employee will not shield her, rejected a compromise put forth by the head of the reporters’ union which would require her to promise not to dress that way again, and refused a presidential pardon. She has sent invitations to her flogging. She is brilliantly and successfully publicizing her case as part of an effort to get these laws scrapped.

Neither are the law and its enforcement merely an archaic survival of a backward religious culture or mindless reaction to “modernization” and “Western values.” Its enforcement appears to be expanding at present as a means of controlling and silencing political opponents, especially women. It is very much bound up with the larger political context.

4. People who develop some sudden interest in women’s oppression or human rights (which, incidentally, just happen to be tropes of value in their broader political campaign - e.g., with respect to immigration or military intervention - or in their material or power interests) are not to be trusted. In fact, anyone claiming to speak or work on behalf of oppressed groups should be viewed with great skepticism.

5. Those who question or oppose interventionist policies, existing or proposed, do so for a number of reasons, from moral to pragmatic. Labeling them as accomodationists and “cultural relativists” or defenders of Islam when they have made no arguments of the sort is dishonest. (Which is by no means to say that a cultural-relativist perspective has no place in social analysis, and certainly not that an ethnocentric approach is desirable. My way is to take a critical historical approach to all cultures and cultural change, forming my beliefs and responses on the basis of values and understanding I’ve developed through that process.)

It happens that sometimes little or no action may be called for from certain groups – there may in some cases be little productive we can do other than offer verbal support, which should not be undervalued - but there is no stark choice between action and inaction. There are various courses of action available in response to rights issues, and these can be discussed and debated by reasonable people. Empty, menacing internet tough talk is worse than useless.

6. The very concept of human rights as broadly understood and practiced today is inherently problematic and needs to change. It should be replaced by a vision of human rights that does not construct depoliticized victims but rather promotes engagement with people who are suffering and fighting, respecting them as complex and active human beings with their own goals. It needs to move away from a legalistic and statist conception that considers governments the ultimate granters and guarantors of rights and toward one that encourages people to work together to construct and maintain their rights on the ground. I’ll have much more to say about this in the future.

*I haven't had the opportunity to read it, but among the popular works that caught my eye is Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream.