Monday, December 27, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

Totally unexpected results from trap tree poll

Here's the poll at GoodMorningGloucester. Who could have foreseen this?


Jerry Coyne is asking about beautiful words. Here’s a list of 70 (or thereabouts - I hate counting). ...Of the moment. I’m mercurial.


* The list of lovely biological terms is endless (Delphinidae? Mellifluous!).
** I declare this to be a single word.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Social Science, the Right, and the AAA

The Right’s relationship with academics, and social scientists in particular, has two sides: trying to make use of them (the Human Terrain System, encouraging psychologists’ participation in torture, “security” centers, efforts to use scholarly credibility to burnish propaganda efforts, and corporate influence on the functioning of universities in general) and attacking them (seeking to withdraw funding to Middle Eastern Studies programs or social science funding by the NSF, generally rejecting social scientific research other than that viewed as useful). This week’s news has highlighted both prongs, neither of them good, of course, for the social sciences, and both of which continue to be resisted. Unfortunately, it’s also brought to light some confused social scientists who seem to be playing into this strategy while apparently believing they’re doing the opposite.

The attempts to utilize academic credibility for propaganda purposes have been revealed by Adrienne Pine in her work on FIU’s “Strategic Culture” Initiative, in which “anthropology's analysis and cultural capital are appropriated in order to facilitate and legitimize military violence.” As she argues:
The concept of "culture" is being used to justify the violent actions of the U.S. military throughout the hemisphere. Culture is also used to justify U.S. training of and funding for Latin American military forces that engage in torture, targeted assassinations of dissidents, and carry out coups d'etats. But the abuse of the culture concept in the service of empire is neither new, nor unique to the militarized university. In the case of Honduras, groups like the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) have promoted the idea that Honduras suffers from a culture of violence—rather than a neoliberal policy of state violence in which poverty is criminalized and the victims of structural violence are blamed. This difference is crucial; if violence is cultural, then "security"—in the form of increased U.S. military aid and training—is a logical solution for disciplining an unruly, uncivilized population. However, if violence is the explicit policy of a militarized client state protecting corporate profits from falling into the hands of the Honduran people, then democracy—however the Honduran people should choose to approach it—is the solution.
I’ve read quickly through the Bolivia report, and it’s astonishing. It would be hilarious if I didn’t fear its potential effectiveness. In this attack on the Bolivian Left, the entire history (and present) of exploitation, oppression, terror, greed, and destruction is purported to be – I said it was astonishing – essentially a set of notions concocted by an authoritarian “culture of victimization.” It’s pure propaganda. There is, in fact, no science here. The author, making several patently ridiculous suggestions, offers a handful of citations, of a quality people can judge for themselves. This isn’t scholarship.

The other side of the blade is the outright attack, represented most recently by the efforts of Eric Cantor. As PZ describes:
He wants people to search NSF and report back to him with grant numbers that they don't like.

...And then he gives hints on searching the database, listing words that might yield boondoggles: "success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc."
What’s important to recognize is that this has nothing to do with spending or waste. These attacks are, in some cases, mere posturing, and in many based on a genuine fear of the production and dissemination of real scholarly work contrary to their interests.

In this ongoing context of active efforts by those on the Right to derail the social sciences by co-opting or eliminating them, I found the reports of the past few days concerning intended changes to the American Anthropological Association’s mission statement troubling. This appears to be an effort to distance anthropology from science. (I’m unimpressed by Hugh Gusterson’s suggestions (in the comments here) that the changes aren’t significant and that the process has been democratic because, well, “The Executive Board is elected by the membership to make these kinds of decisions” and the document was sent to the section heads.

Sadly, science has for many people come to be conflated with imperialism and oppression, state and corporate power. It’s one thing to say that anthropology as a discipline has been used for statist, imperialist, and corporate ends (and this includes not only the content of anthropological works but, as Foucault made clear long ago, the practice of anthropology itself). It’s quite another to suggest, as these changes would, that this is somehow inherent in science.

I’m most distressed that the terms central to the discussion are not being defined, leading to unintentional misrepresentations. Science is a means of building knowledge about the world through reasoned and systematic empirical investigation and analysis. It’s the only valid or reliable means we have to assess fact claims. I’d like to think – realizing this would be naïve – that anthropologists wouldn’t seriously reject this as a description of their discipline, but I fear I might be wrong. I was recently watching an interview with Derrick Jensen (not an anthropologist, it should be noted) on Democracy Now!*, which contained this exchange:
AMY GOODMAN: Derrick, what is the influence of Native Americans in your writing, in your work, in your activism?

DERRICK JENSEN: It’s another great question. And I have tried not to romanticize them, which is another form of objectification. And what I do know is I know that the Tolowa Indians, on whose land I now live up in way northern California, they lived there for at least 12,500 years, if you believe the myths of science. And if you believe the myths of the Tolowa, they lived there since the beginning of time, using a myth as stories that we tell ourselves that make the world fit together. So, in any case, the Tolowa lived there for at least 12,500 years....
No. Science is not simply a “story we tell ourselves to make the world fit together.” It’s a method of discovering reality. The Tolowa have been there for an amount of time, and that is a fact. If you want to say that whenever “they” arrived there was, for them, the beginning of time, OK, but you’re merely poeticizing that fact. And seriously, you’re first sentences offered empirical claims about environmental changes (which I haven’t confirmed) that are the products of science.

On the other side, what are the “ways of knowing” these anthropologists wish to place alongside science? Concretely, as a method – what are they? Personal revelation? The interpretation of ancient texts? As much as “science” needs to be defined in this discussion, so does “ancient wisdom.” Is this term being used to refer to sets of ideas or to the “method” of referring to elders or texts? I think that in contexts in which practices that have allowed people to live sustainably in the world for tens, hundreds, or thousands of years, ecological ideas or practices should be taken and investigated very seriously. There’s a great deal that’s unknown about ecosystems and our role in them, and practical knowledge that’s been developed in essence scientifically over generations is potentially highly valuable. That does not mean that we should accept any fact claims wearing the mantle of “ancient wisdom.”

Nor do I understand the line some people seem to want to draw between advocacy and science (in which I include history). The idea that advocacy is in essence un- or anti-scientific is simply wrong. Advocacy, to be effective and to be ethical, needs to be based on an accurate assessment of reality, and for this we need science. I understand (and frequently make) the argument that scientific practice is generally organized to serve corporations and governments; I understand that corporations and governments have effectively worked to claim “science” for themselves. But we need to distinguish between the current, transitory, situation and the meaning of science. We should criticize scientific work on its questions, methods, data, and analysis, and promote good science. It’s sad that those who are buying the “culture/activism = anti-science” line don’t seem to grasp that the conception of science on which this is based is fundamentally flawed, and that accepting it contributes – intentionally or not - to a right-wing political project.

I think – and I’m in the good company of Sokal, Chomsky, and Mills here – that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that science, as the means of establishing knowledge about reality (including social reality), is a tool of liberation, and ignorance and anti-science means of oppression. It’s a catastrophic error to allow others to define science in such a way that people are led to reject it, and it plays Right into the hands of the (corporate, political, religious) oppressors.

*(Which I otherwise found quite interesting, particularly his challenge to the “Gandhi shield,” though I have problems with some of his arguments.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WikiLeaks' Honduras cable: "an illegal and unconstitutional coup"

People are talking about this revelation (including Adrienne Pine on Telesur, which I haven't yet been able to play).

From truthout's "WikiLeaks Honduras: State Department Busted on Support of Coup" (read the whole thing, including the cable itself at their link):

By July 24, 2009, the US government was totally clear about the basic facts of what took place in Honduras on June 28, 2009. The US embassy in Tegucigalpa sent a cable to Washington with the subject, "Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup," asserting that "there is no doubt" that the events of June 28 "constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup." The embassy listed arguments being made by supporters of the coup to claim its legality, and dismissed them thus: "None ... has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution." The Honduran military clearly had no legal authority to remove President Manuel Zelaya from office or from Honduras, the embassy said, and their action - the embassy described it as an "abduction" and "kidnapping" - was clearly unconstitutional.

It is inconceivable that any top US official responsible for US policy in Honduras was not familiar with the contents of the July 24 cable, which summarized the assessment of the US embassy in Honduras on key facts that were politically disputed by supporters of the coup regime. The cable was addressed to Tom Shannon, then assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs; Harold Koh, the State Department's legal adviser; and Dan Restrepo, senior director for western hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council. The cable was sent to the White House and to Secretary of State Clinton.

But despite the fact that the US government was crystal clear on what had transpired, the US did not immediately cut off all aid to Honduras except "democracy assistance," as required by US law....
Thanks to everyone who's forwarded me information about this.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Interlude - From the Book of Embraces

Today is my birthday, I'm gorging on films, and I'll soon be having dinner with my sister and close friends. I am lucky. Here are two passages from Galeano that both capture my mood:


The sun was gentle, the air clear, and the sky cloudless.

Buried in the sand, the clay pot steamed. As they went from ocean to mouth, the shrimp passed through the hands of Fernando, master of ceremonies, who bathed them in a holy water of salt, onions, and garlic. There was good wine. Seated in a circle, we friends shared the wine and shrimp and the ocean that spread out free and luminous at our feet.

As it took place, that happiness was already being remembered by our memory. It would never end, nor would we. For we are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass, which is something everyone knows, no matter how small his or her knowledge.

"Who are my contemporaries?" Juan Gelman asks himself.

Juan says that sometimes he comes across men who smell of fear, in Buenos Aires, Paris, or anywhere in the world, and feels that these men are not his contemporaries. But there is a Chinese who, thousands of years ago, wrote a poem about a goatherd who is far from his beloved, and yet can hear in the middle of the night, in the middle of the snow, the sound of her comb running through her hair. And reading this distant poem, Juan finds that yes, these people - the poet, the goatherd and the woman - are truly his contemporaries.

And a sweet one, from my birthday mate:


Thursday, November 25, 2010


* Here's a solid piece on the terrible coverage of Honduras in the US media (which I've written about previously): "Media Distortions Legitimize Honduras Regime."

* While women and journalists continue to be denied justice within Honduras, it appears the International Criminal Court is beginning an investigation into crimes there.

Four Lions - recommended

It fails the Bechdel test miserably. But it's an intelligent comedy about Islamic terrorists.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Good grief - you're doing it again!

One of the responses to “HOW TO WRITE ABOUT THE GNU ATHEISTS, a Guide” has been from a Be Scofield, “How to Write about the Religulous, A Guide.” (There was some borderline spamming in my comments, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that there were real or perceived technical problems.) The thing is long and confused, and I’m not devoting any significant time or energy to replying. (As a sociologist studying the history of social movements – writing a post about religious movements right now, in fact – I'll admit to my amusement at suggestions concerning our ignorance or neglect of sociological definitions of religion and the history of religious movements.*)

But good grief! “Remember: this is about the religulous”!? You’re doing it again! A primary point of my post – both implicit and explicit – was that people often make extraneous matters the focus in any discussions of belief.** We are arguing for the formation of beliefs based on reason/evidence. That is science, and atheism is the only scientific position. There is simply no basis or defense for the belief in any gods. It’s that simple, that is what we’re saying, and that needs to be established. That is a central part of the substance of my argument as a gnu atheist, whatever that of my arguments as an anarchist or sociologist or feminist.

Instead of engaging that substance, and indeed as a means of avoiding substantive debate on the question of gods, many people divert attention to completely separate issues. I don’t know how many more times this can be pointed out: it matters not a whit to this question what the benefits or drawbacks (evolutionary, historical, contemporary) of belief or religious community, however defined, are. The socio-historical role of religious beliefs is absolutely in need of attention, but people arguing honestly and intelligently should be able to distinguish these issues – a scientific epistemology of belief and the truth of religious fact claims on the one hand and sociological and historical questions concerning religion on the other - and deal with them separately. Further, it isn’t until the former has been addressed that any honest discussion concerning the ethics, tactics, or strategy of the atheist or related movements can happen. It is entirely dishonest to pretend to a debate on these questions without first addressing epistemology and truth claims concerning the existence of gods.

I am blissfully happy to continue conversations about the history and sociology of religion, which are part of my work, and I’ll note that I’m not the sort of scholar who’s dissuaded by the mere mention of Liberation Theology or Civil Rights or the struggles of indigenous peoples***, so be careful what you wish for. But the point, and it’s a key point that I’m angered to see consistently evaded, is that these are separate questions from that of scientific epistemology and the existence of any gods. (Of course they are also questions that need to be considered scientifically; it's territory where religious and accomodationists seem to believe themselves to be more secure, but they're wrong.)

I would love to think that the response to this might include an explicit acknowledgement of this evasive conflation, but I’m not optimistic on that score.

* I’ll note one statement that irritated rather than amused me, and that was: “[The religious person] may challenge the idea that the casual drinker isn’t responsible for alcoholism, liver disease and ruined marriages. Or that the pot smoker sanctions the heroin addict.” It’s not that this (along with the other silly analogies drawn) fails to understand the fundamental argument concerning the defense of religious epistemology and demands for respect for a set of fact claims. Such failures are typical of the entire piece. I do not believe that drug use, much less drug addiction, requires sanction.

** The impetus included, it should be noted, representations and stereotypes that feed prejudice and discrimination toward a marginalized group in my country - atheists. I'm rather amazed and distressed that this status and the pattern of portrayals of gnus in this context was minimized.

*** The most telling portion of the post was this: "And lastly, never make exceptions for the religions of Native Americans or other Indigenous people, however superficially attractive their ideas might be....They deserve to be subjected to the same scrutiny and attack as any other religion." The beliefs certainly do deserve the same scrutiny, and the reference to superficial attractiveness is a dead giveaway. Understanding what makes a fact claim attractive to a gnu atheist is a start, and a hint is that the attraction is anything but superficial.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The REAL truth commission in Honduras has a web site!

(I'm adding it to the list of informational sources, which is just to the left.)

Mass Extinctions and How We Wrecked the Ocean

Over at Deltoid, Jeff Harvey just posted a link to this recent post at Climate Progress about mass extinctions and particularly the unprecedented devastation wrought on marine ecosystems in the past century. It contains a link to this 18-minute TED talk by Jeremy Jackson, “How we wrecked the ocean”:

A few contextual perspectives on the environment and fisheries: I’m currently reading J. R. McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World.

While a bit dated with regard to some of the major problems – published in 2000 – and, like many works, lacking sufficient attention to the oceans, it offers a startling overview of the distinctiveness and significance the past century’s environmental destruction and its actual and potential effects.

I also recommend David DobbsThe Great Gulf: Fishermen, Scientists, and the Struggle to Revive the World’s Greatest Fishery.

Finally, I’m just starting Decline of Fishes, Peter Anastas’ new novel (not yet on Amazon, but I believe it will be shortly) about the politics of “development” and fishing in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

I plan to have much more to say on the subject of the history of fisheries and the environment in the future, particularly my position that key to an effective approach is the appreciation and revival of local/indigenous traditions of marine resource use.

On a lighter note, I’ll leave off with my favorite line of the past few weeks (even with the mistaken “your”): “You know what else...deep-sea fish think your f’n ugly too!”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010

Link Gnus

Just recently I thanked Ophelia Benson and Jerry Coyne for linking to my post, and now Richard Dawkins has, too. (I guess he still thinks I’m male, but I’ll live with it.) I appreciate and am enjoying the comments and suggestions – may have to write up a Part II of the Guide.

And now PZ has linked to my remarks about the possibility of evidence for a god (and also to this excellent essay). I think our position continues to be misunderstood and misrepresented. If I keep asking “Evidence for what?” perhaps it will help….

Friday, November 5, 2010

No, there can't be evidence for a god.

(First, my sincere thanks to Ophelia Benson and Jerry Coyne for linking to my previous post!)

After debating the subject on the Pharyngula comment threads for several days recently, I’m going to re-enter the fray (for background, see below*). I don’t think I’m necessarily adding anything beyond what I’ve already said, but this format allows me to better organize and present my thoughts.

I think the central point is getting lost. This has nothing to do with proving naturalism or dismissing scientific claims out of hand. There can’t be evidence for a god because it’s simply a fictional notion. It’s merely a product of the human imagination, like any fictional character. (We can of course to some extent trace the literary-mythical development of the Abrahamic god-idea, but it’s not necessary to do so.) I’m perplexed by the arguments that some god concepts are more amenable to evidence than others. None of them are, from the most “personalized” to the most nebulous. The crucial aspects of a definition of an entity – What is it? Of what does it consist? How does it operate? – are not answered in the case of gods, ghosts, angels or demons.

Pointing to some characteristics of a fictional character – loving, angry, jealous, large, simple, powerful – doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of developing a concept of an entity for which evidence for or against existence could be brought to bear. Of course, god-concepts, as imaginary constructions, are all completely plastic: features can be added or subtracted at will because they’re completely made up and have no referents in reality. It’s nonsensical to accept any particular complex of such features as a description worthy of science, since these types of features have nothing to do with the sort of definition necessary for empirical consideration.

Nor does it make any sense for scientists to accept that any observable phenomena would provide evidence of the existence of any fictional notion. “If a god exists, it will be purple.” “A god will bring storms and plagues for years on end.” “If a god exists, prayers to it will be answered.” “A god can raise people from the dead.” What do such claims even mean? How could they have any place in science? We can certainly measure whether there are purple things or storms or distance healing or reanimation, but this has no bearing on the existence of imaginary entities. Any phenomena, including those that appear to violate physical laws, could be attributed to some fictional entity or process, any fictional entity or process (bound only by the limitations of the human imagination). Some fictional entities already form part of the various human cultures, but this fact doesn’t make it reasonable to accept that empirical observations could provide evidence for them.

The best way I can think of to explain what I’m getting at is to suggest imagining a situation in which the notion of gods – in the specific or generic sense – didn’t exist. (This is the actual situation scientifically – these fictional inventions do not exist in the scientific sense.) All we would ever have are observable phenomena, potentially explained in any number of ways.

People keep asking about the past and present situation: “Isn’t the lack of evidence for any deities to some extent evidence that none exist?” If I agreed with this, I would have to accept the possibility that future evidence may appear. But I don’t agree. It’s a strange idea altogether. There’s no more sense in talking about evidence in relation to these imaginary notions than there is in talking about it in relation to the Ghost of Christmas Past or the Cat in the Hat or Pinocchio. There can’t be evidence or a lack of evidence for something that lacks any basic definition. To the extent that some confluence of phenomena resembled, or resembled the claimed modus operandi of, some particular concept, it would show nothing other than that some people invented a non-referential concept that happens to share (superficially, as it has to be) some features with observable reality.

I’m not agreeing with Eugenie Scott at all. This isn’t about any supposed limits of science in studying supernatural entities. These “entities” and “realms” aren’t. They’re simply inventions without even imagined referents in reality. There’s nothing there but a parade of colorful literary characters and abstract notions. Science can’t possibly consider them, has no reason to consider them, and has to dismiss them. That’s the situation. Would it be possible for someone to develop a real definition of a god entity that could plausibly be amenable to a reasoned analysis of evidence? I don’t think so. But that would be different from the situation now.

*The fray:

PZ Myers, “It’s like he was reading my mind”

Jerry Coyne, “Can There Be Evidence for God?”

PZ Myers, “Eight reasons you won’t persuade me to believe in a god”

Jerry Coyne, “PZ Myers on Evidence for a God”

PZ Myers, “There aren’t any zogweebles, either”

Sean Carroll, “Is Dark Matter Supernatural?”

Jerry Coyne, “Methodological Naturalism: Does It Exclude the Supernatural?”

Ophelia Benson, “For When the Agent Gets Here”

Greta Christina, “Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?”

Ophelia Benson, “Alien Epistemology”

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Over the past few years I’ve read many articles about the Gnu Atheism in major media venues. I’ve seen a wide range of quality, and it seems that some, though with the best of intentions, are unsure about the best points to hit and how to hit them most effectively. It’s for them that I’ve written this guide.*


Gnu atheists should be presented as uncivil, strident, aggressive, arrogant proselytizers and rigid fundamentalists. Don’t worry about finding concrete examples to support these generalizations. If you absolutely must quote from a gnu, keep it short and divorced from the complex background and context which would only confuse the reader. You’re firmly within the consensus, so you’re on solid ground. At the same time, whenever possible – as when discussing large-scale surveys showing declining rates of belief – present nonbelievers as merely having “doubts” about God. This is perfectly consistent.

Similarly, gnu atheism shouldn’t be presented as an intellectual position. Repeatedly emphasize their hostility to organized religion as the source of their disbelief. It helps if you acknowledge that there are some legitimate reasons for this hostility – shows you to be fair and balanced while leaving aside those pesky ontological matters.

You’re also safe presenting gnu atheists as cold, hyper-rational, solitary automatons who lack an appreciation of beauty or sense of wonder. Pay no attention to those who are artists, writers, or musicians, or to any of their works describing the wonder of scientific understanding and the sense of cosmic connectedness that follows from this deeper empirical knowledge. Leave aside the enormous spectrum of atheist writing on any number of ethical issues. And no need to discuss gnu atheists as people with families, friends, and communities. There’s nothing dishonest about this. You’re writing about that one dimension that is the guiding focus of their lives: rejecting religion.

In fact, the analysis of gnu atheism not as a position concerning reality but a symptom of something larger, an expression of a (post)modern spiritual malaise, will vault your article right up into the top intellectual ranks, all the more so if you can present this spiritual condition as the root of many contemporary problems. This lends a profound, dare I say existential, element to your writing, and people will take you very, very seriously.

Contrast is always good. Look for critics! Starkly oppose the gnu atheists to more accommodating figures. Sagan is a great standby. He’s not around to speak for himself, so present his positions as you understand them. One oft-used approach is to refer to The Varieties of Scientific Experience – just the title, not the content or context. It’s common knowledge that Sagan is very generous with religious ideas here, so there’s not much point in looking for parts where he isn’t, or where he notes his fear of a growing religious fundamentalism. And of course his political activism has no place in this discussion. Sagan was a hero. He was beloved. The gnu atheists have nothing in common with him.

To keep the story focused, be as presentist as possible. Neither outspoken atheists of the past nor the history of atheism in radical and social-justice movements, including feminism, are relevant to your contemporary portrait. (It is, however, standard to talk about “faith traditions” as unchanging and free of conflict.) Leave out anticlerical and other atheist movements (including those fighting anti-Semitism, fascism, or dictatorships) and rational education efforts and their history of repression at the hands of organized religion. If you need to talk about atheism in the past, Stalinism is a great fallback, but be sure to leave it vague!

Another winning comparison is to the religious. Gnu atheism is so obviously religion-like, the differences so negligible, that it suffices to assert it without caveats. It’s convenient to point this out, but be aware that it’s a bit touchy. You don’t want to insult your bosses and moneyed readers by bringing any negative aspects of religion into relief, so tread lightly. It helps to distinguish the simplistic folk religion you think the gnus reject from the sophisticated, rarefied theology of the religious leaders and experts. Again, there’s no need for any specifics here, and abstract terms are best. Common believers aren’t your readers of, ahem, interest, and probably won’t understand you anyway, so you can dismiss their silly, primitive beliefs. It’s also widely-accepted practice to minimize substantive belief altogether, focusing on either some studies claiming the evolutionary benefits of religion and/or the value of religious community.

With regard to community, there are several directions in which you can go, and all are effective with your audience. As noted above, it’s perfectly acceptable to discuss atheists as outside of communities. (Readers will naturally judge that only religion can offer a certain kind of community, and that neither atheism nor any other basis for camaraderie – interests, fun, social struggles - is equivalent. Atheists therefore have to construct a substitute for this religious benefit or fail.) Don’t bother looking for atheist-skeptical or other nonreligious communities - they are few and far between.

Alternatively, and perhaps more enjoyably for you and your readers, you can focus on real atheist-skeptic communities, portraying them as either monolithic or riven by conflict. In the unified variant, the community is white, male, very old or young, right wing, and sexist/racist. The lack of norms is a distinguishing feature. There are few women or minorities, especially in leadership roles, and they are not respected. This is of course specific to gnu atheism and religion, and due to the exact same causes. Respected atheist women, minorities, and leftists in leadership roles have spoken eloquently about representation. Using quotations from them about their nonexistence is fine, as long as it’s done with a delicate and subtle touch. In the conflict version, disagreements over politics, tactics, or representation are acrimonious Deep Rifts. Deep rifts sell!

Keep in mind that you’re writing about gnu atheists. There’s no call to blather on about contemporary religious oppression or violence or deference to faith claims. Leave this in the background. It’s reasonable to talk about the ethics of civility (apocryphal pious grandmothers on death beds especially), but the ethics of belief are beyond the scope of your piece. If you do wish to discuss religious beliefs, be sure to present “God” as a clear, well-defined, unified concept. Spelling out that concept would require too much space, as would harping about the differences amongst different factions of believers. There probably won’t be room for discussion of contemporary investigations into cosmology, biology, or neuroscience, either, so leave those out. “We don’t know” is usually effective.

Remember: this is about gnu atheists. The focus should be on them. Questions concerning the existence of deities or the epistemic status of religious beliefs are vulgar and hurtful.

*Inspired by this, itself inspired by this.

Anarchists, Gays to Protest Pope in Barcelona

The local of the anarchosyndicalist CGT will protest Ratzinger's visit to Barcelona this Saturday, November 6, at 3 PM in the plaça de la Catedral.

They argue that at the same time the powerful speak of an economic crisis and demand "austerity" measures (to which the workforce responded with a general strike little more than a month ago), the regional government has spent more than a million euros on Ratzinger's visit. The protest also expresses the fundamental anarchist rejection of religion and the god-concept as an affront to human freedom:
Since we promote the equality of people above all classes, we promote a self-managed society unfettered by any type of power, be it political or religious, and the freedom of individual thought and action towards a free society, in which the faith of the meek and resigned is a vestige of the greatest form of slavery: religion.
They protest in the name of of the victims of centuries of religious repression and injustice. "NO GOD, NO STATE, NO POPE."

USA Today reports* that there will also be a "queer kissing flashmob" as Ratzinger emerges from the Sagrada Familia on 10 AM on Sunday.
"We are hoping for a crowd of people of the same sex who will kiss each other for two minutes in front of the pope," one of the organizers, Marylene Carole, told AFP. "After two minutes, the flashmob will finish and each participant will leave as if nothing happened."
*The report contains a link to the event's Facebook page.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Witch Hunts, Skepticism, and Social Justice

My post yesterday discussed Salem, its witch museum, and my dismay at the fact that the subject is not receiving a more sophisticated and dignified public treatment there (things are better online). Such treatment is important in this moment because neither the religious beliefs that form the basis for witchcraft accusations nor witch hunts - in the literal sense - have disappeared. Belief in witches and the persecution it leads to continue to bring great suffering to women and children in many countries around the world, and institutions dedicated to documenting and exploring this history need to publicly address the past in the present.

The problem of how best to respond to this terrible phenomenon is an urgent one for us all, because these witch hunts involve violations of fundamental human rights. Looking at some of the literature from organizations closely involved in protecting people from this form of persecution, though, I’m struck by how badly skeptical-scientific and social-justice perspectives and approaches are needed. Though they contain useful information, “Witchcraft Accusations: A Protection Concern for UNHCR and the Wider Humanitarian Community?”, presented to UNHCR by Stepping Stones Nigeria in April 2009, and “The Invention of Child Witches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Social cleansing, religious commerce and the difficulties of being a parent in an urban culture (Summary of the research and experiences of Save the Children’s 2003-2005 programme funded by USAID)” show a failure to address some root issues.

Like Save the Children (based in the US*), Stepping Stones Nigeria, headquartered in a town with a history similar to Salem's, calls attention to the problem:
Stepping Stones Nigeria is based in the city of Lancaster, a place that has witnessed some of the most famous witch trials in UK history. Witchcraft accusations in Lancaster led to the trial and hanging of 10 women and one man in what became known as the Lancashire Witch Trials. Today, nearly 400 years later, cases such as Victoria Climbiè, who was tortured and killed due to witchcraft accusation; Boy Adam, whose mutilated torso was discovered floating in the River Thames and Child B, an eight-year-old child brought to the UK from Angola, who was beaten, cut and had chilli rubbed in her eyes after her aunt and two others believed she was a witch, highlight the fact that such beliefs still abound.
At the international level, Stepping Stones Nigeria, along with numerous other civil society organisations around the world, is witnessing a dramatic rise in witchcraft accusations and subsequent gross violations of human rights that take place due to them. However, to date, this phenomenon has received little in the way of concerted attention from the wider humanitarian community.
Both papers characterize witchcraft accusations as part of a belief system:

A first step towards understanding the phenomenon of so-called child witches is to recognise that witchcraft is a real system of belief, rooted in popular mentality [?]. For the majority of Congolese and, to a certain extent, Africans, an invisible world exists below the surface of material reality. (STC) [This is also true of the majority of people on the planet.]
There are a number of commonalities that occur in the various interpretations of the belief system. The general belief is that certain people possess a mystical power which enables them to separate their soul from their physical body whilst asleep at night and enter into the spirit or witchcraft world. In this world it is often believed that the soul takes the form of an animal where it will then cause all manner of unimaginable horrors and destruction. (SSN)
SSN, undoubtedly because the organization recognizes prejudice and discrimination against immigrants that such reports feeds among racists, is concerned with emphasizing that although they deal with the problem in Nigeria, isn’t specific to a single country or region: “[A]s the UK government’s most recent report identifies, witchcraft belief and accusation is ‘not confined to particular countries, cultures or religions nor is it confined to recent migrants’.”

There’s no doubt about this. It would be illogical to essentialize cultural elements that have shown variation in their expression over time and arise in numerous cultural contexts, both in the past and present. And obviously the dualist beliefs that fundamentally underlie the notion of witchcraft – not to mention specific beliefs about souls, spirits, and devils – form part of Christianity. Given that evangelical Churches are fomenting much of the present horror, the idea that these beliefs are wholly indigenous to non-Western cultures is plainly unsustainable and it’s troubling that this would have to be emphasized so.

In any case, these organizations run into problems in seeking to confront the beliefs themselves. SSN insists:
It is of great importance for practitioners to understand that witchcraft belief itself does not necessarily translate into a protection concern. Rather it is the point where this belief system leads to accusations of witchcraft that the issue becomes particularly problematic, as it is at this juncture that violent abuses of human rights often take place. Indeed Stepping Stones Nigeria believes that the very act of accusing a person of witchcraft constitutes an act of emotional and psychological abuse and, as such, should be considered as a protection concern that may require some form of intervention.
This presenting the problem as though beliefs can be cleanly divorced from actions and suggesting that “practitioners” (a label which itself indicates a problematic distancing) should only concern themselves with the latter is patronizing and ineffectual. Indeed, the statement with which SSN opens the report is distressing:
Before progressing with this paper it may be of interest to the reader to note Stepping Stones Nigeria’s official stance on the issue of child witchcraft:

“Stepping Stones Nigeria does not believe that children can be ‘witches’ and is not concerned with proving or disproving the existence or non-existence of child witchcraft. However Stepping Stones Nigeria acknowledges the right of individuals to hold this belief on the condition that this does not lead to the abuse of child rights as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”.
Good grief. It is one – obvious – thing to say that people have a right to believe what they wish. It is quite another to take the position that you will not concern yourselves with debunking even those terrible beliefs that obviously contribute to persecution and violence. The belief that child witchcraft exists is patently absurd, and it violates no one’s rights to say their beliefs are false. If organizations like SSN fear that they will be seen as imperialist simply for making it a part of their mission to challenge such beliefs, then other groups who aren’t so timid and deferential to religion need to be playing a bigger role in this fight.

Save the Children’s recommendations for action are also illustrative of the problem. They provide documentation of the role of religion in inventing or thoroughly reshaping beliefs about child witchcraft in the Congo (such, for example, that it’s now seen as entirely negative)
Revivalist church pastors, recognised as experts by the people, generally agree that witchcraft is the art of doing evil. It comes directly from Satan, assisted by demons (or fallen angels), and stops at no despicable act in order to achieve its aims. Emphasis is placed on the unworldly aspect of witchcraft and it is described as an evil power capable of doing harm, bringing bad luck, spreading illness and killing.
Any idealisation of cultural practices and notions of survival must be avoided. This bad practice, which continues to undermine certain university-inspired pieces of research, is unable to distinguish between the admirable resilience of people and destructive or pathological social practices. The accusations of witchcraft made against children are thus more in line with a notion of social cleansing and the search for profit [on the part of churches] than an attempt to reintegrate children.
(The film End of the Wicked from Helen Ukpabio of Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries in Nigeria is...suggestive here.)

So STC is very clear that child witchcraft accusations are immensely harmful and that “[t]he boom in revivalist churches is undoubtedly closely related to the accusations of witchcraft against children.” And yet, they hold to a respectful approach to “faith”:
We…attempt to understand the role of these churches in accusations of witchcraft without making any hasty judgements. In deed, it is very clear that the churches are responding to a need that has been expressed among urban families.
There is a need to recognise religious leaders, even the most radical, as people with whom dialogue should be established, creating forums for this purpose. Through these forums it is still possible to reduce violence against children, though it is also necessary to separate violence from beliefs and cultural practices.
No, it isn’t. It is necessary to recognize the very obvious roots of violent practices in religious beliefs and to say in no uncertain terms that these people are deluded or charlatans and that these beliefs, whoever holds them, are false.

The organization then, in sadly conventional fashion, offers as its first recommendation: “Continuing and strengthening the awareness raising work that has already begun with religious leaders.” STC presents “a working strategy based on recognising religious leaders as people with whom to dialogue” as “the opposite of a ‘repressive’ approach.” Since when is not creating forums for dialogue with or “implementing large-scale awareness raising programmes” for rights-violating religious “leaders” repressive? Since when should human rights groups call for dialogue with organizations calling children witches and torturing them? Given this abject accommodation, I was very happy to see that there’s a reasonable organization in Malawi (PZ! – Malawi has atheists!), the Association for Secular Humanism, that is squarely taking on this fight there (I know nothing otherwise about this group).

But the economic and political context of this violence also has to be appreciated, both because it is unacceptable on its own and because living conditions provide a large part of the explanation for religious opportunism in fostering these beliefs and actions. Secular organizations can’t focus on challenging superstition and pseudoscience while ignoring the poverty, suffering, and disruption that provide fertile ground for them. The SSN report is decent at considering some of the proximate causes joined to extreme poverty, noting that witchcraft accusations flourish in places and periods of conflict, health crises, and environmental devastation; the report also discusses the vulnerable groups that tend overwhelmingly to be the victims of the accusations. The dislocation and trauma associated with global capitalism and international power relations has created, and will continue to create, dislocation, trauma, and fears (including rational ones) about violent and mysterious forces operating seemingly beyond people’s control.**

I mentioned Mike Davis’ book Planet of Slums in a recent post, and Davis talks specifically at one point about the struggles of poor people in Kinshasa. I’ll end with portions from his section “The Little Witches of Kinshasa” (pp. 191-8):
One great city, officially expelled from the world economy by its Washington overseers, struggles for bare subsistence amidst the ghosts of its betrayed dreams: Kinshasa is the capital of a naturally rich and artificially poor country…Of the world’s megacities, only Dhaka is as poor, and Kinshasa surpasses all in its desperate reliance upon informal survival strategies….

…The Kinois negotiate their city of ruins with an irrepressible sense of humor, but even flak-jacketed irony yields before the grimness of the social terrain: average income has fallen to under $100 per year; two-thirds of the population is malnourished; the middle class is extinct; and one in five adults is HIV-positive. Three-quarters are likewise unable to afford formal healthcare and must resort instead to Pentecostal faith-healing or indigenous magic….

Kinshasa, like the rest of Congo-Zaire, has been wrecked by a perfect storm of kleptocracy, Cold War geopolitics, structural adjustment, and chronic civil war. The Mobuto dictatorship, which for 32 years systematically plundered the Congo, was the Frankenstein monster created and sustained by Washington, the IMF, and the World Bank, with the Quai d’Orsay in a supporting role….

…With the national economy in ruins and the Congo’s wealth locked in Swiss bank vaults, Mobutu was finally overthrown in 1997; ‘liberation’, however, only led to foreign interventions and an endless civil war that the USAID estimated had taken more than 3 million lives (mostly from starvation and disease) by 2004. The rapine by marauding armies in the eastern Congo – resembling scenes from Europe’s Thirty Years War – propelled new waves of refugees into overcrowded Kinshasa slums.
In the face of the death of the formal city and its institutions, ordinary Kinois – but above all, mothers and grandmothers – fought for their survival by ‘villagizing’ Kinshasa: they reestablished subsistence agriculture and traditional forms of rural self-help. Every vacant square meter of land, including highway medians, was planted in cassava, while women without plots, the mamas miteke, went off to forage for roots and grubs in the bush….

…But the Kinois’ talents for self-organization and se débrouiller have real material limits as well as a darker side. Despite heroic efforts, especially by women, traditional social structure is eroding….There are huge pressures on poor urban families – shorn of their rural kinship support networks, or conversely, overburdened by the demands of lineage solidarity – to jettison their most dependent members….

This crisis of the family, moreover, has coincided with both the Pentecostal boom and a renascent fear of sorcery… [L]iteral, perverse belief in Harry Potter has gripped Kinshasa, leading to the mass-hysterical denunciation of thousands of child ‘witches’ and their expulsion to the street, even their murder. The children, some barely more than infants, have been accused of every misdeed and are even believed, in the Ndjili slum at least, to fly about at night in swarms on broomsticks. Aid workers emphasize the novelty of the phenomenon: ‘Before 1990, there was hardly any talk of child witches in Kinshasa. The children who are now being accused of witchcraft are in the same situation: they become an unproductive burden for parents who are no longer able to feed them. The children said to be “witches” are most often from very poor families’.

The charismatic churches have been deeply complicit in promoting and legitimizing fears about bewitched children: indeed, the Pentecostals portray their faith as God’s armor against witchcraft….

…The child witches of Kinshasa, like the organ-exporting slums of India and Egypt, seem to take us to an existential ground zero beyond which there are only death camps, famine, and Kurtzian horror….
*In Connecticut, where, in fact, several people were tried and executed as witches in the 17th century.

**STC, in contrast, while downplaying the role of revivalist churches by presenting them as a “symptom,” dismisses a strawman version of the argument that dire poverty is a major factor, attributing the “mentality” primarily to “the transition to urban family life and the changing image of the child.” At one point, they acknowledge that “In the Democratic Republic of Congo, parents and families don’t generally have any real alternatives when it comes to taking on parental responsibilities. Access to basic services is very limited and few initiatives truly respond to their concerns, though it is not at all certain that access to money would bring about a change in their mentality.” Right - physical security and access to basic services would obviously do little for this problem.

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Honduran Coup Authors Poised to Pillage Indigenous Territory and National Energy Company"

From Rights Action:


by Annie Bird, Rights Action co-director, October 13, 2010

Honduran indigenous communities resist illegal concession of rivers for dams while the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) violates its charter and international law in supporting the projects


On the "Day of Indigenous Resistance", indigenous communities across Honduras demanded respect for their fundamental rights, affirming the government's obligation to obtain their free, prior and informed consent when implementing projects that affect their communities.

Honduran communities and many nations in the Hemisphere do not recognize the legitimacy of the current government, imposed following the June 28, 2009 military coup and then the November 27, 2009 illegitimate election.

Despite the precarious situation of the Honduras regime and state, in international law, on September 2nd and 3rd laws were passed that conceded use Honduran rivers to private corporations for the construction of 41 hydroelectric dams.

Many of these dams would affect indigenous communities. While none of these communities have been consulted, as international law prescribes, many communities, both indigenous and not, have declared their express opposition to the projects in community assemblies, the maximum traditional indigenous authority, and in municipal referendums.


The complete disregard for indigenous rights by the military coup authors was demonstrated earlier this year by the Honduran National Council of Private Enterprise (COHEP) in its call on the 'de facto' regime to withdraw from the International Labor Organization's Covenant 169, a key instrument in initially establishing a framework for the recognition of indigenous rights.

Indigenous peoples from across Honduras met on October 3 in Garifuna territory to articulate a response to the assault to which they are being subjected, and convoked a national Constituent Assembly of Indigenous Peoples and Blacks. Protection of national resources and the full recognition of the territorial rights of indigenous people are issues at the heart of the call to draft a new constitution for Honduras.

Protection of national resources is also what is most feared by transnational corporate interests and what has generated the tremendous and persistent mainstream media distortion of the reasons for the call for a new constitution and the motives behind the coup, focusing on the red herring of changes in term limit restriction.

As recently as October 7, even the Huffington Post ran an article by a Council on Foreign Relations fellow focused on the change in term limits. The current and sixteenth constitution was adopted in 1982 during a military dictatorship.


The Inter-american Development Bank (IDB), in violation of its own Charter, has resumed funding in Honduras despite Honduras' ongoing suspension from the Organization of American States. To compound its violation of international law, the IDB has approved funding for a technical assistance grant to undertake initial project feasibility studies for the Gualcarque and Mixure dams, both in Lenca territory and both having been expressly rejected on multiple occasions in both community assemblies and municipal referendums.

The 'de facto' regime is planning to make use of funds obtained through financial mechanisms established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for construction of three large dams on the Patuca River despite studies that demonstrate that large dam reservoirs, especially in tropical regions, emit significant methane emissions.


The push for the construction of dams is occurring as the World Bank and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration fund programs oriented toward the privatization of the Honduras National Electrical Energy Company, ENEE. Though national energy companies across the region had been privatized through similar World Bank promoted programs, Hondurans had strongly defended their national energy company and small consumers received energy for a fraction of the cost as in privatized neighboring countries.

A process of segmenting sectors of ENEE began in 1999. The meter reading services were contracted out to a Honduran financial services corporation owned by Arturo Corrales, currently the de facto Minister of Planning and International Cooperation. Corrales was a key actor in the military coup.

Privatization of the national energy and telephone companies seem to be high on the agenda of the coup government. General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, the military officer who carried out the coup, was named head of the national telephone company, and talk of privatization has already begun. Washington lobbyist and former State Department official Otto Reich, who was a key voice justifying the coup in Honduras, has worked extensively with telephone and energy corporations.

ENEE's labor union protested on October 6, demanding that the privatization process be stopped and the already privatized sectors of the energy company be nationalized. In August ENEE's union denounced in a press conference that the de facto administration was not enforcing payment for electricity and thus not paying thermal generators money owed in an effort to bankrupt the company as a pretext to allow financial corporations to take it over and privatize it.

Ousted President Manuel Zelaya had rigorously enforced payment of massive outstanding debts by large consumers, restoring financial viability to the State corporation and providing sufficient funds to finance subsidies for low income, small consumers. Though this generated widespread popular support, corporations that consumed large quantities of energy were angered. It was denounced by the Union that during the coup the ENEE headquarters were occupied and millions of dollars in debt were erased from the system.

Interlude - From The Book of Embraces




The singer Braulio López, half of the duo Los Olimareños, arrived in Barcelona as an exile. One of his hands was broken.

Braulio had been a prisoner in the Villa Dovoto jail for possessing three books: a biography of José Artigas, some poems by Antonio Machado, and Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. When they were about to release him, a jailer had come into his cell and asked: “You the guitar player?” And then he stepped on Braulio’s left hand with his boot.

I suggested that I interview him. The story might interest the magazine Triunfo. But Braulio scratched his head, thought for a moment, then said:


And he explained to me:

“My hand will heal, sooner or later. Then I’ll be playing and singing again. See? I don’t want to doubt the applause.”


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Salem, Witches, and Woo

It should be said that the Salem Witch Museum, which I visited last Sunday, isn’t really a museum, and doesn’t contain any artifacts related to the witch trials in Salem, or anywhere for that matter. It’s a wax-figure diorama “show” followed by a rather rushed group tour of a sort of simulacrum of a museum, ending unceremoniously with the group being propelled into the gift shop. The narration and other sound effects of the diorama show are absurdly exaggerated, and the intent appears to be more to frighten than to enlighten. Even here, though, you get the sense that the creators had a genuine wish to educate. The more museum-like portion – a confused jumble of wax figures, timelines, and wall words – makes that evident, even though it fails on many levels.

The museum seems earnestly to want to inform people about “pagan” history, changing visions of witches, and the causes of witch hunts. More generally, the town has become something of a center, not only of Wicca, but of woo of all sorts. Psychics, tarot cards, astrology, hauntings, alternative healing – all are billed as part of the Salem experience.

And it isn’t all, or even predominantly, about commerce. The celebration of “real” witches and suppressed traditions in Salem is a nose-thumbing at puritans and other religious authoritarians, past and present. When it comes right down to it, though, it’s really just contesting one form of superstition and irrationality with others, and taking the spotlight off of the damage caused by religious beliefs and superstition in general.

Salem is a beautiful town with a rich history. The witch culture and attractions can provide entertainment and even some food for thought (or just a reminder to eat later). But it’s hard not to think about how this could be done so differently. For art in Salem, there’s the outstanding Peabody-Essex Museum I mentioned recently; there are other historical attractions at the harbor front. But it would be fantastic for the town to become a center of skeptical history and to have an institution that rigorously addresses local history from a contemporary perspective. The stories involved are enthralling enough that there’s no need for melodrama, and there’s a great deal of interesting research on both the local history and the larger dynamics of witchcraft accusations and persecution. It’s frustrating that the last display in the museum (offering the simplistic formula “fear + trigger → scapegoats”) refers to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II and McCarthyism, with the guide thoughtfully adding a mention of Muslims in the US post-9/11. Sadly, not a word is said about contemporary witch hunts around the world. These will be the topic of my next post.

For now, here are a few photos from the harbor:

Sanity? Stewart and Tresca

I saw much of “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” this afternoon, and later read my feeds. One in particular seemed apt. The AK Press blog is evidently down for maintenance at the moment, so in response to the rally I’ll reproduce, as food for thought, their entire excerpt from chapter 12 of Nunzio Pernicone’s Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel, with special attention requested for the last segment:
Fighting Fascism became the great crusade of Tresca’s life, the struggle in which he achieved unrivalled preeminence among Italian-American radicals and reached the pinnacle of his career. The fight against Italian-American Fascism represented a new phase in the class struggle Tresca and other sovversivi had waged against the consuls, prominenti, and Catholic Church since the turn of the 20th century. No compromise with the enemy was possible; no quarter given and none expected. Tresca’s war against Fascism was a fight to the death.

Testimony to Tresca’s unique status and formidable abilities as a resistance leader was provided repeatedly by the Fascists themselves. Italian ambassador Giacomo De Martino reported to Mussolini in 1926 that Tresca topped the list of “three renegades” (Vincenzo Vacirca and Arturo Giovannitti were the others) whose deportation would most benefit the Fascist regime. By 1928, Tresca had distinguished himself as such a dynamic and implacable foe of Fascism that the Political Police in Rome dubbed him the “deus ex machina of anti-Fascism” in the United States. That same year, overjoyed that Tresca was the target of a smear campaign intended to undermine his status, the consul general of New York, Emilio Axerio, notified Ambassador De Martino that “the definitive liquidation of Carlo Tresca, imposed upon his followers as well, would administer a mortal blow to anti-Fascism, which depends so much on Tresca.”

Had Tresca still lived in Italy, his “liquidation” would have been physical rather than figurative. His presence in the United States, however, was no guarantee of security. Since paranoia is endemic to all police states, the Fascist regime in the 1920s consistently over-estimated the strength of the anti-Fascists, worrying that their activities might undermine Mussolini’s prestige and influence among Italian Americans and jeopardize his cozy relations with the American government and the Wall Street moguls. The anti-Fascist who caused Rome its greatest concern during the early years of the regime was Tresca. Directly or in collusion with American authorities, Mussolini’s official representatives and local disciples caused Tresca to suffer periodic harassment, several arrests, loss of his Italian citizenship, a four-month prison term, a narrow escape from deportation, destruction of his property, and a bomb attempt on his life. But Tresca never relented.

Tresca’s principal weapon against Mussolini and Fascism was Il Martello, described by the consul general of New York in 1925, as “the most dangerous [anti-Fascist newspaper], because of the skillful manner in which it is edited, and because of its influence over certain elements of the people.” A consummate political analyst, Tresca understood that propaganda and myth were the indispensable props of Mussolini’s regime. Therefore, nearly every issue delivered “hammer blows” (martellate) to dismantle the false image of idealism and heroism with which Fascists enveloped themselves, and to dispel the notion that the Blackshirts had turned back the red tide.

The voices of anti-Fascist opposition required amplification from outside sources abroad, as the free press in Italy was progressively stifled. Tresca therefore placed Il Martello at the disposal of many prominent radicals who lacked publication outlets. Once Il Martello became distinguished as an anti-Fascist organ, letters from Italy requesting the newspaper poured into Tresca’s office; he responded by sending free copies to comrades throughout the country. Alarmed, the Italian Postal and Telegraph Ministry banned the importation and circulation of Tresca’s newspaper in May 1923, prescribing stiff penalties for violators. Tresca attempted to circumvent the ban by asking Italian Americans to send copies to friends and relatives (a risky proposition for recipients) and by establishing clandestine operations to smuggle Il Martello into Italy. By 1928, for example, he was sending 100 copies of each issue to a former lover in Locarno, who ferried them by boat across Lake Maggiore. Tresca’s efforts were greatly appreciated, as indicated by the legendary anarchist Errico Malatesta: “I receive Il Martello very irregularly, because it gets through only when it escapes the police bloodhounds; however, I have read enough to admire the energy and fighting courage you sustain against Fascism, which torments us in Italy.”

Interdiction of Il Martello in Italy did not prevent Tresca from utilizing his newspaper to raise vitally needed funds for the anti-Fascist opposition. Channeling money to comrades in Italy was a long-standing practice of the sovversivi. By raising funds, Tresca helped sustain the Italian anarchist press until its complete suppression in 1926. Funds were also collected on a regular basis to help the victims of Fascist violence and persecution. Over the next two decades, countless anti-Fascists in Italy, Europe, and South America would have found themselves in hopeless circumstances if not for the financial support of Italian immigrant workers in the United States, a factor of major importance invariably overlooked by Italian historians of the anti-Fascist resistance.

Tresca was not content to attack Mussolini’s regime merely with “propaganda of the word” and by assisting political victims with money. The best means of subverting Mussolini was to strike where the regime was most vulnerable—the Italian economy. Rising unemployment and taxes, falling wages, the declining value of the lira, military expenditures for the re-conquest of Libya, and the unresolved dilemma of war debts all added up to one inescapable conclusion by 1923: the Fascists could not make good on their promises to improve the lives of the Italian people. Convinced that Mussolini’s prestige at home and abroad would suffer if recovery failed, Tresca advocated economic sabotage and boycotting of Italian financial and state institutions that generated income for the government. He urged workers in Italy to employ obstructionist tactics on the job, abstain from state monopolies (tobacco, salt, lotteries) that generated revenue, purchase food and other provisions only from merchants friendly to the anti-Fascist cause, avoid luxuries and other non-essential expenditures, and boycott all bourgeois establishments. On his own turf, Tresca sought to deprive the Italian economy of the benefits derived from the remittances sent to family members back home by immigrants in the United States. Tresca urged immigrant workers to boycott all Italian financial institutions that operated in the United States, to deposit their savings in American banks, and to avoid utilizing Italy’s Cassa Postale and other agencies that collected fees for transferring remittances. He also exhorted immigrant workers to boycott every Italian American—doctor, lawyer, shoemaker, grocer, barber, etc. — who was a Fascist. Adoption of his boycott strategy, Tresca acknowledged, would inevitably impose hardships upon Italian workers and peasants, but in his words, “war is war.” Mussolini’s government viewed Tresca’s scheme with genuine concern, and the consul general of New York was instructed to remain vigilant for any sign that the plan was gaining momentum. It never did.

Given the unlikelihood of undermining Mussolini’s regime from abroad, Tresca and other anti-Fascists were obliged to conduct their anti-Fascist activities mainly within the Italian-American community. The struggle, however, was never fought on terms even remotely equal. Anti-Fascists numbered not more than 10 percent of the Italian American population, if that. The majority of anti-Fascists within the political spectrum that spanned middle-class liberal to conservative were neither organized nor generally active. Only a handful of bourgeois liberal democrats, like Gaetano Salvemini and Dr. Charlo Fama, functioned as important resistance leaders prior to 1938, when a sizeable contingent of professionals, intellectuals, and former political leaders—known collectively as the fuorusciti (exiles) — were admitted to the United States and assumed a dominant role. The most numerous and dedicated anti-Fascists were working-class sovversivi, and the chieftains of the movement were generally the same radicals and labor leaders who had led Italian immigrant workers prior to the advent of Fascism: Tresca, Giovannitti, Girolamo Valenti, Vincenzo Vacirca, Luigi Antonini, the brothers Frank and Augusto Bellanca, and many others.

But a resistance movement based on workers could not possibly generate resources comparable to those available to the Fascists, assisted as they were by Mussolini’s regime, the prominenti, and the Italian-American middle classes generally. Moreover, the radical and labor movements were significantly weaker in the 1920s than before World War I, thanks in large measure to wartime and postwar repression. Many of the most important radical leaders and hard-core militants, who would have contributed significantly to the resistance, had been deported or imprisoned. Some had returned to Italy of their own accord, hoping to participate in the revolution that beckoned, while others sought refuge in clandestine life underground or became completely inactive. Another factor that weighed against the resistance was the ongoing hostility of the American authorities, who generally regarded Fascists and pro-Fascists as good, conservative patriots, while the anti-Fascists were considered dangerous Reds. Accordingly, fear of arrest and deportation often limited the effectiveness of anti-Fascist activity, for without such dangers hanging over them, many of the sovversivi — anarchists and communists especially — would have been far more aggressive in their methods.

A new levy of anti-Fascists arrived in the United States between 1919 and 1924, before the new immigration quota system effectively barred Italians. Some newcomers entered the United States illegally or arrived with provisional status as political refugees. Others had previously returned to Italy or had been deported after World War I but managed to re-enter. The most important of them would play leadership roles in the resistance: the socialist Vincenzo Vacirca; the communists Giovanni Pippan and Vittorio Vidali; and the anarchists Raffaele Schiavina, Armando Borghi, and Virgilia D’Andrea. The fuorusciti, the last contingent of newcomers, arriving in 1938 and 1939, included some very prominent liberal and democratic anti-Fascists (Carlo Sforza, Randolfo Pacciardi, Alberto Tarchiani, Lionello Venturi, and others) who had long resided in exile in Europe or were refugees fleeing from Mussolini’s recently promulgated anti-Semitic laws in Italy. Although few in number, the fuorusciti provided the Italian-American resistance with an important infusion of much needed energy and talent.

Despite acquiring some new blood during the interwar period, the Italian-American resistance undoubtedly lost more adherents than it gained. The primary reason was the failure of the sovversivi to produce a second generation large enough to replace the departed. This was a problem of long standing for Italian-American radicalism. The offspring of the sovversivi were generally more assimilated into American society than their parents, accepting American values and rejecting the ideas and principles of their elders. Political and cultural discontinuity between parents and children was also a function of the disproportionate number of male to female radicals, a deficiency fatal to the movement because marital unions generally occurred between a radical father and a non-radical mother, who raised the children Catholic and conservative.

Numerical weakness might not have mattered so much if anti-Fascists had been unified and equally militant. The resistance was multi-factional: anarchists of various orientation; communists of the newly-established Communist Party; revolutionary syndicalists of the moribund IWW; left-wing and right-wing socialists of the FSI (SP); social-democratic trade unionists (particularly leaders of the ILGWU and ACWA), and a small contingent of Mazzinian (i.e., democratic) republicans. All were committed to the anti-Fascist struggle. The crusade against Fascism, as Rudolf J. Vecoli correctly asserted, was the raison d’être of Italian-American radicalism between the wars. Yet, while commitment to the cause might have been equal in the abstract, the zeal and tenacity with which the various radical elements fought against Fascism often differed from group to group. Moreover, the internecine conflicts they incessantly waged were so ferocious and divisive that an outside observer might have concluded that the anti-Fascists devoted more time and energy to fighting among themselves than they did to combating Fascism.

Tresca always pursued his anti-Fascist mission with singular commitment and intensity, excelling at more roles than any of his radical contemporaries: journalist, public spokesman, lecturer, strategist, agitation leader, and front-line fighter. Tresca’s pattern of struggle was set in the early 1920s, when the resistance existed in little more than name. High on his list of targets were local Blackshirts and visiting Fascist leaders and dignitaries. As potential opponents, Tresca held the Blackshirts of the fasci in low regard. Having confronted every imaginable combination of policemen, private detectives, company thugs, and vigilantes during his years as a strike leader, Tresca would not so much as flinch in the face of Blackshirts, whom he considered strutting bullies and cowards afraid to battle the sovversivi on even terms. If the Blackshirts dared to move against them, Tresca and his “boys” would know how to deal with them. To demonstrate his contempt for the Blackshirts, Tresca in July 1923 moved the offices of Il Martello to 304 East 14th Street, a mere stone’s throw from the headquarters of the New York Fascio founded in 1921.

The presence of Giuseppe Bottai between August and October 1921 provided Tresca and the anti-Fascists with their first opportunity to make life miserable for a prominent Blackshirt visiting the United States to win favor for Mussolini and Fascism. A deputy and political secretary of the Fascist parliamentary group prior to the “March on Rome,” Bottai was a particularly vicious Blackshirt who later would become a major figure in the regime. Bottai’s ostensible purpose of his visit was to raise funds for blind war veterans, but he admitted to the American press that his mission as a representative of Fascism was to help fight “Bolshevism” among Italian Americans — a theme repeated endlessly by visiting and indigenous Fascists to win acceptance and support from American society. In every city he visited, Bottai was feted by consular officials and prominenti, a clear sign of Fascism’s popularity within the highest circles of the Italian-American community more than a year before Mussolini assumed power. That he should receive the red carpet treatment was galling enough, but anti-Fascists were seething because a socialist deputy had recently been murdered by Fascists, a crime that prompted Bottai to boast at a local fascist meeting that he personally had killed five communists in Rome.

The arrival of this despised Blackshirt represented one of the few occasions when most anti-Fascists acted in accord. A protest campaign was launched at a mass meeting in New York, at which Tresca, Pietro Allegra, Arturo Giovannitti, Nino Capraro, and Luigi Antonini, head of the ILGWU’s Local 89, each denouncing Bottai in turn. A more dramatic confrontation followed in Utica, New York, where Tresca was scheduled to address an anti-Fascist rally at the same time Bottai would address local admirers. En route to their own meeting place, Tresca led a column of several hundred anti-Fascists past the theater where Bottai had just finished his speech. Shouting “Abbasso Bottai!,” “Morte a Bottai!,” “Assassino!,” anti-Fascists had to be held back by police lest they attack the fascist celebrity and his hosts. During his next engagement, in New Haven, a threatening crowd of anti-Fascists so unnerved Bottai that he spoke for only ten minutes before leaving the theater under police escort. A week later Bottai was scheduled to speak in Philadelphia, home to the largest Italian immigrant populations outside of New York. On hand to greet the Fascist were the Italian vice consul; the wealthy publisher of the daily L’Opinione, Charles Baldi; and a host of other prominenti. But the audience also included some 2,000 anti-Fascists. The orchestra attempted to play the Italian “Marcia Reale” and the American “Star Spangled Banner” but was drowned out by cries for the musicians to play the “Internationale.” Bottai spoke for ten minutes, repeatedly interrupted by shouts of “Abbasso Bottai!” and “Morte a Bottai!” before police drove the anti-Fascists from the theater with clubs. Outside, another 4,000 anti-Fascists joined the demonstration but were dispersed by mounted police who charged the crowd.

Livid with rage as he fled the stage, Bottai was overheard muttering that the demonstration had been organized by “that vulgarian Tresca” and “if only we were in Italy.…” Tresca answered the implicit threat:
To be sure, if we were in Italy, you would already have had the Fascist royal guards stab us in the back. But here in America, you had to reply on your own forces or those few cowards who surround you. Here we forced you to take to your heels ashen faced, as in Utica, or to protect yourself with Cossack horsemen, as in Philadelphia.

Then Tresca issued a threat of his own: “The four fascist scoundrels in New York [leaders of the local fascio] know it: we will never permit them to raise their heads. We will never permit the lying consuls, the thieving bankers, the exploiting bosses to raise their heads from the swamp—never, never.”
Tresca was shot dead on the street in New York in 1943, most likely by the mafia.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reimagining the Jewish Deli

Larry Coyne has been doing a series of posts on Lower East Side Jewish food, which reminded me of one I started months ago. I’m damned well going to finish it, given that a) the subject is one of the better panel discussions I’ve seen, b) I watched it twice in preparation, and c) it’s really interesting! The event, which took place in February at the Jewish Community Center of East Bay in Berkeley (partnering with Saul’s Restaurant and Deli), is “A Referendum on the Jewish Deli Menu.”

I recommend the video (tried to embed it here but it seems to start playing automatically, so I won't subject anyone to that, but do watch it!) and won’t say much other than to point out what I liked:

  • the whole idea of reconsidering the “Jewish deli mission” – thinking about it in terms of justice and sustainability – and of doing so in full consultation with the communities involved (would have been nice, to put it mildly, to see more workers…).

  • the challenging of the conservative attitude and false static notion of culture embodied in the idea of “comfort food,” while at the same time recognizing the need for familiarity, community, and continuity.

  • the appreciation that the Cold War era, commonly thought of as embodying “authentic tradition,” was (in this way among many others) anomalous. The menu-tomes, “Cadillac sandwiches” and general celebration of bigness and excess, and “anything anytime” concept were not, of course, a continuation of earlier food traditions – seasonal, revolving around special occasions - but a break with them. Thus, reimagining the Jewish deli is in an important sense returning to tradition.

  • The public recognition that kosher doesn’t mean what people commonly assume it does: ethical, decent, sound. Importantly, just prior to this event, and in response to appalling practices, new kosher guidelines were instituted:
    [W]hen the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the preeminent group of American Orthodox rabbis, issues new ethical guidelines for food production, as it did this January—including protocol on animal mistreatment and misconduct towards employees and customers—and it's endorsed by the OU, it's bigger news than you might imagine. Outside of government agencies, the OU is arguably the most influential food-related body in the country. Companies pay handsomely to have their products certified as kosher; it's considered a sound investment. And while the new guidelines are far from sweeping, and there's no guarantee they'll be honored or enforced, they represent the potential for meaningful extra-governmental oversight.
    I have no illusions that these guidelines have any meaning beyond what people do with them, but it’s a recognition and an opening for action.

  • The desire to remake the deli as part of the current food revolution, with attention to AGW, pollution, and workers’ health and rights, in a way that conceives of the change not in terms of self-denial or sacrifice but as an opportunity to offer satisfying alternatives and a deeper, more genuine and more democratic form of comfort.
  • Friday, October 29, 2010

    10-29-10: More Recognition for the Honduran Resistance; Marc Anthony Sings for Coup

    The Honduran Resistance Movement has been awarded another human rights award: the Herbert Anaya Human Rights Prize, presented at the VII International Congress on Human Rights ("Historical Memory, Truth and Restorative Justice: Demands of the New Generations") at the University of El Salvador:

    (The program looks great.)

    Meanwhile, Marc Anthony and others plan to perform in San Pedro Sula at something called Music Fest Honduras. As the FNRP notes,
    By publishing the ad online to an international audience the message is clear: “nothing is happening in Honduras, moreover people are singing and dancing with international and local musicians”. But not even one month ago, on Independence Day, the regime sent its military/police forces to repress a peaceful concert by local pro-resistance music bands in the same city where Marc Anthony is to sing, San Pedro Sula, in a venue that is just blocks uptown from where musical instruments were destroyed, one person killed by tear gas, a radio station attacked and the journalists working in it beaten and thrown to the street.
    Something like this may be in order....