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....

    Thursday, October 28, 2010

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010

    The Cape Ann Museum and the Gloucester Sea Serpent

    I spent an afternoon last week in the Cape Ann Museum. To some extent, I had to seek it out – there isn’t much talk of it, and while it’s located in downtown Gloucester, the exterior of the building is unassuming (I drove past it even though I knew the address and was specifically looking for it). It was well worth the visit. The museum itself is larger than it appears from outside, with three floors filled with art and artifacts related to the area and its history: fine art, crafts, vessels, reconstructions,…- a nice mix that doesn’t overwhelm. It’s like a more focused local version of Salem’s Peabody-Essex Museum, which I also adore.

    I started, as was recommended, on the top floor with the temporary exhibit, which is currently “Presence/Absence: New Work by Bruce Herman.” Not my favorite, to be honest, and I didn’t care for its religious themes, but I give them credit for including more contemporary works. I hope they take that impulse further, both with the temporary exhibits and with the permanent collection. In the regular galleries, there were several individual pieces that stood out: Marsden Hartley’s Rocks, Dogtown (c.1930s), Jan Matulka’s Two Seashells (c.1929), Charles Hopkinson’s paintings of his daughters, photographs and works (like George Elmer Berry’s Granite and Marble Monument (1884)) related to quarrying, a section on Philip Saltonstall Weld, carved haddock bones, and more. But the Fitz Henry Lane gallery, the museum’s centerpiece, was superb and deserving of its top billing. The light, the colors, the precision! I would love to see exhibits in New England museums present maritime artwork within its political context, but that couldn’t possibly detract from the high quality of these beautiful paintings.

    One piece in the museum that caught my eye was a small illustration – I believe it was for a magazine – of the Gloucester Sea Serpent. I wasn’t familiar with this story, but the details are fascinating. A series of sightings of a giant sea serpent in the area in 1817 – embellished and sensationalized in local papers - attracted the interest of the Linnaean Society of New England, which commissioned a series of depositions of “witnesses.” The Society collected the depositions, ignoring inconsistencies and other issues, and when a small snake was discovered on a beach in nearby Essex, they identified it as a new genus, Scoliophis atlanticus - a juvenile example of the giant sea serpent!

    It would be easy to conclude simply that the amateur and professional scientists involved merely succumbed to popular fervor and leave it at that. But Chandos Michael Brown’s “A Natural History of the Gloucester Sea Serpent: Knowledge, Power, and the Culture of Science in Antebellum America”* more insightfully situates the sea serpent investigations within the context of science and status struggles in the early American republic. “For a brief moment,” Brown offers,
    it appeared that American naturalists had established the existence of a new genus off the shores of North America - an accomplishment that simultaneously attested to the bounty of American nature and to the genius of American science. Ambitious and resourceful, these naturalists succeeded in introducing American evidence into the contemporary, largely European debate over the hypothesis of animal extinction. Wishing only to transform the relation of American science to the learned savants of the Old World, the Boston naturalists could not have anticipated that in the process they also would discover how precarious was their status in their own land. The episode further illuminates a peculiar feature of the practice of science in America: an activity shaped, in varying degrees, by the often conflicting claims of national pride and regional loyalty. Therefore, any natural history of the Gloucester sea serpent also must adumbrate the contest for cultural authority that engaged the attention of many American intellectuals during the formative years of the early republic.
    Brown describes not only the reluctance with which Christians and deists of the era met evidence of extinction (and in some cases naturalistic investigation itself), but more centrally the concerns that seemed in part to motivate scholars to embrace the notion of a giant sea serpent prowling the waters off Massachusetts. This “discovery” appeared at a moment in which New England intellectuals were seeking to demonstrate that their locality/region/nation’s wonders and science were worthy of being taken seriously by the European scientific establishment (not to mention the US government). Unfortunately for them, they clung in this instance to a personality and status-driven idea of evidence in which challenging the credibility of the personal testimony of “gentlemen” or observations couched in scientific language was perceived as a personal attack as well as to a heroic conception of science that seemed to prize bold ventures above patient empirical work.

    It doesn’t appear that anyone’s reputation was ruined or finances destroyed, so I don’t feel guilt at finding the story charmingly funny. At most, it seems to have been a source of some embarrassment – especially after the Linnaean Society’s report was so flatly dismissed by Henri de Blainville, editor of the Journal de physique - and likely an object lesson for some. Interestingly, the sea serpent reports were mocked at the time, especially in the South. In 1819, Charleston writer William Crafts, who had attended Harvard and knew well the culture he poked fun at, composed a satirical play, The Sea Serpent; or, Gloucester Hoax: a Dramatic jeu d'esprit in Three Acts, from which Brown quotes some. I wish I had the whole play to read, since it sounds just wonderful. It’s a wry sociology of the sea serpent “hoax,” “which captures in the satiric movement of its own plot the greater dramas that preceded it: the thoughtless boosterism of New England culture and the self-serving promotion of the Linnaean Society, the heedless nationalism of American naturalists, and finally, the consequences of an ill-considered quest for knowledge.”

    The play contains a great exchange between the characters “Linnaeus” and “Skepticus.” In the end,
    Linnaeus is chastened by the revelation of his own willful misapprehension and cautions others, in the fashion of Francis Bacon, to
    Deem nothing true that is not proved - nor then
    Believe it all - but doubt and doubt again
    Falsehood's a floating superficial thing,
    but truth is deeper than the deepest spring.
    But “Seraphina, the daughter of Linnaeus,” Brown notes,
    has the final word, which she addresses to the Linnaean Society and to other impetuous naturalists of the young Republic, who in their desire to impress merely court humiliation:
    So fares it always with the advent'rous race,
    Who banish nature - and give monsters place;
    Imagine miracles without their need,
    Look wise in fancy - but are dupes indeed.
    A very intelligent play. Somewhat sad, then, that Brown closes with a criticism of Crafts. He suggests that the “critique of a science driven by cultural chauvinism and mis-directed national pride” expressed specifically in the Scepticus-Linnaeus discussion, while showing Crafts’ skill as a writer, “must have pleased him more than it could any conceivable audience for the play.” More generally, “[t]he pity,” according to Brown, “was that he chose to satirize - within the limited district of Charleston - rather than to engage his Northern brethren.” This sounds vaguely insulting toward Charleston theater audiences, and I’m not so sure Crafts chose the limited reach (who would?). But I don’t agree with the claim that public satire is not a form – and often a very effective form – of engagement with a motivated pseudoscience.

    *American Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Sep., 1990), pp. 402-436.

    Monday, October 25, 2010

    HONDURAS UPDATE 10-25-10

    Bill Quigley and Laura Raymond of the Center for Constitutional Rights have a Counterpunch piece, ostensibly on “artist resistance in Honduras,” which provides an update on the Obama administration’s continuing sell-out of democracy:
    Meanwhile, in the United States, 29 members of Congress took a bold step, especially given the lead-up to midterm elections, in issuing a strongly worded condemnation of the “deplorable human rights record” in Honduras listing several recent cases of political violence.

    The members of Congress registered their “serious concern that the rule of law is directly threatened by members of the Honduran police and armed forces” and called on the Obama Administration to end all direct assistance to Honduran authorities, especially the police and military. They also called on the US to cease its lobbying for the re-admittance of Honduras into the Organization of American States (OAS).

    While most member countries of the OAS have stood firm in their rejection of Honduras as a member of the OAS, U.S. Secretary of State Clinton has made Honduras’s reinstatement a US priority in the region, raising it in her meetings with Latin American heads of state and lobbying for it at various regional meetings. For reasons that the Center for Constitutional Rights laid out in our Open Letter to Secretary of State Clinton, the Obama Administration must stop and the OAS should remain firm in rejecting Honduras as a member.

    Those committed to working in solidarity with ordinary people organizing for democracy, equality and social justice in the Americas are outraged that the Obama Administration has become the Lobo regime’s most important ally. Without US support, the Lobo regime would not have been able to hold its illegitimate elections or hold on to power for as long as it has.
    But history shows that anti-democratic regimes in Latin America and elsewhere can be overcome, even when they have the backing of the US, by campaigns for democracy and human rights. The FNRP is working to show the way in Honduras. Those of us in solidarity from afar watch in admiration as they work to transform their country and salute their efforts to celebrate while doing so!
    Adrienne Pine has more. She also provides links to a two-part article by Edward S. Herman (co-author with Chomsky of Manufacturing Consent) and David Peterson contrasting media coverage of repression, elections, resistance, and social media in Iran and Honduras. Highly recommended analysis (though I take issue, as with similar comparative analyses in the past, with the unnecessary and misleading downplaying of abuses by the Iranian regime).

    Saturday, October 23, 2010

    Extraordinary is one word for it.

    Last week I posted on a gnus-vs.-accomodationists thread at Pharyngula. PZ, building on the “it’s about truth” theme of his conference talk, had said:
    I am unconvinced by these feeble appeasement tactics that don't really advance the ideas, but do leave people unperturbed from their comfortable positions of ignorance. But here's something else to consider, if the marshmallows of accommodationism are still committed to convincing me otherwise. Even if Rosenhouse's argument wasn't valid, if there were a thousand concrete empirical studies demonstrating that my approach was turning people into fundagelical Christians faster than a tent revival, it wouldn't matter. I'd still be me. I'd still express myself as I do, as I want, because that is all I ever do here — I have never considered myself to be competing in a popularity contest.
    Seeing people (understandably) express incomprehension at what might appear to be intransigence in the face of evidence, I thought Václav Havel’s work on “living within the truth” was apt (I also had him on my mind since I had just read Largo Desolato). I posted two links with excerpts from his writings. There is much contained even in these short passages from the days of the Cold War: Havel is presenting – in response to those who see politics in terms of organized movements and parties and governments – seemingly simple, personal, local acts of living within the truth as the genuine form of political action and necessary basis for any movements for change. He’s also suggesting that these acts, which are inherently defiant even when not thought of as such, have a political power in terms of changing conscience and consciousness that is largely unrecognized. Their power lies in the fact that these actions respond to a drive for honesty, a refusal to participate in a lie.

    I saw these arguments as completely relevant to and supporting of the gnu atheist position: Living without beliefs that have no basis in reality and without deferring to those beliefs or the people who hold them – without practicing ritualized deference or remaining silent in the face of nonsense – is living within the truth. It’s a stand of conscience and life rather than a narrow political tactic.

    After posting this, I started to wonder about Havel’s religious beliefs, about which I don’t think I had ever read anything. My googling, unfortunately, quickly turned up this bit of blather from the constitutionally confused professional troll Andrew Brown. It begins “Václav Havel made a perfectly extraordinary speech yesterday...,” and that is certainly accurate. It’s about Havel’s opening remarks at this year’s Forum 2000, which are remarkable.

    Since the speech lends itself, and since it’s become a habit, I’m going to respond to Havel’s remarks as I would a blog post:
    While I am aware of the countless more serious problems with human settlements on this planet – from the slums on the fringes of Asian or Latin American megalopolises to cities devastated by earthquakes or floods – with your permission I will start in a somewhat personal vein.
    I’ll just start by pointing out what he’s brushing aside in this first sentence, in the form of a link:

    Years ago when I used to drive by car from Prague to our country cottage in Eastern Bohemia, the journey from the city centre to the signboard that marked the city limits took about fifteen minutes. Then came meadows, forests, fields and villages. These days the selfsame journey takes a good forty minutes or more, and it is impossible to know whether I have left the city or not. What was until recently clearly recognisable as the city is now losing its boundaries and with them its identity. It has become a huge overgrown ring of something I can’t find a word for. It is not a city as I understand the term, nor suburbs, let alone a village. Apart from anything else it lacks streets or squares. There is just a random scattering of enormous single-storey warehouses, supermarkets, hypermarkets, car and furniture marts, petrol stations, eateries, gigantic car parks, isolated high-rise blocks to be let as offices, depots of every kind, and collections of family homes that are admittedly close together but are otherwise desperately remote.

    ...In other words all the time our cities are being permitted without control to destroy the surrounding landscape with its nature, traditional pathways, avenues of trees, villages, mills and meandering streams, and build in their place some sort of gigantic agglomeration that renders life nondescript, disrupts the network of natural human communities, and under the banner of international uniformity it attacks all individuality, identity or heterogeneity. And on the occasions it tries to imitate something local or original, it looks altogether suspect, because it is obviously a purpose-built fake.
    Congratulations. You’ve discovered urban sprawl.
    There is emerging a new type of a previously described existential phenomenon: unbounded consumer collectivity engenders a new type of solitude.
    There is nothing new about what Havel’s describing here. Note, though, that the cause is being introduced as the “unbounded consumer collectivity,” an abstract entity disconnected from any social, political, or economic referents.
    Where has all this woeful development come from and why does it go on getting worse? How is at all possible that humans can treat in such a senseless fashion not only the landscape that surrounds them but the very planet which they have been given to inhabit? We know that we are behaving in a suicidal manner and yet we go on doing it. How is it possible?
    Capitalism and unequal political power. Violence. You may want to ask some of the “business leaders” participating in your conference, or maybe some of your corporate sponsors – Coca-Cola, Imperial Tobacco,... – whose names keep flashing on the side of the screen as I read your remarks. Where in the city are the conference-goers staying, I wonder? (There are several people in the list of participants whom I admire, but I don’t admire their participation.)
    We are living in the first truly global civilisation. That means that whatever comes into existence on its soil can very quickly and easily span the whole world.

    But we are also living in the first atheistic civilisation, in other words, a civilisation that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity. For that reason it prefers short-term profit to long-term profit. What is important is whether an investment will provide a return in ten or fifteen years; how it will affect the lives of our descendants in a hundred years is less important.
    Yes, he really said this. That disembodied consumerism is...atheism. Forget that this isn’t what atheism means and join the chorus of misrepresenters. Atheism, “in other words,” is capitalism. (I always wonder what these arguments would look like if “Jewish” were substituted for “atheistic”...) What the part about infinity and eternity is about, and what it has to do with cities, I don’t know. Sounds quite like the standard “Science lacks a sense of wonder or appreciation of the cosmic” claptrap.
    However, the most dangerous aspect of this global atheistic civilisation is its pride.
    Of course it is! Where would atheist-and-science-bashing be without the overweaning-pride trope?
    The pride of someone who is driven by the very logic of his wealth to stop respecting the contribution of nature and our forebears, to stop respecting it on principle and respect it only as a further potential source of profit.

    And indeed, why should a developer go to the trouble of building a warehouse with several storeys when he can have as much land as he wants and can therefore build as many single-storey warehouses as he likes? Why should he worry about whether his building suits the locality in which it is built, so long as it be reached by the shortest route and it is possible to build a gigantic car park alongside it? What is to him that between his site and his neighbour’s there is a wasteland? And what is to him, after all, that from an aeroplane the city more and more resembles a tumour metastasizing in all directions and that he is contributing to it? Why should he get worked up over a few dozen hectares that he carves out of the soil that many still regard as the natural framework of their homeland?
    Remember: this isn’t about capitalism, but about atheism and science.
    I sense behind all of this not only a globally spreading short-sightedness, but also the swollen self-consciousness of this civilisation, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don’t yet know we’ll soon find out, because we know how to go about it.
    Not capitalism or governments at all. Nope. Don’t bother to look into it. It’s The Atheistic Technological Society pure and simple (no slight meant to Jacques Ellul’s book, which I quite liked).
    We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful, or that is simply a source of measurable profit, anything that induces growth and more growth and still more growth, including the growth of agglomerations.
    Who is convinced of this? Atheists?
    But with the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness
    In other words, atheism, of course.
    there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know,
    Naturally it follows: The problem of cities (aesthetic issues are very important; yeah, slums, too, but he’ll get to those some other time) is due to atheistic, scientific arrogance, so the solution is the return to naive, humble reverence for mystery.
    not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions.
    This has no meaning.
    We have totally forgotten what all previous civilisations knew: that nothing is self-evident.
    Who has?
    I believe that the recent financial and economic crisis was of great importance and in its ultimate essence it was actually a very edifying signal to the contemporary world.
    Yup, the financial crisis, too – ATHEISM.
    Most economists relied directly or indirectly on the idea that the world, including human conduct, is more or less understandable, scientifically describable and hence predictable. Market economics and its entire legal framework counted on our knowing who man is and what aims he pursues, what was the logic behind the actions of banks or firms, what the shareholding public does and what one may expect from some particular individual or community.

    And all of a sudden none of that applied. Irrationality leered at us from all the stock-exchange screens. And even the most fundamentalist economists, who – having intimate access to the truth - were convinced with unshakeable assurance that the invisible hand of the market knew what it was doing, had suddenly to admit that they had been taken by surprise.
    In fact, science told us that it would happen; it was entirely predictable to (and foreseen by) those using empirical knowledge and reason and not blinded by market fundamentalism.
    I hope and trust that the elites of today’s world will realise what this signal is telling us.
    To fear atheism? (Again, pay no attention to capitalism. This is all about atheism and science and how prideful they are.)
    I regard the recent crisis as a very small and very inconspicuous call to humility.
    Of course you do.
    A small and inconspicuous challenge for us not to take everything automatically for granted. Strange things are happening and will happen. Not to bring oneself to admit it is the path to hell. Strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well.
    Yes, this is precisely what we need more of.
    The modern pride that I refer to did not manifest itself in architecture only recently. In the inter-war period many otherwise brilliant avant-garde architects already shared the opinion that confident and rational reflection was the key to a new approach to human settlement. And so they started planning various happy cities with separate zones for housing, sport, entertainment, commerce or hospitality, all linked by a logical infrastructure. Those architects had succumbed to the aberrant notion that an enlightened brain is capable of devising the ideal city. Nothing of the sort was created, however. Bold urbanist projects proved to be one thing, while life turned out to be something else. Life often demands something quite different from what the architects offer, such as an urban district consisting of the strangest hotchpotch of different functions, where the children’s playground is next to the government building, the government building next to a pub, and the pub next to an apartment house, which in turn is next to a small park.
    Urban planning/”development” has very often been undemocratic and imposed with no attention to real human needs or nature and no respect for the rights of people in cities. The solution is to make it democratic, rights-based, and responsive to needs. This can’t be done on the basis of reverent awe, and it requires real struggles.
    Wonder and an awareness that things are not self-evident are, I believe, the only way out of the dangerous world of a civilisation of pride.
    No, democracy and the sorts of struggles you used to talk about a few decades ago, which take different forms in a different context, are the only way out of a destructive world of corporate and technocratic power. These have to be founded on reason and empirical knowledge – it’s impossible otherwise.
    Can anything be absolutely self-evident?
    Wonder at the non-self-evidence of everything that creates our world is, after all, the first impulse to the question: what purpose does it all have? Why does it all exist? Why does anything exist at all? We don’t know and we will never find it out.
    These might not be questions of any value in any case. But shouldn’t you be telling this to the religious? Also, “wonder at the non-self-evidence of everything that creates our world” (a strange phrase) is also the impulse to investigating it (humbly, cooperatively, skeptically – scientifically) and discovering amazing and awesome things.
    It is quite possible that everything is here in order for us to have something to wonder at.
    It is?
    And that we are here simply so that there is someone to wonder.
    But what is the point of having someone wonder at something?
    I don’t know. You posed the inane idea.
    And what alternative is there to being?
    Not being.
    After all if there were nothing, there would also be no one to observe it. And if there were no one to observe it, then the big question is whether non-being would be at all possible.
    The big question for whom?

    A disappointing read, to put it mildly, and far removed from his earlier writings.

    Halloween banned in Honduras

    I wish I could laugh. It would be one thing if this just involved some lone, nutty public official with silly ideas about holidays, but in context it’s sad and terrifying. The coup in Honduras, in standard fashion, has been enthusiastically abetted by the domestic and international right-wing religious organizations. Adrienne Pine and David Vivar’s article “Saving Honduras” provides not only a concise discussion of the neoliberal coup but a specific analysis of the current activities of Marco Cáceres, his publication “Honduras Weekly,” and his Project Honduras conference. I recommend the piece as a whole (note the link to this article about Goldcorp), but what it really brought into relief was the central place religious power and ideology have in these antidemocratic efforts.

    The discussion of the Project Honduras conference is illuminating. As they describe,
    The theme this year is "Responding to Domestic Abuse in Honduras." One wonders if the increase in femicides since the coup documented by feminists in resistance, the dozens of documented targeted police and military rapes of female resistance members, the sexualized torture methods used, or the vast drop in reports of domestic abuse linked to fear of the police for these very reasons will be discussed. Probably not. Also unlikely to be discussed by the speakers, who include ardent coup-supporter Lizeth Godoy of the National Institute of Women (INAM), is the fact that the current INAM administration is in power thanks to the violent ouster by police and military of the women who had previously worked there last July, when they resisted the takeover of the institute by anti-feminist members of the reactionary Opus Dei coup leadership under Micheletti.
    It seems that the purpose of the event is to use a secular issue to push what is a clear religious program:
    While…individuals representing the U.S. State will be presenting, the vast majority of individuals attending come from reactionary evangelical groups, promoting charity work based on a premise of "apolitical" salvation that stand in direct opposition to the vibrant Honduran resistant movement's goals of justice and self-determination.

    And it goes beyond that. In an article published in Honduras Weekly on September 28th titled "The Holy City of Copán," Cáceres argues that his conference is a "pilgrimage" leading to the goal of people "eventually truly becom[ing] One." Throughout the article, he returns to the concept of "One," capitalized.
    Indeed he does! It is presented as a religious event through and through. I can’t see how anyone could read “The Holy City of Copán” and see it any other way. The authors ask:
    So why-despite Cáceres' journalistic deceit, his increasingly public messianic delusions, his pro-coup proselytization and polarizing unfounded attacks on the resistance movement-does the U.S. embassy continue to so openly support his conference? Why is USAID ("From the American People") officially sponsoring the Conference on Honduras this year? It's not because the NGOs involved are doing any good; they aren't. In their acceptance of a Social Darwinist model that identifies poverty as the result of a lack of "empowerment" and human capital, they can't.
    Yes, I agree (though I have no expectation of USAID genuinely supporting democracy in any context). But is this even constitutional? It’s a plainly religious event, and not only are US military personnel participating, but the US government is a sponsor?!

    It’s in this unsettling context of organized religious political action – and the longer history of violence against dissidents justified by accusations of occult activities* - that Áfrico Madrid, Honduran Minister of the Interior and Population, issued a statement the other day essentially banning Halloween – using a law concerning fraud to prohibit “any type of event related to satanic cults or holidays.” It is theocratic rhetoric and policy, and deserves mockery and condemnation.

    *This lends an ominous note to the plans described by Carlos Portillo later in the article.

    Poem: The Mine Clinic

    Back in September I entered Dr. Charles’ poetry contest. The winning poems were beautiful, and I enjoyed reading the entries he posted earlier in the month.

    Here's my poem, submitted at almost literally the last minute:
    The Mine Clinic

    The people of Siria Valley
    are losing pieces of themselves -
    patches of skin like cellophane wrappers,
    divots of hair.

    The company’s doctor
    chides them for untidiness,
    straw-hatted carelessness,
    prescribes mineral baths, vitamins, vinegar.
    It's about this situation in Honduras. Rights Action made a documentary about it in 2008:

    While I was writing, this happened. (Even if you hate my poem, you shouldn’t ignore the Siria Valley and the harm done by Goldcorp.) It appears that a judge ruled this week in favor of the Canadian corporation, but this is being appealed amidst international pressure. The situation in the Siria Valley has been developing for a decade and can’t be said to result from last year’s coup, but the fight for justice and its current possibilities show how intricately linked political and economic inequality and struggles for justice are to human health and the fate of the environment.

    My poem was different from the others in that it was, to the extent that this can be said of a poem, critical concerning medicine. I had read the name of the real doctor somewhere – he gave a press conference following “clinical” consultations in the area - but wasn’t able to find it later. His name isn’t central, though (well, perhaps to future prosecutions...). My questions - relevant to but not circumscribed by this extreme case - concern the role of medicine in the contemporary global context. What does it mean to be a patient or health professional in conditions of gross inequality and poverty, corporate power, repression, and massive environmental destruction?

    The ‘hero’ of this story, to whom the poem was dedicated, is Dr. Juan Almendares,* whose life has been about fighting for justice in Honduras and for an ethical medicine. The Honduras Human Rights Platform, of which Almendares is a representative, won this year’s Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies. Adrienne Pine has the text of Almendares’ short speech and video of the full awards ceremony. Here’s a clip of Bertha Oliva’s acceptance speech:

    *It mentions at that link, and I’ve seen hints elsewhere, that he is a practitioner/advocate of “alternative” medicine, which is potentially troubling. I haven’t been able to find exactly which.

    Friday, October 8, 2010

    ...I wanna puke

    I watched the livestream of the Free Inquiry conference in LA this afternoon. I thought PZ’s (theme: "But is it true?") talk was great, but the pinheaded accomodationists got to me. I’ll use this comment as a launching pad:
    Mooney’s argument seems to be, if you agree with Francis Collins on 99% of things, then the last 1% is totally off limits. Don’t bring it up, or you’re hurting the cause.
    While we're on the subject, I have no idea what "moderate" is supposed to mean outside of a very specific context. Ken Miller is wrong about science history and how science works, he appears to have some repellent political ideas ("welfare queens"?), and his thinking about theistic evolution is erroneous. And he's a Catholic, and not a liberation theologist, so I can only assume he holds or supports many other disgusting notions (of course, he tacitly supports them by not openly refuting them and by being a member of an organization that’s about them). I agree with nowhere near 99% of what he thinks, and I'm sure this is true of Collins – an Evangelical - as well. It's also true of many "skeptics." Who is anyone to tell me which of these disagreements are important to me? Messed up, unevidenced thinking is what I'm going to fight.

    …When writing the above, I almost said "especially that unevidenced thinking that has horrible effects," but that would be naïve. It ALL does. We simply cannot say, even if some religious beliefs are patently toxic, that others are benign. None are benign, because they are all premised on the acceptance of the idea that beliefs can be based on something other than evidence. If you accept that in one case, you accept it in all of them, because you’ve conceded that absurd epistemic foundation. Game over.

    And which cause are the accomodationists talking about?, one might reasonably ask. Or, whose cause? I’m an anarchist, and anarchism historically has included atheism, freethought, feminism, skepticism, and science. There are parts of the movement that have gone in other directions, but my historically-based version incorporates these. Anarchism, and social justice more generally, needs and includes science (see Kropotkin, Chomsky, Sokal,…). Don’t pontificate to me about what my priorities are. And don't try to don the mantle of compassion and tolerance when your approach is mendacious and belittling.

    Oh, and, by the way, I have yet to see an accomodationist who has the slightest knowledge of the history of social movements or social change. Victor Stenger alluded to the evidence from social revolutions. Outstanding. They are messy. Study them. Until you do, don’t pretend to an expertise you don’t have.