Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Archives and justice in Guatemala

Over the past few months, the National Security Archive has been posting about developments in the continuing struggle to recover historical truth and obtain justice for past atrocities in Guatemala, including the central role played by archived documents.

They’ve reported, for example, that
On January 26, 2012, a Guatemalan court determined that there is sufficient evidence to formally charge former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt with genocide and crimes against humanity. The ruling marks a dramatic turning point in Guatemalan efforts to redress the worst human rights violations in recent Latin American history perpetrated by the military against indigenous peoples during Ríos Montt’s “scorched earth” counterinsurgency operations in the 1980s.

…Ríos Montt is accused of laying the foundation for the military plans Victoria 82, Firmeza 83, and Plan Sofia in which the military used counterinsurgency operations to “exterminate subversive elements,” including the elderly, women, and children.
Important to the prosecution will be establishing the chain of command, and archives are key. (Plans Victoria 82 and Firmeza 83 have not been disclosed, and the National Security Archive is calling for their release.) For some insight into the complexities involved, see Writing History in International Criminal Trials:

(Not Wilson’s best work, but worthwhile for those interested in these questions.)

They’ve also reported on the discovery of the remains of two men who were death-squad victims in 1983:
The National Security Archive recently published an electronic briefing book detailing the discovery of the remains of two victims listed in the famous “death squad diary.” The Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, a non-profit based out of Guatemala City, was able to identify the remains using DNA, as reported in their press statement on November 22.

The remains of Amancio Samuel Villatoro (death squad diary entry number 74) and Sergio Saúl Linares Morales (death squad diary entry number 55) were found in a mass grave at the former military detachment in Comalapa, Chimaltenango.

These two men were abducted by security forces in early 1983; their families never heard from them again. Their fates were not known until 1999 when the National Security Archive publicly released the death squad diary which recorded the disappearance of 183 people, including Villatoro and Linares. The handwriting at the bottom of their entries in the log book records the date they were murdered, March 29, 1984, and indicates their murder with the code “300.”

Here is a more detailed description of their lives and deaths.

Finally, there is the full public digitized release of the archives of the Guatemalan National Police, covering its entire century of existence.
In a public event held in Guatemala City today, Friday, December 9, the Guatemalan Historical Archive of the National Police (Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional—AHPN) and the University of Texas at Austin unveiled an extraordinary collaboration by making 10 million pages of digitalized police records available to researchers on a special Web site hosted by the university….

The project permits researchers from anywhere in the world to examine the entire digitalized collection of Guatemalan police documents via the Internet, without having to travel physically to Guatemala to see them in the archive’s reading room. Following the guidelines established by the AHPN, access is wholly unrestricted, and the collection will continue to grow as the police archive digitalizes additional records and makes the images available to UT Austin.
This is unprecedented, but not without ethical problems:
The decision on the part of the Guatemalan Police Archive to provide unrestricted digital access to records that contain countless references to private individuals – many of them entrapped by a security system designed to identify suspected subversives and kidnap or kill them solely on the basis of those suspicions – is highly controversial within the archiving world. Even in countries with no formal privacy or archive laws such as Guatemala, standard archival practice strives to protect the privacy of the victims of repression – whether by withholding entire records or selectively deleting individual names and other identifying information.
I remember reading about the elaborate protocol people had to follow to have access to their own files in post-Communist East Germany.

Those responsible in Guatemala went in an entirely different direction:
Citing several legal instruments, including Guatemala’s Constitution and an article in the country’s freedom of information law that prohibits the denial of records relating to gross human rights violations, the report, From Silence to Memory: Revelations from the Historical Archive of the National Police, found: “The armed internal conflict and repressive practices characterized a recent historic period in Guatemala that affected and continues to affect society enormously. In the face of this reality, the conclusion is inevitable that the political events that took place between 1960 and 1996 form part of the collective history of the Nation. This should be understood in its fullest dimension, so that no one has the right to hide information that comes from the actions by the State and its officials.” (See pp. 37-39)
I haven’t yet read this report, don’t know if the conversation and debate about going ahead was inclusive enough, and am unsure as to whether the right to truth so fully outweighs the protection of victims’ privacy, but this is a significant development.

Monday, February 27, 2012

AGW denialism on Wikipedia

Someone needs to fix this....

I’m writing about a documentary film I saw the other day, and came across the “Propaganda Film” Wikipedia entry. Here’s how the section on “Climate Politics” currently reads:
Climate politics

The use of propaganda films continues to the present day. One of the most prolific genres of recent propaganda films is that covering alleged climate change and the associated political incentives to control anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) poses a somewhat sensational approach to climate change oftentimes relying on emotional appeals rather than scientific data.

The Age of Stupid (2009), although a fictitious story, may also be considered propaganda in that it projects an emotional and reactionary view of present-day environmental issues intended to bias the viewer's beliefs on such matters.

The BBC is known to have produced television documentaries of this character and style, which amount to propaganda films. One such is Frozen Planet (2011), the seventh section of which has been described as propaganda.
Only the latter two statements have citations, and what it would mean for them to support the assertions they accompany I have no idea.

There’s also an ad for An Inconvenient Truth with the caption: “Fabricated images of chimneys discharging 'carbon pollution' often feature in this genre.”

Thinking about vegan cooking as an art form

My previous post mentioned that I was launching myself into new waters with a raft of recipe substitutes and a vegan cookbook. Fortunately, some meals I enjoy – especially Mexican and Indian dishes - are already “accidentally” vegan or could fairly easily be made so. But it appears to me that vegan cuisine (if it can even be called that) in the US is still in its infancy. While there are exceptions, vegan cooking and eating are still associated with poor imitations and denial rather than celebration, pleasure, flavor, and art. (I could be missing some important exceptions, and if I am I hope people lead me to the right places.) There's still little place for the champagne vegan.

But all of this makes it exciting - like a new art form! Cuttlefish wrote yesterday that he would and should never be NPR’s NewsPoet* because his respect for verse forms is absolute:
And that, in a nutshell, is why I am not a poet. My villanelle does repeat the lines, and does rhyme, and I could no more bend the rules of the form than I could fly. For me, the metric form, the rhymes, the feet, of specific verse forms, is to be obsessively followed. The specific constraints force us to write creatively; breaking the rules is the easy way out. Mind you, there’s plenty of unconstrained poetry forms out there; there is no need to deconstruct a highly structured form simply for expression’s sake.

I am not a poet, firstly, because I lack the skill or the will (or both) to unshackle myself from my forms. I am not a poet, secondly, because (or so it seems to me) those who decide who are real poets do not accept those who accept the shackles.
I think the constraints of vegan cooking also (can) push people to work creatively. Of course, vegan cooking differs from adherence to verse forms in that the primary motivation is ethical rather than artistic, which means that there is no parallel to unconstrained poetry forms that would be acceptable. But it doesn’t mean that the formal requirements of vegan cooking can’t similarly inspire creativity, and I submit that they can.

I might chart my attempts at vegan cooking here, as well as my requests to friends who are serious cooks to prepare vegan dishes….

*I disagree, and think he would be outstanding in that role.

On eating cheese, and not

In the past, I was perplexed by people who didn’t eat eggs or cheese. I thought the only reason was the belief that the use of any animal products is inherently abusive, and that is in fact a belief held by many vegans. I’ve done a lot of reading about farmed animals, though, and I know that more than once I came across descriptions of the treatment of animals (cows and chickens, at least) whose milk and eggs we use. But given my love of some of these foods, particularly cheese, and the beliefs and behaviors my culture normalizes and naturalizes, the information and objections never quite sank in, and didn’t take root in my conscious memory.*

(That, Karla McLaren, is what a polemic looks like.**)

At long last, it has, and I’m doing something about it. I’ve searched for cruelty-free cheese, and found it to be elusive if not nonexistent. It’s far more complicated than I’d thought. I’m going to keep searching (including for cruelty-free milk that I could use to make my own cheese), and begin asking around at local farms. Meanwhile, I can get eggs from the happy chickens at my friends’, and I’m now armed with a vegan cookbook, a list of dairy substitutes for baking, and a gift card for Whole Foods where I can find the better vegan cheese substitutes.

*I didn’t, though, to the best of my recollection, respond by eating a hunk of cheese or talking about doing so in front of them out of spite. That would have been idiotic.

**Actually, I don’t think McLaren, with her talk of terror and despair, has a clue what a polemic is in the first place, or read all of the books she wrote about, so it’s neither here nor there.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Apropos of not much...Thomas Paine, a cautionary tale

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times elsewhere, the story of Thomas Paine in the late 18th century provides some lessons for the present.

Paine was a popular and influential pamphleteer in the American Revolution whose radical writings were controversial but convincing and attracted a great number of allies. But with his publication of The Age of Reason, many turned their backs on him. Although the political battle over religion and public life Paine’s work touched off in his era redounded to the benefit of the Republicans, its favorable settlement rested on Paine’s ostracism and an exclusion of more radical voices, with effects that arguably we’re still dealing with.

Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers and Marcus Daniel’s Scandal & Civility

both discuss “the transformation of Paine from revered patriot into devil’s spawn in little more than twenty years” (Jacoby, p. 36). Both argue that the impetus was The Age of Reason. “Although Paine’s economic and political ideas were too radical for some of his contemporaries,” Jacoby remarks, “his jaundiced view of religion proved the primary cause of his fall from American grace” (p. 36).

Paine wasn’t an atheist but a deist, and a number of American Protestants were quite fine with attacks on the Catholic Church in France. But The Age of Reason indicted not just Catholicism but Christianity, and in fact all revealed religion:
With the publication of the Age of Reason, Paine’s revolutionary deism parted company with radical Protestantism. Paine’s previous religious pluralism had been based on his belief that all religions were originally ‘kind and benign, and united with principles of morality’ but became corrupted by their entanglement with political power. Now, he argued that all forms of revealed religion were inherently corrupt and oppressive and that the only reliable source of religious knowledge was the natural world – the ‘Bible of the Deist’ – and the only reliable interpreter of this source was the individual consciousness. (Daniel, p. 242)
For many, this went too far:
The revolution’s greatest publicist was greeted in the press – especially the Federalist press… – by admonitions to shut up, return to the Old World, or prepare to endure his just punishment in the next world. (Jacoby, pp. 36-7)

His assault on Christianity completed the alienation of middle-class dissenters like Joseph Priestley* and moderate Whigs like Richard Watson, the Anglican bishop of Llandaff, who believed that Paine’s ‘extraordinary performance’ had ‘unsettled the faith of thousands’ and spread its ‘poison through all the classes of the community’. (Daniel, p. 243)
The Federalists and their papers used Paine’s radical writings about religion to go after the Republicans, Jefferson in particular, and seized upon the controversy to put religion front and center and to try to defeat Jefferson’s presidential bid by linking him and the Republicans to Paine’s radical religious views:
Although the Age of Reason did not transform the religious landscape of the United States, it politicized the issue of religion itself, giving the clergy an opportunity to reassert their traditional role as guardians of public virtue. It also gave Federalists a chance to portray republicans as agents of infidelity and themselves as defenders of Christian orthodoxy and to make belief in Christianity a litmus test for holding public office. (Daniel, p. 248)
In some momentous ways, of course, the Federalists failed. As Daniel notes,
The Federalist crusade against infidelity made religion a central political issue in the late 1790s. But rather than discrediting and dividing Republicans, the Federalist campaign ignited a fierce public debate about the relationship between religion and politics that ultimately benefited and united them. (Daniel, p. 251)
But we can see in Daniel’s description of the Republican response hints of a loss:
While Federalist clergymen believed that religion should play a central role in public life and that civic engagement was an important part of religious life, Republican commentators argued exactly the opposite: religion had no legitimate role to play in public life, and politics had no legitimate part to play in religious life. Religious belief was a matter of private conscience, not public morality, they argued, and just as the state had no right to regulate religious belief (or any other expression of private conscience), so personal religious belief had no place in the regulation of an impersonal, secular public sphere. Clergy should restrict themselves to the spiritual needs of their congregations and stay out of public life. Religious and political freedom required a sharp separation of church and state, an idea that received its classic formulation in Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the touchstone of Republican religious policy in the 1790s. While Federalists tried to identify Republicans with Paine’s radical deism and French infidelity, Republicans insisted that their commitment to Jeffersonian ideas of religious freedom made them the true guardians of American Christianity. (p. 251)
This position, this moment, continues justifiably to be celebrated as a cornerstone of secularism. But set in the context of the attacks on Paine, we can appreciate something that was lost. Christianity as a valued and guarded set of beliefs was preserved. With religion removed from the secular sphere entirely in this vision of secularism, public challenges to religion based on reason and evidence came to be viewed as uncivil and unwelcome.

This led not fully to an age of reason but to some extent to an age of deference, in which religious belief was politely cordoned off and reason often treated as an intruder in the public sphere. In the Republican community, unity was preserved, but at the expense of muting more radical voices. And at the expense of…Paine.

“The shunning of Paine” (Jacoby, p. 36) went beyond the ultimate-fighting ring that was the late 18th-century press. He was snubbed by people in everyday life, including former friends. Jacoby reports:
In the early 1800s, the author of “Common Sense” – which had sold some 500,000 copies in the mid-1770s – would be castigated as a Judas, reptile, hog, mad dog, souse, louse, archbeast, brute, liar, and of course infidel. (pp. 35-6)**
This affected Paine personally, and resulted in a spiral of anger and mutual resentment. “The story of Paine’s last years in America is a painful one,” Jacoby writes. “Most of Paine’s old friends, embarrassed by his anti-Christian writings, deserted him – Jefferson once again being a notable exception” (p. 60). (Jefferson’s support came at a political cost to him.)
There is no doubt that the constant Federalist attacks on Paine, and his abandonment by many old friends, took a considerable emotional toll in his final years. Many of his writings in the press during this period were saturated with a bitterness and personal venom that he had once reserved for George III. (Jacoby, p. 63)
When Paine died in 1809, fewer than a dozen people attended his funeral.

*Speaking of whom, The Invention of Air is not a book I would recommend.

**It’s noteworthy how many of the insults to Paine, and how much of the political language in general in this era, was animal-based.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wegman "reprimanded" by George Mason

Dan Vergano reports.
...Wegman will receive an "official letter of reprimand", [provost Peter] Stearns said, as sanction for the plagiarism.

..."We took these charges very seriously," Stearns said, in a telephone interview, adding that the university will forward the investigation reports to federal authorities. The National Institutes of Health and the Department of the Army supported the 2008 study.

Why was the 60 Minutes report on antidepressants "explosive"?

I’ve read some more responses to the 60 Minutes report on antidepressants. Several have mentioned surprise at the presentation of the story as shocking and novel, both in terms of Leslie Stahl’s amazed reactions to some of the statements made and in terms of her repeated suggestion that this was all revelatory. (It seems to have become a cycle: challenging articles or books appear, journalists and others are shocked by the radical news, those who’ve been following the issue express surprise and dismay at the treatment of these arguments as new, and then things return to normal, with the companies raking in their billions off of these drugs, until the next round.)

In her article “'60 Minutes' antidepressants report may be 'explosive,' but it's not 'new',” Susan Perry writes:
Explosive? Well, yes,…

But new? Hardly. Studies linking the placebo effect to antidepressants have been around for more than a decade….

It’s not as though the antidepressant/placebo story hasn’t received press coverage in the past….

All this history made me wonder why Stahl seemed so astonished during her interview with Kirsch. She seemed to be unaware of the decade-long controversy surrounding antidepressants.
Howard Brody, who makes the crucial point that the story didn’t say nearly enough about the adverse effects of the drugs, remarks:
As seems typical, the news program featured as "gosh golly gee whiz" news stuff that we've been over in this blog many times before:…
To some extent, I think this is just Stahl’s shtick: she often reacts to interviewees’ remarks with that wide-eyed, almost giddy I-can’t-believe-I’m-hearing-this expression. But I think there’s something else going on as well. Surely she had to have read several of the materials (I’m honestly not sure whether or not she read Kirsch’s book) in preparing the report, so on the one hand it does seem strange for her to respond with such surprise to these arguments, although it might lend the report more excitement. On the other, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that she was unaware – or not fully aware - of these challenges until very recently. And given how entrenched the neurotransmitter-fixing model is in our consciousness, she could at some level have been genuinely stunned to hear someone saying the actual words, and responding as most people would.

It seems to me, as someone comparatively new to this discussion, that when you’ve been investigating or writing about it for some time you can to some extent lose sight of just how many people believe these notions. In the US, we’ve had decades of corporate propaganda pushing the idea that “psychological problems like depression are caused by neurotransmitter imbalances and psychotropic drugs work effectively to correct them.” We’ve had decades of doctors (some who sincerely believe themselves and some who don’t) and other educated people spreading this message both privately and publicly. Those in leadership positions who’ve acknowledged problems haven't tended to do so in the most public forums, or to go out of their way to correct the misinformation being spread by others. The very fact that the drugs have long been approved and that their manufacturers have been allowed by the FDA to use advertisements making this suggestion leads many people, quite naturally, to assume that the claim is well established scientifically.

Since I’ve been talking about this with people I know – admittedly not a representative sample, but I don’t think unrepresentative in any important way in this particular case – I’ve found that every single person with whom I’ve brought up the subject, without exception, accepts the neurotransmitter-fixing story. They take for granted that it’s true, as I did until fairly recently. It would be quite different if those challenging the claim entered a neutral context. In a neutral (scientific) context, those making the original claims would be required to demonstrate their truth, which in this case they couldn’t. But because the claims have now become so widely accepted, we have a reversal of the burden of evidence, in which the assertions of those challenging them meet with shock and suspicion and they are from the start put on the defensive, expected to defend their skepticism (which they have) while those making the original substantive claims are given a relative pass. So there is real resistance at the cultural level to engaging with these challenges or taking them seriously, and it affects, I would suppose, even those who don't have a strong personal stake in the validity of the original claims.

Even when we don’t actively resist the challenges, they often don’t register with us or tend to fall out of our consciousness or memory because they don’t fit with the cultural schemas so embedded in our minds. In the absence of sustained discussion and demands that the original claimants provide supporting evidence and fully address challenges and problems, and in a context saturated with the message of the original claimants, there’s nowhere to “put” these criticisms on and after the occasions in which we’re briefly exposed to them. So, many people watching the report likely had the same shocked response as Stahl, despite the challenges having been made and reported in the media earlier.

If we look at scientific claims that are widely accepted, we can recognize that if they were being made for the first time today, they could be supported on the basis of the existing evidence. This isn’t the case with this psychiatric model. It hasn’t established itself scientifically; in fact, it’s proven a failure. But it has been established culturally, through the work of powerful organizations relying on cultural inertia. That does seem to be changing, finally, and I hope we won’t be seeing the same “explosive” reports five years from now.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Interlude - From The Book of Embraces


Sometimes, at the end of the summer when the tourists left Calella, you could hear howls coming from the forest. They were the cries of dogs tethered to the trees.

The tourists used the dogs to relieve their loneliness during their vacation, and then, when the time came to leave, tied them up deep in the woods to keep them from following.

The US in Honduras: analysis

My posts about Honduras have decreased of late because I’ve been encouraging people to read Quotha. But I think it would be helpful to offer a smaller selection of pieces found there in recent weeks. These focus on the role of US-based (and Canada-based) interests, both private and governmental, in the disastrous situation that continues to develop in Honduras and the region.
· Dana Frank, “In Honduras, a Mess Made in the US”

· Robert White, “A Diplomat’s View on Honduras”

· Mark Engler, “Honduras: Our Continuing Catastrophe”

· Paul Imison, “Violence Sweeps Central America”

· Honduras Resists, “Delegation Report: Standard Fruit [Dole] Uses the Army and Police to Attack Campesinos”

· Adrienne Pine, “Honduran mining set for boost from new mining law”
Pine has of course been covering the prison fire. Here’s Democracy Now!’s recent interview with Dana Frank about the tragedy:

Élisée Reclus on vegetarianism

I’ve mentioned the anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus before in passing, most recently noting that on many issues he, like the far better known Kropotkin, was ahead not only of his own time but of ours as well. I thought I remembered Reclus being a vegetarian, and confirmed that when I found his 1901 Humane Review article “On Vegetarianism.”

Here are some highlights:
…First of all I should say that the search for truth had nothing to do with the early impressions which made me a potential vegetarian while still a small boy wearing baby-frocks. I have a distinct remembrance of horror at the sight of blood. One of the family had sent me, plate in hand, to the village butcher, with the injunction to bring back some gory fragment or other. In all innocence I set out cheerfully to do as I was bid, and entered the yard where the slaughtermen were. I still remember this gloomy yard where terrifying men went to and fro with great knives, which they wiped on blood-besprinkled smocks. Hanging from a porch an enormous carcase seemed to me to occupy an extraordinary amount of space; from its white flesh a reddish liquid was trickling into the gutters. Trembling and silent I stood in this blood-stained yard incapable of going forward and too much terrified to run away. I do not know what happened to me ; it has passed from my memory. I seem to have heard that I fainted, and that the kind-hearted butcher carried roe into his own house ; I did not weigh more than one of those lambs he slaughtered every morning.

…There is no need to go into some Porcopolis of North America, or into a saladero of La Plata, to contemplate the horrors of the massacres which constitute the primary condition of our daily food. But these impressions wear off in time; they yield before the baneful influence of daily education, which tends to drive the individual towards mediocrity, and takes out of him anything that goes to the making of an original personality. Parents, teachers, official or friendly, doctors, not to speak of the powerful individual whom we call "everybody," all work together to harden the character of the child with respect to this "four-footed food," which, nevertheless, loves as we do, feels as we do, and, under our influence, progresses or retrogresses as we do.

...When reading the papers, one wonders if all the atrocities of the war in China are not a bad dream instead of a lamentable reality. How can it be that men having had the happiness of being caressed by their mother, and taught in school the words "justice" and "kindness," how can it be that these wild beasts with human faces take pleasure in tying Chinese together by their garments and their pigtails before throwing them into a river? How is it that they kill off the wounded, and make the prisoners dig their own graves before shooting them? And who are these frightful assassins? They are men like ourselves, who study and read as we do, who have brothers, friends, a wife or a sweetheart ; sooner or later we run the chance of meeting them, of taking them by the hand without seeing any traces of blood there.

But is there not some direct relation of cause and effect between the food of these executioners, who call themselves "agents of civilisation," and their ferocious deeds? They, too, are in the habit of praising the bleeding flesh as a generator of health, strength, and intelligence. They, too, enter without repugnance the slaughter house, where the pavement is red and slippery, and where one breathes the sickly sweet odour of blood. Is there then so much difference between the dead body of a bullock and that of a man? The dissevered limbs, the entrails mingling one with the other, are very much alike : the slaughter of the first makes easy the murder of the second, especially when a leader’s order rings out, or from afar comes the word of the crowned master, "Be pitiless."

…A French proverb says that "every bad case can be defended." … Eyewitnesses, and even the authors themselves, have sent us information in every language, some cynically, and others with reserve. The truth is no longer denied, but a new morality has been created to explain it. This morality says there are two laws for mankind, one applies to the yellow races and the other is the privilege of the white. To assassinate or torture the first named is, it seems, henceforth permissible, whilst it is wrong to do so to the second.

…Is not our morality, as applied to animals, equally elastic? Harking on dogs to tear a fox to pieces teaches a gentleman how to make his men pursue the fugitive Chinese. The two kinds of hunt belong to one and the same "sport" ; only, when the victim is a man, the excitement and pleasure are probably all the keener.

…[F]or the great majority of vegetarians, the question is not whether their biceps and triceps are more solid than those of the flesh-eaters, nor whether their organism is better able to resist the risks of life and the chances of death, which is even more important : for them the important point is the recognition of the bond of affection and goodwill that links man to the so-called lower animals, and the extension to these our brothers of the sentiment which has already put a stop to cannibalism among men.

…"But," you will say, "if you abstain from the flesh of animals, other flesh-eaters, men or beasts, will eat them instead of you, or else hunger and the elements will combine to destroy them." Without doubt the balance of the species will be maintained, as formerly, in conformity with the chances of life and the inter-struggle of appetites ; but at least in the conflict of the races the profession of destroyer shall not be ours….
Not every argument he makes is airtight, of course, but it’s heartening to read this perspective from more than a century ago.

The university Bayh-Dole has built, in two short sentences

People have been expressing concern about the effects of the Bayh-Dole Act on universities and scholarship for a long time

but it’s rare to see them summed up so succinctly, and by a champion of this system, no less. Roy Poses at the Health Care Renewal Blog quotes from a Wall Street Journal interview with an academic administrator, listing the various logical fallacies proffered by the interviewee in defending conflicts of interest in academe.
The interviewer asked:
What do you tell professors who won't work with drug or biotech companies?
The response was:
I think that's a huge mistake. If you're a professor now, and you want to get your discovery to society, you either need to start a company or work with a company to commercialize a product.
As Poses rightly responds:
Of course, in the "good old days," academic researchers got their "discoveries to society" simply by publishing them. Developing and marketing products based on their discoveries, while worthwhile undertakings in their own rights, were not considered part of the academic mission. Professors could still do this, if their goal was not to get rich. Yet the Bayh-Dole act allowed academic institutions to make money from their professors' discoveries, and the rush to commercialize the university has been on ever since. So while professors and academic institutions who are motivated mainly by money might not consider just putting the knowledge they discover in the public domain, that course remains possible, just not so lucrative.
We have a system in which professors and university researchers are encouraged to see themselves not as scientists, scholars, or educators entrusted with the production and dissemination of knowledge for the public good, but as entrepreneurs selling their knowledge-products to customers (who in many cases have funded with their tax dollars the development of the products they’re expected to buy).

The interviewee is Susan Desmond-Hellmann, Chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, a public university, and former president of product development at Genentech. She’s not an outlier. Hers is merely the plainest expression of a general transformation.

Richard Dawkins gets a haircut

Dawkins storms in, his visage inevitably angry.

“Hello, Richard,” offers the receptionist.

“I have a 12:00 appointment,” he snips self-importantly.

The stylist approaches. Dawkins sneers.

“I want it short. Abrupt.”


“Yes. Curt, if possible,” Dawkins spits. “I want flaps, indignant little flaps.”

“Militant, then?”

“No, not militant!” he barks. “I said indignant!”

“And I need to continue to be able to comb it back imperiously off my face.” Dawkins impatiently yanks a photo of Stalin from his pocket and shoves it at the stylist.

She looks at the picture. “So, would you like me to straighten the flaps?” she asks politely.

“No, you blithering idiot!” he growls, growing red in the face. “Leave them contemptuously tousled. They need to say, along with Cecil Rhodes, ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life’.”


Monday, February 20, 2012

Let's get rid of this argument

I checked out some of the other early reactions to the 60 Minutes report looked like, and immediately came upon a standard criticism of Kirsch. It’s one that I find particularly annoying, because people who make it often don’t understand the situation and it takes a while to explain why this is wrong, and most people would understand if they read the book. In this case, though, the author of the post, John Grohol, links to Kirsch’s book, so his raising this objection is either disingenuous, and therefore offensive, or sloppy.

Here it is:
What wasn’t mentioned in the 60 Minutes piece, because it was opinion journalism forwarding a specific viewpoint, is that Kirsch’s research is selective. He hasn’t looked at every antidepressant study ever done (now numbering in the thousands). He only looked at the clinical trials required to gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for 6 antidepressant drugs (there are over a dozen on the market).
I’ve seen this argument on many occasions, sometimes – as in this case – hinting that Kirsch was trying to pass off a biased sample and sometimes claiming it outright. There are of course legitimate criticisms that can be made of Kirsch’s work, as of anyone’s, but this particular criticism is ridiculous.

That the published literature on antidepressants, were that to include 10 studies or hundreds, is completely biased in favor of the pharmaceutical makers is not in dispute by anyone even slightly knowledgeable about this. The techniques that the drugmakers use not only to slant research outcomes but to exaggerate effectiveness and hide side effects in the published literature are extremely well documented, and described in great detail by Kirsch, Ben Goldacre, Marcia Angell, and many others (as I’ve discussed numerous times here). The overwhelming publication bias in favor of the drugs’ effectiveness is also well established, and even stated by the British commissioner in the report. The data Kirsch obtained demonstrated it, but his is far from the only research to do so.

We should pause here for a moment, because people often skip past or brush off this point. It’s well demonstrated that these companies manipulate research, its presentation, and its publication in favor of showing effectiveness and minimizing side effects of the products they sell. These products are drugs, and the effectiveness and side effects have serious, in some cases life or death, consequences for people. They've paid researchers large amounts of money. They’ve been caught lying about what the research shows, including in cases that involve drugs that are going to be given to children. And they are allowed to retain control over the data.

I’m amazed at the lack of outrage, or even concern, about this situation in discussions of psychiatric drugs. Sometimes people go so far as to excuse these practices, which can ruin lives, with a shrugging “corporations will be corporations.” Reasonable people who care about their own and others’ health, or even just about the integrity of science, should be up in arms about this. They should join Kirsch, Goldacre, Angell and others who’ve long been calling for a real clinical trials registry. (There is one in the US, but from what I’ve seen it’s a joke. Try searching for, for example, SSRIs and see what you find. If it were an effective tool for keeping track of and providing public access to the data – and you can forget about the raw data – no one would be talking about the available published literature, because we’d have the data.) They would advocate for the denial of approval of a drug or its continuation if all of the data are not made public.

In any case, this is the reality Kirsch faced, and an insuperable problem faced by anyone who wants to perform a meta-analysis of the research on these drugs. But the one situation in which the companies can’t suppress negative findings (although of course they can and do still manipulate the research designs themselves) is in submitting clinical trials to the FDA for approval. That’s why Kirsch used FOIA – and that he had to do this should itself make people angry – to gain access to the entire set of pre-approval trials. He wasn’t selecting studies that would suit a pre-formed argument. He was trying to get the most unbiased set of studies possible, while continuing to argue for public access to all of the pre- and post-approval data. I’d like people suggesting that this is “biased” to explain how a less “biased” set of studies could be obtained. Moreover, as he says and as is worthwhile to point out,
these were the data upon which the antidepressants that are on the market today were approved for doctors to prescribe. If there was anything wrong with those data, then arguably the drugs should not have been approved in the first place. (p. 25)
So any claims – which, incidentally, Kirsch addresses in the book – about these studies not being long enough or short enough or whatever such that Kirsch’s meta-analysis was biased don’t hold up. We know that the published literature is biased, and we know the reason for and direction of the bias. An analysis of all or a representative sample of the published literature would be biased. Don’t criticize Kirsch and other researchers for being denied access to data we should all have access to, especially when the complete data can't reasonably be expected to contradict his findings. The suggestion that his work is biased because it doesn’t include, or that it should include, all of the published literature, either generally or for any specific sort of study, is simply unreasonable.

There are other problems with the post I linked to, errors of both omission and commission (the author seems confused about the difference between “conclusions based on one's reading of the evidence” and “bias”), and I expect to see them repeated many times. The 60 Minutes report – which, having to fit the story into a 20-minute frame, was necessarily limited – will likely contribute to some,* but my hope is that more people will at least read the book and criticize it based on a fair analysis of the substantive arguments.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

60 Minutes on antidepressants

I saw shortly before it was to air that tonight's episode of 60 Minutes would feature a story about people questioning the effectiveness of antidepressants, and wondered if they'd talk to Irving Kirsch. Turns out the report centered around him:

On the one hand, some qualifications about placebos were left out. On the other, so were many of the arguments from his book. The FDA guy came off looking like a dolt (really? it's "basic statistics" that given an unlimited number of company-sponsored trials it's highly unlikely that you'll find two showing a drug's effectiveness?), while the British regulatory representative came off as pretty sharp.

I'll have to watch again, but my initial reaction is that they did a decent job, and I'm very pleased to see another strong impetus toward discussion.

On skeptical priorities: CAM and Big Pharma

I’ve been thinking for a while about the priorities of the skeptical movement in general, including the importance of addressing sexism and racism, and specifically about differences in the respective treatment accorded to CAM on the one hand and Big Pharma on the other. This includes not only the overwhelming focus on CAM amongst skeptics, but the hostile and dismissive replies to criticisms of Big Pharma. There are skeptics – such as Ben Goldacre, Marcia Angell, and myself - who write about problems with both, but in the skeptical blogosphere generally serious skepticism concerning the claims and products of pharmaceutical corporations is minimized and very often met with derision, while jokes implying that “Big Pharma” itself is a silly and illusory invention are ubiquitous. Furthermore, the same sorts of evidence that are rightly rejected when coming from CAM advocates are often accepted (or at least not challenged) when presented in favor of Pharma’s products.

So I’d like to sketch out the various harms and benefits of the two, as a means, I suppose, of thinking through my own priorities and explaining my choices. Both Big Pharma and CAM cause extensive direct damage to humans and nonhuman animals, misshape our understanding of the causes of suffering, warp the scientific process and people’s understanding of what science is, misdirect energies away from more productive and just actions, waste valuable resources, and contribute to a view of ourselves which is damaging and inaccurate. I won’t be providing illustrative links for the items listed, but many examples can be found here or in the materials I’ve recommended (OK, and one new reference below).

Pharma, most obviously, makes drugs and devices that are ineffective and that harm or kill, sometimes in large numbers. They market and sell products that are ineffective, encouraging false hope. The development of their products – beneficial, neutral, and harmful; necessary and frivolous – often involves the exploitation and suffering of humans and other animals on an immense scale, both as research subjects and as the providers of needed materials.

The profit motives of pharmaceutical corporations lead to several profoundly negative effects on science. The companies prioritize the research that will benefit them, which is that which appeals to or is useful for the rich and powerful. They draw attention away from the social causes of, and responses to, suffering and illness. Both of these lead to the squandering of resources, as do the huge sums spent on marketing. They pathologize wide swaths of human thought, behavior, and suffering in order to sell treatments, in the process stigmatizing people and altering their self-conception and vision of society in the companies’ own interest, which has political ill effects.

They corrupt the scientific process, at every stage, in a huge variety of ways. They "fix" and suppress research. They work against practices of scientific sharing and openness. They corrupt medical researchers, physicians, educational institutions, scientific journals, and even ethicists, and in doing so corrupt the very foundation of medicine. They influence government in their interests. They work effectively to silence critics and to criminalize protest of their actions, enhancing corporate power and promoting a culture that is both authoritarian and insufficiently critical of human, animal, and environmental abuse and damage if it’s claimed to be in the service of medical goals. Finally, they promote a culture in which corporate science is seen as science per se, making it more difficult for science-based skepticism to get a fair hearing.

On the benefits side, pharmaceutical companies do produce useful and life-saving drugs (though the number of new ones has declined significantly over the past couple of decades). But this needs to be seen in historical context. I don’t think the argument that a system of medicine and public health dominated by corporations, given all of the negatives listed above, has been a boon to well-being in comparison to a system not based on profits and ownership but on research and production in the public interest is supportable. A system in which the power of these companies is drastically reduced would be a better one for science, medicine, and human and animal welfare and rights, and one in which they ceased to play a role altogether in favor of public control would be, in my view, best.

CAM, too, develops and uses treatments that harm humans and animals both in their development and in their use. Further, its proponents harm people by steering them away from needed effective treatments when these exist and are accessible. Though smaller in scale, the harms have to be weighed against the far smaller benefits offered by any CAM treatments. They provide false hope to suffering people, and make claims about the causes of illness and suffering that are false and distort people’s image of themselves and others, sometimes in profoundly harmful ways. Like Pharma, they ruthlessly go after and attempt to silence critics. Contrary to the self-presentation of many practitioners, CAM is big business, and economic gain is a major motive. They also corrupt scientific institutions and political agencies, though, due to their relative size and influence, to a far lesser degree than Pharma.

They cause severe epistemic damage, actually promoting practices that are not just unscientific but antiscientific. Much of CAM is not simply unsupported, but ludicrous. They promote a culture in which not corporate “science” but science itself is rejected, and in which people are led to view CAM as the sole alternative to Pharma-dominated medicine. This leads to false paths and misdirected energies amongst people with real concerns, problems, and criticisms, and to wasted resources. CAM is often racist and essentialist, both in its specific substantive claims and in its self-promotion as the alternative to “Western” science. It leads people, tragically, to see antiscientific movements as progressive, when this is the opposite of the truth. It makes the work of science-based progressive activists more difficult by encouraging the notion that there is a fundamental association between challenging the claims and actions of Pharma and challenging science, and between social justice and woo, and by misleadingly appropriating scientific criticisms for its antiscientific ends.

CAM treatments can ameliorate the suffering of people with conditions that can be genuinely helped with placebos, and its proponents do on occasion provide criticisms of corporate medicine and priorities that are accurate (though usually not original, and often set in a context of other, dubious assertions). But this amelioration pales in comparison to the harms, and their half-baked, antiscientific skepticism is used to steer people away from actions that would be productive.

So it seems criticism of both - Big Pharma and CAM – is urgently necessary. Really, the two feed each other, causing harm to human and nonhuman animals, promoting regressive politics, and weakening medicine and science. The solution isn’t a half-hearted acceptance of some aspects of each, but a rejection of both in favor of a solid science and system of public health that serves real needs and values rather than profits.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Call me Rock God"

Stupid, creepy ad.

The Daily Show, the orca slavery lawsuit, and the willful ignorance of What All Good Liberals Know

Sigh. So The Daily Show lived up to my expectations in their story about PETA’s orca slavery lawsuit. I asked in October for people to try to avoid reflex ridicule and to investigate the basis for the lawsuit and the situation at SeaWorld (about which I’ve written quite a bit) before mocking it. Well, Wyatt Cenac and the show were, unsurprisingly, unable to meet even that most basic ethical standard.

When the “report” began with an uncritical presentation of a clip from Fox News I knew it wouldn’t go well.

It’s one thing to argue that particular characterizations of some forms of oppression that implicitly or explicitly compare them to others are inaccurate or offensive. Claims of offense should be taken seriously, but not simply accepted as the last word. The rejection of a characterization should be based on evidence and reason, as if made to a member of the “insulted” group who defends it. The offense could be perfectly valid, it could be ignorant, and/or it could be a means to preserve privilege; struggles for rights and against suffering, moreover, can and do justify the causing of offense in some circumstances. In the history of liberation movements, there have been many activists and oppressed people who felt solidarity with those of other oppressed groups. There have also been many who felt their precarious position threatened by other movements. This fear has long been exploited by elites to continue their rule over all of the subordinate groups.

Elaine Brown appears ignorant of the reality when she suggests that “If there is animal cruelty, we want to talk about animal cruelty, but…” There is no reference at all, in the entire piece, to orcas’ lives in the wild or in corporate theme parks. The audience is led to believe, and appears all too willing to accept, that the suit is utterly frivolous, solely about “exploiting the history of the enslavement of black people in this country for publicity.” Shockingly, they also seem to buy the absurd direct comparison of orcas in theme parks to domestic dogs and cats.

When Lisa Lange from PETA suggests that because the 13th amendment doesn’t use the word “person” or “people” in its language, they’re “hoping that a court will see that it can apply to animals,”* and Cenac replies “She’s right. If the constitution was written for people and not for whales, it would say that somewhere” while showing “We the people” on the screen, the audience responds with laughter and applause. What they and Cenac appear to be forgetting, oddly enough in this context, is that the “people” of the original Constitution did not include him, or Brown, or me, or I’m sure many members of the audience.

Rationales for the subordination of, and insults to, groups of humans have long rested on claims that they were more like nonhuman animals than other humans. This of course makes it natural that members of those groups would – as they sometimes do with other human groups – attempt to draw a bright line between themselves and all nonhuman species. But it’s cruelly ironic that they do, and counterproductive to the cause of anyone’s freedom, wherever they fall in the social hierarchy.

I’m certainly willing to entertain arguments that this lawsuit was incorrect in its reasoning or that the risk of offense should outweigh the goals. Those arguments would have to be, well, argued, however. Pointing to other tactics of PETA or any other group, or simply asserting offense or engaging in uninformed mockery, does not invalidate it. It does, though, serve the interests of those in power.

The reason I wasn’t surprised by their take was that this is one of many stories on Stewart’s show that seem to be based on What All Good Liberals Know. They know that gnu (heh) atheist arguments shouldn't be taken entirely seriously, that humans should care – though not too militantly – about nonhuman animal welfare and consider animal rights (unless, sometimes, approved) to be ridiculous, and so on. It would be an improvement if they made the slightest attempt to question these assumptions by placing themselves in the longer historical context. I’m cautiously optimistic.

*As they note, the court did not. I wasn’t expecting success for the suit – just intelligent consideration.

Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

is a fine and insightful book. I wasn’t surprised, as I’d also been impressed with Fear several years ago (though that one gave me more to argue about).

Robin wishes to counteract what he views as misconceptions about conservatism. He argues that, contrary to the presentation of the movement by both the left and the right itself as more attitudinal than intellectual, conservatism has in fact been “an idea-driven praxis” (p. 17). Related to this, and despite his title, he wants to move away from popular accounts that root conservatism in, or indeed reduce it to, alleged psychological tendencies to ground it in both social contexts and a real and enduring intellectual tradition. He wishes to develop the “notion of the right as a set of historical improvisations on a continuous theme” (p. 38), characterizing it as a “politics of backlash” in which, across centuries and continents, we can discern “a unity, a coherent body of theory and practice” (p. 33).

Robin argues that people learn little about the history of conservative thought, and the chapters, covering Burke, Hobbes, Antonin Scalia, Ayn Rand, and a multitude of others, draw out the thinking at the heart of conservatism throughout its history. Most broadly, Robin situates the conservative tradition in the history of rebellion from below and reaction from above:
This book is about the second half of that story, the demarche, and the political ideas—variously called conservative, reactionary, revanchist, counterrevolutionary—that grow out of and give rise to it. These ideas, which occupy the right side of the political spectrum, are forged in battle. They always have been, at least since they first emerged as formal ideologies during the French Revolution, battles between social groups rather than nations; roughly speaking, between those with more power and those with less. To understand these ideas, we have to understand that story. For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back. (p. 4)

Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite. (p. 7)
Although there’s much attention paid to conservatives seeking to protect unequal wealth and control over resources, Robin (as the passages above suggest) focuses on the defense of power, of hierarchical orders of rule. He points to “the threat Edmund Burke saw in the French Revolution: not merely an expropriation of property or explosion of violence but an inversion of the obligations of deference and command” (p. 8). The “animating purpose” of conservative (including libertarian) movements, he argues, is “the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere” (pp. 15-16). These practices of coercion and deference in everyday contexts like the family and the workplace, the “most personal relations of power” (p. 10), are central to the fears that propel conservative movements:
Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. (p. 10)

When the conservative looks upon a democratic movement from below, this (and the exercise of agency) is what he sees: a terrible disturbance in the private life of power. (p. 12)
This is the common thread tying instantiations of conservatism together. As Robin reminds us,
Today’s conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past; others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests. But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as a question, whether in the context of revolution or reform, his predecessor was in all likelihood against them. (p. 27)
He argues that this has important implications. Conservatism appeals not just to those at the top of hierarchies of rule, but also – and perhaps with special force - to those closer to the bottom. As he writes of white people in the Old South:
Though the members of this ruling class knew that they were not equal to each other, they were compensated by the illusion of superiority – and the reality of rule – over the black population beneath them. (p. 55)
This illusion of superiority and the sense of self as master are what’s threatened by liberation movements from below, and that, Robin argues, can make reformists into reactionaries (p. 12). He points to the fact that the constituency of the conservative movement is those experiencing this loss or its possibility:
People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small. Even so, it is a loss, and nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess. (pp. 58-59)
He correctly points out that it’s the Right that is currently reminding the “losers” of this, but it’s worth noting that of course the Right has created and lives by the situation in which these hierarchies exist in the first place, and that in the larger sense the losses are less than the gains, even for those who are not at the bottom. (Power is not, as Robin suggests, zero-sum. The assertion that the patriarchy and other hierarchies hurt everyone is not merely feel-good platitude or a cynical ploy by liberation movements to make their demands more palatable; it is a fact.) In any case, he’s right when he notes that here lies “what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history” (p. 97).

Contrary to simplistic and common characterizations of conservatism from those on the Left and from conservatives themselves portraying it as about tradition or prudence or resistance to (or fear of) change or newness, Robin makes clear that it is a particular set of movements arising in reaction to particular demands from below:
[I]t is important that we be clear about what the conservative is and is not opposing in the left. It is not change in the abstract. No conservative opposes change as such or defends order as such. The conservative defends particular orders—hierarchical, often private regimes of rule—on the assumption, in part, that hierarchy is order. (p. 24)

Conservatism is about power besieged and power protected. It is an activist doctrine for an activist time. (p. 28)
This foundation means that conservatism as an ideology and practice is often characterized by extreme and even radical doctrines and actions. It’s a social movement of reaction, but that doesn’t make it any less a social movement. The story often heard about a proper “conservative conservatism” that lost its moderation or has been taken over by radicals is historically inaccurate, Robin argues:
What this story of decline over-looks—whether it emanates from the right or the left—is that all of these supposed vices of contemporary conservatism were present at the beginning, in the writings of Burke and Maistre, only they weren’t viewed as vices. They were seen as virtues. (p. 43)

Whether in Europe or the United States, in this century or previous ones, conservatism has been a forward movement of restless and relentless change, partial to risk taking and ideological adventurism, militant in its posture and populist in its bearings, friendly to upstarts and insurgents, outsiders and newcomers alike. (p. 42)
In this, conservatives have learned from and mimicked the mobilization techniques and language of the Left and used them to their advantage. They’ve worked to build a mass movement to “make privilege popular…which brings the energy and dynamism of the street to the antique inequalities of a dilapidated estate.” (p. 43) Robin sums up:
That is the task of right-wing populism: to appeal to the mass without disrupting the power of elites or, more precisely, to harness the energy of the mass in order to reinforce or restore the power of elites. Far from being a recent innovation of the Christian Right or the Tea Party movement, reactionary populism runs like a red thread throughout conservative discourse from the very beginning. (p. 55)
What is the intellectual underpinning of this attachment to hierarchy? Robin argues that it is a particular “vision of the connection between excellence and rule” (p. 15). Conservative thought is “[n]o simple defense of one’s own place and privileges” (the conservative “may or may not be directly involved in or benefit from the practices of rule he defends”), but “stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, base, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse.” (p. 16) “For many,” he says,
the word ‘reaction’ connotes an unthinking, lowly grab for power. But reaction is not reflex. It begins from a position of principle—that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others—and then recalibrates that principle in light of a democratic challenge from below. This recalibration is no easy task, for such challenges tend by their very nature to disprove the principle. (p. 18)
There’s much in the book that’s fascinating about romantic notions of struggle and excellence and the conservative focus on “sublimity” through hierarchy and violence, including counter-revolutionary violence – how the conservative intellectual tradition has seen hierarchy, pain, and danger as positively affecting the self. “Indulging in political romanticism,” Robin asserts,
they draw from the stock-in-trade of the counter-Enlightenment, celebrating the intoxicating vitality of struggle while denouncing the bloodless norms of reason and rights. (p. 113)

Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, the conservative has been enlivened by it. (p. 217)
Robin makes it a point to note that when he talks about the centrality of violence in conservatism his “concern is with ideas and argument rather than character or psychology. Violence, the conservative intellectual has maintained, is one of the experiences in life that makes us feel the most alive, and violence is an activity that makes life, well, lively” (p. 218).

The sections on conservative writing about the so-called sublime and the experience and effects of hierarchy are, as I said, fascinating, and the examples – from Burke to Tocqueville to Schmitt to Fukuyama – do show a continuing set of themes that tie conservative thinkers together across time and place. The ways in which they see secure power and material comfort as dangerously softening and regard combat, counterrevolution, and struggle as reinvigorating and forging of excellence make for, as Robin mentions several times, a complex response to capitalism and religion. The brief discussions of conservative views of capitalism and religion are intriguing, but incomplete and not the strongest in the book.

Which brings me to the book’s flaws. Its main arguments are insightful and solid, and the quotations and historical examples are vivid illustrations (though they generally jump from centuries ago to the 20th and 21st centuries, with little about imperialism, colonialism, or even fascism). The book should have been organized around these themes. Instead, it’s a collection of writings from the past several years that have appeared elsewhere. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like the selling of books of collected pieces like this without presenting them fully as such. In this case it’s especially disappointing, as, first, the articles don’t necessarily reflect Robin’s current thinking on the questions they discuss, and, second, he wasn’t pushed to develop the ideas in them further or in engagement with the specific historical and theoretical literatures involved. (This was especially problematic in the sections about security, which were quite interesting otherwise.) It’s not difficult for the reader, having read the introduction, to pull many of the threads together, but I think it would have been a better book had Robin done that himself, and then developed his insights further. This would have taken it beyond a collection of essays. Overall, though, a useful and recommended book.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Resentment, ressentiment, and justice after mass crimes: Brudholm and Fassin

I’ve had the Somatosphere in my feeds for a little while since they were covering the Risperdal trial. I wasn’t sure if it fit with my interests more broadly, and almost dropped it. I was pleased that I hadn’t the other day when they linked to Didier Fassin speaking at Harvard Medical School about moral anthropology and the difference between resentment and ressentiment. Here’s the “video” (really just audio with a picture of Fassin):

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent months about anger, forgiveness, and punishment, and just after seeing the video I’d excitedly begun writing up a short post about it: “Drawing on the work on Jean Améry and others and on his own fieldwork in South Africa and France, Fassin sketches out a challenge the general fetishization of forgiveness, amnesty, and reconciliation which holds sway at present and, in my view, fails to appreciate perpetrators of state or corporate violence as moral agents or the broader sociological context….”

The work of Améry sounded so important to me that before I even posted I did an Amazon search, and one of the first related books listed was Thomas Brudholm’s 2008 Resentment’s Virtue: Jean Améry and the Refusal to Forgive, which I’ve now read.

Brudholm writes:
This book offers a counterpoint to the near-hegemonic status afforded to the logic of forgiveness in the literatures on transitional justice and reconciliation…. It is meant to complement the scores of writings in which outrage, resentment, and refusals to forgive or reconcile are hastily rejected as the negative to be overcome: the irrational, immoral, and unhealthy or understandable but unfortunate attitudes of victims who are not-at least not yet- "ready" or "capable" of forgiving and healing.

…I argue that, in some circumstances, the preservation of outrage or resentment and the refusal to forgive and reconcile can be the reflex expression of a moral protest and ambition that might be as permissible and admirable as the posture of forgiveness. When this possibility is neglected and when advocates or scholars arguing the case for forgiveness and healing lose sight of the contestability of the values they promote, they also lose sight of the possible moral legitimacy of some victims' preservation of resentment. This neglect is not fair-and in fact it can be deeply offensive. (pp. 3-4)
It’s significant, readable, and fair. The odd thing is how similar Fassin’s presentation is to Brudholm’s work. It recapitulates some aspects – down to the focus on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission - but doesn’t go much beyond Brudholm’s far more comprehensive treatment. (Fassin does talk about ressentiment in relation to the response to AIDS drugs by the Mbeke government, which could be, and really would have to be, fleshed out to contribute something original to the discussion from the perspective of medical anthropology.) It’s quite strange.

So I’d been planning to recommend the Fassin talk, but after reading the Brudholm book I’m of course suggesting that instead. It’s divided into two parts – the first about the South African TRC, and in particular the views of Desmond Tutu and other leaders concerning victims who are unwilling to forgive and reconcile, and the second a detailed examination of Améry’s essays. The two halves don’t blend seamlessly, but they certainly make sense together and are independently strong. I was somewhat surprised at the lack of attention to South America, but one aspect I found intriguing was the evident religious aspects of the “logic of forgiveness.” I was hoping that Brudholm would elaborate on this when I happily discovered that his previous book was The Religious in Responses to Mass Atrocity: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

(…and then unhappily discovered that it’s the most expensive Kindle book I’ve ever seen).

Saturday, February 11, 2012

I get around

In the past few weeks I also visited the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut. It’s the former home of Theodate Pope Riddle, the architect who designed not only the home itself but the Avon Old Farms School, amongst others.

I learned a few new facts about her, including that she was originally named Effie but later adopted the family name Theodate because it was not so recognizably female – helpful for a woman in a male-dominated profession like architecture. (Many women then and today, of course, use their initials; hers was an interesting choice.) She was also a spiritualist – which I gathered from the spines of the books in the fascinating library – who, unhappy with the leadership and direction of the spiritualist movement in the US, traveled to Britain to meet with spiritualist leaders there…on the Lusitania. She survived; her maid and friend were killed.

The Pope family were avid art collectors, and it’s a thrill to be able to walk up to gorgeous works by Monet, Manet, Degas, Whistler, and Cassatt in the rooms of a home. The museum is also featuring a changing exhibit of prints from their archives, which is wonderful.

One of the best, and unexpected, aspects of our visit was a group of wind sculptures by Lyman Whitaker at the entrance to the museum. They were great fun to photograph. Here’s my favorite:

My hedonistic New York City weekend

A few weeks ago I popped over to New York for one of my unfortunately rare weekend visits. It was as decadent as ever, and full of new places to visit (at night – we didn’t get out much in the daylight) and recommend.

We started with a Friday early-evening gathering in the upstairs bar at Cienfuegos on Avenue A, a tropical oasis where they serve a variety of fizzy rum punches in punchbowls with ladles. Fun. We probably wouldn’t have ordered the second bowl had we known our companions would leave it all to us. (Oh, who am I kidding?) Thank Bacchus, we had some food there as well, which was surprisingly good.

We then moved on to Poco, an elegant and bustling tapas bar on Avenue B. I almost wished I hadn’t eaten at Cienfuegos, as the spinach and wild mushroom macaroni & cheese was one of the best things I’ve ever had. If I could be eating it now, I would. The mushroom truffle croquettes were also nice. I think there was champagne….

From there we went to meet friends at Jimmy, the rooftop bar at the James Hotel. It’s entered through a nondescript door, a velvet rope, and a few more what I can only describe as coolness checkpoints. I love this from the hotel’s page:
*JIMMY is accessible to all hotel guests until 9 pm. After 9 pm there is a controlled entrance on the ground floor. If JIMMY is closed for a private event or unable to accommodate, you are welcome to enjoy cocktails at The Treehouse Bar, The Garden, or David Burke Kitchen Bar. We apologize for our success as our limited rooftop space and popular demand limits the number of guests we can welcome at one time.
Even if you’re paying hundreds of dollars a night to stay at the hotel, you still might not make the cut. You can’t buy cool.

It is beautiful. In the summer there’s a small pool, which of course wasn’t open at this time of year. Possibly the best views of the city I’ve seen:

[photo from link just above]

Closed out the night at our usual dive, which shall remain anonymous. Didn’t go to Odessa for early-morning food, which would’ve been wise.

We had a lovely dinner on Saturday when we finally made it out at around 9. Can’t remember the name of the restaurant.

Sunday brunch was at Rayuela on Allen St. I loved the open design, the food was a step above (desserts were artful), and they had open cava sangria, which is a great deal especially as my glass was never unfilled.

Everyone was super nice, and my friends are always the best. I was reminded of why I love New York…and why it would be dangerous to live there :). For anyone planning a visit, I’d recommend any of the places I mentioned above unreservedly.

Cordelia Fine should be invited to speak at skeptic events

I’ve had occasion to link to this article from last year by Cordelia Fine, “Let’s say good-bye to the straw feminist,” a few times in various places over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d put a link to it here while I’m praising her efforts generally. In it, she goes after the tired claim that those challenging essentialist claims about sex differences are desperate ideologues facing off against the hard-nosed representatives of cold science, correctly arguing that those making this claim are constructing a straw-feminist:
[A]gain and again I argue that – because of under-acknowledgment of social factors, spurious results, poor methodologies, and untested assumptions – the evidence scientists and commentators provide as support for essentialist claims is simply not as strong as they seem to think.

It’s portraying those who challenge scientific claims about essentially different male and female minds as more interested in politics than science. Let’s say good-bye to that straw-feminist. And, while she’s leaving, let’s also close the door behind her antithesis, the value-free mouthpiece of scientific facts. These characterizations aren’t just inaccurate, they’re also unproductive. Progress will be faster if we move beyond stereotypes and start thinking about the relationship between science and politics in this debate in a more sophisticated way.
I think Fine should be invited to speak at more skeptic events. (I don’t know her at all and have no idea if she’s interested or available to do so, but I think invitations should be offered.) Here she is at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney in 2010*:

Cordelia Fine: Delusions of Gender from Australian Broadcasting Corporation on FORA.tv

I find her an engaging speaker, but more generally I think that the beliefs underlying sexism (and racism) haven’t been sufficiently subjected to critical analysis in the skeptical community, where they are commonly expressed and where the straw-feminist and straw-antiracist are frequent and annoying guests.

*At one point, she’s talking about the misuse and misleading presentation of brain-scans, which I was just mentioning in another context.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

More cat woo: Reiki for cats

Natalie Reed, who has an excellent and illuminating blog, posted the other day about her disappointment at finding that a site ostensibly offering health information for trans people was in actuality peddling Reiki.

Since I’d just posted about cat woo, including about a “spirit essence” purported to contain “Reiki Energy,” I thought I’d look into whether there was Reiki for cats. Of course there is:

This site is rather infuriating, advocating Reiki for cats with leukemia. But this part had me laughing:
Ultimately, however, I advise against forcing your cat to sit still while you share Reiki with them. They know how much energy they need and can freely choose to stop accepting the Reiki.
Indeed. There’s a cat a few feet from me, curled in a fluffy ball against a teddy bear, and I suspect any attempt at Reiki would have a bloody result.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Oh, no! Cat woo!

I admitted a while back that my new favorite television show was Revenge. I’m only slightly less sheepish talking about another new favorite: My Cat From Hell. This was actually the first episode I saw:

It’s seriously entertaining, and the cat behavioral expert, Jackson Galaxy, seems to me to be a genuinely nice guy who gives generally good and effective suggestions (though I suppose the failures wouldn’t make it on the show). The cats’ behavior and the lengths to which humans will go to work around it are shocking and hilarious. It’s funny to think that someone could be so “terrorized by Mr. Fluff” that he’d contemplate moving, but when you see the situation you understand.

I’d planned to do a quick little post last week about my enjoyment of the show, but when I went in search of more information I came upon something disturbing. Jackson Galaxy is selling cat woo. I’m not opposed to the suggestion that there might be a soothing herb that could be properly tested (especially if tried in place of what the people and even Galaxy himself sometimes go for – psychotropic drugs like Prozac [!!!]); catnip, after all, is a plant). But this is downright silly. This, for example, is the “spirit essences report” for Stella. One of the recommended products is something called “Trauma-Free.” Here’s the product description:
This product is formulated for all animals.

Much has been documented about the debilitating effects of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in humans, but little attention has been paid to our animal counterparts.

Whether they have suffered from neglect or abuse, or fear specific sights, sounds or people they associate with negative events, Trauma-Free helps animals release the emotional "baggage" that they have accumulated. Most importantly, this remedy facilitates freedom from the past, allowing our companions to live as nature intented them to - fully alive in the moment.

Product Ingredients

This remedy contains Eldorado Natural Spring Water, Ethanol (as a preservative), Essence of Full Color Spectrum, Reiki Energy, Michael's Energy Water and the following essences:

From Flower Essence Society Healing Herbs (Bach Flower Equivalent): Pine, Star of Bethlehem, Water Violet, Wild Rose.

From Flower Essence Society: Arnica, Echinacea, Evening Primrose, Love-Lies-Bleeding

From Rocky Mountain Essences: Heartleaf Arnica, Lodgepole Pine, Twisted Pine

From Pacific Essences: Diatoms, Snowberry

From Watersong Sanctuary: Orange Flowers, Prickly Pear Cactus

From Aum Himalaya Essences: Swallow Wart

From Kuau'i Starmen Essences: Avocado, Canna Lily, Haha

From Green Hope farm: Crinum Lily, Dill, Russian Sage, Uncarina Grandidieri [my emphasis]
I watched the episode with Stella more closely, and noticed that he hadn’t, as I’d originally thought, just sent her to a veterinarian, but apparently to a "holistic" veterinarian, who was then shown performing acupuncture.

On a cat.


More unraveling: ADD and Ritalin

I’ve posted a little bit about the intense and widespread criticism of the DSM-5. (For up-to-the-minute news and commentary, see The Blog Formerly Known as DSM-5 Wat…er, Dx Revision Watch.)

I mentioned in concluding a recent post that
what we may be witnessing with the broad challenges to the DSM-5 is the beginning of the end for this psychiatric model. Its flaws, failures, and cooptation by corporate interests are becoming more widely known, and it’s unraveling. Efforts at evasion and intimidation like these merely dramatize the process.
And we’re now seeing another thread pulled away. An op-ed last week in the New York Times by L. Alan Sroufe* explains that the psychotropic drugs used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder, the use of which has grown dramatically along with the diagnosis, don’t work. Moreover, they’re likely to have negative long-term effects, and are based on an unfounded belief in the etiology and nature of the “disorder” and the drugs’ mechanism of action.

One point Sroufe raises relates to something that’s bothered me for some time – the making of claims about psychological differences based on the use of brain scans (even assuming the interpretations of these scans are correct and complete, which is often not the case):
[F]indings in neuroscience are being used to prop up the argument for drugs to treat the hypothesized “inborn defect.” These studies show that children who receive an A.D.D. diagnosis have different patterns of neurotransmitters in their brains and other anomalies. While the technological sophistication of these studies may impress parents and nonprofessionals, they can be misleading. Of course the brains of children with behavior problems will show anomalies on brain scans. It could not be otherwise. Behavior and the brain are intertwined. Depression also waxes and wanes in many people, and as it does so, parallel changes in brain functioning occur, regardless of medication.

…However brain functioning is measured, these studies tell us nothing about whether the observed anomalies were present at birth or whether they resulted from trauma, chronic stress or other early-childhood experiences. One of the most profound findings in behavioral neuroscience in recent years has been the clear evidence that the developing brain is shaped by experience.

…[O]nly one question is asked: are there aspects of brain functioning associated with childhood attention problems? The answer is always yes. Overlooked is the very real possibility that both the brain anomalies and the A.D.D. result from experience.
Incidentally, here’s another relevant article from last month, this one by Bruce Levine: “America's Mental Health Industry Is a Threat to Our Sanity.” Levine lists seven reasons why this is so. I’ll quote the last, which is so often ignored:
7. Diversion from Societal, Cultural and Political Sources of Misery

When we hear the words disorder, disease or illness, we think of an individual in need of treatment, not of a troubled society in need of transformation. Mental illness expansionism diverts us from examining a dehumanizing society.

In addition to pathologizing normal behavior, the mental health profession also diverts us from examining a society that creates the ingredients—helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, and isolation—that cause emotional difficulties. We are diverted from the reality that many emotional problems are natural human reactions to loss in our society of autonomy and community. Thus, the mental health profession not only has financial value for drug companies but it has political value for those at the top of societal hierarchies who want to retain the status quo. [my emphasis]
*[via Hooked – the post there is worth reading as well]