Thursday, July 26, 2012

Man aisles, kitchen stadiums, and the stupidity of gendered food

I don’t know whether the pathetic practice of gendering food, cooking, and eating appalls me more as a feminist or a vegan. (Fortunately, I don’t have to choose.) I saw an article today – “Man Aisle Pops Up in New York City Market with Beer, Barbecue, and Cereal”* - reminding me not just of past campaigns encouraging an anxious, homophobic masculinity but also of a piece I saw on the Today Show last week that’s been nagging at me since.

The introduction to a short clip with Bobby Flay talking about some basic kitchen tools “for men” – when Bobby Flay is the least annoying element of your segment, you should know you have a problem – managed to work in just about every tired trope about men, cooking, and eating imaginable. The segment opens with the announcement that

“the kitchen is quickly becoming the new man cave.” Manly music and horror film lighting introduce…a knife being sharpened, as Savannah Guthrie breathlessly narrates. “They’re sharpening their tools and preparing for battle.” A knife cutting through animal flesh. “There will be blood.” A lit burner. “There will be fire.” “And of course” – for no reason at all – “bacon.” …“as men everywhere invade the kitchen.” Bloody hatchet. Giant manhand grinds with mortar and pestle.

‘50s film of a woman in the kitchen, accompanied by dainty music. Music changes to something coded as rock as we learn that men are cooking more meals. Cut to Daniel Duane, author of How to Cook like a Man: “There’s something that really appeals to the male mind about the primal nature of cooking.” Duane in kitchen with his daughters: “There was this choice: diapers, knives. That wasn’t a very hard decision for me.” [laughs]

Guthrie recounts that the book “documents his cooking obsession, from duck confit to bone-in prime rib.” He’s shown from below with blow torch. “Duane has his very own blow torch, a meat locker, and a small arsenal of knives.” Duane: “The kitchen’s definitely become my man cave.”

Clip from Iron Chef. Guthrie: some say the trend began with cooking shows, and “tuning in to watch celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay command the kitchen.” “And with more men playing chef at home, cookware retailers are sitting up and taking notice. Because, after all, if there’s anything men simply can’t get enough of, it’s gadgets.” Cookware store dude: “We like to think of ourselves as a hardware store for people who like to cook.”

Man-oriented cooking sites “are catering to men who aren’t afraid to don an apron and dice some shallots, masters of their own personal kitchen stadiums.”

Time for Flay and his manly kitchen gadgets. Guthrie reassures the audience that his apron isn’t too frilly. No reason to worry, as Flay assures everyone that it’s like his cooking uniform. Cooking “really is kind of like a sporting event,” he says, a bit before he pulls a big-man knife from her testosteronically challenged lady hand, informing her that she doesn’t look ready to cut into a steak…

That’s enough for me.

It has everything: violence, death, competition, gadgets, hardware, domination, the “male mind,” alleged primal drives, weapons, war, disparagement of women's food preparation (which doesn’t involve knives or fire, I guess – prepped food is flown in by sweet bluebirds),... Is there a single sexist trope this thing missed?

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

*Ridiculous: “Called 'The Man Aisle', the space stocks stereotypically male items like beer, cereal, soda, beef jerky, hot sauces, barbecue sauces, condoms, and oh, Chock full o'Nuts Coffee.” (The author, to her credit, closes on a suitably sarcastic note.)

16-year-old girl in Dominican Republic not given chemotherapy because of abortion ban

Reproductive rights has become a battlefield in Latin America in recent years, with some victories for women and unfortunately too many for the forces of reaction.

This girl's case is a tragic illustration of the consequences for real people's lives when the Catholic Right gets its way:

At the Semma Hospital in the captial city of Santo Domingo, a 16-year-old girl is dying of acute leukemia. Doctors say the girl, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, needs an aggressive chemotherapy treatment. But there's one problem: the teenager is nine weeks pregnant and treatment would very likely terminate the pregnancy, a violation of Dominican anti-abortion laws.

One of the people responsible for this travesty claims that the doctors who fear giving the girl chemotherapy should not, as the treatment is legal:

Pelegrin Castillo, one of the architects of Article 37, says the constitutional ban does not prevent doctors from administering the treatment. It does, however, prevent them from practicing an abortion in order to treat the patient with chemotherapy.

"It's an artificial debate," Castillo said. "What we have clearly said is that in this case doctors are authorized by the constitution to treat the patient. They don't have to worry about anything. They have the mandate of protecting both lives."

But this appears to be disingenuous, and the "mandate of protecting both lives" nonsense makes the problem plain. (If anyone doubts the overwhelming influence of the Vatican on this article, note the distinction between an "accidental" and an "intentional" termination.)

There are - it appears unconfirmed - reports that they have begun chemotherapy; if true, this should have happened much sooner. People can only hope that the delay hasn't made a difference to her recovery. The girl's mother and women's rights groups have reignited debate about the murderous abortion ban. Hopefully some measure of justice will come from their efforts in the near future.

Numbers of a disaster foretold

Via Tim Zimmermann: Bill McKibben, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math."

[W]hat all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization....

...The three numbers I've described are daunting – they may define an essentially impossible future. But at least they provide intellectual clarity about the greatest challenge humans have ever faced. We know how much we can burn, and we know who's planning to burn more. Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it's not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Word for World Is Forest

I read this novella a few weeks ago in Again, Dangerous Visions.

Someone had referred me to “In the Barn,” another story in the collection, but I’ve yet to read that or any of the others. I was quite taken with this one, though – it’s one of those that hangs at the edge of your consciousness, eager to be recalled. And it is: almost everything I've read, thought, or written about since has brought it to mind.

There’s also what appears to be a nice expanded version:

I could spend all day talking about the many topical themes, but I assume most people will appreciate it more on their own reading, so I won’t weigh that down with my own interests.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Interlude - Brooklyn Botanic Garden

I spent a beautiful afternoon at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden last week. I was with people I wouldn’t ask to spend hours standing around while I set up shots, so no time for anything complex, but here are a few of my favorites. These first three are in the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden:

From the pictures I’ve seen, I would love the garden in the colorful spring, but I also appreciate these more subdued greens (and am developing a somewhat unhealthy obsession with grasses). Oh, and here's a short piece about the principles of Japanese garden design.

This last is from the bonsai museum:

Fudo is no longer living. Technically.

There were of course pretty flowers, too, and I’ll probably post some pictures of those in a bit.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

More HuffPo shame: sponsor-generated content and social-media marketing

I recently linked to the opening post of S.H.A.M.E.’s Huffington exposé, focusing on HuffPo’s stealth advertising. I’ve written often about subtle corporate marketing and spin techniques, including in medicine and at a certain blog network.*

The first specific post in S.H.A.M.E.’s Huffington profile, “The HuffPo Business Model: Deliberately Obliterating the Separation Between Paid Advertising and Real Reporting,” also focuses on these practices.

Yasha Levine writes:

HuffPo is not a news organization at all, according to Greg Coleman, Huffington Post's president and chief revenue officer. He told Ad Age in 2010 that HuffP was a “social-media company” that exists to "help our marketers beam their messages throughout the internet, across the galaxy, the internet, and the world."

“We make [corporations] part of the conversation,” explained another HuffPo marketing executive in 2011. “We’re acting as a social-media agency for our advertisers on The Huffington Post. We’ve become advisers to some of these companies about how to conduct the social-media outreach . . . We help them counter this sort of one-sided conversation that is going on on the Internet about their companies.”

For all the problems of traditional media, at least newspapers have some sort of a wall between news and advertising. Sure, advertisers and sponsors still wield considerable influence over editorial content, but at least there is a tension between the two opposing forces. The Huffington Post, on the other hand, is about knocking that wall down—all in the name of democratic empowerment.

Those sponsors generating content and social-media outreaching on HuffPo aren’t limited to business, including big banks, but include dictators and a motley assortment of medical and New Age quacks, some quite dangerous.

This last group leads me to wonder:… How much of HuffPo’s promotion of woomongers stems from a fear of alienating a large sector of its audience and so losing sponsor revenues, and how much reflects direct sponsorship from the woomongers and supportive organizations?

*(I haven't posted as much as I’d like to about contemporary government/military propaganda....)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Missing, epistemic injustice, and victim-blaming

I don’t know how I failed to see the 1982 Costa-Gavras film Missing

before this week.* It’s splendid. Here’s a summary of the film, and here’s a report from this past December about a Chilean judge’s call for the extradition of the former head of the US Military Group, Navy captain Ray Davis, for complicity in the murders of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi.

The main subject of the film is Horman’s father, Edward (played by Jack Lemmon), but his wife Beth (played by Sissy Spacek) is also a central figure.** The movie follows, very believably, the elder Horman’s political awakening, as he comes to realize the reality of Latin America and what the US government does there.

But two other, related aspects of the character’s development, touched upon in the summary I linked to above, also caught my attention. The first is epistemic injustice. When he arrives in Chile, Ed repeatedly challenges and discounts Beth’s ideas, not particularly - it doesn’t seem - because she’s a woman, but because she’s young and the couple have been living an unconventional life. He dismisses her suspicions about US officials and the government’s intentions in Chile as paranoia, and becomes angry and impatient with her hostility toward embassy officials.

The second is victim-blaming. Early in the film, Horman follows precisely the same tendency with regard to his son, Beth, and their friends that I was talking about last week. He fires questions at Beth, demanding to know what Charles had done to make himself a target, and suggests that Beth is also partially responsible for what’s happened due to her noncooperation with officials. He begins with the assumption that they must have done something wrong to draw the attention of the coup regime, and that even if they hadn’t committed any overt acts, it was their choice not to follow the conventional route and political immaturity that put them in harm’s way. He aggressively challenges their choices, blaming them for failing to take some imaginary path that would have kept them safe and secure.

Horman changes on both counts. As he comes to a better understanding of the situation, he also starts to listen to Beth more seriously and to treat her as a reliable source and teacher rather than a silly idealistic child or an interrogation subject. At some points, in fact, he and Beth even change roles, with her educating and comforting him and helping him face the situation as he begins to appreciate his own political naïveté. As he deals with the US and Chilean governments, he comes to view them as untrustworthy and suspect. He also turns his anger on those who have victimized his son and others and the system they (and he) support, and tries to appreciate his son’s motives rather than dismissing them as quixotic or frivolous.

The film asks its audience to make this journey with Horman, to overcome their own political innocence. This is as important now as it was three decades ago when the film was released – not only has the evidence for the case presented in the film grown, but the US government’s pattern of behavior in Latin America hasn’t changed. But the reason for talking about epistemic injustice and victim-blaming tendencies in general is that it can help us to avoid these habits of thought and action from the start, so that we don’t have to travel that route endlessly in our daily lives or the political realm. Being cognizant of these tendencies and cultivating epistemic virtues (in ourselves and our institutions) can open us up to experiencing that political awakening in every case, without needing to be prodded and cajoled into it or having the evidence shoved in our faces.

*Wikipedia says a State Department lawsuit led to its being withdrawn from the US market until 2006, after the suit was dismissed. This would explain why I hadn’t seen it, but it sounds questionable, there’s no citation, and I haven’t been able to confirm the claim.

**For a political thriller from 1982, the film is remarkably gender-aware. There are several female characters, and they’re far from window dressing. There are even indications of the Catholic, patriarchal nature of the coup itself. In one chilling scene early on, Charles and his friend Terry (played by Melanie Mayron) are in a bus line shortly after the coup. Some women are yanked from the line by soldiers and pulled over to a military vehicle. When Terry asks what the men are saying to the women, Charles translates: they’re telling them that women in the country will wear skirts. They’re then shown cutting the women’s pants with scissors.

" a manner sensitive to the Singapore context"

Human Rights Watch reports that Yale University, in choosing to enforce repressive laws at its new joint campus with the National University of Singapore, is violating its commitment to basic freedoms and core academic values. Yale's decision to cave to repressive Singaporean restrictions, contradicting the university's own policy on academic freedom, comes despite faculty protests.

Yale’s willingness to curtail rights on its Singapore campus lends credence to those who would deny the universality, inalienability, and indivisibility of human rights on the basis of a country’s historical and cultural context and its economic development, Human Rights Watch said. Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Minister of Education, argued this position, claiming that Yale’s Singapore campus could have “academic freedom and open inquiry…in a manner sensitive to the Singapore context.”

...Many Singaporean laws are incompatible with the basic policies of a university such as Yale, Human Rights Watch said. Singapore has broad restrictions on basic freedoms for reasons of security, public order, morality, and racial and religious harmony. Censorship, supported by the Films Act, Broadcasting Act, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the Undesirable Publications Act, the Internet Code of Practice, the Official Secrets Act, and the Sedition Act extends not only to broadcast, print, and electronic media but also to music, film, and computer games. Laws restricting freedom of assembly include the 2009 Public Order Act, which requires a permit to meet for any “cause related activity.” Outdoor gatherings of five or more people require police permission, and the authorities may prohibit indoor meetings they judge to be too political or which take up religious issues. Limited demonstrations and rallies are restricted to Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner. Moreover, associations of 10 or more members may be denied government approval to operate if the Registrar of Societies judges the organization “prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order.”

Thursday, July 19, 2012

“the pesticides that seep into every water source, crop, and conversation”

Via Quotha, two more analyses of the Paraguay coup:

“Paraguay's presidential coup: the inside story,” Andrew Nickson

“A Coup Over Land: The Resource War Behind Paraguay's Crisis,” Benjamin Dangl (the source of my title quote*)

(*Another interesting quote from this week is Venezuelan OAS ambassador Roy Chaderson, after OAS head José Miguel Insulza’s declaration that Paraguay shouldn’t be suspended from the organization, describing the OAS as “like a bowl of cold onion soup, without even the crust of melted cheese.”)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Interlude - "United Fruit Co.," Pablo Neruda

Damnit, I can't get the formatting to work.

Go here.

From the FBI to ALEC

I’ve been wryly amused by some of the readings of the corporate withdrawals from Heartland and ALEC, applauding the companies’ decision to distance themselves from the disgraced organizations as a bold ethical stance and even thanking them for it. These organizations have of course merely been their mouthpieces and tools, and now that their usefulness is compromised, of course many of the corporations are going to abandon them and find other means of advancing their interests.

The most amusing part of the fleeing-in-droves story, though, is that there are some corporations and industry groups so invested in working through ALEC and so optimistic that people aren’t really going to continue to pay attention to their skullduggery – and they may well be right – that they’re not even going for the PR move, hoping just to ride out the bad publicity.

This is from Amy Goodman’s interview a few days ago with Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy:

AMY GOODMAN: If you could just give us the list of corporations that have pulled out of ALEC—interesting for being in it, and now interesting for pulling out, as ALEC moves into its major conference at the end of the month in Salt Lake City, Utah. Just a list of some of those names.

LISA GRAVES: Sure. That includes McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Hewlett-Packard, John Deere. It includes Pepsi-Cola. We also know that the Gates Foundation has pulled out of ALEC. That’s one of the nonprofits that’s left. We know that the Yum! groups, which has a number of fast-food operations, including—it has previously had Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell and others—have pulled out. And so, we see—Kraft Foods, as well—a number of corporations that are brand names, that people rely on, that people eat and drink and use, have now left ALEC. And I—

AMY GOODMAN: Who’s still in?

LISA GRAVES: Well, who’s still in? The Koch brothers, through Koch Industries, the big tobacco companies, Pharma, Big Pharma, which includes a number of—a number of pharmaceutical companies other than Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble. A number of other pharmaceutical companies are still involved.

The Center for Media and Democracy has created the useful site ALEC Exposed, which details the aleckian legislation across the US (see also ProPublica’s guide). Particularly interesting are the pages about bills related to pharmaceuticals and health, in which Phrma and its individual members are of course major players.

Pharma is also, it’s easy to forget, one of the major corporate groups behind state ag gag bills (one was just passed in Missouri) and the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, currently facing a court challenge from the Center for Constitutional Rights.

In this, as documented admirably by Will Potter, they receive support from the FBI (oh, wait – sorry! They “don’t just work for those big companies”!). This illustrates how the tactics and targets of the FBI haven’t changed much over the decadesthey’re still hounding social justice activists and thinkers – but they’re probably operating more in league with corporations now than ever before.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

…left in the house,…after moving out, an RCA Victrola Record…

By letter dated February 1942, [redacted], Tupper Lake, New York, advised the Albany Office that ERICH FROMM and his wife, rented a house there during the summer of 1941. They gave their address as 44 Central Park, New York City. They were reported to have left in the house, at Tupper Lake, after moving out, an RCA Victrola Record, which had a label with the "print of two hands, one griping the wrist of the other which holds a dagger with the emblem of the Nazi Party on the blade, and also on the same side, the words ‘United Front’". The information contained in this letter from the [redacted] at Tupper Lake, has been previously furnished to the New York Office.

If you want to be stunned and unsettled, do a few searches for “[twentieth-century US scholar, scientist, writer, artist, dancer, actor, journalist you admire] FBI.” You might turn up nothing, but you’ll probably be surprised more than once by what you find. Decades later, we still don’t know the extent of surveillance, harassment, and interference by the FBI since its inception, and probably never will.

I’ve barely begun reading the FBI reports on Erich Fromm over the past few weeks. The quote above comes from the second of a six-part file on the psychiatrist, writer, democratic socialist, and anti-nuclear activist. It’s easy from a distance to shrug this all off as a ridiculous misdirection of time and resources. But the damage done to lives, careers, relationships, and science is incalculable.

I recently discovered that the letters and autobiographical writings of the great sociologist C. Wright Mills, superbly edited by his daughters,

are available online for free! Mills was stalked by the FBI until his early death in 1962.

Complicit in their victimization

Even though some books I need are out of reach for now, I’m currently reading David Price’s (2004) Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists

(I’ve written here previously about Cold War attacks on gay people and scientists, as well as activists and journalists speaking out about US imperialism in Latin America.)

I’m still only a portion of the way through the book,* but the story of archaeologist Richard Morgan already has me fuming.** I’m writing about it now because it illustrates an unfortunately common pattern in the responses to victimization, and I hope that becoming more cognizant of this history and the habits of thinking involved might help to prevent the pattern's repetition in other contexts.

Morgan was curator of archaeology at the Ohio State Museum in the late 1940s when a local rightwing rag published a story about his and his wife’s political activities and Communist connections. The local media took it up, a home the couple owned was assailed by a mob (for which no one was arrested), and he was “asked” to resign from his job at the museum.

Morgan fought back, launching a letter-writing campaign to encourage others in anthropology, civil rights groups, and especially his professional organization, the American Anthropological Association, to come to his aid. This was effective in calling attention to his plight and the broader political problem, but the AAA failed him and subsequently other targeted scholars in refusing to defend them adequately or contest the wave of political witch hunts.

One aspect of Morgan’s story, not particularly emphasized by Price but noticeable in the narrative, is the pattern of victim-blaming engaged in even by many of his supporters. Throughout, in addition to suggestions that Morgan wasn’t worthy of support because he might actually be a Communist and not just falsely accused, people charged that he was bringing much of the attention and problems on himself through his anger, resistance, and vocal challenges.

Despite the obvious irregularities in the museum’s treatment of Morgan, he was blamed for not cooperating even with procedures designed to work against him. As Price recounts:

At the annual meeting of the Museum's board of trustees on April 16, 1948, a revised policy on tenure and employment was contrived in a closed-door session so that Morgan could be fired in accordance with an ex-post- facto tailor-made policy. This new policy included a clause allowing the firing of Communists or individuals who kept company with Communists, for the reason that the museum was "supported by the State ... to preserve the heritage and traditions of Ohio and through its program of research, exhibits, lectures and publications, to encourage understanding and good citizenship among our people. Communism is hostile to these purposes, and it is the policy of this Society not to have in its employ a member of the Communist Party, or one who by close and continued and sympathetic association with such members, indicates his approval of their plans and purposes"... (KL 902-907).

These were the early years of the harassment of scholars, but the involvement of the FBI and the political nature of the accusations were already known. The signals of the museum’s intent to get rid of him, and the indications that this was part of a larger political campaign, were clear. Nevertheless, Morgan’s case was treated by many as if it were an isolated administrative matter in which he had a solid chance of prevailing if he just handled himself properly. He was (like others) cast as someone who had, through his failure or unwillingness to avail himself of opportunities, sabotaged his own future.

For instance, when a museum board meeting was held at which Morgan was expected to appear, the AAA requested that there be an impartial observer present. This was rejected by the board, and Morgan made the decision not to attend under these closed conditions. Rather than appreciating the reasons for his decision, many in the AAA suggested that Morgan’s decision not to attend was what sealed his fate and lost him alleged allies on the board. An AAA report, even while noting that the museum’s policy was ex post facto, suggested that his decision may have been ill-advised and worked to his detriment:

Morgan felt, wisely or not, that he [must] decline to attend the meeting unless an impartial observer were present. Since this request was not granted, he retired. The Board then decided to dismiss Morgan, stating without qualification that he had "refused to discuss the merits of the matter" and that he was in [violation] of the stated employment policy of the Society. (KL 931-933)

The disingenuous suggestion was put forward that it was Morgan’s choice not to appear under those circumstances that had sealed his fate. Price writes that a few days after the board met, John Bennett, the junior scholar appointed by the AAA to investigate,

interviewed Dean Hatcher [newly appointed vice president of Ohio State University, home to the museum]. Hatcher believed that Morgan made a strategic mistake in not attending the meeting. He believed the board might actually have found in Morgan's favor had he appeared before them. Hatcher viewed Morgan's decision as an act of "suicide." Bennett paraphrased Hatcher's remarks as follows: "After all, this Board was not so hostile. I know of 2 men in there who were open minded. Peters and myself were in Morgan's far as getting him a hearing went at the time. Why a man should not take advantage of an opportunity to talk things over with his own Board is something I cannot understand. Why, here we wanted to talk things over with him in a friendly way, to give him a chance to have his side heard, and he turns around and walks out"... (KL 951-956).

This sentiment was echoed, naively or disingenuously, by some at the AAA: “Some members of the AAA's executive board believed that Morgan weakened his case with the museum by, as Charles Voegelin put it, "insisting the AAA representative be present at his hearing"... (KL 962-964)

People also readily accepted more general suggestions, often originally floated by museum officials, that Morgan’s problems resulted from his own attitude or approach:

[Museum Director Erwin] Zepp told Bennett that the board's plan was to allow Morgan to keep his job while he searched for another appointment, but that Morgan's stance throughout the situation had left them with no option but to fire him... (KL 959-960)

Bennett passed on reports from third parties that Morgan "feels that he is finished professionally, and cannot ever get another job in archaeology. Therefore his only alternative is to fight the case publicly. If he does the latter, he really may be `finished' professionally. But actually the important thing would seem to be his attitude, which prevents him from making and preserving contacts in the field"... (KL 1010-1012)

Even Price himself starts to fall into it at times:

When reporters -even those sympathetic to their plight, such as Scripps-Howard's Blackburn-called them for comments, Richard and Anna Morgan were prone to lash out with a rage stoked by the injustices they had suffered, thus alienating those who might have become allies. (KL 976-977)

Also common was the tendency to reduce the matter to a mess or series of bungled interactions in which all parties had behaved badly. Further, Morgan’s actions (and activism) were often presented as a hindrance to the efforts of his supporters. When anthropologist Sol Tax wrote Bennett to ask about whether the AAA had dropped its investigation of Morgan’s case, for example, Bennett’s reply was typical:

Suggesting that things were not as plain and clear as presented in Morgan's latest epistle, Bennett added, "Morgan's letter is only the last item in the whole tragedy, and makes our job only so much more difficult. One wishes for a neat and categorical judgment upon the affair, but such is impossible. In short, Morgan is both guilty and not guilty; the [AAA] the same. From beginning to end the case has been a series of misunderstandings and stupidities. With some danger and nastiness lurking in the background"… (KL 989-995)

Morgan was not going quietly. After he launched another mimeographed letter campaign to the AAA membership, John Bennett wrote Griffin that they were in “a mess if I ever saw one"... (KL 1004-1005)

Bennett again tried to organize a meeting between Morgan and some of the principal figures, with hopes that Morgan could provide "some clarification of the comedy of errors and misunderstandings that resulted in his dismissal"… (KL 1012-1013)

Bennett did try to warn the AAA that they had failed in this case and needed a structure and policy in place to deal with similar cases that would inevitably follow (a warning which “fell on institutionally deaf cars,” KL 1060), but at the same time he joined others in portraying Morgan as something of an agent of his own undoing:

John Bennett's supplement to this report added a few details and new interpretations of the events recounted. Bennett closed his supplement noting that "Morgan has some clear moral and probably legal issues on his side; yet his course of action is unrealistic and dangerous to him. The Society has a right to request resignations of employees with connections deemed undesirable for public institutions; yet the methods used to secure a dismissal were of the clumsiest and most inhumane sort".... Bennett's summation came close to arguing that Morgan had brought on his own problems by adopting aberrant views on racial and economic stratification, and while the museum had muddled the way they sacked him, they had every right to do so. (KL 1033-1038)

Morgan did leave the museum, and the state. Price reports that “Al[t]hough Morgan became an obscure figure in American archaeology, the FBI continued to monitor and harass him for decades” (KL 1311). He and his wife Anna continued as activists, and when he died from a ruptured aorta in Oaxaca in 1968, they were still watching and reporting on him.

I don’t want to make this (especially from a position of hindsight) about the complex question of whether Morgan’s or anyone else’s individual response to McCarthyism and FBI surveillance and harassment in their individual circumstances was right or effective. I will say that judging from the stories of anthropologists I’ve read so far, the people targeted, highly intelligent and trained as social analysts, had a much keener understanding of what was happening to them and would be needed to confront the problem than most of those who criticized their responses. For the most part, they seem to have recognized earlier than many others that the problem was much larger than their own personal and professional difficulties and that a coordinated, clear, and collective public response would be needed to stem the tide.

The point I want to make here is about the tendency to view victimized people as in some measure responsible for their victimization. We do that by implicitly accepting their persecution as a fact of nature rather than a human political act to be analyzed and opposed; by dismissing their experiences and emotions, including their rightful anger and feelings of betrayal, or invalidating these by framing their actions in purely strategic terms; by portraying their actions as alienating or harmful to the work of their allies; by implicating their own positions and defensive responses in their continuing problems; and by reducing clear patterns of victimization to “messes” or “misunderstandings” in which “neither side has behaved perfectly.” It’s a tendency we should resist.

*Price has been a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. The book makes several general and important arguments about the real motivations behind the FBI’s program of surveillance and harassment (which he argues was more about involvement in social justice activism, fighting race, gender, and class inequality, or scholarly challenges to systems of oppression, than real or purported Communist ties), the reasons for the AAA’s (non)response, and the effects of the harassment not just on those whose careers and scholarship were directly harmed but on the scientific course of anthropology. (His more recent book, Weaponizing Anthropology, focuses on “the increased militarization of anthropology and [education] in post-9/11 America.”)

**I’m only about halfway through the stories. I might need to take a break to meditate or something.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A _____ _____, or a _____ who happens to be _____?

Paul Robinette was an interesting character on Law & Order. As would be expected from an Assistant DA, he held relatively conservative views about race and social justice issues, much the same as his white colleagues. The character left the DA’s office for unexplained reasons at the end of the show's third season, and when he reappeared in a guest role a few years later it was as a defense attorney representing a woman he viewed as a victim of institutionalized racism. (He made two more, somewhat inconsistent, appearances as a defense attorney on race-related episodes a decade later.)

A scene at the end of the 1996 episode in which he first appeared in his new role always stuck with me. In one of the first season (1990) episodes, Executive ADA Ben Stone asks him to consider whether he sees himself as a black lawyer or a lawyer who’s black. Six years later, as they leave the courthouse, Robinette reminds Stone of his question, informing him that at the time he thought of himself as a lawyer who’s black. Now – presumably after a few years doing a different kind of work and contemplating the meaning of justice in a racist society – he’s come to recognize himself as a black lawyer.

For the record, I’m a woman skeptic.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A neuro-critical book I won’t be reading anytime soon

Not for lack of interest. I’ve recently learned of a publication so relevant to what I’m working on that I rushed to get it for my Kindle - Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience:

The Kindle version costs…

$109.97. (A savings – the hardcover is $152!) Seriously, Wiley-Blackwell? Especially stupid since, as the authors note, the book is intended for a wider audience, to which it might well appeal judging from the sample I read. Utterly ridiculous.

At least I was able to read a couple of articles by the book’s authors – “Critical Neuroscience: Linking Neuroscience and Society through Critical Practice” and “Steps towards a Critical Neuroscience” – here.

Critical neuroscience (they have a blog, but there are no posts since 2010) is the broader category in which critical psychiatry, in important respects, belongs. As the authors describe in the introduction:

The goal of critical neuroscience is to create a space within and around the field of neuroscience to analyze how the brain has come to be cast as increasingly relevant in explaining and intervening in individual and collective behaviors, to what ends, and at what costs.

All of this work is closely related to my discussion of Erich Fromm and humanistic psychiatry (to which I’ll be returning shortly!), which makes the book’s inaccessibility extremely aggravating. I would almost put out a request for donations, but I fear that even if I had the money my Yankee fingers would refuse to click the purchase button. $109.97. What’s the world coming to?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Legislative coup in Paraguay: analysis

"Coup in Paraguay: Will U.S. Join Latin America in Condemning Ouster of President Fernando Lugo?" [interview with Greg Grandin shortly after coup]:

"Latin America: how the US has allied with the forces of reaction"

"Behind the Paraguayan Coup"

"Paraguay, another Honduras in the making? Interview with Fionuala Cregan"

"The Paraguayan Coup: Agribusiness, Landowners, Media Elite and US Lead to Destabilization"

Creation Moments

It was in the car flipping through the radio dial yesterday, trying to find any song other than “Somebody That I Used to Know,” that I had my first Creation Moment. I’d never heard one of these before, but I guess they’ve been airing for some time.

The one I stumbled upon on was “When Facts Aren’t Facts”:

...Several years ago, Canadian and U.S. papers were filled with the results of polls in both countries that tested members of the public by asking some scientific questions. The problem is, both polls were heavily stacked with questions that resulted in so called "wrong" answers if the respondent didn't believe in evolution. Since more than 10 percent of the questions dealt with evolution, we can assume that the real purpose of the "poll" was to make belief in evolution look the same as "scientific literacy."

Consider the questions asked. Of the 14 questions, one read: "Human beings as we know them today developed from earlier groups of animals." Obviously, the so called "correct" answer is "true." Another question asks: "The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs." And the "correct" answer to this is "false."

The poll does show widespread ignorance of science in real areas of science. A scientist who didn't know that light travels faster than sound would be considered unfit to do science. Measurements of the speed of light and the speed of sound are easily done and offer consistent results.

But no one has ever measured – much less reproduced – the results that the poll claims are "correct" about evolution! Many scientists, including some who are very famous, would also have insisted on the so-called "wrong" answers about evolution! The lesson for us is that, as Christians, we need to read and listen very carefully to what is called "news," because some of it really isn't based upon fact at all....

They’re pretty funny. From the one on aspirin:

In His foreknowledge, our Creator knew, regretfully, that the human race would fall into sin. He knew that among the effects of a world changed by sin would be pain and sickness. So in His mercy He provided plants that would make the active ingredient in aspirin. But the greatest expression of His love for us was in providing us with a cure for sin itself in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Another recent offering is “New Element, Balonium, Confirms Evolution Is True.”

Death at SeaWorld: conflicted

In remarkably timely fashion, a new book by investigative journalist David Kirby, Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity,

will be released next week. I knew his name sounded familiar, and was quickly reminded why: his writing about vaccines. Damn.

This is a difficult case for me (as Kirby’s book on factory farming would have been had I known about it). It’s not as if he wrote one short, naïve article early on in the vaccine-autism manufactroversy. He wrote an entire book largely promoting antiscience, and then doubled down. Even years later he was still holding to this line (and possibly still is today). When it comes to any scientific question, It’s difficult to trust a person who could write “I believe that the public lynching and shaming of Dr. Wakefield is unwarranted and overwrought” in 2010.

This is a great demonstration of the problems woo creates. It’s astonishing that, with all of the real damage Pharma does to children around the world, some journalists are ignorant enough to latch onto antiscience causes like the antivaccine movement. This makes it all the more difficult for those of us fighting harmful corporate and government practices. I would say the same thing about people employing woo in the service of animal rights. But this case is maybe a bit more complicated: he’s written some nonsense on one subject, but for all I can tell this book is sound and well researched,* and other reliable sources have made and supported similar arguments. I remain undecided as to whether or not I’ll read this one, but I likely will. With extreme skepticism.

*Unfortunately, Kirby is already saying some silly things in interviews about the new book. “There’s a lot that SeaWorld could do to make my book less relevant,” he suggests, “- one estimate was that 70% of their revenues come from having Killer Whales. That’s billions of dollars, if they had taken that money and dedicated it to saving Whale habitat; well then having a few in captivity is what it takes. Maybe that’s what we would have to do to raise that kind of money to save the Whales in the wild, but of course they are not doing that.” Well, no, of course not. But even if they did, that’s not how ethics works. You don’t do that to some individual animals in the name of helping the species in the abstract. This is why the Declaration of Helsinki (gutted as it's been by pharmaceutical companies) exists.

Monday, July 9, 2012

SeaWorld, just fade into history, already.

It seems inevitable that someday future generations will look back on our treatment of nonhuman animals with the same moral disgust and incomprehension with which decent people today view the historical global institution of slavery or the current treatment of women in Islamic theocracies. I actively hope that day comes soon.

SeaWorld perfectly encapsulates the ideology of mastery and ownership. Thriving on exploitation and abuse, on suffering and death, it presents itself as a benevolent and “gentle patriarchy.” Last month, Florida judge Kenneth Welsch came down on the side of OSHA, deciding that humans could not work in close contact with orcas during SeaWorld performances. The ruling followed SeaWorld’s appeal of a decision by OSHA following the killing of “trainer” Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum in 2010. (Immediately, of course, SeaWorld’s CEO was out trying to spin and even possibly evade the spirit of the ruling.)

Writer Tim Zimmerman heard from a SeaWorld trainer shortly after the decision. Their email reads, in part,

I have known these abuses for years but to see it in affirmed in black and white was sickening. I’m a little ashamed that I allowed this company to take advantage of and abuse me (and the whales) for years because of my own selfishness to want these experiences.

I believe most of these workers, who’ve been exploited and endangered themselves, do genuinely care for the animals and want to see the work in a positive light. But the illusions and self-deception are increasingly difficult to sustain. It’s time for this sad chapter in our relationship with nonhuman animals to end.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The reaction

It’s often easy, in the heat of the moment, to lose sight of the larger picture and believe that reactionaries actually care about whatever particular argument or issue they’re involved with at the moment, but we should remember that the specific matters on which so much energy is expended are generally merely a pretext or platform for efforts to push back against social justice movements.

With this in mind, what initially might seem puzzling - that people can become so exercised over minor developments and so disproportionately hateful and vicious towards those speaking openly or working for change – makes perfect sense. Just another phase in the long history of the politics of reaction.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A scathing profile of Arianna Huffington

I've paid attention to criticisms of the Huffington Post over the years and made one or two of my own, but I've never really thought about or investigated Huffington* or the site in any great depth. The S.H.A.M.E. Project's latest is an indictment of Huffington, reaching deep into her past politics and connections. I haven't confirmed all of the information, of course, and a portion might well not hold up under scrutiny, though some of even the most damning claims are verifiable simply by clicking the links to HuffPo itself.

Some key quotes:

Huffington Post markets itself as a progressive publication, but publishes corporate propagandists, government flacks, lobbyists for dictators, bankers, cult leaders, self-help hucksters and medical quacks peddling false and sometimes dangerous medical advice, right alongside HuffPo's real reporting. Greg Coleman, Huffington Post president and chief revenue officer, bragged that the company's "sponsored content" strategy—which deliberately obscures the line between journalism and PR—had helped his company "more than double" its advertising revenue in 2010, saying "the level of interest we have in this marketing form is gigantic . . ." The Guardian called HuffPo the "grand master" of blurring "the line between advertising and editorial … via sponsoring schemes."

Some in the medical community have condemned the Huffington Post for publishing dangerous medical quackery. In 2009, a physician published an article in Salon criticizing HuffPo's promotion of "bogus treatments and crackpot medical theories," including curing the Swine Flu with deep cleaning enemas, fraudulent spiritual healing techniques and risky cancer treatments. Science writer and Vanity Fair contributing editor Seth Mnookin wrote: "For whatever reason, HuffPo seemed to have a particular bee in its bonnet about vaccines and autism: If you made a list of the most irresponsible, misinformed people on the topic, it was a safe bet the majority of them had been given space for their rantings on the site." Many of these authors use Huffington Post to promote their books and services. [links to sources in the original]

*I did read her Picasso biography back when I was I think still a teenager. Don't remember caring for it particularly. I see now that there were accusations of plagiarism.

Interlude - Señor Matanza

Friday, July 6, 2012

"All White Christians Invited"

A whites-only pastors' conference is all about Christian love and religious liberty, you see, because "the white race is God’s chosen people."

$3 billion fine for GlaxoSmithKline

GSK is paying record criminal and civil penalties for its dishonest tactics, primarily related to the marketing of its drug Paxil to children and teenagers. Howard Brody has more of the rage-inducing story of Paxil Study 329.*

The Independent reports:

GSK had already set aside more than $3bn to cover the costs of the settlement, and its shares rose 1.75 per cent yesterday, more than the overall market, to reflect the end of a period of uncertainty.

Phew. I'd been terribly worried about those little shares.

*I've discussed the more general problems in recent months. See here and here.

Joanna Moncrieff, The Myth of the Chemical Cure

In a recent post offering some suggestions for readings in psychiatry, skepticism, and social justice, I mentioned that the next book on my list on the topic was Joanna Moncrieff’s (2008) The Myth of the Chemical Cure: A Critique of Psychiatric Drug Treatment.

Having now finished it, I think it deserves a post of its own. (I’d also recommend moving it up in the reading queue to second - just after Mad in America - which additionally makes sense chronologically.)

We all come to a contentious issue like this with our own skeptical biases, and many people are less likely to engage, or engage openly, with highly critical works about psychiatry by nonpsychiatrists, especially if they make some speculative arguments. So, for instance, people might not be inclined to take up the books by Whitaker or Kirsch, a journalist and a psychologist, suspecting a lack of expertise in psychiatry, professional rivalry, a muckraking agenda, or what have you.

I believe many of these fears would be dispelled if people read the introductory chapters of these books. More generally, though, I think that while this skeptical attitude makes sense, it can sometimes be counterproductive. My approach, if I have reason to believe a book contains some sound and original arguments but might have some major weaknesses or make claims it doesn’t support, is generally to read it with a critical eye, be attentive to criticisms, and try to sift out the better-substantiated points.

But I recognize that it’s partially a question of temperament and mood. Some people aren’t inclined to do this sifting, and prefer a more focused scholarly treatment by someone in the field. For them, I recommend this book. Moncrieff, Senior Clinical Lecturer in the Department of Mental Health Sciences at University College London and co-founder of the Critical Psychiatry Network, is an established psychiatrist and academic researcher. But it’s the book itself that should assuage the concerns of even the most skeptical reader looking for expert analysis of the scientific literature. It’s thorough, reasoned, and fair.* And so well organized it brings joy to my heart.

Moncrieff considers in turn each category of psychiatric drugs – neuroleptics, “antidepressants,” stimulants for ADHD, and “mood stabilizers.” For each class of drugs (she rightly argues that these should be classified according to their real action and effects rather than their assigned place in the brain-disease model), she structures the section in the same way. So, for example, the chapters dealing with neuroleptic (“antipsychotic”) drugs are “The Birth of the Idea of an ‘Antipsychotic,” “Are Neuroleptics Effective and Specific? A Review of the Evidence,” and “What Do Neuroleptics Really Do? A Drug-Centred Account.” The review of the evidence for disease-specific action of neuroleptics concludes with a summary of the evidence, answering the following questions:

(1) Is there a demonstrable pathological basis to psychosis/schizophrenia from which the action of ‘antipsychotic’ drugs can be understood?

(2) Do rating scales for acute psychosis or schizophrenia reliably measure the manifestations of a particular disease process?

(3) Do animal models of psychosis select antipsychotic drugs reliably?

(4) Are drugs considered to have non-specific actions inferior?

(5) Do studies with healthy volunteers show different or absent effects?

(6) Is the outcome of psychosis/schizophrenia improved by the use of antipsychotic drugs?

This pattern is repeated for the other three categories. For each group, Moncrieff describes the history of the particular brain-disease model involved and the belief that the drugs act on disease in a specific way. She then examines the existing evidence for these claims, with attention to methodological problems and the distorted reporting of findings. Finally, she considers the drugs’ effects from a drug-centered, rather than a disease-centered, perspective. Her comprehensive approach is necessary to assessing the value of the disease-centered model and the drugs.

Moncrieff argues for the embrace of a drug-centered approach, in which these drugs are evaluated not on the basis of the unfounded assumption that they treat brain diseases but on the basis of their actual effects and risks in comparison to other drugs and approaches. Adopting this reasonable approach wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of all use of these drugs (though this would decrease drastically, and several drugs she advises scrapping for these uses altogether). But uprooting the brain-disease myths, as she recognizes, would mean a radical transformation of psychiatry, greatly reducing the institutional power of psychiatrists and involving a cooperative relationship between people suffering from mental distress and those seeking to help them. Although it’s not her focus in this book, Moncrieff does discuss the psychological and political harms of the disease-centered model, and views her proposed approach as progressive and democratic.

At the beginning of her concluding chapter, she states:

The disease-centred model of understanding psychiatric drug action can be viewed as an ideology…in the Marxist sense. Like other forms of ideology, it presents itself as an objective impartial body of knowledge determined only by the facts of the world, whereas it actually conveys a partial view of human experience and activities that are motivated by particular interests. The institution of psychiatry, aided and abetted by the pharmaceutical industry and ultimately backed by the state, has constructed a system of false knowledge about the nature of psychiatric drugs.

For those with a tendency to reject such strong, politically inflected claims out of hand, please note that this is a conclusion based on a thorough review of the evidence. I challenge you to read the 236 pages preceding this bold statement and then casually reject it.

*My only significant criticisms, in fact, concern the physical book itself. There’s a lot of tiny text packed into its 244 pages, with insufficient spacing between lines; the binding is shoddy, and some pages have already fallen out; and the cover design is uninspired.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

That Fashionable Nonsense reference

Ideology is especially important in democratic societies, where it may constitute the principal form of social control….

The enforcement of mainstream ideology in our societies is the task of what has been called the secular priesthood, an analogy for the religious priesthood in traditional societies…. (p. 31)

One of my better posts here, I think, was a response to the frequent suggestion that Alan Sokal saw the Left as inimical to science and took a more rightwing position against all leftist critical analysis of science in the “science wars.”

Since I’ve seen this notion raised again recently, I thought I might update that post a little. Back in 2009, I pointed out, first, that Sokal stated very clearly at the time that he’s a leftist and that part of the impetus for taking on the anti-science leftwing academics was that he thought their ideas harmed progressive causes and aided the forces of reaction. I should also have called attention to the focused nature of his and Bricmont’s critique: it was not a broad brush used to paint all critical work on the social nature of scientific knowledge as unfounded and ridiculous. Sokal wrote more than once that he recognizes solid empirical work being done in this area; the objection was to certain authors and works that misused scientific terms and concepts and made extreme, silly arguments about the social construction of reality.

I also talked about Sokal’s more recent statements, in which he correctly identifies corporations and governments as the most important forces arrayed against science, and by implication against movements for social justice. (Religion, by the way, is second.*) Here are two key quotations:

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

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

Sokal’s coauthor Jean Bricmont is also a leftist. The quotation at the top of this post, about ideology and the “secular priesthood,” is from his 2006 Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. In it, he challenges the Western ideology of “humanitarian intervention,” both in terms of the imperialistic drive and hypocrisy behind it and in terms of its real-world consequences. It’s not a bad book, though I found it somewhat simplistic when it came to activism on the Left in the metropoles and thought it misrepresented the arguments of anarchists, at one point even bordering on apologia for Stalinism. I’d recommend it, I suppose. Here’s an interview with Bricmont on the subject (Part 2 is the best, in my opinion):

My point isn’t to raise Sokal and Bricmont as some kind of argument from authority about what skepticism today should look like, although I do agree with Sokal’s ranking of the dangers to the scientific worldview today and (for the most part) with Bricmont’s critical approach to so-called humanitarian intervention. My point is to urge people to resist the reflexive rejection of critical approaches to some or another aspect of contemporary science – or that which claims to be science - especially when simply triggered by the mere mention of ideology or use of concepts and terms related to Marxism or feminism or postmodernism. Since Fashionable Nonsense is often cited in support of this sort of reflexive rejection, I want to correct the widespread notion that its authors are hostile to all criticism of science from the Left or to the Left in general (in fact they’re very much coming from a social justice perspective), and point out that they see not a handful of academic poststructuralists but corporate and government ideology as the primary threat to science and social justice.

*I was mistaken in that piece, as I later learned. It wasn’t that Sokal had started openly criticizing religion that led Mooney to turn against him, but that Mooney had stopped (and then proceeded to sell out completely to the rightwing, anti-science Templeton Foundation).