Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Anti-atheist bigotry is alive and well

American Atheists' 2014 national meeting (featuring keynote speaker Chris Kluwe) will take place in Salt Lake City, Utah. As Austin Cline describes, though, they’re having some trouble publicizing the event in the state: “[M]ost billboard companies won't even consider running the ads because they are too controversial and/or offensive. Apparently, depicting families and nice-looking people while stating that they are atheists is enough to be ‘controversial’ and ‘offensive’ in Utah….”

Move along, nothing to hear here.

Ecorazzi reports:
A lot of “strange noises” were coming from the Sunshine Dairy Farm in Newbury, Massachusetts, earlier this week, causing some alarm among nearby residents. Concerned phone calls came into the police department between midnight and 7AM reporting “inhuman” sounds, but callers were told not to worry – they were just the moans from mourning cows who recently had their baby calves taken away from them.

Newbury police Sgt. Patty Fisher said that it’s the annual separation of cows and calves, and the cries and moans are all part of the process. “It happens every year at the same time,” she said.

The concerned phone calls over the sounds prompted Sgt. Fisher to post a message on the police station’s Facebook page:

“Residents in the area of Sunshine Dairy Farm may notice loud noises coming from the dairy cows at all hours of the day and night. We’ve been informed that the cows are not in distress and that the noises are a normal part of farming practices.”
Nothing to say here, either - comments on the Newburyport News article are now closed.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Yasha Levine reviews Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath as propaganda

It goes well:
"David and Goliath" is the right book for our times. America is in the grips of historic economic inequality, unemployment and misery; it’s being looted and trashed by finance hucksters and extraction industry oligarchs, while its citizens are disengaged and distracted and too tired and overworked to really do much about it.

Gladwell offers to soothe this swirling world of shit, misery, exploitation and corruption with a simple counterintuitive message: People who live paycheck to paycheck or dig in the trash, well, they're not as disadvantaged as popular wisdom would have us believe. The truly disadvantaged are the rich. Because wealth, power, mansions, Porsches, private jets, servants, elite private schools, influence and access — all those great things — are barriers preventing them from realizing their true potential and achieving success. In short: Wealth holds you back.

…You…get to visit the home of pioneering oncologist Jay Freireich, who helped develop the first treatment of leukemia because he grew up in a poor Hungarian immigrant community during the Great Depression, had his father abandon the family and watched his mother waste away in a sweatshop:
"Freireich had the courage to think the unthinkable. He experimented on children. He took them through pain no human being should ever have to go through. And he did it in no small part because he understood from his own childhood experience that it is possible to emerge from even the darkest hell healed and restored.”
Hallelujah! What an uplifting story! Just think of all the future pioneering doctors and scientists that will be forged in today's economic depression! There are an estimated three million children in the US living in third-world-level "extreme poverty" subsisting on "$2 or less, per person, per day." Who knew that all that squalor and hardship was really an investment into their future! It would be criminal to allow the government to help these kids — these future inventors and finance tycoons — with "beneficial" programs like food stamps, healthcare or better education. If we were to help them now, we'd be robbing these poor kids of their last valuable possession: the democratic opportunity to strive and struggle and scrape to success!

…In one of the weirder and more disturbing segments of the book, Gladwell tells the story of how the civil rights movement triumphed against the cops of Birmingham, Alabama, and won the hearts and minds of the American public. But in his neoliberal retelling, Martin Luther King and top civil rights organizers are transformed from moral and political activists into a bunch of scrappy PR guys who won because they ran a guerrilla marketing campaign that was better and smarter than that of their segregationist opponents.

…It's a very strange revisionist history that strips all the moral and political elements of the civil rights movement out of the story, reducing it to marketing strategy and tactics. But it's also something potentially much more sinister: it promotes the idea that race relations in the South were not as bad as people believe, and that the civil rights movement was some sort of hoax.

…Now, if you're asking yourself why Malcolm Gladwell, a celebrity journalist for the New Yorker magazine, is spiking his book with libertarian ideology, anti-union propaganda and weird borderline neo-confederate revisionism…well, then you clearly don't know much about Malcolm Gladwell….
(Unfortunately, it appears the full review of the book by “America’s most successful propagandist” will only be freely available for a matter of hours.)

As I’ve argued and will be discussing in some depth in future posts, I do believe that systems of oppression and inequality, in addition to the devastation they inflict on the oppressed, also harm their apparent beneficiaries and prevent them from fulfilling their real needs or “realizing their true potential” as human beings. This is, however, worlds away from Gladwell’s neoliberal apologetics.

The far Right in Spain and across Europe

A couple of recent articles discuss the state of the far Right in Europe.

The first (marred somewhat by anecdotal and unsourced claims and references) focuses on Spain, but situates developments there in the larger context. Andrés Cala describes “a rising public nostalgia for the Franco era in Spain” forming part of “a broader resurgence of extreme right-wing ideology in Europe and globally” (I’ve briefly discussed Greece and Poland):
Renewed sympathy for fascism in Spain…stirs troubling memories because the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s was an early victory for European fascism. Spain also was the last European state to cast off fascism in 1975.

Another point of concern is that nationalist, populist and fascist movements have historically found fertile ground during times of economic pain, like that felt across much of the world since the Wall Street crash of 2008. In reacting to the financial crisis – and in grappling with the public’s anger over lost jobs and lost benefits – mainstream democratic parties have seen their legitimacy questioned and their political support drained.

In Spain – and to a lesser extent in some other European countries – the immediate danger is not so much from a handful of incipient reactionary movements, but rather from the underlying official permissiveness from more mainstream conservative parties, like the Popular Party, bordering on patronage.

…[T]he severe economic recession that spread across the world after the Wall Street crash – and the EU’s austerity-oriented policies imposed in response – hit Spain especially hard with the country’s unemployment rate soaring to around 27 percent. The loss of jobs and the failure of the democratic political structure to devise an adequate response created an opening for the rightists to revive nationalistic and other traditional cultural messages that had underpinned Franco’s politics.

Though the Popular Party is generally considered conservative – not extreme right – it absorbed the pro-Franco fascist “base” after that movement lost its political representation in parliament in 1982, seven years after Franco died. That extreme right now amounts to about 10 percent of the Popular Party’s constituency, according to some studies.

The numbers of far-right members are high enough so that the Popular Party is politically unwilling to chastise fascist sympathies and thus alienate a significant portion of its support. But the party is making a dangerous bet that the pro-Franco faction will not gain effective control of the Popular Party and thus fully hoist the banner of fascism again.

Police estimate there are about 10,000 Spaniards involved in violent extreme-right groups. But the concern is not so much over these very small violent groups. These are mostly contained, experts agree. The bigger worry is that Franco’s political heirs retain significant influence within the ruling Popular Party and – amid the euro crisis – they could gain greater political clout.

…In Spain, the chief concern is that an increasingly desperate public will be attracted to the historical glow that is being created around a mythical era of successful fascism under Franco.

“It’s true that this is not Greece or France, where the extreme right has become a political power,” Félix Ortega, a sociology professor and expert in public opinion in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, told me recently. “But you never know, especially if it seems that the PP tolerates it.”
This was especially disturbing as I read it at the same time I was beginning Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust:

The second article describes a plan to unite the far-Right parties ahead of the European elections:
Europe's far-right parties are set to contest next year's European elections on a common manifesto, according to French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

At a press conference in the Strasbourg Parliament on Wednesday (23 October), Le Pen, flanked by Franz Obermayr of the Austrian anti-immigration Freedom party, told reporters that she was hopeful of persuading nationalist candidates from across the EU to run on the ticket of the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF).
Despite the comedic frustrations of holding together an assortment of racist nationalists,* even short-lived coalitions should be a cause for concern.

In this connection, I should note that white supremacist murderer and terrorist Pavlo Lapshyn has been sentenced to 40 years in prison in Britain:
Lapshyn found Mohammed Saleem, 82, going home after praying at his local mosque. The student approached him from behind and plunged a hunting knife into him three times with such force that one wound went through to his front.

Lapshyn's campaign began in April 2013, just five days after his arrival from Ukraine, where he had won a prize to gain work experience in Britain. When the PhD student was arrested in July, police found three partially assembled bombs in his Birmingham flat.

After Saleem's murder, Lapshyn started placing homemade explosives outside mosques on Fridays, the main day of Muslim prayer.

The device he planted in July, which had 100 nails wrapped around it to maximise the carnage, was aimed at worshippers at the Tipton mosque, where 300 were people were expected to attend prayers.

Prayers that particular Friday were held an hour later, thus avoiding mass casualties. The device was so powerful it left nails embedded in tree trunks, police said.

…After sentencing, Louise Gray, a lawyer for the Crown Prosecution Service counter-terrorism division, said: "Pavlo Lapshyn is a dangerous man with a dangerous agenda. Just a day after his arrival in Britain from the Ukraine he was researching rightwing supremacist websites, including those linked to convicted racist murderers in Russia."
* The author mentions that
difficulties maintaining discipline and a failure to agree on common programmes have dogged previous attempts to unite the far-right.

The Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty (ITS) group was set up in 2007 but only lasted ten months before collapsing when three MEPs representing the Greater Romania party walked out in protest at inflammatory remarks made by Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the Italian dictator, about Romanian people.”

Animals and Women

“If the cutoff for perceived dignity and worth, and for the right to be free from exploitation and abuse, were not the border between human and nonhuman, the suggestion that women are somehow less human than men would have no political force….

…When human society moves beyond speciesism – to membership in animalkind – ‘animal’ imagery will no longer demean women or assist in their oppression, but will represent their liberation. When we finally cross the species boundary that keeps other animals oppressed, we will have crossed the boundary that circumscribes our lives.”
– Joan Dunayer
I think I’ll have to make my fiction and nonfiction social justice and animal liberation reading lists into continually updated resources as I become aware of and read new books and articles. I’ve just started Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Perspectives (1995), which, judging from what I’ve read so far, is very likely to be added to the list of recommendations.*

The editors and authors speak to other feminists, calling for an inclusive feminism that’s morally consistent, empirically grounded, and practically effective. In response to the “historical alignment of women and animals” at the heart of patriarchy, the editors note, “liberal feminists have stressed that women are intellects and have rational minds – like men and unlike animals.” While sympathetic to this impulse,** they advocate “a broader feminism, a radical cultural feminism, which provides an analysis of oppression and offers a vision of liberation that extends well beyond the liberal equation, incorporating within it other life-forms besides human beings”:
We believe that all oppressions are interconnected: no one creature will be free until all are free – from abuse, degradation, exploitation, pollution, and commercialization. Women and animals have shared these oppressions historically, and until the mentality of domination is ended in all its forms, these afflictions will continue.

…[W]e believe that women, as themselves victims of objectification and exploitation, must not abandon other victims of such treatment in their rush to be accepted as ‘persons’ entitled to equal rights. Women must not deny their historical linkage with animals but rather remain faithful to them, bounded as we are not just by centuries of similar abuse but also by the knowledge that they – like us, often objectified as Other – are subjects worthy of the care, the respect, even the reverence, that the sacredness*** of consciousness deserves. Such an assertion of subjectivity is necessarily subversive of domination in all its forms.
The first chapter, “Sexist Words, Speciesist Roots” by Joan Dunayer, is especially relevant to ongoing discussions of bigoted slurs and woman-animal comparisons. Dunayer notes that feminists “have long objected to ‘animal’ pejoratives for women and the pseudogenerics man and mankind.” “These linguistic habits,” she explains, “are rooted in speciesism, the assumption that other animals are inferior to humans and do not warrant equal consideration and respect.”

Denigrating humans by comparing them to other animals works within and because of a context of speciesist habits of thought and practices of exploitation, which it in turn helps to perpetuate:
Although nonhuman animals cannot discern the contempt in the words that disparage them, this contempt legitimates their oppression. Like sexist language, speciesist language fosters exploitation and abuse. As feminist philosopher Stephanie Ross (1981) has stated with regard to women, ‘oppression does not require the awareness or cooperation of its victims’ (199).
Dunayer discusses the tendency among women and feminists to respond by emphasizing our alleged distance from other animals and likeness to (the ideological image of) men:
When a woman responds to mistreatment by protesting ‘I’m a human being!’ or ‘I want to be treated with respect, not like some animal’, what is she suggesting about the acceptable ways of treating other animals?

Perhaps because comparisons between women and nonhuman animals so often entail sexism, many women are anxious to distance themselves from other animals. Feminists, especially, recognize that negative ‘animal’ imagery has advanced women’s oppression. However, if our treatment and view of other animals became caring, respectful, and just, nonhuman-animal metaphors would quickly lose all power to demean. Few women have confronted how closely they mirror patriarchal oppressors when they too participate in other species’ denigration. Women who avoid acknowledging that they are animals closely resemble men who prefer to ignore that women are human.
As I move on to the subsequent chapters, I’m sure I’ll find much with which to disagree, but I suspect all of it will be worthwhile.

* There are animal studies bibliographies available (this one isn’t as intimidating as it looks, since several books are listed under more than one category), but I prefer to limit my recommendations to those works with which I’m more familiar personally. I was pleased to notice there a book that seems to be what I’ve been looking for.

** They suggest that “It may be that this emphasis on severing the woman-animal identification was a necessary phase in the transformation of cultural ideology about women.” I’ve never believed that liberation movements have necessary phases that are contrary to the culture and society they’re trying to create.

*** Not loving this language.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Needs improvement #1: The New York Times on atheism and religion

Some recent responses to articles in the New York Times have led me to consider in more depth their coverage of certain topics. First was the response to Templeton-funded T. M. Luhrmann’s most recent offering in the paper, “Conjuring Up Our Own Gods.” As Quodlibet remarks at Ed Brayton’s blog,
As a regular reader of the NYTimes, I’ve followed with interest — akin to rubbernecking at a traffic accident — the monthly columns by T.H. [sic] Luhrmann. They are a flagrant waste of pixels and the energy required to transmit them. I also have read with interest, the many comments appended to her columns by other readers, most of whom have disagreed with her and call her out for what she is – an apologist for religiosity, specifically Christian religiosity. I also have posted comments to her columns, criticizing not only Luhrmann’s weak arguments, but also criticizing the editors at the NYT for their poor judgement in publishing her columns at all, and also for failing to cast a more editorially-critical eye on their contents. Luhrmann’s columns are poorly-reasoned, her assumptions are too often based on anecdotes, and her analysis is underlaid by the gross assumption that religious faith is a default for all people, when actually the reverse is true: people are born without religion and gain it only through indoctrination and manipulation.

The NYT chose not to publish my most recent comment, but I published it on my blog* anyway. (nyah nyah NYT)

I find it fascinating that the NYT no longer accepts comments on ANY of her columns.

It appears from my brief, unscientific, and quite possibly inadequate investigation* that Luhrmann’s regular posts form part of a larger pattern in how the Times covers atheism, religion, and secular humanism. My impressions from a cursory article search:

On October 10, 2012, the Times featured the article “Percentage of Protestant Americans Is in Steep Decline, Study Finds”: “The study also found that nearly one in five Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’, a seismic shift from 50 years ago.” Despite this rapid growth, particularly among young people, atheists and other nonreligious people don’t have much of a voice at the NYT.

Generally the paper features few positive articles about atheists, and even fewer by atheists - offering their point of view on philosophical, moral, and political questions. These do appear from time to time:

• “The Blessings of Atheism” (op ed), by Susan Jacoby (January 5, 2013): “The absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.”

• “Good Minus God,” by Louise M. Anthony (December 18, 2011): “Atheists do not lose morality by giving up God. Instead, they must find it where it lives: in the natural world.”

But they’re few and far between. The sorts of articles Greta Christina publishes at AlterNet, and that she and others post regularly on blogs, almost never appear in the Times.

A search for “secular humanism” within the category of atheism turned up a meager selection of articles since 2011, which fail to offer a fair representation of outspoken atheists. Two concern Teresa MacBain. The first of those:

• “After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission,” by Samuel G. Freedman (September 21, 2013): “The path for a minister who loses faith in God can be murky. But for one lapsed Methodist, fate — or something — intervened.”

The previous three:

• “Children, Choosing Their Religion,” by KJ Dell'Antonia (January 03, 2013): “Raising children outside of a religious tradition doesn't mean there's no room for religion in their lives.”

• “In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent,” by Samuel G. Freedman (December 29, 2012): “At a time when more Americans are without religious affiliation, the ‘nones’, as they are known, seem conspicuous in their absence from recent scenes of grief and mourning.”

• “Beyond ‘New Atheism’,” by Gary Gutting (September 14, 2011): “Most believers come to religion because of personal experience, not philosophical argument. A new brand of atheism takes this fact seriously.”

As this last title suggests, there seems overall to be a preference for the Harvard Humanist flavor of atheism, which carries a candle for religion and tends toward hostility to those atheists who are openly critical of and have little use for it. They’re also fond of covering religious leaders and people with religious training in atheist and humanist organizations. Aside from MacBain’s, the other atheist “leader” profiles offered:

• “From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader” (August 26, 2012): “The new heroes within the secular movement are coming from unlikely places — like the pulpit.”

• “In the Bible Belt, Offering Atheists a Spiritual Home” (June 24, 2013): “A former Pentecostal preacher, saying nonbelievers often miss the sense of community of church, held what he called Louisiana’s first atheist service.”

There’s an apparent uneasiness about the atheistic rejection of religion and a tendency to suggest that atheism doesn’t or shouldn’t mean dismissing it, as implied in some of the pieces cited above and several others:

• “Learning to Respect Religion,” by Nicholas D. Kristof (April 8, 2012): “Easter is the perfect day to reflect on the new intellectual tide that expresses grudging admiration for religion as a cohesive force….”

• “Alain de Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’,” by David Brooks (March 16, 2012): “Alain de Botton suggests how culture might still save our souls.”

• “A Religious Ritual Attracts Even Nonbelievers,” by Mark Oppenheimer (March 16, 2013): “An embrace of Lent is seen by some who call themselves atheists as cultural nostalgia and as claiming a sense of community.”

(There’s a real reluctance, as this last example with its reference to people who “call themselves atheists” suggests, even to recognize a wholly atheist identity.)

As the articles above indicate, pieces about atheists tend to cluster around religious holidays, and also frequently concern clashes over religious displays in government contexts. While the latter can be explained in part by the journalistic attraction to stories about conflict, the articles to seem to frame these conflicts in ways that isolate atheists and suggest that they focus on targeting religion rather than on defending the law and their own and others’ human rights:

• “Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Replaced by Atheists” (also titled “Where Crèches Once Stood, Atheists Now Hold Forth”), by Jennifer Medina (December 22, 2011): “Atheists who objected to Nativity scenes in a park in California won the right to put up their own messages, which now outnumber the religious ones.”

• “To Fight Religious Monuments, Atheists Plan Their Own Symbols,” by Laurie Goodstein (July 5, 2013): “Starting with a bench in Florida, the group American Atheists intends to install 50 more secular totems near displays of the Ten Commandments nationwide.”

There have been some sympathetic articles about atheists experiencing marginalization:

• “African-American Atheists,” by Emily Brennan (November 27, 2011): “African-Americans who say they don’t believe in God are often at odds with family, friends and potential romantic partners.”

(Note the “say they don’t believe in God.”)

• “For Indonesian Atheists, a Community of Support Amid Constant Fear,” by Sara Schonhardt (April 27, 2013): “In predominantly Muslim Indonesia, where trumpeting one's disbelief in God can lead to abuse, ostracism and even prison, atheists find careful ways to build a community of support.”

But generally there’s little attention to discrimination against atheists or resistance to religious privilege in the US. Even the coverage of the Jessica Ahlquist story, about as straightforward a case of someone courageously standing for the First Amendment and for religious freedom and being threatened and harassed for it as you’ll find, seemed to take an odd course beginning with “Rhode Island City Enraged Over School Prayer Lawsuit” (January 27, 2012) and moving, following reader responses to the report, to an op ed entitled “A Brave Stand in Rhode Island” (February 1, 2012).

And why does the Times timidly rely on atheist objections and lawsuits to call attention to violations of the separation of Church and State? Of course, they can’t be expected to go into every school or local government office scouting for religious displays or practices, but there are many examples of religious involvement with government that warrant coverage, independent of whether any organizations have (yet) brought a legal challenge – see, for example, The Atlantic’s recent story “Using Christianity to Fight Crime” (a lawsuit is now being discussed).

So, to return to where I started, there’s a lot more where Luhrmann’s opinion pieces came from. In the most recent example, doing my “research” for this post I noticed a new article from just the other day – an interview by John Williams with Francis Spufford about the silly thesis of his book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. (It received equally fawning treatment last year in the Guardian.)

Based on my reading, I give these suggestions:

1. Offer more coverage of both the growth of atheism and the continued marginalization of atheists.

2. Feature a broader range of atheist voices, including those who are openly critical of religion, and offer opportunities for atheists, including those who are openly critical of religion, to discuss morality, social justice, and politics.

3. Make reporting on potential violations of the First Amendment – at the national, state, and local levels and in a variety of contexts - a normal part of your journalistic practice.

4. If you must publish these gooey interviews with and inane commentary by religious apologists, at least allow atheists (preferably not named Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris) an equal opportunity to respond, particularly to the apologists’ characterizations of atheism.

* Aside from its brevity and non-systematicity, the search was hindered by the fact that I’ve reached my limit for the month and can’t go back and read most of the articles. I’m sure the titles and brief descriptions don’t fully capture their arguments, and I would appreciate corrections if I’m mischaracterizing any of them on that basis; on the other hand, these titles and descriptions have an importance all their own.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

That’s not love, CBS.

CBS’ 48 Hours tonight is about “breakup violence,” a descriptive enough term. The report centers on high school student Lauren Astley, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2011.

It’s an important issue to highlight, but the show’s title – “Loved to Death” – is incorrect, ill-considered, and counterproductive. The cultural and personal factors that lead people to abuse others or to hurt or kill the person who’s broken off with them are not love, and the show is inadvertently promoting harmful ideas by suggesting that violence is an extreme expression of love.

I’m going to include this video, which I hope isn’t seen as trivializing this violence (or worse, blaming women for remaining in dangerous situations) but as pointing to a cultural problem - the romanticization of painful relationships:

A great new app for finding vegan meals and a dairy-free guide

Introducing the new PlantEaters app, Mariann Sullivan of Our Hen House says: “The most brilliant ideas are the ones that when you hear about them, you immediately think, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?!?’” I did, as it happens, think of it, a couple of months ago, as my family and friends can attest (my name was the Vegan Menu Project, but PlantEaters is nice, too. :)) So obviously I agree that it’s a brilliant idea.

Here’s their press release from earlier this week:
PlantEaters Makes Finding Vegetarian Meals at Any Restaurant Easy

PlantEaters, a new iPhone app, opens up a world of dining opportunities for vegetarians by helping them find meatless meals at any restaurant, regardless of whether or not the restaurant itself is vegetarian or vegan. Users can rate and share meals that they’ve had when dining out.

New York, NY (PRWEB) October 22, 2013 – PlantEaters is a new iPhone app that helps you find vegetarian meals at restaurants all around you, regardless of whether or not the restaurant itself is vegetarian or vegan. This focus on meals, instead of restaurants, opens up a new world of dining opportunities for vegetarians, vegans, or those just looking to enjoy a meatless meal.

Finding a vegetarian meal at a nearby restaurant can often be a challenge. By leveraging the collective dining experiences of the PlantEaters community, vegetarians can dine out without having to settle for the house salad. Whether it’s a night out in a new city, or dinner with some meat-eating friends, PlantEaters can help make sure that vegetarians and vegans have a great dining experience.

Over time, the majority of meals in PlantEaters will come from the community itself adding and rating meals (including photos). To help get the ball rolling, the database has been pre-populated with thousands of meals covering a number of major metropolitan areas, including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Founded by the husband and wife team of David and Tracy Hersh, PlantEaters represents a passion project for the couple, who have been vegan for four years. David is a serial entrepreneur with deep experience in product design, having been a founder at pioneering efforts in the social networking, e-commerce and fantasy sports industries.

“In our hometown of New York City, we are fortunate to have a great selection of vegetarian and vegan restaurants. Even here though, the number of those restaurants pales in comparison to the thousands of other restaurants the city has to offer,” says David. “Increasingly, these restaurants are offering more meatless dining options and Tracy and I were struck by the fact that there was no easy way to find those meals. PlantEaters was created to fill that need.”

“Most of our friends aren’t vegetarians and until PlantEaters it has always been a challenge finding a place everyone would enjoy,” says Tracy. “We used to always sacrifice our dining experience because we didn’t want to inconvenience others, but now we can easily find a place that makes everyone happy.”*
One of the criticisms Sullivan had was that since the app also includes vegetarian meals, vegans would have to sort through them to find the vegan options. But David Hersh explained in a response that it’s easy to limit your search to vegan meals only, and they also posted about this on the PlantEaters blog.

Another useful resource comes from Ashley Capps at the Free from Harm blog. She’s put together a useful guide to dairy-free milks, cheeses, and more. For the products I’ve tried, I agree with her assessments and recommendations. I also can’t wait to get the Non-Dairy Formulary and try out the recipes.

* This framing bothers me, I have to admit.

From Edmund Burke to the Twitter jerk

Over the past couple of weeks, Public Shaming has featured callous and hypocritical tweets about the loss of public benefits for poor people during the government shutdown: see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

These examples provided the perfect context for reading Corey Robin’s post about conservative icon Edmund Burke:
…Throughout his career, Burke’s financial state had been precarious. Much to his embarrassment, he was periodically forced to rely upon well timed gifts and loans from his wealthier friends and patrons.

So terrified was he of dying in a debtor’s prison that he struggled in his retirement to learn Italian. His hope, claimed one of the many visitors at his estate, was to flee England and “end his days with tollerable Ease in Italy.” (He also floated, apparently, the possibility of fleeing to Portugal or America.) “I cannot quite reconcile my mind to a prison,” he told a friend.

Thanks to the interventions of his well connected friends, Burke secured from Pitt in August 1795 two annuities that would wipe out his debts and a pension that, along with an additional pension and the income from his estate, would enable him and his wife to live in comfort into their old age.

Three months later, when Burke took up his pen against a proposal for the government to subsidize the wages of farm laborers during bad harvest years (so that they could sustain themselves and their families), he wrote, “To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government.”
Ah, a fine tradition of thought persisting through the centuries. Also, it's funny to imagine Burke tweeting.

Blackfish - encore presentations tonight and tomorrow on CNN!

If you missed watching or recording Blackfish on Thursday, you have more chances to see it. There will be encore showings tonight (Saturday, October 26) at 7 ET and tomorrow night(Sunday, October 27) at 9 ET.

The film won its cable news timeslot on Thursday and has sparked an outcry across Twitter and the internet.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Nonreplication and despair in psychiatric genetics

Jay Joseph, whose critical work on genetics in psychiatry I’ve discussed here previously, published a piece the other day at Mad in America in which he describes the refusal of Genome-wide Complex Trait Analysis (GCTA) to conform to the insistent claims of psychiatric geneticists.

I was struck by the public statements of some of the proponents of biogenetic psychiatry, who saw in GCTA the method that would, despite decades of “failure to identify genes for psychiatric disorders,” finally prove them right:
Although the GCTA method was developed as a means of solving the “missing heritability” problem, like GWA studies and other methods it is based on assuming the validity of heritability estimates for human behavioral traits, as well as assuming that twin and adoption studies have established the genetic basis of psychiatric disorders. The validity of each of these assumptions, however, is very questionable.5 And yet, leading behavioral geneticists such as Robert Plomin and Eric Turkheimer have embraced GCTA, seeing it as a way out of the missing heritability conundrum.6 Turkheimer even saw it as the ultimate refutation of the arguments of twin research critics, writing that “the new paradigm” has put criticism of the assumptions of family and twin studies “to rest.” Turkheimer believed that the GCTA method “should drive a stake through the heart of a classical line of argument against classical behavioral genetics and its attendant statistical assumptions.”7

...Although in 2011 Turkheimer believed that the GCTA method would “drive a stake through the heart of” criticism of behavioral genetic theories and methods, and would finally put criticism of twin studies “to rest,” the opposite scenario appears to be playing out before us, as leading behavioral genetic researchers struggle to prevent negative GCTA findings, and the obvious false assumptions underlying twin research, from driving a stake through the heart of twin studies themselves.
Once again, this isn’t how science works. You don’t get to respond to valid criticisms of existing research or assumptions by arguing that future research will retroactively justify them. These people sound more like mad scientists, shouting vainly to a skeptical world from their mountaintop labs – “You just wait! My next experiment will show all of you that I was right all along!” (Or at least that’s how they would sound if people didn’t keep reflexively granting their statements respectability.)

They’re doing research without doing science. Science depends on an honest reckoning with the existing evidence, including a critical evaluation of research and the conclusions drawn from it. It involves humility concerning the quality and findings of the research base as a whole, and if that research base is plagued with nonreplicability that has to factor into the evaluation of any individual study and should lead to the broader questioning of theories (and I use the term loosely in this context), assumptions, and methods. If research doesn’t lead to this sort of questioning, you’re not doing science.

What’s led the field to stray so far from basic scientific standards? Another remark by Joseph caught my eye:
As Faraone candidly posed the question, “Nonreplication had been the curse of molecular psychiatric genetics for decades. Has it returned in a new guise?”12

The answer to Faraone’s question probably is yes, because due to major problems and false assumptions underlying previous family, twin, and adoption studies, in addition to the questionable validity and reliability of psychiatric disorders in general,13 the “curse” Faraone referred to is merely the scientific likelihood that genes for the major psychiatric disorders do not exist. This is a cause for celebration, not despair, as society can now part ways with genetic diversions and focus on environmental causes, interventions, and prevention. [my emphasis]
I have to wonder why this does seem to be a cause of despair and denial for these researchers. To be sure, even when scientific integrity demands it, people are generally reluctant to acknowledge that the paradigm that has guided their work is false. (On the other hand, by accepting it, those working in false paradigms are freed to pursue more promising scientific projects.) Also probably at work is the belief that finding biogenetic causes is necessary to developing effective treatments or cures, though this is plainly nonsensical: useful interventions are not going to emerge from a misunderstanding of the problem.

But there seems to be an attachment to biogenetic psychiatry that goes beyond these concerns. Why are so many people, in the field and in the general population, so attached to this notion? Why does the genetic model of human behavior and “mental illness” have such a hold that people are led to try to ignore and explain away contradictory findings, looking desperately to every new technique to at last provide it a scientific basis? Why is it so difficult for them to abandon? Given the dark political history of this model, these questions need answers.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Blackfish to air on CNN this Thursday, October 24th!

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s acclaimed and influential documentary Blackfish, which I’ve discussed here recently, will be airing on CNN tomorrow (Thursday) night at 9 PM Eastern time.

By all means, tune in and/or set your system to record it.

Can religious people experience wonder at the universe?

I’m returning to this question since I’ve just read another post about Oprah Winfrey’s exchange with distance swimmer Diana Nyad in which Winfrey refused to accept Nyad’s atheism after Nyad had mentioned her sense of awe and wonder at the universe.

This tendency – and it’s a dishonest tendency, whether that’s intended or not – to equate an awestruck appreciation of and joy in the natural universe with “spirituality,” thus claiming it for religion, is a common problem. One sociological study that bothered me immensely when I read it and continues to raise my ire when I think of it today was Ecklund and Long’s 2011 “Scientists and Spirituality,”* and it was precisely because they played these sorts of games with “spirituality.” Having found that scientists are generally nonreligious, the authors set out to mine for “spirituality” amongst them. Instead of defining the variable they intended to measure (spirituality) at the outset, they argued that they were going to let the scientists define it for themselves. This doesn’t make sense in a study in which the prevalence of an attitude is being measured, of course, but in any case it isn’t what they did in practice. What they did was to lead scientists to characterize some of their attitudes as spiritual and, worse, label any positive orientation – a concern with ethics, a sense of responsibility to students, a curiosity about meanings and the world – as spiritual. This practice, which is not good science, is similar to what Oprah was doing when she refused to accept that Nyad’s wonder at and joy in the world could be nonreligious.

But the Ecklund and Long study and Oprah’s comments are tangential to the deeper problem, which is a failure to recognize the fundamental invalidity of religious experiences themselves. It’s not just that religious people try to monopolize awe, wonder, love, joy,... More fundamentally, the claim that these religious experiences are genuine is itself dubious. By its very nature, religious belief engages with the natural world, including ourselves, in a manner that’s distorted by false beliefs about it. Whether the god, gods, or spirits of religious people are believed to sit outside or form part of the natural world or the universe itself is seen as an embodiment of god or spirit, the natural world itself isn’t understood in terms of its real attributes.

If you feel awe at the universe as God’s creation or the embodiment of Spirit, then you don’t feel awe at the universe. If you love other animals, human or nonhuman, as God’s creatures, then you don’t love other animals. Because you’re not in awe of the universe, you’re not in awe of the universe. Because you don’t love other animals, you don’t love other animals. In other words, appreciation based on attributes external to the being or thing itself isn’t genuine appreciation of that being or thing. You can’t experience a genuine relationship with the entities of the world unless it’s a relationship with them, as they are.

That religious people feel an awe or a love or a connection that is not genuine – is mediated and distorted by false projection – is evident from their view of the world with these religious-spiritual elements removed. This is the vision they have of atheist materialism. The world without their gods or spirits is a bleak, empty, sterile place, defined by absence and devoid of everything beautiful and awe-inspiring.

I’ve quoted Bakunin from God and the State before:
Idealists of all schools, aristocrats and bourgeois, theologians and metaphysicians, politicians and moralists, religionists, philosophers, or poets, not forgetting the liberal economists - unbounded worshippers of the ideal, as we know - are much offended when told that man, with his magnificent intelligence, his sublime ideas, and his boundless aspirations, is, like all else existing in the world, nothing but matter, only a product of vile matter.

We may answer that the matter of which materialists speak, matter spontaneously and eternally mobile, active, productive, matter chemically or organically determined and manifested by the properties or forces, mechanical, physical, animal, and intelligent, which necessarily belong to it - that this matter has nothing in common with the vile matter of the idealists. The latter, a product of their false abstraction, is indeed a stupid, inanimate, immobile thing, incapable of giving birth to the smallest product, a caput mortuum, an ugly fancy in contrast to the beautiful fancy which they call God; as the opposite of this supreme being, matter, their matter, stripped by that constitutes its real nature, necessarily represents supreme nothingness. They have taken away intelligence, life, all its determining qualities, active relations or forces, motion itself, without which matter would not even have weight, leaving it nothing but impenetrability and absolute immobility in space; they have attributed all these natural forces, properties, and manifestations to the imaginary being created by their abstract fancy; then, interchanging rôles, they have called this product of their imagination, this phantom, this God who is nothing, "supreme Being" and, as a necessary consequence, have declared that the real being, matter, the world, is nothing. After which they gravely tell us that this matter is incapable of producing anything, not even of setting itself in motion, and consequently must have been created by their God.
The significance here of their having declared that “the real being, matter, the world, is nothing” is that the awe and wonder and curiosity and love religious people express toward the natural world are awe and wonder and curiosity and love toward the natural world only to the extent that the world is seen as the creation or manifestation of divinity or spirit. Therefore, they aren’t awe and wonder and curiosity and love toward the natural world. Removing the real attributes of the natural world and locating them outside that world renders authentic relations with the world as it is impossible.

It’s not that people who believe in gods and spirits are incapable of having these experiences. It’s that the religious impulse is fundamentally contrary to them and that the experiences are corrupted to the precise extent that the natural world is believed to be infused with divinity. (This corruption isn’t limited to religion, but is true generally: the genuine experience of relations to the world is corrupted to the precise extent that false beliefs are projected onto it.)

I call attention to this issue not only to reveal the irony of the religious attempts to monopolize the experiences of awe and relatedness and suggest the problem with the “Atheists experience that, too!” retort. Nor is my intent to argue that all atheists have these experiences. The important point is that projecting false beliefs onto the natural world – and thus onto ourselves – is alienating and contrary to the development of positive relations. Our capacity to genuinely relate to beings and entities in the world is directly tied to our knowledge and understanding of them as they are in reality. As Fromm argued, this understanding is necessarily founded on respect – in the form, here, of seeking to make our knowledge objective by working to avoid projecting our wishes and beliefs onto them and to see them as they are.

*Ecklund, Elaine Howard and Elizabeth Long. 2011. “Scientists and Spirituality.” Sociology of Religion 72 (3): 253-274.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Rights Action report on killings and attempted killings linked to the Honduran electoral process

Rights Action has published a report on the violence in the months leading up to the November 24 elections in Honduras, including a list (based on the information available) of the names of the victims of murders or attempted murders, their party affiliations and political involvement, and a description of the circumstances of the crimes. “The intent of the incomplete list,” they state,
…is to encourage a discussion of the circumstances in which the Honduran elections will occur. Almost a month remains until Hondurans will cast their votes in the 2013 General elections. To date and since the May 2012 Primary Elections, there have been a disproportionate number of killings and attempted killings targeting LIBRE candidates. A thorough investigation of each case is a difficult if not impossible task before November 24. But our hope is that this incomplete list raises significant questions about how democratic and fair voting and election campaigning can be held in a context of on-going terror, violence and impunity affecting candidates and their families throughout the country.
They provide some background and context:
Honduras has maintained a two party political system for decades. However, in the wake of the June 28, 2009 military coup a strong new political force emerged, the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP) which sought to oppose the coup through peaceful means. After overthrown president Manuel Zelaya returned to Honduras, the decision to participate in the 2013 General Elections was taken by the resistance movement and the FNRP, and the first major third political party in the modern history of Honduras was created: the Libertad y Refundación (Freedom and Refoundation) party, or LIBRE.

Including LIBRE candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, there are eight presidential candidates participating in the November elections involving nine political parties, as one, new, non-traditional party formed an alliance with the existing Unión Democrática (UD) party (2).

Though President Porfirio Lobo’s post-coup regime has been promoted internationally as a government of ‘Unity and National Reconciliation’, it includes none of the key actors who were forcibly removed from power during the 2009 coup. The Canadian and United States government as well as the European Union have stood behind the false projection of reconciliation and unity projected by the Honduran government (3).

Lobo’s term in office has been marked by unprecedented levels of violence: Honduras today has one of the highest homicide rates in the world coupled with a high impunity rate (4). The Lobo government’s efforts to persuade the international community that the government is taking effective action against the country’s rampant violence - as Honduran Vice President María Antonieta Guillén attempted to do at the UN Assembly on September 27, 2013 (5) - has been followed by continued massacres and killings in Honduran streets and the on-going systematic targeting of political opponents and social activists (6).

Since the 2009 coup, international human rights organizations including the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Commission, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have noted gross human rights abuses particularly targeting certain sectors of Honduran society – lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders, and opponents of the current post-coup military regime (7).

The 2013 General Elections will occur in a historical and on-going context of gross human rights abuses committed by the current government and the 5-month de facto government of Roberto Micheletti that preceded it, June – November 2009. A lot weighs on the results of the General Elections, whether it’s the US Government and OAS hoping for a seemingly clean, democratic and reliable election, or the sympathizers of the LIBRE party, hoping for a transformation of Honduran society as per the promises and principles of the FNRP.

The coup and its repercussions over the last four years have polarized Honduran society. At odds are those hoping to change the status quo and reject the interests behind the 2009 coup – largely the FNRP and the political party that grew from that movement, the LIBRE party - and those that perpetrated and/or supported the coup and hope to maintain the status quo - largely business elites, the two traditional political parties (the National and Liberal Parties) and its allies.

In political prison news,…

Will Potter reports:
An inmate in Illinois has been in solitary confinement since July for possessing "copious amounts of Anarchist publications" and "handwritten Anarchist related essays," according to prison documents.

Mark "Migs" Neiweem is a prisoner at the maximum security Pontiac Correctional Center who, in addition to the publications and his writings about the prison industrial complex, was also found in possession of anarchist symbols including a "Circle A" and "Circle E" (the latter, which stands for equality, is described in prison reports as representing "class warfare, the 99%").

"I've been doing this work since 1979 and I can't think of another case where someone has gotten a disciplinary report for something so obviously political as this," said Alan Mills, who is Neiweem's lawyer and a professor at Northwestern University....
The treatment of Neiweem (and of Jerry Koch and others) is of a piece with ongoing government efforts to pathologize and criminalize anarchism and more generally to go after radical leftwing movements while minimizing or ignoring the real violence perpetrated by groups on the Right.

Meanwhile, in Russia,* Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, following in the proud tradition of Kropotkin, is starting an NGO for prisoners’ rights in the region where she’s imprisoned.

*Where the political abuse of psychiatry appears to be making a comeback.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Feel no pain

The New Inquiry reviews DSM-5 as dystopian fiction

It goes very well.
...The word “disorder” occurs so many times that it almost detaches itself from any real signification, so that the implied existence of an ordered state against which a disorder can be measured nearly vanishes is almost forgotten. Throughout the novel, this ordered normality never appears except as an inference; it is the object of a subdued, hopeless yearning. With normality as a negatively defined and nebulously perfect ideal, anything and everything can then be condemned as a deviation from it. Even an outburst of happiness can be diagnosed as a manic episode. And then there are the “not otherwise specified” personality disorder categories. Here all pretensions to objectivity fall apart and the novel’s carefully warped imitation of scientific categories fades into an examination of petty viciousness. A personality disorder not otherwise specified is the diagnosis for anyone whose behaviors “do not meet the full criteria for any one Personality Disorder, but that together cause clinically significant distress […] eg. social or occupational.” It’s hard not to be reminded of a few people who’ve historically caused social or occupational distress. If you don’t believe that people really exist, any radical call for their emancipation is just sickness at its most annoying.

If there is a normality here, it’s a state of near-catatonia. DSM-5 seems to have no definition of happiness other than the absence of suffering. The normal individual in this book is tranquilized and bovine-eyed,* mutely accepting everything in a sometimes painful world without ever feeling much in the way of anything about it. The vast absurd excesses of passion that form the raw matter of art, literature, love, and humanity are too distressing; it’s easier to stop being human altogether, to simply plod on as a heaped collection of diagnoses with a body vaguely attached....
* Grr.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sleeping with one eye open

One of the cats recently had to have an infected tooth pulled, which was traumatic for all involved. Apparently, it’s a hereditary predisposition and there’s little you can do other than monitor it, but the vet did suggest brushing his teeth.

This has proven a challenge. He doesn’t like it, and pulls back his face and clenches his mouth like a child dodging a spoonful of medicine. The only chance of getting even a few teeth is when he’s in a deep sleep. It’s a brief window of opportunity – he awakens and bolts as soon as he becomes aware of what’s happening.

Worst of all, it makes for a very uneasy sleep. Even when he appears to be soundly snoozing, he’s always listening for the opening of the toothbrush container or watching out of the corner of his eye for someone sneaking up on him with a toothbrush. He’s being deprived of the hours of undisturbed, contented sleep that are his natural right as a cat.

It’s also become nearly impossible to get a good picture of him sleeping, as shown in these photos:

Saturday, October 19, 2013

How does this continue?

Scientific American MIND recently reviewed Gary Greenberg’s The Book of Woe. The review contains this paragraph:
Relying heavily on interviews with distinguished insiders in the psychiatric establishment, Greenberg paints a picture so compelling and bleak that it could easily send the vulnerable reader into therapy. The basic message is this: everyone in the mental health profession knows full well that the DSM is a work of fiction—that the hundreds of “disorders” described therein are just labels for fuzzy, overlapping clusters of symptoms and that we have never found a definitive biological marker for even one of those disorders. Mental health professionals pretend that the disorders are real, but they're not, period.
Psychiatry is supposed to be a branch of medicine. It seems impossible that we could be living in a situation in which an entire field of medicine rests on a foundation of pseudoscience, this is well known and has even been publicly acknowledged by the leaders of the profession, and yet this game of pretend is allowed to continue. Amazingly, we are.

HONDURAS UPDATE 10-19-13: “We are writing to express our concern…”

In the weeks leading to the Honduran elections on November 24th, there are some campaign irregularities. And by irregularities, I mean that activists and candidates for the LIBRE party are being assassinated. The militarized police, the persecution of activists – these are not the conditions for free and fair elections.

The Obama administration’s record on Honduras is a terrible one,* and at least a few politicians in the US – Raúl Grijalva, Mike Honda, and Hank Johnson – are speaking up and demanding that they do the minimum to reverse this pattern and respect democracy in Honduras.

Here’s the full text of the letter from these three representatives to Secretary of State Kerry, dated October 15:
The Honorable John Kerry

Secretary of State

U.S. Department of State

2201 C Street, NW

Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Kerry:

We are writing to express our concern about U.S. policy and the approaching November 24 elections in Honduras. The evidence so far indicates that the freedom and fairness of this election is very much at risk, as human rights abuses under the existing government continue to threaten basic civil liberties, opposition candidates do not enjoy a level playing field, and state security forces are taking on an increasingly central, and ominous role in context of the election.

We are particularly alarmed to learn that the ruling party, and its presidential candidate Mr. Juan Orlando Hernandez, now dominates all the key institutions of the government, including the country's electoral authority and the military, which distributes the ballots--leaving scarce recourse for Honduran citizens should fraud be committed in the electoral process, or human rights violations continue to threaten open debate. This is particularly troubling given the long history of electoral fraud in Honduras, including allegations of widespread fraud during the primary elections in November of 2012.

In light of these facts, we fear the country currently lacks conditions to guarantee a free and fair election process. For instance, in a recent report on Honduras, the International Federation of Human Rights expresses great concern in regards to the "absolute dysfunction" of the Honduran justice system, the "politicization of justice for electoral ends," and the concentration of power.

We are also troubled to learn about acts of violence and intimidation against leaders of the opposition parties, especially members of LIBRE. According to COFADEH, Honduras' leading human rights group, at least sixteen activists and candidates from LIBRE have been assassinated since June of 2012. Furthermore, it has been brought to our attention that the Honduras government has failed to effectively investigate and prosecute those responsible for these assassinations.

We also note with great concern the promotion of increasing militarization of the police as it is threatened civil liberties, including freedom of speech and freedom of association in Honduras. For instance, Honduran media reported that the military blocked peaceful marches of the opposition this past Independence Day, September 15, and members of the Army's Engineers' Battalion shot and killed an indigenous activist, Tomás García, at a peaceful protest in July. It has come to our attention that the governing party candidate has based much of his campaign on a new hybrid military police, 5,000-strong, under the control of the military. The candidate himself led the push for its creation by the Honduran Congress this past August, promising "a soldier on every corner." These new troops are already engaging in police work and are visible in the streets, wearing black helmets and masks with only their eyes visible.

We welcome the recent statement from the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa expressing the U.S. neutral political position with respect to the elections, and its willingness to work with whichever candidate wins. However, we are concerned that the Embassy has not spoken forcefully about the militarization of the police under the impetus of one of the candidates, expressed concern with the National Party's concentration of institutional power through illegal means, and condemned the ongoing intimidation against the members of the opposition.

We are of the opinion that our government would lose credibility in Honduras and the region should it be perceived as taking sides in the election or turning a blind eye to fraud and unfair electoral conditions. Many in the region are well aware that in the past, the United States government has indeed supported specific candidates in Latin American elections, particularly in Central America. In November 2009, while the military coup in Honduras was still in force and basic civil liberties violently repressed, the State Department announced it would recognize the outcome of the presidential election even before the ballots had been counted. It also appears that the State Department has largely countenanced the concentration of institutional power in Honduran government in the past year, in the hands of the ruling party candidate, through illegal means.

We request the Department of State to use every available means to ensure free and fair elections in Honduras on November 24, to guarantee a level playing field in the weeks preceding the election, and to be entirely neutral in its public and private messages to this country. In addition, we request the Department of State to speak forcefully against the pattern of concerted attacks targeting human rights defenders and the opposition.


Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva

Rep. Hank Johnson

Rep. Mike Honda
*And a staggeringly hypocritical one.

Psychiatric detention and drugging: Fear-mongering in the US, defending human rights at the UN

In a moment when a there’s a shameful and dishonest campaign underway in the US to stoke public fear of people diagnosed with a mental illness and push for their forcible incarceration and drugging, it’s encouraging to learn of positive international developments in protecting people’s human rights in psychiatric contexts.

Tina Minkowitz continues to report from the UN, where the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has made it absolutely clear that “the ‘danger to self or others’ standard cannot legitimize psychiatric detention, and that all legislation authorizing such detention must be repealed.” As Minkowitz explains, Article 14 of the CRPD – which requires that “States Parties shall ensure…that the existence of a disability shall in no case justify a deprivation of liberty” – prohibits “commitment based on a psychiatric diagnosis plus criteria such as ‘danger to oneself or others’ [or ‘need for care and treatment’].”

Because this prohibition of psychiatric commitment was a dramatic departure from the previous standard, though, “there were many law professors, human rights organizations and, needless to say, governments, as well as the World Health Organization (which is highly influential in developing countries), that misinterpreted Article 14 to re-inscribe the old standard.”

This problem has persisted for some time, and last month Minkowitz went to Geneva to address the Committee. “My intention,” she describes,
was to encourage the Committee to makes its guidance entirely clear on the prohibition of psychiatric detention, and in particular on the prohibition of detention using a ‘danger to self or others’ standard, so that governments would be put on notice that they are committing human rights violations by continuing to apply their commitment laws.
Her efforts met with success, especially in that “the Concluding Observations adopted on the three countries under review – El Salvador, Austria and Australia – all take the resoundingly clear position that psychiatric detention is prohibited under Article 14.” Minkowitz quotes from the Concluding Observations on these three countries – Australia, for example, must repeal “legal provisions that authorize commitment of individuals to detention in mental health services, or the impositi[o]n of compulsory treatment either in institutions or in the community via Community Treatment Orders (CTOs).”

Furthermore, “The issues raised under Article 14 in the criminal context, in particular the prohibition of criminal or forensic psychiatric commitment, are now beginning to be addressed by the Committee and also by the Special Rapporteur on Torture.” Also, “with regard to the Committee’s stance against forced psychiatric drugging and other coercive practices, they are continuing to be quite firm, addressing forced psychiatry as a form of torture and ill-treatment as well as a violation of the right to free and informed consent in health care, the right to integrity of the person, and the right to legal capacity.”

Good policy can be made when decisions are based not on fear and propaganda but on respect for human rights (and just human beings). What’s more, as I think Ted Chabasinski has argued, defending human rights is inseparable from developing positive approaches to psychological problems. Denying governments the option of violent and coercive (and often commercially profitable) measures pushes people to consider, imagine, and create humanistic alternatives.

*This was an appallingly credulous and dangerous segment from 60 Minutes, blithely repeating long-debunked claims and simply refusing to seek out or even recognize other perspectives. To drive the problem home, watching it online I was treated to two ads for the “antidepressant” Pristiq.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Spiegl to Dutch parliament: Morgan is “a child of the Netherlands”

The other day, Matthew Spiegl published an open letter* to the members of the Dutch parliament petitioning them (and the Dutch people) to revisit the case of the orca Morgan and to intervene to halt the inertia of the decisions that have led to her imprisonment and exploitation at Loro Parque.
On December 3, 2013 the High Court in Den Haag will once again review the case of Morgan the Orca, found off the Dutch coast and now housed in a Spanish amusement park. But why does this issue have to be resolved by the court at all?

The Dutch Parliament has it within its power to act in the best interest of Morgan, to undo the mistake of the previous Government, and direct that she be moved to a sea pen and held in public trust for the good of all, in the hope she can one day be returned to the sea.

…The Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation is still the issuing CITES management authority and can - if it has the will to do so - recall Morgan from Loro Parque if the conditions there place Morgan at risk, which appears to be the case.

Morgan should not be confined to a concrete tank for the rest of her life, and the debate about her should not be confined to the pages of a legal brief or the formalities of a lengthy court proceeding or even the political procedural process of Parliament.

The debate about Morgan must be led by the people of the Netherlands - in the name of humanity - and on behalf of us all.
(It appears that Blackfish – to which Spiegl refers in his letter - will be premiering in the Netherlands in a couple of weeks, and could well have an effect on the course of events.)

To me, the most interesting aspect of the letter was Spiegl’s framing of his appeal not only in terms of national identity but in terms of an ethic of maternal care:
Morgan’s right to be free must be shouted out at the top of our voices and from the depth of our hearts, with the same passion and conviction as a mother protecting her child.

When Morgan was taken from the Wadden Sea, she became a child of the Netherlands, a ward of the Dutch people to be held in public trust by the Dutch Government until she could be released back to the sea, to rejoin her real mother.

All the world is watching, all the world is waiting, all the world knows that the fate of Morgan can change this world forever and make it a better place for all.
The maternal metaphor – with which I’m not entirely comfortable - is apt given orca social structure. But, although Spiegl is from the US, it’s almost unimaginable, in this land of anxious masculinity, that an appeal to legislators would ask them to imagine themselves and the country as the collective mother of any human or other animal. I would love to know if that’s more common or resonant in the Dutch context….

*I admit I’m a little confused about the SeaWorld documents Spiegl cites and links to and whether Morgan is among the subjects of the exchange, as he contends.


Several years ago, I went to a lecture by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman at a European university. I really just happened upon it, but I’d read some of his books and even used them in teaching and the topic of the talk was related to what I was working on at the time, so I went.

The lecture was well attended and interesting, although as I recall I had several criticisms. I took notes, as I usually do, which I’ve saved. Last week, I was thinking of some of his arguments and how they might relate to what I’m currently writing about. Before going to look for my notes, I did a quick search online to see what he’s published on the topic since.

I was shocked to discover that I'd missed the news of an incident at a lecture by Bauman at Wroclaw University in June. Several people captured on video the intrusion of rightwing thugs chanting, according to people who posted videos on YT, “Get the fuck out!” and “Both the hammer and the sickle for the red horde!”* (I have no idea what the members of the audience are chanting back at them or what Bauman is saying when he begins to speak.)

*Referring to Bauman’s Communist past.

Psychiatric imperialism: Disease-mongering in Europe, and avoiding the tobacco trap

I’ve discussed Ethan Watters’ book Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche here in the past, and some recent news about psychiatry and drug marketing in Europe has touched on its thesis implicitly and explicitly. These reports offer an opportunity to see psychiatric colonization in action, both in the marketing campaign of an individual drug company and in the international manipulations of US psychiatry.

Reading articles in business publications, like Bloomberg’s “ADHD Pill Faces High Hurdle in Europe as Stigma Persists,” is always interesting. They usually contain little intentional spin on the part of the writers. But this is only because they’re so tightly bound to the corporations from which they live that they just dutifully repeat corporate spin out of obedience or ideology. At the same time, the fact that they are so immersed in the system and not seeking in this context to justify corporations’ claims to outside critics often leads to surprising candor about what the companies are actually doing.

The Bloomberg article, by Trista Kelley, describes how Shire, a company based in Ireland, is attempting to expand the market for its “ADHD” drug Vyvanse, already a big seller in the US. The mindless repetition of corporate PR is evident throughout. ADHD is described as a real brain disorder with serious consequences for children as they grow, and the drug is portrayed as a real treatment for this condition. The people quoted are all sympathetic to Shire’s cause (one, Mary Baker, is president of something called the European Brain Council, described as “a Brussels-based non-profit representing doctors, patients [sic] and companies including Shire that work on neurology and psychiatry issues,” as though it were evident that these groups had identical interests). It’s these individuals who characterize resistance to the diagnosis and the drug as rooted in stigma for parents who give and children who take drugs – as the title of the article suggests - or a tradition of blaming parents.

But as the title also suggests, this isn’t about education but about marketing. While the company’s marketing efforts are depicted as an educational campaign, it’s a business article about their efforts to expand the market for a lucrative product. Shire can’t sell the pill without convincing people that it treats a real medical condition, so in conjunction with “rolling out the pill” in eight European countries it’s been “discussing the prevalence of the illness with doctors at psychiatry conferences around Europe.” “Before gaining sales,” the article reports, “Shire must first face the uphill battle of getting the disorder acknowledged and then diagnosed”:
“The next year to two years is going to be a significant educational effort on our part,” Chief Executive Officer Flemming Ornskov said in an interview in May, referring to Vyvanse in the European market. “The climate in Europe is a bit more negative. It will take us some time."
But the smart money’s on Shire, the article suggests, because the company isn’t alone. Their efforts to have the so-called disorder recognized and their drug prescribed are but a small part of the powerful wave of influence coming from the pharma-psychiatry complex in the US:
The path for Vyvanse may be eased in 2015 when the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases is revised, according to Keyur Parekh, an analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co. in London. The classification is used as a treatment guideline in Europe, much as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is used for psychiatry in the U.S.

The revision probably will align the stricter international guidelines with those in the DSM, which should help Shire’s ADHD business, Parekh said in a report to clients in May.
Although Kelley’s language – “The revision probably will align…” – obscures the people behind the efforts to obtain this alignment, a recent piece in Psychology Today by Christopher Lane (whose Shyness I’ve also mentioned here in the past) – “Crazy Like Us: How the U.S. Exports Its Model of Illness” - describes this process in more detail, drawing on Watters’ insights. Lane reports:
The fears of many European psychiatrists may soon be realized. Earlier this week, Psychiatric News reported that the American Psychiatric Association has begun petitioning the various agencies overseeing changes to the ICD, or International Classification of Diseases, to request that they adopt its most-controversial changes in DSM-5.

According to Psychiatric News, the APA has asked the ICD formally to include seven new disorders listed in DSM-5, though not in ICD-9-CM or ICD-10-CM.

…The APA’s aim is clearly to make the two diagnostic systems converge more successfully, to ensure greater consistency—and avoid an apples and oranges problem—in psychiatric research. But the outcome, if the petition is approved, is likely eventually to export to Europe and other regions a range of disorders still mired in controversy and, according to the results of the APA’s own field trials, still very much in need of further research.
(See here for more information on the relationship between the ICD and the DSM, and here for regular updates on the ICD.* Interestingly enough, the post at the APA’s Psychiatric News that Lane and others link to has now disappeared. Following the link, you’re informed that the page no longer exists, and neither a search of the site nor a Google search turned it up for me.

UPDATE 10-26: Suzy Chapman has helpfully informed me in the comments that the URL for the Psychiatric News post has changed and has been updated on her and Lane's sites. It can be found here.)

To put the APA’s current efforts in context, Lane links to a guest post by Patrick Landman at Psychology Today from early this year. In it, Landman, a psychiatrist working in France, explained the scientific and social concerns behind European opposition to the importation of the US disease-and-drug model. Some highlights**:
DSM-5 will be published on May 20, 2013. Should Europeans be concerned about the publication of a classificatory system that has no legal currency there—especially since not all of Europe’s different social security systems require a diagnosis as a precondition for the reimbursement of the costs of psychiatric care?

I will try to explain succinctly why Europeans should be—indeed are—concerned about the DSM and its effects.

First, the DSM has lost its bet: there are no hard-and-fast biological markers that would allow establishing a psychiatric diagnosis.

… We’ve seen a lot of hope that science could finally unlock the key to mental illnesses. But this firm belief in the scientific psychiatry of the future, held by DSM advocates, has so far proven unfounded: thirty years after its publication, there’s still no confirmed scientific explanation, genetic or biological, for mental disease. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been invested in this branch of research, we're still waiting for the “salvation” biological markers were supposed to bring. As the research progresses, the task is turning out to be ever-more complex, while the scientific elucidation of mental illness is pushed further and further into the future.

Even after the United States declared the 1990s “the decade of the brain,” biological psychiatry has so completely failed in its effort to give psychiatry a rock-solid scientific basis that we must at last ask questions about its methodology and epistemological foundations. At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry has continued to produce new psychotropic drugs at ever-increasing speed.

…Psychiatry has entered the new era of the DSM, yet none of the many evaluations carried out in its name in the U.S. and Europe has shown significant or lasting improvement in the mental health of their citizens.
Despite the scientific and practical failure of the model, its influence continues to expand, propelled by corporate marketing and the associated power of US psychiatry. Landman’s post explains why this isn’t about any single company trying to shape cultural beliefs to hawk its pills or the introduction of a handful of dubious diagnoses in the ICD:
…New medication leads to the creation of new diagnoses, or the modification of existing ones. Consequently, it matters little whether the DSM is clinically binding for European psychiatrists, because in our liberal and globalized world both the spirit of the DSM and the pharmaco-induced model of clinical psychiatry are fast becoming universal. [my emphasis]
It’s about psychiatric imperialism, which has profound economic, political, and social effects. We in the US have to contest the hold of the model and call attention to the harms it causes here. But we shouldn’t fall into what I call the tobacco trap. Allan Brandt calls the tobacco industry’s lies about the harms of tobacco the “crime of the century” due to “the powerful impact on health and disease that Big Tobacco had through its acts of fraud and deception” which has resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people and untold suffering. In this context, Brandt relates:
The tobacco industry remains quite strong despite losing lawsuits and enhanced public regulation. As a result, more people across the globe are smokers today than perhaps at any time in human history. As rates of smoking have declined in Western developed nations, the industry has aggressively sought new smokers in developing and poorer nations. It is now expected that in the coming century there will be one billion tobacco-related deaths. This despite the fact that we know such a great deal about the health effects of cigarette use. [my emphasis]
I frequently read articles that draw inspiration from the “success story” of the US campaign against the manipulations of the cigarette industry. And the effort to bring the scientific reality to light and reduce the rates of smoking is largely a success story…in the US. But as Brandt and others show, setbacks here have led cigarette companies to step up their colonization of other – mainly poor – countries. (This of course enhances their economic and political power within the US as well.)

The US is biopsychiatry’s home and base of operations. So much harm has been done, and continues to be done, in this country, and the struggles for science and human rights in the US are more important than ever. At the same time, sales revenues for “antidepressants” in the US are declining,*** the neuroleptic glut can’t go on forever, and public awareness of the scientific vacuum at the center of the model is growing.

We’re likely to see more successes in the US in the coming years – particularly in reducing the drugging of children - but it’s important to avoid becoming complacent. These successes are likely to be more than matched by biopsychiatry’s gains in other countries. As psychiatric imperialism is driven by the need to cultivate new markets for drugs, there’s every reason to expect a global intensification. So US activists need to continue to call attention to imperialistic efforts around the globe, to local resistance movements, and to alternative understandings of and approaches to psychological issues.

* The person who runs that site, Suzy Chapman, was bullied by the American Psychiatric Association into changing its name last year.

** I don’t agree with everything Landman says in that article or elsewhere.

***From that summary at Research and Markets:
Branded pharmaceutical companies are increasingly pulling out the antidepressant market, despite widespread use of the medication, as patent expiry and new drug development failures make it unprofitable to remain in the market.

However, according to The Pharmaceutical Strategist, the market still holds promise for that innovative player that would manage to exact value out of the current dissatisfaction of treatment outcome experienced by both patients and physicians alike.

With its naturally fluctuating course, depression is a highly placebo-responsive condition. Mean placebo response rates in antidepressant clinical trials hover around the 35% level. Physician-patient relationship, socio-cultural background, the treatment situation set and setting and even the color and shape of the placebo pill are contributing factors to the placebo response.

A dependable brand name also evokes an inherent response in the depressed patient. With billions of dollars already invested in developing antidepressant brands over the past two decades, finding a way to measure such response and to reliably measure its true effect can offer some of those valuable brands a new lease on life.