Friday, April 18, 2014


I first learned of this new vegan cookbook by Bryant Terry when flipping through the Rachael Ray magazine at the hair salon. I’m very excited about it. I looked at the preview on Amazon, and not only are the recipes surrounded by historical information but each features a song suggestion. So, for example, Creole Spice Blend might be accompanied by “Creole” by the Charlie Hunter Quartet featuring Mos Def (they’re not all this literal :)).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Amy Goodman on white supremacists and environmental activists

While I’m on the subject of rightwing violence and government indulgence thereof

Amy Goodman has a new article at Truthdig on the subject: “The Grand American Tradition of Violent White Supremacy.” It concludes:
While law-abiding Muslims are forced to hide in their homes, and animal-rights activists are labeled as terrorists for undercover filming of abusive treatment at factory farms, right-wing hate groups are free to organize, parade, arm themselves to the hilt and murder with chilling regularity. It’s time for our society to confront this very real threat.
Democracy Now! also did a story - “Killing Nature’s Defenders: Study Finds Global Surge in Murders of Environmental Activists” - reporting on the study “Deadly Environment” by Global Witness.

Goodman begins:
A new [report] finds the killings of environmental and land rights activists worldwide has tripled over the past decade. The group Global Witness documented 147 activists who were killed in 2012, compared to 51 in 2002. The death rate is now an average of two per week. Almost none of the killers have faced charges….

The far right, the government, the media, the ranchers, and the environmentalists: some historical and philosophical context

This week, Rachel Maddow featured two related segments about radical rightwing movements in the US and the responses of the government and the media to these movements. On Tuesday, Maddow asked why the government hasn’t been more focused on violent, terrorist white supremacist groups and has been largely unwilling even to recognize the far right as a political movement.*

“Why,” she asks, “are we so willing to not be afraid of the threat of rightwing extremism in this country?” I’m pleased that Maddow’s calling attention to this, but somewhat surprised that she’s at all puzzled. It’s not that governments have done nothing historically to address these groups and their terrorism. But politics, ideology, racism, misogyny, and speciesism have always determined the direction of the government’s attention and their treatment of different groups, to the extent that they’ve often ignored obvious indications of conspiracies and terrorist plans on the right while obsessing over nonexistent threats from leftwing or minority activists.

Will Potter, in Green Is the New Red and on his blog of that name, has focused on this in detail; I’ve described various episodes in the history of harassment of leftwing academics and others here. In fact, successive US administrations (including Obama’s) have welcomed and supported movements of the far right that refuse to recognize and even seek to overthrow the democratically elected government – as long as it’s a leftwing government in Venezuela, Honduras, Haiti,… It’s really not much of a puzzle.

Last night, Maddow talked about rightwing media coverage of the government standoff with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, arguing that the story is being hyped and that the reports could contribute to an escalation of violence.

Meanwhile, some environmentalists seem to believe that the ones to blame in this situation are…the cows, who deserve to be disparaged and threatened with (more) violence.

What’s missing in all of this is some historical context, both in terms of the involvement of ranchers in politics and in terms of the moral failings of some environmentalist philosophies. So, for those who want a better understanding of the issues involved, I have two reading suggestions. First, David A. Nibert’s 2013 Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict:

Second, the chapters “License to Kill: An Ecofeminist Critique of Hunters’ Discourse” by Marti Kheel and “Beyond Just-So Stories: Narrative, Animals, and Ethics” by Linda Vance in Animals & Women.

*Unfortunately, Maddow considers the problem from an entirely US-centric perspective.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reactionary Muslim media darlings

Alex Gabriel has an article up at the Index on Censorship describing the media's preference for the opinions of conservative and censorious Muslim men, who are often presented as the voice of Muslims. He gives three specific examples as illustrations of the situation in the UK:
All three, and countless more religious rightists, have sold themselves as commentators, “community leaders” and de facto spokesmen for Muslims (“men” is applicable here), grabbing the spotlight neither through skilled writing nor through views polls say are actually widespread. They owe their standing to officialdom’s mounting anxiety to please the most censorious believers, its instinct that those eagerest to cleanse the public sphere of blasphemy are those who matter most.

Neither unicorns nor carbon-based life forms

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ” – Aristotle, Politics
The phrase “neither gods nor beasts” has often been used to describe humans (more typically, “Men”) and the human condition. You’ll find it in progressive political works. It even forms the titles of two recent books – Elof Axel Carlson’s 2008 Neither Gods Nor Beasts and Gilbert Meilaender’s 2009 Neither Beast Nor God.

“Neither gods nor beasts” needs to go.

As for the first part: Of course humans aren’t gods. There are no such things as gods. In a situation in which everyone understood, first, that gods - of whatever ill-defined form - are imaginary entities, and, second, that these imaginary entities aren’t part of a hierarchy in which humans stand “below” them but above others, bringing mythical gods into discussions of human capacities and the human condition might possibly be theoretically useful (though I doubt it). But that isn’t the present situation or the way the god concept is being deployed.

The second part is simply false. Of course humans are beasts. We’re animals. Every single one of our qualities and capacities – good, bad, or indifferent - is entirely an animal quality or capacity. Including those we clearly share with other animals and those in which we differ from all or most other species. Including the cultural and political – that we’re cultural and political animals results from our evolved animal capacities. Our potentials and limitations are entirely animal. We’ve received no special contributions from anywhere outside of our common evolution with other beings on this planet. We’re beasts.

The “neither gods nor beasts” formulation might have made sense to those who believed in gods and knew nothing about evolution. But in this secular and scientific age, it can only serve ideological ends. It treats “human” not as a simple descriptor but as a status, elevating us above other animals. Along with this status, it grants us a false “dignity” which is refused to our fellow animals, who are now “beneath our notice.”

It damages our relationships with other animals by denying at least some of our shared condition and heritage and attempting to link us instead to some transcendent concepts or mythical beings “above” us. It harms us psychologically by leading us to see our relationship with other animals and the rest of the natural world as inherently alienated: in this view, as “in-between” beings, we don’t fit either among gods (which doesn’t matter since they don’t exist) or in our actual world (which would matter very much if it were true).

It distorts our understanding of our own capabilities and possibilities by seeing our animality in terms of inflexibility and limitations, such that to the extent that people come to understand that we’re wholly animal they believe our freedom and possibilities to be circumscribed. It pushes people to denigrate other animals as they seek to identify themselves with the qualities held to be godly or transcendent or to claim them for humanity….

“Neither gods nor beasts” is false and useless. We need to expel ideas about hierarchy and status from our understanding of the human condition, of our needs and potentials, of our limitations and possibilities, and of our relationships with other natural beings.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

“Nor do I recall anyone believing that.”

Earlier this month, Rachel Maddow did a segment on Errol Morris’ latest documentary, The Unknown Known, which profiles Donald Rumsfeld.*

As Morris expresses in the film itself and in his interview with Maddow, and as Maddow herself noted, what’s striking is Rumsfeld’s utter unwillingness to be truthful about his past actions or to accept responsibility for them. When Morris says that many in the US had come to suspect or believe that that Saddam Hussein was involved with Al Qaeda and the 9-11 attacks, Rumsfeld responds that “It was very clear that the direct planning for 9-11 was done by Osama Bin Laden’s people, Al Qaeda, and in Afghanistan. I don’t think the American people were confused about that.” After Morris presents him with a 2003 Washington Post poll showing that 69% of the US public believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the attacks carried out by Al Qaeda, Rumsfeld answers: “I don’t recall anyone in the Bush administration saying anything like that. Nor do I recall anyone believing that.”

Morris shows a 2003 press conference in which Rumsfeld mocks Saddam Hussein’s denial of involvement as a tale told by a liar. Maddow then produces evidence of Rumsfeld’s explicit public claims about a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda and the 9-11 attacks. Maddow is naturally amazed not only by Rumsfeld’s denial that he knew the US public ever believed in the connection but by his denial “that he had any role in propagating that idea” in the plain face of the evidence that he did. Rumsfeld’s shamelessness reminds me of psychiatry’s latest presentation of the chemical imbalance myth. I’ve been posting about this fairly regularly over the years because I’ve found the blatant hypocrisy exasperating.

The claim that depression, “schizophrenia,” and so on are caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain – which has provided the basis for viewing psychological problems as “illnesses” and a justification and mechanism of action for psychiatric drugs - is false. To be very clear: This notion hasn’t been built upon by more sophisticated models of the biological underpinnings of mental illness. First, the chemical imbalance hypothesis (I use the term loosely) has been rejected. There’s nothing to build upon. Second, nothing has replaced it. There is no evidence for the existence of the illnesses claimed in the various DSMs, nor of a biological or genetic pathology causing psychological problems, including the most persistent and extreme.

Moreover, it’s well documented that this has been known in psychiatry for decades. I quoted Robert Whitaker in an earlier post, and it’s worth reading the longer quotation (and in fact the entire interview) in full, but I’ll quote one portion again:
[W]hat you find in this statement by Dr. Pies is a remarkable confession: psychiatry, all along, knew that the evidence wasn’t really there to support the chemical imbalance notion, that it was a hypothesis that hadn’t panned out, and yet psychiatry failed to inform the public of that crucial fact.

By doing so, psychiatry allowed a “little white lie” to take hold in the public mind, which helped sell drugs and of course made it seem that psychiatry had magic bullets for psychiatric disorders. That is an astonishing betrayal of the trust that the public puts in a medical discipline; we don’t expect to be misled in such a basic way.
So that’s the history: like the mythical link between Saddam Hussein and the 9-11 attacks, the chemical imbalance claim was false. It was nevertheless promoted to the public, and very successfully, in order to influence their understanding of their problems and their choices about their health. At the very least, psychiatry has done virtually nothing to disabuse anyone of this notion. The myth has served psychiatry’s claims to scientific status, the power of psychiatrists, and the multi-billion-dollar psychopharmacology industry. The human impact of this lie has been and continues to be enormous.

As Whitaker suggests, it’s become virtually impossible to try to sustain the myth. But what biopsychiatry’s proponents seem to have realized is that it’s become largely self-sustaining – unless they’re directly confronted with questions about the truth of the myth, which rarely happens, they can remain silent and people will continue to believe in some version of it. Or, they can sit back and imply that neurotransmitters are part of a larger set of causal biological mechanisms which still aren’t fully understood (or that the uninitiated aren’t capable of understanding). Meanwhile, others will continue to suggest that it’s true.

Now, all of this is infuriating enough. “Astonishing betrayal of trust” is an understatement for the active and passive perpetuation of such a damaging lie. Even more galling, some openly admit that they mislead patients or the public or condone others doing so (with some help from the media, filmmakers, and others). I’ll repeat: they’ve admitted that the chemical imbalance notion isn’t supported by the evidence and that they’ve misled people with full consciousness that they’re doing so, obviously believing that the public won’t be appalled by this. Even Rumsfeld and company don’t think they can get away with publicly admitting to paternalistic or self-serving lies.

Others, brazenly, try to turn the claim’s falsehood against…their critics. The most egregious example I think I’ve seen was in Richard Friedman and Andrew Nierenberg’s response to Marcia Angell’s two articles in the New Yorker in 2011. Angell had stated, correctly, that:
The shift from “talk therapy” to drugs as the dominant mode of treatment coincides with the emergence over the past four decades of the theory [sic] that mental illness is caused primarily by chemical imbalances in the brain that can be corrected by specific drugs.

…But the main problem with the theory [sic] is that after decades of trying to prove it, researchers have still come up empty-handed.
Friedman and Nierenberg actually try to criticize Angell for using “an outdated and disproven chemical imbalance theory of depression (i.e., serotonin deficiency) as a straw man…” Unfortunately for them, as Angell noted in her reply, another critical response appearing just above theirs by John Oldham, president of the American Psychiatric Association, had implied that this remained a serious hypothesis: “Although psychotropic medications have been found to alter the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, there is no consensus on whether these imbalances are causes of mental disorders or symptoms of them.”** The neurotransmitter-imbalance notion is hardly a straw man: Angell’s statement that she “still hear[s] it invoked frequently” understates the situation.

But the latest, and worst, psychiatric tactic goes beyond even the claims that the myth is still somehow true or useful, or the suggestion that it’s now outdated and therefore illegitimate to hold against the profession at present. This is the “admission” that no serious psychiatrist ever believed it, the claim that the public probably never really believed it, and the assertion that if belief in it can be shown to be widespread in the past or present, well, the psychiatric profession hasn’t really had a hand in that.

I mentioned a couple such statements in an earlier post. For example, Ronald Pies, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times, in 2011: “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” Or consider George Dawson’s response to Peter Gøtschze’s recent debunking of common psychiatric myths, the first of which debunked was “Your disease is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.” It’s worth quoting Dawson’s response again:
This is a red herring that is frequently marched out in the media and often connected with a conspiracy theory that psychiatrists are tools of pharmaceutical companies who probably originated this idea. What are the facts? …Chemical imbalance rhetoric always seems to ignore one huge fact and that is Eric Kandel's classic article on plasticity in 1979 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Certainly any psychiatrist who saw that article has never bought into a “chemical imbalance” idea and I can recall mocking the idea when pharmaceutical companies presented it to my colleagues and I [sic] in medical school.
So,… Pies and Dawson aren’t trying to keep the zombie myth alive (“Saddam Hussein really was behind the 9-11 attacks in some way”); they’re not just trying to suggest that, while they know it to be false now, the profession believed it earlier and with good reason (“We thought we had good evidence of the links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, but it turned out not to be correct”), or to use the myth’s discrediting against their critics; they’re not trying to justify the lie retrospectively (“We knew the link didn’t exist, but it was a noble lie because we saw the urgency of overthrowing this evil dictator”). We’re fully into “I don’t recall anyone in the Bush administration saying anything like that. Nor do I recall anyone believing that” territory.

They are shamelessly and arrogantly stating – directly in the face of decades of public evidence - that the myth of chemical imbalances wasn’t ever really a significant myth at all. That the whole idea is a “red herring,” part of a “conspiracy theory,” a sort of “rhetoric” used not by psychiatrists but by those trying to discredit psychiatry. It’s an “urban legend,”*** an idea “never seriously propounded” by reputable psychiatrists. Serious psychiatrists never believed it – it was worthy of mockery as early as the 1980s. Really, it’s questionable whether anyone has believed it, they’ve seen no real evidence of that, and if they were to be presented with such evidence they would have no explanation for how that might have come about.

It is, as Whitaker says, a “remarkable confession” when read in light of the historical evidence: they knew it was a lie from the beginning. But the confession is cleverly folded into a denial. Like Rumsfeld, they believe they can acknowledge that the claim was false and still avoid any accountability because they can claim that they don’t recall (or have convinced themselves that they don’t recall) the profession ever really holding or promoting it and don’t accept that it was ever a widespread belief at all. It’s a denial of the plainest historical evidence, a refusal to acknowledge the fundamental implications of the falseness of this myth for psychiatry and psychiatric drugs, and a dismissal of the profound harm done via the perpetuation of this myth. The “astonishing betrayal of…trust” Whitaker describes continues with this offensive and insulting tactic.

* The segment’s impetus and focus was on the possible declassification of a portion of a Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogation and torture, and how it will bring to public light a history the Bush administration would like to keep buried comfortably in the past.

** This sentence is actually preceded by: “Dr. Angell and the authors she reviews also suggest that psychiatry, in general, regards mental illnesses through the reductionist lens of an imbalance of chemicals in the brain.” Now, I’ve long stopped imagining that such convoluted arguments on the part of psychiatrists are due to poor communication skills and have come to assume deliberate obfuscation. Oldham describes the chemical imbalance idea as reductionist, and then in the next sentence falsely implies that chemical imbalances do exist and are related to “mental disorders” in some way (apparently, the reader is now to understand that the notion of an imbalance as either a cause or a symptom wouldn’t be reductionist; while neither is in fact true – no chemical imbalances, or balances for that matter, have been found - the notion of chemical imbalances as causes of psychological problems is in fact the notion that has been promoted by pharma and psychiatry). It’s all mindbendingly intellectually dishonest.

*** Note the doublespeak: “Urban legend” here is left ambiguous – does it refer to belief within the profession, public beliefs, the fact that psychiatry promoted the myth, or all three?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fortune Is a Woman, a lesson in how to do critical theory

Have I mentioned my fondness for Italian political theorists and philosophers recently? Oh, right.

Critical analyses of political theory don’t get much better than Hanna Fenichel Pitkin’s 1984 (1984! How had I been unaware of it for three decades?) Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli.

(This edition has an added afterword; mine is an earlier edition without it, which is unfortunate.)

Maybe the most impressive aspect is Pitkin’s approach to critical theory itself, the attitude she takes to Machiavelli and his thought. Underlying the book is a basic respect for Machiavelli and his circumstances and a sympathetic engagement with his politics that actively seeks to do justice to his democratic and humanist ideas and to distinguish them from what she acknowledges to be proto-fascist tendencies.* In this, Pitkin isn’t looking to distill the “real” or “true” democratic Machiavelli and discard what doesn’t fit with that conception, but to describe “Machiavelli at his best” – a phrase she uses more than once – and to understand the ideological distortions that undermined his democratic potential, producing Machiavelli at his worst.

As Pitkin notes, Machiavelli can, for many reasons, be a difficult theorist to like. A critical feminist analysis of his work focusing almost exclusively on its underlying misogyny and related failings would be worthwhile, but incomplete. This is where so much critical theory of the past several decades falls short. Understanding the ideologies of oppression that have undermined democratic-humanist theory or pushed it in the wrong direction, especially when the problems are fundamental, is absolutely necessary. And I’m not suggesting that critical theorists generally are merely interested in criticizing and have little positive or useful to offer themselves (although this is true in some cases). But when doing critical analysis, it seems to me, people are often so determined to overturn and move beyond the oppressive ideas that they come to see thinkers or even entire political philosophies as fundamentally corrupted, such that nothing worthwhile can be salvaged from them. This is in an important sense a failure of democratic and scholarly ideals, and can result in the loss of important insights and the impoverishment of contemporary theory.

Avoiding this pitfall, Pitkin is able to produce both a thoughtful analysis of Machiavelli’s democratic insights and an equally thoughtful analysis of how his (and his patriarchal culture’s) extreme misogyny not only undermined any democratic impulses but pushed Machiavelli in proto-fascist directions. I think this engaged and holistic approach can be extended to the critical analysis of Pitkin’s own work. Again, she recognizes the problems with Machiavelli’s political theory as fundamental – it isn’t a relatively simple matter of drawing out his democratic-humanist political ideas and broadening their scope by extending them to women. At the same time, though, she reproduces some of the same problems by failing to question his ideas about nonhuman animals. Generally, Pitkin’s speciesism is relatively mild, certainly lacking the nastiness of Machiavelli’s claims about women. But she does repeatedly recreate with regard to other animals the othering she objects to when it’s directed at women.** This makes her unable to expand her discussion of the benefits of mutuality within difference and plurality beyond humans, limiting its applicability and usefulness in a world characterized by the mass oppression of animals and the destruction of our environment and even weakening aspects of her feminist critique (the last two pages fall especially flat, but they’re two of 327).

That’s a major issue. A lesser issue is the inclusion of a bit too much Freudianism (which fortunately is largely confined to one chapter, even if it is pretty interesting), but I guess that’s to be expected. I don’t believe this sort of depth psychological analysis is necessary to understand the ideas themselves or even the vehemence, tenacity, and defensiveness with which they were or are held. Systems of oppression and the need for ideologies to sustain and justify them are, I think, sufficient. But then I’m a sociologist. These criticisms aside, the book isn’t just a fascinating study of Machiavelli’s ideas but has much to say that’s relevant to contemporary politics, and I recommend it highly.

* Of course, this is only true insofar as democratic and humanistic aspects are present. More purely critical approaches are suited to theorists and philosophers with almost exclusively authoritarian ideas based on false premises about the human condition and “human nature.” Pitkin’s approach is more suited to, say, Sartre or Arendt than to Heidegger or Schmitt.

** To provide one example, Pitkin correctly and usefully describes how the othering of women interferes with and diminishes men’s identity formation and relationships with themselves. They attribute negative or inherently subordinate qualities to women, and are then driven to deny these qualities in themselves and to hate themselves to the extent that they believe they share them. Throughout the book, though, she unquestioningly attributes such qualities – often the same ones typically attributed to women – to animals, and is then led to define humanity in oppositional terms. Again, this isn’t expressed in the vicious, hateful way Machiavelli wrote about women or that many democratic-humanistic thinkers have written about nonhuman animals, but it’s there all the same, and distorts her understanding of the human condition and of the possibilities for democratic politics.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A random list of good vegan things

A couple of positive articles about veganism in somewhat unexpected places. First, Moby’s “Why I’m Vegan” in Rolling Stone. (In the piece, he tells the touching story of how he originally decided to become a vegetarian - sitting with his cat and thinking that it made sense to extend his love and care for the cat to other animals.* What’s funny about this isn’t that he made the connection, but how difficult it seems for most of us to do.) Second, an article by Tim Cebula in last month’s Cooking Light, “Me: Vegan!”, in which Cebula describes going vegan for a month under the tutelage of Vedge owners Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby. Vedge is easily the best vegan restaurant, and quite possibly the best restaurant, I’ve ever been to - better advisers would be hard to find. The article itself is about as much as you can realistically expect from an issue whose cover entices readers with “12 Ways for Perfect Chicken!” (Cebula’s piece itself begins on a page opposite an Oscar Mayer ad; it notes that “ethical decisions” are behind Landau’s veganism, but that’s the extent of the ethics discussion). Cebula learns about vegan cooking, enjoys his month as a vegan, finds that he didn’t much miss eating animals, and says he’s cut his consumption of meat by about 50%. The piece also contains a few recipes from Landau and recommendations for some high-quality vegan products (including the next item on my list). I’d recommend it to vegan-curious foodies. (I’m torn about even discussing this one, since it presents a non-vegan diet as an acceptable solution, but I figure it can’t hurt for people to be exposed to more positive information about veganism in any case.)

Vegenaise. If you like mayonnaise and want to move toward veganism, this is one of the easiest products to swap in. It’s like mayonnaise, but better…which is pretty much their slogan, but it’s true.

Aerosoles. I’m not one to get excited about shoes in general, but I do like comfort and good design. Not all Aerosoles are vegan, but many are – you have to look at the label. I buy most of my shoes at Marshalls, and it’s easy to scan the rows of boxes looking for the silver Aerosoles ones. (Madden Girl – purple boxes - also makes some vegan shoes, but they tend to be a little too junior for me.) For shoe people, I recently read about Mink vegan shoes. The web site doesn’t give prices, and you know what they say: “If you have to ask,…” I googled: I wouldn’t spend that, or anything close, on a pair of shoes even if I could afford to, but they’re very well designed.

Earth Balance Vegan Aged White Cheddar Puffs. I first learned of these in December when they were reviewed at Sistah Vegan. I didn’t think they’d be available in my area, but my local supermarket carries them. I can gobble them down, so I just buy the occasional bag as an indulgence.

L’Oréal EverPure Shampoo and Conditioner. I love these. I fear if I describe why I’ll sound like a shampoo ad, but it’s true: my hair is softer, bouncier, and more manageable. Equally important: I’m not allergic.

Enjoy Life Semi-Sweet Chocolate Mega Chunks. Not only are these vegan but they’re basically hypo-allergenic – gluten free, nut free, soy free,… And they’re non-GMO. Great for baking (I don’t like baking but my friend discovered these and bakes me delicious vegan treats).

My tofu scramble. It’s very simple. For one serving, I take half a package (so 7 oz.) soft tofu (I use Nasoya) and press it. When it’s sufficiently drained, I crumble it into a bowl and add about three quarters of a tablespoon nooch, several sprinkles of turmeric (which is one of my all-time favorite spices, though it does stain things), a dollop of Vegenaise (see above), and a pinch of salt, and mix it all together. Then I heat a frying pan with some Smart Balance or Earth Balance on medium-high heat, add the tofu mixture, and “scramble” for a few minutes. That’s it. You can add things to the scramble, but I usually just have it with rye toast. Tofu is fun.

* If you’re interested in the care tradition of animal liberation, you’ll find more information in Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals, edited by Josephine Donovan and Carol Adams (1996).

Republican woomongers

On Friday, Chris Hayes did a segment (remote from paternity leave – hooray!) about a number of conservative politicians who hawk not only conspiracy theories but an assortment of products to the people on their large email lists, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from the “sponsors” of these pitches.

Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Brown (the former MA Senator who appears to be running for Senate in New Hampshire) have peddled not just a variety of political conspiracy nonsense (e.g., the machinations of the Illuminati, the government’s secret cure for cancer) but stocks, quack remedies, and public health misinformation.

This shameful business of turning constituents, supporters, and donors into products to be bought and sold should be publicized for a few reasons. First, of course, because it is a shameful and deceitful practice and the people targeted should be aware of it.

Second, these email ads are a source of woo that hasn’t received enough attention. Hayes reports that Scott Brown has featured on his list content generated by Newsmax Health (he’s since cut ties with the company), including Russell Blaylock’s Alzheimer’s quackery. Brown wasn’t alone in selling his readers to Blaylock, also known for his antivaccine quackery.

Third, nothing better illustrates the utter contempt these politicians have for their past or present constituents. The report quotes Mike Huckabee, confronted last month about a misleading email, responding:
You are supposed to read the disclosure and the disclaimer that is part of the messages. You know, we are simply the conduit to send messages. These are sponsored and I can’t always vouch for the veracity.
I have an idea for a better disclaimer:
My disdain for you is immense. You supported me, and I in turn sold you out for cash. Sure, I worked to gain your trust and belief in my concern for your welfare when running for office, but I’m happy to betray and exploit that trust if I can make some money from it. If these messages sent through my list are untrue or lead you to make bad decisions that bring harm to you or others, it’s your own fault for considering me an honorable person in the first place.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

“…venomous journalists, goitrous academics, wreathed in dollars and stupidity,…”

Aimé Césaire’s 1955 Discourse on Colonialism should be required reading/listening for…the planet.* It’s a brief, lyrical indictment of the entire colonial apparatus. At one point, Césaire tells his anticapitalist-anticolonialist comrades that they should
hold as enemies – loftily, lucidly, consistently – not only sadistic governors and greedy bankers, not only prefects who torture and colonists who flog, not only corrupt, check-licking politicians and subservient judges, but likewise and for the same reason, venomous journalists, goitrous academics, wreathed in dollars and stupidity, ethnographers who go in for metaphysics, presumptuous Belgian theologians, chattering intellectuals born stinking out of the thigh of Nietzsche, the paternalists, the embracers, the corrupters, the back-slappers, the lovers of exoticism, the dividers, the agrarian sociologists, the hoodwinkers, the hoaxers, the hot-air artists, the humbugs, and in general, all those who, performing their functions in the sordid division of labor for the defense of Western bourgeois society, try in diverse ways and by infamous diversions to split up the forces of Progress – even if it means denying the very possibility of Progress – all of them tools of capitalism, all of them, openly or secretly, supporters of plundering colonialism, all of them responsible, all hateful, all slave-traders,…

And sweep out all the obscurers, all the inventors of subterfuges, the charlatans and tricksters, the dealers in gobbledygook. And do not seek to know whether personally these gentlemen are in good or bad faith, whether personally they have good or bad intentions. Whether personally – that is, in the private conscience of Peter or Paul – they are or are not colonialists, because the essential thing is that their highly problematical subjective good faith is entirely irrelevant to the objective social implications of the evil work they perform as watchdogs of colonialism. [my emphasis]
The list would look much the same today, with a few additions and updated details that change nothing substantive.

* Whatever its problems, and there are problems.

Internet Cat Video Festival

This exists. Which is both hilarious and awesome. It appears Henri was the star of previous festivals. The third annual event will be held in Minnesota in August. You can nominate a video here – the deadline is May 1.

Take that, Bukharin!

For a long time, I had a vague idea of Nikolai Bukharin as one of the more thoughtful, decent Bolsheviks (relatively speaking, of course), an image probably stemming in part from his portrayal in popular culture (possibly this film in particular, in which, if it’s the one I’m remembering, he was portrayed as a gentle, polite, reasonable man), in part from knowledge of his opposition to collectivization, and in part from the portrait of the victims of the Stalinist show trials created through the composite character Rubashov in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

As a result of this and other works, the Communists killed in the Stalinist purges, especially those like Bukharin who publicly confessed to their supposed crimes against the revolution, came to be viewed in the liberal imagination as victims of their own alleged willingness to submerge and dissolve their selves and their consciences entirely in a totalizing ideology and party organization. But as Robert C. Tucker and Stephen F. Cohen, biographers of Stalin and Bukharin respectively, have argued, Bukharin’s case doesn’t support this interpretation.* According to Tucker in Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941, Bukharin’s performance at his trial, read carefully and in context, was actually an act of defiance in which he managed, as far as was possible under the circumstances, to turn the proceedings into an “antitrial” of Stalin “for his crimes against Lenin’s Bolshevism.” In his confession, Bukharin sought to underline the political nature of his choices and his persecution:
Only if the public or history should see the accused Bukharin as a political man would it see that the accuser Stalin was destroying a political tendency. So it was vital to Bukharin’s case in the antitrial to show that he had been a Bolshevik oppositionist in relation to Stalin and not, as Vyshinsky was trying to argue, a criminal masquerading for long years as a revolutionary. The duel that raged between the two throughout the trial was thus one in which Vyshinsky argued that all Bukharin’s purported political acts were really crimes, and Bukharin maintained that all his alleged crimes were really political acts. If he came off well in the encounter, despite all the disadvantages of his situation compared with Vyshinky’s, the reason is that his contention was true. (500)
So I think it’s fitting and good to consider Bukharin’s political writings and acts not in terms of how well they illustrate some notion of the totalitarian mind or “mass man” or what have you but as, well, political writings and acts. We get a very different sense of Bukharin from his 1922 “Anarchy and Scientific Communism,” written during his rise to power. It’s an ideological work through and through; I don’t mean by this that it shows someone who’s abandoned his own ideas and sense of ethics to the Party or History, but that it’s written by a firm believer in and advocate of the authoritarian Marxist-Leninist program. In the article, Bukharin misrepresents, belittles, and attacks the anarchists who opposed the Communist revolutionary program. It’s not a mere theoretical exercise - written in the years in which anarchists were being not just marginalized but systematically persecuted by the Bolsheviks (see volume 2 of Gregori Maximoff’s 1940 The Guillotine at Work: Twenty Years of Terror in Russia), Bukharin’s broadside forms a part of those, real, political crimes.

“Anarchy and Scientific Communism” is included in The Poverty of Statism: Anarchism vs. Marxism, a Debate (2013), along with a scathing response from the Italian anarchist Luigi Fabbri, “Anarchy and ‘Scientific’ Communism,” and two related pieces by German anarchist Rudolf Rocker, “Anarchism and Sovietism” and “Marx and Anarchism.” Like Bukharin’s, the articles by Fabbri and Rocker were written in 1922. You can read them individually for free online at my links, or you can pay a few dollars for the Kindle edition published by the fascinating Christie Press.

I was thrilled to hear of this translation. I love reading Italian political theorists and philosophers, even those with whom I have strong disagreements or whose ideas I find repugnant. But anarchists? I’m overcome. And among Italian anarchist political theorists, Fabbri is one of the best. I read some of his work years ago in French translation and thought it was brilliant. It’s a shame that so few of his writings have been translated into English, so I was happy to read in the introduction to The Poverty of Statism that more are probably in the pipeline.

And Fabbri is at his level-headed best in “Anarchy and ‘Scientific’ Communism.” He sharply but calmly responds to Bukharin’s mischaracterizations of anarchism and anarchists, exposes the Bolshevist’s authoritarian attitudes (“These people are really odd, wanting (in theory) to achieve the abolition of the state while in practice they cannot conceive of the most elementary social function without statist overtones!”), and warns of the course the Bolshevik-dominated revolution will take. Towards the end, he states:
[I]t is the authoritarian communists…who place obstacles before organisation and mass activity and set out along the road diametrically opposed to that which will lead to communism and abolition of the state. It is they who are the ridiculous ones, as ridiculous as anyone who, wishing to travel east, sets out in the direction of the setting sun.
I wonder if Bukharin, years later during his trial, ever thought of his article or Fabbri’s... Given the fate of anarchists and anarchism in the 20th century,** it’s no comfort or joy to be able to say in 2014 that the anarchists (not just Fabbri, but a string of anarchists from Bakunin on) had accurately analyzed the Marxist political program and predicted its terrible course. That Communist leaders and ideologues like Bukharin were themselves destroyed by the very system they created just adds to the tragedy.

But while schadenfreude is hardly appropriate here, there are good reasons to attend to this and similar exchanges. First, since they were also radical anticapitalist and antifascist activists, 20th-century anarchists’ criticisms of authoritarian communism have a special moral standing and political value. They’re not compromised by complicity with non-Communist forms of oppression like others on the Left. And their writings about political action and ethics are meant not for those who want to preserve existing forms of oppression but for those working to overthrow them and build a more just world. It’s easy to simplistically dismiss or reject the Communist program from the perspective of the status quo, and even to present it, self-servingly, as the logical outcome of all projects to fundamentally upset the existing order. The disputes between anarchists and Communists, though, raise the complex questions involved with struggling for radical change.

Second, Fabbri’s critical analysis of Communist ideology applies well beyond it, because, as he suggests, the Communists’ ideas about “development,” “modernization,” and production and the top-down authoritarian practices associated with them grew directly out of capitalist ideology. We see many of these same ideas, and similar pretenses to “science,” in contemporary neoliberalism, in international institutions and government policy, and in the arguments used against labor and other oppositional movements. These anarchist ideas are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1922.

* As Corey Robin has discussed in Fear: The History of a Political Idea, understanding the real experiences and motives of Bukharin and other authoritarians and victims of authoritarianism has significant implications for political theory.

** Fabbri himself was forced into exile by Mussolini’s fascist government.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

How to avoid engaging with the evidence about biopsychiatry

You can block its appearance on your blog by issuing rules that are claimed to be general but in fact pertain only to critical perspectives. You can ban commenters or put their comments in moderation. You can refuse to follow links. You can try to silence people by responding angrily to their comments. You can encourage others to view recommending books and articles as unethical and insensitive. You can scold people for not deferring to (what you believe to be) expert scientific and medical opinion. You can allow and encourage comments that misrepresent the critics' position or make false claims while barring critics from rebutting them. You can dismiss evidence by stating that you’ve heard it all before or that you know beforehand that it’s unconvincing. You can demand arbitrarily high standards for critical evidence, the converse of the low standards you apply to biopsychiatry’s claims. (Of course, you won’t know if the evidence reaches or approaches these standards, because you refuse to engage with it. These aren’t standards applied to the actual evidence but requirements for even presenting it.) You can stipulate that people must provide personal or general alternatives acceptable to you before they present critical evidence; you can also announce that you don’t have to listen to them if you think they are suggesting alternatives; you can even do these simultaneously. You can preemptively try to discredit the authors of the books and articles you won’t read by calling them names and declaring their work “pop psychology.” You can throw around some Fuck yous and threaten people with your wrath.

Using these techniques, you’ll likely be able to create and preserve for yourself an evidence-free space. You’ll be behaving hypocritically and unkindly, but effectively for this purpose. The evidence, though, won’t go away. The harms won’t disappear. The reality won’t change.

How antidepressants work

Well, they're not “antidepressants” and they don't “work” in any way we understand medications to work. But in this talk Robert Whitaker describes how they act in people's brains. The section begins at about 11:30 and goes to around the 20-minute mark.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On quackery and compassion, and the case for speaking out

I’ve been writing about psychiatry in the science-based community now for about four years. I’m angry and frustrated that so little has changed.

On the one hand, I understand. I understand that people’s hostile responses are often based on mistaken interpretations of what I’m arguing, as I discussed in the note to my previous post.*

More broadly, I understand the feeling: “I’m struggling a lot of the time just to get through the day, I’m posting about my personal problems to connect with other people going through similar things and would just like some sympathy and support and thoughtful suggestions, and I don’t have the time or energy to deal with these large criticisms, which seem abstract and dubious, right now.” I do understand it, even though several years of trying to have my case heard has led to some reflexive anger, which sometimes emerges as sarcasm and probably gets directed at the wrong people.

But, while I appreciate this, there are two factors which can’t but come into play. First, the posts about psychiatry, including those about people’s personal experiences, implicitly or explicitly make what I believe to be false and harmful claims of fact about the validity of psychiatric diagnoses and about psychiatric drugs. Again, these are in my view pseudoscientific, quack claims. Obviously, expressing my compassion can’t take the form of agreeing with or condoning them. I can’t imagine that this would be in dispute in the community; I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone seriously argue that they should be indulged in any other circumstance.

Some people would probably argue that in this case, then, the compassionate response is silence (though even Greta Christina has exempted quackery, so maybe not). I’ve sometimes gone that route, or remained quiet until the second or third post on the subject. I don’t know that this is either considerate or moral, though, and I’m ambivalent about it. I would want to know if I was making decisions on the basis of pseudoscience. Furthermore, the information that biopsychiatry is pseudoscience is positive, in my view. You’re wrestling with your diagnostic label and concerned about possibly having to remain on psychiatric medications indefinitely? The good news is that the label is scientifically invalid and, well, those aren’t medications.**

I would also want to know if I was promoting pseudoscience, even though it might be hard to hear. This is where the second factor comes in. Our community has, slowly, become more attuned to the problem of privilege, more willing to recognize how even in our own struggles against oppression we can unknowingly harm others. I am, I admit, angry that so many bloggers don’t seem to realize how privileged they are to have a choice (relatively speaking) about accepting a psychiatric label, a choice about whether to enter a psychiatric facility, a choice about whether or not to take psychiatric drugs.

I read articles like this and this, and I’m angry that I’ve repeatedly raised the subject of forced detention and drugging or of the drugging of children as violations of basic human rights and the cause of mass suffering and death, I’ve discussed the psych rights movement, and freethought bloggers don’t seem to give a shit. I don’t think I’ve heard a single response to these posts or comments – not an expression of concern, not a question, not an interest in learning more. Nothing. I have compassion for these bloggers, which as I’ve described already pushes me to speak out, but my compassion for people who are forcibly detained and drugged, justified by the pseudoscience the bloggers are promoting, also influences my response.

I’m concerned that in remaining silent about or promoting biopsychiatry, the science-based community is contributing to what is already a public health, and generally human, catastrophe. This concern leads to frustration: Why the hell can’t the proponents of science and science-based medicine, I ask, fucking read a handful of books and articles pertaining not just to their own well-being but to the health and rights of millions of others? How on earth can people, especially those who have received psychiatric diagnoses themselves or who are entering mental health fields, be actively hostile to engaging with these arguments and evidence? The books and articles I’ve recommended aren’t by a couple of kooks. They’re by an accomplished science journalist, respected psychologists and professors of psychology, a former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, a Senior Lecturer in psychiatry at University College London, the head of the Nordic Cochrane Center,… How could people not want to take some time to read what they have to say, if only to try to develop a stronger case for biopsychiatry?***

What we as science advocates can bring and should try to bring in particular to social justice and humanistic movements is a commitment and dedication to the evidence and the skills and desire to evaluate it fairly, a skepticism toward arguments from authority or popularity, and a recognition of other fallacious evasions of reality. Our duty to believe according to the evidence entails an obligation not to turn away from evidence we don’t think we’ll like and, I think, an obligation to actively oppose harmful pseudoscience.

* I don’t, though, understand the widespread impulse to impute motives to and make assumptions about the critics of biopsychiatry, somehow determining from those comments that we have no personal or social experience of these struggles and are therefore emotionless “outsiders” responding from a position of relative privilege. Oddly enough, I’ve generally tended to assume the opposite – that people devoting time to the subject have personal reasons for doing so – which is probably equally wrong in many cases.

** This isn’t the end of it. Like recognizing that there are no deities doesn’t resolve questions about how we should live, recognizing these claims as pseudoscience is just a first step: a liberation from false ideas that frees us to find reality-based explanations and solutions.

*** Once again, here’s a partial list: Robert Whitaker, Mad in America and Anatomy of an Epidemic; James Davies, Cracked; Marcia Angell, “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?”, “The Illusions of Psychiatry,” and “‘The Illusions of Psychiatry’: An Exchange” (all available free online); Joanna Moncrieff, The Myth of the Chemical Cure and The Bitterest Pills; Irving Kirsch, The Emperor’s New Drugs; Stuart Kirk, Tomi Gomery, and David Cohen, Mad Science; Gary Greenberg, The Book of Woe (I can’t speak to the quality of this one); Brett Deacon, “The Biomedical Model of Mental Disorder: A Critical Analysis of its Tenets, Consequences, and Effects on Psychotherapy Research” (available free online); Jonathan Leo and Jeffrey Lacasse, “Serotonin and Depression: A Disconnect between the Advertisements and the Scientific Literature” (available free online); Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us. Oh – and Christopher Lane, Shyness.

The quackery exception

[*** I want to make one thing absolutely clear at the start: I resent the implication that anyone who contests biopsychiatry and tries to speak for a science-based approach (rather than a myth-based approach using the trappings of science) is trying to give unsolicited, amateur medical advice. I’m not giving personal medical advice any more than Greta Christina or others are when they make implicit or explicit claims about the reality of “mental illness” and its treatment with drugs. In stating that this approach is based on falsehoods and providing links to and suggestions for reading, I’m not telling anyone that they or anyone else should abruptly stop taking psychiatric drugs. You should never do this – it’s very dangerous. (It’s also dangerous to take medical advice from people on the internet in general.) If you do decide to discontinue taking any psychiatric drug, you should only do it under the supervision of a physician. None of the books or articles I’ve suggested advise this, or any course of action for a particular person. This isn’t to say that I’m not hoping to influence people to have a healthy skepticism regarding psychiatric drugs and to engage with the evidence and make decisions on that basis. Of course I am. I’m hoping that people will read these books and articles and turn away from biopsychiatry, and I accept that responsibility. I’m not going to feel guilty about recommending these books or articles presenting empirical evidence - gasp! - any more than I would for recommending books and articles about the MMR vaccine to anti-vaccinationists and hoping they'd change their minds.]

So… Greta Christina has published yet another post about how people should and should not respond to posts about “mental illness” written by the sufferers of these alleged illnesses. There’s a key paragraph in this one, and I think calling attention to it might help to clarify something important. She allows:
So unless someone tells you that their health care provider is prescribing actual quackery (like homeopathy or something), or unless you have some crucial piece of information that you’re pretty sure the person you’re talking with isn’t familiar with (and “Psych meds are all horrible and nobody should take any of them/ the entire mental health care profession is borked and is not to be trusted” doesn’t count — believe me, we’ve heard that before), or unless you have some more substantial evidence for your position than “I know that the established standard of care is (X), but this one guy disagrees and wrote a book about it,” it is seriously fucked-up to undermine people’s relationships with their health care providers. [my emphasis]
Since the quackery exception was noted, I’m going to be very clear about what I’m saying: A health care provider who is telling someone they have a chronic mental illness, depression, which should or must be treated indefinitely with “antidepressants” is prescribing actual quackery. Because biopsychiatry is based on pseudoscience. No one has a chronic illness called depression, because no such entity exists.* These diagnoses have no scientific validity.

No one has to listen to me to find the evidence for this proposition,** or read any of the books or articles I’ve recommended or linked to numerous times (some of which GC could have read in the time it took to write this series of hectoring posts and draw up elaborate flowcharts). You can read the statements of the Task Force Chairs of DSMs III, IV, and 5 and the current and former directors of the National Institute of Mental Health. As Richard Shulman, whom I quoted a few days ago, has noted: “Markedly different rules of science, logic and culture apply in psychiatry compared to medical science.” What other medical specialty would still be considered legitimate after its leading representatives publicly acknowledge that its diagnoses lack scientific validity? None. Of course, this isn’t going to happen: top oncologists aren’t going to reveal that tumors don’t exist, because they do exist. The illnesses in the DSM don’t. People don’t have chemical imbalances which are treated medically by these drugs. These claims are untrue, they’re stigmatizing, they’re extremely dangerous and harmful, and they’re used to deny people basic human rights.

To speak of a standard of care for the treatment of the illness of chronic depression is nonsensical. [I’d make a joke about how (bio)psychiatry has no standards, and they don’t care, but that wouldn’t be true; I’m sure many do care, and they have standards, but when you’re working within a false paradigm standards necessarily become perverted.] How can there be a standard of care for the treatment of a mythical illness? What’s the standard of care for treating chronic hysteria or acute demonic possession?

Greta Christina provides the example of homeopathy as a case in which it would be acceptable to speak out. Homeopathy is absurd quackery of the first order, but it’s far less dangerous in reality than, for example, neuroleptics, used to “treat” nonexistent illnesses like schizophrenia and BPD. People are being forced to take them, and they’re being used on children. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying from these drugs. I will continue to speak out against this model, as GC no doubt would if she knew the reality.

So I want this to be understood: I’m not seeking, in this immediate context, a “vigorous, rigorous public discussion and debate about medical standards of care — especially when it comes to mental illness.” I’m contesting what I believe, based on a substantial review of the evidence, to be dangerous and harmful pseudoscience and quackery. I’m asking people to appreciate that one can feel that a model “helps” by providing explanations for their suffering and experiences without that model’s being reality-based, and to recall that secular humanism and social justice activism are about seeking and promoting reality-based explanations and solutions. I do realize that it sounds to many like crankery to argue that what appears to be an established branch of medicine is really built on a dangerous foundation of pseudoscientific sand, but I ask that people at least acknowledge that this is what I’m arguing, and what compels me to write so insistently about psychiatry and its drugs (though I won't be continuing to attempt to comment at the blogs in question).

* In saying this, I’m NOT suggesting, in any way, that people’s experiences or suffering aren’t real or serious. I’ve (too slowly) come to understand that part of the problem in these discussions is that people often regard the degree or duration of suffering in terms of a scale that goes from unreal on one end to medical illness on the other, so when you explain that the “mental illnesses” of biopsychiatry don’t exist, people interpret that as the suggestion that their suffering isn’t real or that they could or should just snap out of it. But it’s not so. Rejecting this one false explanation for people’s experiences, problems, and suffering in no way necessarily entails denying the experiences, problems, and suffering. The tradition of humanistic psychology/psychiatry has overwhelmingly acknowledged the reality of people’s suffering and sought - not always successfully, to be sure - to understand and address its personal, social, and political causes and consequences. In reality, it’s biopsychiatry that denies people’s suffering and experiences any personal, social, or political meaning by falsely rooting them in people’s brain chemistry.

The roots of this problem lie in part in biopsychiatric propaganda itself, as suggested last year in Allen Frances’ assertion that the DSM-5 wanted to label “Binge Eating Disorder” what was really just “gluttony.” This is a false dilemma: we can recognize that people have serious and enduring problems with binge eating (or, what is far more likely, serious and enduring problems of which binge eating is a manifestation) without inventing a scientifically invalid label for it. I’ve seen the results of this propaganda in people’s comments in general, many of which have suggested, for instance, that they understand that they have the “real” illness of depression which is why they need drugs, whereas others have merely situational depression. There’s a real fear that rejecting the notion that this suffering is due to a problem with the brain means dismissing the suffering itself. We have to recognize and move past this false dilemma.*** It’s no more denying people’s suffering to say that it isn’t an illness in the medical sense or caused by a chemical imbalance than it is to say it’s not caused by an imbalance of chakras or bodily humors.

** And I’m angry that this model has become so entrenched that people just accept that others have to provide evidence of its falsehood, forgetting that it is psychiatry and the drug companies who are making the assertions of fact. There isn’t an equal weight of evidentiary responsibility on those making claims about the existence of these illnesses and those questioning their existence, much less a higher burden on the latter.

*** This is of course becomes complicated by the contemporary pathologization and medicalization of ever larger areas of life and experience, especially when it comes to the diagnostic labeling of children or others based on external evaluations of deviance or disruptiveness. But these complications shouldn’t obscure the fact of the false nothing/illness dilemma.