Saturday, March 28, 2015

Light years from justice or democracy

Glenn Greenwald reports on an appalling example of the subversion of justice, human rights, and democracy by the imperial security state:
A truly stunning debasement of the U.S. justice system just occurred through the joint efforts of the Obama Justice Department and a meek and frightened Obama-appointed federal judge, Edgardo Ramos, all in order to protect an extremist neocon front group from scrutiny and accountability.
The judge, at the DOJ’s request, has dismissed a private defamation suit brought by Victor Restis against an “independent” organization called United Against Nuclear Iran (“very likely a front for some combination of the Israeli and U.S. intelligence services. …The group was founded and is run and guided by a roster of U.S., Israeli and British neocon extremists”)* on the grounds that it risks exposing “state secrets.”
At least based on what they claim about themselves, UANI is just “a not-for-profit, non-partisan, advocacy group” that seeks to “educate” the public about the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program. Why would such a group like this even possess “state secrets”? It would be illegal to give them such material. Or could it be that the CIA or some other U.S. government agency has created and controls the group, which would be a form of government-disseminated propaganda, which happens to be illegal?

What else could explain the basis for the U.S. government’s argument that allowing UANI to be sued would risk the disclosure of vital “state secrets” besides a desire to cover up something quite untoward if not illegal? What “state secrets” could possibly be disclosed by suing a nice, little “not-for-profit, non-partisan, advocacy group”?

We don’t know the answers to those questions, nor do the lawyers for the plaintiffs whose lawsuit the DOJ wants dismissed. That’s because, beyond the bizarre DOJ intervention itself, the extreme secrecy that shaped the judicial proceedings is hard to overstate….

…[T]he DOJ’s arguments about why “secrecy” compels dismissal of the entire lawsuit were made in a brief that only Judge Ramos (and not even the parties) gets to read, but even more amazingly, were elaborated on in secret meetings by DOJ lawyers in the judge’s chambers with nobody else present. Were recordings or transcripts of these meetings made? Is there any record of what the U.S. government whispered in the ear of the judge to scare him into believing that National Security Would Be HarmedTM if he allowed the case to proceed? Nobody knows. The whole process is veiled in total secrecy, labeled a “judicial proceeding” but containing none of the transparency, safeguards or adversarial process that characterizes minimally fair courts.

This sham worked. This week, Judge Ramos issued his ruling dismissing the entire lawsuit.... As a result of the DOJ’s protection, UANI cannot be sued. Among other things, it means this group of neocon extremists now has a license to defame anyone they want. They can destroy your reputation with false accusations in a highly public campaign, and when you sue them for it, the DOJ will come in and whisper in the judge’s ear that national security will be damaged if — like everyone else in the world — UANI must answer in a court of law for their conduct. And subservient judicial officials like Judge Ramos will obey the U.S. government’s dictates and dismiss your lawsuit before it begins, without your having any idea why that even happened. [emphasis added, links removed]
* I love how open UANI’s intent has been, up to and including the use of CIA language: “When launched,” Greenwald notes, “NBC described its mission as waging ‘economic and psychological warfare’ against Iran.” That 2012 NBC piece, by Richard Engel and Robert Windrem, is sadly funny:
Perched high above midtown Manhattan, behind security-locked doors in an unmarked office, a half-dozen 20-somethings sit at computers, looking for ways to inflict hardship on the Iranian government and the people it rules. The “war room,” as its occupants call it, is a mere 20 blocks from Iran’s Mission to the United Nations and even closer to the hotel where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stays during his visits to New York.

But this is not a U.S. government intelligence facility brimming with incoming feeds of classified data. The offices belong to the private nonprofit group United Against Nuclear Iran, and the computers contain a wealth of (mostly) open source economic data culled from Iranian and other sources.

UANI, as it calls itself, has one mission: to wage “economic warfare against the Islamic Republic of Iran ...The regime must be forced to choose between having a nuclear weapon or a functioning economy.”

That’s not to say the group doesn’t have roots in government. It is headed by Mark Wallace, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and former heads of the CIA, the counterterrorism office of the National Security Council and the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, sit on its advisory board.

…U.S. officials welcome the private group’s efforts, telling NBC News that UANI’s “name and shame” campaigns complement the government’s efforts to enforce the sanctions, which are limited to pursuing civil or criminal cases when companies are found to be in violation.

…Wallace feels comfortable that he’s on the side of right and believes he has a unique opportunity to affect history by forcing Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, which Tehran insists are intended to meet its energy needs, not build nuclear weapons. In his view, that begins with “crashing the currency.”

…UANI has a modest budget -- less than $700,000 in 2010, according to federal records – that it says it raises only from U.S. donors. It declines to identify them, citing security concerns.

…In recent weeks, Wallace’s group publicly pressed European companies that it believed were supplying Iran with the special paper, inks and presses used to print Iranian currency to stop doing business with Tehran. In a letter early this month to the German company Koenig & Bauer AG, which had provided the Central Bank of Iran with presses in the past, Wallace demanded to know if the company was still supplying Iran, then raised the possibility that continuing work with Iran could threaten its business with the U.S. government.

…As a result of actions like these, “regime change” in Iran is now being discussed seriously in Washington policy circles. Wallace won’t say whether that is his specific goal, but acknowledges that virtually any alternative would be preferable to the current “theocratic regime.”

NYT crawls back to pharma-psychiatry with Angier’s shillerific Shrinks review

In a recent post, I guffawed at former APA head Jeffrey Lieberman’s petulant demand to know “What does the New York Times have against psychiatry?”. Contrary to Lieberman’s view, so distorted by arrogance and a deep sense of entitlement, that printing an oped questioning the usefulness of psychiatric diagnosis revealed an underlying editorial hostility toward psychiatry, the NYT’s record, I pointed out, in fact shows a pattern of cringing deference toward the APA and psychopharmaceutical drugs.

I wasn’t expecting them to provide evidence of that deferential posture quite this quickly. Natalie Angier’s review of Jeffrey Lieberman’s newest exercise in mythmaking Shrinks is a piece of hackery worthy of the Times’ writing on Venezuela and US policy in Latin America. Lieberman, Angier asserts,
makes a convincing case that [the DSM’s] format has given the field a precision and reliability it lacked in the past. Psychiatrists have also taken advantage of new imaging technology to scan the brains of living patients, tracking subtle differences between the well and the ill that may not be obvious post-mortem.

Ultimately, though, the real secret to psychiatry’s success is drugs. One by one, the most devastating and formerly intractable mental diseases were tamed, if not completely routed, by pharmaceuticals: chlorpromazine for schizophrenia, lithium for bipolar disease, imipramine for depression….
This is of course total toxic bilge. But completely in character for the Times.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Going Clear and Psychiatry Under the Influence

I can’t remember when I’ve been so excited about the upcoming release of two works harshly critical of two bitter enemies. Possibly never.

This Sunday, March 29, HBO will premiere Alex Gibney’s documentary about Scientology, Going Clear.

Just a few weeks later, on April 23, Robert Whitaker and Lisa Cosgrove are set to release a new book, Psychiatry Under the Influence: Institutional Corruption, Social Injury, and Prescriptions for Reform.

In this post, Whitaker discusses his reaction to former APA president Jeffrey Lieberman’s new book Shrinks, which he characterizes as a narrative “quite unmoored from science and history.” He describes it as “an institutional self-portrait. What you hear in this book is the story that the APA and its leaders have been telling to themselves for some time.”

In this sense, I feel sorry for people like Lieberman. Even if he continues to believe, and continues to convince others, that he and his colleagues are heroes of health and science, that isn’t how they’ll be remembered.

On the other hand… It’s admirable to have a good-faith belief, test it, learn that it was wrong, and share that information - that’s a contribution to science, and negative results aren’t generally treated with enough respect. It’s not admirable to test your belief, learn that it was wrong, and publicly pretend that this didn’t happen. It’s not admirable to continue to cling publicly to a scientifically discredited claim. It’s not admirable to cling to this discredited claim to secure riches, prestige, and authority. It’s not admirable to use this discredited claim to gain power over others and violate their rights. It’s not admirable to ignore the evidence of harms while presenting yourself as a hero for advancing and institutionalizing this claim long after it’s been discredited.

May both of these pseudoscientific cults rot.

Friday, March 13, 2015

History has shown us again and again

Two more analyses of the US government’s longstanding policy of antidemocratic interference in Venezuela:

James Petras’ “US and Venezuela: Decades of Defeats and Destabilization” (I don’t agree with everything in the article) discusses what a coup in Venezuela would mean for the country and the region:
What the US has in mind is not merely a ‘palace coup’ in which the democratic incumbents are ousted and replaced by US clients. Washington wants to go far beyond a change in personnel, beyond a friendly regime amenable to providing unconditional backing to the US foreign policy agenda…

A coup and post-coup regime is only the first step toward a systematic and comprehensive reversal of the socio-economic and political transformations of the past 16 years!

Heading the list will be the crushing of the mass popular community organizations which will oppose the coup. This will be accompanied by a mass purge, of all representative institutions, the constitutionalist armed forces, police and nationalist officials in charge of the oil industry and other public enterprises.

All the major public welfare programs in education, health, housing and low cost retail food outlets, will be dismantled or suffer major budget cuts.

The oil industry and dozens of other publicly owned enterprises and banks will be privatized and denationalized. US MNC will be the main beneficiaries. The agrarian land reform will be reversed: recipients will be evicted and the land returned to the landed oligarchs.

Given how many of the Venezuelan working class and rural poor will be adversely affected and given the combative spirit which permeates popular culture, the implementation of the US backed neo-liberal agenda will require prolonged, large-scale repression. This means, tens of thousands of killings, arrests and incarceration.

The US coup- masters and their Venezuelan proxies will unleash all their pent-up hostility against what they will deem the blood purge necessary to punish, in Henry Kissinger’s infamous phrase, “an irresponsible people” who dared to affirm their dignity and independence.

The US backing of violence in the run-up to the February 2015 coup will be escalated in the run-up to the inevitable next coup.

Contemporary US imperial wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya and past US backed bloody military coups installing neo-liberal regimes in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay a few decades past, demonstrate that Washington places no limits on how many tens of thousands of lives are destroyed, how many millions are uprooted, if it is ‘necessary’ to secure imperial dominance.
Independent regional alliances would be threatened:
According to Washington’s domino theory, Cuba will be more susceptible to pressure if it is cut-off from Venezuela’s subsidized oil-for-medical services agreement. Ecuador and Bolivia will be vulnerable. Regional integration will be diluted or replaced by US directed trade agreements. Argentina’s drift to the right will be accelerated. The US military presence will be enlarged beyond Colombia, Peru, Paraguay and Central America. Radical anti-imperialist ideology will be replaced by a revised form of “pan-Americanism”, a euphemism for imperial primacy.
Dave Lindorff’s “Venezuela, the Latest ‘National Security Threat’” emphasizes that “anti-democratic tactics used abroad inevitably find their way home”:
The real threat to national security in Venezuela and around the world today is the government in Washington. And the US is not just a threat to the security of the peoples of the world, whether in third-world nations, in Russia and China, or in the ostensible allied nations of Europe. It is a threat to the national security of the people of the United States too.

History has shown us again and again that repressive and anti-democratic tactics used abroad inevitably find their way home, where they are then turned against the people of the home country. We’ve seen this happening with the militarization of US police, who now operate in most US communities as if they were occupying troops in a foreign country, carrying military weapons, shooting to kill, breaking into homes in night raids and using brutal force to make the most minor of arrests, treating ordinary citizens as criminals who have no right to speak or to challenge how they or a family member or friend are being treated. We’ve seen it in the massive expansion of domestic spying, and we’ve seen it in the corruption of the courts, where judges in national security trials now deny defendants even the right to present a real defense to a jury, and where higher courts give the government permission to violate almost every Constitutionally guaranteed right in the name of “combatting terrorism” or defending “national security” interests.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

“How long-standing is that?”

I hadn’t linked to yesterday’s interview with Miguel Tinker Salas on Democracy Now! because I preferred the Real News interview for reasons I explained here. But Glenn Greenwald mentioned one segment in his latest article on the subject and it reminded me that I had wanted at least to provide the transcript of this one exchange. The contrast between the behavior here of AP reporter Matt Lee and the habitual deference and credulity of the US media is striking:
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to play for you a recent exchange between State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki and Matt Lee, a reporter with the Associated Press.
REPORTER: President Maduro last night went on the air and said that they had arrested multiple people who were allegedly behind a coup that was backed by the United States. What is your response?

JEN PSAKI: These latest accusations, like all previous such accusations, are ludicrous. As a matter of long-standing policy, the United States does not support political transitions by nonconstitutional means. Political transitions must be democratic, constitutional, peaceful and legal. We’ve seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces.

MATT LEE: Sorry. The U.S. has—whoa, whoa, whoa—the U.S. has a long-standing practice of not promoting—what did you say? How long-standing is that? I would—in particular in South and Latin America, that is not a long-standing practice.

JEN PSAKI: Well, my point here, Matt, without getting into history—

MATT LEE: Not in this case.

JEN PSAKI: —is that we do not support, we have no involvement with, and these are ludicrous accusations.

MATT LEE: In this specific case.

JEN PSAKI: Correct.

MATT LEE: But if you go back not that long ago, during your lifetime even—

JEN PSAKI: The last 21 years?

MATT LEE: Well done. Touché. But, I mean, look, does “long-standing” mean 10 years in this case? I mean, what is—

JEN PSAKI: Matt, my intention was to speak to the specific reports.

MATT LEE: I understand, but you said it’s a long-standing U.S. practice, and I’m not so sure how—depends on what your definition of “long-standing” is.

JEN PSAKI: We will—OK.

REPORTER: Recently in Kiev, whatever we say about Ukraine, whatever, the change of government in the beginning of last year was unconstitutional, and yet you supported it. The Constitution was not—

JEN PSAKI: That is also ludicrous.
AMY GOODMAN: That was State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki being questioned by reporters. Professor Miguel Tinker Salas, if you could respond to both that exchange and also Josh Earnest, White House spokesperson?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: I would have loved if that kind of exchange would have got broader diffusion in the U.S. press, but the fact is that it hasn’t. And we continue to have the belief that the U.S. does not—is not involved in unconstitutional change in Latin America. And as a historian, the record speaks just the opposite, from ’53 in Guatemala to the Dominican Republic, to Chile in ’73, and through the support of the Argentine military dictatorships and Brazil, and, if we want to go even closer, to 2002 in Venezuela, when the U.S. actually did support a coup against the democratically elected Hugo Chávez, the shortest coup in the world, and the coup that brought Chávez back to power, and then again in Honduras in 2009, and, not shortly thereafter, in Paraguay with Lugo, where they said it was a democratic transition, when in fact it was an unconstitutional shift in power. So, again, the notion that the U.S. has not supported both military coups directly or through what they call soft power is really ludicrous.

And, in fact, we should turn the question around. If they want to support democracy, I think the best thing the U.S. can do in the case of Venezuela and other countries is to pull back and let things develop on their own….

Playing along

The Bush administration wanted to invade and occupy Iraq, so they lied. The Obama administration wanted to move aggressively against the democratically elected government of Venezuela, so they made the outlandish claim of a national emergency due to the “unusual and extraordinary” threat posed by Venezuela to US national security.

As this latest episode shows, they no longer even think they have to pretend to be telling the truth – the actual language of the laws is a meaningless formality. Can’t take certain measures against another government unless they’re a real threat? No problem. Just declare them a threat, reality and honesty be damned. “We wanted to do something that’s only permitted under certain conditions, so we lied about the existence of those conditions” is now put forward as a legitimate justification. And the US media and public should be ready to play along. I mean, acquiescing to the flagrant subversion of laws meant to check government power and prevent its abuse couldn’t possibly have negative consequences for people in the US.

UPDATED TO ADD: Jim Naureckas at FAIR just posted about the embarrassing WaPo article I linked to above, reading it in light of the paper’s own government links: “WaPo, Owned by CIA’s Webmaster, Blasts Venezuela’s ‘State-Financed’ News.” The most relevant bit:
Ah–the administration is just pretending there’s an “unusual and extraordinary threat” because it wants to invoke powers that it’s only legally allowed to use in an actual emergency. No biggie. Thanks for clearing that up, Washington Post!
Apropos of nothing, here’s an interview Chris Hayes did with former CIA official John Kiriakou a few weeks ago, in which Kiriakou describes how the CIA grooms presidents.

Democratic presidents entering office are perceived as hostile or ambivalent, so
The CIA as an organization, as a culture, has sought to bring those presidents into the fold. And we saw it with Bill Clinton, when I was there, and we saw it in spades with Barack Obama. Obama was seen as a potential enemy, and virtually as soon as he took the oath of office, the agency brought him in, taught him the secrets, showed them what they could do. And he became their biggest cheerleader.
Hayes remarks that it sounds similar to how spies are recruited, and Kiriakou responds that the basic techniques are indeed the same:
What you do with a president is you convince the president that not only are you his best friend in government, but you’re going to help make his presidency and make his legacy. And it’s going to benefit him to have a close relationship with the CIA. Starting with his morning intelligence briefing, and going all the way through whatever covert programs happen to pop up….
Hayes notes, “I mean it’s…talk about an advantage over everyone else in government. You get the president every morning.” “Every single morning,” Kiriakou answers, “you have a private meeting with the president. Most members of the cabinet can’t say that.”

UN torture monitor denied access to US prisons

The Guardian/AFP reports:
The United Nations’ top investigator on the use of torture has accused Washington of dragging its feet over his requested visits to prisons and refusing to give him access to inmates at Guantánamo.

Juan Méndez said he had been waiting for more than two years for the United States to provide him access to a range of state and federal prisons, where he wants to probe the use of solitary confinement.

Méndez told reporters in Geneva he wanted to visit federal prisons in New York and Colorado and state prisons in New York, California and Louisiana, among others.

He said the US state department had been working to help him gain access to the state prisons, but after two years of discussions he had yet to receive a positive answer.

“And in one of my last conversations they said that federal prisons were unavailable,” he said.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

TRNN interviews Miguel Tinker Salas on US government’s actions toward Venezuela

Here’s an interview on the Real News Network with Venezuela scholar Miguel Tinker Salas. (You can watch it there or read the transcript, or watch it on YouTube here. Embedding isn’t allowed, which is annoying.)

What I like about this interview in particular is that it focuses on the US government’s actions and relations with Latin America. Too many interviews, and I think it’s out of fear of appearing uncritical, devote too much time to discussing Venezuela’s domestic economic problems and the internal difficulties of the Maduro government. I have a problem with this tendency for several reasons. First, it can contribute to the arrogant, imperialistic sense that we have in the US (and the global North generally) that it’s our right and responsibility to provide criticism and recommendations to other countries, with the expectation that they’ll listen.

Second, emphasizing these problems in the context of opposition coup-plotting can implicitly normalize the idea that the illegal removal of a democratically elected government, the destruction of democracy, and the sweeping aside of the popular will is potentially justifiable. If things are really that bad or protesters that angry, people could easily start to think, maybe something drastic like regime change might be necessary. This is an idea that would never be accepted by the vast majority of people in North America or Europe with regard to their own or other Northern countries’ governments, but we often have a tendency to see poor countries’ democratic institutions as less sacrosanct and to be less absolute in their defense.

Third, the focus on Venezuela’s current woes removes them from any historical, comparative, or global context, which tends at once to magnify them and to make them appear more potentially tractable for the Venezuelan government. The economic, political, and social problems Venezuela is facing are shared by many other countries, including in the same region, often in far more extreme forms. Further, to dwell on current corruption and shortages and so forth distracts attention from the terrible situation before Chávez was elected, which would certainly recur were Maduro to be criminally ousted. This narrow focus also leads away from an analysis that recognizes both the general difficulties involved with building strong welfare programs and policies of local political involvement in a global capitalist order and the specific effects of the covert campaign of destabilization and economic warfare continuously waged by the rightwing opposition in league with the US. (And it should go without saying that economic improvement wouldn’t deter the Venezuelan Right or the US government in their destabilization efforts at all - these have been a constant since 1999.)

Finally, it distracts from what should be our primary focus, which is to challenge media misrepresentations in our own countries and stop our own governments from persisting in antidemocratic and imperialistic intervention. We should be focused on joining with the people of the region to demand that the US government especially respect the democratic process in Latin American and Caribbean nations and engage with their elected governments in good faith. They aren’t going to do it without sustained pressure from within as well as without.

A bit of background on the Palmerola civilian international airport / US military base

As Nikolas Kozloff described in the wake of the 2009 coup:
Prior to the recent military coup d’etat President Manuel Zelaya declared that he would turn the base into a civilian airport, a move opposed by the former U.S. ambassador. What’s more Zelaya intended to carry out his project with Venezuelan financing.

…A couple weeks after Zelaya announced that the armed forces would proceed with construction at Palmerola the military rebelled. Led by Romeo Vásquez, the army overthrew Zelaya and deported him out of the country.
So now the coup-legacy government is going to proceed with the construction with funding from the rightwing Spanish government and continuing US military control. This (Soto Cano) is the same base, you might recall, that was used to fly the democratically elected Honduran president out of the country after he was kidnapped from his residence in his pajamas.

Honduras’ international airport will be on US military base?


Venezuela and the US: context and perspective

Two recent articles:

• Joe Emersberger, “Breaking the Silence about Colombia and Ourselves”

• Greg Grandin, “What Is Happening in Venezuela?”

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

“Today Washington made real life imitate Venezuela’s art of story telling.”

I continue to be struck by the similarities between the preposterous claims made by the US Right and its media lackeys about the Obama administration and the preposterous claims made by the Obama administration and its media lackeys about Venezuela and other thorns in the side of US imperialism.

I’m also amazed at the corporate media’s willingness to act as mouthpiece for the assertions of the State Department and the CIA, no matter how harmful, dumb, or seemingly embarrassing and shameful. Venezuela, and not the US, is increasingly isolated in Latin America. Washington “gets tired of Venezuela’s love affair with conspiracy,” and in its exasperation decides to oblige with…a more open conspiracy:
Washington has finally had enough of Venezuela’s obsession with U.S. conspiracy theories. On Monday, the White House gave Venezuela a realistic dose of the bad romance it has consistently written about its relationship with the U.S.

…So today Washington made real life imitate Venezuela’s art of story telling. The White House press office made President Obama’s note to the speakers of the House and Senate public, calling Venezuela’s foreign policy [?] an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” [emphasis added]
And of course the invasion of Iraq was about bringing democracy to the Middle East.


...has been trending on Twitter.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Securing empire through propaganda

I’m writing a critical review of Mark Neocleous’ 2008 Critique of Security, in which he argues (among other things) that “security” in the modern world has meant the securing of the capitalist political order through the institutionalization of a permanent state of so-called exception.

This understanding makes sense of the longstanding pattern of ignoring or minimizing genuine military and terroristic threats while deeming people, movements, and governments that pose no such danger threats to national security. Only in these terms can we understand today’s absurd and despicable announcement by the Obama administration that Venezuela – whose democratically elected governments the US state has illegally sought for years to overthrow, in plain violation of that country’s popular sovereignty – is now classified as a national security threat. To the US. Irony Watch, indeed.

I’m beginning to wonder if there exists any claim about Latin America* so cynical and implausible that the US government, corporate media, or public would balk at it. Worryingly, there doesn’t appear to be.

* (or, alternatively, about allies like Saudi Arabia)

Psych News 2: Battling opeds and the chemical-imbalance-myth myth

“What other medical specialty would be asked to endure an anthropologist opining on the scientific validity of its diagnoses? None, except psychiatry. Psychiatry has the dubious distinction of being the only medical specialty with an anti-movement. There is an anti-psychiatry movement. You have never heard of an anti-cardiology movement, an anti-dermatology movement, or an anti-orthopedics movement.” – Jeffrey Lieberman, former president of the APA
The second recent story in psychiatric news concerns a January oped in the New York Times by anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, “Redefining Mental Illness.” I’m not a fan of Luhrmann’s writing in the Times (I hope her academic work is better, but the sponsorship of the odious Templeton Foundation doesn’t inspire confidence). I have low expectations for her opeds, which this one met. It’s sloppy, focuses on two sources who are making different arguments, and is far too indulgent in summarizing the history of the APA (“For decades, American psychiatric science took diagnosis to be fundamental. These categories — depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder — were assumed to represent biologically distinct diseases, and the goal of the research was to figure out the biology of the disease. That didn’t pan out.”) and uncritical in presenting Thomas Insel’s RDoC project (“one of the most interesting and radical experiments in scientific research in years”).

But the basic gist of the piece – suggesting that biopsychiatry is built on sand – is correct, and it is what has aroused the ire of the psychiatric priesthood, provoking a nasty response from APA president Paul Summergrad and an embarrassing rant from former APA president Jeffrey Lieberman. Lieberman asks, on the basis of the Times’ publication of Luhrmann’s oped, “What Does the New York Times Have against Psychiatry?” It’s an amusing question, given the Times’ history of writing on the topic. Even the public acknowledgment in 2013 by Insel and the APA itself that psychiatric diagnoses had no scientific validity wasn’t enough to lead them to a truly critical journalistic stance. In fact, their publication of this information was immediately followed by an outrageous and paternalistic editorial intended to mute the public reaction to these revelations and urge readers to continue to have faith in the APA and their model. Articles since then have ignored the facts printed in the paper itself and continued to speak of these diagnoses as capturing real diseases or disorders and of psychiatric drugs as medications treating these conditions. Writers there have continued to take the position that the problem is one of “overdiagnosis” and “overmedication,” as though science is a matter of finding a compromise between “extreme” positions rather than of determining what position the evidence supports (an analogy would be if they proffered a position that AGW was real but that temperature rises probably fall below those indicated by climate researchers). (To be sure, this problem likely stems less from a fondness for psychiatry or the APA than from an interest in continuing pharma ad revenues.)

Lieberman’s diatribe is discussed here, in a post that led to a lively discussion in the comments. It’s bizarre to me that I spend years in various forums attempting to show people that psychiatric diagnoses are scientifically invalid, often surrounded by those who are absolutely convinced of chemical-imbalance claims, only to enter other forums where people seeking to “defend” psychiatry insist – against the overwhelming evidence – that psychiatry as a profession never held to or publicly claimed any such thing and that it’s a myth created by psychiatry’s opponents. (Even stranger, the same people asserting that psychiatry hasn’t publicly promoted such claims then often acknowledge that, well, the claims have been made by some people, but those people were marginal, or misleading “patients” for good reasons. Or they seek to put all of the blame on the drug companies, as if pharma and psychiatry are wholly separate enterprises. Strangest of all, they often begin to suggest that the dubious claims that psychiatry totally hasn’t been making actually do have some truth to them.)

The people making the blatantly false (and so absurdly ignorant or dishonest) claim that psychiatry hasn’t promoted the idea that they’ve uncovered real diseases or disorders with distinctive chemical or other biomarkers oddly don’t seem to comprehend that, while this might briefly deflect attention, ultimately it just points to the giant evidentiary hole at the center of psychiatry. As Brett Deacon argues in the comments:
I think it’s a bit more complicated that claiming this [chemical imbalance] story is about the past, is a straw man, or is a source of controversy drudged up by Scientologists. The reality is that this story was presented as fact (not just a simplified metaphor) by many psychiatrists (among others) and was taken as fact as a result by patients and the public. Its exposure as obvious pseudoscience creates a genuine problem for psychiatrists willing to confront their profession’s enthusiastic adoption of pseudoscience, and for patients who grapple with the realization that they were told they had a literal brain abnormality/defect/disease that turns out not to exist. I firmly believe that we need to understand the lessons of the past lest we repeat them. [emphasis added]
I really want the people who are making the ridiculous argument that the chemical-imbalance story or the larger claims of brain pathologies corrected by psychiatric drugs are a myth created by the anti-psychiatry movement and never promoted by psychiatry to take their “defense” of psychiatry to the other forums – the ones full of people who believe they suffer from enduring neurotransmitter imbalances. I want them to enter those forums, which are everywhere, and tell those people that this false idea was never seriously believed or promoted by psychiatry.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Psych News 1: “Diagnosisgate”

There are several recent episodes and articles related to psychiatry* that I’ve wanted to discuss, so I’m doing a short series of posts.

First, Paula Caplan has published a commentary - “Diagnosisgate: Conflict of Interest at the Top of the Psychiatric Apparatus” - in which, drawing on David Rothman’s expert witness report in the 2010 Texas TMAP lawsuits, she calls attention to DSM-IV head Allen Frances’ financial relationship with Johnson & Johnson. Specifically, Frances and two colleagues received around a million dollars from J&J in the mid-1990s in connection with the writing of Schizophrenia Practice Guidelines favoring J&J’s “atypical antipsychotic” drug Risperdal.

The pages provided of Rothman’s report at the link above should be read by anyone interested in the many ways pharma can corrupt, but it’s this particular aspect of the TMAP story that’s of interest here:
As one of its first activities, and in disregard of professional medical ethics and principles of conflict of interest, in 1995 J&J funded a project led by three psychiatrists at three medical centers (Duke [Allen Frances], Cornell [John P. Docherty], and Columbia [David A. Kahn]) to formulate Schizophrenia Practice Guidelines. From the start, the project subverted scientific integrity, appearing to be a purely scientific venture when it was at its core, a marketing venture for Risperdal. In fact, the guidelines produced by this project would become the basis for the TMAP algorithms, giving a market edge to the J&J products in Texas. (14)

…Not only were Frances, Docherty, and Kahn ready to violate standards of conflicts of interest in mixing guideline preparation with marketing for J&J, but also in publicizing the guidelines in coordination with J&J. The three men established Expert Knowledge Systems (EKS). The purpose of this organization was to use J&J money to market the guidelines and bring financial benefits to Frances, Docherty, and Kahn. (15)
On July 3, 1996, they wrote to J&J that they were “committed to helping [J&J subsidiary] Janssen succeed in its effort to increase its market share and visibility in the payor, provider, and consumer communities” (16). Their “strategic partnership with Janssen” would help the company to “Influence state governments and providers” and “Build brand loyalty and commitment with large groups of key providers around the country”; Frances noted his concern with “how to integrate the publication and the conferences with other marketing efforts” (16). In a heading to a letter to Frances, J&J’s Director of Reimbursement Services referred to the treatment guidelines as the “RISPERDAL (risperidone) Treatment Guidelines” (16).

Caplan makes clear:
Practice guidelines are presented as state-of-the-science instructions to practitioners about how to treat people who have received a particular diagnosis. Such guidelines are considered the “gold standard” of evidence-based care because they aim to convey what is deemed to be the most reliable scientific evidence at a given time.
J&J was of course well aware of this, and “turned the guidelines into a powerful marketing tool” (17). Caplan notes that even though Rothman’s report has been publicly available, news coverage of the TMAP scandal has taken little or no note of the involvement of Frances, Docherty, and Kahn documented in the report. This is odd given Frances’ prominence in psychiatry and particularly his role as task force chair for the DSM-IV, which, with slight modifications, was in use from its publication in 1994 until the DSM-5 was published in 2013. It’s also of interest because in the past five or six years, Frances has promoted himself as something of a psychiatric renegade, challenging the scientific failings of the DSM-5 and…the influence of pharma money in psychiatry, all while presenting himself and his edition of the DSM as rigorously scientific.

Caplan describes Frances’ pattern of statements over the past several years, many of which appear highly disingenuous in light of his links to J&J. In fact, he’s always been pretty slippery and self-contradictory. But Caplan couldn’t say much that would show him in a worse light than does his own rejoinder to her at HuffPo. I won’t even bother to quote from it. Judging from the comments, his deflection and doubletalk (and sexism) are apparent to all.

The outrage over Andrew Wakefield’s vaccine quackery is fully warranted. But the silence about Frances and company, and about Joseph Biederman (for whom their work paved the way), is unacceptable. What they’ve done will harm, all told, millions of people, among them the most vulnerable – children, poor people, imprisoned people, old people.

*I haven’t written on the topic here for a few months, so if you’re new to my blog and unfamiliar with my views on psychiatric diagnosis and drugs, you can find them in my posts under the “health” tag. I explain the importance to pro-science humanists of addressing psychiatry here, and offer some reading suggestions here (to which can be added Cracked and Mad Science). In short, though, psychiatric diagnosis and psychopharmacology is a crock of shit. Their diagnoses are neither valid nor reliable, as they themselves have had to acknowledge in recent years. Psychiatric labels cause real harm, as does the biopsychiatric paradigm more generally, and psychiatric drugs – which are not medications – have hurt and killed untold numbers of people. Psychiatry should be recognized as pseudoscience, and at the very least the forcible or coercive drugging or confinement of people, especially children, should be prohibited.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

“…where politics is only for the tough, and the crude, and the calloused”

From Jack Danforth’s eulogy for Tom Schweich, who committed suicide:
…Since Thursday some good people have said, ‘Well, that’s just politics, and Tom should’ve been less sensitive, he should’ve been tougher, he should’ve been able to take it’. Well, that is accepting politics in its present state. And that we cannot do. It amounts to blaming the victim. And it creates a new normal, where politics is only for the tough, and the crude, and the calloused.
I’ll post the background from Rachel Maddow when it’s available, but here’s a relevant post.

UPDATE: The Rachel Maddow video:

I disagree with Danforth on one key point.* The problem isn’t a politics of the hardened or the tough. It’s a politics, as I’ve suggested, of those traumatized by an abusive childhood or a traumatic culture to the point that they identify with victimizers (the “strong”) and condemn, run from, and attack victims (the “weak”). We contribute to this ideology by perpetuating the myth that it’s a culture of toughness and strength. It’s not. It’s a sad, compulsive culture of bullying with fear at its heart – not tough but raw and scarred.

* In this context, that is. I’m certain I disagree with him on a vast number of unrelated points.

March on Human Rights Watch in New York City on Thursday, part of day of action in solidarity with Venezuela

This Thursday, March 5, will be a national day of action in the US in solidarity with Venezuela, with events to be held in cities across the country. I won’t be able to attend any of the scheduled events, which is regrettable (well, for some – those focused on “remembering Hugo Chávez” don’t interest me especially). But one in particular caught my eye:
New York City, NY
Thursday, March 5
5th Avenue between 33rd and 34th Street
4:00 p.m.
March: “Human Rights Watch, Weapon of the U.S. State Department”
A rally in support of human rights protesting a major human rights organization might initially seem bizarre. But HRW has been somewhat suspect when it comes to humanitarian imperialism for some time. The information documented in this letter from last July leaves little doubt as to the organization’s ties to the Obama administration and US intelligence agencies. These ties substantially compromise HRW’s mission and undermine its credibility.