Thursday, April 30, 2015

Thank you, Katha Pollitt

“‘Charlie Hebdo’ Deserves Its Award for Courage in Free Expression. Here’s Why.”

Quote of the day

“Don’t be surprised if Saudi royal decrees start to say: x was beheaded per his request.”
As’ad AbuKhalil, in response to Saudi spin on the firing of government officials

Il faut réexpliquer et réexpliquer

Caroline Fourest in a short interview clip from earlier today:

Caroline Fourest : «Le nombre d’analphabètes du... by libezap

Because ignorant sniping is revolutionary

I was left speechless by some of the statements in this article about the PEN protest.

Boris Kachka reports:
The memoirist and novelist Porochista Khakpour heard from PEN last Friday….

Khakpour was in fact deeply troubled by the mass tributes to Charlie Hebdo; she’d been assigned several editorials about it in January but had withdrawn over worries she’d be misrepresented. “There were all these liberal people standing with Charlie,” she says now, “using this brown minstrel imagery that was all over social media.” But she wrote to Kushner that she preferred not to withdraw. “I don’t believe in boycotts anymore,” says Khakpour. “That to me is not the revolution. I told her I would really participate if within the event we could express our dismay — like turning our backs or joining in with booing.”
She evidently thinks it’s revolutionary for people at the awards gala to turn their backs or boo when the award is presented, but not so revolutionary to try to defend their smears of Charlie Hebdo to the survivors’ faces: “PEN spokesperson Sarah Edkins reported last night having ‘a number of strong leads’ on anti-Hebdo panelists, but no one confirmed.”

Panel discussion about “Charlie Hebdo and Challenges to Freedom of Expression” this Tuesday in New York

PEN will be hosting a panel discussion at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, this coming Tuesday, May 5, at 10 AM, concerning “Charlie Hebdo and Challenges to Freedom of Expression”:
Charlie Hebdo’s recently appointed editor-in-chief, Gérard Biard, and its film critic, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, are visiting the United States for the first time since the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris, which killed eight of their co-workers and four others. On the evening of Tuesday, May 5, they will receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Free Expression Courage Award at the PEN American Center’s annual Literary Gala in New York.

Please join us for a conversation about the challenges to free expression in France and Europe, the role of satire in open societies, the controversies that have surrounded Charlie Hebdo, and the tensions between respect for religious differences and protections for freedom of expression.

The panel is in formation and will include the director of NYU’s Institute of French Studies, Ed Berenson; Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gérard Biard; PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel; and Charlie Hebdo film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret. Journalist Maggy Donaldson will moderate.
Admission is free but seats have to be reserved.

I’m pleased some of the surviving CH staff members will have an opportunity to speak for themselves, though it’s almost surreal to see them put on the defensive a few months after their colleagues were massacred. I hope some of the people who’ve written about their plans to boycott the gala have been invited to join the panel or will at least attend the forum, where it will be possible to get beyond the swirl of ignorant accusations and learn about the actual history, motives, and attitudes of Charlie Hebdo.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What’s the evidentiary basis for these claims about Charlie Hebdo?

The following claims have been made by – if I was able to keep names straight - Deborah Eisenberg, Francine Prose, Rachel Kushner, and Teju Cole about Charlie Hebdo and the reception of its work.* I would like to see them substantiated with solid, contextualized evidence:

• that “certain expressions of anti-Semitism are illegal in France, so Judaism is out of bounds for satire,” leaving only Catholicism and Islam (somehow) as satirical targets

• that “an insult particular to Islam lies in a visual portrayal of the Prophet, which is in itself interdicted”; and that “Christianity, on the other hand, not only condones, but actually encourages visual portrayals of the sanctified” (specifically, I would like to see a defense of the implication that portrayals considered blasphemous are not only condoned but actually encouraged, particularly in light of the history of Catholic lawsuits against CH)

• that “Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons that satirize Islam” are “not merely tasteless and brainless but brainlessly reckless as well”

• that to (presumably all?) Muslims in France, “Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as intended to cause further humiliation and suffering”

• that the CH “staff…considered the context of their satire and its wide-ranging potential consequences to be insignificant, or even an inducement to redouble their efforts – as if it were of paramount importance to demonstrate the right to smoke a cigarette by dropping your lit match into a dry forest”

• that CH is a “tasteless, brainless, and reckless example of free expression” comparable to racist chapters of the fraternity SAE, “those recently responsible for the desecrations of a Jewish cemetery” in France, and “Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer and its satirical anti-Semitic cartoons”

• that their work constitutes “expression that violates the acceptable”

• that their work expresses “anti-Islamic and nationalistic sentiments”

• that in recent years CH “has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations”

• that “the Charlie Hebdo cartoons…mobilize popular sentiment against a vilified demographic”

• that the people of CH “expended their courage, and ten of them lost their lives, in what was essentially a parochial, irrelevant, misconceived, misdirected, relatively trivial, and more or less obsolete campaign against clericalism” (What does the line that follows – “It is also courageous to bait a hallucinating and armed soldier, to walk around naked in the dead of winter, to jump off a roof, to drink from a sewer, or to attempt sexual intercourse with a wild boar” – say about Muslims, I wonder?)

• that in contrast to the purposes of journalists and whistleblowers whose “courage has been fastidiously exercised for the good of humanity,” which are “noble, intelligent, and selfless,” those of the CH staff are “pitiful, foolish, and immensely destructive”

• that CH represents “repugnant” “prejudices”

• that theirs are not “endangered voices of dissent” but “voices of intolerance”

• that their ideals aren’t as progressive as those of Raif Badawi, Avijit Roy, Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning

• that CH aren’t “saying things that need to be said,…working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live” but instead “drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion” (these are assumed to be mutually exclusive, for some reason)

• that the magazine is characterized by “cultural intolerance” and promotes “a kind of forced secular view”

One protesting writer says that she has “nothing but sympathy for the victims and survivors.” But surely such sympathy should take the form of a genuine, thoughtful effort to fairly determine whether your beliefs about them are accurate and to amass evidence before issuing public condemnations.

* These claims appear here, here, and here.

Thoughts on the boycott of the PEN gala honoring Charlie Hebdo

If you impetuously joined in the smearing of Charlie Hebdo as racist, Muslim-bashing, and thoughtlessly provocative in the immediate wake of the murders, without bothering to learn if you were misrepresenting them. If you haven’t taken the time, in the three full months since, to educate yourself about their actual work, motives, or the targets of their satire. If you choose to remain willfully and self-righteously ignorant while taking images at face value and attempting to interpret them out of context. If you coldheartedly persist in throwing out horrendous unsupported assertions about people who are dead and can’t defend themselves and survivors grieving the loss of their friends and colleagues. If you ignore the words of former Muslims on staff at Charlie Hebdo. If you contend that the exploitation of the movement in support of CH, free expression, and the right to blaspheme by oppressive governments and the Right is the fault of Charlie Hebdo. If you believe that PEN has some apolitical purity that an award to CH would besmirch. If you can’t even bring yourself to acknowledge the courage of the Charlie Hebdo staff in defending free expression

Then you don’t belong at any event attended by or honoring defenders of free expression, and I fully support your decision to boycott this one.

Quote of the day

“[T]here’s a sense that the point is not to humanize the victim but to allow readers to judge whether he deserved to live or die.” – Jim Naureckas, on the Washington Post’s “Freddie Gray Primer”

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

“We hurt”

“We really live in this city. And we hurt. We go through stuff every day. Every day. This is life. We deal with this every day….”

“...We’re messed up inside. That’s all I want to say. We’re messed up inside.”

“...We’re hurting. We’re hurting.”
These are comments made by a man in Baltimore interviewed a few minutes ago by Chris Hayes. There seems to be a limited range of emotions allowed to poor, black people in the US: they have a choice of rage or hope. I reject that. Racism, systemic discrimination and violence, and economic injustice hurt people. They hurt.

Dr. Sidney Freedman

And speaking of television…

Growing up, I never knew any psychiatrists. There were none in my immediate world of family and parents’ friends. So I came to understand what psychiatrists did through TV characters. Reading Paula Caplan’s book reminded me that my model of humanistic psychiatry – to be sure, there might be some idealization in my recollections – was Sidney Freedman, an occasional character on M*A*S*H played perfectly by Allan Arbus. He was compassionate, curious, undogmatic. He rejected military claims about psychological problems manifesting weakness or cowardice, and always appreciated the psychological toll of war. He took people’s problems seriously, whether a surgeon’s sleepwalking or a soldier’s belief that he was Jesus, but never pathologized them. (And his few interactions with Col. Flagg were beautiful.)

Contrasting that model to today’s psychiatry is depressing. It’s true that he was a fictional character. And that there do exist some humanistic practitioners today. And also that the psychiatry of that era wasn’t all wonderful: humanistic currents were always marginal or marginalized; sexism, homophobia, victim-blaming, self-help nonsense, and adjustment psychiatry abounded; and terrible interventions were used (some of which continue today). But I’m happy that the M*A*S*H writers created the character – today, when it seems psychiatry couldn’t get less humanistic in its approach, Sidney Freedman reminds us that another psychiatry is possible.

Incidentally, Me TV will be showing the M*A*S*H finale episode – which features Dr. Freedman - along with interviews with actors and writers, this Sunday, May 3, at 7 PM EDT.

Speaking of Jon Stewart…

I didn’t know any of this:
Jon Stewart recently purchased a farm in New Jersey with the intention of providing a sanctuary for farm animals rescued from cruelty.

…Stewart’s wife, Tracey, is also an avid supporter of farm animals’ rights. She discovered Farm Sanctuary after reading Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food, [Gene] Baur’s 2008 account of the conception and evolution of the organization….

…“The joy of interacting with animals as friends instead of using them for human consumption is life-changing,” says Tracey in a press release. “A trip to Farm Sanctuary should be on everyone’s to-do list, but you can also bring a little bit of sanctuary home when you sponsor an animal through the Adopt a Farm Animal Program.”

…Because of these reasons, the organization has named two rescued sheep Jon and Tracey in their honor. The Stewarts will be further recognized at a Gala on October 24 2015 in New York City.
Here’s a link to the Farm Sanctuary.

And here's president and co-founder of the Farm Sanctuary Gene Baur on The Daily Show a few weeks ago:

Black Ties Matter

Jessica Williams gets it just right:*

*(except the capital, in the global context, encompasses much more of the country)

Quote of the day

“It is actually ‘Economics 101’ – and has been in writing for well over two centuries – that the CEOs’ lobbyists have never, and will never, secretly draft a ‘free trade’ agreement. It is Economics 101 that they have always and will always secretly draft language that aids their corporate CEO clients at the expense of the public – that TPP must be another in a long, dismal line of Faux Trade agreements. That’s what theory, all human experience, and the leaked portions of the TPP draft all show. That doesn’t have ‘near unanimity’ among economists, it has actual unanimity.” – William Black (via comment here)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Misrepresentations continue in coverage of Honduras reelection decision

The AP article printed the other day in the Guardian, “Honduran judges throw out single-term limit on presidency,” features what will surely be the accepted mainstream-media tropes for the coverage of the decision (to the limited extent that the story is covered at all): it’s ironic and controversial because these were the same people who carried out a military coup against the democratically elected Zelaya for wanting to do away with presidential term limits to extend his own rule back in 2009. As the article portrays it, the
Ruling revives tensions that led to coup and ouster of Manuel Zelaya six years ago when he sought to change constitution so officeholders could stand again

…The supreme court in Honduras has voided a single-term limit for the country’s presidency — the issue at the heart of the political conflict that led to the ouster of socialist [!] incumbent Manuel Zelaya six years ago when he sought to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution.

Forces that united to remove Zelaya from office, including some members of his own party, had contended he wanted to end the ban on second terms so he could remain in power.
Yes, they contended it then, and it was patently false then, as many – including Mark Weisbrot, who writes frequently for the Guardian - pointed out at the time* and since. The majority of commenters on the article itself have explained (yet again) that this was a fraudulent pretext for the coup, but there’s little chance that a correction or clarification will be forthcoming.

There’s no parallel here, and there’s no irony. The “tensions” are not the same. This is simply a continuation of the ambitions of the coupists. A good rule of thumb is to assume that any authoritarian plots of which rightwingers accuse their enemies are really projections of their own desires.

* As Weisbrot wrote then:
Zelaya's referendum, planned for the day the coup took place, was a nonbinding poll. It only asked voters if they wanted to have an actual referendum on reforming the country's Constitution on the November ballot. Even if Zelaya had gotten everything he was looking for, a new president would have been elected on the same November ballot. So Zelaya would be out of office in January, no matter what steps were taken toward constitutional reform.

Paula J. Caplan, When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans (2011)

This isn’t a review, as I’m only a few chapters in. But already I can recommend Caplan’s book to anyone who cares about the experience of war and the continuing failure to address soldiers’ and veterans’ problems. It’s received far too little attention – I didn’t know about it until I happened to see it cited in a journal article yesterday – which is unfortunate.* I’ve of course added it to the psychiatry-skepticism-social justice reading list, and urge others to check it out:
Traumatized veterans returning from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are often diagnosed as suffering from a psychological disorder and prescribed a regimen of psychotherapy and psychiatric drugs. But why, asks psychologist Paula J. Caplan in this impassioned book, is it a mental illness to be devastated by war? What is a mentally healthy response to death, destruction, and moral horror? In When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home, Caplan argues that the standard treatment of therapy and drugs is often actually harmful. It adds to veterans’ burdens by making them believe wrongly that they should have “gotten over it”; it isolates them behind the closed doors of the therapist’s office; and it makes them rely on often harmful drugs. The numbers of traumatized veterans from past and present wars who continue to suffer demonstrate the ineffectiveness of this approach.

Sending anguished veterans off to talk to therapists, writes Caplan, conveys the message that the rest of us don’t want to listen -- or that we don’t feel qualified to listen. As a result, the truth about war is kept under wraps. Most of us remain ignorant about what war is really like -- and continue to allow our governments to go to war without much protest. Caplan proposes an alternative: that we welcome veterans back into our communities and listen to their stories, one-on-one. (She provides guidelines for conducting these conversations.) This would begin a long overdue national discussion about the realities of war, and it would start the healing process for our returning veterans.
* The vague, nondescript title hasn’t helped, I’m sure.

Honduras is now the most dangerous country for environmental activists

Honduras Culture and Politics discusses a new Global Witness report about killings of environmental activists, which notes that Honduras is “the most dangerous country to be an environmental defender.”

They point to how the numbers killed in Honduras (111 people total between 2002 and 2014) increased abruptly after 2009, as shown in the Global Witness graphic:

From 2002 to 2009, Honduras had 0, 1, 2, or 3 deaths per year of environmentalists. Starting with 2010, those numbers skyrocketed: 21 deaths in 2010, 33 deaths in 2011, 25 deaths in 2012, 10 deaths in 2013, and 12 deaths in 2014. 90% of the Honduran environmentalist deaths occurred in the last 5 years!

Global Witness found that mining and other extractive industries caused the largest number of deaths in 2014, with a tie for the second spot between Water and Dams, and Agribusiness. These three accounted for 84% of the environmentalist deaths in 2014.

This violence has come down particularly hard on indigenous environmentalists. Three Tolupan leaders were shot and killed during an anti-mining protest in 2014.
Because readers of the blog are likely to be familiar with the country’s recent history, HCAP doesn’t explicitly point to the transformative event in 2009: the military coup against democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. When Hillary Clinton worked to “render the question of Zelaya moot” and institutionalize the coup, this is what she helped set in motion. They also don’t mention – again because most readers will be all too aware – the impunity with which these crimes are committed. But I’m sure the Marines will help with that.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Quote of the day

Commenter Charles at the Honduras Culture and Politics post “Presidential Re-election?!”:
The only fitting end to this farce would be if Manuel Zelaya ran again and won.

Psychiatry-skepticism-social justice reading list: user-friendly edition

I thought it might be helpful to provide the list without the distractions of links or commentary. I’ve provided links only to those materials available free online.

• Lisa Cosgrove and Robert Whitaker, Psychiatry Under the Influence: Institutional Corruption, Social Injury, and Prescriptions for Reform (2015)

• Robert Whitaker, Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill (2002)

• James Davies, Cracked: The Unhappy Truth about Psychiatry (2013)

• Irving Kirsch, The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth (2009)

• Carol Tavris, The Mismeasure of Woman (1992) (see also “How Psychiatry Went Crazy” (2013) and “Psychiatry and Its Discontents” (2015))

• Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (2010)

• Brett J. Deacon, “The biomedical model of mental disorder: A critical analysis of its validity, utility, and effects on psychotherapy research” (2013), Clinical Psychology Review 33, 846-861

• Marcia Angell, “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?”, “The Illusions of Psychiatry,” and “‘The Illusions of Psychiatry’: An Exchange” (2011)

• Jeffrey R. Lacasse and Jonathan Leo, “Serotonin and Depression: A Disconnect between the Advertisements and the Scientific Literature” (2005), PLoS Medicine 2(12): e392.

• Joanna Moncrieff, The Myth of the Chemical Cure: A Critique of Psychiatric Drug Treatment (2008)

• Paula J. Caplan, When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans (2011)

• Stuart A. Kirk, Tomi Gomory, and David Cohen, Mad Science: Psychiatric Coercion, Diagnosis, and Drugs

• Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche (2010)

• Christopher Lane, Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness (2007)

• Jonathan Leo and Jeffrey R. Lacasse, “The Media and the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression” (2008), Society 45(1): 35-45

• Glen I. Spielmans and Peter I. Parry, “From Evidence-based Medicine to Marketing-based Medicine: Evidence from Internal Industry Documents” (2010), Bioethical Inquiry 7: 13-29 (I don’t link to PDFs, but you can find it free online)

• Caroline Gage, “Harriet Tubman Visits a Therapist” (play) (available for purchase here)

• Jeffrey Lacasse, “After DSM-5: A Critical Mental Health Research Agenda for the 21st Century” (2014), Research on Social Work Practice 24(1): 5-10

The Behavior Therapist, special issue on the biomedical model, October 2015

• Will Davies, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being (2015)

• Jessica Grogan, Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (2012)

• Pat Barker, Regeneration (novel, 1991)

• Sam Kriss, “Book of Lamentations” (2013), The New Inquiry, October 18

• Ben Goldacre, Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks (2008)

• Ben Goldacre, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (2012)

• Paul Moloney, The Therapy Industry: The Irresistible Rise of the Talking Cure, and Why It Doesn’t Work (2013)

• Erich Fromm, various

• Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth and New Ways in Psychoanalysis

• Valentin Voloshinov, Freudianism: A Marxist Critique (1926)

• Marcia Westkott, The Feminist Legacy of Karen Horney (1986)

• Bernard Paris, ed., The Unknown Karen Horney: Essays on Gender, Culture, and Psychoanalysis (2000)

• Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child, For Your Own Good, The Untouched Key

• Ignacio Martín-Baró, Writings for a Liberation Psychiatry

• Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)

• Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (1983/2009)

• Joy Damousi and Mariano Ben Plotkin, eds., Psychoanalysis and Politics: Histories of Psychoanalysis under Conditions of Restricted Political Freedom (2012) (except the chapter by Eli Zaretsky)

I’ve updated the list with one new item, and will probably just continue to update it over time. I’ve reviewed several of the books and provided supplementary materials on this blog, so if you’re interested you can find the link-annotated version of the list here. As I said there, “I’ll note that recommending these books doesn’t mean that I endorse each and every argument they contain, which would be impossible in any case as they often disagree amongst themselves.”

“There is no reality”

What would happen if the Kochs and the heads of all of the think tanks funded by fossil fuels interests publicly announced that AGW was real and serious, and candidly spoke in interviews about the history and mechanics of AGW denialism? If the reaction to public announcements and other statements from the current and former heads of the NIMH and various DSM task-force chairs and editors is any predictor, not much. When a myth has taken root in the public imagination, even the admission that it’s a myth by the mythmakers themselves seems to do little to dislodge it.

I’ve posted some of these statements in various places, but I thought I’d amass them in one spot so they can be read and appreciated together:

“His psychiatric colleagues, he said dismissively, ‘actually believe [that the diseases they diagnose using the DSM] are real. But there’s no reality. These are just constructs. There is no reality to schizophrenia or depression...we might have to stop using terms like depression and schizophrenia, because they are getting in our way, confusing things[’].” – NIMH Director Thomas Insel, interviewed in 2013

“The weakness [of the DSM] is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure.” – Thomas Insel in 2013 on why the NIMH would cease using DSM diagnoses

“In the future, we hope to be able to identify disorders using biological and genetic markers that provide precise diagnoses that can be delivered with complete reliability and validity. Yet this promise, which we have anticipated since the 1970s, remains disappointingly distant. We’ve been telling patients for several decades that we are waiting for biomarkers. We’re still waiting.” – David Kupfer, DSM-5 Task Force Chair, statement in response to the 2013 NIMH announcement

“…‘So presumably’, I asked, ‘these disorders had been discovered in a biological sense? That’s why they were included [in the DSM-III], right?’

‘No, not at all’, Spitzer said matter-of-factly.

‘There are only a handful of mental disorders in the DSM known to have a clear biological cause. These are known as the organic disorders [like epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s disease]. These are few and far between’.

‘So, let me get this clear’, I pressed, ‘there are no discovered biological causes for many of the remaining mental disorders in the DSM?’

‘Not for many, for any! No biological markers have been identified’.

…[I]f the findings of biology did not help the Taskforce to determine what disorders to include in the DSM-III, then what on earth did?

‘I guess our general principle’, answered Spitzer candidly, ‘was that if a large enough number of clinicians felt that a diagnostic concept was important in their work, then we were likely to add it as a new category. That was essentially it. It became a question of how much consensus there was to recognize and include a particular disorder’.

…What sprang to mind at Spitzer’s revelation was the point I made in the previous chapter about agreement not constituting proof. If a group of respected theologians all agree that God exists, this does not prove that God exists. All it proves is that these theologians believe it. So in what sense is psychiatric agreement different? Why, when a committee of psychiatrists agree that a collection of behaviors and feelings point to the existence of a mental disorder, should the rest of us accept they’ve got it right?” - DSM-III taskforce chair Robert Spitzer, interviewed by James Davies (Cracked, 2013)

“[T]he field has…failed to identify a single neurobiological phenotypic marker or gene that is useful in making a diagnosis of a major psychiatric disorder or for predicting response to psychopharmacological treatment.” – DSM-IV Editor Michael First, quoted in Brett J. Deacon, “The biomedical model of mental disorder: A critical analysis of its validity, utility, and effects on psychotherapy research,” 2013, Clinical Psychology Review 33, 846-861

“There is no definition of a mental disorder. It’s bullshit. I mean, you just can’t define it.” – DSM-IV Task Force Chair Allen Frances, interviewed by Gary Greenberg in 2011, quoted in Mad Science

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Pope accepts resignation of US bishop who covered for child sex abuser

Evidently, this is the first case of a bishop even being “removed” for such a crime in the US, which is itself shocking. The resignation appears to be the result of sustained public pressure.
Pope Francis on Tuesday accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn, who led the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Finn pleaded guilty in 2013 to failing to report a suspected priestly child abuser in the first known case of a pope sanctioning bishops for covering up for pedophiles.

The Vatican said Tuesday that Bishop Robert Finn had offered his resignation under the code of canon law that allows bishops to resign early for illness or some “grave” reason that makes them unfit for office. It didn’t provide a reason.

Finn, who leads the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri, waited six months before notifying police about the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, whose computer contained hundreds of lewd photos of young girls taken in and around churches where he worked. Ratigan was sentenced to 50 years in prison after pleading guilty to child pornography charges.

Finn pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failure to report suspected abuse and was sentenced to two years’ probation in 2012. Ever since, he has faced pressure from local Roman Catholics to step down, with some parishioners petitioning Francis to remove him from the diocese.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Sunday, April 19, 2015

You and Me

Whatever the vicissitudes in the quality of Revenge,* the music has never faltered. In the last episode:

* The line last week about how Amanda was being seen as the modern-day Count of Monte Cristo was perfect.

What’s this blog about?

I’ve never entered anything in the “About Me” section of the blog. When I started, I wanted to leave it open, and since over time my emphases have shifted quite a bit I believed there wasn’t enough consistency to characterize the blog as being “about” this or that. It’s also difficult to estimate how much attention you’ve paid to various subjects over an extended period of time – you tend to be more aware of recent interests.

But I’ve just discovered that Blogger has a handy feature that tells you how many times you’ve used each tag, and it turns out I haven’t shifted topics so much as expanded on them, while the core subjects – to be sure, there are several - have stayed largely the same.

Across more than 900 posts, these have been my main emphases:

• social movements

• human and animal rights (this is really one category – animal rights – of which human rights is a subset; I’ve had a surprising emphasis on whales)

• the US and the Americas, with a focus on Honduras and Venezuela

• science, research, and technology

• ethics

• women, gender, and sexuality

• atheism and religion

• corporations

• health, with an emphasis on biopsychiatry (for which I don’t have a tag) and humanistic alternatives (especially those of Erich Fromm and Karen Horney)

• law

• spin (mostly corporate and government)

• art, film, and music

• history, with an emphasis on the Holocaust and the Cold War

Other major topics have included:

• nature and evolution

• the media

• academics and education

• skepticism

• race

• photography and poetry (mine and others’)

• veganism, food and drink

I’ll probably summarize the information for the “About Me” page, or maybe I’ll just link to this post.

UPDATED: Psychiatry-skepticism-social justice reading list

Back in 2012, I wrote about why psychiatry is an important skeptical and social justice issue and created a short list of reading suggestions for approaching psychiatry from these perspectives. The impending release later this week of Psychiatry Under the Influence has nudged me to update it.

Much has changed since 2012, and all of the developments point to the urgency of critically examining and speaking out about psychiatry and psychopharmaceuticals. Just prior to the publication of the DSM-5 in 2013, the NIMH announced that it would no longer use psychiatric diagnoses, acknowledging that they’re not scientifically valid,* which was then publicly admitted (again) by the leaders of the APA. Studies completed over the past three years have provided more evidence of the ineffectiveness and harms of psychiatric drugs, and others have demonstrated the profound psychological effects of marginalization and socioeconomic trauma. Professional movements challenging biopsychiatry and its drugs have continued to grow.

Today, many continue desperately to try to sell the myths about brain diseases and disorders and chemical imbalances, at the same time as others have taken to claiming astonishingly that reputable psychiatrists never made such claims at all. Countless people, including children, have had their rights violated and been injured or killed by psychiatric drugs since 2012, while pharma has reaped the profits and its representatives in psychiatry continue to operate with impunity.** Tragically, the skeptical community continues to exclude and attempt to silence critical perspectives while promoting psychiatric myths. I have no doubt that they believe their arguments and recommendations to be compassionate and helpful, but genuinely helpful approaches should be based in reality and not pseudoscience.

So, because hope springs eternal, I’m adding a few more resources which might entice the curious or the concerned. The original list included:

• Robert Whitaker, Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill (2002)

• Irving Kirsch, The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth (2009)

• Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (2010)

• Marcia Angell, “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?”, “The Illusions of Psychiatry,” and “‘The Illusions of Psychiatry’: An Exchange” (2011)

Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche (2010)

• Christopher Lane, Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness (2007)

• Ben Goldacre, Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks (2008)

• Ben Goldacre, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (2012)

Erich Fromm, various

And here are the additions, several of which I’ve reviewed in the intervening years:

Joanna Moncrieff, The Myth of the Chemical Cure: A Critique of Psychiatric Drug Treatment (2008)

• James Davies, Cracked: The Unhappy Truth about Psychiatry (2013)

• Stuart A. Kirk, Tomi Gomory, and David Cohen, Mad Science: Psychiatric Coercion, Diagnosis, and Drugs (2013)

• Paul Moloney, The Therapy Industry: The Irresistible Rise of the Talking Cure, and Why It Doesn’t Work (2013) (I hope to critically review this in the not-too-distant future)

Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth and New Ways in Psychoanalysis

• Marcia Westkott, The Feminist Legacy of Karen Horney (1986)

• Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child

Ignacio Martín-Baró, Writings for a Liberation Psychiatry

• Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961) (don’t know how I neglected this the first time!)

Once again I’ll note that recommending these books doesn’t mean that I endorse each and every argument they contain, which would be impossible in any case as they often disagree amongst themselves.

In addition to Psychiatry Under the Influence, there’s a new book by sociologist Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine, that looks interesting (though the Kindle price is pretty high). This excerpt contains an interesting note about Thomas Insel:
A few months earlier, in a private conversation that he must have realized would become public, Insel had voiced an even more heretical thought. His psychiatric colleagues, he said dismissively, ‘actually believe [that the diseases they diagnose using the DSM] are real. But there’s no reality. These are just constructs. There is no reality to schizophrenia or depression...we might have to stop using terms like depression and schizophrenia, because they are getting in our way, confusing things[’].
Apparently, this was from a conversation recorded in Gary Greenberg’s The Book of Woe, which I haven’t yet read and so couldn’t add to the list.

* Thomas Insel remains faithful to the idea that the biological roots of psychological problems will be found, even if it takes, as he expects, decades.

** I’ve discussed all of this in much more depth here over the years – posts on the subject can be found under my “health” tag.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

No, that’s not a reason to love Ricky Gervais

Ecorazzi is gleefully reporting on a “Twitter war” sparked by a tweet by Ricky Gervais targeting a trophy hunter. Trophy hunters (and hunters in general) are overwhelmingly male, and the majority of animal liberation activists are women (not that you’d know it from all of the attention paid to male voices or the misogynistic stunts of some organizations); but Gervais chose to “call out” a woman, Rebecca Francis.

He had to know that his tweet would lead to Francis being barraged with threats. The Ecorazzi writer, pleased that the conflict is bringing attention to wildlife-protection organizations, breezes right past this inevitable result - “It wasn’t long before some of his over 7.5 million followers started posting death threats to Francis saying she should be the one shot…” – without a word of objection. In some of the first responses to Gervais’ original tweet people call Francis an “ugly bitch” and a “massive cunt” and write “disgusting trash box I hope the rifle backfires and explodes in that cunt’s face,” eliciting no negative response from Gervais. (This isn’t especially surprising - not long ago, he came up with the hilarious idea to rename hunters “cunters.”)

I’m sure there are many reasons to like Gervais, including his commitment to animals and his humor (some of his tweets in this episode would be funny and useful in another context). But this isn’t one of them. We don’t advance the cause of compassion by riling up threatening, misogynistic mobs. Targeting and harassing others, leading them to fear for their safety, is what hunters do. Surely it should be obvious to vegans that this sport shaming is contrary to our values.

Friday, April 17, 2015

In short,…

“In short, Obama’s diplomacy at the Summit of the Americas in part consisted of going around promising not to overthrow his fellow leaders, which would be faintly ridiculous if Washington hadn’t in fact intervened so much in neighbors’ affairs.”Juan Cole

You don’t say.

“We spoke to multiple U.S. law enforcement and intelligence sources who had direct knowledge of our case. They all said they did not doubt our story back in 2012 or anytime since.”Richard Engel

In the path of a World Bank project

A trail of stolen homes and shattered lives for millions of people.

(And no, the World Bank isn’t “committed to fighting poverty,” any more than the “key purpose” of clinical trials in a capitalist system is “producing accessible knowledge for clinical decision making.”)

Data on women in parliaments worldwide

Reading this piece, “Latin America: From U.S. Corporate Hegemony to Regional Autonomy,”* by Preeti Kaur, I came across a useful link to the data on the percentage of parliamentary seats held by women in countries around the world.

What surprised me was that so many of the top countries – those with the highest proportion of women in parliament - were poor. It’s interesting to look beyond the regional breakdowns. In the top ten are Bolivia, Cuba, and Ecuador, and also Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa. Regionally, the Nordic countries are an outlier at the top, but even with them included Europe still comes in below the Americas; with the Nordic countries excluded, Europe is pretty much on par with Sub-Saharan Africa (a difference of only one percentage point). And the percentages for the US and Canada are below the Americas average. In the full list, the US comes in at 72nd, below Pakistan and Bangladesh (Venezuela, home to teleSUR which published Kaur’s article, has nothing to be proud of here, falling even below the US at 82nd).

Overall, it’s fairly depressing, but there does seem to be real progress - which I can appreciate even as an anarchist - in many countries around the world.

* An important, and infuriating, part of the article described the speech by Ban Ki-moon at the Summit of the Americas this past weekend:
Rather bizarrely, the UN Secretary General then went on to spend a third of his intervention at the Summit of the Americas to discuss the importance of business involvement in the post 2015 development agenda, and in the agenda to address climate change. While the Secretary General recognised that the Americas have been at the vanguard of discussions on key issues regarding climate change, he also said that the ‘new global development agenda and the battle against climate change will need resources, technology and capacity’, and as such ‘private sources and partnerships’ would be crucial in the fight against climate change.

‘With business support for implementing the sustainable development goals, we can transform our world. Business is part of the solution to several major global challenges’, said the UN Secretary General. Such an analysis fails to articulate the ways in which businesses are obliged to pursue profit, even at the expense of harmful impacts to the environment, and people. There is an increasing recognition that capitalism has caused climate change, described incontrovertibly in Naomi Klein’s recent book ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate’.

The Secretary General’s intervention failed to explain how businesses might turn their minds to address the key issues of our day. Indeed, only three years previously, in Brazil at the Rio+20 sustainable development conference, Canada, and the U.S. united against reaffirming the responsibility of businesses to respect human rights, and protect our planet.

…Big business is the problem, not the solution. While technical innovation is necessary to combat climate change, much of this innovation is tailored to pursuing energy which increases profit opportunities for business, not which effectively reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

As'ad AbuKhalil on Democracy Now! this morning

Talking about Richard Engel and media fictions:

Thursday, April 16, 2015

“Making signs in large Letters that spelled out ‘Libertad’”

US Marines are headed to Honduras. I’m still unclear on the relationship of these Marines to the 250-Marine unit. Some articles seem to suggest that that force is still being reviewed, while several hours ago the Argentina Independent (which might be confused) reported that it’s been approved.

In any case, it’s clear that they’re going to Honduras on the pretext of providing humanitarian aid, the precise forms of which seem to change with every announcement – hurricane response, other unspecified disaster relief, building schools, providing medical care [!!!],… These claims are implausible in light of, well, many things, but especially the public statements to the effect that the Marines would also be dedicated to fighting drug trafficking and organized crime and the most recent impetus for the genesis of the unit, the Central American Regional Security Conference held in Honduras a few weeks ago:
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez welcomed security and defense leaders from 14 nations as they gathered in Tegucigalpa March 25 for two days of talks on ways to strengthen their ongoing security cooperation and counter transnational organized crime in Central America.

The president spoke to more than 100 participants during the opening ceremony for the annual Central American Regional Security Conference (CENTSEC), co-hosted by the Honduran armed force's Joint Staff and U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).

‘We've reached a conclusion that regional efforts and approaches are fundamental, because those we are up against also have a regional approach and have a very high level of sophistication, so the only way to confront them is by working together,’ he told them.
I wonder when hurricanes were discussed…

The increasing US military presence in Honduras comes amid calls from Latin American leaders to eliminate existing US bases in the region. UNASUR head Ernesto Samper called recently for their closing, arguing that they were a relic of the Cold War and a symbol and means of US political dominance.

The claims of humanitarian motives strike an especially bitter chord given the treatment of people seeking asylum from these countries in the US. Democracy Now! is reporting on a hunger strike of women with children held in a for-profit internment center in Texas.
After five months in detention with her two-year-old son, Kenia Galeano joined a hunger strike with about other 70 mothers to push for their release. Today she described how she and several others were held in isolation as punishment.

‘Inside this room it was really cold. It was dark. The toilet was right next to the bed. My son was in there with me this entire time’, Galeano said.

She also recalled threats that families would be separated if the strike continued.

‘A guard told us if we didn’t eat we would not be equipped to take care of our children, and risked having them taken away’, Galeano said.

The women ended their strike on April 3 but now ten more have vowed to begin again Wednesday to refuse to eat except for one meal each evening. Like last time, they want bond hearings so they can be free while seeking asylum, as well as improved food and conditions at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, which is run by the private prison company, The Geo Group.

Galeano, who is from Honduras, was released on a $7,500 bond after the hunger strike ended. Her family paid $3,000 and the rest was supplemented by the Family Detention Bond Fund. But she said she can’t stop thinking about the hundreds of women she left behind, like her cellmate who had an eleven-year-old son.

Two incident reports provided to Democracy Now! show a group of Karnes detainees tried to draw the attention of a helicopter that flew overhead on April 2 by making large letters on signs that spelled out ‘libertad’ which means liberty. Staff who documented the incident called it an ‘insurrection’.

On May 2 a nationwide protest is planned outside the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, the other facility where hundreds of women and children have been detained since seeking asylum from violence in Central America. The event will kick-off a week of actions that end on Mother’s Day.
Here are the two original reports:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

“Un mensaje directo a otros países latinoamericanos en procesos independentistas”

This feature in the Honduran paper La Tribuna offers a small selection of quotes from deputies arguing for and against a special US Marine unit operating out of Palmerola. Here are two of the arguments against the plan:
Doris Gutiérrez: “Ocupación nos parece violación a soberanía”
Doris Gutiérrez (pinuista, FM):
“Estamos de acuerdo que existan convenios de cooperación entre Estados Unidos y Honduras, sobre todo en materia de asistencia humana y asesoría en educación y otros campos afines, pero la ocupación del país por marines, aunque sea por poco tiempo, nos parece una violación a la independencia y a la soberanía de nuestra patria. Tampoco apoyamos plataformas para amenazar otros países”.

Scherly Arriaga: “No queremos ser plataforma”
Scherly Arriaga (Libre, Cortés):
“Honduras es un país de paz, no queremos ser plataforma militar de ningún país, es una violación a nuestra soberanía, Honduras no necesita ni militares ni armamentismo. Consideramos que la presencia de más tropas es un mensaje directo a otros países latinoamericanos en procesos independentistas y, en ese sentido, es inaceptable porque Honduras no puede ser escenario de guerra”.
Their concerns are especially relevant in light of the history of the base. This editorial notes that the permanent base began in the ‘80s as the site of an allegedly temporary operation to support the contras in Nicaragua. As the editorial argues, two aspects of that history are particularly important. First, smaller, “temporary” missions of any sort overwhelming tend to expand in scope and to become institutionalized. Second, the base has always provided a staging ground for US actions against other countries in the region. In the current context of social change in the Americas, including unified pushback against US and Canadian interference and aggression, the force would rightly be regarded as menacing.
…El tema es, para nuestro entendimiento, de alta dimensión porque la temporalidad en estos casos es muy susceptible de alargamiento, de prórrogas, de modificaciones. Palmerola es, en este sentido, ejemplar. Se estableció como “albergue temporal” para la intervención en Nicaragua de contrarrevolución, pero fue quedándose con nuevos objetivos, de acuerdo al inconfeso proyecto original.

Naturalmente, el estrechamiento de las relaciones del gobierno de Honduras con el Comando Sur es ahora demasiado sugestivo. De ahí las inquietudes en relación con la presencia militar estadounidense, independientemente de sus motivaciones reales o supuestas. Los tiempos han cambiado, y en este caso la externalidad ya es de ámbito continental. Quiérase o no, eso afecta las relaciones entre Estados, pueblos y gobiernos.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Continuing destabilization efforts in the long shadow of the coup

Venezuelanalysis has posted an interesting interview of two of their journalists – Z.C. Dutka and Rachael Boothroyd - by teleSUR. It focuses specifically on the meaning and legacy of the two-day coup in Venezuela in 2002. It’s all worth reading, but I’m going to quote from their answers related to the composition and tactics of the US-backed rightwing opposition:
“The 2002 coup was a sharp example of what most people already knew, that the Venezuelan opposition, with the support of the U.S. government, would stop at nothing to reroute Venezuelan politics back to neoliberalism. Since that attempt proved to be such a magnificent failure, they’ve focused their efforts on more subversive tactics associated with ‘color revolutions’; like corporate and social media campaigns, false NGOs, and economic sabotage. The idea is to create an environment of chaos while branding wealthy opposition leaders as ‘liberators’ and ‘human rights activists’.” (Dutka)
“Thirteen years later, and the impatience of the opposition and Washington hasn’t subsided, as you can imagine. Having lost virtually all democratic contests since 1998 (with the singular exception of its extremely narrow win in the Constitutional Referendum of 2007) and having falsely assumed that the revolution would fall following the death of Chavez in 2013, this desperation has now reached boiling point.” (Boothroyd)
“The other element which has also not altered since 2002 is the opposition’s obvious connections to the U.S. A factor which is a huge thorn in its side and which is preventing it from making sufficient political headway amongst the Venezuelan population.

At the time of the 2002 coup, the U.S. government admitted that it had financed and met with the coup leaders and organizations involved. This dynamic has continued since then, and in fact, funding to anti-government groups has increased under the Obama administration. This year, the NED (National Endowment for Democracy) and the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) has an increased budget destined for Venezuelan opposition “youth” and “civil society” groups.

… This is of course part of the ongoing attempted coup against the Venezuelan government which began in 1999 and which has been advanced through all conceivable means - economic strangulation, street violence, military conspiracies - to name but a few. However, perhaps what best defined the 2002 coup, and what caused most impact throughout the world, was the role of the media in aiding and abetting it.

The media deliberately manipulated imagery or refused to broadcast the actual news. On the ground, hundreds of thousands of people had surrounded the presidential palace demanding Chavez’ return, but there were only cartoons being broadcast on the nation’s television screens. It was only through community media and on the ground communications that any real information managed to make its way to the general population.

Media tycoon and owner of Venevision, the biggest private television channel in Venezuela, Gustavo Cisneros, is reported to have met with coup makers both before and after the event. His channel played perhaps the most substantial role in manipulating the footage of Llaguna Bridge, which served as a pretext to delegitimise the democratic mandate of the Chavez government. Today, the media continues to be one of the most powerful tools that the opposition has available, despite the steady expansion of state and community media. Venevision is still in operation. In fact, just last month it was revealed that Cisneros had donated up to a million U.S. dollars to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State for the Obama administration.

So as you can see, these anti-government elements are historically linked and continue to be so, from George Bush, through to Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, to Gustavo Cisneros and Venezuela’s old political elite, to which even the opposition’s newest faces belong. From Maria Corina Machado, to Henrique Capriles Radonski and Leopoldo Lopez, who all come from families belonging to Venezuela’s business elite.” (Boothroyd)
“[M]uch of the opposition's political discourse and action is actually designed for consumption abroad, in the U.S. and Europe, rather than in Venezuela. I say consumption because these figures are, in essence, paid to voice these opinions, which are basically performances designed with the gaze of the international media in mind, and which employ the aesthetic, linguistic and “moral” codes established by liberal capitalist political norms and “human rights” organizations.” (Boothroyd) [links added]

Is it narcotrafficking season again?

You’ll know it’s summer when you hear the soothing hum of approaching CH-53s…

I was amused by this Tico Times article, “US Marines plan force in Honduras for hurricane season”:
The United States wants to deploy a force of about 250 Marines to Honduras to provide humanitarian help during the region’s hurricane season, officials said Friday. The contingent also would assist Central American forces on efforts to counter narcotics trafficking.

Honduran officials are weighing the proposed task force, which would operate out of Palmerola air base from June to November.

“We have requested that the Marines be present in Honduras from June through November 2015, during hurricane season, to support Honduras and other countries in the region in the event of a hurricane or other major disaster,” the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa said in a statement.

…“It’s only on a temporary basis,” said Captain Armando Daviu, public affairs officer for U.S. Marine Forces South. “It’s set up to be a quick response emergency force.”

The special purpose Marine air-ground task force would be equipped with four CH-53 cargo helicopters and possibly a C-130 aircraft, he told AFP.
This doesn’t even make sense. They’re supposedly going to set up this force and then just send them back to the US for good with all of their equipment later in the year? Even aside from the problem of the militarization of humanitarian aid, they’re not even trying that hard to hide the true purpose:
The task force would also contribute troops to “security cooperation” teams already stationed in the area, which train and advise local forces battling organized crime and narcotics smuggling.
Why would they set up seasonal participation in “security cooperation” teams?
Pentagon officials insisted the proposal would not involve the permanent deployment of U.S. troops, a sensitive political issue in a region where U.S. forces historically sided with authoritarian regimes.
This claim would be misleading even if it could be believed - which it can’t - since Soto Cano currently has around 500 US troops:
The Palmerola air base, currently home to about 500 American troops, was once a major staging area in the 1980s for US military support to Contra rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government.
So it’s a planned (or is it proposed?) additional unit dedicated to humanitarian aid in response to hurricanes. And other natural disasters. And really any sort of “emergency.” In the whole region. Oh, and also fighting narcotrafficking. And organized crime. And promoting “security” generally. And all of the expertise and equipment required for these tasks is the same. And only needed during the hurricane season.* And yet Palmerola remains 100% Honduran territory.

I’ve been presenting this as almost entirely a matter of concern for Hondurans and others in the region: Honduras’ international airport is being constructed on what is partially a US military base (and we saw what happened when that was planned without US cooperation), military expansion is being packaged as humanitarian aid, a larger US military presence will enhance the power of foreign interests and of the Honduran Right and military, and the Honduran “government” evidently doesn’t deem the views of the public important enough to propose the arrangement openly or even to be forthright when the plan is discovered. But it’s also an important matter for us in the US, who should be concerned with whether our government’s policy in the Americas should continue to be one of military and corporate imperialism underwritten by public funds.

* I suppose after that they could be deployed to the US border, to keep out all of the children driven to emigrate by the impoverishment, disempowerment, and violence enabled by the US-backed post-coup regimes.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Eduardo Galeano has died.

In 2010 and 2011, I posted some of my favorite pieces from The Book of Embraces. They’re beautiful – you can read them here, here, here, here, and here.

In 2013, I quoted two segments from his most recent book, Children of the Days, here and here.

Friday, April 10, 2015

More questions about Palmerola

Some news about the planned international airport at Palmerola, which raises even more questions and suspicions: A story appearing at a few days ago reported that the US would be sending a special 250-Marine unit there, the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-South (SPMAGTF-South). The unit would allegedly, presumably together with Honduran forces, contribute to disaster-response and anti-drug-trafficking operations.

Apparently, this was news to Hondurans, and the public response led the “president” to insist that Palmerola was a Honduran and only a Honduran base (this is…odd), that this was only a proposal for a temporary arrangement and hadn’t yet been discussed or approved (also claimed by US-government representatives; this is questionable), and that the priority was the construction of the international airport (which by no means rules out the arrangement and seems an attempt at deflection).

Here are several articles (in Spanish) reporting on Honduran officials’ attempts to “clarify”:

“Canciller de Honduras desmiente creación de fuerza especial con sede en Palmerola”

“Juan Orlando Hernández: ‘Palmerola es de Honduras y de nadie más’”

“Juan Orlando Hernández: ‘Palmerola es base militar hondureña’”

“‘Palmerola es una base hondureña y de nadie más’: Juan Orlando”
A principios de esta semana, el portal reveló que EUA prepara el envío de 250 marines de la Unidad Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-South o SPMAGTF-South (Fuerza de Tarea de Propósito Especial Aire-Tierra de Marines-Sur) a la base aérea de Palmerola, como una unidad especial de respuesta a crisis al estilo de las creadas para África. La información provocó diversas reacciones a favor y en contra y generó contradicciones entre altas personalidaes del Gobierno que negaban y confirmaban la versión periodística.

Sin embargo, la Embajada de EUA en Tegucigalpa se encargó de confirmar la petición planteada al Gobierno hondureño a través de un comunicado y las posteriores declaraciones del jefe de la misión diplomática norteamericana. Nealon dijo que por ahora se trata solo de una solicitud que todavía no ha sido aprobada por parte del Gobierno de Juan Orlando Hernández, de modo que están a la espera de la autorización de las autoridades locales.

Especificó que si la solicitud es aprobada, los marines llegarían entre junio y noviembre de este año y posteriormente se irían.
“‘La prioridad es construir Palmerola, lo demás es secundario’: Juan Orlando Hernández”
TEGUCIGALPA- El presidente Juan Orlando Hernández expresó este día que la base aérea Enrique Soto Cano ubicada en Comayagua, en la zona central de Honduras, es una zona militar hondureña y de nadie más.

Las declaraciones del mandatario surgen luego que se haya conocido a través del portal que Estados Unidos ampliará su presencia militar en Latinoamérica con la creación de una unidad especial en Honduras para ‘misiones de colaboración’ en la región, que contará con 250 marines, helicópteros y un catamarán de alta velocidad.

‘Quiero dejar algo claro, Palmerola es territorio hondureño, Palmerola es una base militar hondureña y de nadie más, que no le quede duda a nadie, ni en Honduras ni en fuera de Honduras que ese es un territorio hondureño’, insistió.
Outside of the US military, the only other English-language site that appears to be interested is the Communist People’s World:
…The Soto Cano airbase has been emblematic of the U.S. military’s long presence in Honduras. It’s home-base for 500 U.S. troops and was the organizational center for U.S. support for the anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980’s. Critics of a U.S. role in the 2009 military coup that overthrew elected President Manuel Zelaya often cite the Soto Cano base. They point to the stopover there of the plane carrying Zelaya from the capital to exile in Costa Rica….
It’s all highly suspect.

The isolation of the US

I remember years ago (probably in the 1990s) seeing a newspaper photo of a meeting of the leaders of the Americas. The Cuban representative stood out like a sore thumb, the lone figure dressed in a military uniform while all of the others wore business suits. The implication couldn’t have been more clear: the Americas at the end of history were the land of the Washington Consensus, and the Cuban government was pitifully out of touch.

Things have changed. Democracy Now! is covering the Summit of the Americas in Panama and features an interview today with Miguel Tinker Salas and Mark Weisbrot.

I recommend watching the whole thing, especially since – if Rachel Maddow’s sycophantic report last night is any indication* – you’re not going to see any serious analysis anywhere in the US corporate media.

The central theme articulated by both Tinker Salas and Weisbrot is that the US government is so driven by internal forces and so incredibly out of touch with the reality of Latin America and the Caribbean that they continue to speak and act as though the region can be treated as their “backyard,” leading to increasing isolation. They can’t accept a hemisphere in which relations are based on mutual respect, in which people in countries other than the US can elect their own governments and choose their own policies, and in which other governments won’t reflexively accede to the US government’s arrogant attempts to punish leaders who refuse to abide by its wishes. Just listen to Roberta Jacobson! UNASUR and CELAC had to be established precisely because the US and Canada relentlessly seek to dominate any regional organization that includes them. And it appears that the chance of Hillary Clinton taking a different course as president is essentially zero, while any Republican would undoubtedly be worse.

(A note on a topic discussed in the interview: They talk about Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who was just deported from the US to El Salvador to face justice for human rights crimes during the country’s civil war; and how the US might also deport (to Spain) Inocente Orlando Montano, another former Salvadoran general, for human rights crimes. These include the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. Among the priests was Ignacio Martín-Baró, the great political-humanist-liberation psychologist.)

* My jaw dropped when Andrea Mitchell actually brought up Venezuela, and then returned to place when that discussion went nowhere.

The FDA and the 99%

“Public Citizen again urges you to immediately withdraw this reckless and justifiably embarrassing proposed Guidance.” – Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe
Last June, the FDA issued draft guidance that would, as Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen explains, “give drug companies free rein (the FDA ‘will not object’) to tell doctors that a medication is less dangerous than the FDA has concluded and is stated on the approved labeling.” “If finalized,” he writes, “the Guidance would allow pharmaceutical companies to inform health care providers that the FDA-approved labeling overstates a medication’s risks, by distributing peer-reviewed articles and by having discussions with doctors.”* In response, Wolfe published an article in JAMA Internal Medicine last August outlining the problems with the draft guidance.

Almost two months after the public comment period on the proposed guidance closed last August, the FDA had still posted only a single comment on their site. So Public Citizen filed a FOIA request, gaining access to all of the 1782 comments submitted. Of these, 1771 opposed the proposed guidance, while 11 approved. The 11 supporting comments came from drug industry groups or their representatives.

Last month, Wolfe wrote an open letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell summarizing the public response and urging her to withdraw the guidance. I haven’t found any news stories about developments since then, and there doesn’t appear to be any timetable or deadline for the disposition of the guidance, but a spokesperson for Burwell said at the time that “Secretary Burwell appreciates hearing from stakeholders” and that “The FDA is currently reviewing and considering all comments received from the dockets on the draft guidance.”

That review would seem fairly straightforward. I suggest a pie chart with a label indicating the source of the less than 1% of comments approving the guidance. And then some deep thinking about the public trust.

*These statements are from Wolfe’s March 11, 2015 letter to Sylvia Burwell.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Cowspiracy directors Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn on Democracy Now!

“[N]o matter what issue you care about, whether it’s ocean dead zones, species extinction, habitat destruction, rain forest [destruction], literally the list goes on and on, animal agriculture is at the forefront of the issue. Why aren’t these organizations talking about it?” - Keegan Kuhn
Read or watch the interview here, or watch below:

You can watch Cowspiracy online for a small donation at the film site. I haven’t yet, but plan to soon.

Review of Timothy Melley, The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State (2012)

Generally speaking, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the relations among the covert state, democracy, and culture. I’ll summarize its main points, talk about the best aspects, and then move on to a couple of criticisms.

Melley’s argument is that the institutionalization and expansion of the covert state since the Second World War1 has profoundly altered US democracy, and, most relevantly, the conditions of knowledge about government activities. This has made for a substantial transformation of the democratic public sphere, leading to a predominance of fiction in how people understand foreign and domestic policy and themselves as individual citizens or a democratic public.

In the early years of the Cold War, Melley recounts, government began to shift in the direction of institutional covert action and public deception and manipulation. The National Security Act established the CIA in 1947, followed the next year by NSC-10/2, authorizing
propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened countries of the free world
all undertaken such that “if uncovered the U.S. government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.” “When President Truman signed this directive on June 18, 1948,” Melley suggests, “he institutionalized not simply secret warfare but also public deception as a fundamental element,” indeed “a structural requirement,” of government policy. Furthermore, the US – like so many other countries - has lived under an almost constant state of exception throughout this period.

These changes have had far-reaching consequences, the significance of which is not often adequately appreciated. “While there was nothing new about espionage,” Melley argues, “the degree to which foreign policy matters were sequestered from the public sphere during the Cold War fundamentally – and perhaps permanently – transformed U.S. democracy.” During the Cold War, the government “made a considerable investment in transforming the conditions of public knowledge at home and abroad.” However, the state always needs public acceptance of, or at least acquiescence to, its actions, and so it “has an interest in generating a public that thinks it has a general knowledge of such work but does not and cannot know in detail.” A key aspect of these transformations is that the public lives in a state of half-knowledge and open secrets - we don’t know what the secret government is doing, but we know that it exists:
In an era of covert action, citizens are offered a modified social contract in which they are asked to trade democratic oversight for enhanced security. In so doing, they tacitly acknowledge that their elected leaders will deceive them about some actions taken on their behalf.
In this situation, as I’ll discuss in more detail below, the public sphere gives way to the covert sphere – “a cultural imaginary shaped by both institutional secrecy and public fascination with the secret work of the state.” The covert sphere is fiction-based, according to Melley, in three significant ways. First, covert agencies themselves continuously produce fictions in the service of their perceived aims: “The projection of strategic ‘fictions’, in fact, is a primary goal of clandestine agencies.”2

Second, instead of publicity and rational debate concerning government policy, the covert sphere “is dominated by narrative fictions, such as novels, films, television series, and electronic games, for fiction” - considered comparatively “nonserious” - “is one of the few discourses in which the secret work of the state can be disclosed to the citizens.” While some of these fictions are critical, most serve the covert state’s purposes:
The fictions of the covert sphere simultaneously make visible the secret work of the state and consign this work to the realm of fantasy. They confer a half-knowledge that makes government secrecy tolerable because it offers the public the opportunity to proclaim its official ignorance – and then to be shocked when the details of secret programs leak, via nonfiction discourse, into the ‘sheltered’ public sphere.3
Through a combination of state secrecy and public representation, the covert sphere not only smooths over the central contradiction of the Cold War state – that Western democracy can preserve itself only through the suspension of democracy – but it turns this troubling proposition into a source of public reassurance and even pleasure.
This is particularly the case with what Melley calls the “geopolitical melodrama.”

Third, the rise of the covert state “had a powerful role in fostering the forms of suspicion, skepticism, and uncertainty that would eventually find their fullest expression in postmodernism.”

As noted above, Melley develops the concept of the fiction-dominated covert sphere by contrasting it with the principles and practice of the Enlightenment public sphere, whose “dominant discourse” is “journalism, history, jurisprudence, and other approaches grounded in an ethical insistence on ‘truth as correspondence to fact’.” He explains:
[T]he astonishing growth of clandestine institutions since World War II has produced a qualitative change in the structure of public knowledge about U.S. foreign affairs. The institutional infrastructure of the covert state – particularly its commitments to ‘plausible deniability’, hypercompartmentalization, psychological warfare, and covert action – is a significant barrier to certain forms of public knowledge. As the ideal of rational democracy came into increasing tension with what can be called psychological operations, the result was not simply a reduction of public knowledge but a transformation of the discursive means through which the public ‘knows’, or imagines, the work of the state.
If the watchwords of the Enlightenment public sphere were rationality and publicity, then the watchwords of the Cold War covert sphere would be irrationalism, secrecy, uncertainty, and suspicion.
Unlike the ‘rational-critical’ public sphere, then, the covert sphere is marked by a structural irrationality, for the democratic state prohibits citizens from engaging in public oversight of its covert activities.
The Covert Sphere is quite good at analyzing how the rise of said sphere has been seen in gendered terms. The Enlightenment public sphere conceives of citizens as autonomous, informed (male) agents actively participating in the formulation of public policy, which takes place outside the sheltered, “feminine” domestic sphere. But
[a]s the Cold War covert sector became the arena in which foreign policy was made, U.S. citizens were shuttled into a more passive civic role. By offering security in exchange for submission to the inscrutable will of a state protector, this new social compact placed the public in an increasingly feminized relation to a paternalistic state.4
The “exclusion of the Cold War public from the male realm of state policymaking” meant that “the public sphere was tacitly reconceived along the lines of the feminized domestic sphere,” which raised the masculine anxiety level. Melley offers a fascinating discussion of how these fears about the institutional decline of liberal individualism were expressed in the discourse surrounding “brainwashing” - the “nightmare of masculinity undone.”

In response, “the fictions of the covert sphere compensate for this structural ‘feminization’ with fantasies of masculinist bravado and heroic agency.” In these fantasies, “feminized civilians…project themselves into the hypermasculine bodies of professional warriors.” Further, these popular fictions “also critique the public sphere as a domestic fantasy.” In other words, what people have been deprived of in terms of real democratic knowledge and participation is returned to them as fantasy through popular entertainments, and “an entire cultural machinery is now in place to cultivate such fantasies” in the form of fiction for adults and children, television shows, movies, video games, and so forth.

Melley argues that the most important of these today is what he calls the “geopolitical melodrama,” whose “ideological function… is to defend the operation of a Cold War security state in a post-Cold War climate.” The geopolitical melodrama
is defined by the yoking of two distinct but related nightmares. First, an external enemy of state – usually a cell of terrorists – takes aim at the U.S. population and security apparatus, which is depicted as a technologically miraculous apparatus that is nonetheless vulnerable to external attacks. Second, this massive system itself goes awry, threatening the democracy it was designed to prevent.
The masculine hero - generally a Western covert agent - who saves his family and the population from both the state’s enemies and the overweening security state itself is in the mold of “the classic ‘rugged’ male individualist of the western or the noir detective tale: a clearheaded maverick with a penchant for breaking social rules and an abiding disgust for the political infighting, inertia, and rule-bound strictures of bureaucracy.” Projecting themselves into this figure “compensates” the audience “for the dread terror of becoming a feminized ward of the security state.” Additionally, the genre serves the needs of the covert state to secure acquiescence by “articulat[ing] a defense of pragmatic illegal action”: “If the hero must do ‘whatever it takes’ to protect his family, then by extension the government should do the same to protect its citizens.” And “whatever it takes” often includes torture.

This has become a significant film and TV genre, and it’s worthwhile to examine its (anti-)democratic and compensatory functions. Melley’s discussion of several of these works is among the best parts of the book.

The general argument of The Covert Sphere is solid and innovative, and the sections on the responses to the growth of the covert state in a context of anxious masculinity and the geopolitical melodrama are particularly insightful. But I’m now going to discuss some of the book’s weaker points. These are related and really overlapping, but involve two basic issues: first, the lack of clarity and consistency in Melley’s view of the public sphere and thus in his critical evaluation of the covert sphere; and second, his often-unconvincing argument that postmodern fiction offers not just a reflection but a meaningful critique of the covert state and sphere.

Judging from what I’ve presented so far, it would be reasonable to assume that Melley’s critique of the covert sphere comes from a standpoint of support for the democratic public sphere. And that implicitly seems to be the case, but Melley seems inexplicably resistant to declaring such a stance. “My goal,” he insists,
is neither to suggest a means of ‘healing’ the wounded public sphere – as if the revelation of secrets would suddenly restore ‘real’ democracy…nor to depict the public sphere as a transparent, democratic ideal that has been sullied primarily by the rise of Cold War secrecy. Government has always had secret components, and as so many of Habermas’s interlocutors have shown, the democratic public sphere has long seemed ‘secret’ or off-limits to large segments of the public, particularly women, minorities, and the lower classes.
First, sure, but that has nothing to do with the principles of transparency and democracy, of information and participation. Habermas’ original depiction of the “bourgeois public sphere” has indeed been criticized, but at the same time over the years people have developed analyses of democratic public spheres that are far less exclusionary and even subversive. The masculinist aspects of the public sphere aren’t necessary to or even compatible with real democracy; in contrast, its basic values certainly are opposed to those of the covert state.

Second, defending the values of the democratic public sphere and “restor[ing] ‘real’ democracy” (the scare quotes are oddly telling) doesn’t involve simply the “revelation of secrets” but a radical challenge to existing institutions in the name of democratic values. Melley is right to question the effects of “heroic public sphere” narratives, like the films with a fantasy ending of public exposure that’s somehow expected to bring about real change. But the exposure of any particular truth or set of truths of course doesn’t exhaust the possibilities for democratic action.

At some moments, Melley seems to suggest that democratic activists’ only hope is the captive media of the covert sphere, as there’s nowhere else to turn. “[T]he deeper one digs in the clandestine archive,” he argues, “the more one doubts that public reason can be guaranteed by the institutions of the public sphere. One of the most important functions of the intelligence services is to manipulate public opinion through propaganda and disinformation, which is most effective when circulated by unwitting civilian journalists and presses.” Indeed, “some journalistic representations of the covert state turn out to be in fact strategic fictions produced by state agencies for instrumental purposes. Such influences create confusion and, when discovered, foster public skepticism, distrust, and uncertainty – a sense that the business of covert warfare can never be publicly known.”

Again, very true, but there’s a whole world of media critics and alternative-media practitioners who see both exposing manipulation and disinformation and continuing to do investigative journalism as fundamental to the democratic project. Melley remarks, strangely, that his argument “is not that the covert sphere represses discourse while the public sphere circulates it. It is rather that institutional constraints on public knowledge shift discourse in the direction of fiction.” This is dangerous in that it elides any differences between the sham public-sphere operations of the covert sphere on the one hand and the basic values of the public sphere and actual efforts in service of those values on the other.

This dismissive attitude toward the (possibilities for a) public sphere is all the stranger in light of the fact that he suggests in several cases – Jane Mayer’s articles in the New Yorker, the book Invitation to an Inquest - that journalism and historiography have provided important counternarratives to the strategic fictions of the covert sphere. Melley’s point is well made that
[a]s state security increases, it hinders the privileged forms of modern narrative knowledge – history and journalism - that insist on the correspondence of narrative to events. Such correspondences are difficult to trace when it is hard (or illegal) to obtain documents, official confirmation, and other traditional forms of evidence.
This is a major public issue. The questions, then, are: Is this a problem, and if so why? Does the rise of the covert sphere reveal basic problems with these privileged forms of knowledge themselves, or should they be defended and reclaimed, and if so how? For some reason, Melley seems to wish not to take a clear position on these questions, at times appearing to lament the decline of the public sphere and side with its defenders and at others to appear more neutral (or at least to suggest that its return, even if potentially desirable, is all but impossible).

With regard to the “public” of the public sphere, there are some issues here, too. There’s certainly a critical tone to Melley’s (correct) depiction of the narcissism of the geopolitical melodrama – its “almost total erasure of the history and claims of those who are the real targets of the state’s clandestine apparatus.” Unlike many Cold War fictions, the geopolitical melodrama “does invite U.S. citizens to imagine themselves targets of the security state - not in an expression of solidarity with minoritized targets, but rather in a narcissistic fantasy that ‘disappears’ populations with grievances about U.S. policy.”

Melley notes the “striking differences between U.S. and postcolonial narratives of U.S. foreign engagement” in this context of US narcissism and exceptionalism. But after pointing this out, he presents his analysis from an almost entirely US-centric perspective (with a few references to French philosophers and social critics). The book is clearly “about” the US public, but even the US public doesn’t appear to be its audience. In fact, Melley writes about the US public almost as though they/we have no political agency – to some extent adopting the disdainful perspective of the covert state itself. The US public is presented as eminently manipulable and irresponsible, and often as eagerly participating in our own deception. The various ways the public and the media acquiesce to and even cheer government secrecy and violent covert action appear as inevitable and not as failings which can be addressed or choices for which people can be held accountable. (The flip side of this is that Melley pays little attention to domestic covert action that works tirelessly to suppress dissent.) All of this contrasts starkly with, for example, the existentialists’ writings about colonialism, which were addressed to a French (and often a global) public, presumed to be real political agents who could choose to change course.

All of these issues come into play in Melley’s presentation of the relationship between postmodern fiction and the covert state. I’ll first say that this is an original and fascinating discussion, and Melley makes a strong case for the existence of a correspondence between the two. I can’t begin to do justice here to the detailed and nuanced analyses of the various works Melley considers. I’m going to focus on the aspect of the argument that I find most problematic.

Melley argues, I think correctly, that postmodernism (and pomo fiction specifically) is in some part a child of the rise of the covert state and its epistemological effects:
My claim…is not that postmodernism is a simple product of the Cold War, but rather that national security institutions were among several crucial factors – including the postwar triumph of new mass media, strategic communications, and multinational capitalism – that altered the conditions of public knowledge in postwar Western societies, generating a pervasive skepticism about the public’s ability to know what is real and true. A good deal of U.S postmodernism expresses this epistemological skepticism.
central quality is skepticism about how to know and represent the world, particularly as history. Postmodernism emphasizes the constructed nature of narratives, philosophical and social structures, and even persons. It reflects the institutions of mass culture, and it thematizes the artifice of nearly everything, especially nature (or ‘nature’) itself. Its distinctive effect on readers and observers is disorientation or confusion about the nature of the real.
Melley does an excellent job in showing how many of postmodernism’s central tenets and themes seem to have grown in the context created by the construction and expansion of the covert state. Pomo themes closely reflect the epistemic conditions of the covert sphere. Indeed, “for a number of influential literary figures, the covert state” itself “has become a central object of reflection and…a major stimulus of postmodern epistemological skepticism.”5

It’s the second part of Melley’s argument that I find far less convincing, however: his contention that many pomo writers successfully “critique the epistemological conditions of the Cold War by reproducing them in fictional form.” Of course, determining the effectiveness of any attempt at critique is always a complicated matter, involving knowledge of audiences and their understanding of artistic traditions and intent, the larger political context, and so on. And naturally each work and author has to be examined individually.6

In a general sense, though, given the evidence as Melley presents it, I don’t think he supports his repeated claims that pomo fiction not only reflects the conditions of the covert sphere but challenges them. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that much of it goes a long way toward normalizing them. This is primarily for three reasons. First, what postmodernism fundamentally set itself up in opposition to, as he notes, was not the covert state but modernism, characterized as a regime of facts. Postmodernism is “at bottom an expression of skepticism about the project of modernity, particularly its commitments to scientific rationality, individualism, and universalism.” Postmodernism as a project challenges an image of modernism that includes the very public-sphere means of knowledge – science, journalism, historiography – that are undermined by the covert state. In this sense, postmodernism, the covert state, and corporations have had the same target and mission. As Melley notes,
In a quite literal way, the National Security State institutionalized a critique of modern rational knowing…by engaging in what George Kennan called ‘irrationalism’, ‘unreality’, and ‘the necessary lie’….
Within the rhetoric of the public sphere, this transformation produced a contest between rational democracy and psychological operations….
If intelligence collection is the analogue of empiricism or realism, then covert operations, and Psy Ops in particular, abandon faithful representation for something akin to the postmodernist’s deliberate conflation of reality, simulation, and myth.
It’s difficult to see how pomo critiques of the modern “regime of facts” in this context are supposed to threaten the covert state; quite the contrary.

Second, postmodernism tends to present the very political and institutional conditions which Melley recognizes as the result of political choices as an ontological condition in which real knowledge and truth are impossible chimeras. Again, this naturalizes and universalizes the political conditions created by the covert state. Even if individual pomo works recognize the rise of the covert state as an important political cause of contemporary epistemic difficulties, they enter a river of pomo naturalization that undercuts that recognition.

Third, while Melley argues that postmodernism adopts the forms of the covert sphere in order to challenge them, the whole idea of critique through serious imitation is questionable. To argue that postmodern “texts that emphasize epistemological or ontological confusion” effectively work to challenge the covert state requires that a very strong case be made to support it, especially in light of the context described in the first two points – a postmodern tradition that questions the existence of realities that can be legitimately known and recognized, that challenges “the modern ideal of truth as a correspondence between statements and evidence.”

Over and over, Melley describes the points at which the covert state and postmodernism converge. His argument “is not that the clandestine world is ‘postmodern’ but that it produces the sort of extreme epistemological uncertainty that postmodernism would later convert into an aesthetic.” Feature after feature of the covert world is shown also to characterize postmodernism: an emphasis on suspicion and the difficulty or impossibility of knowing what’s real or true; the blurring of fact and fiction; the “confusing of the real with its representations”; the deployment of instrumental or strategic fictions;… The similarities are everywhere:
[T]he conditions of public knowledge under a regime of state secrecy generate forms of suspicion and unknowing uncannily similar to those typically associated with postmodern representation.
[The covert state’s] operational goal…was often to blur the authentic and the fabricated, reality and representation – precisely the sort of ontological confabulation that has come to define postmodernism.
Melley explicitly acknowledges this strong resemblance, and how it complicates some postmodern claims to effective political opposition, as in his discussion of Doctorow’s arguments in “False Documents.” He also recognizes, to some extent, that others have seen in postmodern fiction anything but a genuine subversion of political power. Oddly, it’s in the discussion of the most clearly critical work of those he analyzes - Robert Coover’s 1977 The Public Burning, which “brilliantly critiques the state’s ‘spectacle of secrecy’ through a revolutionary postmodernism that stresses the fictional quality of the Rosenberg affair” – that he raises this issue. The novel, which “parodies the irrationality of the Cold War covert sphere” and is “specifically designed to mock [the] undoing of Habermasian public reason,” “powerfully illustrates,” Melley argues, his “claim that postmodern narrative is both a reflection of, and a response to, Cold War epistemology.”

What’s strange is that Melley presents Coover’s parodical challenge as both postmodern and ironic:
Ironically, Coover’s postmodernism critiques problems themselves associated with postmodernism – a confusion of the real and the fictional, the hindrance of critical reason, and the conflation of distinct ‘realities’ or ontological zones. This irony is what Linda Hutcheon means when she speaks of postmodernism’s ‘complicitous critique’….

My point, however, is not that Coover has reinforced the very logic he wishes to critique. On the contrary, his brilliant critique of Cold War hysteria reflects back the epistemological constraints of the covert sphere, in which state secrecy impedes the public’s attempts to disentangle fact from fiction. If…there is a sort of ‘postmodern’ quality to the Cold War security state, then Coover’s work rearticulates the quality in order to expose and critique it.
The problem here is that Coover’s work as presented by Melley isn’t postmodern in the sense of accepting or even reproducing in form the covert sphere’s confusion, hindrance, and conflation; it explicitly criticizes them. While it uses some pomo forms, it does so in a context of overtly parodying the covert state and the epistemic problems to which it gives rise. So it isn’t complicit in Hutcheons’ sense. In contrast, though, the other works Melley discusses, and postmodernism in general, are more suspect in this regard.

Some examples: First, the image of the CIA. Melley suggests that “[t]he CIA has cultivated its own secular mythology in which it is a vast organism unknowable through the protocols of the rational public sphere.” The “critical” pomo response to this, as described by Melley, is to reproduce the myth:
Popular narrative frequently represents the CIA as a quasi-divine being with extraordinary powers of surveillance. No one has captured this sense better than Don DeLillo, whose characters consistently view the agency as vast, omnipresent, and supernatural.
How is this critical?

Second, the possibilities of accurate narratives. Melley notes that the writer Charles Baxter “views narrative dysfunction as a symptom, and not a critique, of official obfuscation.” But Melley disagrees, insisting that it’s paradoxical:
Narrative dysfunction is a central paradox of covert-sphere postmodernism. On the one hand, narratives in which ‘events never gel into “facts”’ seem to reproduce the effects of deniability and ahistoricism that Baxter and others find so problematic. On the other hand, deliberately ‘weak’ or dysfunctional narrativity is a powerful way to reveal the conditions of knowledge in a regime of state secrecy.
“Many postmodern novels develop intentionally incomplete or ‘dysfunctional’ narratives to critique the conditions of knowledge in a regime of state secrecy,” Melley argues. DeLillo’s novel Libra, for example, uses confused narrative “to critique the conditions of knowledge produced by the Cold War security apparatus. Its historiographic skepticism is both a symptom of state secrecy and a powerful commentary on it.” Joan Didion similarly “is…a master of ‘narrative dysfunction’ as a vehicle for understanding the feminization of the Cold War public sphere.” Works like Democracy are “preoccupied with the difficulty of telling a story. From the beginning, the narrator expresses hesitation and doubt. She compulsively emphasizes her own authorial perspective and suggests alternative ways in which the story could be told.” The book’s “halting, elliptical, ironic style clearly reflects Didion’s vision of dysfunctional Cold War democracy”; her style “imitates the logic of Cold War democracy in order to critique it. It is the narrative embodiment of the dysfunctional covert sphere.”

But the issue with regard to these works (again, as Melley presents them) is different from a work like Coover’s, which is so plain in its parodic purpose. Where does the postmodern critique of modernity leave off and the contrary critique of the covert sphere begin? How simple is it to see the critique in the narrative embodiment? The “complicitous” aspect is clear – not so much the critique.

Third, the ontological status of the spaces of violent covert or military operations. Melley argues correctly that “[t]he colonial imagination…projects a demonological and racialized anxiety about unknowing onto the distant sites of Cold War battle.” The covert sphere “converts the frontiers of U.S. empire into a site of epistemological confusion.” Denis Johnson’s 2007 Tree of Smoke, which “rewrites the Vietnam War as a story of psychological operations in order to critique the Bush War on Terror,” critically reproduces this projection. The colonial “vision of covert warfare as a step beyond reason informs Johnson’s entire portrait of Vietnam as a place that seems wholly other to its U.S. invaders.” Johnson’s portrayal of Vietnam is characterized by “a wonderland quality,” a “radical otherness,” an “atmosphere of hallucinatory horror and insanity.” In this, the work connects to “an entire tradition of Vietnam narratives.”

As he notes, this perfectly “reflects the discourse on postmodernism. Whether there is a single totalizing order…or multiple realities…is among the central questions of postmodernism.” Further, “postmodernism renders the Third World, from a Western perspective, an incomprehensible parallel universe.” So for the USians depicted by Johnson,
the incomprehensibility of Vietnam makes it seem a place outside laws and reason altogether. The postmodern sense of different ‘realities’ thus becomes a vehicle for managing racial and cultural difference. It permits Americans to recast Vietnam as a literal ‘state of exception’, a place outside the law, a zone of supernatural horror in which every form of normality has been upended.
Tree of Smoke is thus filled with American sociopaths who cannot understand or explain their world. …This is the portrait of a nation that has lost its way.
So the novel, as described by Melley, presents the sites of US military action as – to its characters, at least – alternate realities beyond morality, law, reason, and comprehension, places of inherent horror and violence. Once again, I’m not sure how powerfully this reproduction can convey the sociopathy of this view, particularly when the idea of such “multiple realities” is so much a part of postmodern thought. By way of contrast, Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Henri Alleg’s The Question (for all its speciesism, masculinism, and other assorted problems) openly challenges the French public’s similar attempts at escapism surrounding their government’s use of torture in the Algerian War. The torture cells of Algeria aren’t an alternate reality but the real sites of political crimes, he insists:
We were fascinated by the abyss of the inhuman; but one hard and stubborn man, obstinately carrying out his role as a man, is sufficient to rescue us from our giddiness. The ‘question’ is not inhuman; it is quite simply a vile, revolting crime, committed by men against men, and to which other men can and must put an end. The inhuman does not exist anywhere, except in the nightmares engendered by fear. And it is precisely the calm courage of a victim, his modesty and his lucidity, which awaken and demystify us: Alleg has just seized torture from the darkness that covers it; let us now have a closer look at it in broad daylight. [emphasis added]
It’s not that reproducing a character’s colonialist vision can never be used to challenge it (as I’ve suggested, Ursula Le Guin brilliantly does so in The Word for World is Forest). But it’s a tricky thing to do, especially when your audience is prone to accept the projections and when allegedly critical traditions are in many ways complicit with them.

Fourth and finally, collective amnesia and the “problem of cultural memory,” especially concerning violent military/covert operations. Melley suggests that amnesia is a major theme in postmodern fiction, which has underlined how “the difficulty of grounding historical narratives has led to dangerous forms of collective forgetting.” Again we see the connection to the security state: amnesia is both “a pervasive trope for the historiographical dilemma of postmodernism, a way of articulating the conditions of knowledge in postwar society through the psychoanalytical framework of repression, disavowal, and forgetting” and “a prominent trope of the covert sphere, a way of addressing the problem of democracy in an era of covert foreign policy.” And “[t]he coincidence…is no accident, for…U.S. postmodernism was substantially shaped by the institutions of the Cold War.”

The work on which Melley focuses here is Tim O’Brien’s 1994 In the Lake of the Woods, which “recounts the My Lai massacre through a disturbing tale of posttraumatic amnesia.” The story presents the main character’s amnesia as “inseparable from more serious collective-memory failures,” and Melley contends that its “radical ambiguity indicts the amnesia of the public and the dysfunction of the public sphere.” The protagonist’s amnesia is plainly the result of traumatic violence, both inflicted on and perpetrated by him.7 It’s less clear from Melley’s description, though, how well it works as an “indictment” of collective amnesia in the US surrounding the Vietnam War. With regard to the shattered public sphere and its forms of knowledge, it does seem to provide a critical commentary:
The novel’s historical narrative…expresses a realist desire to terminate the experience of trauma by putting it into perspective…. But in the precincts of the covert sphere, this proves impossible. No matter how much the narrator wants to critique the society that has forgotten these events, he must admit that he, too, has no purchase on them. …He, too, has learned to forget.
The “realist impulse” is thwarted by the dysfunctional public sphere. But is it an indictment of the covert state or a picture of the tragic fate of the modern condition?

I believe that many of these authors do intend to challenge the covert state, in addition to their other artistic goals. But in several cases I don’t think that Melley has convincingly supported his argument that the specific use of postmodern forms and tropes has done more to challenge than to reflect or even support it. As I said (far) above, I share Melley’s concerns about “heroic public sphere narratives.” And I’m not suggesting that all critical approaches to the covert state have to take the most traditional journalistic and historiographical forms, which would be boring. But reproducing the forms of the covert state to challenge the covert state always risks leaving the reader confused, or, worse, can in effect be complicit with anti-democratic state and corporate agendas.

1 Today, “forty-five agencies, 1,271 government organizations, and 1,391 private intelligence and counterterrorism work.”

2 This includes the leaking of truths or half-truths; as Melley points out, even true information comes to take on a fictional cast in the covert sphere in that it’s provided in a limited, strategic, manipulative manner.

3 Melley notes that “The surprises of the covert sphere often lie less in the revelation of secrets than in the public’s astonishment at ‘discovering’ what is already public.” It’s especially interesting in this context to note that in this 2012 book he discusses James Mitchell and the reverse-SERE torture program, which the public was again astonished to “discover” last year with the publication of the Senate report.

4 And not just a paternalistic state, but one that institutionally and necessarily treats the public with contempt and disdain through its lies and manipulations.

5 These include, as Melley lists, Kathy Acker, Margaret Atwood, William S. Burroughs, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Joan Didion, E.L. Doctorow, William Gibson, Graham Greene, Michael Herr, Denis Johnson, Tony Kushner, John Le Carré, Norman Mailer, Joseph McElroy, Tim O’Brien, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Robert Stone, Jess Walter, and John A. Williams. He discusses several of these authors’ works in depth.

6 I’ve read few of the works in question and so can’t offer an analysis independent of Melley’s of their success as critiques of the covert sphere. Nor can I comment on the writers’ motives for the most part, and generally accept their intent as critical. And this shouldn’t be read as an evaluation of the books as works of art. What’s important here is how they’re portrayed by Melley as critical of the “covert condition” specifically in their postmodern aspects.

7 Almost all of the novels discussed by Melley are about USians; virtually none about the victims of US state violence in other countries.