One reader's rave

"Thanks for the newspaper with your book review. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with this terrific piece of writing. It is beautiful, complex, scholarly. Only sorry Mr. Freire cannot read it!" -- Ailene

Help the Honey Badgers in their fight for freedom of speech and thought!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Uploading My Art

The other day I decided to start trying to sell my art, most of which is mathematically inspired. I've just uploaded some of it to my flickr account. My user name there is stripeyseven, and you can find my work in the set called "My art."

Monday, December 22, 2008

Exchanging Languages

Relax! That doesn't mean I'm posting in Korean from now on. Not yet anyway. What it does mean is that I've started conversing with a Korean exchange student, with the object of learning each other's languages.

Why am I doing this? you may ask. Well, a Penn undergrad I met at the ICSA conference in June, on hearing of my efforts to overcome social anxiety -- and especially my desire to get more comfortable in one-on-one interaction with people -- suggested I look for ads from people seeking English conversation. In the past month or two I've noticed a couple such ads on Penn's campus (where I use the library's computers for Net access) and responded to them. The first person had already found a conversation partner, but the second was still looking. After exchanging emails I got a call from her yesterday, and met her (with her sister) this evening. I'll be seeing her again Friday.

I got that call while receiving a ride home from a HumanLight celebration in Horsham, hosted by the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia and sponsored by PhillyCOR, the Philadelphia Coalition of Reason. HumanLight is a humanist winter holiday officially observed on 23 December. The celebration featured food and drink,a speech or two, a storyteller, live music, and the gathering of all the volunteers for a group picture. The ceremonial part involved the lighting of three candles representing reason, hope, and compassion. The mother candle was red while the daughters were green, yellow, and blue, but I don't know whether these colors symbolized anything.

The ceremonies opened with singing a song specifically written for HumanLight, and closed with John Lennon's "Imagine." I get rather emotional from that song.

Today, I was pleased to see that PhillyCOR has its own display on the mall by the National Visitors Center, set a little further back than the Hannukah menorah and the Nativity creche. PhillyCOR's display is a giant globe on a pedestal, "brought to you by your friendly neighborhood atheists, humanists, and freethinkers."

Eric Hamell

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Early yesterday morning, a college professor told me and my classmates to write an essay (don't remember what about), and that we each should put not only our name on it, but also something that would distinguish our work from others'.

I was worried that I wouldn't know what to write, but before thinking about that I made up this logo, based on my initials.

Then I woke up.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Quote of the Month

"Is there reason to be happy that the insufferably religious George W. is soon to be history? 'I believe that Christ died for my sins and I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis.' That was said by someone named Barack Obama.[1] The United States turns out religious fanatics like the Japanese turn out cars. Let's pray for an end to this." -- William Blum

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Help Keep Sex Worker Media Alive

The nation's premier magazine by and about sex workers, maintained by an all-volunteer staff, is in serious financial trouble. I'm going to help them in whatever ways I'm able and hope you will too. Here's a recent communication from outgoing editor-in-chief Rachel Aimee, including some special premium offers to loosen you generosity:

Help Us Keep the Hustle Up–And Get Cute $pread Stuff!

Back in August, I sent an email to the $pread staff list saying I thought we were going to have to stop publishing. Within the space of a year, most of our core staff members had left, and I was feeling burned out to the point where I had to accept that it was time for me to leave too. When we started this magazine, we optimistically figured it would only be a couple of years before we were able to start paying our staff. Turns out the publishing industry is a brutal place for an independent magazine like $pread, and four and a half years on this ass-kicking project is still completely dependent on an all-volunteer staff, many of whom put in 20 plus hours a week on top of their day—or night—jobs.

Fortunately the new team of $preadsters are still enthusiastic enough to see our daily struggles as challenges instead of defeats. (2008 has certainly brought its fair share of challenges: On top of our collective mass burnout, we’ve had to move offices twice in the past six months and are now operating our of a six by six foot closet packed from wall to wall with boxes of magazines.) The problem is that $pread is not going to be able to carry on like this forever. Eventually even our most devoted volunteers will burn out, and it’s really difficult to keep morale up—and the magazine going—with such a high staff turnover. We’ve talked about cutting our Outreach Program to move toward financial stability, but we don’t want to have to stop sending free magazines to low income sex workers. That’s why we need your support.

To inspire you to support $pread this holiday season we have two new cute giveaway items to tempt you with, both available until January 31st.

DONATE $50 or more to get the cute $pread tote bag, pictured above!

Or, DONATE $25 or more to get your very own $pread magnet.

You can also get your hands on either of these items by becoming a Member or Lifetime Member, and of course, you can always support us the old-fashioned way by subscribing!

The holiday season is upon us! A subscription to $pread, t-shirt, tank top, tote bag, back issues, and art posters are the perfect way to give to your friends while supporting an organization you love. Please help us keep the hustle up—and your favorite magazine in print—by buying, donating, and supporting. Thank you!

Eric Hamell

Workers Occupy Chicago Factory

I received the following news yesterday. Bank of America's homepage doesn't offer a fax number or email address, but if you click on "Contact" you'll be directed to a web form. The article tells how you can contribute financially.

Workers occupy Chicago factory! Give your support!
By Jill White
Published Dec 6, 2008 9:18 PM

Dec. 6—This afternoon more than 250
community activists, union leaders and others gathered in a rally in front of
Republic Windows Factory on Chicago’s northwest side. They were voicing their
solidarity with the workers who have refused to leave the factory in protest
over the shutdown of the plant. Speakers included members of the Service
Employees International Union; Teamsters; Chicago Teachers Union; American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and others.

In an interview following the rally, Armando Robles, President of UE Local
111, described the anger felt by the workers when they were told, with so little
notice, that not only were they losing their jobs but that their insurance
policies had been canceled and workers were not to receive vacation earned or
severance pay.

Robles said that according to Illinois law, the company is required to give
75 days notice of a shutdown, or pay workers for 75 days. The company blames the
Bank of America for not providing a line of credit to the company. But,
according to Robles, management has been lying to the workers and the union
about the status of company.

Following the vote to stage the sit-in, Robles described how the management
tried to isolate reporters from the workers, but they blocked the door so the
reporters could remain in the meeting.

Another worker, Silvia Magna, described how shocked and angry the workers
were when they found out they were losing their jobs. She said they all work
hard, and yet she only brings home $328 a week.

Many workers have been cut and lost fingers on the job. Magna said the
workers are determined to stay in the plant until “we get what we worked for.”
They blame both the owners and the bankers because the owners have not been
honest with the workers.

Magna says they are fighting not only for themselves and their families, “but
to be an inspiration to other workers to fight like we are. We are making
history because people have not seen the workers fight from inside the plants.”
She says the workers will do whatever is necessary and requested solidarity from
people from the outside.

UE organizer Leah Fried said that if there is no satisfactory resolution at a
meeting Dec. 8, and all else remains stable, the next solidarity action in
Chicago will be held at noon Tuesday, Dec. 9, at Bank of America at 231 S.
LaSalle. Fried said people should email and fax Bank of America demanding the
workers receive their pay due. Chicago supporters are encouraged to come by and
sign a solidarity banner that is posted in the plant lobby. Financial
contributions should be sent to Local 111, UE Hall, 37 S. Ashland Ave., Chicago,
IL 60607.

Articles copyright 1995-2008 Workers World. Verbatim copying
and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without
royalty provided this notice is preserved.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Foxhole Myth Rears Its Head Again

In an otherwise well-reasoned opinion piece about the hypocrisy of many erstwhile "free (capitalist) market" ideologues, David Faris regrettably (and quite superfluously to his actual point) repeated that old canard about atheists in foxholes. I've posted the following comment which I'll also submit as a letter to the editor:

It was disappointing to see David Faris trot out that old myth about there being no atheists in foxholes. There are plenty of atheists around who've been in foxholes and can testify otherwise. I'm optimistic that, once this is brought to his attention, Faris will realize how insulting this saying is.

Eric Hamell

Sunday, November 30, 2008

After his public support for the Afghanistan war (in spite of his being a Quaker), it wasn't too surprising to hear NPR's Scott Simon offer a simple-minded commentary on Weekend Edition Saturday, chalking up the terrorism in Mumbai to "evil." But it provided a good opportunity to express some thoughts I hadn't had the chance to publish previously. The letter I've sent in response follows.

I was disappointed to hear Scott Simon ramble self-indulgently about "evil" today. I say "self-indulgently" because his comments expressed a surrender of intellectual clarity and curiosity to the impulse to dismissively label an enemy.

Simon says the Mumbai terrorists had "learned to use their intellect to turn off their conscience." But empirically, as social psychologist [and my instructor for a psych intro course at Penn] John Sabini once put it, conscience is "what stops you from doing what you'd like to do." Can Simon seriously think the Mumbai terrorists liked slaughtering dozens of people who were no threat to them? Nonsense. Free of the constraints of conscience, they doubtless would rather have been lying on a beach sipping a cold drink. But, as the Milgram experiment demonstrated, a conscience governed by an authoritarian ideology can be used to make people do unnatural, anti-empathic things.

[fellow] cult survivor and sociologist Janja Lalich said in her keynote address to the International Cultic Studies Association in June, "The suicide bombers are not psychopaths. They are victims." The same applies to the Mumbai terrorists.

Eric Hamell

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Polygyny Increases Diversity, Study Finds

Another story in the 25 October Science News may interest partisans of sexual freedom. Titled "X chromosome is extra diverse," it describes a recent study finding evidence that "the X chromosome is more genetically diverse than would be expected if men and women passed along their genes equally."

Despite this wording, I don't think this implies that it's the inequality between quantities of polyandry and polygyny that is responsible for increasing total genetic diversity. It's just that men are physically capable of having children by more mates than women are. It stands to reason that if women were capable of the same degree of polyandry, diversity would be increased even further. The bottom line is that this seems to be a good counterexample to the common assumption that monogamy is good for the species.

The article can be read here:

Eric Hamell

The Climate Consensus That Never Was

The 25 October issue of Science News contains an article germane to one of the issues discussed recently by PhACT. Titled "Cooling climate 'consensus' of 1970s never was," it reports on a study convincingly documenting that, while popular media may have given disproportionate attention to the possibility of a new ice age (coincidentally, I only recently saw such an article in the first, 1976 edition of Analog Annual which I happened to purchase a few years ago), in "major journal papers published between 1965 and 1979...only seven articles predicted that global average temperature would continue to cool. During the same period, 44 journal papers indicated that the average temperature would rise and 20 were neutral or made no climate predictions." This contradicts the claim frequently made by global warming skeptics that "not long ago experts all believed the Earth was cooling, not warming," the implication being that the experts could be wrong again.

The Science News article is readable by the public at

Eric Hamell

Friday, November 21, 2008

How Not to Do a Story About Porn

I just sent the following letter in response to an article in Philadelphia's City Paper. The original article is at

It's clear that Matt Stroud came to his assignment with a stick up his innards about pornography.

It's not surprising that Stoya got annoyed with him after a while. Sex workers are used to being approached by people with a judgmental attitude toward their work -- people who can't accept them at face value; who assume, if they seem happy, that they must be hiding something. I'm willing to bet that's what Stoya picked up on and got "mad" at.

Stroud makes his bias clear in innumerable small ways. There's his description of contract stars as "indentured," as if to remind us of the almost-slavery of some early American settlers -- while ignoring that "mainstream" actors, athletes, and other sorts of professionals have agreed to very similar arrangements up to the present time.

His ignorance is screamed again when he quotes someone at a porn confab who tells him many of the women he sees there are "fluffers." This looks like a case of natives-hoax-anthropologist; there's actually no such thing as a fluffer. Porn producers are far too cheap to keep people on retainer just in case someone has trouble keeping it up; they simply expect the male talent to have this ability.

Near the end of the piece, Stroud says, "I know [Stoya's father] doesn't like [her performing in pornographic films]. Stoya says as much." Unless Stroud has left something out, this too is false. What she told him is that her father works for a "mega-Christian" employer. It's Stroud who insisted that "almost any company would find that difficult to deal with." And he likewise projects that onto her father.

Then there are the quotes interspersed with the story, which are of dubious relevance when not from plainly erotophobic sources. One of these is a book whose title equates kink with "hatred"; another is from Susan Brownmiller and concerns the relationship between war and rape. The statement in itself is incontestable but has no bearing whatever on the subject of pornography; its inclusion could only have been intended to create a spurious association in the mind of the reader.

But none of this came as a surprise after reading the column by [publisher] Bruce Schimmel, who clearly shares Stroud's bias. He claims that porn "feeds on exploitation," without ever bothering to define this term. The only objective sense of the word of which I'm aware is that of one person's living off the labor of another by means of some sort of power imbalance, typically an unequal distribution of property. Under this definition sex work occurs in both exploitative and non-exploitative contexts, like most any other kind of work. But the stigmatizing attitude expressed in the article contributes to the conditions for exploitation.

Schimmel even cites Boogie NightsBoogie Nights as having shown us what the lives of porn stars are really like. Um, excuse me, Bruce, but that film was fictionfiction; it reliably showed not what the porn world is like, but how Hollywood is comfortable portraying it and/or thinks we want to see it.

If Schimmel, Stroud, or anyone else wants to get a more accurate picture of the porn industry, I recommend they subscribe to Spread$pread, a magazine by and about sex workers. Their URL is

Saturday, October 18, 2008

NPR Forgets Definitions Again

This happens too often when the term in question is terrorism. The error committed by Weekend Edition Saturday consisted, as usual, in using it to mean any irregular warfare whose targets are Western, even though that's not the actual definition of the word. Here's what I wrote NPR:

In today's interview with the commander of the Marine barracks in Beirut bombed in 1983, your anchor accepted the guest's description of this event as beginning the period of "terrorist suicide car and truck bombings." This is a seriously inaccurate statement.

It is accepted that the reason terrorism is particularly heinous is that, by definition, it targets civilians. But the Beirut bombing did not target civilians. To blur the meaning of this word undermines the moral position against terrorism.

I urge WESat to run a correction.

You can write NPR as well by going to and clicking on "Contact Us."

Eric Hamell

Can a girl sexually abuse herself?

That's the question asked by Tracy Clark-Flory in column for (at She writes:

This is unbelievable: A 15-year-old Ohio girl currently faces juvenile child pornography charges for allegedly taking and distributing nude photos of herself.

After Licking Valley High School officials discovered the photos on the girl's phone and tipped off police last Friday, she was arrested, held in jail over the weekend and charged with possession of criminal tools and illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, ABC reports. If convicted, she could spend several years in juvenile detention and be forced to register as a sex offender for the next 20 years of her life (although, since she is a first-time offender and a minor, the judge could decide against making her register).

What's more, charges might still be filed against the students who received the photos, regardless of whether they received them unwillingly. State law holds that "anyone possessing material that shows a minor in a state of nudity is guilty of a fifth-degree felony," according to the Newark Advocate. If convicted, they could face registration as a sex offender for 10 years....

[C]alling this girl a sex offender for distributing pornographic images of herself is crazy-talk. We have to acknowledge that, however unprepared she was to make the decision, she does have ownership over her own body; her sexual choice is not the same as an adult making a sexual choice for her.

I'm as outraged as Clark-Flory is, and I've written the prosecutor. His name is Kenneth Oswalt and he can be contacted at:

Licking County Prosecutor's Office
20 S. Second St, Newark, Ohio 43055
Hours of Operation (M-F, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.)
General Telephone number: (740) 670-5255 - Fax 740-670-5241

Eric Hamell

Put Children's Needs Before Adults' Bigotry -- Stop Arkansas's Initiated Act 1

I just received the message below from BiUnity of Philadelphia's listserv. I've made a donation and hope you will too.


This is Laura Bellows, Field Coordinator from Arkansas Families First, the campaign against Initiated Act 1 in Arkansas. Initiated Act 1, which Arkansas voters will decide on this November, would prohibit unmarried co-habitating couples from adopting or fostering children. Although this act is intended as an attack on the LGBT community, it also would prevent unmarried opposite-sex couples from adopting or fostering.

I am asking for your help and contributions because, although Act 1 has not received a lot of national attention, we believe that our campaign is very important. This is the first ballot initiative to threaten adoption/foster care rights of unmarried couples. If it passes, right-wing groups across the country may try to replicate its success.

Luckily, the campaign against Initiated Act 1 is working. Arkansas press coverage of the issue has been overwhelmingly positive, partially thanks to our extensive coalition of child welfare organizations, such as Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

I am asking for your contribution because we still need an extra push. To do that, we need your organization's help. At this point, all of the money we raise will go directly to advertising.

Please share information about the campaign in Arkansas with your members. I am pasting a message below that you can email to your listserv, post to your blog, or use in a publication.

I would be happy to answer any questions you may have. You may reach me at or on my cell phone at 832-489-6465. Our website is Thank you for your time and for your assistance!

Laura Bellows
Field Coordinator
Arkansas Families First


____________ _________ _________ __
Arkansas Initiated Act 1 is the first ballot measure of its kind: if it were to pass, it would bar unmarried couples from adopting or fostering children. The only other state to have such a restrictive law is Utah. Arkansas Family Council, an offshoot of Focus on the Family, would rather deny loving homes to needy children than have committed unmarried couples raise children.

Luckily, Arkansas Families First, a coalition group made up of a variety of child welfare groups and progressive organizations, has been working to defeat this ban. Last week, the Arkansas Department of Human Services overturned a previous policy that barred unmarried couples in favor of case-by-case foster care:
read more here. Governor Mike Beebe, who enjoys very high approval ratings in Arkansas, has stated that he opposes Initiated Act 1 and supports case-by-case adoption and foster care.

This week, Arkansas Families First released a video asking voters to vote NO on Act 1. This short video features adult former foster children and experts in the fields of child protection, psychology, psychiatry, pediatrics, and clergy who explain the negative consequences if the initiative were to pass. Watch the video here:

We need to get this information out to more people in Arkansas; our research shows that voters are very likely to vote NO on Act 1 once they hear our message. Please help us defeat this ballot measure: go to our webpage at and make a donation.

To defeat this measure, Arkansas Families First needs your help:
go to the website now.

Monday, October 06, 2008

On Being Asked to Be a Spokeperson

Today I was confronted by an issue that I hadn't encountered for several years -- since before I realized that I had belonged to a cult.

A friend I encountered asked me to help her with something important. She said there's going to be a tenants' rights protest Thursday morning, and she asked if I knew anyone who could take part in it, or could refer anyone. This probably concerns her personally, since I know she was in court with a complaint against her landlord recently.

I was made very uncomfortable by her request. I hesitated in responding, and ultimately said I don't know anyone with a special interest in housing issues.

I understand where this is coming from. It's the same issue that arose in 2002, while I was preparing to volunteer with ISM. Another friend (Jewish) asked if I could take some item from her, such as a toy, to give to a Palestinian child while I was over there. I was similarly made uncomfortable by this request, and declined. At the time I couldn't really articulate why I felt this way; I only knew that for some reason it was important that what I was doing be entirely "my own," and that fulfilling my friend's request would compromise that.

More recently I've come to understand what this was about. In the cult, an effort was made to make me entirely into a vehicle for ideas and formulations that came from others, totally eliminating my autonomy. As a result, I'm made uncomfortable when I'm asked to act as someone else's representative, even though the context is no longer cultic. This was perhaps especially true in the 2002 incident, since a major motive for my volunteering to put myself in harm's way was to strengthen my sense of self, and overcome the fear that questioning any of the convictions I then held would just be a cowardly "retreat from revolutionary positions." If anything, my sensitivity to this kind of thing is probably greater now than it was then, as I've become conscious of where it comes from.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett

I recently read Daniel Dennett's book Freedom Evolves. He offers some interesting speculations about how humans' cognitive and decision-making capacities have evolved, though he sometimes isn't as specific as I'd like. For instance, in the section of chapter 8 titled "A Self of One's Own," paragraph 10, he says he's going to tell a "Just So Story," but what follows isn't nearly detailed or concrete enough to meet this description, by my lights.

Where he loses me is in his fixation with showing how a naturalistic, deterministic account of human decision-making is compatible with the concept of "free will" -- without ever offering a definition of this term. In fact, he doesn't offer any definition of "freedom" either until page 302 of my edition (trade paper), where he approvingly quotes someone else's. How can you devote a book to a subject and not bother to define it -- almost in passing -- till you're nearly at the end?

Perhaps this oversight is related to his preoccupation with proving to "libertarians" -- defined as people who base their belief in free will on indeterminism -- that it's just as compatible with a deterministic view. If one is addressing oneself to people who believe in (and care about) a principle very strongly -- and who therefore must (at least think they) have a clear idea of what it means -- you may forget that other people don't think it's so clear. But he can't claim he doesn't know such people exist; here's how his definition of "hard determinists" begins (chapter 4, paragraph 3):

Hard determinism: Determinism is true, so we don't have free will. Hard-headed scientific types sometimes proclaim their acceptance of this position, even declaring it a no-brainer. Many of them would add: And if determinism is false, we still don't have free will -- we don't have free will in any case; it's an incoherent concept.

Since Dennett presumably disagrees with this last point, we might expect him here to disprove it by offering a clear definition of his own. But he doesn't. Instead, he continues:

But they typically [note: weasel word alert!] excuse themselves from exploring the question of how they can justify the often strongly held moral convictions that continue to guide their lives. Where does this leave us? What sense are we to make of human striving, praising, blaming?... (The hard determinists among you may find in subsequent chapters that your considered view is that whereas free will -- as you understand the term -- truly doesn't exist, something rather like free will does exist, and it's just what the doctor ordered for shoring up your moral convictions, permitting you to make the distinctions you need to make. Such a soft landing for a hard determinist is perhaps only terminologically different from compatibilism, the view that free will and determinism are compatible after all, the view that I am defending in this book.)

Note that Dennett spends fewer (in fact less than half as many) words actually defining hard determinists than he does in an effort to suggest that it's their position, rather than the concept of free will itself, that's incoherent. But this effort is built on a foundation of unproven or overgeneralized attributions.

While I can't speak for anyone else, I have a handy answer to the question of how I "justify" my morality: I don't, because I have no need to. As a consistent materialist, I don't believe there are objectively existing moral principles -- objective in a metaphysical sense, rather than merely that of social consensus. A fortiori, I don't believe there's any objective obligation for me to "justify" the values or principles I use to help guide my actions. Darwin chose an apt turn of phrase when he wrote of "the evolution of moral sentiments" (my emphasis); it may be more plausible, from a naturalistic standpoint, to posit that sentiments gave rise to ethical abstractions rather than the other way around.

Dennett's assumption that hard determinists need to "justify" their morality is clearly related to another assumption implied throughout the book: that one can't have any notion of morality without some concept of free will. Yet he never really states why he thinks this
is so; he seems to just take it for granted. This may work fine insofar as he's addressing himself to libertarians. But for those of us who better fit his definition of hard determinists, it makes significant parts of his book, especially toward the end, seem simply irrelevant.

As I suggested in an earlier post, I suspect that some people's resistance to determinism has less to do with an intellectual or even a moral objection, than with an emotional reaction to the idea. I've tried to discover the basis for this with a "thought experiment" -- meaning, in this case, an experiment actually performed, not just imagined, in my head, because the subject of the experiment is thought itself. It involves contemplating the idea of determinism as it applies to my own decision-making, and searching for whence the discomfort appears. It soon becomes apparent: the idea that my choices are predetermined manifests, metaphorically, as a sort of train track that my mind is traveling on, moving toward a fixed destination. Imagining this fixity entails, willy-nilly, imagining myself being unable to swerve from the track, which, in turn, entails imagining myself trying to swerve from it. And the feeling this imagined effort generates is one of unfreedom -- because real freedom, in the everyday sense of the term, means not being frustrated or obstructed from pursuing one's desire, whether by a physical barrier, threat of punishment, or what-have-you.

Problem is, this feeling of unfreedom is an artifact of the way I mentally experience a metaphor for determinism, which is quite different from the way it actually works. In reality, insofar as determinism is true, I cannot want to swerve, to go any other way than the track does. This is because the track is only a metaphor for the fact that my desires themselves are preordained. Yet it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine the situation "from the inside" without experiencing just the opposite.

This, by the way, draws our attention to the question of what is a "morally relevant" idea of freedom -- a phrase that appears frequently in Dennett's book. To me, it's relevant as all heck whether or not I can freely pursue my desire; and it feels decidedly "wrong" if I can't. And note that this is completely independent of whether I have any ability to reevaluate or change my desire; the experience of frustration is equally oppressive either way.

Of course, I recognize that having "free will" in the latter sense may confer an advantage; it gives my expanded options for adapting to my environment when I can't adapt it to me. Nonetheless, there's nothing intrinsically gratifying about this ability, and Dennett simply hasn't proven his case when he presupposes that this is the kind of freedom most "worth having," or that we can't have morality without it.

Eric Hamell

Susie Abulhawa Running for Palestinian Children

My friend Susan Abulhawa is running to raise funds for Playgrounds for Palestine, which she founded. I encourage people to support her. Her message follows.

Dear friends, family, and supporters of PfP -

As many of you know, Ramzy Baroud and I are teaming up this year to run the Philadelphia Marathon in November to raise money and awareness of PfP. Toward that goal, on Sunday, 21 September, I (along with my wonderful neighbor, Nelson Dunham) ran the Philadelphia Half Marathon, mostly as a half way point in training, but also to put on the table for this email - to ask you to support us! You can see my (unimpressive) results by going to Searchable Results and typing in my name.

Ramzy and I aren't setting any records. Each of us has been told previously by our doctors that we could never run again. Ramzy had a serious back injury that necessitated spinal surgery. Likewise, my herniated discs and a badly injured knee with multiple surgeries is no picnic. Running such distances is a grueling experience and the pain of inevitable inflammation in these injured joints is magnified by exhaustion and depletion. In some small way, to keep going is symbolic of what Palestinians do every day in Palestine. Their refusal to accept a fate dictated by outsiders and their steadfast postures that get them through the impossibilities of each day, is a thing of inspiration that Ramzy and I want to honor with this run. In doing so, we are affirming each child's right to be a child, no matter their circumstances. Honoring that magical ingredient of being young, trusting, full of life and play, curiosity and hope is what we do at Playgrounds for Palestine. Please help us to bring color and play to children living with the deprivations of a military occupation.

Ramzy wrote a very eloquent essay describing what it means to be a child living under occupation and how important it is to have play, no matter the circumstances. To read it, click here.

Our goal is not only to finish and raise money. We want support of Palestinian causes at such events to become common. We'd like to see the young and old of all walks to participate in marathons, walkathons, bikathons, etc in support of Palestine. How well we do in November will help to set the stage and we're asking you to please help us reach our goal of $12,000 for one playground. Anything above that will go to the Deir Yasin Scholarship Fund, which supports Palestinian students entering university. To give, please go here to support the runners.


September 2008

Eric Hamell

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Memes and Frames

In chapter 6, paragraph 16 of Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett writes of memes, "[W]e must consider as a real possibility the hypothesis that the human hosts are, individually or as a group, either oblivious to, or agnostic about, or even positively dead set against some cultural item, which nevertheless is able to exploit its hosts as vectors." It strikes me that this is perfectly exemplified by the effect, noted by frame theorists like George Lakoff, whereby particular cognitive frames (e.g., the authoritarian-family frame most active in conservatives), by inducing those who positively dislike them (e.g., progressives) to react to their manifestations unreflectively, actually get themselves repeated and thereby reinforced in public discourse. In effect this means these frames exploit progressives' negative feeling about them to get themselvs replicated despite, or more accurately because of, that negative feeling. In these instances such frames could be regarded as robust examples of parasitical memes.

Eric Hamell

Monday, September 22, 2008

Reading *Freedom Evolves*

Yesterday I started reading Daniel Dennett's book Freedom Evolves. A few years ago my friend Deborah Goddard told me it centers on a concept called "evitability." Although I hadn't heard the term before, I'd given some thought to a naturalistic analysis of the concept of free will, so I hazarded the guess that this term describes the situation in which an individual perceives a possible course of action but has the ability to choose not to take it. (At least I think that's more or less what I said -- this was a few years ago.) She said I had it about right. So I won't be surprised if I don't see anything crucial in this book that I hadn't more or less thought of myself; but how he gets there may nonetheless be interesting.

My own thinking had been guided by a sort of Socratic examination of why people have this concept, starting from the assumption that it comes from some aspect of subjective experience. Clearly the experience is that of making a choice, so the essential question was: why do (some) people see this as necessarily involving some process that is uncaused? It struck me immediately that the reason for this would be that we often don't see the causes of our decisions, at least before we've arrived at them. And perhaps some people are resistant to the notion that something important is going on in their heads of which they're not conscious. As the very notion of the unconscious is a pretty recent one, this wouldn't be too surprising; for people who've by default thought of their consciousness as their entire minds, the notion of the unconscious may provoke some paranoia. In fact I remember my father telling me about the unconscious mind when I was something like eight, and emphasizing -- presumably in response to some discomfort I had with it -- that I shouldn't regard it as my enemy. Despite that, I continue even now to have a little "spooky" feeling whenever I hear the song that became associated with that conversation in my head.

Now nearing the end of Chapter 4 of the book, I would mainly note that Dennett's argument about why determinism doesn't imply inevitability, though sound in relation to the definition he offers for the latter term, may not get at what makes some people uncomfortable with determinism. I suspect that despite his point that determinism doesn't make anything inevitable in a practically relevant sense, this may do nothing to relieve some people's emotional discomfort with the idea that "they" (in the sense of their consciousness) aren't in control of their fate. As for myself, I focus on the practical consequence of the notion, rather than an emotional response to it: if determinism makes behavior on my part that is in my interest -- that avoids things that would harm me -- "inevitable" because of mental processes that occur outside of or prior to consciousness, my response is, "Great -- that's just what I wanted!" Why would such a favorable situation upset me? Nonetheless it apparently does upset some, and I suspect helping them overcome this, if that's possible, may require the application of psychology and not just straightforward philosophical argumentation.

Eric Hamell

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Rogers Has New Website

Marakay Rogers, whom I'm supporting for PA attorney general, has a new website up and running. You can view it at

A few months ago, in response to an Oklahoma state representative who called homosexuals "worse than terrorists," Dan Savage suggested people give to a gay candidate and inform her they were doing so in her honor. I was already supporting Rogers, who's an out lesbian, so I informed the wingnut that I would give to her campaign. As I'm currently not comfortable with organized political activity, this will take the form of handing out copies of her home page at my polling place.

Eric Hamell

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Is Asperger's a Double-Edged Sword?

I just submitted the following letter to Phactum, newsletter of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking.

In his recent letter to Phactum, David Leiter discusses anecdotal evidence that skeptics and atheists disproportionately suffer from Asperger syndrome. I considered for a while whether this diagnosis might apply to me, but ultimately concluded that it didn't fit. The therapist I was seeing at the time concurred. I hope it's not necessary to add that, whatever psychological correlates may be found for particular beliefs, they tell us nothing in themselves about those beliefs' validity or lack thereof.

Assuming for the sake of discussion that the correlation does exist, I don't think the hypothesis of Leiter's anonymous correspondent, which might be summed up as "arrogance attracts arrogance," holds water -- not only because no clear mechanism is proposed, but because to my knowledge atheists, agnostics, and skeptics have not been shown to be any more "arrogant" than the general population. I suspect this attribution may simply reflect that some people are offended by anyone's willingness to state their disagreement with prevailing opinion.

Instead, I conjecture the following: like any cognitive ability, recognition of social cues is most efficient and useful if it can function unconsciously. But this has the side effect of sometimes disadvantageous consequences. Since beliefs are a kind of social behavior that can be "mirrored" much like others, unconscious recognition of social cues may result in increased susceptibility to adopting other people's beliefs without perceiving any need to verify them independently, especially if they are beliefs that are prevalent in one's social environment (like theism). In this view Asperger's may be a double-edged sword, offering the advantage of reduced gullibility along with the drawback of greater difficulty in social interactions.

Eric Hamell

Friday, September 19, 2008

Once Again, Surprised When I Needn't Have Been

I got a letter in the mail yesterday from Jim Tayoun at the Public Record. Before opening it I worried it would be something telling me not to write them any more letters if I was going to question his faith. Or telling me that since the paper had moved its offices I wouldn't get it free in the mail any more. Or telling me not to submit letters for publication if I was going to publish them here at the same time.

Instead it was a friendly missive respectfully disagreeing with me. Perhaps I should have expected no less from a former politician, yet I had. Like my recent encounter with Connie Willis, this again illustrates how I still tend to anticipate the worst in how people will respond to me. But I suppose the more I test this expectation against reality and find it false (and see that it doesn't kill me when it's true either), the less it will worry me. The text of Tayoun's letter follows.

Dear Eric

Your response was well thought out by you.

But seeing is believing and that is not the only miracle I have witnessed while in Lebanon. You probably would not believe what the people who benefited from these miracles will say. Sorry for you.

Thanks for letting me know your thoughts.

Jim Tayoun

Eric Hamell

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

De-List Kink from the DSM

Kinky is NOT a Diagnosis!
DSM Revision Petition

A joint Project of NCSF and ITCR: The Foundation of NCSF

The DSM Revision Petition is gathering signatures from individuals
and organizations calling on the American Psychiatric Association
(APA) to adhere to empirical research when revising the diagnoses in
the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Statements currently within the DSM Paraphilias criteria are
contradicted by scientific evidence therefore NCSF must conclude that
the interpretation of the Paraphilias criteria has been politically
not scientifically b based. This politically motivated
interpretation subjects BDSM practitioners, fetishists and cross-
dressers to bias, discrimination and social sanctions without any
scientific basis.

"We, the undersigned, support the American Psychiatric
Association's (APA) own goal of making its Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual (DSM) a scientific document, based on empirical research and
devoid of cultural bias. A diagnosis of a mental disorder can
have a severe adverse impact on employment opportunities, child
custody determinations, an individual's well-being, and other areas
of functioning. Therefore we urge the APA to remove all diagnoses
that are not based upon peer-reviewed, empirical research,
demonstrating distress or dysfunction, from the DSM. The APA
specifically should not promote current social norms or values as a
basis for clinical judgments."

To sign, go to:
(You can make your signature anonymous on this secure petition site
so it doesn't appear on the Internet)

To find out more about the DSM and the Paraphilias section, read the
NCSF & ITCR: The Foundation for NCSF's "White Paper on the DSM
Revision" at

For more information, email:

Please distribute to organizations and individuals and ask them to
sign on!


A joint Project of NCSF and ITCR: The Foundation of NCSF

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom is a national organization
committed to creating a political, legal, and social environment in
the United States that advances equal rights of consenting adults who
practice forms of alternative sexual expression.

NCSF is primarily focused on the rights of consenting adults in the
SM-leather-fetish, swing, and polyamory communities, who often face
discrimination because of their sexual expression.

National Coalition for Sexual Freedom
822 Guilford Avenue, Box 127
Baltimore, MD 21202-3707

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Too Much Like Old Times

A situation has arisen that triggered unpleasant memories of my experience in the Socialist Workers Party's youth group as a teenager.

The director of a group I've been involved in the past few years has expelled one of the other board members. This was announced on the group's list a few days ago, but I only learned of it yesterday at the membership meeting. The director said that no explanation would be given because of the "sensitivity" of the situation. Unfortunately the expelled board member wasn't present to help explain things.

I don't make snap decisions, and the person who raised the issue at the meeting didn't have a very pleasant manner, so I didn't react immediately, but it didn't sit well with me. Early this morning I awoke with the certainty that this was not a situation I could tolerate. So I just posted the following message as a reply to the announcement of the expulsion on the list.

For me, this way of handling things is unacceptable.

Once before, I belonged to a group that -- without ever saying so outright -- expected me to accept what the leadership told me on faith. Because I didn't do so, I was driven out, and sustained considerable emotional damage in the process. On top of that, when I agreed under duress to resign (rather than face trumped-up charges) I found that I couldn't inform other members of the reasons for my decision since I was no longer a member and so could not attend meetings. I wrote a letter of resignation, but had no way of telling if it was actually ever read to the members.

I'm afraid the present situation just bears too much resemblance to that previous one for my comfort. To be sure, ----- says we can ask him questions off list, but in the end we'd still be in the position of having to take his word for things, wouldn't we? And that's simply not something I can do, especially where it appears that people's rights are at issue.

I'm not judging what happened, since I don't know what happened. What I do know is that I can't be part of a group that functions in this way. Consequently, I am resigning my membership in ---------.

To be fair, yesterday's meeting was at a public venue, so it wouldn't have been so easy to exclude someone. Still, there are ways of making people unwelcome. And it would be a moot point if the person responsible for the decision had explained it himself.

Update from Friday: Despite considerable anxiety, I did tell Connie Willis about what I'd found offensive in Passage (though I didn't make much eye contact while doing so). Her response was respectful, though I got the impression she didn't get the part about how the characters' stupid approach to advertising for subjects disrespected scientific method. I was also pleased that afterward, another person in attendance told me he agreed with my point about that. And, prior to the meeting, I'd run into someone I met at the cultic studies conference and found him readily agreeing with both points. So I'm glad I did it.

One thing that occurs to me, especially in light of my eye contact trouble, is that I probably need more to develop comfort in confronting people on a more strictly one-on-one basis, than in a group setting. So perhaps the next time I have an issue like this to raise with someone, even if I'll be seeing them in a group context, I should try to bring it up with them privately (e.g., in a case like this, expressing my feelings to Willis after the formal Q&A, when people were lining up to speak with her personally and get her autograph).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Getting Something off My Chest

A few weeks ago I decided that many of the activities I'd been involved in for some time were no longer helping me grow as a person. Organizations concerned with science fiction, bisexuality, and skepticism had helped me broaden my social circle and become less (ultimately, I hope, not at all) dependent on politics for my sense of meaning and purpose in life. But most of my activities with these groups were still of a relatively formal, group nature, and I came to feel that they were not helping me develop further my capacities for interacting with people on a one-to-one basis, or really expressing myself creatively. They seemed to have become a comfortable rut which was filling up some of my free time in a superficially social way, without challenging me to learn how to be more intimate with people.

So on 15 August I decided to drop out not only from the Green Party, but also from the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, and the twice-monthly discussion group of BiUnity of Philadelphia. Nonetheless I will be attending tonight's PSFS meeting, because I have something to get off my chest.

This month's guest is author Connie Willis, who previously spoke to the group about a decade ago. At that meeting she mentioned that she was working on a book that would concern Near Death Experiences, and after her talk I suggested she read Susan Blackmore's nonfiction treatment of the subject, Dying to Live, which is notable for simultaneously championing a materialist view of NDEs, and also looking sympathetically at why they can be so profound and transformative for some of those who go through them.

In 2003 I bought the book Willis had been working on, titled Passage. But I was only about a fifth of the way into it when I found myself feeling profoundly offended.

The two central characters were working together on a study concerned with NDEs. It had been learned that a certain drug caused experiences that shared many features typical of NDEs, and they had advertised for subjects who would be given this drug. What I found extremely offensive was how one of them reacted to interviewing a potential subject who, when asked why he was interested in participating, indicated he's be very interested in finding out what the experience of dying might be like. After the interview the scientist shared notes with her colleague and they agreed that this candidate shouldn't be included because of his "abnormal" interest. (I don't remember for certain if that term was used, but it's representative of the tone of the conversation.)

Now, I was thinking, wait a minute. Doesn't it make sense to be curious about this experience that all of us are, presumably, going to have some day? It felt to me that the characters, and the author, were simply making fun of someone for having an "unusual" interest. For being different.

Well, I spent most of my childhood feeling ostracized or excluded for being different. So I don't take kindly to this sort of thing. At the same time, I grew up believing very strongly in the value of scientific method and critical thinking -- not just for professional researchers, but for everyday life, as a means of protecting ourselves from falling into the trap of our own assumptions. One of the first books I ever read was a biography of Einstein, and the first quote I ever memorized was from him: "What many people refer to as common sense is nothing more than a collection of prejudices accumulated before the age of eighteen." Einstein became my hero, and the idea expressed by that quote helped me sustain my self-esteem in the face of so many peers who thought there was something wrong with me for not having the same interests as they did.

This relates to the other thing that was offensive about that passage, because insofar as they didn't want their subject pool to be biased toward people with an unusual interest in death -- which one may allow could skew the results even if one doesn't think there's anything "wrong" with such an interest -- they could easily have avoided that by not advertising that the study had to do with NDEs! It seems to me that this would have been perfectly ethical, since no actual death or dying was involved.

So, not only was Willis making a cheap joke at the expense of people who are seen as "different," but she willfully disregarded a rather obvious element of sound scientific procedure for the sake of making a cheap joke at the expense of such people. Given how deeply I feel about scientific method on what might even be called a moral level, this really made the passage doubly offensive to me.

So, tonight I will tell Willis how offensive I found this. And that's what makes attending this month's meeting worthwhile for me, because in this case it will be more than an intellectual experience. It will be a chance to get more comfortable expressing my feelings and making myself vulnerable.

Eric Hamell

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Paranoid Guy -- Update

Yesterday I copied the trigger reframing worksheet in the book Recovery from Cults, which I bought at the ICSA conference a couple months ago, and filled it out in relation to the problem with Paranoid Guy. In the process, the questions it posed -- familiar to me from Cognitive Behavior Therapy-based forms in my social anxiety workbook -- led me to reconsider my previous decision to avoid him. I now think it's better to simply ignore him and learn by experience that his statements can't hurt me. (I called my friend Tricia yesterday and she agreed with this judgment.)

In other news, I just bought a gift subscription to $pread magazine for Noam Chomsky. I had a quite frustrating email exchange with him some months ago in which he exhibited a closed mind about both sex work and kink. I'm hoping that regular exposure to the firsthand viewpoints of sex workers may make a difference.

One reason the exchange was so aggravating is that it also triggered me in much the same way as Paranoid Guy does, because Chomsky kept attributing positions to me that I wasn't taking, even after I'd carefully restated my actual position. Because of my particular sensitivity to this sort of thing, I would go for weeks before opening his latest email to me, out of fear of the trauma of being misrepresented again.

I had a similar experience a few years ago when first posting on Nina Hartley's forum board: I kept finding words put in my mouth, and putting off reading people's responses because this was so painful.

Eric Hamell

Friday, September 05, 2008

NPR Commentator Discovers That Self-Esteem Can't Be Built on Shame

For a refreshing change, here's something to applaud: a schoolteacher gave a commentary on National Public Radio in which she described how her experience with one of her students last year taught her that making an issue of how she dressed only had the effect of making that, rather than educational goals, the focus of their relationship.

I've sent NPR a message applauding this insight and encourage others to do likewise. You can read or listen to the commentary at

Eric Hamell

Paranoid Guy

I understand now that Paranoid Guy triggers me. Paranoid Guy is a man I sometimes see in Suburban Station, usually in the men's room. Since I first saw him a couple months ago and approached him to suggest he get treatment for his apparent Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, whenever he sees me he tells me various things about myself which are actually true about him: that I'm paranoid schizophrenic, that I've been in a mental hospital and am homeless, etc.

The first time he did this I tried to argue with him, but he just responded by saying, "You lie." This time I tried telling him these same things about himself, with the idea that this would restore my sense of control in the situation. But I still got unsettled and anxious.

I see the problem is that he's imposing his reality on me while denying my reality. This is triggering me because that's what the cult did, particularly in the process of forcing me out. I'll avoid him in the future, since he can't be good for my mental health.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

It's a Miracle... What Some People Will Call Proof

The other day I sent the following letter to the Public Record, whose publisher recently visited his ancestral home of Lebanon. Unless it was his son, the doctor, who made the trip. They both have the same name.

Jim Tayoun claims that Nohaid Al-Shamy is "monthly proof miracles do happen." She is nothing of the sort.

What are the facts?

She came out of a coma, apparently on her own. This happens all the time.

She had an experience while comatose, which she characterizes as a saintly visitation. It is not uncommon for people to dream while comatose. For that matter, it's not uncommon for someone in a coma have some awareness of their environment, even though they can't show it. So, even if she hadn't known she had a medical problem before becoming comatose, she could have become aware of it from hearing people talk about her condition.

Given that she's a religious believer, it's not surprising that this would have led her to thinking of supernatural entities in whom she believes (saints) in the hope of getting assistance from them.

If the physiological event that caused the painful sensation in her throat and the "wound" (of which we're given no description) occurred while she was dreaming, she would have incorporated that into her dream, by imagining that one of the saints was touching her throat. This sort of thing happens to me all the time: someone is being interviewed on the radio, and in my dream that becomes someone talking to me.

Finally, we're told that her "wound" becomes visible at the time of month that she visits the saint's shrine. We're not told that this has been documented but, even if it has, there could well be a naturalistic explanation. At this time of month she would be thinking more about her throat, resulting in a change of muscle tone in that area. This could make a scar more visible by stretching or compressing it, by increasing blood flow to the area, or a combination of these.

Jim Tayoun can think Nohaid Al-Shamy recovered because of a miracle if he wants to. But he might do well to acknowledge that this is just something he's chosen to believe on faith, and withdraw the baseless claim that there's any proof that it's true.

You might wonder why I bother writing such a letter. After all it doesn't seem likely that it will be published, nor that it will change Tayoun's thinking (though perhaps it might influence the letters editor). I guess I just can't let people think that their sensibilities will protect religious claims from being challenged in the same way that others would be.

You can read the original article at It's on page 4.

Eric Hamell

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tell the Times: You Don't Prevent Coercion by Practicing It

The Woodhull Freedom Foundation's newslist has forwarded an editorial from the New York Times which makes the Orwellian argument that in order to stop sexual slavery, we should criminalize consensual employment of prostitutes by "traffickers." Here's the letter I just sent them:

Your editorial "Taking On the Traffickers" is represented as being about concern for women and children "smuggled" into the country as "sex slaves." That is, it appeals to our revulsion at coercion. Yet, later you call for coercion to be removed from the definition of trafficking for purposes of the law. What sense does this make? Clearly if the government prosecutes people for a consensual activity, then it is the government itself that is practicing coercion, not preventing it.

As for some traffickers' taking advantage of prostitutes' fear of police, the solution is plain even though you don't mention it: take away the reasons for that fear by abolishing legal restrictions both on prostitution and on immigration.

Eric Hamell

Philadelphia, PA

You can write the Times at


...says a license plate I saw today. And I think it was very punny, because the car was apparently driving out of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, right across the street from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. I didn't get to ask the driver, but I'd be willing to bet she's a neurologist. "Actin." "UP." Get it?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Now you see me.

I just renewed my state ID and decided, while getting a better picture of myself taken, that I should put it up here. You can view it to your right.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Support Release of Records in the Death of Deborah Jeane Palfrey

Citizens for Legitimate Government has reported that the attorney for the late "DC madam," Deborah Jeane Palfrey, is requesting the release of records relating to her death, which was described as an apparent suicide. Her attorney, Montgomery Blair Sibley, says Palfrey specifically asked that he do so in the event that she were to die of an apparent suicide.

The request is addressed to the police department of Tarpon Springs, Florida. Obtaining fulfillment of this request may be non-trivial because Palfrey's mother has sued to have the records withheld.

In addition to other reasons for supporting this, whoever killed her may have believed they could get away with it because the public would not care about a sex worker's death, or be concerned about respecting her posthumous wishes. A public demonstration of support would prove otherwise and thereby set a beneficial precedent.

The Tarpon Springs police chief is named Mark LeCouris. The address is:

City of Tarpon Springs Police Department
444 S. Huey Ave
Tarpon Springs, FL 34689

The non-emergency number is (727) 938-2849 and the email address is (Note: "Under Florida law, e-mail addresses are public records. If you do not want your e-mail address released in response to a public-records request, do not send electronic mail to this entity. Instead contact this office by phone or in writing.")

Eric Hamell

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Pelosi tries not to see protesters

A few dozen people showed up to protest Nancy Pelosi's reluctance to impeach Cheney and Bush for their crimes, but it appears security did their best to keep her from having to see us as she left the library. Here's a video:

My sign and I appear most clearly at 7 minutes, 34 seconds.

Monday, August 04, 2008

"Off the Table" Pelosi Is Hawking Books in Philly

I just learned the other day that Nancy Pelosi, who only recently started to balk at Bush's war spending requests under enormous public pressure, but has balked at impeachment proceedings "from day one" (to borrow a phrase), will be speaking at Philadelphia's central library tomorrow. I spent some time yesterday making a placard to bring there: "NO $$$ for WAR -- US troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq" on one side; "CINDY SHEEHAN for CONGRESS -- Those who don't impeach, don't impress" on the other. If you're in my area, I hope to find you there.

BTW, it seemed remarkable how easy it was to eyeball the spacing of those slogans correctly; I didn't use to be able to do that. I guess it's just a mark of my increased self-confidence.

Eric Hamell

A Studio Is Not a Prison

I sent a letter today to The Sun magazine, responding to an article in last November's issue which I received as part of a trial sub (I'd subsequently decided money was too tight to continue it, and only recently had gotten around to reading the issues they sent me). Here's what I wrote:

Dear editor,

While I agree with Derrick Jensen's main point, I think he makes an inapt analogy in comparing zoos with pornography. He writes, "If I have a photograph, I have it forever, even if subsequently the woman withdraws her permission." This is different from a Wyeth painting or a Springsteen CD -- how?

When I've made artworks for my mother or my friend Khristina, I didn't say they couldn't give them to someone else, and so there's no way I could be assured of being able to retrieve them. And when I sing at an open mike or in the subway, I don't tell anyone that they can't record me.

In the same way, when I've offered to model for pornography, I haven't asked for any right to take back my image -- nor would I want to. Whether I'm giving someone my art, or singing to them, or modeling for them, I'm making a statement: This is who I am. If I kept a purchase on that piece of myself, so that I could take it back, I would be qualifying that statement -- making it with less confidence. It would, in fact, no longer be the statement I wanted to make.

So far from the irretrievability of pornography, like any willfully public expression, making it less authentic -- as Jensen would have us believe -- for us who choose to do it, this makes it more authentic.

Eric Hamell
Philadelphia, PA

Monday, June 30, 2008

A Remarkable Experience

Yesterday brought the close of the International Cultic Studies Association's annual meeting, held here in Philadelphia. While I've had fun and interesting times at conferences of other sorts in the past -- mostly either political or sf-related -- there's been nothing as meaningful as this. Almost every session had me discovering things that had a bearing on my own experience, often shedding light on memories that had made no sense or been disconnected before. This was especially true of the programming that was specifically geared to ex-members (i.e., former cult members).

And I think I chose well in attending these whenever possible. The more academically oriented sessions were doubtless interesting, but it was logical, at my first conference of this sort, to take the fullest advantage of opportunities to learn about things that could aid me in my recovery, as well as to meet and make connections with fellow survivors. I exchanged contact information with several before leaving, including a few who live in this area.

Actually, I was disappointed I didn't find more who live in this area. Since there have to be a great many more out there, this is evidence of the outreach that still needs to be done.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Quote of the Month

"The suicide bombers are not psychopaths -- they are victims." -- Janja Lalich, Ph.D., keynote speaker at the International Cultic Studies Association annual meeting, this morning.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

US, Iraqi Dock Workers Strike Against Occupation

From protest to resistance
West Coast ports shut on May Day

By Clarence Thomas
Published May 5, 2008 9:19 PM

The International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU),
known for its militant and democratic traditions as well
as its economic and social justice activism, has written a
new chapter in its glorious labor history by shutting down
all 29 ports on the West Coast for eight hours on May Day.

This historic and courageous action on the part of the
ILWU came about as the result of a “No Peace No Work
Holiday” resolution adopted by the Longshore Division
Caucus, its highest ruling body, in February. The caucus
passed this resolution by an overwhelming majority of the
100 longshore delegates representing all locals on the
West Coast.

This resolution demanded “an immediate end to the war and
occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the withdrawal of
U.S. troops from the Middle East.” It also asked the
AFL-CIO and Change to Win for “an urgent appeal for unity
and action” to end the war. The resolution further
included a request for a May 1 coastwide stop-work union
meeting to accommodate the closure of the ports.
Contractually, the ILWU is entitled to one stop-work
meeting a month to address union business.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents
shippers, stevedoring companies and terminal operators,
and negotiates labor contracts on their behalf, denied the
request for a coastwide union meeting for May 1. Such
requests have been honored in the past with advance
notice. (PMA received nearly three months advanced notice
and still denied the request.)

The rank and file proceeded with plans for a stop-work
shutdown even though the International leadership withdrew
its request to the PMA for the May 1 coastwide meeting.

PMA then insisted that the union leadership notify its
members of the withdrawal of the request for May Day. The
PMA even went to an arbitrator to force the union leaders
to do this. The arbitrator ruled that the union is
obligated to notify members that the union’s request had
been withdrawn.

None of this pressure weakened the resolve of the rank and
file, who organized marches, rallies and other
demonstrations in San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest.
Union locals continued to prepare for the May Day action.

In San Francisco, Local 10 members organized the Port
Workers’ May Day Organizing Committee, made up of union
members, immigrant rights, and anti-war and social justice
groups. In the Pacific Northwest, May Day organizing
groups were headed up by rank and filers: Gabriel Prawl of
Local 19 Executive Board in Seattle; and in Portland Local
8 members Jerry Lawrence, member of the Executive Board,
and Debbie Stringfellow.

Anti-war solidarity from West Coast to Iraq

There were numerous solidarity statements not just from
trade unionists but a wide array of individuals and
organizations from around the world in support of ILWU’s
unprecedented planned action. The first was called by the
National Association of Letter Carriers locals observing
two minutes of silence in all carrier stations at 8:15
a.m. on May 1 in solidarity with the ILWU action.
Independent port truckers on the West Coast were very
active in taking on solidarity actions in support of the
ILWU. In the ports of Newark and Elizabeth, N.J., as well
as the port of Houston, independent truckers protested
against higher gas prices and in support of the ILWU May
Day action. In Seattle, students at the University of
Seattle, University of Washington, and Seattle Central
Community College left their respective campuses to hold
their own rallies or join the march and rally of ILWU
Local 19.

The ILWU action resonated so much in the community that
one of the oldest movie theater venues in Oakland, Calif.,
the Grand Lake, had the following on its marquee for a
week leading up to May Day, “WE SALUTE THE LONGSHOREMEN’S
IRAQ.” Due to its location near the central city
thoroughfare, thousands of people could see the marquee on
any given day.

The most significant solidarity action of all came from
Longshoremen in Iraq itself. Members of the Port Workers
Union of Iraq shut down the Ports of Umn Qasr and Khor
Alzubair for one hour on May Day in solidarity with the
shutdown of all West Coast ports by members of the ILWU in
opposition to the occupation of Iraq. This action was
taken in defiance of the Ba’athist legislation of 1987,
which banned trade unions in the public sector and public

The General Union of Port Workers in Iraq sent this
message to the ILWU, “The courageous decision you made to
carry out a strike on May Day to protest against the war
and occupation of Iraq advances our struggle against
occupation to bring a better future for us and for the
rest of the world as well.”

There was a second solidarity message received from the
Iraqi Labor Movement, a broad cross section of union
leaders from many different unions and labor federations
in Iraq. The message read in part, “On this day of
international labor solidarity we call on our fellow trade
unionists and all those worldwide who have stood against
war and occupation to increase support for our struggle
for freedom from occupation—both military and economic.”

Jack Heyman, Local 10 Executive Board member and Co-Chair,
Port Workers May Day Organizing Committee, was interviewed
by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! on May 2 about the
significance of the May Day action. He responded to
several of her questions in the following way: “We’re
really proud here on the West Coast as longshoremen. The
ILWU is making a stand because it’s part of our legacy,
really for standing up on principled issues.

“This is the first stop work—work stoppage ever where
workers were withholding their labor and demanding an end
to the war and the immediate withdrawal of the troops. Not
only did we defy the arbitrator, but in a certain sense we
defied our own union officials. The union officials did
not want to have the actions we organized up and down the
coast despite the arbitrator’s decision. Simply, we don’t
take our orders from the arbitrator—we don’t take it from
judges. The rank and file goes out and does what it has to

“We did that in 1984 during our struggle against apartheid
when a ship came in from South Africa. We, Local 10
members, refused to work that ship for 10 days. That was
in defiance of what the arbitrator said and what our union
officials were telling us. So, we’ve got strong traditions
in the ILWU, rank-and-file democracy where we implement
what we decide in a democratic fashion.”

In San Francisco, more than a thousand people marched from
Local 10’s union hall, led by the Local 10 Drill Team,
along the Embarcadero where the 1934 Big Strike took place
to a noon rally at Justin Herman Plaza. Actor-activist
Danny Glover; Cynthia McKinney, former congresswoman from
Georgia; Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq; and
many others spoke to the crowd.

Local 10 was the local of the legendary labor leader and
founding member of the ILWU, Harry Bridges. Local 10
initiated the Million Worker March (MWM), which took place
on Oct. 17, 2004, at the Lincoln Memorial. The MWM
movement calls upon the rank and file of the labor
movement, organized and unorganized, to wage a fight-back
movement for the working class. One of the aims of the MWM
following the 2004 mobilization was to reclaim May Day by
reclaiming our proud history of struggle and social gains
which International Workers’ Day stands for.

Rallies, marches and resolutions all play an important
role in terms of organizing, but the ILWU’s May Day action
of shutting down all 29 ports on the West Coast is an
example of how workers can exercise their power in the
workplace and move from protest to resistance.

The writer is a Local 10, ILWU Executive Board member;
Co-chair, Port Workers’ May Day Organizing Committee, and
National Co-chair, Million Worker March Movement.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Cuddle Party Finally Airing!

The media-friendly Cuddle Party in which I participated a couple months ago, during which I was interviewed, will finally be featured tomorrow night (Saturday, 26 April) on CBS3 in Philadelphia, at 11 pm. If you're intrigued by what you see, visit for more info.

Eric Hamell

P.S. If you missed the broadcast, you can see the video at

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Greens Holding Presidential Caucus Next Week

I will be casting my first-preference vote for John Sweeney (president of the AFL-CIO), and second preference for None of the Above. The official announcement follows.

Title: Green Party of Philadelphia Presidential Caucus
Date: Tuesday April 29, 2008
Time: 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm
Location: Philadelphia Ethical Society Building, 1st floor
Street: 1906 South Rittenhouse Square
City State Zip: Philadelphia, PA 19103
Phone: 215-243-7103 (GPoP msg)

This is the quadrennial local event where registered Greens express there preferences for a national presidential candidate. We will use instant runoff voting (irv) tallied at the state level to bind our delegates to the national Presidential Nominating Convention to be held in July.

The candidates include:

Jesse Johnson (WV)

Cynthia McKinney (CA)

Kent Mesplay (CA)

Kat Swift (TX)

One can also write-in another choice or vote for "no candidate".

See for additional info.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

I've discovered a really cool site.

It's called The Frame Problem and concerns "the intersections of cognition, politics, and religion" among other things. I hope to find much material there that may be of aid to me and my study group on Psychology and Social Change. The URL is

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sunday, March 16, 2008

New meeting, reading set for Psychology and Social Change study group

Hello people,

I have arranged with Larry Robin, owner of Robin's Book Store, to hold the next meeting of our study group there on Sunday, 6 April, from 6 to 8pm. We will meet on the first floor.

For a change of pace, we'll turn our attention to a narrative, Alexandra Stein's Inside Out: A Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Minneapolis Political Cult. This especially interests me since realizing, only year before last, that I belonged to such a group for part of my adolescence. But probably everyone has had some experience with them.

Incidentally, I've learned that Stein will be speaking at the International Cultic Studies Association's annual meeting this June at Penn.

Robin's is located at 108 S. 13th St.

Eric Hamell

The Trouble with Spikol's Column (Against Dualism)

If I tried to respond every time I saw or heard someone taking philosophical dualism for granted, I'd probably have no time left for anything else. But when a whole opinion piece is organized around this assumption, it's a good occasion to try and straighten out some people's thinking. Such an occasion arose the other day in the form of Liz Spikol's latest column for the Philadelphia Weekly. Here's my response:

Liz Spikol's column typifies a sort of muddled thinking about mental illness that unfortunately is very common. This can be illustrated by considering the following sentence: "Equating circulatory illnesses with physical illnesses tells us that circulatory illnesses are biological illnesses whose primary treatment lies in medication." This statement is plainly false, as it overlooks the importance of non-pharmacological treatments for circulatory problems such as diet and exercise. Yet it's a paraphrase of what Spikol wrote, with "circulatory" simply substituted for "mental."

My point? Recognizing the physical nature of the brain, and therefore of its function (mind) and malfunctions (mental illnesses), does not imply the primacy of drugs as a treatment, because there are lots of other possible inputs to a physical organ besides synthetic compounds.

The remedy for public policies that are skewed by the power of drug companies and other corporations is not to perpetuate false distinctions of mind vs. body -- or "me" vs. "my brain" as Spikol puts it -- but to create a material force that would be stronger: a working-class party based on the power of the labor movement. The potential seed of such a political organ, a party that refuses corporate money, already exists: the Green Party.

Eric Hamell

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Free the MOVE 8

Parole hearings are approaching for the surviving members of the MOVE 9. You can get the facts of their case and sign a petition on their behalf here:

160 Area People Hail Xenu

It was part of a global day of protests against the Church of Scientology, and that's how many participants local organizers counted. It was probably the most theatrical demonstration I've ever been part of. Many of those in attendance wore suits and "V for Vendetta" or other masks, while carrying signs like "Audit $cientology" (an apparent effort to fit in with St. Patty's festivities), "Battlefield Earth sukked. I want my 8.50 back," and "McCult: I'm Leavin' It." We also sang songs such as "When the Thetans Come Marching In." There's more info at

Eric Hamell

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"What's the Harm?"

That's the title of a new site mentioned in the latest PhACT newsletter. It's dedicated to documenting instances where the publishers believe people have come to harm because of failure to apply critical thinking skills. The URL is

In related news, the James Randi Education Foundation is now selling a James Randi doll, with stainless steel pins included in case you're in a bad mood. Another interesting item in their catalog is a children's-size Critical Thinking wristband.

Eric Hamell

Rogers Changes Ballot Line

Marakay Rogers, who last month accepted the Green Party's nomination for state Attorney General, has announced that she will instead seek this office as part of Ralph Nader's Populist Party ticket. While I disagree with her decision, I am still supporting her candidacy.

You can learn something about her by viewing the website for her gubernatorial bid in 2006. I'll supply new contact information when I find it.

Eric Hamell

Tell Spitzer: Do NOT Resign

In light of the current pressures on New York's governor Elliot Spitzer to resign, I just sent him the following message:

Dear Governor Spitzer,

I am troubled by the simultaneously vague and sweeping character of your recent statement -- especially when you said your actions violated "any" sense of right and wrong, without specifying which actions did so.

To make plain what concerns me, let me ask: If you had had an affair with someone who was not a prostitute, would anyone be calling for your resignation? Similarly: if you had blown the same amount of money at a race track, would anyone be calling for your resignation?

I must suspect that in both cases the answer is no. What the public reaction -- including yours -- to this news reeks of is sexual puritanism.

For you to resign without further explanation would reinforce public intolerance toward prostitutes and their clients -- even those who aren't in sexually exclusive relationships. For this reason, I urge you not to do so.

His web form and other contact info can be found at

Monday, March 03, 2008

Quotes for the Day

Lem Sharkko! It's so good to see you again after all these years -- especially here, where there are no cops or courts! -- Peter Jairus Frigate, in Philip Jose Farmer's novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

The similarity between science and religion is that both enjoy the occasional "Eureka!" moment. The difference between them is that science also enjoys the occasional "Oops!" moment. -- Albert Fonda, at the PhACT solstice party.

Love your enemies. It really messes with their heads. -- seen on a button for sale at the PA Green Party convention last month.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Online Forum to Be Held on Sex Work, Trafficking, and Human Rights

Sex in the Public Square has just announced this event:

Sex In The Public Square Presents:

Sex Work, Trafficking, and Human Rights: A Public Forum
New York, February 20, 2008 - Ten prominent sex worker advocates, writers, researchers will be publicly discussing the issues of sex work and trafficking from a human rights and harm reduction perspective, February 25 - March 3, on The week-long online conversation will conclude with a summary statement on March 3, International Sex Worker Rights Day.

Sex work and trafficking are two issues that must be discussed as distinct yet intersecting, and we’ve invited some of the smartest sex worker advocates we know to help sort out the complexities. “This forum is not about debating whether or not we should be using a harm reduction and human rights approach instead of the more mainstream abolitionist and prohibitionist approach to sex work,” explains Elizabeth Wood, co-founder of Sex In The Public Square and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nassau Community College. “Instead our goal is to create a space for nuanced exploration of the human rights and harm reduction approach so that we can use it more persuasively.”

Wood explains: “The human rights and harm reduction approach seeks to reduce the dangers that sex workers face and to stop human rights abuses involved in the movement of labor across borders, a movement which occurs in the service of so many industries. We want people to be able to learn about this perspective, and to develop and refine it, without having to dilute that conversation by debating the legitimacy of sex work.”

Questions and themes include:

Defining our terms: Is the way that we define “porn” clear? “Prostitution”? “Sex work” in general? What happens when we say “porn” and mean all sexually explicit imagery made for the purpose of generating arousal and others hear “porn” as indicating just the “bad stuff” while reserving “erotica” for everything they find acceptable? When we say sex work is it clear what kinds of jobs we’re including?

Understanding our differences: How do inequalities of race, class and gender affect the sex worker rights movement? Are we effective in organizing across those differences?

Identifying common ground: What are the areas of agreement between the abolitionist/prohibitionist perspective and the human rights/harm reduction perspective? For example, we all agree that forced labor is wrong. We all agree that nonconsensual sex is wrong. Is it a helpful strategic move to by highlighting our areas of agreement and then demonstrating why a harm reduction/human rights perspective is better suited to addressing those shared concerns, or are we better served by distancing ourselves from the abolition/prohibition-oriented thinkers?

Evaluating research: What do we think of the actual research generated by prominent abolitionist/prohibitionist scholars like Melissa Farley, Gail Dines, and Robert Jensen? Can we comment on the methods they use to generate the data on which they base their analysis, and then can we comment on the logic of their conclusions based on the data they have?

Framing the issues: What are our biggest frustrations with the way that the human rights/harm reduction perspective is characterized by the abolitionist/prohibitionist folks? How can we effectively respond to or reframe this misrepresentations? What happens when “I oppose human trafficking” becomes a political shield that deflects focus away from issues of migration, labor and human rights?

Exploring broader economic questions: How does the demand for cheap labor undermine human rights-based solutions to exploitation in all industries, including the sex industry?

Confirmed participants include:

Melissa Gira is a co-founder of the sex worker blog Bound, Not Gagged, the editor of, and reports on sex for Gawker Media’s Valleywag.

Chris Hall is co-founder of Sex In The Public Square and also writes the blog Literate Perversions.

Kerwin Kay has written about the history and present of male street prostitution, and about the politics of sex trafficking. He has been active in the sex workers rights movement for some 10 years. He also edited the anthology Male Lust: Pleasure, Power and Transformation (Haworth Press, 2000) and is finishing a Ph.D. in American Studies at NYU.

Anthony Kennerson blogs on race, class, gender, politics and culture at SmackDog Chronicles, and is a regular contributor to the Blog for Pro-Porn Activism.

Antonia Levy co-chaired the international “Sex Work Matters: Beyond Divides” conference in 2006 and the 2nd Annual Feminist Pedagogy Conference in 2007. She teaches at Brooklyn College, Queens College, and is finishing her Ph.D. at the Graduate Center at CUNY.

Audacia Ray is the author of Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads and Cashing In On Internet Sexploration (Seal Press, 2007), and the writer/producer/director of The Bi Apple. She blogs at hosts and edits Live Girl Review and was longtime executive editor of $pread Magazine.

Amber Rhea is a sex worker advocate, blogger, and organizer of the Sex 2.0 conference on feminism, sexuality and social media and co-founder of the Georgia Podcast Network. Her blog is Being Amber Rhea.

Ren is a sex worker advocate, a stripper, Internet porn performer, swinger, gonzo fan, BDSM tourist, blogger, history buff, feminist expatriate who blogs at Renegade Evolution. She is a founder of the Blog for Pro-porn Activism and a contributor to Bound, Not Gagged and Sex Worker Outreach Project - East.

Stacey Swimme has worked in the sex industry for 10 years. She is a vocal sex worker advocate and is a founding member of Desiree Alliance and Sex Workers Outreach Project USA.

Elizabeth Wood is co-founder of Sex In The Public Square, and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nassau Community College. She has written about gender, power and interaction in strip clubs, about labor organization at the Lusty Lady Theater, and she blogs regularly about sex and society.

To read or participate in the forum log on to
For more information contact Elizabeth Wood at elizabeth (at) sexinthepublicsquare (dot) org.