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!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Economics and ideology

I just sent the following note to NPR:

After the segment of "The Best of Public Radio" concerning laboratory research on the psychology of money, the host said that economists talk about "how prices efficiently direct the allocation of resources." The word "efficiently" does not belong there, as it expresses ideology rather than science.

While prices do direct the allocation of resources, there's no unanimity among economists about how efficiently they do so, nor even about how "efficiency" should be defined in the context of an entire economy. Efficiency is meaningful only in relation to a specific objective. What is the specific objective of an entire economy, comprising a variety of individuals and institutions with varying objectives?

I could have added that such an objective can be defined only insofar as some sort of collective subjectivity, a public will, has actually been constituted. Yet the doctrine that prices "efficiently" direct the allocation of resources assumes that any expression of a public will can only "interfere" with the market's "efficiency." In this way, an ostensibly scientific statement serves to disguise a mere tautology, "proving" the market's efficiency by simply defining the efficient allocation of resources as whatever the market produces.

Eric Hamell

Monday, December 21, 2009

Quote of the Month

"I find this notion that we need to pacify Afghanistan, because that's where the 9/11 attacks were planned, to be absurd. It's really the equivalent of saying that if we want to prevent the assassination of any future presidents, we need to station Secret Service agents in the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas because that's where an assassination happened."
— Andrew Bacevich, historian and Vietnam vet, being interviewed on NPR recently.

With the significant difference that the Secret Service could probably avoid killing any civilians.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Obama Jumps the Gun on Ft. Hood

I was disappointed this morning to hear a portion of President Obama's speech at Ft. Hood, in which he condemned the "twisted motive" behind the mass murder there. He made very clear that he assumed this motive was religious. This was extremely premature in my view.

The only evidence I've seen for this assumption is that the alleged shooter was in contact with a fundamentalist cleric, but authorities who looked at this earlier were satisfied that it was consistent with his official functions. Just on its face, it's perfectly comprehensible that someone charged with treating the victims of violence carried out in the name of a religious ideology would seek to understand the perpetrators' possible motivation -- especially if he's a psychiatrist.

One might consider his actions fully explicable in terms of the "pincer action" of two factors not normally found together: on the one hand, he was repeatedly exposed to the psychic pain of those who'd seen combat in the especially stressful context of occupations resisted by largely native insurgencies. On the other, he couldn't share this burden with fellow soldiers, because of the perception that they saw him only as a Muslim and not as a comrade. This may have led to unbearable feelings of isolation and frustration, and ultimately resentment and anger toward a community whose emotional burden he was obliged to share, but to whom he couldn't himself turn to help him bear it. Given his reported dread of pending deployment, it may also be that in the back of his head was the thought that acting out his rage would prevent that deployment, and that court-martial here was preferable to combat there.

Of course this is speculation -- and I've appropriately labeled it as such. What is not appropriate is to assume that we can do any more than speculate about the motivation at this point. Unfortunately, that is what President Obama did in his speech.

Eric Hamell

Savage Gets Too Savage

I know better than to expect Dan Savage to be consistently bland and uncontroversial. Nonetheless, his response last week to A Caring Loving Uncle went decidedly overboard. Given my own past experience with sexual intimidation, I had to respond:

Dan, I must strongly object to part of your advice to ACLU. I don't think it is ever beneficial to threaten physical violence other than as self-defense against same. Further, such a threat will surely make it less likely that the 14-year-old will trust ACLU, regardless of any promise of confidentiality he may have made.

The most important form of instruction from adults to the young is always modeling — demonstrating by example how a caring, responsible person acts. If you are trying to offer a queer role model to someone who hasn't yet had one, setting the right example becomes even more important. There is also every reason to believe that this will be sufficient.

On the other hand, threatening physical violence to someone who isn't yet comfortable with his sexuality can have devastating effects. I was injured, in terms of great anxiety around the opposite sex, merely by being ostracized for expressing my sexual feelings at age 17 (I was in a cult at the time). How much worse for a 14-year-old to be threatened physically? Especially for a kid who's probably not the least bit macho, and quite possibly is a "boyfriend" only because the girl went after him.

I must also take issue with the way you characterize "teen pregnancy." It is true that, at present, our social arrangements are not very supportive of girls who become pregnant in their early reproductive years. But it is actually the most natural thing in the world and, until the past couple centuries, most societies throughout history — patriarchal and matriarchal alike — have accepted it as such. Many of the problems currently attributed to it are properly ascribed to the effects of the stigma and lack of social support for those involved. The most familiar aspect of this is the shaming of the girls but, as your response to ACLU illustrates, another is emotional abuse of the boys. Even so, insofar as current conditions argue for delaying pregnancy, modeling responsibility and not propensities to violence is the way to encourage that. Not to mention emphasizing that sex can be fun in more than one way: pointing out how using a condom can actually be turned into a shared erotic act, for instance, is a more reliable way of encouraging it than making pregnancy prevention a subject he doesn't even want to think about because of scary associations. That only increases the risk of hasty, furtive, ill-thought-out coupling.

Eric Hamell
Philadelphia, PA
(48yo bisexual man)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

I've passed a tipping point.

Starting a few months ago, with the prodding of a therapist, I've been struggling to make a regular habit of going out to clubs and trying to meet people. It was a struggle chiefly because of the social anxiety disorder I've been coping with since early adolescence. I was extremely apprehensive about approaching strangers and trying to start conversations, especially with a sexual object in mind. A few years ago I did discover a technique for temporarily abolishing this approach anxiety, a sort of self-hypnosis, but I employed artificial-feeling conversation starters like, "Hi! My name is Eric. What's yours?" which were chosen not for their likelihood of leading anywhere, but simply to provide an immediate objective the achievement of which proved to me that I was capable of making approaches. They accomplished that, but didn't motivate me to turn this into a regular habit, and I only tried it on a few occasions.

While seeing Dr. Ross I came to appreciate the importance of being comfortable with small talk, which I'd long thought of as "stupid," and I started practicing it in casual situations such as elevators and subway stops. But it was still a struggle to get myself to a club and, when I got there, to talk to anyone; precisely because it seemed like a more "serious" setting for sexual possibilities, it was more intimidating. I'd managed to do it a couple times when my covered number of therapy visits ran out about a month ago.

For the next couple weeks I seemed to be backsliding, finding ways to avoid going out. But week before last I managed to do it again. Unfortunately the bands never showed up, possibly because it was the night of the game that put the Phillies in the World Series. But I did manage to make a little conversation, including with an attractive woman who turned out to be an office employee of the club. (I also got my cover charge back before leaving.) So it wasn't a total waste.

For a few days it looked like I was procrastinating again, but toward the end of last week my self-confidence revived. I think I can at least partially credit this to a song. I'd heard it before but only really noticed the lyrics a couple weeks ago, and found them very relevant to what I was struggling with. The song is "Somebody's Baby," recorded by Jackson Browne. If you listen closely you realize that the object of the narrator's desire is definitely not somebody's baby, because he, along with all "the guys on the corner," is intimidated by her beauty. They rationalize their approach anxiety by telling themselves that she must already be taken. But he overhears her saying something that demonstrates that this isn't the case; what the song seems to be suggesting is that she's alone precisely because her great beauty intimidates those who desire her.

From what I understand, this isn't a particularly common scenario. Most beautiful women get plenty of approaches; the problem is that the quality of those approaches rarely suggests that they have anything to gain by encouraging them. But leaving this quibble aside, the point for me was that the song casts the situation in a decidedly moral framework, where the narrator is in a sense failing both of them until he develops the understanding that the situation calls for his initiative, and the resolve to act on it. There have been a couple earlier instances in which a song somehow captured a similar sense of moral mission that briefly motivated me to do something courageous. Perhaps I just wasn't sufficiently prepared to make intelligent use of it then, but perhaps it also makes a difference that in this case the lyrics were very specifically relevant, unlike in the previous cases. (I've posted comments on them at both SongMeanings and SongFacts.)

In any case, by Friday I was eager to get out again, and went to a Halloween-themed "karaoke gong show." I'd been to one karaoke event before, last New Year's Eve. This time I wanted to sing "Somebody's Baby," but since it wasn't in the book, I fell back on "Imagine," written by John Lennon, which I'd sung the previous time. I think I'd gotten through the second verse before I was gonged. I stayed maybe another 45 minutes, having made conversation with several people of both sexes before and after my performance. I had a pretty good time.

Although I might have considered myself to have "filled my quota" for the week, I decided to go out again last night, partly because I wanted to do a more regular club scene. This was a hard rock show, but before it started and made conversation difficult, I made quite a lot with several women and men, including a good deal of playful repartee. Most of them also called my Halloween costume "awesome," but I think I'll keep it a trade secret.

The most remarkable part of the whole weekend was that, as I was going home last night, I realized that, after going out two nights in a row and coming home late, I wanted to do it again! Bare months since I could barely drag myself to -- er, "make time for" -- a night out, now I wished I could do it every night! What a change -- and a much happier kind of problem to have!

For most of my life I've called myself an introvert. Early last year, when I went off Paxil after taking it for 23 months and experienced no backsliding, I felt a surge of confidence at this proof that the improvement it had enabled had "taken" and become permanent. I started to suspect that I'm not naturally an introvert at all, even that I'm an extrovert whose natural propensity has merely been masked by my disorder. After all, I recalled, I had casually initiated many conversations with strangers as late as age ten. (In fact this had been the inspiration for my self-hypnosis technique, which used certain behavioral tricks to put myself in a "little kid" state of mind.)

That surge of euphoria after going off Paxil only lasted a few weeks, but I was reminded of those thoughts a couple months ago by a conversation with an old friend and fellow member of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. She'd previously mentioned that she isn't really the extrovert she might seem; as a child she'd had great trouble socializing, and had to learn to do it by a lot of practice. But she went further into it this time, explaining that even today, after a lot of socializing she's worn out and needs a couple days to herself. A light went on in my head: that wasn't me at all! I've never needed to be away from people; I've never wanted to be. I learned to get on OK without other people because I had to -- I felt intimidated by social situations. But I didn't want to be alone; I wanted to be comfortable with people.

So that's what a real introvert is like, I thought -- and it's not what I am! What I'd started to suspect last year was now confirmed. And what's happened this weekend has finally brought that inner extrovert out again, eclipsing the anxiety that had kept him hidden so long, even from me.

Just Say No to South Carolina AG's Shamelessly Punitive Prudery

The recent multiple scandals exposing sexual hypocrisy on the part of South Carolina's politicians seem to have done nothing to diminish their repressive impulses. The latest example involves an assistant deputy attorney general named Roland Corning who was found by a police officer spending his lunch break in his car with a stripper. The officer himself acknowledged that no illegal activity was occurring; as far as I can tell from the news story, the man isn't married, so it's not even a case of infidelity. Nor is it hypocrisy on Corning's part, at least in his present life as a prosecutor (he was previously a state legislator), since he worked on securities cases. Nonetheless, he was fired the same day by Attorney General Henry McMaster.

The AP story willingly repeats a number of details that may have added fuel to the puritanical fires, and which you can read there if you're so inclined. The bottom line, however, is that nothing illegal, non-consensual, or even unsafe appears to have been going on, yet Corning has lost his job over it.

I've sent McMaster an email expressing my disgust at his action, and also written him a letter. The contact information as it appears on his website is:

The Honorable [sic] Henry McMaster
P.O. Box 11549
Columbia, SC 29211

My thanks to my friend John Kirkland for forwarding the link to this story to his facebook page.

Eric Hamell

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Part of a Large Number for a Lower Number

I took part today in the International Day of Climate Action organized by This is a campaign to get the world's governments to agree on strong measures to bring the global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration down to 350 parts per million, believed by environmental scientists to be the maximum level consistent with climate stability (the current level is 390 ppm).

The Philadelphia action consisted of a couple hundred people gathering in the rain on Independence Mall to form the numeral "350," and having our picture taken by people standing on top of the Bourse building across the street (I think it's something like ten stories). Our photos don't seem to be available yet, but you can see those from dozens of other locations by going to their website.

The weather always seems to be raw when I come to the Mall below Market Street for a demonstration. It was also raining during the National Equality Rally back in June.

Eric Hamell

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Question for Noam Chomsky

I've received an email from Cindy Sheehan, informing me that she will have Professor Noam Chomsky on her radio show shortly and inviting listeners to submit questions for him. I've submitted this one:

"Hi! Here's what I'd like to ask Professor Chomsky:

"'In light of Hustler magazine's long history of offering both editorial and financial support to antiwar causes; in light of the fact that most of their readers, like those of other mass publications, need more not less education about the true US role in the world; and in light of the fact that women have made the most economic, legal, and political progress, as measured by the Gender Equality Index, precisely in those states where publications like Hustler are most widely available* — in light of all this, how can you justify your repudiation of the interview you gave them? How can you put your personal prejudices ahead of both scientific fact and the needs of the antiwar movement?'

"Eric Hamell
"Philadelphia, PA

"* The following can be read at

"'In 1990, findings of more recent research by Dr Larry Baron were published. He examined "the relationship between the circulation rates of soft-core pornographic magazines and gender equality in the 50 American states. Gender equality is measured with the Gender Equality Index (GEX) which combines 24 indicators of the status of women relative to men in the three institutional domains of politics, economics, and legal rights. Multiple regression analysis is used to test the hypothesis that the higher the circulation rate of soft-core pornographic magazines [such as Hustler — E.H.], the lower the level of gender equality. Several additional variables are included in the analysis to control for spurious relationships. Contrary to the hypothesis, the results show that gender equality is higher [my emphasis — E.H.] in states characterized by higher circulation rates of pornography. This relationship is interpreted as suggesting that pornography and gender equality both flourish in politically tolerant societies."' And:

"'Also, in 1991 Cynthia Gentry found no relationship between rape rates and circulation of sexually oriented magazines across metropolitan areas in the USA.'"

My interest in confronting Dr. Chomsky about this arises from an email exchange I had with him -- itself triggered by learning about his repudiation of the interview from a reference on Nina Hartley's discussion board (not safe for some workplaces!). Amazingly, he refused any responsibility to define the terms he used, such as "degrading," in justifying his decision. He also repeatedly misrepresented my plainly expressed positions -- something that particularly tends to drive me up the wall. I can provide a full transcript of our exchange to anyone who's interested.

The interview will air Sunday, October 25 [postponed to November], 2PM Pacific at or 3PM Central at 1360am Rational Radio, Dallas, TX). You can submit your own question for Professor Chomsky by writing Sheehan at

Friday, October 09, 2009

Protest Rape at Movie Theaters Tomorrow

Actions are being organized nationwide for Saturday, 10 October 2009 to protest the denial and belittlement of sexual violence that has been exhibited by many in connection with the Roman Polanski case. They are taking place at movie theaters and you can get information for your area at

The information is presented in a confusing fashion and I initially had the false impression that nothing was planned for Philadelphia. I recommend using your browser's search function to find all occurrences of your city's name, so as to be sure you don't miss anything.

Eric Hamell

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Review: The Trickster and the Paranormal (plus some loosely connected recollections)

Having recently had occasion here to mention George Hansen's book The Trickster and the Paranormal, I've written a comment on it for Powell's Books:

This book was sometimes fascinating, frequently maddening. On the up side, the author proposes a number of correlations to exist between paranormal beliefs and experiences on one hand, and seemingly unrelated cultural factors on the other. Some of these have also been posited by more skeptical writers. On the down side, he never proves rigorously that these purported correlations actually exist.

Hansen assumes that they can only be understood in terms of an acausal "Trickster constellation," but ignores the fact that more down-to-earth social and cognitive psychology can often be invoked to explain them. He takes for granted that the paranormal is real, rather than actually trying to prove it.

In fact, Hansen actually asserts that the paranormal by its nature can't be scientifically proven, and the book sometimes comes off as one long apologia for this fact. Particularly frustrating is the way he periodically cites some confusing or elusive quality of paranormal claims as "hinting" at something about "the nature of the paranormal," yet never comes out and says what he thinks that is.

Some of the most interesting material in the book for me was unrelated to alleged paranormal phenomena, such as the section concerning the socially provocative origins of the school of research called ethnomethodology.

Now for a few remarks of a more personal nature. A few weeks before I read this book, I got to attend a talk by someone cited in it, Linda Moulton Howe. She was the final speaker in an event held at the Free Library of Philadelphia's central branch, billed as "Real Life X-Files," in early June 2002. I probably wouldn't have shown for this if not for the fact that Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society, was scheduled to speak there a couple weeks later. Figuring I might be able to interest some of those attending one event in the other, I made a flier for Shermer's talk using an image of his latest book's cover from the Web. I passed it out to people on their way in; then, not wanting to support the stereotype of skeptics as closed-minded, I went in to listen myself.

None of the speakers provided evidence for as much as they claimed, but Howe definitely represented the epitome of credulousness that afternoon. She spent much of her presentation talking about "crop circles" and "mystery lights," which she believed were intended as messages from more advanced beings about how we're destroying our environment. (Why such highly advanced beings couldn't find a less cryptic way of communicating this idea, she didn't explain.) Here are a couple "lowlights" of her logic-leaping abilities:

1) She complained that "we all heard much more than we wanted to know" about "Chuck and Dave," or whatever their names were — the men who owned up to having created many of the English crop circles. But she insisted that their confession was irrelevant, because those two men couldn't be responsible for circles seen on several different continents.

Talk about missing the point! The relevance of their confession was simply that they showed that the circles could be made by human beings without any advanced technology. If these two could do it in England, then others could have done it elsewhere. But Howe refused to understand this.

2) She showed some video of purported "mystery lights," which are held to be associated often with crop circles. Some of her remarks in this connection were truly comical to a critical-minded viewer. The video was shot in a grassy area, although since there were some people visible I imagine it was probably a park or common area rather than a crop field. Some blobs of light were also seen, which she said were the "mystery lights." She commented, "Notice how the people present seem not to notice the lights." (!) And a moment later, "Observe how the lights appear to shrink in size as they approach the camera." Indeed, very interesting — especially considering the remarkable coincidence that the lights appeared to be "shrinking" in direct proportion to their proximity to the camera! What was really happening, in fact, was that the spots of light seen in the video weren't changing at all in the amount of space they took up on the screen; as they shifted to a background of objects that were closer to the camera, that simply made them seem — to a human brain interpreting them as objects moving among other objects — to be growing smaller.

These two "observations, " taken together, plainly indicated that these "lights" were not objects at all, but an artifact of some kind of camera defect. That is why they didn't change in the size they took up on the screen regardless of how near or far the background objects were, and it's also the reason no one in the field saw them: they weren't there! But the blindingly obvious was, again, not apparent to Linda Moulton Howe.

(In the darkened auditorium, by the way, I was struggling mightily to remain awake. If I had actually believed what Howe was saying, I suppose I'd have been so excited as not to be sleepy at all; but since I couldn't take her seriously in the least, I was glad to have an excuse for leaving early: a lunch date with a friend.)

So it was with some amusement that, while reading Hansen's book the following month, I saw that he cited Howe as a source. Hansen's chief credential for writing the book was that he'd spent eight years working in a parapsychology lab. But if he could take Howe seriously — writing just a year before I heard her speak (the book was published in 2001) — then, rather than his lengthy affiliation with the lab proving his qualifications as a scientist, I'd say it indicates the low standards of that laboratory — and by extension, perhaps, of the parapsychology profession of which it might be assumed to be representative.

I had bought the book several months earlier. I read it when I did because I'd decided to volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine, and figured that if I brought any books or periodicals of a political nature with me, I might not be let into the country by Israeli authorities. I figured Trickster plus another, more skeptical book on the same subject, The Psychology of the Psychic, 2nd edition by David Marks, would last me for the two and a half weeks I'd be in the country. When I told my landlord at the time, Dan McShane, about this, he suggested I could go as a "total space cadet." I liked this idea — it was so much more interesting than merely claiming to be a tourist, as the materials I'd received from ISM recommended.

So I decided my "cover story" would be that I was a paranormal investigator. I figured this would actually make dissimulating about my purpose easier, since I could "play the part" better; such investigating (albeit more skeptically than I let on), unlike tourism, was something I actually might want to do.

I was interviewed by two police at the Tel Aviv airport for what seemed like five or ten minutes. I guess it was probably toward the low end of that range, but seemed longer because of the tension I felt. I had made sure to be carrying the book in my hand as I was led into the police office, and to set it binding out on a filing cabinet, so that the title was visible while I was interviewed. I enjoyed the irony that it was actually I who was playing the Trickster in this scenario! Toward the end, as it became apparent they believed me, one of them jokingly asked me if I could bend spoons. I answered, "No, I thought that was one of your people!" and we all laughed. (Uri Geller was, by the way, one of the purported psychics whose dishonesty was demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt in Marks's book, which I read during the last few days of the trip.)

One of the highlights of my experience in the country came the night of 16 July, when my affinity group stayed with a family in Rafah. The head of the household told how, several months earlier, he'd had to get his family out of their home in only five minutes when he saw that a tank was heading straight toward them to demolish it. Since then hadn't had a full night's sleep, since he was staying up 'til the period tanks came through the neighborhood, about 4:15-30 am IIRC, had passed without incident.

So our group decided we should do something to help him out: we offered to stay over and keep watch in shifts, so we could warn him if we heard any tanks coming. At first he was resistant because two of our group were women, but they wouldn't hear of being excluded. Eventually we persuaded him that we willingly were taking all the risk on ourselves, and he accepted our offer. (I should perhaps mention that we were really close to the Egyptian border — just a couple doors from the "no man's land." Our host had urged us to use extreme caution even in looking around the corner of a building toward the Israeli guard tower, for fear we'd be shot at. So he doubtless felt it was riskier for us to stay here than just about any other place in town.)

The first four hours' watch was taken by the three Brits in the group, who were students at the University of Sussex. The second shift — including the usual period for tank activity — went to me and the other American, Joe Bailey from Arkansas. I didn't have much to converse about with him, and after a while I noticed he'd dozed off. (Sorry if you're reading this, Joe!) Although I had been reading, I now felt obliged to focus more fully on my surroundings; I worried that I might not notice the sound of a tank soon enough if I were too immersed in the book. This fear was likely exaggerated, as I already knew the sound of a tank — high-pitched, whining, decidedly unsettling — would not easily be missed. Nonetheless, I didn't want to take any chances when AFAIK I was the only person up.

So I started looking up at the sky and sort of meditating on it — the sort of non-purposive thing I'm not in the habit of doing; normally I'd feel anxious about "wasting time." But in this situation, it was the most apt behavior to my purpose, which was itself quite serious. So I gazed at one star, which was not close to any others in the sky, nor was it close to any borders (i.e., roof edges of the courtyard I was in) within my field of view.

Something started to happen, of which I had heard, known as autokinesis. Small, involuntary movements of my eyes, in the absence of anything visually close to the star I was watching, made it look as if the star was moving. I had read about this in skeptical literature, where it was held responsible for some UFO reports. And I had experimented with it once, but stopped at the first sign of it; it seems the disturbingly "paradoxical" quality of intentionally giving myself an illusory experience had combined with anxiety about "wasting time" to scare me off.

But now the experience resulted from something with a very serious purpose, which seemed to make the "paradoxical" aspect no longer threatening. In fact, before long I felt almost giddy; I imagined to myself, "Gee, this is like a trip without the drugs!" That star seemed to be moving all over the place!

An irony of this experience that just recently occurred (or perhaps re-occurred) to me is that the chapter of Hansen's book I had been reading just before this, titled "Government Disinformation," is largely concerned with UFOs — and here I was experiencing one of the kinds of illusion that generate UFO reports. Another interesting aspect is that some of the kinds of disinformation Hansen alleges resemble the conspiracy theories of my old friend John Judge, who likes to call them "unidentified fascist observatories" (he thinks they're military surveillance craft).

Well, this post has turned out to be a lot more than a book review; that simply provided the occasion to write about some things I'd thought about for a long time. But I think that will it be it for now.

It seems the mass media's Polanski coverage has been rather biased.

Most inexcusably for NPR, their news briefs have often mentioned that he claims the incident was consensual, yet don't mention that the victim told a grand jury just the opposite. Since he's described as having pled guilty only to "having sex with a 13-year-old girl," this leaves the listener (including me, until I saw Deb's link about it on facebook) with the false impression that this case arose solely because of the girl's age. Whatever you think about age-of-consent laws, presumably everyone agrees that this makes a big difference.

I posted a comment on their website a few days ago. I also called their Ombudsman's office Thursday, and was informed that they'd received many complaints along the same lines and were looking into it. Good! But I haven't heard any correction yet.

Thanks to my friend Deborah Seeley for bringing this to my attention.

Eric Hamell

Thursday, September 24, 2009

This Movie Is for the Birds

This evening I saw an advance screening for a film, thanks to a text message from some promotional firm. It was called Bird's Eye View and it promoted the most far-fetched theories about crashed saucers and aliens among us, combining documentary-style interviews with a fictional storyline that bore a suspicious resemblance to The X-Files. In this case, the character played by the filmmaker had lost not her sister, but a pet bird to the alien abductors when she was a child, and later had it "replaced" by her father (who turns out to have really been her stepfather) with a bird she suspected was actually the same one. This bird was played by the filmmaker's actual pet bird, which she had brought with her to the screening. It was a big tropical parrot or parakeet or something of the sort.

I got a sense early on of the level of credulity involved when the "MJ-12" were mentioned without any acknowledgment that they had been revealed as a hoax a long time ago. We were also treated to the story that special "analysis" of a document relating to Roswell showed that it contained instructions for disinformation, even though what we saw on the screen showed no such thing. And someone told the camera that he'd found miniature stone "spacecraft" in a cave, complete with tiny "windows," proving that an advanced race had been here millions of years ago — yet what he actually held in his hand was a fairly crude ridged disk with no windows that I could discern.

In short, there was much in this film that was hilarious, but unfortunately in most cases the humor was unintentional. Oh, and it appears to have all been shot on video. You can see a trailer, reviews, etc. at

P.S. Like some others (e.g. Linda Moulton Howe, who I saw give an amazingly credulous presentation at the central library in 2002, shortly before seeing her cited as a serious source in George Hansen's book The Trickster and the Paranormal), the filmmaker links the UFO stuff to concerns about the environment and animal welfare. I have to wonder whether some of the groups thanked in the credits (such as PETA) realized what kookiness their material was being associated with. If I were they, I'd be afraid that such association would undermine the credibility of my message.

After posting the above, I was informed that a parakeet is quite small, totally unlike a parrot. Shows how much I know about birds.

Eric Hamell

How Will You Survive?

That's the question on some billboards I started seeing this week for a movie evidently called simply 2012. Others say, "We were warned."

I believe a frightening prospect does confront us in the very near future. I predict that soon the Earth will be engulfed in an enormous tidal wave of pseudoscience. The only way to escape this tsunami will be to avoid cineplexes at all cost!

I further predict that, in 2013, we will be engulfed in yet another tidal wave -- this one of really, really cheap DVDs of 2012, which will somehow no longer seem as timely.

You have been warned!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A New Twist in NPR's Lie of Omission About Afghanistan, 1979

Today's Morning Edition had an interview about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Like previous discussions of this event on NPR (and other major media), and despite my having written them more than once on the matter, they once again accepted the myth that US aid to the fundamentalist/feudalist/tribalist reactionaries known as the mujahedin began in response to the invasion, when in reality it preceded that invasion by five months.

As I've noted previously, President Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, admitted as much in an interview he gave Le Nouvel Observateur in 1998. He admitted as well that he knew a Soviet invasion was likely to occur in response, advised the President of this, and was not troubled by the prospect. He still professed no regrets at the time of the interview, notwithstanding the enormous harm done to Afghan women in particular by this policy. Whether he still has no regrets, post-9/11, one can only wonder.

What's new is that, in this interview, we can hear NPR's Steve Inskeep mentioning that the invasion came in response to a request for help from Afghanistan's president. Yet we don't hear what the reason for this request was. Clearly something has been edited out -- either that the US was already aiding the reactionary rebels, or at least that they were already rebelling prior to the invasion. In either case, it's a serious omission, for no apparent purpose except to maintain the myth of US innocence and beneficence in this matter.

I've written NPR's Ombudsman about this, and will report here if I receive any response.

Eric Hamell

Sunday, August 16, 2009

An Exercise in Fuzzy Thinking

A friend, Dr. Robert Kay, recently passed out a flier at a meeting of my atheist Meetup group, headed, "Jane -- Recant!" You can see an image of it here. I found it pretty disappointing, especially considering it's issued in the name of "The Committee for Clear Thinking."

Addressed to Dr. Jane Goodall, it says she "appear[s] to have made a major error when you assumed that there exists, in both primate and human, some sort of id/evil/aggressive side or instinct which needs to be controlled.... instead of considering the possibility that all successful animals are FUNDAMENTALLY/INNATELY/BORN-TO-BECOME/INEVITABLY social and cooperative."

There seem to be a lot of weasel words here. Clearly, if all people were inevitably cooperative, all people would be cooperative; that's what inevitably means. The catch is the presence of that word "successful," which isn't defined. By inserting that, the authors have covertly rendered the statement untestable, and therefore meaningless.

In fact, by any ordinary criterion, lots of highly "successful" humans have gotten that way by being anything but cooperative, except maybe within a narrow circle of their own class. The wealthy maintain their great material comfort (and with it, enormous opportunities for reproductive success) on the basis of coercive control over others' access to productive resources and, thereby, over the fruits of their labor. In many cases this wealth can be traced back to flagrant forms of aggressive violence such as enclosures and slave-making.

The committee suggests that Goodall made "invidious generalizations" based on chimpanzee reactions to human interference with their societies. But they give no concrete examples of these alleged generalizations -- not even a single direct quotation. In fact, the flier acknowledges that, "fortunately," people can "become angry." Yet, if we had no aggressive "side" or "instinct," how would this be possible? It wouldn't be. This instinct is available because we sometimes need it.

Now we get to the real point of the flier, which is the committee's support for "invitational learning" in place of "Prussian-derived and factory-oriented school." They clearly believe that this is a "manifestation" of our "mistrust" of human nature. Yet they've glossed over the real reason after stating it themselves. The present system is factory-oriented because it's designed to serve the owners of factories -- the capitalist class. By treating workers' children as identical, interchangeable cogs in a machine, it prepares them to be treated exactly the same way as adult workers.

This has to do not with a belief about human nature, but the actual nature of capitalist social relations, which are authoritarian because workers' interests are different from those of capitalists. Capitalists fear workers' potential for collective aggression against their control of the workplace and of the state, yet can benefit from channeling that same aggressiveness against rival capitalists and their workers. So they support an educational system that discourages (horizontal) cooperation, while promoting aggression only along "authorized" lines.

This is key to understanding the real significance of the statement attributed in the flier to Hermann Goering, that "it's impossible to get the Germans to fight unless you first fill them full of lies." German soldiers, overwhelmingly children of the working class, were being asked to fight not truly on their own behalf, but on that of the German capitalists and their Nazi enforcers. Lies were needed, then, not to get them to fight, but to get them to fight against their own interests. False enemies were invented, like "Jewish conspirators," to turn their aggressive energies toward other workers rather than their own exploiters.

The problem, then, is that our society is controlled by people who are undersocialized -- people who've been conditioned to feel entitled to live off of others' labor, and to use force (both privately and through the agency of the state) to maintain their position. They've been conditioned this way because the present social system rewards them for assuming this entitlement; they receive positive reinforcement for the behavior. And they seek to control the children of the majority, not because they falsely imagine them to have an aggressive side, but because they know all too well that that side is real -- it's gotten them where they are -- and are afraid of its being turned against them.

There's not much left in the flier on which to comment. The committee say, "We are disappointed that you've failed to reply and speak to our concerns, and therefore do not know where you stand today on this issue," and follow this with a recommendation that readers look into the works of a number of authors. Indeed, it appears that they initially meant to suggest that Goodall read these works, but thought better of it. This was certainly a wise revision, since it seems pretty likely that she would have already acquainted herself with such material. Given the conceptual confusion permeating the flier, I think it's safe to assume the reason Goodall hasn't responded, at least directly or personally, is that she's seen nothing to respond to.

Eric Hamell

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

To Defend Evolution, One Must Understand It

In the Radiolab show just broadcast, I heard them make a rather common error in describing the idea of evolution. I wrote them this letter to point out the error, and why it matters:
Your program on laughter described chimps as "our ancestors." Similarly, it spoke of our having "inherited" something from them.
Chimps are not our ancestors; they're our cousins, with whom we share a common ancestor which was neither human nor chimp. This is more than a technical distinction, because this sort of confusion contributes significantly to scientific illiteracy. More than once someone has objected to the idea of evolution by asking me, "Why haven't other animals evolved?"
This question assumes the conception of evolution as a ladder with the different species as rungs -- rather than a tree the tips of whose branches are extant species, and whose lower levels are extinct ones. If one assumes this incorrect conception of evolution, there indeed is no good answer to the question. With the correct understanding, one can answer, "They have evolved. Their ancestors were different from them, and from anything existing today."
Eric Hamell

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Entrapment: Government as Mind Manipulator

The latest edition of This American Life told the story of a man who was railroaded for an alleged terrorist conspiracy that was completely a creation of the Federal government. The program unfortunately made it sound as if this kind of tactic had only started after 9/11. I wrote them to correct this false impression, and also point out some implications that are often overlooked:

The policy of entrapment-by-informant didn't start after 9/11. Two earlier cases spring to mind.

In 1998 Theresa Squillacote and Kurt Stand, who had leftist sympathies and worked with the State Department,
were led through an extended process of emotional manipulation to agree to pass classified information to a purported agent of post-apartheid South Africa. In the process, therapist/patient confidentiality was also violated. The very fact that the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit supervised this operation is indicative of how much this "crime" was of their own making.

A few years earlier, a man was pressured, cajoled, and ultimately even coerced (by an informant pretending to have Mob connections) to agree to a plan to murder a couple boys for a "snuff" film (which films have never actually existed, by the way). This setup is described in harrowing detail in Laura Kipnis' book
Bound and Gagged.

This policy looks even darker when you consider its conscious use of psychological science for manipulative purposes. After all, what is the function of government supposed to be? It's supposed to help socialize us -- to condition us to internalize inhibitions against destructive behavior. Here, instead, we find government intentionally desocializing someone, destroying their inhibitions, trying to "unmake" them as a social being.

If you respond that the targeted individuals couldn't do these things if they hadn't the predisposition, you're overlooking one of the major findings of social psychology, which is that people can often be induced to do things outside their normal behavioral range by various high-pressure tactics, and then to rationalize them by changing the way they see themselves, altering their moral self-definition. In fact, such covert manipulation of cognitive dissonance is one of the chief techniques of cult brainwashing. And it appears to be just what's being done in some of these entrapment cases, especially where the Behavioral Sciences Unit is involved.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Madam Secretary, Ideas Know No Borders

The other day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement about her visit to Somalia. In it she expressed her concern that the al-Shabab group was not only importing foreign weapons to the country, but also "foreign ideas."

This is appalling. Since when do ideas have a nationality? If I condemn the ideology of al-Qaeda, it's because their beliefs are inhuman, not "un-Somali" or "un-American."

Secretary Clinton's rhetoric harkens back to the worst traditions of American nativism and xenophobia. It's not what one might have expected from an administration that's supposed to represent a more enlightened element of this country's rulers.

Eric Hamell

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Quote of the Month

The only principle on which liberalism is fixed is moderation: believing in compromise and the middle road, it makes a virtue of falling between two stools. In actual fact, an extreme position may be nearer to truth than a middle position, and more close to effective practice than one that stops half way. -- Lewis Mumford, "A Preface to Action"

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Limits of Ethics

The latest Speaking of Faith featured another discussion of values in relation to the economic crisis, this time with Quaker intellectual Parker Palmer. I was moved to submit the following comment:

I just read Sidney Hook's book Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation, and it's got me fired up about reasserting certain truths. And this applies very much to today's show.

An executive may come away from a retreat feeling transformed, but he then goes back to the need to function in the capitalist marketplace. A passion to be more ethical can't erase the insecurity built into this system and, unless one is altruistic to a suicidal degree, there's often little one can do without changing the property relations that are responsible for this insecurity.

This relates to what Palmer said about the different forms of violence. The central violence in our society is the systematic denial, with the state's backing, of people's access to the means of production, so that those who monopolize that access -- the "owners" -- are empowered, and in a competitive market therefore compelled, to set extortive terms for that access (whence profits come).

Changing the economy does in fact depend on changing social relations in the workplace, as Palmer suggests. But this requires more than good will. It necessitates changing the power structure at the point of production.

Some businesspeople may be in a position to start this process unilaterally and outside of "politics," by legally creating a workers' collective and then handing title to their business over to it. Mostly this will apply only to those who hold a business privately. Even in those cases, however, it may be difficult for such enterprises to survive in competition with capitalist business, as long as the legal system is set up in the latter's favor.

Meanwhile, for workers it's the rule, not the exception, that ethical action is also self-interested. Collective action by workers, both through union activity and labor-led politics, advances democracy in the workplace and equity in income distribution, increasing the rationality with which resources are allocated by prioritizing investment in necessities over luxuries. Thus society as a whole benefits from workers' acting collectively in our self-interest.

Probably the main thing that most businesspeople can do to take ethical responsibility is to support the labor movement in its industrial and political struggles, up to and including the seizure of state power which alone will enable the final eradication of capitalist insecurity and irrationality.

Eric Hamell

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Quote of the Month

Whatever the drives and impulses which constitute his animal nature, man's human nature is revealed only in a socially determined context, in which the biological pattern functions as only one constituent element of the whole .... [S]elfishness is selfishness, and power is power; but a selfishness and power that assert themselves in a system ... in which the legal right to prevent others from using land and machines means the material power to condemn them to poverty and death, are different kinds of selfishness and power from those which express themselves within a socialized economy, guaranteeing to all who are capable and willing to work, the right to life and subsistence. -- Sidney Hook, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Browne-d Out

Friday night I took part in an effort to alert people to the hazards of taking advice from "psychic" Sylvia Browne or believing in her purported powers. Here's a report by the organizer:

On Jun 12th, Sylvia Browne came to Philadelphia as part of a "Farewell Tour" (which could not have come soon enough) and a promotion of her latest book. A group of concerned individuals, inspired by similar events in Halifax, Canada, decided to stand outside the venue and distribute envelopes stuffed with information about cold reading, Sylvia Browne, and why people should not take medical advice from her. The outside of the envelope had instructions not to open it until the holder was in his/her seat. This way, people would accept the envelope and be seated before realizing what it was; the hope was that they'd have time to digest the info before throwing it out.

It was quite the experience. We met an hour and a half before the show, divided up the envelopes, and used a printed floor plan of the Convention Center to split ourselves up among the entrances. Having scoped out the inside earlier, I had discovered the closest we could get to the ballroom where the performance was held was the bottom of the escalators downstairs, as Sylvia Browne's people were taking tickets next to the ballroom entrance. Two of us, including myself, stood at the escalators and four others took back and side doors.

Everything went well for a few minutes. Sylvia's was easy to spot demographically, for the most part consisting of Caucasian women from their mid-20's and up, especially middle-aged ladies in groups of two or more. Many also sported wristbands (blue for the $50 seats and green for the premium $100 ones) so they were easily identifiable. People were friendly as we began passing out the envelopes, assuming we were part of her crew. A few were curious as to the contents, but nobody refused the envelope.

It hadn't even been ten minutes when a young woman riding up the escalator
decided that the instruction "Please do not open until you have reached your seat" contained too many ambiguities to be complied with, and ripped it open immediately. "Get a real job!" she shouted down at us. I gazed blithely back at her, not wanting to point out that the two of us worked in an Alzheimer's clinic and a nonprofit animal shelter, respectively. I soon realized that other people were tearing open the envelopes immediately so we began verbally reinforcing the directions "Don't open it 'til you reach your seat. Thank you!" Soon, the original screamer came back down again and told a couple of women taking the envelopes from us "Don't open it! It's bashing Sylvia." They rolled their eyes at us, but took them anyway when I said "It's just information."

One of our group was taking pictures, acting as lookout, and sending surreptitious text messages. Through her I found out that security had been notified. Some of us were asked to leave, and others did preemptively. We stationed ourselves outside the entrance and continued the flyering. One security guard told one of our guys that the police would be notified unless he got off of the premises and stood across the street. Standing outside, it was harder to differentiate the Sylvia people from the other passersby, and we looked less legitimate than we had inside. Some audience members were milling around smoking instead of going straight in, making the situation a bit tense. We got some hostile looks and one of Browne's people sweetly warned me that security was going to ask us to leave. I thanked her for her courtesy.

The crowd seemed to thin out well before 7:00, when the show was scheduled to start. Although the ballroom held over 3,000 people, I only saw a couple hundred who were going to see her. Perhaps this was due to my limited vantage point, or (hopefully) she doesn't draw nearly as big of a crowd as we were afraid of. We put some of the extra envelopes under the windshield wipers of parked cars near the Center, and met up again to discuss and go to dinner.

One of us was able to chat up a Sylvia Browne attendee before the show and somehow managed to briefly venture into the heart of darkness without a ticket. He learned that a warning announcement had been made about us, and that the Sylvia people were taking the envelopes from the audience members and tearing them up before they could enter the hall and read them.

On the whole, we distributed maybe 1/3 of the 500 envelopes, although Sylvia Browne's people made sure that fewer of them than that actually were read. Hopefully, some of the audience members has their curiosity piqued by what could have possibly been so bad in those envelopes that they needed to have been confiscated and destroyed. A couple crucial differences made this effort a bit more chaotic than I understand the Canadian initiative to be. First of all, the Philly venue was set up so attendees could trickle in person-by-person hours before the show; there was no large group of people waiting for the doors to be opened as there had been in Halifax. Also, there may be cultural differences in politeness and courtesy between Americans and Canadians; many people acted with
hostility, mistrust, or impulsiveness, opening the envelopes immediately.

At the very least, we made our presence known and accomplished something gratifying, which was to rattle Sylvia Browne's team a little bit. At best, some people got the information and read it and it made them think. If, as a result of our effort, even one person at that show decided "You know, I really shouldn't be taking medical advice from this woman," and maybe will even be spared illness or death in the future as a consequence, this entire thing would have been worth it to me.

My own experience was less dramatic. I was distributing at the entrance to the Marriott, which connects to the Convention Center. I didn't try to guess who was coming to see Browne; I just asked everyone coming in, "Are you coming to see Sylvia?" If they answered, "Yes," I gave them an envelope while smiling sweetly.

I didn't see anyone opening them prematurely, but after a while I realized some people were declining them because they'd received a packet from her in the the same size envelope, so they thought I was offering something they already had. At this point I started making sure they saw the seal as I held it out to them, so they'd know this was something different. It's possible some of these envelopes were confiscated when they got to the Convention Center; it's also possible that by then they'd put them in their bags so that security didn't see them.

I doubt the Marriott security connected me to what was happening at the Convention Center, if they were even told about that. One of them came out about 6:45 and remained there for several minutes, but he didn't approach or say anything to me.

Not a whole lot of people came in that way to see her, however. I don't think I distributed more than ten envelopes.

Eric Hamell

Sunday, June 07, 2009

I am now recorded.

This past Friday I took part in an open-mike event at Voltaradio in Center City Philadelphia. It was organized by The Philadelphian Project, a Meetup group that aims to help local performing artists get seen and heard. I sang Phil Ochs' song "What's That I Hear?" A little later another great local singer named Joe Mack also performed.

I'm told they have a tape of my performance and I plan to get that turned into a sound file to which I could link from this blog. Next month the Project will have its grand opening on 3 July. I look forward to getting to sing more then.

Eric Hamell

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Ecumenical Idiocy -- an atheist view

I just heard something on PRI's The World that got my goat. I wrote:

In your discussion of President Obama's Cairo speech, it was stated that he showed "respect" for Muslims by referring to the Middle East as where Islam was "revealed," rather than where it was "born." This was said to be respectful because it seemed to imply that he accepts Islam as having come from a divine source.

To me, it is an example of the sort of idiotic relativism that is sometimes practiced in the name of ecumenism. We know that Obama is not a Muslim; while his Christianity may be liberal, it is hard to imagine that he actually believes Islam was divinely revealed. Some New Agers or Baha'is may believe in both Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammed, but no Christian in the usual sense does.

Perhaps some Muslims actually would take this as a sign of respect, but I find that hard to fathom. I'm an atheist, but I wouldn't think it "respectful" were Obama to speak to me as if he believed in atheism, when I know that he doesn't. I would think he was humoring me, which isn't respectful at all.

This isn't the first time I've encountered such nonsense. Some years ago a mailing from the University Museum referred to the "discovery" of a Tibetan lama. When I wrote to suggest it made no sense for them to use language implying a belief in Tibetan Buddhism that they don't actually hold, they responded that it wasn't their purpose to promulgate an "atheist or agnostic position."

I gave up at that point; it seemed clear they were unwilling to apply any kind of epistemological rigor to the question. For one thing, they were conflating, for no apparent reason, atheism and agnosticism. Surely they didn't think they're the same thing; if they knew they're different, surely they knew which, if either, I was expressing. And I wasn't really expressing a position at all; I was only requesting they not express a position either. You could call this an "agnostic" way of speaking, but it's actually consistent with any belief or non-belief, which is precisely why I was recommending it. But evidently the Museum staff was too deeply immersed in relativism to comprehend this.

Eric Hamell

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Quote of the month: "This page is based upon true events. Only the names, places, and events have been changed." -- Justin Daniels

I'll be singing again this Friday, June 5, 7 pm at The Philadelphian Project's First Friday open mike event at Voltaradio, 249 Market Street. For more on the event, visit their page at

I plan on singing one protest song, my filk song "Trinity," and the love song "Morning, Noon and Nighttime" by Chris Sciarrotta and Dick Monda.

Eric Hamell

Monday, May 25, 2009

Case Closed -- Er, Open -- Er, Whatever

I recently read a couple books I'd acquired over the years pertaining to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. My curiosity about it had initially been stimulated by conversations I had with John Judge while in college. He co-directed an anti-militarist project that was housed in Penn's Christian Association. (I wasn't Christian, but had taken a work/study job there for 1981-82 because I knew a lot of progressive groups had their offices in its building.)

My predisposition was to be skeptical of conspiracy theories. In part this was because they cut across the structuralist sort of class analysis in which I'd been trained, and whose conceptual elegance (like that of philosophical materialism more generally) I found appealing. But I also noticed, in these conversations, evidence that John's perennially narrow focus on a conspiratorial world view (he said he was one of only a few people in the country to have read the entire Warren Commission report), had distorted his perception of things, giving him a sort of tunnel vision.

For instance, the subject of the social value of technology once came up, and I suggested that in general you can't characterize a technology as pro- or antisocial, because it depends on who's using it and for what purpose. As a counterexample, he said he didn't see what progressive use could be made of genetic engineering.

I was quite surprised by this statement, since one of the first things I'd ever read on that subject, an article in Newsweek, had described how it was anticipated that genetically engineered bacteria might be used to clean up oil spills. It seemed strange to me that John would be unaware of something as well publicized as this, if he cared so much about the potential uses of this technology. Evidently his conception of it had been shaped entirely by those who conjured up Hitlerian visions of engineered master and slave races and the like, and he hadn't even stopped to consider what other sorts of applications it might have, let alone read up on it.

Several years later I saw him again when he made an appearance on the Penn campus to present his views. These, by the way, cover a lot more territory than just the JFK assassination. He's part of a circle of people who think recent history has largely been shaped by an "international fascist network" that comprises various "neo-fascist" and military intelligence groups around the world, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Office of Naval Research in the US. They trace this network back to the 1920s with a grouping he refers to as "southern rim boys."

So I went to hear my old friend speak. But it wasn't long before I saw another example of how his conspiratorial obsession had resulted in a too-narrow range of knowledge. In connection with some cult-related tragedies (I think this may have been shortly after the Solar Temple deaths), John made fun of the phrase "murder-suicide." He asked, "How stupid do they think we are? How can something be both a murder and a suicide?"

I was really stunned by this one. I wondered how any literate person could not know what this phrase meant, since it had appeared over and over again in the press, usually in connection not with mass cult deaths, but individuals' going berserk after losing their long-held jobs, killing a bunch of coworkers and/or family members before killing themselves. The meaning was perfectly plain, whether in an individual or group context -- but not to John. Unfortunately my social anxiety then was too great to let me point this out during his presentation.

Despite my skepticism I was still curious to learn more about his ideas, and though I was too poor at the time to buy the book he was selling (a collection of talks and articles titled Judge for Yourselves), I did order it a few years later. If nothing else, it certainly makes for interesting reading. It includes lengthy pieces about both JFK and Jonestown, plus shorter ones on various other subjects, such as UFOs. (He thinks they're surveillance craft initially created by the Nazis and further developed by the military here after taking in some of the former after WWII. He likes to call them "unidentified fascist observatories.")

It was easy to see how, if one isn't trained in critical thinking, one might well be persuaded by this sort of thing. He obviously has done a lot of reaearch -- but the question is, what kind of research?

He likes to quote this saying by his friend Penn Jones: "Take one incident and research the hell out of it." But, almost as if in answer to this motto, a writer in one of the skeptical publications once pointed out that focusing too much on one incident is likely to lead one astray: any collection of facts will contain some seeming patterns which are completely accidental, simply because of the laws of probability. (Indeed, this is the key premise behind much of John Cage's art.) And, when you're focusing on one past incident, you don't have much opportunity to do hypothesis testing (not that I've seen any evidence that conspiracy theorists are wont to do that anyway). But you have lots of leeway to choose which avenues of inquiry to pursue, and favor those that appear likely to confirm your ideological predispositions. And afterwards, of course, you have leeway to report only on those connections that led to something that confirms those predispositions, further distorting the picture of reality you pass on to others. And all this, note, can happen without any intent to deceive -- it depends only on the researcher's lack of critical thinking skills. My impression is that typically conspiracy theorists not only lack such skills themselves but, because they don't understand the sort of cognitive malfunctions these serve to guard against, they never think to attribute others' errors (real or perceived) to such self-deception, but instead jump to the conclusion that intentional dishonesty and malevolence must be involved. Which further reinforces their conspiratorial world view, ad infinitum.

I subsequently bought a couple other assassination books that I happened upon -- High Treason by Robert Groden and Harrison Livingstone and ZR Rifle: The Plot to Kill Kennedy and Castro by Claudia Furiati. Only in the past few months did I get around to reading them.

The former has a lot of sources, but I noticed some signs of sloppy research. For instance, there's one section in which Groden and Livingstone enumerate what they consider instances of missing or destroyed evidence. In several cases they mention the same example twice within the space of a few pages, as if they were listing two separate items (thereby multiplying the apparent evidence of cover-up). This doesn't exactly inspire confidence: if they can't even keep track of the information as they're putting it in their book, why would I trust the procedures by which they assembled and verified it in the first place?

They also make a number of tendentious inferences. For example, discussing the Oswald backyard photos, in which he holds a rifle in one hand and a radical newspaper in the other, they say, "It is unlikely that anyone would be reading both the [Stalinist] Worker and the [then Trotskyist] Militant, since the two papers are of opposing ideologies -- unless that person was involved in an intelligence operation."

Whoa! Haven't Groden and Livingstone ever heard of exploring a range of ideas? Well, perhaps not. Maybe they're the sort of people who only read things they expect to reinforce their current view of things. This would come as no surprise, given my experience with John Judge. This dubious inference on their part serves as additional evidence that conspiratorial thinking often reflects (and in turn reinforces) poor cognitive habits.

Furiati's book is less substantial. There are no endnotes, and much of the text reiterates the putative findings of US-based assassination researchers. The new part is based on Furiati's interview with Cuban counterintelligence chief Fabian Escalante. Although the book's cover says, "Cuba Opens Secret Files," these files are not reproduced in the book, aside from a couple brief passages quoted. The appendix features several reports from Cuba's State Security Department, but only the top page of each one; the captions don't indicate how long they actually are. So most of the book's new material is Furiati's paraphrases of what Escalante told her.

What he told her -- only some of which directly pertains to the Kennedy assassination -- sounds interesting, but clearly it's coming from an interested source. While it's possible to make a strong case against the US economic embargo and other hostile policies toward Cuba without being a supporter of its present government (and many of their opponents do so), it's also clear that they might see propaganda value in linking their opponents with Kennedy's assassination.

So, having now read several pro-conspiracy writings -- and found them intriguing but not quite persuasive -- I decided it was time to check out the other side of the argument. So I borrowed Gerald Posner's Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK from the library.

This was a rather different experience. It's generally very well sourced, and he refrains from tendentious inferences (at least with respect to the assassination itself; he's a little less careful when discussing the conspiracy theorists). The most notable difference may be the huge amount of space he devotes to Oswald's biography, compared to the paltry treatment the conspiratorialists give him.

This was, in fact, the part of the book I found most fascinating. And not only fascinating. The first chapter, covering Oswald's childhood, was anxious-making, because all too often aspects of his home environment were reminiscent of things I'd experienced, as were his psychological responses thereto -- though neither were as bad for me as they were for him. It made for some very difficult reading; I felt like putting the book down a few times because of how uncomfortable it was making me. The scary thing was not that Oswald as assassin was incomprehensible, but that he was too easy to understand.

In addition, from the outset and often seemingly without trying, Posner makes apparent the dishonesty of some of the conspiracy theorists. On the first page he describes Oswald's arrest in the Texas Theater -- how a police officer approached him, how Oswald assaulted the officer and only subsequently, when the fight wasn't going his way, put his hands up and said, "I am not resisting arrest!"

How do Groden and Livingstone present this? They only describe the second part of this incident; reading them, you'd never know that Oswald had put up a fight before surrendering. This is important because Groden and Livingstone present their version in support of the claim that Oswald knew he'd been set up as a patsy, and was avoiding a fight so as not to give the police an excuse to kill him on the spot and thereby silence him. This interpretation obviously falls apart when one reads the complete account.

Are Groden and Livingstone being dishonest? Probably not, in their own minds. They may have convinced themselves the first part of the incident never happened, and so see nothing wrong with omitting it. But a more intellectually honest approach would have been to tell the whole story as reported, and then explain why they think part of it isn't true.

Another thing that struck me was in Posner's chapter on Yuri Nosenko and the "war of the defectors." He mentions that Richard Helms, while heading the CIA, advised Earl Warren against taking testimony from Nosenko. I took note because Nosenko denied that Oswald had been a Soviet agent; his testimony would therefore weaken the case that Oswald had been that, as well as tending to discourage inquiry into any kind of conspiracy hypothesis.

Yet Groden and Livingstone clearly indicated that they consider Helms to be part of the assassination conspiracy. If they're right, it would have been in his interest to have Nosenko testify, not to prevent his testimony. (More on this below.)

Notwithstanding the title, Posner doesn't thoroughly address all the conspiratorialists' arguments. But he does make some important points. For instance, he points out that if Oswald had been hired at any of the several places he applied prior to the Texas School Book Depository, he wouldn't have been in the right building to shoot Kennedy (or to serve as a patsy for that matter, as some allege). Further, the people who helped him get that job were Ruth Paine, a Quaker, and her friends -- not likely participants in a right-wing conspiracy. He also shows that no "magic" is required to explain the fatal bullet's trajectory if one takes Kennedy and Connolly's body configurations at the time into account.

By the way, Oswald's posing with both Stalinist and Trotskyist papers has become totally unmysterious by the time one gets to that episode in Posner's book. It jibes perfectly with the political and psychological portrait he paints of him, based on a variety of documents.

Although I found Posner's book pretty persuasive, I knew a rejoinder to it had been written. So now I borrowed Harold Weisberg's Case Open from the library. This was pretty disappointing.

First of all, Weisberg's style is awfully off-putting. After averring in the preface that "nothing in Case Open is meant personally," he proceeds almost immediately to engage in harsh ad hominem attacks; on the very first page he writes of Posner's "little-man dirtiness," a phrase he repeats with variations throughout the book. Another thing that makes this book hard to read is Weisberg's frequent indulgence in extremely convoluted complex sentences, so that it's hard to even follow what he's trying to say.

A couple things complicated judging the book. One is that Weisberg is evidently criticizing an earlier edition of Case Closed than the one I had borrowed; once I realized this, statements that had initially struck me as willful misrepresentations, I had to set aside as possibly being accurate with respect to the original version of Posner's book. Nonetheless, the fact that Case Closed could remain as convincing as it is, even after possibly having been revised in the wake of Weisberg's criticisms, indicates the weakness of those criticisms. Put in the best possible light, they could be construed as, "Consider the source."

The problem with that argument is that it cuts both ways, and when it cuts Weisberg it draws blood. While another allowance I might feel obliged to make is that he was confined by infirmity to his bed when writing the book, and so couldn't access most of his own files and had to rely largely on memory, this doesn't explain away internal inconsistencies in what he could write.

For example, early in the book he accuses Posner of "withholding from his readers" the fact that he had the CIA's cooperation in interviewing Nosenko. (He actually goes further by saying the CIA "jumped in to help" Posner with the "gift" of Nosenko, although he cites no evidence that this was the CIA's idea rather than Posner's.) He repeats this claim of "dishonesty" on Posner's part several times.

And what does he do later on in the book? He complains about Posner's "incessantly" "boasting" about the the cooperation he got from the CIA to interview Nosenko -- diametrically opposite to what he claimed earlier! And now he repeats this claim several times.

Another thing that really undermines Weisberg's credibility is the way he ignores the biographical information about Oswald. He portrays Posner's entire case for Oswald's motive as having been based on a report on him as a boy made by a psychiatrist at a juvenile detention center. He then tries to discredit the psychiatrist, named Hartogs, by saying he'd engaged in sexual abuse of patients, without explaining what bearing this has on the reliability of his clinical observations, let alone how it would cause him to provide false testimony in support of an assassination conspiracy years before it was hatched.

But in reality, by the time one gets to the account of Hartogs' notes on Oswald, they don't even come as a surprise. After reading all the preceding material about the circumstances of his upbringing, and observations that others made of him, the real surprise would have been if Hartogs hadn't expressed some serious concerns (well beyond that he merely "behaved badly," as Weisberg dismissively puts it; that would by definition be true of anyone in juvenile detention, whereas Hartogs explicitly says Oswald is atypical).

As for Weisberg's argument concerning Nosenko, this seems to me like much ado about nothing. His claim is that Nosenko's maltreatment by the CIA began right after he told the FBI that the KGB had suspected Oswald of being a US intelligence agent; together with testimony that the FBI was known not to have any agents in the USSR, Weisberg describes this as "fingering" the CIA. Presumably he thinks this is also why Helms didn't want Nosenko testifying to the Warren Commission.

This seems pretty silly to me. There weren't many defectors from the US to the USSR in that period; it would not surprise me if the KGB had suspected all of them were US agents. The natural suspiciousness of an intelligence agency like the KGB hardly constitutes evidence "fingering" a rival agency. Yet this alone, according to Weisberg, is supposed to have motivated the CIA in their horrendous maltreatment of Nosenko (which he incomprehensibly accuses Posner of downplaying, though he specifies little beyond what Posner does).

Weisberg also frequently engages in double standards. He says without explanation that Posner could not possibly have read all the Warren Commission materials he says he did, and therefore must be working from what someone else gave him. Based on this, he derides Posner's claim to have made his own index of these materials to compensate for the bias he saw in Sylvia Meagher's index. Yet if one compares the time periods involved, there's hardly any difference -- Weisberg allows that Posner had as much as a year and a half to prepare his index, whereas there were also only a couple years from when the Warren Commission published its report to when Meagher published her index. So, why is what was evidently possible for Meagher, supposedly not possible for Posner?

One of the flimsy arguments Weisberg makes for Posner's dishonesty is based on the fact that in one interview, he said he'd intended his book to be an open-minded review of all the theories, to try and sort what was credible from what wasn't; while in another, he indicated he thought at the outset that Oswald may have been in a conspiracy with the Mafia, or possibly just a small circle of friends. Weisberg says this "proves" that Posner was untruthful when he claimed to have approached his subject with an open mind.

As with Groden and Livingstone's argument about the backyard photos, this may inadvertently say a lot about the way Weisberg thinks. What does it say about a person, that he thinks having any kind of opinion about a question makes it impossible to set that opinion aside and try to impartially examine all the evidence?

Meanwhile, Weisberg doesn't hold himself to the same standard. Although throughout the book he claims to only be presenting facts, not speculations, at the very outset he explains that he took up research on the assassination after having told his wife, during the interval between Kennedy's murder and Oswald's, that it looked like someone was trying to ensure that Oswald couldn't get a fair trial, and was probably going to kill him -- and then saw it happen. It never occurs to him that if Posner's having an opinion beforehand about what happened (supposedly) prevented him from examining all the evidence impartially, then the exact same argument would apply to Weisberg, who obviously also had an opinion before he'd done any research.

While there are parts of Weisberg's book that might look like a strong case for conspiracy -- if I could rely on his presentation of the facts -- his own inconsistency and his disregard for important facts in areas I already know about make it quite impossible for me to trust his presentation of evidence.

While I'm not in a position to totally rule out conspiratorial explanations in this matter, the evidence as a whole seems to weigh strongly against them. And after seeing so much sloppy research and reasoning on the part of conspiracy theorists, I'm not inclined to invest any more time studying them.

Eric Hamell

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Recent experience seems to confirm something I'd observed before: I'm more motivated to take social initiatives when I have someone to "report back" to.

Today I attended the Sunday platform at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, at which David Lindorff spoke. After initially sitting down next to a couple people I've known for a while and a relative of theirs (all nice, but not my generation), I made myself get up and sit instead with a younger, attractive stranger. I was able to resume conversation after the platform and then had some lunch with her, and exchanged contact info.

This was the third time I'd done something similar in the past few weeks. The first time was just the day before my first appointment with a therapist, having not seen one since 2006. And that was also the last time I had "asked out" someone in a general way (as opposed to inviting them somewhere I was already going), specifically as homework agreed with that therapist.

Even though no homework has been agreed with this new therapist yet, simply having one seems to have motivated me to take initiatives I likely wouldn't have otherwise. The same thing was true back in 1993, when I was being supervised by a psychiatrist in connection with a drug study, also in relation to social anxiety disorder.

This connection probably has to do with the roots of my condition, which I believe lie in a period of my childhood when I had trouble getting my parents' attention. This led me to start avoiding any effort to get people's attention under most circumstances, so as to avoid the pain of being refused it, as well as a low tolerance for frustration in general. I believe it also led to my motivation's being dependent on having someone who would notice and approve my efforts without my having to seek their attention. For instance, unlike most kids apparently, I generally dreaded summer vacation because I seemed to have nothing to do then. I would be impatient for the school year to begin again.

That said, I have also gradually improved during periods when I wasn't seeing a mental health professional -- but with a lag behind things I did while seeing one. It's also true that I've improved thanks to things I've learned from other sources such as the self-described seduction community. But I've also put these into practice mostly while seeing a professional.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Specter's Switch Is No Reason for Labor to Sell Itself Short

Since Senator Arlen Specter has left the Republican party for the Democrats, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO is now indicating it may support him, according to an interview with their president Bill George on WHYY this morning. This is despite Specter's opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, aimed at leveling a playing field presently stacked steeply against workers trying to form unions.

Unions can do better than this; despite their decline in recent years, they still have a lot of resources, especially in the form of people power. They demonstrated this in the considerable role they played in helping elect Barack Obama president.

Why should labor settle for someone like Specter, who opposes such an important part of its agenda? Just because he now has a "D" after his name? Such an attitude betrays a lack of self-confidence, and of confidence in the membership, on the part of the current leadership. This is particularly self-destructive when it leads to dependence on a party that has so often sold workers short.

George indicates that he's "talking" to Specter and may get him to change his position on EFCA. We can wish him well in that effort, but his chances will be better if he makes clear that he knows he can go somewhere else. Nor does he have to settle for what's acceptable to Democratic party power brokers; he could challenge Specter himself, or call a special convention of the labor movement to consider other electoral options, including the Labor Party.

Eric Hamell

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Woodhull Freedom Foundation's newslist has sent me another example of blame-the-victim discourse about sex work, which you can read at My comment follows.

You identify Martha Rosenberg as "a columnist and cartoonist who writes about public health." Looks more to me like she writes about victim-blaming sensationalism -- or, rather, writes it herself.

Her article is identified as an op-ed rather than a news story, yet usually an op-ed piece advocates for a public policy of some sort. What policy is advocated here? Seemingly none, but what's implied is an endorsement of current laws against sex work, and the stigma that is used to justify them.

Her method is S.O.P. for prohibitionists: take the worst cases of what can go wrong, portray these not as worst cases but as the norm (without bothering to cite any sources -- it doesn't appear she's ever talked to a current sex worker, nor even a former one who wasn't "repentant"), and avoid any mention of how prohibition and stigma are largely responsible for these abuses.

No surprise, as she's doing her part to help perpetuate such stigma. How else to interpret a passage like:

"Because when a woman has an improvident one night stand and does the 'shame walk' home, when her 'friends' post or sext her moments of dissipation or compromise or she 'shares' them herself on her blog or webpage that's one thing."

Apparently Rosenberg regards bad sex as an occasion for "shame" -- for women though not men. And she presumes to know better what constitutes "dissipation" or "compromise" for any given woman than the woman herself, who presumably wouldn't post such moments if she saw them the same way. Such "slut-shaming" attitudes not only serve to maintain laws against sex workers, but also let some police, clients, and members of the general public feel entitled to commit all sorts of crimes and abuses against them, or look the other way when others do.

Finally there's this doozy of a head-scratcher:

"But when a nervous john or inappropriate john like a good looking medical student in his early twenties who has no reason to visit a sex worker appears, it may be the first time a woman realizes just how outside of the law and society's protection she has strayed."

Wha-?? After warning women to expect that all clients will be repulsive, she implies that anything else is necessarily scary. While one accused murderer may happen to be a good-looking medical student, this hardly means that such people have no reason to visit a sex worker. For one thing, med students often have no time for dating. Even more ridiculous is the suggestion that nervousness should be a warning sign. Hello? Does it not occur to her that many clients may be clients because they're shy? If I ever patronized a prostitute, as someone with social anxiety disorder I'm pretty sure I would be nervous. Interacting with the opposite sex is typically a big problem area for people with this condition.

But Rosenberg doesn't consider these possibilities. She's too preoccupied with her mission of convincing women involved in sex work that they've "strayed."

Since posting the above, I tried looking Rosenberg up on the Web in an effort to understand the apparent inconsistencies in her attitutde toward sex workers. It seems she regards herself as an ally, but can't help sometimes manifesting a feeling that sex work is essentially unhealthy. See for another example of this, with my comment.

Eric Hamell

Sunday, May 03, 2009

This Should Be Easier Now

I hadn't previously had a home Internet connection that worked with Blogger, so I had to post from a library computer. Now that I do, I should be able to update much more consistently.

I was at the National Equality Rally today (part of Equality Forum), along with a few thousand others who came out in spite of the rain. One man told me he was there from Michigan.

Then I spent some time at the SundayOUT! street fest, where the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia had a table. They organize the local atheist meetups in which I often participate. When someone infected with the Repent America mind virus (of about three who'd been around the rally) came near, the group had fun displaying T-shirts like "Smile -- there's no Hell" and "I'm your friendly neighborhood atheist" and passing out Get Out of Hell Free cards.

All in all, a satisfying day.

Eric Hamell

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Quote of the Month

"Thank goodness Hitler never got the Lizard." -- James Morrow, reading from his latest novel, Shambling Towards Hiroshima, last Thursday.

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Sexting" and the Reactionary Rhetoric of "Consequences"

Dr. Dan Gottlieb, the house psychologist of WHYY radio, revealed his erotophobia again in the interview he gave this morning on the Pennsylvania "sexting" case. I just submitted the following comment to the station:

I was disappointed, but not surprised, by Dan Gottlieb's comments on the "sexting" case. Not surprised, because the promo had made no mention of the nature of the court case, in which the judge threatened not just three, but dozens of teens, mostly girls, with charges of "child pornography" for sending pictures of themselves, not engaged in any sexual activity, to their friends -- unless they submitted to "sexual violence awareness" classes. Are we really supposed to believe that boys are less eager to show off their looks? Or isn't this clearly a case of one judge's attempt to enforce traditional standards of female modesty?

Yet Gottlieb made no mention of this context. Instead, he urged parents talk to their children about "long-term consequences," taking for granted that those same traditional norms of modesty, clearly already being challenged, will still be in place "when they're thirty."

By implying this, and urging parents to convey the same to their children, Gottlieb was in fact perpetuating the same puritanical attitudes as the judge is trying to enforce. It's time he thought about the long-term consequences of his own actions.

You can listen to the original story and post your own comment by going to

Eric Hamell