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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