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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"