Wednesday, February 18, 2009

'Objectivism" .NE. Objectivity

I just sent this letter to the editor of Phactum, the newsletter of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking. The latest issue featured a picture of Ayn Rand on the cover and a quote used as filler on one of the interior pages.


While the paragraphs about naval vessels that have adorned recent Phacta lack pertinence to the group's aims, they're innocuous enough. The same cannot be said for the latest issue's apparent endorsement of Ayn Rand.

Rand exemplified that peculiar species, still extant, that uses "reason" and "objectivity" (or, in this case, "Objectivism") as code words not for critical thinking but, rather, another brand of dogma.

I learned some interesting things about her several years ago when my book group met with Matt Ruff, who used her as a character in his science fiction novel Sewer, Gas & Electric. For one, she refused ever to debate those holding an opposing view. For another, her coterie constituted a cult of personality that actually practiced Maoist-style "criticism and self-criticism."

These facts reinforced the impression I'd previously formed from my own reading of her. In some essays she offers the most ridiculous caricature of "primitive" communist societies -- a portrayal devoid of any actual ethnographic knowledge but faithfully reflecting her ideological prejudice that private property is the prerequisite to "civilization."

Another telling moment was an internal monologue in her novel Atlas Shrugged, describing wilderness as "without cause or purpose." Now there's an odd conflation. Wilderness generally is without purpose, but that hardly means it's without cause. Things in the wild are just as much "caused," i.e., deterministic, as are things in the human world.

The flip side of this confusion is expressed elsewhere in the same passage, where the protagonist reflects on her preference for "the clean, rational world of the [train] tunnels." Taken together, these phrases betray a visceral revulsion toward wilderness, and a rejection of anything not immediately reducible to conscious human purpose as "irrational."

If you know something about her personal history, you can guess this all stems from her family's dispossession by the Bolsheviks when she was a child, which appears to have given her an obsession with order and "legality" at any cost. She defined "freedom" not in terms of democracy at all, but as the untrammeled supremacy of private property -- while conveniently ignoring the role of force in that institution's creation.

I understand that many skeptics are very individualistic and may find Rand's individualism, as well as her atheism, appealing. But an exemplar of critical thinking, she was not.

Eric Hamell

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Price Worth Paying" Albright to Speak at Penn

It's reported in today's Daily Pennsylvanian that former Secretary of State Madeleine "price worth paying" Albright will be speaking at Penn Saturday, 28 February, 7:30pm at Irvine Auditorium, 34th and Spruce Streets. I regrettably couldn't protest her last appearance in this area, which was on a weekday. I look forward to being there this time and hope many of you can be too.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Obama Covers Up Israel's Nukes

In his press conference the other day, President Obama was asked by one reporter whether he knew if any countries in the Middle East currently possess nuclear weapons. He responded only by saying that he "didn't want to speculate," followed by some routine rhetoric.

This was disingenuous. While they have never made it official, it is understood by all observers that Israel has had a nuclear program for many years, and probably at least one or two operational weapons. In fact, when scientist Mordechai Vanunu quit the program and went public with what he knew, they jailed him and held him incommunicado for a couple years. But, evidently, Obama intends to continue our "special relationship" with Israel, whereunder it is never acknowledged that they could be the destabilizing element in the region.

This recalls his famous "speech on race." In a less remembered portion thereof, he differentiated himself from his former pastor by saying he recognizes the threat to Middle East peace as coming from Islamic extremists, and "not from staunch US allies like Israel." Note the implication that a US ally, ipso facto, cannot be the problem. This was a perfect example of what polymath Tariq Ali, in his book The Clash of Fundamentalisms, calls "imperial fundamentalism": the assumption that the United States and its allies are inherently good, and therefore cannot be on the wrong side in any world conflict -- at most, it's assumed, we may occasionally make well-intentioned mistakes. No matter how much evidence accumulates of imperial amorality, the logical conclusion is never drawn.

And, speaking of cover-ups, here's another one. Last week the radio program America Abroad did a story reviewing the recent history of Afghanistan, in the course of which an old official lie was regurgitated. As I wrote them a moment ago:

Your story perpetuated the official myth that US support for religious extremists in Afghanistan began in response to the Soviet invasion. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski actually admitted, in an interview he gave to Le Nouvel Observateur which appeared in the French edition, what some of us had said from the beginning: that this aid to feudal/fundamentalist reactionaries started before the invasion -- five months before, to be exact. A translation of this article can be read at:

http://emperors-clothes.com/interviews/brz.htm.

While claiming it wasn't their intent, Brzezinski admitted they knew this aid might well provoke a Soviet military response, and that they would regard the resulting quagmire for the USSR as a welcome outcome.

And the Afghani people, especially Afghani women, be damned.

A translation of the interview is copied below.

Eric Hamell

Brzezinski's Interview with Le Nouvel Observateur

Le Nouvel Observateur: Former CIA director Robert Gates states in his memoirs: The American secret services began six months before the Soviet intervention to support the Mujahideen [in Afghanistan]. At that time you were president Carters security advisor; thus you played a key role in this affair. Do you confirm this statement?

Zbigniew Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version, the CIA's support for the Mujahideen began in 1980, i.e. after the Soviet army's invasion of Afghanistan on 24 December 1979. But the reality, which was kept secret until today, is completely different: Actually it was on 3 July 1979 that president Carter signed the first directive for the secret support of the opposition against the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day I wrote a note, in which I explained to the president that this support would in my opinion lead to a military intervention by the Soviets.

Le Nouvel Observateur: Despite this risk you were a supporter of this covert action? But perhaps you expected the Soviets to enter this war and tried to provoke it?

Zbigniew Brzezinski: It's not exactly like that. We didn't push the Russians to intervene but we knowingly increased the probability that they would do it.

Le Nouvel Observateur: When the Soviets justified their intervention with the statement that they were fighting against a secret US interference in Afghanistan, nobody believed them. Nevertheless there was a core of truth to this...Do you regret nothing today?

Zbigniew Brzezinski: Regret what? This secret operation was an excellent idea. It lured the Russians into the Afghan trap, and you would like me to regret that? On the day when the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote president Carter, in essence: "We now have the opportunity to provide the USSR with their Viet Nam war." Indeed for ten years Moscow had to conduct a war that was intolerable for the regime, a conflict which involved the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet Empire.

Le Nouvel Observateur: And also, don't you regret having helped future terrorists, having given them weapons and advice?

Zbigniew Brzezinski: What is most important for world history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? Some Islamic hotheads or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Le Nouvel Observateur: "Some hotheads?" But it has been said time and time again: today Islamic fundamentalism represents a world-wide threat...

Zbigniew Brzezinski: Rubbish! It's said that the West has a global policy regarding Islam. That's hogwash: there is no global Islam. Let's look at Islam in a rational and not a demagogic or emotional way. It is the first world religion with 1.5 billion adherents. But what is there in common between fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, moderate Morocco, militaristic Pakistan, pro-Western Egypt and secularized Central Asia? Nothing more than that which connects the Christian countries...

***

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Support Deputy AG Nominee

President Obama's nominee for the position of Deputy Attorney General, David Ogden, is under attack by conservatives for his strong record of support of sexual and reproductive freedom. Copied below is the article by Mark Kernes forwarded to me by the Woodhull Freedom Foundation's newslist. It appeared originally in Adult Video News at http://avnmag.avn.com/articles/34406 (warning: some graphical components of this site may not be safe for workplace viewing). I encourage people to write the White House and their U.S. Senators to support his confirmation.

White House: (202)456-1111 or leave a comment at http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/

Capitol switchboard: (202)225-3121 or find your Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm

Eric Hamell


Obama's Deputy AG Nominee Under Fire for Porn Industry Ties
By Mark Kernes

WASHINGTON, D.C. - If you thought the attacks on Attorney General nominee Eric Holder were fierce, you ain't seen nothin' like the God-wrath visited upon David Ogden, President Obama's choice to fill what was Paul McNulty's job under Alberto Gonzales.

McNulty, together with Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' Chief of Staff, were instrumental in the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys. At least two of those attorneys got the shaft, and another likely forced out of her job, because of their lack of interest in mounting anti-porn cases for Obscenity Prosecution Task Force czar Brent Ward, a former U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah.

Ogden was part of the defense team that helped scuttle the Justice Department's last attempt to prosecute Adam & Eve for mailing obscene materials to Utah. It's no surprise that Ward's supporters are up in arms against him.

Ogden's representation of Adam & Eve is just a small part of his dedication to the First Amendment. He has also represented Playboy and Penthouse, among others.

"David Ogden is a hired gun from Playboy and ACLU," charged Brian Burch, president of Fidelis, a consortium of conservative Catholic groups. "He can't run from his long record of opposing common sense laws protecting families, women, and children. The United States Senate has a responsibility to the American people to insure that Mr. Ogden's full record is fully reviewed before any vote on his nomination."

Within the past few days, nearly every conservative and religious censorship group and spokesperson has added his/her own charges to the mix.

"Why did [Obama] tap the publicly venal Ogden to head his U.S. Justice Department transition team?" asked Meese Commission "researcher" Dr. Judith Reisman. "Ogden must hire lawyers with fealty to the Big Porno conglomerate.... Harvard lawyer President O would never expect justice for blacks from lawyers whose income derived from wealthy Klansmen -- nor could he expect justice for women and children from lawyers whose income is derived from wealthy pornographers. No Ogden team lawyer has ever defended a single woman, man or child alleging victimization by Big Porno.

"The one thing Barack Obama's nominees to the Department of Justice seem to have in common is a disrespect for human life," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America.

"He's everything the pro-family movement has fought against," claimed former DOJ prosecutor Patrick Trueman, now of Alliance Defense Fund. "Yet as deputy attorney general, he will be the chief executive officer of the U.S. Department of Justice. Certainly, he reflects President Obama on Obama's positions on pornography, homosexuality and abortion. We can see this from the nomination. And I believe David Ogden is being groomed for a position on the United States Supreme Court, with this appointment to a high office.... He will use his office of legal counsel, which interprets the law, to change the law.... He would, of course, be in charge of whether or not the Department of Justice enforces the laws against pornography; and we've seen both on adult pornography and on child pornography, he is not with us."

"Our research uncovered a lot of troubling details about Ogden -- not the least of which is his long history of extreme anti-family views," said Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council. "On the issue of life, he has fought for taxpayer funding of abortion, for jailing peaceful protestors, against notifying parents whose minor children are seeking abortions, and against informing women of the emotional risks of abortion. He's been an outspoken proponent of specials rights for homosexuals, the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and unfettered access to pornography -- even in public libraries."

So what did Ogden actually do in the situations cited by Perkins?

For one thing, he represented People for the American Way, the National Education Association and others in the landmark case Rust v. Sullivan, filing a brief supporting the Petitioner's position that the government could not properly prohibit government funds from being used by family planning agencies to counsel, advise or promote to clients that abortion was a viable method of family planning. The Supreme Court, however, ruled for the Respondent -- who in this case was represented by the man who would later become Chief Justice, John Roberts.

However, while most think of Rust as a loss for reproductive freedom, Adam & Eve founder Phil Harvey holds a more nuanced view.

"That decision, which is generally a good one, is often thought of as a bad one because everybody misreads it," Harvey told AVN. "That decision made quite clear that Planned Parenthood was able to and was entitled to say whatever it wanted and do whatever it wanted on the subject of abortion as long as it did not use any federal funds to do so. However, the underlying principle that a government grant recipient may not be de-funded because of what they do with their own funds apart from the federal funding was upheld. But because the decision on its face was negative, it tends to be read, I think, much more negatively than it should be."

More recently, Ogden co-authored the respondents' brief for the National Organization of Women (NOW) during the Supreme Court case involving Joseph Scheidler and others, who had been convicted of RICO violations for having participated in 21 acts of extortion for using threats and violence to shut down women's clinics that performed abortions. The Roberts-dominated Supreme Court threw out Scheidler's conviction.

In 1987, Ogden co-authored an amicus brief for the American Psychological Association (APA), which argued that forcing adolescent girls to notify their parents when they planned to get abortions was an unconstitutional burden on the girls. The case was Hartigan v. Zbaraz, and the Supreme Court found the notification requirement to be unconstitutional.

In the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Ogden wrote: "Abortion rarely causes or exacerbates psychological or emotional problems. When women do experience regret, depression, or guilt, such feelings are mild and diminish rapidly without adversely affecting general functioning.... [I]t is grossly misleading to tell a woman that abortion imposes possible detrimental psychological effects when the risks are negligible in most cases, when the evidence shows that she is more likely to experience feelings of relief and happiness."

Ogden's position was recently borne out by the results of a "meta-study" conducted by a team at Johns Hopkins University. Reviewing 21 studies involving more than 150,000 women, the Johns Hopkins team found no significant differences in long-term mental health between women who choose to abort a pregnancy and others.

Ogden represented the American Psychiatric Association and the National Association of Social Workers in an amicus brief filed for the plaintiff in the famous case of Lawrence v. Texas, which dealt with state anti-sodomy laws.

"Although a shift in public opinion concerning homosexuality occurred in the 1990s, hostility towards gay men and lesbians remains common in contemporary American society," Ogden wrote. "Prejudice against bisexuals appears to exist at comparable levels. Discrimination against gay people in employment and housing also appears to remain widespread. The severity of this anti-gay prejudice is reflected in the consistently high rate of anti-gay harassment and violence in American society."

Ogden also filed an amicus for the APA in the case of Watkins v. United States Army, arguing that "prejudice against lesbians and gay men in the Army is likely to be reduced by encouraging contact between homosexuals and heterosexuals." Ogden argued that there was "no rational basis for the Army's exclusion of gay people."

Ogden has a long track record in supporting free sexual speech. He represented several groups at the appeals court level in a challenge to the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act of 1988 - the legislation which created the 2257 record-keeping regulations.

As an associate at the D.C. law firm of Jenner & Block, Ogden famously assisted P.H.E./Adam & Eve attorney Bruce Ennis in thwarting the Justice Department's multi-jurisdiction prosecution strategy.

At the time of Ogden's involvement with Adam & Eve, the Justice Department had already forced seven adult mail-order companies out of business by simultaneously prosecuting them in numerous far-flung jurisdictions. These government prosecutions were designed to bankrupt porn companies through the cost of legal fees. Only Adam & Eve stood its ground, and in the case of P.H.E., Inc., v. United States Department of Justice, forced the Justice Department to abandon that strategy.

Ogden was also instrumental in obtaining federal funds for use in translating articles in and other adult publications into Braille so they could be read by the blind. Later, he succeeded in removing Playboy from a list of magazines branded as "pornographic" by the Meese Commission.

Also for Adam & Eve, Ogden filed an amicus in Ft. Wayne Books v. Indiana, a case which established the principle that pre-trial seizure of the entire contents of a business when only some of its items were charged as obscene was unlawful. He filed a similar brief in the Ferris Alexander case, which attorney Clyde DeWitt described as "outstanding."

On behalf of P.H.E. and the American Civil Liberties Union in Pope v. Illinois, Ogden helped establish the principle that "community standards" played no part in a jury's determination whether an allegedly obscene work has literary, artistic, political or scientific value; that such value is independent of whatever "the community" may think of the work.

Ogden also played a part in Virginia v. American Booksellers Association, which involved a Virginia statute that criminalized the commercial display of certain visual or written sexual or sadomasochistic material that is harmful to juveniles. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Virginia Supreme Court for a limiting construction of the statute.

Ogden was also involved, at the appeals court level, in the fight against the Children's Internet Protection Act, which forced public libraries to put filtering software on their computers to censor adult material and other material considered harmful to minors in order to continue receiving federal funds. The Supreme Court, in the case of U.S. v. American Library Association, upheld the Act.

In what may have been his most controversial position, Ogden filed an amicus on behalf of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and others in the case of "child pornographer" Stephen Knox, whose conviction revolved around the question of "whether videotapes that focus on the genitalia and pubic area of minor females constitute a 'lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area' under the federal child pornography laws... even though these body parts are covered by clothing." Part of the controversy was the fact that Drew S. Days, the Solicitor General during the Clinton administration, refused to support the government's position that videotaping the clothed genital areas of children should be illegal -- essentially agreeing with Ogden's position. However, after Congress voted to censure Days, Attorney General Janet Reno found another attorney to argue the case to the Supreme Court. Eventually, the Third Circuit, on remand, affirmed Knox's conviction.

Lest anyone mistake Ogden's views on child porn, he testified yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee: "Child pornography is abhorrent.... Issues of children and families have always been of great importance to me."

As for non-sexual issues, Ogden has an equally impressive track record. In Roper v. Simmons, Ogden argued successfully before the Supreme Court that applying the death penalty to juveniles was unconstitutional , and came under fire from conservative groups at that time for suggesting that the high court look to the fact that all but two United Nations members, as signatories to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, had already abolished that punishment.

In fact, there's hardly any position Ogden holds that passes muster with conservatives. Ed Whelan of National Review Online has "unearthed" a memo which Ogden, then a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, wrote to his boss concerning the constitutionality of a federal law prohibiting the unsolicited mailing of advertisements for contraceptives.

Eventually, the high court held that such a prohibition was unconstitutional (Bolger v. Youngs Drug Product Corp.), but in his memo, Ogden argued to Blackmun that, as far as the First Amendment is concerned, "there is no distinction between commercial and noncommercial speech that would render potential offensiveness 'a sufficient justification for prohibition of commercial speech.'"

According to Whelan, however, Ogden sought to push that principle much too far, quoting from Ogden's memo to the effect that, "[I]t will prevent the 'morality'-based type of regulation at issue here from being employed to stop the advertisement of a host of products of which the 'moral majority' types of their successors-in-interest disapprove. If they are deprived of the 'offensiveness' excuse, they will have to come up with more creative excuses."

"Ogden was using his position as a law clerk," Whelan charged, "to advocate an expansive reading of the First Amendment in order to impair citizens whose legislative objectives he displayed contempt for, and those legislative objectives prominently included a crackdown on porn, including limiting solicitation for porn products. There's ample reason to believe that he's ideologically aligned with the positions of the porn industry that he advanced in Knox and other cases," though Whelan admitted that Ogden's views may have changed somewhat over the 26 years since that memo was written.

Several attorneys who represent the adult industry have praised Ogden's work, as has one of his frequent clients, Phil Harvey.

"I got to know him somewhat at that time [of our Utah case], and subsequently," Harvey said. "He is a superb lawyer and he is a good soldier. I mean, if the AG tells him to go out and pursue an obscenity case, he will do it. But he is psychologically and emotionally a strong supporter of free speech, so he certainly isn't going to be pushing, himself, for these cases, with the possibility of really extreme material, or of course anything involving children.... I think [his nomination is] a signal that this Justice Department is not going to be loading up on adult obscenity cases, and that the President doesn't expect them to."

"The people I've talked to feel that Eric Holder has had many opportunities to go after obscenity and related cases in the past and hasn't often done it," Harvey continued. "As for David, I think he's just an all-around good guy, and I think his being there will serve the country well irrespective of what happens in our industry."