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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quote of the Week

"In the bible God kills every species on Earth except for the creatures in Noah's ark because he was angry with man. That's a god that needs a hug." — Erik Buchanan on the Philadelphia-area Atheist Meetup Message Board

Sunday, January 24, 2010

From Slate: Why Did We Focus on Securing Haiti Rather Than Helping Haitians?

Forwarded from Slate to the Philly Socialists list:

Why Did We Focus on Securing Haiti Rather Than Helping Haitians?
Here are two possibilities, neither of them flattering.
By Ben Ehrenreich
Posted Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010, at 1:39 PM ET

By the weekend, it was clear that something perverse was going on in Haiti, something savage and bestial in its lack of concern for human life. I'm not talking about the earthquake, and certainly not about the so-called "looting," which I prefer to think of as the autonomously organized distribution of unjustly hoarded goods. I'm talking about the U.S. relief effort.

For two days after the quake, despite almost unimaginable destruction, there were reasons to be optimistic. With a few notable exceptions — Pat Robertson and David Brooks among them — Americans reacted with extraordinary and unhesitating generosity of spirit and of purse. Port-au-Prince is not much farther from Washington, D.C., than, say, New Orleans, and the current president of the United States, unlike his predecessor, was quick to react to catastrophe. Taking advantage of "our unique capacity to project power around the world," President Barack Obama pledged abundant aid and 10,000 troops.

Troops? Port-au-Prince had been leveled by an earthquake, not a barbarian invasion, but, OK, troops. Maybe they could put down their rifles and, you know, carry stuff, make themselves useful. At least they could get there soon: The naval base at Guantanamo was barely 200 miles away.

The Cubans, at least, would show up quickly. It wasn't until Friday, three days after the quake, that the "supercarrier" USS Carl Vinson, arrived — and promptly ran out of supplies. "We have communications, we have some command and control, but we don't have much relief supplies to offer," admitted Rear Adm. Ted Branch. So what were they doing there?

"Command and control" turned out to be the key words. The U.S. military did what the U.S. military does. Like a slow-witted, fearful giant, it built a wall around itself, commandeering the Port-au-Prince airport and constructing a mini-Green Zone. As thousands of tons of desperately needed food, water, and medical supplies piled up behind the airport fences — and thousands of corpses piled up outside them — Defense Secretary Robert Gates ruled out the possibility of using American aircraft to airdrop supplies: "An airdrop is simply going to lead to riots," he said. The military's first priority was to build a "structure for distribution" and "to provide security." (Four days and many deaths later, the United States began airdropping aid.)

The TV networks and major papers gamely played along. Forget hunger, dehydration, gangrene, septicemia — the real concern was "the security situation," the possibility of chaos, violence, looting. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of on-the-ground accounts from people who did not have to answer to editors described Haitians taking care of one another, digging through rubble with their bare hands, caring for injured loved ones — and strangers — in the absence of outside help. Even the evidence of "looting" documented something that looked more like mutual aid: The photograph that accompanied a Sunday New York Times article reporting "pockets of violence and anarchy" showed men standing atop the ruins of a store, tossing supplies to the gathered crowd.

The guiding assumption, though, was that Haitian society was on the very edge of dissolving into savagery. Suffering from "progress-resistant cultural influences" (that's David Brooks finding a polite way to call black people primitive), Haitians were expected to devour one another and, like wounded dogs, to snap at the hands that fed them. As much as any logistical bottleneck, the mania for security slowed the distribution of aid.

Air traffic control in the Haitian capital was outsourced to an Air Force base in Florida, which, not surprisingly, gave priority to its own pilots. While the military flew in troops and equipment, planes bearing supplies for the Red Cross, the World Food Program, and Doctors Without Borders were rerouted to Santo Domingo in neighboring Dominican Republic. Aid flights from Mexico, Russia, and France were refused permission to land. On Monday, the British Daily Telegraph reported, the French minister in charge of humanitarian aid admitted he had been involved in a "scuffle" with a U.S. commander in the airport's control tower. According to the Telegraph, it took the intervention of the United Nations for the United States to agree to prioritize humanitarian flights over military deliveries.

Meanwhile, much of the aid that was arriving remained at the airport. Haitians watched American helicopters fly over the capital, commanding and controlling, but no aid at all was being distributed in most of the city. On Tuesday, a doctor at a field hospital within site of the runways complained that five to 10 patients were dying each day for lack of the most basic medical necessities. "We can look at the supplies sitting there," Alphonse Edward told Britain's Channel 4 News.

The much-feared descent into anarchy stubbornly refused to materialize. "It is calm at this time," Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, deputy commander of the U.S. Southern Command, admitted to the AP on Monday. "Those who live and work here tell me that the level of violence that we see right now is below pre-earthquake levels." He announced that four — four, in a city of more than 2 million — aid distribution points had been set up on the sixth day of the crisis.

So what happened? Why the mad rush to command and control, with all its ultimately murderous consequences? Why the paranoid focus on security above saving lives? Clearly, President Obama failed to learn one of the basic lessons taught by Hurricane Katrina: You can't solve a humanitarian problem by throwing guns at it. Before the president had finished insisting that "my national security team understands that I will not put up with any excuses," Haiti's fate was sealed. National security teams prioritize national security, an amorphous and expensive notion that has little to do with keeping Haitian citizens alive.

This leaves the more disturbing question of why the Obama administration chose to respond as if they were there to confront an insurgency, rather than to clear rubble and distribute antibiotics and MREs. The beginning of an answer can be found in what Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell, calls "elite panic" — the conviction of the powerful that their own Hobbesian corporate ethic is innate in all of us, that in the absence of centralized authority, only cannibalism can reign.

But the danger of hunger-crazed mobs never came up after the 2004 Pacific tsunami, and no one mentions security when tornados and floods wipe out swaths of the American Midwest. This suggests two possibilities, neither of them flattering. The first is that the administration had strategic reasons for sending 10,000 troops that had little to do with disaster relief. This is the explanation favored by the Latin American left and, given the United States' history of invasion and occupation in Haiti (and in the Dominican Republic and Cuba and Nicaragua and Grenada and Panama), it is difficult to dismiss. Only time will tell what "reconstruction" means.

Another answer lies closer to home. New Orleans and Port-au-Prince have one obvious thing in common: The majority of both cities' residents are black and poor. White people who are not poor have been known, when confronted with black people who are, to start locking their car doors and muttering about their security. It doesn't matter what color our president is. Even when it is ostensibly doing good, the U.S. government can be racist, and, in an entirely civil and bureaucratic fashion, savagely cruel.

Ben Ehrenreich, a journalist and novelist based in Los Angeles, is the author of The Suitors. He reported from Haiti in 2006 for L.A. Weekly.

Article URL:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Don't Think of an Elephant!

The guest at this month's PhACT meeting was Kenneth Biddle of the Paranormal Investigators and Research Association, who spoke on the topic ""Orbs or Dust? A Practical Guide to False Positives." When the role of expectations in alleged "electronic voice phenomena" came up, I was reminded of what I thought I heard in a news segment years ago, and led to wonder if I'd heard the same thing others had. So I GoodSearched for "Mr. Ed" plus "satanic message," and what I saw on the TV Acres site led me to write them the following:

On your page about Mr. Ed you write, "It's not true that if you play the MISTER ED theme song backwards you will hear a satanic message." This is actually a rather nonsensical statement on your part. The only reason you're mentioning it is that some people have heard a satanic message there. I'm one of those people, so I know your statement is untrue as applied to myself.

It was probably twenty years ago, and I heard it in a TV news segment about a couple of Christian radio DJs who said they'd discovered it unexpectedly while playing various TV themes backward. When they played it for the news show, it sounded to me like, "Someone sung this song for Satan."

Now, I'll certainly allow that I may have heard this only because I'd been "primed" for it by the news story (as the DJs may have been primed by stories about "backward masking" in heavy metal). Nonetheless, I did hear it — and presumably would hear it again, given the opportunity — so your statement is false.

Perhaps I'm meant to take your statement only as meaning that, if I do hear such a message, it's my own imagination. This seems highly likely, but I wouldn't need you to tell me that — and if I were the kind of person who would, I probably wouldn't believe you anyway. In fact, by mentioning this rumor without explaining how such priming works, you are likely causing more people, rather than fewer, to believe it. The people disinclined to believe would already disbelieve, while those inclined to believe might be hearing this story for the first time, and ask themselves how you can be so sure that it isn't true. (After all, how can you?) Some may even go to the trouble of finding such a backward recording or making their own and, having had the idea put in their heads by you, hear exactly that.

Telling people who've given credence to such rumors to "grow up" will not impress them. They'll probably think you're naive (even a "dupe of Satan") in dismissing something like this as ridiculous. If you really want to promote critical thinking, you'll have to get a better handle on the psychology of belief than you seem to have at present.

Eric Hamell

Funds Sought for Progressive Relief Team to Haiti

This message just received from the Philly Socialists list:

Folk, we need your help in raising funds for the Progressive Relief team. Please
ask any and everyone to assist with donations sent via mail to IFCO/GHT 418
145th Street, New York, New York 10031. The Interreligious Foundation of
Community Organizations is tax exempt 501c3. The organization is best known for
one of its groups- Pastors for Peace.

I tried to set up a pay pal
account but have been unsuccessful with getting it to function. I will ask IFCO
for help on Monday. If we can get it functioning I will send information.

One of our Progressive Medical Relief Teams is entering Haiti now. The
others are soon off. The group from Boston, New York and Philadelphia take off
this coming week with 12 medical personnel (doctors, herbalist, nurses). The
group is accompanied by a 3 member New York radio team for immedate news from
the ground.

We need approximately $25,000 for the team, medical
suppplies and survival kits. If you have medical supplies or can help secure
survivl kits call Pierre Leroy at 845-679-7320 or email: or

Colia L.
Alan Benjamin
Guadeloupe Haiti Tour USA
International Commission of Inquiry On Haiti 2009

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Romanticism Cuts Across Ideologies

While GoodSearching for "African People's Socialist party" plus "cult" (the group is attempting to organize in my neighborhood), I encountered a post titled "Godard's Judgment" on David R. Adler's blog. In the course of reviewing the Godard film Weekend, he quotes another blogger about what he calls

...the extraordinary romantic hostility to 'bourgeois' society that Marxism projects. Hatred of 'bourgeois' rights, 'bourgeois' democracy, 'bourgeois' morality, 'bourgeois' art, the 'bourgeois' family (and on and on), has fuelled hatred toward decent if prosaic societies and institutions and indulgence or worse toward appalling societies and institutions. And all in the name and the spirit of being 'anti-capitalist' or 'anti-bourgeois'.

I responded with this comment:

I haven't seen the film, but I think the quote from "Why I Am Not a Marxist" makes an incorrect imputation. Marx himself never advocated totalitarianism, while many non-Marxists (e.g., some liberals and anarchists) have apologized for it.

Some professed Marxists have also done so, but others have unambiguously denounced it. The real problem here is not Marxism but romanticism, fueled by a longing for something in the real world that one can support uncritically. Unfortunately many people are socialized with this desire, starting with religious indoctrination about an all-powerful, all-loving being. When such people rebel against a conservative upbringing, without having received any training in critical thinking, they are likely to fall into this trap. (The Sixties counterculture was replete with examples, not only romanticizing Maoism but also psychedelics and gurus.)

And of course, in many cases it's mainly about wanting to shock society, starting with one's parents.
You can read the original post at

Eric Hamell

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

How Not to Respond to Provocateurs

It was reported on today's Morning Edition that a group called Islam for UK is planning a march in an Enlish town that is known for its ceremonies honoring British soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. The stated purpose of the march is to remember Afghan civilians killed in the conflict, but the choice of venue clearly reflects to use sensationalism with a view to recruiting people to political Islam.

Understandably, some British Muslims aren't happy about this. Their group, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, has announced a counterprotest.

While I sympathize with their anger at the attempt to foment polarization, I fear their chosen response will play into the Islamists' hands. It will let them pose as the only ones concerned about civilian deaths, while possible creating the impression that all secularists are prowar.

Instead of a protest focused on opposing the Islamists, it might make more sense for secularists to demonstrate against the war as secularists. In this way they could undercut the Islamists' frame rather than reinforce it.

Eric Hamell

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Gaza Freedom March: Here's why I'm joining

By Bill Perry

Bucks County Courier Times
(I'd provide a link, but currently it points to the wrong column — Eric)

I am a disabled Vietnam paratrooper-combat veteran whose main occupation is helping World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans get the evaluations, treatment and compensation for post traumatic stress disorder they deserve.

One thousand other Americans, in addition to me, will be participating in the Gaza Freedom March on Dec. 31 in occupied Palestine. My main motivation for participating in the Gaza Freedom March is that the one common thread in the narratives of most of our combat veterans, from World War II through Afghanistan and Iraq, is the terrible tragedies that the children victims of war are forced to endure.

Dec. 27 is the first anniversary of the brutal 23-day Israeli assault on Gaza, an area the size of Philadelphia, with roughly the same population. The Dec. 31 Gaza Freedom March is important to me in that it will help focus the world's attention on the ongoing Israeli siege on Gaza, and the Israeli sanctions that force thousands of women and children to either live in pup tents, or in hollowed out areas in the rubble of their former homes.

During the Israeli assault this time, last year, they used Apache helicopters with Hell Fire missiles, unmanned aircraft known as drones (armed with missiles), F-16 jets with 500-pound bombs, and white phosphorous artillery munitions in civilian areas, which burn victims to death and are illegal under international humanitarian law. The body count was over 1,400 Palestinians (including over 400 children) and 13 Israelis (all but three were combatants). Israel trumpeted their 100-to-1 "kill ratio," without mentioning that half their 10 KIA were from their own "friendly fire," which would, in effect, make their "kill ratio" more than 200 to 1.

A year later, the cruel, collective punishment and humiliation of Palestinian women and children continues. Israel not only continues to block shipments of cement, mortar, bricks, lumber, window glass and other materials needed for rebuilding Gaza homes and schools, but also school supplies, pencils, pens, sanitary napkins and tampons.

I cannot, for the life of me, understand why the folks, whose history includes imprisonment in the Warsaw Ghetto, a mere 70 years ago, continue to jail the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip, in the world's largest open air prison (56 percent of the 1.5 million open air prisoners are children).

Why would the ruling party of Israel continually cry "victim," referring to their former status as the oppressed peoples of 65 to 70 years ago, then turn around and inflict so much death and destruction upon Palestinian civilians?

I'm proud to be marching in Gaza with a modern-day hero and role model, Hedy Epstein, 85, a Holocaust survivor who remembers events such as Hitler coming to power, Kristallnacht, the burning of synagogues, and the loss of both her parents in Auschwitz 1942.

Hedy Epstein is especially outraged that Israel won't allow materials to rebuild the mosques, four hospitals, three clinics, numerous schools and the well-marked ambulances that were destroyed by Israel in the 23-day siege of Gaza last year. Epstein is a true example of what it really means to be a part of Judaism.

Although the mainstream media have no interest in covering Gaza Freedom Marchers like Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, or me, a Bucks County veterans advocate, or any of the 1,000 North American marchers calling for Israel to lift their sanctions, I would hope Courier Times readers would take the time to read the Tel Aviv daily newspaper Ha'aretz' columnists like Amira Haas ( and their opinions of what their government is doing to the Palestinian people.

Nearly 190 countries, worldwide, have expressed outrage, yet three billion of our American tax dollars per year help Israel enforce this ongoing human tragedy.

Is our $3 billion per year foreign aid to Israel creating future terrorists? We are paying for 20-foot-high concrete barriers in the West Bank, and 50-foot, pile-driven steel walls in Gaza. Who are the real victims? Why do we never hear balanced reports of the apartheid horrors in Palestine?

Exactly where and how does the rational and sane world begin the therapy programs for all these traumatized children?