Sunday, March 08, 2009

Meditations On The Issue of Rape And Its Statistical Analysis

In a class I was taking, a discussion on rape turned to an area that made me uncomfortable: The oft-cited claim that 1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetime. The statistic is commonly thrown around, but it's a very contentious point and statisticians and sociologists are still discussing it.

For example: According to a BBC News article, "one in 20" women ages 16-59 were raped (1). Now, the fact that the data didn't include earlier pre-teens may throw it off, but there's no compelling argument that says that the the gap between 5% and 25% would be filled by such a statistical change. It is true that this data is specifically for England and Wales, but it would be very strange for America to be so drastically different from comparable European countries. In fact, the only crime where America is simply off the charts from all other industrial nations is in gun crime. Seeing this number, I become very skeptical when I see statistics that claim that the incidence in America is an order of magnitude higher.

Further, the data that suggests that rape is that prevalent is often woefully antiquated. As Fahrenthold suggests in the Washington Post, "The number of rapes per capita in the United States has plunged by more than 85 percent since the 1970s, and reported rape fell last year even while other violent offenses increased, according to federal crime data." (2). Critics of this data argue that non-reporting plagues the numbers. That's true, but there's two problems with the assertion. First: Non-reporting cuts the data both ways. If a large portion of women don't report the crime to police or other authorities, it becomes very difficult to get a real handle on the amount of rape and sexual abuse in the population. Second: There is NO reason to expect that there has been an INCREASE in women non-reporting, and certainly not by enough to compensate for the 85% plunge in per capita rapes. If since the 1970s the population of women who were raped but didn't report it didn't increase, that'd mean that the total amount as WELL as the reported amount went down by 85%. And we have every reason to believe that, in fact, reporting of rape has INCREASED, as Special Victims Units become better trained, feminism makes impacts on the broader society, and shows like Special Victims Unit show the social issues behind rape.

And the victimization of men data is bizarre. For example, in the total population, "3% of American men experience rape". Yet 1 in every 10 victims were men in 2003! (3) This indicates changes in the data that are very large: 3% to 10% of men being victims. This makes some sense if total rape has declined and if feminism has made a real impact in the prevalance of rape. More importantly, the sharp change indicates just how difficult it is to talk about sexual abuse for the entirety of the US population with any degree of statistical certainty.

According to RAINN, "1 out of every 6 American women have been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape)" [my emphasis]. Now, this is a horrible statistic. But one solution (far from the only or primary solution) would be for men, women and police to acquire techniques to turn more completed rapes into attempted rapes and more attempted rapes into no rapes. More importantly, that's the difference between 16.6% of the population and 25% of the population. (3)

Yet another source suggests, "Colorado's rape survey invited banner headlines-and got them. '1 in 7 women raped,' said the Denver Rocky Mountain News, and that was a restrained interpretation compared with the official press release, which claimed the survey 'revealed that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 17 men have been raped.' But the results are much more ambiguous than that, and the headlines are dangerously misleading." (4).

Note that, even before looking at the results, we see that one source referring to the same survey got 1 in 7 women while another source got 1 in 4!

According to "Women, Men and Gender" by Mary Roth Walsh, many of the statistics of "rape" include discrimination against lesbians! Note that that citation is from people who do not believe that rape statistics are overblown. (5) I concur with Walsh that to dismiss the incidence of rape as mere feminist exaggeration is foolishness of the highest order, but I feel that it is vital to bear in mind the real variation in the data. These are not easy questions to answer, so numerous studies arrive at different figures. Choosing the highest figure of a broad range smacks of arbitrary propaganda.

Then we have to start looking at definitions of rape. These are hard questions. It seems obvious that a man who sleeps with a woman who is flatly unconscious thanks to alcohol is probably committing rape. But what if the woman insisted beforehand that he do so? If we don't accept prior consent as nullifying apparent lack of consent, then BDSM and rape fantasy games are flatly out the window. Plenty of lesbians who share these fetishes will just love that assertion. At what threshold does intoxication from alcohol or other drugs make any sex rape? .1 BAC? .2 BAC? Being a little tipsy? Being stone drunk? Many people, men and women alike, even married couples, use alcohol to get past socially-programmed, sexist, Puritanical impositions and inhibitions. To say that all of that must be rape begs some harsh questions.
If someone gets convinced to sleep with someone else thanks to a "hard sell" or pressure but was under no implied or real threat of force, how do we evaluate that? Clearly rape is not simply every sexual act that one regrets. I'd say a large portion of the population has regretted some dalliance they've had, some boyfriend they've dated, some clingy girlfriend, but none of those acts constitute rape. Yet, quite clearly, someone who takes someone who is alone and scared, as the man in the article "Confessions of a Date Rapist" did, and makes them afraid to say no by the strength of their sell and the force of their words is doing something questionable, even if not out-and-out rape. If the victim fears that there was a clear threat of force and the men had every opportunity to be aware of that and rectify it, I believe there is a strong case to be made that that IS rape and that the man is culpable! Not everyone agrees with my position, however; some think that you have to offer real indication otherwise. Wendy McElroy has gone so far as to define rape as exclusively being sex due to force or the direct threat of force! I think her definition is a poor one. How highly do we rank the verbal "coercion" or strong convincing? Some people argue that rapists who use violent means or the threat of violence are preferable to those who ply their victims with GHB. Yet many argue the opposite, that the chemical and memory-altering effects of GHB make the process of recovery and confronting the traumatic event harder. Whom should we believe? What should we value more: The recovery afterwards, or avoiding physical harm during the actual event?

Suffice it to say that these are not trivial questions, and exactly how we ask them alters the data. Many studies that arrive at the higher figures in the range (1 in 4 women to 1 in 6 women as opposed to 1 in 8 women, 1 in 16 women or 1 in 32 women) aggregate domestic abuse, questionably broad categories of sex under the influence of drugs (no matter how minor the threshold), etc. This isn't necessarily bad science. Unlike men's rights reprobates, I'm not going to argue that this makes the data empty feminist propaganda. But it means we have to be careful exactly what we cite for and not merely make empty assertions.

Then we have to take into account race. Minority women are far less likely than the average member of the population to report a rape, due to a variety of factors (fear of a racist criminal justice system, in-group loyalty, the idea that one does not air one's "dirty laundry", etc.)

Only Neanderthals and extremists in the men's right movement think that rape is not a serious social phenomenon, but like most social phenomena it is difficult to actually say if it is 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/6, or 1/32 of women who experience rape. Different studies, geographical areas, definitions, etc. report different things. And, unfortunately, the fact that women and men do not report many of their attacks makes it very difficult to get a handle on the data. What is clear is that the aura of fear needs to be dispelled, that we need to see only a minority of victims not reporting their attackers, and that the legal system needs a massive overhaul in order to accommodate this goal, from entry-point police officers being trained in sensitivity to end-point judicial practices. But using statistics that are questionable without noting the variation only makes us less credible in doing so. The fact that many of my fellow feminists routinely cite the highest number in a range of data for an issue that even they admit by their very nature is almost impossible to study with certainty does nothing to shore up good will.

Further, to say that high incidences of rape demonstrate an assault upon women by men is to ignore one simple, vital fact: Repeat offending. A large amount of victims, male and female, share attackers or victimizers. If we buy the "Confessions of a Date Rapist" piece, then it becomes clear that a particular category of men is the type overwhelmingly committing date rape. Now, it is true that gang rape would be a factor in the opposite direction (since one man would victimize many women), but gang rape is a very small section of the data. Further, most gang rapists are also repeat offenders, returning the balance sheet back. At the end of the day, while a large portion of the female population will be raped or abused (the majority by acquaintances within their extended social network), this does not mean an equally large portion of men are rapists. Taking that into account, it becomes far less tenable to say that a war is being waged by men against women. If a small group of bastards are assaulting a large group of women, while a large portion of men are decent and would never dream of raping someone, then the situation is more complex.

Of course, to those who think that rape says NOTHING about the broader gender oppression, one merely need to look at the overwhelming amount of male prison rape. Remove women from the picture and men use sexualized violence against each other. So there clearly are a broad variety of gender factors, and people who declare that rape is purely criminological in nature with no influence from patriarchy or sexism are missing a big part of the picture. For example: Frat houses routinely make rape possible by cultivating deeply patriarchal, masculine attitudes and encouraging a "Within the club" mentality. In my opinion, a standard "test" for fraternity membership should be to see what someone would do if they saw a rape occuring. If they would not call the police, tell a frat brother, rush into the room to stop it, or do some other proactive measure, they should be kicked out of the frat. THIS would prove that men are ready to deal with rape.

An exercise we did in this class was to list things men and women do to avoid rape. The supposed point was that men do almost nothing and women do quite a lot. I was unable to point out that one thing men concerned about rape do is avoid going to gay bars and avoid going to prison; obviously nowhere near the amount of stress that the common rape-prevention rituals among women have, but these are things. But I also pointed out that the long list of things women do to protect themselves from rape (have their apartment on the second story, take self-defense classes, strengthen their locks and deadbolts, be prepared to use their keys as improvised weapons, watch their drinks at parties, have chaperones or travel in groups) is virtually the same list men are instructed to do to protect themselves from other crime. This underlines one key fact: Crime rates in general and rape rates in particular in our country have been declining, yet the media racializes and amplifies the data. Throughout the 1990s, crime went down yet media presentations of it went up more than six fold according to some media scholars! (See Bowling for Columbine). Many feminists properly point out that high rape rates are a real concern, but they also usually point out the vital fact: Most rape occurs from acquaintances. Virtually all of the things that we listed that women do to protect themselves are things that will not stop acquaintance rape.

Rape is a serious issue, but it has also been artificially inflated and racialized by a media determined to use fear to foment apathy and mistrust in order to insure ruling class dominance. The fact that for many white women the image of a rapist is a black mugger or burglar rather than their next door neighbor or the friendly neighborhood priest is the factor I am talking about. And the problem with simply saying, unadorned, that "1 out of 4 women are raped", is that while it MAY raise consciousness about gender issues, it sabotages our brothers and sisters of color by making many people conjure up racial spectres of black men raping women left and right. These unconscious racial fears were expressed in the mythology about rape in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina.

I work with victims of rape constantly. I view rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse as monstrous actions that may be worse than murder, in that both a living person and their families and social networks have been destroyed and harmed. And the closest I have come in my life to assaulting another human being has been when I have been aware of sexual abuse. I am intimately, tragically aware of the veil of silence that protects victimizers and destroys victims. This tragic background doesn't need the inflated use of otherwise good statistics to amass social interest and outrage.


1. BBC News.

2. "Statistics Show Drop In U.S. Rape Cases".

3. "Who Are the Victims?" .



Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Reply to Jonathan Krohn

In response to a request from my roommates, I watched Jonathan Krohn's speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, available here: . As a impromptu reply, I posted this: . Now, the people filming were determined to applaud, and the battery on the camera ran out, so my reply was not as long or as audible as I hoped. Further, some replies have since come up. This blog post is intended to grapple with these issues.

My first thought when viewing the comments to the video so far is, "Talk about 'talking points'". So far, every conservative hack that has bothered to reply to the video has said SOMETHING about Jonathan Krohn's age, defending it by saying that the message and the messenger are separate things, etc. It's as if they are defensive about Jonathan's age, as if this idea has been thrown at them many a time, as if they were secretly aware of the absurdity of the situation...

The fact is, I made quite clear that I was saying almost nothing about Jonathan's age. True, I have some concerns that someone who is a pre-teen can really have the independent mind needed to make judgments separate from those around him. That doesn't mean, as I made clear, that we shouldn't listen to him. But when I was 13, I said things due to my peer groups, my parents, and other subtle influences that now I would reject. For example: When I was 13, I hypothesized that race in this country was primarily the effect of past discrimination and racism combined with occasional discrimination and color-blind factors such as the way the industrial economy worked. Now, I would reject that position, given the wealth of evidence that indicates that race is an independent social factor above and beyond class, gender and politics.

No, my argument, as I repeated twice, was that it says something about the people who listen to Krohn that they are buying a book and listening to a speech from a 13 year old. In my opinion, it indicates that many of their policy opinions are woefully simplistic, or that they need good propaganda from an innocent to sell their political beliefs.

Further, I made clear that I applaud Jonathan Krohn for having political opinions at his age. And for writing a book. And for being articulate, and polite, and wearing a suit, and all that. Those are all good things. Nothing I say to the young man should be taken as discouraging him; indeed, I went through the same process. But the way I grew as a political thinker was in part to be challenged, to have people ask for my sources and demand footnotes and quotations and citations, to make logical arguments. In any respect, the only comment I was making for the first part of the video was that there was a sense of absurdity (a delightful, Daily Show-worthy sense) to seeing grown men and women applaud a child for speaking platitudes.

More importantly, none of the commentators wanted to grapple with my serious argument: That these were, indeed, just platitudes, that the arguments he provided sounded nice but had no basis in reality and thus functioned as empty, willful propaganda.

It is tremendously easy for someone to come along after a political group has been in charge for the last 8 years and become immensely unpopular declaring that, "Oh, no, all of you got it wrong, we actually believe in these key principles." The problem with Krohn's viewpoint is that it's just semantics: He is simply redefining what the word "conservative" means, rather than providing any actual argument about real policy. As with all semantics, we can conclude one of two things.

A) Krohn means to refer to real-life "conservatives": Republicans, some Independents, and people generally defined as the right wing. Given that he is speaking for CPAC, I am guessing that this is how his comments are meant to be taken. If this is the case, Krohn's statements are simply, verifiably, and directly false. The people he is talking about overwhelmingly do not hold these principles, as can clearly be determined. Perhaps some peripheral "true believers" do in fact hold these opinions, but the majority of both the rank and file seem to not hold such opinions and vote for candidates who do not hold such opinions. The case becomes more difficult when we include voter data that indicates that a majority of people voting for Bush and Reagan actually opposed their policies, but insofar as Krohn is offering propaganda that helps exacerbate such misconceptions and continues to keep elections about platitudes, Krohn is amplifying this problem.

B) Krohn seeks to redefine the group of "conservatives" to include people who share his four principles. If this is the case, nothing has changed. Krohn has created a new, trivial definition within which almost no one fits, and which ironically includes a great variety of liberals and leftists). Certainly, this definition does not describe the intellectual movement which most people accept as "conservative" or right-wing. We must now find a new definition for people who are politically right, vote Republican, and tend to be pro-war, pro-gun, pro-military and pro-religion.

It is possible that Krohn is talking about traditional conservativism rather than religious neo-conservativism. But if that's the case, he is again using semantics to paper over real ideological differences, differences that are tearing a party apart.

So, let us examine the circle of people whom Krohn seems to be talking about and whom CPAC as a group supports. (CPAC, of course, postures as independent and non-partisan, but their past speakers have included Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, David Horowitz, George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich). Let us compare the actions and real policies of this group to the four principles that Krohn alleges conservatism is defined by.

Respect for the Constitution? The PATRIOT act, wiretapping, and the various means through which the Bush Administration undermined the First and Fourth Amendments alone throws this out the window. Add in the fact that Bush was illegally, in violation of US law and the Geneva Convention, detaining suspected terrorists without trials and without serious charges or arrests being made with limited access to lawyers and with brutal, "cruel and unusual" torture and we have a clear cut case.

For those who don't understand my point about the Presidents since World War II and treaty violations: Article VI of the US Constitution declares that, "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." [my emphasis].

This means that the supreme "Law of the Land" includes any treaties ratified by the US Congress. Judges and legal authorities will be bound by them, above and beyond any state laws (which is irrelevant when federal agents carry out the actions).

As Noam Chomsky declared in Manufacturing Consent, "If the Nuremburg accords were enforced, every post-war American President would have been hung." (1). He further gives examples as to how every President violated various laws in his article, "If the Nuremberg Laws were Applied..." (2). Eisenhower's actions in Guatemala, Kennedy's actions in Cuba, LBJ and Nixon's actions in Indochina... All are serious war crimes.

The United States refuses to make honest steps towards disarmaments and has as official policy the willingness to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear NPT signatories: That is a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Almost every war the US has waged since World War II has been in blatant violation of the UN Charter, which declares that states cannot unilaterally attack other nations except in response to imminent threat (which has a specific and unequivocal meaning: forces either in the country or directly being sent to the country, not nuclear weapons that might at some distant date be used to possibly deter the US from doing something). The US routinely flouts the Geneva Convention, such as with its waterboarding practices that even many in the Justice Department knew were clearly torture.

So we see a pattern of the incumbent President and of almost every President before going back to Truman flouting the Constitution and engaging in routine impeachable high crimes. This disproves that conservatives, as defined in the real world, are pro-Constitution.

His second prong is "respect for life". But this is even more of a joke than the first part of his principles.

How is "respect for life" held by a party which bombs innocent Iraqis and Afghanis? How is "respect for life" held by a party which held the ideology that we "have to fight them there so we don't fight them here", which declares that it's okay to turn other peoples' countries into flypaper for terrorists so you don't have to suffer loss and they do? How is "respect for life" held by a party which undercuts social policy that is designed to protect the poor? Even if one accepts that all of these things have justifications, they don't have to do with "respect for life".

It's clear that Jonathan is trying to reconcile the anti-abortion stance of many conservatives with the incredibly ugly contempt for life conservatives hold in almost every other domain. Sorry, Jonathan, but it just won't work.

Further, "respect for life" is an empty platitude. Any of his supporters can get out of my above allegations by simply redefining what the phrase means, ad nauseum, to suit their goals. Why isn't "respect for life" demonstrated by people who want to insure that pregnant mothers have options that don't involve forcing them to have a child they don't want? Protecting the rights of fetuses or unborn life isn't by itself a bad thing, but the problem is that both sides are coming at the problem with an idea of what "respect for life" constitutes that ends up being mutually exclusive.

His third "principle" is "less government". At this point, we do not even achieve the level of farce.

How can the party which demands ever-higher military budgets be for "less government"? The party that wants to expand the capacity of the state to pry into our personal lives is somehow for "less government"? Are these comments intended to be read seriously?

There are some honest libertarians out there who support less government all around. Only even they mysteriously seem to like folks like Ron Paul, who honestly thinks that black youth in Washington DC should be treated differently by the police than white youth (3).

In fact, "conservatives" are truly radical statists. They want the state to expand their wallets, attack their enemies and protect their interests. They use the mantra of "less government" as a generic bludgeon to beat back anything the state does that does not satisfy those interests and hope that people's attention spans don't last long enough to recognize the hypocrisy and self-contradiction.

Real "conservatives" would actually hold very few of Krohn's positions. Rather, conservativism as a philosophy stems from the idea that social change should happen slowly and organically rather than rapidly because of the fact that societies are complex systems. In this sense, Noam Chomsky, the anarchist, is a conservative! He argues that change should come incrementally from social movements. As I said in the video: The word "conservative" has become much-maligned thanks to the radical statists who have cloaked themselves in its hallowed halls.

Finally, Krohn declares that the fourth and last principle is "personal responsibility".

This would make an ounce of sense if conservatives did not come out of the woodwork with an array of irrelevant and offensive apologies to protect their favored persons from said personal responsibility. If conservatives stopped excusing Ann Coulter's argument that we should nuke people for fun, and stopped excusing every new racist who drops the n-word and blaming the victims for being too "sensitive", and stopped excusing war crimes committed by their government, this would be a fair argument.

In fact, conservatives are all too willing to pass the buck of personal responsibility onto everyone else. (4).

So, for example, when they tell black folks and women to "Get over it" (that is, get over centuries of oppression and disenfranchisement which continues), they are passing the buck onto those people to solve the racial and gender problems in the United States. They could "Get over it" themselves; that is, white, male conservatives could just admit that bad things happened in the past and stop lionizing folks like Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. They could acknowledge that the country is built on the land of a nearly exterminated native population. But instead of taking that "personal responsibility", they demand everyone else change. This is especially egregious given that it is generally them with the power, wealth and influence, so one would think that they could afford to be magnanimous.

The irony of wagging the finger at others to have more personal responsibility is one of those many things Jonathan is apparently too young to recognize.

And what of his claim that the Republican Party is merely "the shell"? If this is the case, shouldn't people stop voting for a Party when the elected officials presented by that party routinely flout the principles Krohn cites? No, that is merely hand-waving, deceptive apologia, and no more.

Or what of his claim that conservatives are unique in that their policy is principle based? Surely Mr. Krohn must be joking. Refusing to allow a grandmother to starve, the principle behind Social Security, is a principle that animates policy, whether or not Mr. Krohn likes that particular principle. (Of course, he should, given his ostensible concern with the "right to life"). Opposing unjust, vicious, colonial wars is not only deeply principle-based but tremendously courageous, unlike Krohn's platitudes, given the real social costs those who speak up against jingoist conformity face.

In short, Mr. Krohn seems to be unconsciously relaying myths his parents, adult figures in his life, and perhaps his friends and peer groups suggest to him. But it doesn't seem that he is capable of making arguments that stand serious muster. Again, this says nothing about him. To have written a book and to be able to address adults at his age is a true feat, and something worth applauding. No, it says something about the innumerable adults who have no such excuse. It says something about the people who have graduated from high school and prestigious universities who aren't able to correct Krohn where he errs and show Krohn how much more complex the world is. It says that they are either hopelessly ignorant ideologues or hopelessly cynical demagogues.




3. "Ron Paul Is Not Your Savior". . To wit:

But it gets a lot worse: Paul's political literature has stated that it is sensible to be afraid of black men; that "95 percent of African Americans in [Washington D.C.] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal"; that black male children (but not white ones) should be treated and tried as adults for crimes they commit beginning at age 13; and he referred to two black men that were interviewed by Ted Koppel after the Los Angeles 1992 uprising as "animals". Kanye West was right when he said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." Guess what? If his own political literature is any indication, Ron Paul loathes black people.

4. Tim Wise discusses this phenomenon frequently. See: //

And, of course, so much more can be said in this vein.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Racial Color-Blindness: Just As Bad As Regular Blindness

There is a common hypothesis, becoming increasingly popular on the eve of Obama's election (an important step forward in the history of race relations and a major change from the last eight years of Republican neo-conservative decimation, but hardly a revolutionary or progressive vanguard-to-be), that likes to call itself "color-blind". The reasoning goes somewhat like this: "The foundation of racism is seeing race, recognizing ethnic and racial groups. So if we want to end racism, we have to be color-blind. We have to stop seeing race or talking about race. And that means we can't do affirmative action or talk about racism, because that's just bringing back the problem. Nope. We're all Americans here. After all, I don't see race, and if you do, you must be a racist." I call it the Colbert hypothesis or position on race, after Stephen Colbert's brilliant reducio ad absurdum parody of this argument.

The fact that such an idiotic position can become remotely commonplace says nothing but that a lot of Americans will accept whatever is spoonfed to them thanks to not having been immersed in the critical thinking and resistance environments that might engender different outcomes.

Let's begin with the quibbles first. Race doesn't come from seeing race any more than sexism comes from seeing gender and sex or classism comes from seeing the poor. It comes from attaching onus, by definition. It is perfectly possible and indeed quite common for people to honor each other's racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds without being divisive, insulting, racist, offensive or attaching stigma and stereotypes to the discussion.

Also, there is no we. Due to the existence of a racial caste system and a racialized opportunity structure, "we" has always only referred to white folks or black folks, never both at the same time. (Note that, of course, a progressive activist can use "we" to refer to the poor and therefore the white AND the black poor, but this is not what I'm talking about. Such an activist will be the first to point out that, in that parallel class instance, there is no such thing as "we" either, since the rich and the poor have diametrically opposed class interests).

Now, let's get to the core problem with the argument. It is two fold. First: Color-blindness is an impossibility. Socialization, history and the institutional facts on the ground make being honestly color-blind quixotic. But, second: Were it possible, it would be a disability, just like, well, red-green color-blindness.

For the first: Implicit Attitude Tests conducted by, among others, Professor Brian Nosek and his partners Tony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji, have shown that whites tend to associate negative words and concepts with black faces. Even progressive whites often do this. Though I myself scored well on the IAT, actually associating black faces positively, this is clearly not the majority. But Nosek is only demonstrating scientifically what decades of sociology as well as the results of common sense and activism makes clear: People have prejudicial notions deeply socialized, from ethnic slurs to various stereotypes. This makes sense: They're part of history, part of common parlance, part of the way we talk to each other.

There's no problem with this, per se. These attitudes, stereotypes and concepts can be battled with consciousness and awareness. But that's the point: It requires one to be conscious.

The "color-blindness" school thus, far from denying or reducing racism, actually allows it to flourish, by prevent the consciousness that would allow us to question subconscious stereotypes and implicit beliefs. An employer may pretend to be color-blind, but when it comes to evaluating resumés, he simply won't give the applications with the black-sounding names as much attention or time.

And, of course, how many times have any of us, even those who do believe in color-blindness, heard someone say, "I'm not a racist, but.. [some incredibly racist statement]?" Undoubtedly plenty, especially those who engage in any anti-racist activism.

Simply put: It is impossible to be color-blind in a racist society. And anyone with pretenses to the contrary is not only lying to themselves and everyone else by extension, but is also perpetuating racism.

This becomes especially true when the unwillingness to bring up race and racism means being unwilling to hear the experiences of black and ethnic communities with racism and with the positive elements of their own culture. Whatever one thinks of multi-culturalism, the problem with cultural invisibility, simply pretending that cultural differences don't matter, is that it acts as genocidal cleansing by the dominant culture (who have the power to make sure their culture is what's left behind as the "non-cultural" norm) against the subservient culture. So, for example, whites who overwhelmingly declared that Katrina told us nothing about race were engaging in a racist exercise. Not only were they denying what blacks overwhelmingly experienced about what was happening to their community, but they even denied that such a disagreement said anything about race and racism in this country. I was so appalled by this fact precisely because to even hold it means to believe that black opinions about racism don't matter, that they say nothing about race and racial relations whatsoever, an opinion that can only be held by those who implicitly believe that blacks opinions in general do not matter.

And that brings us to the second problem: Color-blindness, even were it possible, would be stupid.

It boggles my mind to think that it could be a virtue to be blind to any part of reality, social or otherwise. Failing to see things, understand things and cope with things never has, never is and never will be the appropriate strategy. Being blind to really existing racism is just as much a disability as being blind to anything.

One can, I suppose, deny racism exists. Doing so is fundamentally idiotic, of course, and has absolutely no theoretical, common sense or social science support to it. Reasonable people can disagree about the salience of race in modern American society, but to literally believe it has no impact whatsoever and never appears to changes events is to subscribe to dogmatic idiocy. But this assessment on my part is moot. Suffice it to say that only if most of those discussing the matter agree that racism didn't exist would it become even conceivable to declare that bringing up race and racism would be problematic. If the issue of the existence of racism is still a contentious point, then to deny the matter exists is as foolish and misguided as believing that, since the issue of the existence of the graviton is currently being debated, we must act as if gravity does not exist.

South Park, for example, made this error some years ago with an episode about Chef being offended by the South Park flag, which shows a black man being lynched by white men. Chef realizes at the end of the episode that the children, who were debating the issue, didn't realize that a black man being lynched by white men was part of a racist past. South Park lionizes the childrens' ignorance here, ironic given their later episodes that mock the concept of following or admiring children for their oft-vaunted childish innocence. Suffice it to say that the children being ignorant about the history of lynching in this country does not prove that racism is over, but rather that American school systems whitewash history for the sake of the dominant majority and those who truly run the society, or that white children can afford to be ignorant about racism thanks to the privilege that makes such ignorance possible and not a severe debit. Eric Cartman's repeated barrages at the Jews alone demonstrate this point.

Imagine some hypothetical color-blind scholar. This color-blind scholar either does not know about race or racism, or does know about it but is perfectly capable of putting aside stereotypes and history and making completely fair analysis without any mention of race or racism. He analyzes American society and finds that, surprise, some people are poor and some people are rich despite merit, that there is extraordinarily low social mobility, and so forth. He thus develops a theory of class relations.

But then he discovers that a number of people are even poorer than their class situation would merit. Similarly, they are treated with predictably worse outcomes at every level of society, from mortgages to education. He must assume that their class has nothing to do with it, and finding no other explanation, must turn to an innate explanation, saying that those people really DO deserve the worse treatment they're getting. And he would do so even if he remembered that racism against this group did exist in the past, because past racism is not sufficient to explain disparate achievement and living standards between black and white groups.

Thus, unsurprisingly, the logical extension of color-blindness in a racist society is racism. Because if we cannot explain disparate achievement by hypotheses about racism, we must either not explain them or explain them by some innate property of the group, a definitionally racist hypothesis.

Is it any wonder that it is overwhelmingly whites, who have quite a bit to lose from racism being rectified (even if they also stand to gain in some ways as well), are the ones who push this idea so hard? Who have sold it into the mainstream and into the psyches of otherwise intelligent people?

Yes, it is possible that when we discuss race and racism, we will implicitly bring up not only racist but sexist, classist and statist concepts and ideas thanks to the deep ingraining of those concepts into our socialization. But to say that this means we should instead give up is not only to do injustice to the entire idea of activism, but also simply to engage in a fallacy of perfection.

Yes, it is possible that by bringing up racism and trying to deal with it we might go too far and inadvertently hurt some groups that do not deserve to be impacted, or that some people may misidentify racism or malice when it is not there. But to deny social justice by the logic that social justice might hurt and be difficult to achieve is, again, repugnant. This is especially true when it is proferred by those who daily do the same thing, who daily are complicit with a system that hurts some groups who have never deserved to be impacted yet have been for centuriesm, and who routinely misidentify malice on the part of blacks.

Tim Wise in his comments system called this idea, "New Age shit", and I am inclined to agree. Color-blindness as an idea is impossible to achieve, intellectually anemic, repugnant, and benefits only racists and those too tepid or lazy to deal with racists and racism. It does have the effect of clamping down on the worst, most overt racists out there, when it is applied evenly, which it rarely is. After all, how many "color blind" whites rushed to defend Don Imus or any number of other public personae who dropped the n-bomb or other slurs? How many "color blind" whites move out of their neighborhood when too many blacks move in? How many "color blind" whites nonetheless go out and buy the Bell Curve, which says that those blacks they're supposed to pretend don't exist actually ARE genetically inferior?

But even when it is evenly applied, color-blindness only deals with the most repugnant but also the most superficial racists. Those whose prejudice is slightly less palpable yet who nonetheless express it in their hiring decisions, corporate policies, lending paradigms, educational proposals, pedagogy, philosophy, racial profiling, and jurisprudence are at the end of the day far more dangerous. And color-blindness buys us, at its best, not having to deal with the obvious KKK and neo-Nazi racists at the cost of making it impossible to deal with the more subtle racists.

This is especially tragic for many reasons. Because there is no need to do so: There are alternatives to both color-blindness, racism and some of the sillier parts of multi-culturalism. Because the people who have this more subtle prejudice are generally our neighbors, our friends, decent people whose prejudice could be cured or mitigated relatively simply. And because these people are the real threat to black advancement, success and equality.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"My Family Didn't Own Slaves": Argument, or Copout?

I recently was having a complex and sophisticated interaction about race and racism at, of all places, YouTube. One of my interlocutors offered this argument: "none of my ancestors were slave owners (italian family)" . Another on a different site offered this observation: "My great-great grandparents came here from somewhere else, so kindly don't count ME in with the people that may have oppressed YOUR great-great grandparents."

Indeed, this seems to be the white national mantra: "I wasn't alive for slavery." "My family had no involvement in slavery". "My ancestors were dirt poor farmers." It is such an effective standard because of course everyone falls under it. Even direct descendants of slaveowners with access to intergenerational wealth can claim that they weren't around for slavery. Since many of us (myself included) are descended from immigrants more recent than the end of slavery, and the slaveowners formed a tiny elite, it is a perfect apology.

But it is also a microcosm of everything wrong with the white national narrative about race. The amount of things wrong with this argument is so staggering that saying it should require an instant remedial US History and Government class.

The first mistake it makes is to imply that the only bad thing that has happened to the black community as a whole, institutionally, is slavery. As if blacks as a whole never suffered under Jim Crow, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, restrictions on where they could take a drink or go to the bathroom, lynchings and terror. As if black life trajectories and possibilities weren't reduced by racial covenants, inability to access Federal Housing Assistance loans (an amount in the TRILLIONS of dollars, or as Tim Wise put it, "more than the outstanding mortgage debt, all the credit card debt, all the savings account assets, all the money in IRA's and 401k retirement plans, all the annual profits for U.S. manufacturers, and our entire merchandise trade deficit combined."), rampant employment discrimination, inability to acess GI Bill benefits, and so forth. Many of these injustices are in recent memory, such that there are those alive who remember them and were affected by them. Certainly their immediate descendants continue to feel the loss of these opportunities. So the very claim shows a complete contempt or ignorance for the suffering that blacks went through, as if segregation is not an injustice that deserves to be righted.

It also implies that we do not bear responsibility for what our government and communities are doing right now to virtually every black man and woman, a claim that inspires not only amusement but contempt. I hope I do not have to go into the extensive documentation on institutional racism, nor answer claims varying from "What about the Oprahs?" (yes, what about them? as if individual success stories invalidate an extensive backdrop of evidence) nor "What about the white poor?" (yes, social categories are complex, but to be black and poor is to be worse off on average than to be white and poor, even white poor have a benefit from being white and even the black rich have a disadvantage from being black). Instead, it should be sufficient to say that given the extensive racist treatment and barriers blacks endure in education, employment, treatment by police, selection for prosecution, prison sentences, loans, mortgages, housing, firing, and so on, this claim is a call for whites to ignore their responsibility to terminate currently existing injustice.

Third, it obscures the notion of intergenerational wealth and thus intergenerational responsibility. For while only those who owned the slaves directly injured those slaves, everyone from the Founding Fathers to the man on the street to the early capitalists benefitted from the slave's picking of cotton, rice, sorghum, tobacco and other crops. They also bore both the benefit and the cost of the racial hierarchy enhanced (if not actually created) by those in power to turn poor blacks and poor whites against each other rather than against the rich masters. That wealth continues to this day. There are millions of families living on homes provided almost exclusively to whites under the Homestead Act. The Naturalization Act of 1790 and other laws enabled the very presence of our ancestors by naturalizing whites and giving them rights far beyond people of color. The wealth produced by the South was even instrumental in the Revolution, meaning that slaves are owed part of our very existence as a nation! So while those whose ancestors immigrated after slavery may not have been quite poor, they nonetheless benefitted from slavery and from the existence of other laws occurring under the rubric of the racial caste system.

In line with this, it also ignores institutional and social responsibility. After all, when Volkswagen and other German companies were forced to give reparation to some Jews they had victimized, while it is true that they did not pay to Jews writ large and only paid to living people, they nonetheless had changed as an organization, but the organization owed restitution. The American state owes the same to blacks. And even if it does not, in that sense, it would make sense for social policy to be designed to engineer social equality instead of inequality. In this sense, the "my family wasn't responsible for slavery" is the racial equivalent of buckpassing on a national level.

Why Reject Genetic Food?

So reviewing another group of pro-environmental yet anti-environmental-group centrist-type computer nerds' comments on, I felt the need to comment on genetically modified food. It's been awhile since I've written about this issue. It's an issue that anyone with an opinion on seems to be set in. Per usual, I have a different opinion than a lot of the left and 99% of anyone right of Dennis Kucinich. (On a side note: Applause to Dennis for JUST NOW getting out of the race. Fight the good fight, man.)

Let's get the bombshell out of the way:

I don't have a problem with the idea of genetically modified food.


Yes, despite being anarchist, leftist, pareconist, feminist and polyculturalist, I don't have a problem per se with genetically modifying organisms, or with nuclear power, or with a lot of other things I think the Left is dogmatic on for no especially good reason.


Well, because I agree to some extent with Bookchin's notion of humankind as intelligent guide for evolution and nature. I note that we have already engaged in massive genetic modification for the entirety of human history: It's called breeding, animal husbandry, crops, etc. Any vegetarian environmentalist type who decries Frankenfood then eats lettuce, or corn, or spinach, or tofu has to feel just a BIT hypocritical when bearing in mind those crops' conscious engineering for superior traits for millenia, right? After all, what the Native Americans originally cailed maize looked NOTHING like what we call corn. It was scraggly grass. The brilliant genetic engineering and scientific work of Central and South American tribes turned it into the juicy yellow beauty we have today. The same can be said for a lot of New World crops.

Using genetic modification in line with safety standards and a fully holistic ecological sensitivity could allow us to potentially clean up our environmental catastrophes, produce more food per hectare and therefore allow more room for crop cycling or reduce the amount we irrigate, etc. Smart application of technology should be part of our toolkit for a sustainable human race.

So what's the problem?

There's a lot of them.

1) Safety and food regulatory issues. The difference between the type of breeding our ancestors did and what currently goes on in Monsanto's lab is obvious: It's qualitatively different. There are attempts to splice spider silk into goats to mass produce said silk for industrial applications. There are ideas to take genes from plants and put them in animals, fungi and put them into plants, and all sorts of swapping from between kingdoms, phyla, and every other taxonomy one can imagine.

A few thousand years of effective product testing is a pretty good way of insuring that what you produce is safe. If a particular breed is obviously toxic or massively destructive, one will be much more likely to pick up on it. But the way that GMOs are being produced now, one is lucky to have two decades between theoretical development and appearing on shelves. This has caused innumerable debacles which forms a large part of the anti-GMO material.

One can argue that patent and regulatory agencies should take care of that. The problem with that reasoning? I wouldn't trust the FDA to regulate my Corn Flakes. That ties into our second problem...

2) Capitalism. These developments are occurring in for-profit labs whose job is to provide wealth for the shareholders, period. Companies like Monsanto are profit-seeking corporations, and that causes a number of problems.

a) Years and years of fomenting by radical business groups have eroded at the effective enforcement of a number of regulatory agencies. They simply don't have the time, energy, funding or people on the ground to do an effective job.
b) It gets worse. In principle, many of the free trade agreements and organizations like GATT, the WTO, NAFTA, etc. make it so that if a panel of corporate lawyers and scientists determine a product to be safe, a government CANNOT ban it from their shores. This has been a major sticking point for Europeans in particular, where the backlash has been especially strong. So even if the FDA DID its job, it's entirely possible that a private unaccountable body would overturn their decision.
c) The way that these foods are being produced violates the "holistic ecology" criterion I mentioned above. Some of them, for example, have powerful toxins growing in the plants that are deadly to bugs. Even when it can be proven they are always and invariably harmless to humans, no matter the mutation, these plants are often quite destructive to the soil and to the bugs themselves who do after all form part of the ecosystem. Some of these plants are quite aggressive indeed, functioning as invasive species and devastating local ecologies. The vast majority of these products occur in a Green Revolution-type environment which uses conventional massive irrigation, massive capital investments particularly of fossil fuels, no crop cycling, etc. etc. So the potential of the technology is subverted for profit. This is no big surprise, of course.
d) The patent problem. Companies like Monsanto patent their "inventions". This prevents innovation, like most patents do, wherein farmers take their neighbors' strand and experiment, making something even better. But it gets worse. Farmers have been tried when Monsanto seeds that were on their neighbors' property took over their fields and they gave up and simply grew the Monsanto seed as part of their crop.
e) In line with the patent problem, companies like Monsanto include things like "terminator seeds". A standard model of agriculture, particularly among peasants the world over, is to grow a lot during harvest then save some for reseeding the next year. The problem is that Monsanto's seeds die. You have to buy new ones from Monsanto. They genetically engineer dependance on the company. That ends up producing monoculture as well as poverty and destruction... but we'll get to monoculture at point #4.

3) The right of people to not accept or buy products they don't want or trust. Whether or not the GMO corn is the best, tastiest, most efficiently grown corn in the world, if I find it disturbing for whatever reason that octopus DNA was part of it, I have a right not to purchase that product. And I have the right to be informed of what I'm purchasing when I buy it. And I have the right to demand that companies be legally obligated to tell me what I'm buying.

The problem is that the aforementioned free trade laws are being used to undermine this right. Europeans are asking for the right to informed consent: If they don't want to eat something, they shouldn't have to, no matter their reasons. But because a GMO label is a major damper on products, companies are resisting even being required to label their foods. If by some arbitrary standard the end product is identical, totalitarian unaccountable organizations have decided that you should have no problem with where your food comes from.

This was part of an extraordinary explosion of racist indignation. African countries have refused to accept aid of GMO corn for their people, expressing safety concerns. Western commentators lambasted them as dictatorships and idiotic for doing so.

So let me get this straight. Their estimation of their own safety is stupid, whereas our own insistence on giving them food they don't want instead of just agreeing not to subsidize our GMO corn and simply send over the regular stuff instead is prudent?

How racist is that?

4) Monocultural agriculture. The problem with any GMO crop, no matter how awesome, is that it's frequently used as the one crop that a farmer grows. Monocultural agriculture is well known to exhaust soils, require massive capital input (fertilizer, oil, machinery, etc.), and so on and so forth.

5) Dubious advantages. As R.C. Lewontin has documented extensively, many of the crops in question actually do worse, and most of the rest have only marginal benefits. While I think there is potential in the technology, it has yet to unambiguously show itself.

6) In line with #5: The propaganda that this is how to solve the starvation crisis in the world. Monsanto and the rest of the rogue's gallery behind "Frankenfood" frequently like to run a guilt trip argument. How dare these environmentalists resist feeding the world! Don't they know that if we could just produce 20 more units of corn per acre, there would be no more starvation in Africa!

It'd be a good argument if it weren't blatantly false. It'd be an argument that didn't curdle the stomach and enrage the heart if it weren't the VERY SAME COMPANIES who are some of the principal roadblocks against feeding the globe.

There is enough food to feed the planet. In fact, as Kofi Annan points out in his Facts, it wouldn't take that much money. We produce so much food that we actually subsidize farmers to destroy some of it. The problem of starvation has always been a problem of access, not of availability.

The problem? Monsanto and food companies in general are those who keep the food away from the poor.

This is the debate that goes into the GMO discussion.

Now, I imagine that some of you have heard some of these points, but very few have heard all of them as a unified case. Why is this the case? Well, sometimes environmentalists make it an issue of dogma and don't present the points back to back to make their argument compelling.

But the much more serious phenomenon? Reasonable commentators on all side are being shunted aside by powerful media institutions to make the debate one-sided and repetitive. We don't want to acknowledge that there's enough food out there, so go Monsanto spokesperson! Castigate leftists for starving Africans! Never mind that this is wholly out of character for them to do so!

Whatever people's opinion on genetically modified food, it behooves humanity to have a reasonable discussion about it, with evidence and without propagandistic distortions. And the same thing that makes genetically modified food insures that that conversation must occur despite effort to stop it: The destructive organs of state capitalism.

A Militant Rejection of Militant Atheism

Some of you may have heard arguments from a growing militant atheist movement among intellectuals. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others have launched frontal attacks on religious institutions, belief and faith. Though their critique focuses on "Abrahamanic" religions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity, they rarely spend the rhetorical effort to differentiate Abrahamanic religion from religion per se. They argue that religious and spiritual philosophies are inherently destructive, spreading intolerance, and that scientific and rational thinking must be atheist.

Dawkins in a speech featured here in front of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) reiterates these arguments: . They don't hold water.

For one, he tries to correlate IQ and religious thinking. But any serious scientist has to know that the IQ test is in no way, shape or form a serious metric of "intelligence". It tests a particular type of intelligence poorly and is heavily class and culturally biased. The same data is used across populations to declare people of different races to be stupid. Dawkins compounds this error by implying that religious thinking is also negatively correlated with socioeconomic status and education. But neither of those vectors are true indications of intelligence otherwise, because we do not live in an intelligence-based meritocracy. We live in a class, race and gender-riveted society where perfectly capable people are artificially denied equal wealth and educational opportunity.

This social understanding is one of the Dawkins/Hitchens school's most severe misunderstandings and utter failings. There was hardly a more antagonistic atheist on the globe than Bakunin, who as an anarchist declared that were there to be a Lord of the world he would try to overthrow that Lord as he would all others. But Bakunin also knew that scientific oligarchy or rule would be just as onerous and disgustinig as rule by a priesthood. I think quite a bit of people's knee-jerk reaction to Dawkins and his ilk is their extreme contempt for people's views and their quite clear implicit belief that those people do not have equal capacity to discharge their rights as human beings.

Why have we seen an upsurge in fanatical religious thinking the globe over? Well, globalization and American foreign policy have intentionally deprived governments of the capacity to control their own societies. There is a "democratic deficit" that is quite alarming. When people's faith in secular political institutions decline, their faith in religious institutions as an alternative civil society grows. This can occur even without religion: The fascist uprisings in Europe were roughly the same phenomenon. One can harshly oppose fanaticism and inflexibility of
all kinds while bearing in mind their structural causes.

One might argue, as a good friend of mine has, "So what? Everyone has their battles. Why not let them focus on the religious fanaticism?" The problem with this is manifold. For one, Hitchens in particular are in support of the very institutions that propel fanatical thinking. Putting aside Hitchens' support for globalization and conventional "capitalism", he also has been in support of the American imperial project in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet a greater hotbed of Abrahamanic fanaticism could hardly be found. "Christians" (read: radical statists subverting authentic Christian belief) use crusading rhetoric and real bombs to devastate Muslims (both ordinary, innocent, decent people and a tiny nasty minority), while "Jewish" Israel slips further and further away from democracy and towards a military-run state.

Second, people like Harris go further and even let their monomaniacal focus on religion obscure obvious truths. Harris has declared that there is a "problem with Islam" that inherently drives terrorist acts. The fact that this argument could fit in George W. Bush's living room does not seem to bother him. This kind of rhetoric that views the beliefs of Arabs and Muslims as somehow inhuman and less than worthy is an integral part of the problem. Of course, the true phenomenon is that butchers on all sides point to justifications as they always do while fighting for their own interests.

Third, religion per se is not the problem. One can look superficially at the Crusades and see that, yes, people of varying religions battled. But then why the siege of Constantinople? Why the horrible atrocities on all sides? Why the enslavement of the Children's Crusade? The answer: Religion was the pretext. The Muslim empires and the rising European empires were destined to battle. The way to mobilize ordinary people was religion.

One could look at the above and say, "All right, religion was still a problem though, it was still the pretext used for recruitment." But religion is by no means the only way of getting the message out. Nationalism, racism, fear, greed, any number of justifications and appeals can be used to spread war and violence. The solution is to eliminate the war and violence, not the religion.

One can go down the line with this logic. Religious fanatics? Get rid of fanaticism, not religion. Religious intolerance? Get rid of intolerance, not religion. Religion leading to closed minds? Get rid of closed minds, not religion. There has been no argument anywhere, precisely because it's absurd, that religion can't be separated from those bad outcomes, that there is no way to have faith and spirituality without accepting negative consequences.

Dawkins also makes a quite abusive analogy, taking advantage of Douglas Adams (a man who I have nothing but admiration for), by pointing out that religious thought has been made socially inured to challenge. I agree that this is unnecessary and problematic. So do almost all religions. The Trickster mythos in almost every religion I'm aware of, from Nasrudin in Islam to Coyote to Ananasi to Buber's irreverant interpretations of Judaism, is a myth that defiles the sacred in order to remind people of what really matters. Being able to discuss openly any aspect of life, religion included, is essential, and anyone who opposes that because they favor their dogma is wrong. But that includes atheist dogma. What many Christians and religious people derive their hostility to people like Dawkins and Hitchens from is not the notion of having the discussion but the notion that the discussion will inherently be from militantly hostile people who have it in their minds that the only right answer to the questions they're asking is their own. No one willingly gets into that conversation. The answer to dogmatic religion is not dogmatic atheism.

Dawkins goes on to extend Adams' analogy far beyond what it was ever intended to say. For Dawkins, anything that we can't subject to rigorous scientific analysis is bunk. Well, say goodbye to ethics then, because there is no litmus test in the world that will tell you why murder is wrong. One must have an ethical edifice that says so or not. Indeed, most human inquiry is largely immune to scientific analysis. Some of it is simply the limits of science: Things like human emotions, say. But others are in PRINCIPLE beyond any empirical or objective argumentation: Aesthetics, morals, etc. Dawkins doesn't dispense with these because he sees that there is more to life than science. But he inconsistently dispenses with religion on that ground. Unfortunately, the reasoning is just as bad in this context.

When faith and science clash, that is when there is an empirical fact that science has observed that faith disagrees with, who should win? By and large, science. But that's neither here nor there.

Dawkins focuses almost entirely on Hitchens' Abrahamanic religions, the monotheisms of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, any number of other religious thoughts simply do not fall under his criticisms. For example, it is not actually the case that we are all atheists except for one God. Most polytheistic religions are perfectly fine with throwing in another God from another culture. But Dawkins nonetheless repeatedly says the term "religion".

This is a problem much deeper than semantics, though. Dawkins has irresponsibly coupled dozens of aspects of religious and spiritual inquiry, including myths, faith, spirituality, organizations and institutions of religion, dogma, laws, etc. Religion is not a monolith: There are dozens of facets, some not so good and some quite good.

Dawkins reminds me of the anti-science postmodern crowd. For these people, science's failures, its creation of the nuclear bomb, make it completely destructive whereas its successes, say the theory of relativity, are irrelevant. The entire project begins with the notion that we should deliberately throw the baby out with the bathwater and hope a new baby springs to life when we run the tap again. The answer to Dawkins is the same answer given by scientists to postmodernists: Get rid of the bad and keep the good, because the bad is not intrinsic to the structure.

Has religion done destructive things? Yes, depending on how you define your terms; so has science. Have religious people been dogmatic, been jerks and warmongers? Yes; same for atheists, science, people with political or economic dogmas, people named Jeff and Bob and Nancy, and indeed pretty much every person alive at some point in their life. But what these thinkers are never able to do is make the argument that would say that there is no context, no proper deployment, for spiritual thought, precisely because the argument would be both offensive and stupid. If spiritual feeling is kept within its sphere of inquiry, it can be the source of brilliant and wonderful passion, philosophy, ethics, and beliefs.

One can look into the stars and see the wonder of the universe, or into the woods and see the wonder of life, and be profoundly moved whether one sees God or not. One can embrace basic human decency, respect, tolerance, compassion and ethics whether one is religious or not. Religion can help with acquiring such moral guidance, but so can other means. The point is that the questions of faith and spirituality are ones that we should answer ourselves, and that there are an array of rational choices, not just one.

I reject militant atheism. I support people embracing their beliefs, whatever they are, and being ready to proudly discuss them. I look forward to a revival across the globe of what China succeeded at: Realizing that many spiritual ways are all in fact on one path, trying to resolve core questions about who we are, what makes us happy and what is out there. Across the millenia, if we commit to a society of discussion, might we find that all of the spiritual thought we had was deeply inadequate? Absolutely, as with science, philosophy and any other worthwhile sphere. Will atheists have a part to play in our journey? Yes. Atheism is the null hypothesis. It answers the spiritual question by saying "Nothing on the table is valid". If we can't explore the null hypothesis, we cannot fully explore the question. Atheists act as skeptics, as people who will help to buoy our wildest notions and anchor our philosophies. In the end, I hope we will collaboratively as a human species find a spiritual truth that resonates as brilliantly and logically as any other essential philosophy we have discovered.

9/11: Shifting Blood

Reviewing South Park's take on the 9/11 truth movement ("The Mystery of the Urinal Deuce"), a classic bit of satire, I began thinking to myself about the 9/11 truth movement. I was wondering, as I often do, what common ground progressive and radical people could have with these folks. And I began to realize: Neither story of what happened that day, the conventional explanation of a cell connected to the bin Laden-oriented movement or the various 9/11 truth hypotheses about sleeper cells or the US government having advanced warning and allowing the planes to hit or bombs being planted in the basement or missiles being fired at the Pentagon or any permutation, really actually changes anything. Either or both could be true and we as Americans, we as a species, would face some irrespective truths.

It wouldn't change that thousands of innocent people died for no justifiable reason, and millions more were collectively terrified of losing loved ones, saddened by death, and angered by violence. It wouldn't change that Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush, and their respective systems are without question responsible for innumerable atrocities and should be brought to justice.

It wouldn't change that the US government used the atrocities of that day and sullied the memories of those who had died by launching a new cycle of hatred. It wouldn't change that the US government and its elites had a vested motive in seeing their own people die because, whoever the perpetrator, the attacks facilitated military, economic and political objectives of an extraordinary reactionary nature. It wouldn't change that we have a political system that benefits from, indeed in a twisted sense needs and feeds off of, chaos, disorder and violence.

It wouldn't change the fact that, either way, the events of that day in September are extraordinarily poorly understood given their extensive study by just about everyone in the world. And it wouldn't change the fact that this ignorance is due to the imperial system refusing to investigate what happened, blocking the 9/11 Commission and others trying to discover everything about how and why the events transpired. It wouldn't change the motive for this refusal: That a simple myth of Osama masterminding the entire enterprise on dialysis in a cave in Afghanistan is far more useful to imperial prerogatives than the truth, whatever that truth is. (Of course, if the US government were behind the attacks, it would provide an additional motive, but the one I mentioned is more than sufficient). It wouldn't change Chomsky's sobering argument that even months after the invasion Mueller and US intelligence agencies could only be "probably" sure about what precisely happened and about Afghanistan's ties. It wouldn't change the fact that funding for the enterprise supposedly came from Germany and the United Arab Emirates, nor would it change that neither of those countries were bombed (unlike Afghanistan), because that would have been insane.

It wouldn't change the fact that the attacks opened an exceedingly short window wherein the majority of the world expressed compassion for the United States, compassion that in large part stemmed from their own knowledge of what it feels like to have your buildings blown up and your people in terror. It wouldn't change the tragic reality that the Bush Administration squandered that opportunity to advance their and their true constituency's core interests at the cost of insuring that hatred and violence would become even more entrenched. It wouldn't change the alternate reality that could have been, where that sympathy for the globe was parlayed into a sea change wherein America would abandon its imperial domination of the globe and work with others to root out terrorists whereever they may be and bring them to justice, even if those terrorists are white and on cushy book tours or even American Presidents, current and former.

Osama bin Laden could have hijacked every single plane and escaped in a Cobra Commander-esque rocket pod and it still wouldn't change that he, and the mujahadeen, and Saddam, and Islam Karimov, and the Shah, and a long list of others owed their power and existence in no small part to the CIA and American imperial power. It wouldn't change that the bombings of Afghanistan and Iraq were criminal idiocies that turned both countries into cauldrons of chaos, terror and death. It wouldn't change that Saddam Hussein had no connection with Osama bin Laden and no plausible connection with any serious terrorism, yet the invasion of Iraq caused an explosion of new opportunities for radical Islamic terrorism. It wouldn't change that al Qaeda as a whole is stronger now than in 2001, that Osama bin Laden has not been brought to justice, or that the State Department estimates that terrorist actions are becoming more, not less, common in the world. (And it wouldn't change that the State Department's interpretation of terrorism would never include US terror against the globe). It wouldn't change that justifiable rage at what Osama did was no justification or excuse for anything that came after, for retribution and death being visited upon Afghani civilians who had done nothing to Americans and were Osama and the Taliban's victims.

It wouldn't change the fact that all one needs to know about the bankruptcy of the system is in plain view, easy to find. It wouldn't change the fact that one can tell something about the bankruptcy of mainstream culture when it can be seriously argued that it is justified to bomb a country and turn it into a terrorist battleground because that way "we'll" fight them "there" not "here"; in short, using innocent people who have done no wrong to you as human shields so you don't have to be inconvenienced. Or that no one bothers to mention that bombing a country that has weapons of mass destruction is not especially likely to allow one to secure those weapons, but is much more likely to lead to those weapons and materials being looted and sold on the black market. It wouldn't change the fact that conservatives may end up being vindicated in a tragically ironic way when Americans are killed in a chemical weapons attack or by a dirty bomb facilitated by the capture of Iraqi material... thanks to the invasion. It wouldn't change the fact that the average American needs no more reason to resist the system than what their own eyes and ears tell them. They know how bad it is: They suffer from the poverty, the failing health care system, the myths of opulence juxtaposed against the failure of slowing growth rates, the "outsourcing", the mind-numbing work that condemns them to eight hours of servitude daily in a supposed democracy. It wouldn't change that all that is needed to foment change is not stories about US government complicity in yet another crime (as if adding a few thousand more dead really turns the government from saint to sinner compared to their millions) but a movement that can unmask both the injustices of the system and its vulnerability to courageous resistance. And, as South Park's creators Trey and Matt point out, it wouldn't change the fact that, barring hope that the system can be confronted, all the majority of the population accepting their theories would do is further amplify the belief that the system is invincible.

It wouldn't change the fact that the mainstream corporate media is structurally designed to obfuscate essential truths, to safeguard the egos and guilt of the rich that it serves, that power in our society is concentrated in a very small set of hands.

And even if the CIA planned every step of the hijackings, even if the Pentagon was struck by a missile, even if the plane sent to hit the White House was shot down, even if bombs were planted in the WTC buildings, it still wouldn't change that the 9/11 truth movement seems to cling to some disturbing myths. Like the quasi-racist notion that a group of Muslims couldn't pull this off: It had to be white people and their intelligence agencies. Or the apparent belief many of them have that America was at one point a city on a hill and only recently has it been corrupted by bad politicians. Or the lack of insight they have into the core fact that all the conspiracy theories would prove is that a small group of people did something horrible, saying very little about the whole systemic injustice the world faces. It wouldn't change that their singular and often fanatical focus is used by the mainstream media to ridicule those who resist atrocities. It wouldn't change the fact that a large portion of the population does already believe them and that there has nonetheless been no revolutionary upturn in activism, a sign of the real impact of their critique: Hopelessness and cynicism.

And what if the American government were somehow behind the attacks? Would it change the extraordinary incompetence of FEMA in New Orleans (an incompetence especially palpable to those with a better "tan"), or the inability of regulatory agencies to stop massive corporate fraudsters from ripping off even the rich the government protects, or the failure of the strongest military on the planet's surface to battle an underfunded and underarmed insurgency in Iraq? Would it change that the private insurance system the US runs by costs more per person to operate and is therefore by definition deeply inefficient?Would it change that the system as a whole is riddled not only with criminality but actual inability to perform basic tasks?

And what if the American government were not behind the attacks? Would it change their complicity in creating a climate of hate and violence that facilitates attacks like 9/11? Would it change that even Eisenhower knew that the perception of America and Americans as evil had to do with the US government's campaigns of warfare, overthrowing elected regimes, installing dictators, blocking economic growth, and securing control of other peoples' natural resources, and that he and every President after made a decision to continue this pattern even if it would harm Americans? Would it change that many of the organizations that are responsible for these atrocities were created by the CIA to punish the Russians during an invasion that Brzezinski claimed he was responsible for? Would it change that the US government should have been able to prevent the crimes of that day had they not made several crucial mistakes along the way? Would it change that the FAA should have noticed the planes making massive deviations from planned flight paths, that the FAA should have alerted trained scrambler jets, and that if they were not in on the attacks the US government's bureaucracy must then be guilty of truly colossal ineptitude? Would it change that even the CIA admitted sadly that had Clinton not been so determined to crucify the Sudanese he could have accepted data they had compiled that may have allowed arrests and investigations to be made that would have prevented 9/11? Would it change Time's allegation that, due to the government failing to actually adopt Richard Clarke's recommendations, that "many of those in the know-the spooks, the buttoned-down bureaucrats, the law-enforcement professionals in a dozen countries-were almost frantic with worry that a major terrorist attack against American interests was imminent. It wasn't averted because 2001 saw a systematic collapse in the ability of Washington's national-security apparatus to handle the terrorist threat[?]" Would it even change the fact Michael Moore decried post-2001 that people were being allowed to bring lighters on board thanks to pressure from tobacco companies?

I suppose if the American government was behind 9/11, one might be skeptical about moves like PATRIOT and undermining the Geneva Conventions to reduce civil liberties in the hope of catching terrorists; after all, 9/11 truth activists point out, the terrorists are right here on American soil. But a conservative could accept that the US government planned 9/11 and nonetheless argue that there are real threats from abroad and that there needs to be enhanced means to deal with them. More importantly, perfectly mainstream understandings are more than adequate to respond to PATRIOT and moves to justify torture. After all, if the US government had been doing its job, it wouldn't have needed PATRIOT. It could have stopped antagonizing Arabs, or not created the mujahadeen in imperial war games, or accepted the Sudanese data, or listened to the warnings and fears of its intelligence agencies. It could have prevented the attacks years ago by making any number of different moves. Adding more plays to the playbook of a team that can't throw the ball, to use an oft-maligned sports metaphor, seems hardly the correct move. If even after the US stops behaving in ways that the Left has rightly predicted would spread hate and the desire to strike back with terror, if the US' bureaucracy is brought under control and actually does its job with the knowledge and capacities it had, if the US military stops creating enemies by invading countries and killing innocents, we still have a risk of terrorism, then perhaps we can talk about curtailing civil liberties (and not simply be rushed into doing so by fear and unaccountable political systems). And the usage of torture's mainstream success record has been providing "intelligence" that Osama was connected to Saddam Hussein and that Saddam Hussein was imminently capable of destroying the world, hardly a stellar performance. (And, of course, that "intelligence" is not only obviously wrong in hindsight, but was clearly and transparently wrong then, and the CIA knew it). After all, torture has been banned not just because we have come together to say that there are minimal standards of human decency and treatment but because torturing people causes them to tell you what you want to hear, not necessarily the truth. All PATRIOT and easing of human rights restrictions allow is the capacity of the American government to harass peace activists, innocent Muslims and Arabs, and all sorts of other groups it doesn't like.

Oh, and I almost forgot about racial profiling, which 9/11 truth movements would theoretically undermine. Of course, racial profiling is idiotic and unfair because it assumes that because of the actions of a tiny minority of any population, however disproportionate to that population, it is justified to harass the majority. It is idiotic and unfair because no one recommended looking for white skinheads after the Oklahoma City bombing. It is idiotic and unfair because it is not the case, as Bill Mahr seems to think, that al Qaeda is exclusively Arab: As anyone who pays attention knows, it can recruit Asian Indonesians, black Sudanese, and even the occasional John Walker Lindh. It is idiotic because such policies alienate precisely that group of people who need to be most communicated with: Muslim and Arab communities, who could be valuable assets in preventing terror. It is idiotic and unfair because ordinary people's ability to identify "Arabs" or "Muslims" has been severely called into question by their abusing Sikhs, who are generally neither but wear a turban and therefore match the stereotypical concept of those groups. It is idiotic because it makes people look for criteria that have an infinitesimal chance of true positives and a colossal chance of false positives, i.e. people's skin color and appearance, rather than criteria that all terrorists of all colors and ethnicities share. And, as rude as it may be to point out, it's idiotic and unfair because we will never racially profile for those who are truly responsible for massive terrorist acts: Primarily rich old white men.

Neither truth about that day would change corporate malfeasance, or ecological destruction, or the omnicidal risk of nuclear war that has not declined noticeably since the Cold War, or the major nuclear powers' undermining of non-proliferation norms and treaties, or cruise ships dumping their waste in resplendent coral reefs, or the thermostat being slowly and inexorably turned up on the world, or Bill Gates and the Walton family having more wealth than most countries, or the utter failure of market and corporate economies in providing for the majority of the world, or the criminal Israeli persecution of the Palestinians, or the elections Bush stole in 2000 and 2004. It wouldn't change that the American economy is being spent on a seemingly endless imperial war, that several thousand American soldiers died for this unjust cause, and that both the latter charges are mainstream but the million or so innocent Iraqi lives and the million or more refugees are beyond the pale to mention.

No, I'm afraid that the 9/11 truth movement's ultimate goal is even less effective than swapping deck chairs on the Titanic. It is simply reallocating blood from one set of hands, the al Qaeda network, to another, the American empire. The crucial insight is that both hands are already soaked with carnage.

I'm not saying that there's no utility in investigating the truth of what happened, nor at taking the American government to task both for its inability to actually close the books on 9/11 (i.e. figure out what happened and bring all the perpetrators and connected individuals to justice) and for its cynical usage of 9/11 to promote its own goals, damn the consequences. I'm not saying that it's impossible that the US government could have performed such a task. I'm skeptical if only because the political ramifications for being caught would make Watergate look like South Park's Closetgate. I'm also skeptical because motive alone does not prove a crime: After all, in some ways the US government benefitted from the tsunami, yet no one alleges that the US government built an earthquake machine. Questioning the government about the true meaning and implications of 9/11 in all its forms is vital. And I think that many in the 9/11 truth movement are expressing skepticism about the motives of leaders and hope that they can be brought to justice, motives that no one in the Left should lambast.

There's one more thing these critiques don't change. They don't change the courage and humanity of the global resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They don't change the need, the possibility, the responsibility to replace our existing systems of death and violence with systems that promote peace, justice, tolerance, diversity, efficiency and freedom. They don't change the bankrupt nature of the nation-state, or archaic forms of authority, or capitalism, or racism, or sexism. They don't change the fact that it is possible for us to create a new world, one where all the above facts chang, hopefully even the need to be angry at institutional injustice. Because if we do our job right, all of the above will be a sad memory of a time of hate and violence long since transcended.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Human Rights Council and Israel

The United Nations Human Rights Council has come under some attack recently. The extent of the hysteria on this topic was recently revealed to me when, on a David Peterson blog post about Iran ( , the debate heats up on the bottom of the first and the whole of the second page of comments), a commenter accused the HRC and the Left of demonizing Israel (whether it was because of anti-Semitism or other motives was never quite clear). The argument is that the HRC's resolutions against nations overwhelmingly focus on Israel. I will contend this is wholly justified.

(Let's dispense immediately with any Nazi/David Duke/conspiracy theorist garbage about the tail wagging the dog, Israeli interest groups controlling everything, Jew-run media, etc. American white supremacist imperial power controls Israeli “Jewish” power, not the other way around. Period).

It is utterly absurd, by the way, to argue that this focus by the HRC suggests anything about the Left, or the mainstream European culture, or the UN. Indeed, the UNC is the exception that proves the rule. Israel has long been out of compliance with a host of international laws, ranging from the UN Charter to the Geneva Conventions. It flouts nuclear non-proliferation norms (it unfortunately can't be accused of violating the NPT because it didn't sign it). It receives unprecedented aid and support from not only the US but other Western countries. Even countries that used to be in support of an authentic peace have changed their stance in the last two decades (see the Oslo Accords). Its military occupation of the Palestinians is almost entirely dependent on Western, primarily US, arms. For all this, it has gotten slaps on the wrist, largely due to the protection the US affords it thanks to its Security Council membership. (Even Israel's entry into the UN was contingent on it doing things it never did). The one deviation from this overwhelming international silence and/or inaction has been met with a storm of condemnation, including by both Kofi Annan and Ban ki-Moon.

But what are the core arguments against this demonization position?

Firstly: The evidence for this claim is extraordinarily weak. The HRC has also launched condemnations against Sudan, Myanmar, Belarus and Cuba, among others. Yes, condemnations of Israel have been more frequent and possibly with more strident language. But the argument that people who put forward this hypothesis comes down to, “Israel gets specified more often.” That may be true. But the majority of the HRC's resolutions do not mention particular states. They have authored resolutions on issues such as the right to food, the right to access to drugs for HIV/AIDs and other diseases, torture, the use of mercenaries, etc. And while the US is guilty of either directly engaging in or funding such behavior, a number of the nations that people lambasting the HRC say deserve more criticism (such as many African nations) are guilty of these crimes as well. If one notes the nations that would be criticized by these recommendations, the anti-Israel bias becomes a non-issue.

Further, many of the nations and groups that people say deserve the HRC's criticism (Sudan, Russia, China, etc.) already get criticism. They get resolutions and efforts to send peacekeepers (which the US usually blocks or at least fails to assist). They get condemnation from human rights observers, mainstream media outlets, etc. Many are at least in principle willing to negotiate on the outstanding issues. Israel, as I will go into later, is truly unique in terms of its ability to continue to prosecute genocide (not just in the sake of extermination but in the sense that Jews after the Holocaust insisted upon: the organized destruction of people as a people)

Second: The scale of Israel's crimes deserves condemnation. It's not just the 3-to-1 death rate between Palestinians and Israelis, or the crimes of aggression Israel is guilty of against many states in the region (Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, etc.). It also includes the curfews that have wrecked 100,000 families in Gaza; the 8000 citizens deprived of water in Urabdiya and the Palestinians drinking sewage while Israelis have lawns and golf coursesl the 40% of Palestinian children born anemic, blind or deaf; the 80% of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip living below the poverty line; B'Tselem's estimate that 400 Palestinians a month in 1991 were interrogated and tortured; etc. There is extensive documentation for all of these statistics and a long list more. It is truly soul-crushing.

Third: It's not simply the scale of Israeli atrocities. It is that these crimes against humanity have continued for decades without interruption. That this dispossession of the Palestinian people has been codified by laws. That the Israelis are able to unilaterally control Palestinian tax funds if they don't like who's been elected. That the legal apparatus defending the occupation is further enhanced by Security Council members. South Africa received similar international condemnation, with the same responses from apologists: Why not focus on Russia? Or even apartheid in America? Yes, all those are relevant, but to have a member of the supposedly civilized club able to institute racist apartheid while being called a democracy and receiving extensive Western aid is a uniquely destructive crime against humanity.

So I propose a test. Let's not dismantle the HRC until their issues with Israel have been resolved to the satisfaction of Palestinians and of external observers. Let's continue to hold Israel to task until such issues as the treatment of Lebanese detainees in Israel, or the occupation of Palestine, or the statistics above have been changed and reparations made. Then, if the demonization of Israel continues by anybody, we can fairly allege that anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head and consign such organizations to the dustbin of history.