Notes and Comment Blog

Fight back

Oct 5th, 2015 5:54 pm | By

So poking around on Google and Facebook for more information about this ridiculous and illiberal no-platforming of Julie Bindel by the University of Manchester Student Union, I found that the group putting on the event has postponed it in order to fight the no-platforming. This isn’t over.

The University of Manchester Student’s Union informed us this afternoon that they are banning Julie Bindel from speaking in a panel discussion on feminism and censorship. The reason for banning her is given as “based on Bindel’s views and comments towards trans people, which we believe could incite hatred towards and exclusion of our trans students.”. The full statement can be found here.

We were very sad, though in no way surprised, to be notified today that our Students’ Union is seeking to censor our upcoming of event. Once again those residing at the top of our SU are making a joke of free expression and the university ideal. Our event, “From liberation to censorship: does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?”was one that had received significant attention on campus. We were expecting a good turnout from pre-existing and new students alike, and as such are sad and frustrated to delay the event for the time being. They have banned Julie Bindel from speaking outright, and deemed Milo Yiannopoulos sufficiently dangerous to warrant a closed event, where admissions will be limited. The reason being for the former speaker centres around the safe space policy and her falling foul of it. We have always argued that this flimsy bit of legislature is nothing more than an insidious piece of weaponry used by our SU leadership to fashion the university in their own image, and this current act of censorship proves it. Speakers far more controversial and “offensive” than Julie have been permitted and even suggested by the SU on previous occasions. Yet they have decided to apply the principles of the safe space policy now and on us. We feel that the manner in which it has been done is at best sloppy on their part, and at worst inconsistent to the point that it suggests an abuse of power.

It was supposed to be on Thursday October 15. Now it’s postponed.

Let us gather our pens and microphones and keyboards all in a row. Ready? Commence.


But why didn’t you say this at the time?

Oct 5th, 2015 12:16 pm | By

Robert Reich on Facebook:

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said in an interview published today that individual Wall Street executives should have been prosecuted for their actions leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, but that the U.S. Justice Department and other law-enforcement agencies focused instead on investigating or indicting entire firms. “A financial firm is of course a legal fiction; it’s not a person. You can’t put a financial firm in jail,” he said. “It would have been my preference to have more investigation of individual action, since obviously everything that went wrong or was illegal was done by some individual, not by an abstract firm.”

Well, thank you Ben. But why didn’t you say this at the time? (Are you saying it now because you have a memoir coming out?) You were chairman of the Fed, for crying out loud. The Fed is a major bank regulator. Your voice would have put enormous pressure on the Justice Department to go after the individuals responsible. Yet you chose to remain silent. It’s been the silence of people in positions like yours that allowed Wall Street executives to escape all responsibility for the frauds they committed, which led to millions of people losing their jobs, homes, and savings. And now that the big banks are far bigger than they were then (in 2007 they had 25% of total bank assets, now they have 44%), it’s likely we’ll have another near meltdown because no one was held responsible for the last one.

I think Ben Bernanke had a responsibility when he was Fed chair to say publicly that bank executives should be held personally responsible for what occurred.

Well if he had said it at the time, it might have had consequences.

Fairness? What’s that?

Oct 5th, 2015 12:02 pm | By

Last week, there was this: Julie Bindel Statement on Withdrawing from Feminism In London

Julie’s blog is down, so she’s asked me to host her statement here — I think it’s brilliant and am honoured to publish it.


I am very sorry that I feel I have no choice but to withdraw my contribution to the Feminism in London conference this year. It is particularly difficult for me to do so because FiL is one of the few feminist conferences that dare include me on their programme (in case of disruption from anti-feminists claiming I am transphobic, biphobic, Islamophobic and whorephobic). In fact, FiL had, in previous years, left me off the programme (but had me speak) in case the smooth-running of the conference suffered as a result. This year I told the organisers that I would only agree to speak at the event if my name were included in the programme, to which they agreed. It therefore feels particularly upsetting to find that the organisers are once again being bullied about one of their speakers, Jane Fae, this time on the grounds that she has expressed and still holds some pro-pornography views.

I am very clear in my stance about the sex trade. I am an active and passionate member of the feminist abolitionist movement, and would never invite someone with Jane Fae’s views to speak on the topic at any event I were to organise, and would not debate whether or not the sex trade harms women and girls. But Jane was not invited to speak on any aspect of this topic.

I have shared panels with other feminist abolitionists that have differing views to me on a range of feminist issues, and regularly attend events at which there may be delegates or speakers who would take opposing views on important issues such as reproductive rights and sexual identity. But I would hope we all share core values, and can work together on single issues, such as ending men’s violence towards women.

If we were to scrutinise each others’ political standpoints on everything prior to deciding whether a speaking invite should be proffered, I would imagine our movement would be somewhat smaller than it already is.

I cannot possibly reconcile my position on the no-platforming of feminists for holding contrary views  on topics they are not even planning on speaking about, and stand aside whilst Jane Fae is handed out similar treatment.

This week, there is this from the University of Manchester SU:

Statement from the Students’ Union 05.10.2015

Last week we received a visiting speaker request form for Julie Bindel to be invited to speak at a society event.

As per our external speaker processes, it was flagged as potentially in breach of our safe space policy.

After reviewing the request in more detail, the Students’ Union has decided to deny this request based on Bindel’s views and comments towards trans people, which we believe could incite hatred towards and exclusion of our trans students.

You can read the full safe space policy here.

The Executive Committee

Peak disgust reached.

The new normal

Oct 5th, 2015 11:43 am | By

Nick Cohen is appalled by the way some on the left go after liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims who campaign against Islamism.

I have enjoyed the Guardian for decades. But too many of its contributors have lost their wits and abandoned their principles over radical Islam. They show no signs of finding either soon. As a matter of course, they publish a defence of the silencing of Maryam Namazie, an ex-Muslim feminist, or a piece denouncing Maajid Nawaz, the Muslim leader of the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation.

In academia, speakers at Bath University, surely the most malign[ed] higher education institution in Britain, call ex-Muslims “native informants”, as if the decision of free men and women to decide for themselves what they should believe is the equivalent of collaborating with a colonial oppressor. For the religious right and the political and academic left, a liberal Muslim is their trussed-up version of the enemy, the alien, the “other”.

None of the above is astonishing. It’s been going on so long that we accept it as the “new normal”.

It’s not astonishing but it is reprehensible.

Get a wider lens

Oct 5th, 2015 10:27 am | By

If you search “Meryl Streep feminism” on Twitter you will find an absurd controversy in action: people expressing shock and horror that Streep wore, for the cover of Time Out, a t shirt that says


The cover story is about a new movie in which Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst. The movie is titled Suffragette. It’s about the suffragettes. The slogan was coined by Emmeline Pankhurst.

Tweeters are freaking out because omg Streep is white, that’s appropriation, doesn’t anybody know any history?!

History. Slavery has been a thing throughout human history. It has been used as a metaphor throughout human history. It is not the exclusive property of Americans, not even Americans whose grandparents were slaves. Another widely used and related metaphor is the one about being in chains (Rousseau, Marx); that too is universal, not parochial.

End of morning history lesson.

ACLU v Trinity Health Corporation

Oct 4th, 2015 6:02 pm | By

The ACLU and ACLU Michigan have opened a second front against the bishops and their stinkin’ “ethical directives.”

DETROIT — The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced a federal lawsuit today filed on behalf of their members against Trinity Health Corporation, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country,  for its repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.

Yes. Yes yes yes.

“We’re taking a stand today to fight for pregnant women who are denied potentially life-saving care because doctors are forced to follow religious directives rather than best medical practices,” said ACLU of Michigan Staff Attorney Brooke A. Tucker. “Catholic bishops are not licensed medical professionals and have no place dictating how doctors practice medicine, especially when it violates federal law.”

Trinity Health Corporation, which is headquartered in Michigan and owns and operates more than 80 hospitals around the country, and receives public funding, requires that all of its facilities abide by the Ethical and Religious Directives promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.   These directives prohibit a doctor working at a Catholic hospital from terminating a woman’s pregnancy even when the failure to do so puts her health or life at risk.

The way Galway University hospital in Ireland did to Savita Halappanavar, with the result that she died of a massive infection. That became public because her husband went to the press, and had the medical knowledge to realize her death wasn’t just one of those sad things that happen. It’s a safe bet that there have been many such cases in Ireland that did not become news. And the same is true here.

“A hospital policy like the Directives that limits what physicians can tell and offer our patients and prohibits us from providing our patients with the best possible care is extremely dangerous,” said Timothy R B  Johnson MD FACOG, Chair of OB/GYN at University of Michigan. “The ACLU’s suit is based on a simple principle that medical decisions should be between doctors and our patients.”

A hospital’s failure to provide pregnant women appropriate emergency care, including an abortion when the circumstances warrant, violates a federal law called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, known as EMTALA.  A public health educator in Michigan discovered that at one of Trinity’s hospitals alone, at least five women who were suffering from miscarriages and needed urgent care were denied that care because of the Catholic directives.

We don’t have to let Catholic bishops tell doctors what to do. We can tell Catholic bishops to stay in their churches and mind their own business – but it will take a lot of work.

“To put it simply and humanely, patient welfare must be the number one concern of health care professionals,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Alexa Kolbi-Molinas. “Every pregnant woman who enters an emergency room should be guaranteed that she will get the care she needs, and should not have to worry that she won’t get appropriate care because of the hospital’s religious affiliation.”

Catholic hospitals receive public money and ten of the 25 largest hospital systems in the U.S. are Catholic-sponsored.  Nearly one of nine hospital beds in the country is in a Catholic facility. The directives bar doctors at those hospitals from offering — or even discussing — certain reproductive health care services, even when those services are necessary to protect a woman’ s health. As U.S. hospitals becomeincreasingly affiliated with religious organizations, the health of American women is threatened by the refusal to provide medically appropriate and often times lifesaving services.

They mention the Tamesha Means suit, which is currently being appealed.

Earlier this month, the ACLU of Michigan sent a demand letter to Genesys Hospital run by Ascension Health in Grand Blanc, Michigan, on behalf of Jessica Mann, a pregnant woman with a life-threatening brain tumor who was denied a request for a tubal ligation at the time of her scheduled cesarean section delivery next month.  Ms.  Mann’s doctors have advised her to have the tubal ligation at the time of her delivery because another pregnancy would increase the risks to her posed by her tumors, as would forcing her to undergo an additional procedure after the delivery.  The hospital has continued to refuse to provide the medically necessary treatment. Instead, Ms. Mann has been forced to switch hospitals to a new doctor — one who has no relationship with her and no experience treating her serious medical condition — with less than a month left in her pregnancy.

The bishops are hindering the best treatment for a woman with a life-threatening brain tumor, for bad bogus wrong religious reasons. It’s a god damn outrage.

Good luck to the ACLU.

Keep looking for alternatives

Oct 4th, 2015 12:16 pm | By

Pema Chodron said a thing on Facebook on March 13, 2013. That thing has 3,637 likes and 1,976 shares. I think that’s 3,637 and 1,976 too many.


Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other. This is the root of our pain. In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.

In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”
(From Pema’s book When Things Fall Apart.)

Thank you Shambhala Publications for our Weekly Heart Advice. To receive yours, sign up at

I get it. I get that attachment entails suffering. I get that sometimes – in some circs, for some people – getting rid of attachment is worth it, to lessen the suffering. But as a general guide to life? I reject it.

A figure of gothic melodrama

Oct 4th, 2015 11:36 am | By

Deborah Orr did a nicely blistering piece about the Women-Murderer “museum” in August.

Mark the Ripp-Off, otherwise known as Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, is the man behind a new museum in Cable Street in the East End of London. Except he isn’t. He’s behind a lurid new tourist attraction in Cable Street in the East End of London, which is dedicated to exploiting an already much-cultivated fascination with the unknown killer of five women between 1888 and 1891.

I hadn’t properly taken in the extent and grotesquery of the fascination until this “museum” came along. What is this sick shit? There’s nothing cool or nostalgic or fun about the serial murders of desperately poor prostitutes in late 19th century London. We don’t consider Willy Pickton cool or dapper or interesting, so why is there this idea that the X who killed those women in Whitechapel was? Is it just because it was late-Victorian London so we think “oh hey, Sherlock Holmes and fog and hansoms, must be cool”?

This joint is called the Jack the Ripper Museum, from which one can deduce that it exists to commemorate a crude and ugly piece of invented nomenclature that surely has already proved itself to be quite enduring enough, thank you very much. Certainly, someone killed five women, with extreme savagery. But that person was not Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper is an invented villain, a figure of gothic melodrama who serves the purpose of making five murdered women also seem like inventions, mere accessories after the fiction.

Like something out of a movie – Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter.

Mark the Ripp-Off says otherwise. He seems to be suggesting that that the name of the “museum” is a clever ploy, aimed at reeling in customers. They will turn up expecting gory details about a misogynistic serial eviscerator, only to discover – delightedly, I’m sure – that the “museum” instead offers a meditation on the condition of women in the East End of London during the Victorian era, using the situation of the women who were slaughtered as a “starting point”. They’ll all be stampeding past the promised crime-scene tableau to get to that stuff, I’m sure.

Well now that the “museum” is open and Fern Riddell has reviewed it, we know there is no “that stuff” to get to.

Does this guy think it’s funny to say that he’s going to open a museum celebrating women’s history, then actually open one celebrating a notorious killer of women? Does he think it’s funny that people are up in arms against his new project, having believed that something more serious and useful was going to be sited in the area instead? Somehow, either of these is not as bad as imagining that he really believes that his exploitation of the murder of women isn’t part of the problem, but instead is part of the solution.

How can anyone think that the way to understand the social existence of women is by speculating about why some unknown killer annihilated them, or detailing how their situations made them vulnerable to him?

Oh, he doesn’t think that. He just pretends to, for the look of the thing.

Tasteful Jack the Ripper souvenir items for your collecting pleasure

Oct 4th, 2015 10:20 am | By

Or you could just take a shortcut and go to the Jack the Mutilating Murderer of Women “museum” shop’s page. That tells you all you need to know about this “museum.”


There’s a wine glass for £8.00, the shot glass we’ve already seen for £6.00, a “latte glass” for £7.00, a mug gold-rimmed for £10.00, and the poshest of all –

That’s an investment, that is.

There’s a t shirt for £14.00 and a top hat for 45. Oddly, I don’t see any shawls or ragged dresses or women’s shoes with holes in them.

There are keyfobs (key rings to us Yanks) and a pen, but there’s no long knife. We know the murderer used a long knife, because of the way the uterus was removed with one deep slice, so why isn’t there a Jack the Ripper long knife for sale?

There is a whistle though. That’s appropriate.


Yet more dapper laughs

Oct 4th, 2015 9:30 am | By

For more on the horrifying Jack the Ripper “museum” check out the historian Fern Riddell on Twitter, starting with her Storify of her visit to the “museum” itself.

I’m in the middle of doing that now, so I’ve just encountered this tweet:

Fern Riddell ‏@FernRiddell Sep 30
@tkingdoll no, they’ve made a change apparently, just not on any of the shop stuff…

Embedded image permalink

Because there’s just nothing funnier than the murder and mutilation of women.

Always revolting

Oct 3rd, 2015 5:54 pm | By

Linda Cox

Stealthy freedom

Oct 3rd, 2015 5:33 pm | By

Remember the captain of Iran’s women’s football team, Niloufar Ardalan, whose husband wouldn’t let her travel to the match in Malaysia? The BBC reports on the aftermath:

The standard marriage contract signed by all newlyweds in Iran allows the husband to decide whether his wife can travel abroad, where the family will live, whether she can go to work, and whether she can ask for a divorce. In this instance, Ardalan says her husband, prominent sports journalist Mehdi Toutounchi, wanted her to be present for their son’s first day at school.

But husbands can choose to waive the provisions of the marriage contract, and now, inspired by Ardalan’s story, dozens of Iranian men who’ve done just that are sharing pictures on social media to advocate gender equality.

They are sending the images to Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist now living in the US, and creator of the “My Stealthy Freedom” Facebook page.

It’s true; you can click on that link and see them.

Alinejad tells BBC Trending that many women “simply don’t know” they can request amendments to their marriage contract, even after they’ve signed it. “They need to be aware of what they’re signing, and that they can ask for their rights to be returned,” she explains. Alinejad believes there are “a lot of open-minded Iranian men who support women’s rights,” in spite of the country’s conservative laws, although exactly what proportion of Iranian men would support the project is unclear.

The campaign initially called on men to declare that they wouldn’t restrict their wives’ ability to travel abroad, but most men posted statements saying they had passed all rights back to their wives, including the right to work and the right to request a divorce. “I return all rights… to my life partner,” read one man’s statement. “I’m not an owner but a partner for my wife,” said another. “As a human I feel ashamed to have these rights,” wrote a third.

Here’s one:

And another:

I, an iranian man, am ashamed of the article 18 of the passport law, my wife! you are free.

Dapper Jack

Oct 3rd, 2015 4:49 pm | By

Sian Norris had a Twitter exchange with the PR guy for the shiny new Jack the Ripper museum in east London the other day.

Today, on Twitter, the museum’s PR representative attempted to defend the tourist attraction from charges that Jack the Ripper’s murders were sexually violent. In a clumsy attempt to prove that the museum was not condoning sexual violence, he instead denied that the murders had anything to do with sexual violence at all.

When I suggested that he was wrong to ignore the sexually violent aspect of these murders, he accused me of “sensationalising” – arguing that it isn’t known what Jack the Ripper’s motives were.

Disregard the fact that the victims were all prostitutes. It would be sensationalistic to draw any conclusions from that.

It’s true that there are many things we don’t know about Jack the Ripper. We don’t know his name and, on some level, we don’t know his reasons for killing women. However, the one thing we do know is that he targeted women in prostitution and that after he cut their throats he deliberately ripped out their wombs. From those facts, we can make a pretty good guess at at least one of his motivations. He was a man who hated women. He was a misogynistic killer who targeted women’s bodies in a highly gendered way.

My, what a sensationalistic thing to say. Feminists are so dramatic.

The Ripper Museum, and the defence of its existence, would perhaps matter less if such crimes were confined to the past. But the simple truth is that male violence against women is not a historical curiosity. It is not a mystery to be explored via an audio tour and a few exhibition boards. It is happening to women today all over the UK and all over the world.

In the UK, between January and August this year, an estimated 85 women have been killed by men. That’s one woman every 2.8 days. Many of these women will have been killed by current or former partners – in fact, on average, two every week. At the same time as the Ripper museum opens its doors, government cuts mean the refuges which save women’s lives are closing theirs.

But we don’t know that they are killed because they’re women. Maybe it’s because they burned the potatoes.

When the museum’s PR tries to deny that sexual violence had a part to play in these murders, when newspapers look to the nagging or cheating wife in spousal homicide cases, they are ignoring the stark and frightening reality of male violence against women. As a society we are all too quick to ignore the fact that Jack the Ripper, and violent men throughout history, choose to abuse and kill women. In Jack’s case, our decision to ignore that has led to him becoming a cult figure who exerts a grotesque fascination over the public imagination.

On the museum’s merchandise, Jack the Cult Figure stands tall and menacing under the lamppost.

The women he killed are reduced to a smudge of blood at his feet.

Really? So I clicked on the link, and saw how the “museum” is advertising their lad Jack.

That is one very romanticized image. He looks Byronic and dashing. His victims? Oh nobody wants to look at them, they were poor and lumpen and female and whorey.

I just read some of the autopsy reports. They’re not very glamorous.

Updating to add:

I forgot to point out the ad copy on the page for the Jack the Ripper shot glass £6.00.

We can neither confirm nor deny that Jack The Ripper did shots. But if he did, he probably had a neat looking shot glass.

Isn’t that just adorable?

A fundamental understanding that disagreement is not the same as oppression

Oct 3rd, 2015 11:10 am | By

It’s Cindy Sheehan’s turn. Mickey Z at World News Trust talked to her:

Activism often makes for strange bedfellows. The arduous work of coalition-building involves strategic compromises and trade-offs. Most importantly, solidarity necessitates an agreement to disagree… with minimal malice. 

Being an ally, accomplice, or fellow traveler requires a fundamental understanding that disagreement is not the same as oppression or violence. If a particular activist contingent will tolerate nothing less than marching in lockstep, well, that’s not solidarity or ally-ship. It’s thought policing. 

Which brings me to a situation involving my friend and comrade, Cindy Sheehan — someone who has connected with an astonishing array of dissident individuals and groups.

But then…

CS: It started when this letter by the Women’s Alliance was brought to my attention. In it, the authors declare: “Veterans for Peace is aligning itself with a belief system that says that we, as women, are the bigots. VFP is rising up against ‘transmisogyny’ (a term not defined in your statement), but ignores male on female hate speech and violence completely bypassing the matter of misogyny.”

It was based on a new statement by Veterans for Peace on transgender politics in which VFP “affirms the rights, humanity and identity of trans and gender diverse people and will not accept trans-phobic or trans-misogyny behavior or remarks.”

I made a comment supporting the writers of the Women’s Alliance letter, and immediately began to be attacked for my mild support. So, I had the authors of the letter on Cindy Sheehan’s Soapboxand got the most hits for any show I have done recently. To be fair, most of the response has been positive and grateful for the show.

MZ: Have other women reached out to you?

Yes, for example, I was asked to sign a letter of midwives to the licensing org which has changed all of its materials at the bullying of the trans community to exclude the words: breastfeeding, mother, and woman.

Breastfeeding has to now be called “chestfeeding” because the other term that’s been around for centuries offends women transitioning to male who have had mastectomies yet get pregnant. Women, woman, or pregnant must now be called: Pregnant partner and birthing individual.

Incredibly misogynistic to deny women the very thing that our biology makes us uniquely suited for.

MZ: I’ll assume your stance has inspired more than a few personal attacks in response.

CS: Once I supported Lisa Blank, Cheryl Biren, and Anita Stewart in their quest to get answers from Veterans for Peace as to their transgender-related rules and to define some terms it used, I was immediately attacked.

I have been told many times that I am “on the wrong side” of this issue, that I am “transphobic,” that I am a “TERF,” that my support for my three friends means that I have made the entire “antiwar movement” irrelevant and anything I did for Private Manning is also irrelevant because I deny Private Manning her “womanhood.” 

I have also been told that Caitlyn Jenner is more of a woman than I am. The trans-bullies (as I call them) obviously only support the “ideal” of a woman in this culture and can’t even wrap their minds around being gender abolitionists nor around male supremacyand why that prevailing paradigm is so dangerous.

MZ: In other aspects of social justice activism, comrades can agree to disagree but in this case, you are being smeared and ex-communicated for owning a differing opinion. But, to state what should be obvious, let’s be clear: It’s quite possible, of course, to support transgender issues while not agreeing with every aspect of trans politics/queer theory.

CS: I fully support each and every individual’s right to be whomever they want to be. To be with whomever they want to be with. As long as there is no exploitation or anyone else is being harmed. 

MZ: How do you believe we can join together to fight for social justice, educate about the upcoming elections, work to save the environment, struggle against militarism, and expose patriarchy while under threat of silencing and thought policing?

CS: I don’t know if I have shared this with you, but everyone I have come into contact with lately (those doing real, revolutionary grass-roots work) are all having the experience of being bullied by transgender activists. From struggles in small southern towns to Black Lives Matter movements around the country, transgender bullies are moving in with their “our way or the highway” approach.

To bully people who would stand with them in their right to safety and to be whoever they wants to be and to tear apart movements for their own narrow identity politics ends is counter-revolutionary.

Well maybe if it’s counter-revolutionary enough it will eventually make its way back around to revolutionary again. Some day.

The temptation to assume that there’s no smoke without fire

Oct 3rd, 2015 10:24 am | By

Chris French wrote a piece for the Guardian in 2009 saying that “recovered” memories are still a live issue.

One serious problem appears to be that many people mistakenly believe that the false memory controversy is “yesterday’s news”. They are aware that there was a huge increase in such allegations back in the 1980s and 1990s. They may even be aware that many professionals and academics have reacted against such claims, most notably Elizabeth Loftus, whose pioneering work in this area has done more to increase our understanding of the true nature of false memories than any other scientist. But it is simply not the case that this is a dead issue.

Although the incidence of new cases is much reduced from when the controversy was at its peak, new cases do still come to light with depressing frequency, as the files of the [British False Memory Society] can attest. Furthermore, the fallout from the peak period is still very much with us. There are still many families throughout the world being torn apart by these accusations, many of whom will sadly never achieve any kind of reconciliation.

Why did the media lose interest in such an emotive subject? Why did such families get so little news coverage?

I got some answers at the BFMS meeting. There are some cases where the accused are willing to go public but are prevented from doing so by legal gagging orders and are thus not free to present their side of the story. But much more common is the situation where the accused do not want to jeopardise their chances of obtaining the one thing they want more than anything else in the world: reconciliation with their estranged children. Furthermore, to go public with such stories inevitably will invite suspicion. Unless one is very familiar with the scientific research relating to false memories, there may well be the temptation to assume that there’s no smoke without fire.

Such a tempting assumption; so fatal.

…the perception that there may be a violent backlash against anyone even suspected of paedophilia is a strong factor in explaining the reluctance of many accused to go public.

What do you do? The accusation is false, but going public to say it’s false just makes the accusation more public, drawing down more violent backlash. What do you do?

Although it may be of little consolation to those who continue to suffer as a consequence of “recovered” memories, the controversy did trigger a huge amount of research into false memories. Since the mid-1990s, hundreds of papers have been published on the topic and it is probably fair to say that the results have come as something of a surprise even to the researchers themselves. Numerous experiments have shown that is much easier than anyone might have supposed to implant false memories in a large minority of the population.

I no longer even find that surprising, if I ever did. It can be so hard to remember even where you heard a particular story or phrase or joke – was it at that party the other week? Was it on Facebook? Was it at work? Was it on NPR? If memory is that feeble and sloppy, why wouldn’t it be easy to implant false ones?

Sentenced to study theology

Oct 3rd, 2015 8:24 am | By

Is Iran taking a turn toward the more humane and lenient? Is it becoming more forgiving of people’s failures to grovel to The Prophet enough? Or is it just that some courts are a little less fanatically theocratic than others? One high court, at any rate, swapped a death sentence for a two year theology sentence – still grim, but less permanent.

An Iranian man who was on death row for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad has had his sentence commuted to reading 13 religious books and studying theology for two years.

Soheil Arabi, 31, was arrested by members of the Iranian revolutionary guards in November 2013 in connection with Facebook postings which the Iranian judiciary deemed insulting to the founder of Islam. He was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death.

I’ll help him out. Mohammed had garlic breath. Mohammed was no fun at parties. Mohammed had terrible taste in shoes. Mohammed was a terrible cook. Mohammed sprayed spit when he talked.

The commuting of Arabi’s death sentence is the first such decision to have been taken by a judiciary court in Iran. It is not clear how many people are on death row in the country for blasphemy, heresy or other religious grounds. Last year a 37-year-old man was executed after being found guilty of insulting the prophet Jonah, making “innovations in the religion” and “spreading corruption on earth”. He had interpreted Jonah’s story in the Qur’an as a symbolic tale.

And for that he was killed. He interpreted an obviously magical or mythological story in an old book as just that, so a large state solemnly executed him.

We get inured to the weirdness of the way humans carry on. We have to, if we don’t want to spend all our time knocking our heads against hard surfaces, but then we don’t do enough to fix the problem. It seems so little to ask – treat old stories as just that, old stories, not as any kind of reason to kill people or punish them or force them to pretend to consider the old stories sacred. Back off. Don’t kill or punish or coerce people except for truly compelling reasons. Your devotion to your  particular old stories is in no way a truly compelling reason. Back off.

The state-owned Jamejam newspaper said Arabi was required to prepare a five-10-page summary of each of the 13 religious books he must read. He then has to write an article about religion and reference at least five -10 of those books. He should study theology for two years and report to the authorities every three months on his progress.

You don’t like our old story? Well! We’ll show you: we’ll make you spend two whole years studying our old story, so ha.

Nassim Papayiann, Amnesty’s campaigner on Iran, said: “International law clearly protects the right to criticise political leaders and religious institutions, even if the criticisms are thought to be shocking or offensive. A sentence that requires an individual to serve time in prison, study theology and read certain books as a punishment, if handed down for peacefully exercised their freedom of expression, clearly tramples over a range of rights, including the right to freedom of belief.”

Freedom of belief has been a rare thing in human history but by god it’s an important one.

MSF requests an end to the bombing of hospitals

Oct 3rd, 2015 8:02 am | By

Horrible news from Afghanistan:

Air attacks hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the battleground Afghan city of Kunduz early Saturday, killing at least nine hospital staff and injuring others at a facility that had been caring for hundreds already hurt in days of fighting, the charity said.

The U.S. military conducted an airstrike in Kunduz at the time that may have caused collateral damage, and the incident is being investigated, U.S. Army Col. Brian Tibus said.

At least nine people who worked in the hospital.

The attacks, which injured at least 37 other people and left part of the hospital in flames and rubble, came on roughly the sixth day of fighting between Afghan government forces — supported by U.S. airpower and military advisers — and the Taliban, which invaded the city early this week.

The global charity expressed shock, saying it had told all warring parties the exact location of the trauma center, including most recently on Tuesday.

The charity also said that it had alerted U.S. and Afghan military officials of Saturday’s attack, but that the attacks continued.

“The bombing continued for more than 30 minutes after American and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington were first informed,” the charity, known internationally as Medecins Sans Frontieres, said. “MSF urgently seeks clarity on exactly what took place and how this terrible event could have happened.”

And could they please not do it again.

In which layered ideas are pounded flat

Oct 2nd, 2015 5:25 pm | By

Another piece on the quest for purity in lefty politics, this one in the New Statesman and by Richard Wallace. It’s getting to be quite a popular subject these days, no doubt because there are so many purist lefties cluttering up the place and no-platforming everyone in sight.

(I figure before long Freethought blogs will consist of maybe eight or nine 100% pure people generating anything up to twenty posts a month, which no one will read. Purity tends to be a tad boring.)

If you use Twitter a lot, you may have wondered exactly how to criticise large parts of the left without sounding like a bigot, a racist, or worst of all Richard Dawkins.

The legacy of what the internet calls “identity politics” is that the lived experience of an individual now not only informs a given debate, as well it should, but dominates it, leaving no room for dissent.

Coupled with the binary nature of the internet, in which layered ideas are pounded flat by the limitations of the format, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us. There are no in-betweens.

That’s the purity drive. Agree with 100% of my ideas with 100% conviction or be denounced as cis scum. Answer the question, yes or no. Are you now or have you ever. When did you last. Can you pronounce.

Try having a grown-up conversation about freedom of speech or immigration or austerity without the debate quickly descending into a face-off around each word’s representative categorical implications. Unironic use of the words free speech mark you as a libertarian, your stance on immigration makes you either pro or anti racism, and what you think about austerity implies whether or not class privilege courses inexorably through your veins. I am using this garish italicisation as is customary for non-integrated foreign words, because at this point they may as well be: these words have no longer have any original or literal meaning but represent only a wider cultural idea, like saying plus ca change or c’est la vie. 

Like intent isn’t magic and check your privilege and the other stock phrases.

We risk devaluing useful globules of language by repurposing them so often not as useful signifiers but as brands for the ideologically impure.

Think about when Charlie Hebdo recently published cartoons of Aylan Kurdi. The cartoons were many things – tasteless, offensive, upsetting – but instead the controversial magazine was accused of making fun of a young boy’s death. A cursory Google translation of the captions and an ounce of critical analysis confirms that this interpretation simply wasn’t true – but try typing that online without looking like you endorse Charlie Hebdo’s repugnant sketches.

I have. Repeatedly, I have, and that’s one reason I’m considered so very impure by the so very pure.

That’s okay. I’ve always been a muddy type.


Oct 2nd, 2015 4:22 pm | By

There are conflicting claims about the death toll in the hajj stampede last week.

Iran says number of its citizens who died in the Hajj stampeded in Saudi Arabia last week has reached 464 – nearly double the previous toll.

Iranian authorities said there was no longer hope of finding any of the country’s missing pilgrims alive.

According to Saudi officials, 769 people died in the crush in Mina, near Mecca, and 934 were injured.

Iranian officials allege that the overall number of deaths is now more than 1,000. Pakistan, India, and Indonesia have also suggested death toll may be higher than the 769 reported by Saudi Arabia.

Another case where prayers don’t seem to do humans much good. They may be a big thrill for gods, I don’t know, but for humans…they can be disappointing even if not lethal.

Not primary, not secondary, not tertiary

Oct 2nd, 2015 11:16 am | By

Ah, no. Not at all. Not even close.

Think of “the 10 commandments” for instance, the ones people keep wanting to build statues to in public places. They don’t say a word about not being an asshole. Not a word about compassion or kindness or generosity; no golden rule; no don’t be evil; no be good to one another. Not. one. word. Most of it is about crawling to god, and the rest is just don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t envy. It’s an ethical desert.

Religion is about what human beings owe to god, it’s not about what we owe to each other.