Notes and Comment Blog

And give to the poor

Oct 19th, 2013 5:45 pm | By

So in Germany people are cross with the bishop of Limburg, who treated himself to a very pricey new place to live at the expense of none other than Jesus’s own Catholic church.

he €31-million bill for Franz-Tebartz Van-Elst’s residence, including €15,000 on a bath tub and €350,000 on built-in-wardrobes, has put the finances of the Catholic Church, much of which comes from taxpayers and state subsidies, into the spotlight.

Carsten Frerk, an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church in Germany, estimated its wealth at around €430 billion with about €140 billion of that in capital, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper reported.

You’re starting to talk about real money there.

The opaqueness of the church’s finances was no surprise to Frerk. “For the big churches, transparency is very damaging to their business plan. Nobody wants to donate to a rich organization,” he said.

Ah no, no they don’t!

The church’s largest public form of income is the “church tax”, a system whereby taxpayers register their membership of a church or religious group, and a percentage of their tax goes to that church.

The tax dates back to the medieval tithes, a one-tenth share of goods collected by churches in the Middle Ages.

Anti-Church campaigner Peder Iblher told The Local there was little appetite among the country’s main parties to reform or scrap the “church tax”.

“All attempts to bring into question the church tax fall on deaf ears with conservatives, but also with large parts of the SPD,” he said.

Germans may avoid the tax by registering as having “left” the church, but it costs money to do so – in strongly-catholic Bavaria, opting out will set you back €31 in fees.

That is one hell of a racket they’ve got going.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

“Online lynch mob!”

Oct 19th, 2013 5:00 pm | By

Sound familiar?

Via Alice Bell on Twitter, by Jim Hines.


Image preview

By Jim C. Hines @jimchines

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Oct 19th, 2013 4:00 pm | By

There’s this tv add I’ve seen a few times, and if I’ve seen it a few times that means it’s been aired like a million times.

See a problem here?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Comrade Baba Omojola

Oct 19th, 2013 3:29 pm | By

A giant of the Nigerian left and a beloved friend of Yemisi’s died suddenly today. From Sahara Reporters:

A renowned pro-democracy activist and prominent economist, Baba Omojola, has died in Akure, the capital of Ondo State.

Mr. Omojola, who earned a PhD, died a few hours after submitting a presentation to the National Dialogue Committee in Ondo State early today.

Baba, as he was famously known, was a prominent figure during Nigeria’s pro-democracy struggles of the late and early 1990s.

Mr. Omojola was one of five activists known as “Kuje Five” who were arrested and clamped into military detention after Nigerian students engaged in massive protests to force out the Ibrahim Babangida dictatorship in 1992.

Photo: It is indeed a sad day for me. I was about to call Baba Omojola this afternoon when I was informed he died in the early hours of today in Akure, a few hours after submitting a presentation to the National Dialogue Committee in Ondo State, Nigeria.</p>
<p>Baba Omojola was so many things to me; he was also a succor to my family at a time of need.</p>
<p>He was the rock of many comrades, his home was home to everyone and no one was ever turned away from his door. </p>
<p>He maintained an open house filled with love, healthy food and vigorous political debates. Unfortunately many who benefited from his large heart never really reciprocated the generosity of this great comrade. </p>
<p>He was honest to a fault and committed to Yoruba land, to Nigeria, to Africa and to humanity with such a fierce passion that words could never describe. </p>
<p>He was an Economist par excellence, a foremost labour leader, a staunch defender of the right of the poor to a better living condition and a Marxist who practiced what he preached by opening his door to those in needs.  </p>
<p>Baba Oluwide Omojola, you have done your time, you served humanity with passion, always concerned about the downtrodden, never tired of engaging productively in pragmatic ways forward and you lived life to the fullest in the service of your Motherland.</p>
<p>Baba, my heart is heavy and I already miss you and I know I will always miss you. Now that you are gone, who will call me Tolulope Abike mi? Thank you for the love, the care and the selfless service to humanity. Rest in Peace for your legacy lives on.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Daisy Coleman speaks up

Oct 19th, 2013 12:10 pm | By

Daisy Coleman is the teenage girl at the center of the Maryville rape storm, and she wants to tell the world what really happened.

She was 14. She had her best friend Paige, who was 13, over for the night to hang out and watch scary movies – and drink alcohol, against her mother’s known wishes and rules. She was texting with an older boy her brother had warned her about. Update: That looks censorious, and that’s not what I meant. I meant to summarize so as not to paste in the whole article, and to give all the relevant facts. I needed to include both the drinking alcohol and the fact that it wasn’t with parental approval.

It wasn’t until later that night that Matt, a popular senior boy, had asked to hang out. Of course, I knew my brothers wouldn’t allow this so, we had to sneak out. It was about one in the morning when my friend and I climbed out of my bedroom window. 

Dumb move. I can imagine what it felt like at the time though – an adventure; exciting; a secret. Update: As above. Just editorial comment – yes, obviously that was a dumb move, but I remember that teenage longing for adventure.

There were bedrooms and a living room area in the basement. I sat on the couch and gathered familiar faces from the room. Four of Matt’s friends were there. Matt emerged from one of the bedrooms with a bottle of clear alcohol he wanted me to drink. This is when one of Matt’s friends suggested I drink from a tall shot glass, which they labeled the “bitch cup.”

About five shots tall, I drank it. I guess I didn’t know how badly it would mess me up. But the boys who gave it to me did.

Then it was like I fell into a dark abyss. No light anywhere. Just dark, dense silence — and cold. That’s all I could ever remember from that night. Apparently, I was there for not even an entire hour before they discarded me in the snow.

Not a fun adventure. Her life turned to shit. Update: She did a couple of silly things, as teenagers do, and the boys at that party did horrible, callous, brutal things and turned her life to shit. It is the boys who are at fault, not Daisy and Paige.

I was suspended from the cheerleading squad and people told me that I was “asking for it” and would “get what was coming.”

Why would I even want to believe in a God? Why would a God even allow this to happen? I lost all faith in religion and humanity. I saw myself as ugly, inside and out. If I was this ugly on the inside, then why shouldn’t everyone see the ugly I saw?

I burned and carved the ugly I saw into my arms, wrists, legs and anywhere I could find room.

On Twitter and Facebook, I was called a skank and a liar and people encouraged me to kill myself. Twice, I did try to take my own life.

When I went to a dance competition I saw a girl there who was wearing a T-shirt she made. It read: “Matt 1, Daisy 0.”

Gee, Daisy never knew she’d entered a competition.

Since this happened, I’ve been in hospitals too many times to count. I’ve found it impossible to love at times. I’ve gained and lost friends. I no longer dance or compete in pageants. I’m different now, and I can’t ever go back to the person I once was. That one night took it all away from me. I’m nothing more than just human, but I also refuse to be a victim of cruelty any longer.

This is why I am saying my name. This is why I am not shutting up. Matt put on Twitter something recently. It read: “If her name begins with A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z, she wants the D.”

Since Anonymous has gotten involved, everything has changed. #justice4Daisy has trended on the Internet, and pressure has come down hard on the authorities who thought they could hide what really happened.

I not only survived, I didn’t give up. I’ve been told that a special prosecutor is going to reopen the case now. This is a victory, not just for me, but for every girl.

I just hope more men will take a lesson from my brothers.

They look out for women. They don’t prey on them.

A simple, good rule.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

For Norm Geras: What is it like to be a blogger?

Oct 19th, 2013 11:37 am | By

My contribution to Thinking Towards Humanity: themes from Norman Geras, Manchester University Press, 2012.

What is it like to be a blogger?

Hume famously observed that it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of his finger. He wasn’t expressing a whimsically inflated sense of his own importance, but pointing out that logic doesn’t determine how we weigh the world versus our finger. We have to love the world in order to be able to weigh it properly. Looking it up in a table of weights and measures won’t do the job – we could see the arithmetic and still shrug and say yes but it’s my finger, the world is none of mine and I don’t care. We have to care in order to make choices properly – to make them in such a way that we don’t place our own petty desires above everyone else’s deepest needs. (We have been learning lately, if we didn’t already know, that bankers and investment wizards could use some intensive training in this.) Morality is rooted in feeling, Hume told us, and researchers such as Antonio Damasio and Jonathan Haidt have been elaborating on the idea recently.

To be moral we need feeling, we need the right kind of feeling, we need educated feeling – we need to do what Martha Nussbaum called ‘cultivating humanity.’ It is arguable (and many people have argued) that the education of the feelings, and in particular sympathy, is one thing that literature and story-telling can do better than anything else. Numbers, by themselves, don’t tell us enough; ‘100,000 women raped and killed’ has less force than a pain in our own finger; but a story about one woman raped and killed can turn us inside out. In a world where ‘100,000 women raped and killed’ is no invented paradigm but a brute fact, along with row upon row of similar facts, clearly anything that can help to cultivate sympathy and empathy is of the highest value.

The primatologist Frans de Waal notes in Our Inner Ape, citing research on children and empathy by Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, that empathy precedes language. Zahn-Waxler has found that children a little over the age of one year respond to feigned sadness, pain or distress in family members, and attempt to comfort them. Cognition and feeling mix, and the mixing is all important. Few animals can do it, even a little, as De Waal observes:

 All scientists who’ve set out to find consolation in monkeys have come up empty-handed…Monkeys fail to provide reassurance even if their own offspring has been bitten. They do protect them, but show none of the cuddling and stroking with which an ape mother calms down an upset youngster.

Monkeys, it appears, are more like the autistic narrator of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, who describes human anguish as one might describe a cloud-burst.

 And then Mother said, ‘Oh my God.’

And then she didn’t say anything for a long while. And then she made a loud wailing noise like an animal on a nature programme on television.

And I didn’t like her doing this because it was a loud noise, and I said, ‘Why are you doing that?’

Empathy is all-important (yet, De Waal notes, until very recently scientists lumped it ‘with telepathy and other supernatural phenomena’) and anything which promotes and strengthens and expands it is of the greatest importance. The haunting final book of The Iliad illustrates this, when Priam begs Achilles to remember his own father and in doing that to pity Priam’s grief for his own son – and it works: Achilles consents to let Priam retrieve Hector’s body, and the two of them mourn together.

Literature and the liberal arts have long been seen as one way, or the way, to cultivate these capabilities – to awaken and foster what the Eighteenth century called ‘sensibility.’ Hardness and indifference were thought to be incompatible with a taste for Cowper. That is far too easy, of course; we know all about the cultivated slave-owner or colonial administrator or Nazi officer who read Aeschylus or Goethe in the morning and had someone whipped in the afternoon. But the effect needn’t be as lawful and predictable as a pharmaceutical to be real. In a world where lapses into brutality seem to beckon on every corner, anything that gives people experience of empathy and compassion must be of value.

Story-telling is not the only thing literature can do, however, and literature is not the only source of story-telling. Movies and television are full of stories (though often ones that convey the thrill of violence and leave suffering and empathy out of the picture). Journalism relies heavily on stories to build a bridge between ‘100,000 raped and killed,’ and felt human misery. Parallel to journalism, another rich source of an inward, subjective view of human experience and suffering is the personal diary. It’s a great pity that Western literature took so long to come up with the idea – wouldn’t we love to have a diary of Euripides, Augustus, Shakespeare, of merchants, soldiers, farmers going back many centuries. Historical novelists have been inventing some, but how we would love to have the real thing.

We don’t have the real thing going far back in time, but we do have a new abundance of contemporary diaries in the form of blogs; they travel only a few years back in time but they reach out widely in space. Blogs can’t tell us anything directly about the inner life of a victim of the Inquisition or the Black Death or a 6th century invasion, but they can tell us a lot about the inner life of someone in Khartoum or Baghdad or Peshawar right now.

There is a lot of journalistic condescension toward the genre, which is perhaps inevitable between the paid and the unpaid, but it overlooks the usefulness (to put it crudely) of this new window.

Many writers prefer the formal, finished, professional, impersonal work to the loose unbuttoned conversational essay or diary. None but a fool ever writes except for money, Samuel Johnson said with characteristic bluntness, and his young friend Boswell was a bit of a fool, artlessly filling his diary with his furtive sexual bargains, his toadying, his dreams of glory. But how fortunate for us that he did. Another way of looking at the blog is that it is not merely a slovenly intrusion on the guild, but a vast sample of our contemporaries’ inner lives of a kind that no one has had before.

One of many recurring themes on Norm Geras’s blog is the myopia of critics of the genre – the genre as such rather than particular instantiations of it – who focus on potential or actual flaws while ignoring potential and actual virtues. Of course, a genre with no barriers and no editors is just that – but boring badly-written self-obsession is not the only outcome. It turns out not to be true that none but a fool ever writes except for money.

But we already knew that. Pepys wasn’t paid to write his diary, nor was Kilvert paid to write his, nor was Keats paid to write his letters. What of it? They are now valued a good deal more highly than any number of salaried works.

The flaw in Johnson’s dismissal is that not everything worth saying can command a market. Voluntary writing, writing done for its own sake, may be mere self-indulgence, or incompetent, or of interest to no one but the author, but that is not the only possible outcome. The great advantage of voluntary writing is freedom from other people’s agendas and constraints, and some people – many people, in fact – make good use of that freedom.

Just for one thing, paid commissioned writing has a pre-determined size and shape, which conform to existing conventions – the short article, the long article, the story, the novel. There’s little if any market for a single paragraph – but it is perfectly possible to have an interesting single paragraph to say. There’s no law of nature that says a single paragraph is inherently too small to bother with; it’s just not a publishing convention. (The New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the Town’ is one home of the very short piece, but that’s an exiguous niche.) Weblogs (to give them their full baptismal name) offer a capacious platform for brief observations, thoughts, overheard remarks; they make it possible to think, dreamily, that nothing is lost.

They also offer a platform for long pieces, and middle-sized ones, and any combination of short and long and medium one chooses. The weblog is, in short, a new literary genre, a new branch of the liberal arts – an expansive, flexible, always-evolving, shape-shifting, liberating genre. It is like the novel in this. The novel has always been the antithesis of Aristotelian rules governing dramatic unities – capable of jumping from continent to continent, from century to century, from narrative to reflection to dialogue, with an involved author or a distant one. Blogs have the same ability to make their own rules on the fly.

In that sense blogs have a kind of natural alliance with human rights. It is possible for conservatives and theocrats hostile to the concept of human rights to be bloggers, but the fit is inherently uneasy. The two endeavours fight each other. Blogging is an undeferential activity, so a deferential mindset or an authoritarian one will feel out of place practicing it. This intuition is backed up by the fact that authoritarian regimes make a habit of arresting bloggers – China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Burma to name a few.

Norm Geras’s blog fits into this situation as a key fits a lock, by being just the kind of blog that authoritarians fear most, because it is everything that the authoritarian mind is not: broad, curious, reasonable, argumentative, inquiring, thoughtful, ironic, secular, and adamant about the importance of human rights. It is in short a conspicuously liberal blog, and this in more than one way, yet the ways are interconnected.

It is liberal in the obvious sense in that it is very often focused on issues to do with human rights, interventionism, tyranny and what to do about it, international law and justice, war crimes, universalism and the like. But it is also liberal in the way it approaches such issues: via measured argument as opposed to vituperation and misrepresentation, and via open unfettered inquiry rather than by peremptory demands for conformity or silence. And in the broadest and most basic sense it is liberal in the breadth of its interests. Along with discussing liberal politics it also converses about the liberal arts – literature, jazz, cricket, films, popular music.

Cricket at first blush may seem to have nothing to do with human rights (although in fact authoritarian terrorists have recently been targeting, precisely, international cricket matches), but games and recreation and play are part of an expansive rights-based conception of human beings. Other ideas conceive of humans as tools or slaves or disobedient subjects, whose pains and pleasures don’t register on the tyrant’s meter. A universalist egalitarian liberal picture of our species empathizes with and relishes its pleasures, it achievements, its works of art, whether the poem, the film, the well-played match, the song.

To put it another way, a somewhat therapeutic way, it seems plausible that fostering an enthusiasm for a variety of kinds of human accomplishment is one way to foster a profound reluctance to smash human beings in large (or small) numbers. Norm Geras’s blog is one place where a new branch of the liberal arts shows how a passion for various human games and concern for human rights can join hands and work together.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Nick and Norm

Oct 19th, 2013 11:30 am | By

Nick Cohen at the Spectator blog, on Norm Geras:

I was shocked this morning to log on to Twitter and learn that Norman Geras had died. I can think of few political writers, who have influenced me more comprehensively. Whenever I faced a difficult moral question, I would at some point think ‘ah, what is Norm saying about this,’ go to his blog and see that Norm had found a way through.

Last year Norm’s colleagues Stephen de Wijze and Eve Garrard published acollection of essays in Norm’s honour. I was flattered when they asked me to write about Norm’s dual life as Manchester University’s Emeritus Professor of Politics and one of the first writers to embrace the Web.

As a tribute to him, I reprint it below.

Ah. I too contributed an essay to that collection (and I too was flattered to be asked). I can do that as a tribute too. So I will.

For this post – appreciate Nick’s.

Monday 28 July 2003 Normblog began.

Norman Geras, Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester, dispensed with his titles and became Norm – the proprietor of and sole writer for Normblog. “In the immortal words of Sam Peckinpah ‘Let’s go’,” he declared – and off he went.

As Geras is most certainly not a conservative in his politics, his embrace of the freedom the new medium allowed is not as surprising as it seems. “I only really got wise to the blogosphere earlier this year during the lead-up to the war in Iraq,” he explained in his first post. “I began to acquaint myself with other blogs, following the links from one to another in pursuit of the debate that was taking place on this subject. My desire to do so was strengthened by the fact that, since September 11 2001, I’d come to find much of what was appearing on the opinion and letters pages of my daily newspaper of choice [the Guardian] repellent. And as a supporter of the war for regime-change reasons I was also less than comfortable with the balance of views I was encountering in the circles, professional and social, in which I move.”

I could fill the rest of this book with describing what was wrong (and remains wrong) with the liberal consensus which turned Professor Geras into Blogger Norm. A short list includes: its unwillingness to support the victims of psychopathic regimes and movements if their suffering cannot be blamed on the West; a concomitant and inevitable failure to hold onto the old leftish virtue of solidarity with those who share your principles when they are suffering at the hands of ultra-reactionary forces; a preference for the status quo, even when it is intolerable; and a relativist willingness to tolerate abuses in other cultures you would never tolerate in your own, which is really just parochialism dressed up in its Sunday best.

Plenty to argue about, but where to argue? As Geras half-recognized when he described his discomfort he felt about the arguments he was hearing in his circles, social pressure can be the most powerful and debilitating force in intellectual life. If everyone you know, every newspaper you read, every person you once admired is all saying the same thing, it takes an effort of will to argue back. As important – and I speak from experience here – it is hard to disagree rationally; to break from a consensus with intelligent arguments rather than instinctive revulsion. Unreflective consensual thinking is, I believe, more prevalent in England than in any other European democracy because the media are centralised in the capital. Everyone knows everyone else: they talk with, work with, socialize with and, on occasion, sleep with members of their tribe.

The result is stale conformism.

For some purposes, I think, consensus is a good thing. I’ve talked about this often. There’s a stale conformism about the idea that it’s wrong to torture people for the lolz, for example. You need some stale conformism of that kind to avoid living in a hell on earth where brutal sadistic violence lurks around every corner. But you want to keep the stale conformism as minimal as possible.

Which is, more or less, what my essay for Living Towards Humanity is about, so I’ll post that now.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Aw, shit

Oct 18th, 2013 6:02 pm | By

Norm Geras 1943-2013

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A bumpy week

Oct 18th, 2013 5:26 pm | By

Laura Helmuth wrote about it in Slate yesterday.

I take back every bad thing I have ever said about Twitter. It’s fast, responsive, and efficient, and it’s the medium of record when gossip breaks. Like pretty much every other science journalist in the world, I’ve been glued to Twitter for the past several days. It all started when a biologist named Danielle Lee, who writes a blog called the Urban Scientist, tweeted that some minor-league editor had called her an “urban whore.”* Really, that is what he called her. To show support for her, people started renaming their own blogs with the word whore using a #WhoreItUp hashtag. The insult was infuriating and the response heartening, but things got more serious whenScientific American removed Lee’s blog post about the exchange. The magazine issued a misleading explanation, then an apology, then it finally reposted her story with a not entirely satisfying update.

Then it got better. I mean, sorry, it got worse—what follows is all terrible and sad. But it’s also fascinating and useful to examine. A writer named Monica Byrne wrote on her blog about being harassed by one of the most influential people in the science blogging world, Bora Zivkovic. He founded an extremely popular conference for science bloggers, established science blog networks at various publications, and now (at least as I write) runs the well-respected collection of blogs at Scientific American. His nickname is the Blogfather. One common route into a science writing career in the past several years has been through Zivkovic: He routinely publishes young writers and promotes their stories with his large social media audience. Zivkovic has always been extremely solicitous of young journalists, generous with his time, charming, enthusiastic, gregarious. A Twitter meme popped up at science blogging conferences: #IHuggedBora.

And now all that is looking somewhat different, as Ibis said in a comment at Stephanie’s.

And with all the good Bora’s done mentoring women in their science comm careers… he could have done SO MUCH BETTER by leaving all of them at peace to do their work

Maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe the only reason he mentored women at all was so as to give himself ready access to a pool of women to sexually harass (& exploit?). Not unlike the way predators of children volunteer to be scout leaders or big brothers or church youth group leaders or community centre mentors of disadvantaged young people.

I hope that’s not the case, but I sure as hell can’t tell it’s not.

Zivkovic has a lot of friends, and after Byrne’s story went public, many of them expressed support for him, and others questioned Byrne’s decision to name him.

Zivkovic admitted to the incident, apologized, and said it was not “behavior that I have engaged in before or since.”

Only apparently it was. Another science writer, Hannah Waters, then described similar experiences:

I saw him at various events and he began flirting a little. It didn’t ring any alarm bells; he is flirtatious by nature. But sometimes talk would veer into more uncomfortable territory, but only vaguely uncomfortable, which made it hard to call out.

And then today there was yet another, and it became all too clear that it wasn’t a one-off but a settled script, a pick-up line.

Helmuth went on:

Waters and Byrne were careful to be precise and not exaggerate what happened to them, which is that they felt very uncomfortable when their conversations with one of the most powerful people in their profession turned sexual. They weren’t raped or groped, and they suffered no obvious career setbacks by failing to take Zivkovic up on what they perceived as the implicit request for sex. But they felt lousy and confused. Here’s what I found most distressing in Waters’ post: “At my most insecure moments, I still come back to this: Have I made it this far, not based on my work and worth, but on my value as a sexual object? When am I going to be found out?”

Exactly – that’s the part I singled out too – he blew a big hole in their confidence, for the sake of his own sex-jollies. That is crap.

I told Waters directly and repeat here that she and Byrne are talented writers who are not faking it. But of course they wonder about how their career trajectories will be perceived, and I’m sure many other people who have gotten a break or a boost from Zivkovic have the same nagging worries.

Here’s how the score stands after several days of turmoil. The racist and sexist blog editor who called Lee an urban whore has been fired. Lee is blogging away and working on a feature story related to the ordeal. Zivkovic has apologized on Twitter to Byrne and Waters and resigned from the board of the conference he helped found. Byrne and Waters are getting a deluge of positive responses. Scores of science bloggers are writing powerful stories (many of them published by Scientific American about harassmentmicroaggressionsexism, and racism. The whole extended episode has made the community more aware of the problems of harassment and more welcoming to people who call out inappropriate behavior. It’s been an amazing consciousness-raising session, and the science writing world is stronger for it.

Yes, but at a stiff price. There are a lot of very sad scientists around today.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Bora Zivkovic resigns from Scientific American

Oct 18th, 2013 4:13 pm | By

Press Release October 18, 2013

Following recent events, Bora Zivkovic has offered his resignation from Scientific American, and Scientific American has decided to accept that resignation.

The Scientific American Blog Network is a vibrant group of voices who challenge, educate and widen the discussion about science and science communication, and Bora played an important part in that. The bloggers who write on the Scientific American Blog Network are important to us, as is the science online community. We will be in regular contact with members of the Scientific American Blog Network over the coming days. Learning from recent events, we are also looking at how we support our bloggers in future.

Scientific American has an anti-harassment policy. We offer live and online anti-harassment training to those who manage employees. We’ve recently begun providing such training to individuals who work with freelancers and contractors as well. We take allegations, such as those that have appeared online this week, very seriously. When Monica Byrne contacted Scientific American a year ago, we investigated her report, offered the Company’s apologies and Ms. Byrne acknowledged in her blog that she was satisfied with our response. We were unaware of any additional allegations until this week. Our investigation of those is continuing and we will investigate any additional allegations that are reported to us. For employees, our employee handbooks and policies provide detailed information about how incidents should be reported. Our corporate Code of Conduct is publicly accessible online here: It includes contacts for reporting inappropriate behavior.

Grace Baynes Head of Corporate Communications, Nature Publishing Group Tel: +44 (20) 7014 4063 Email:

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

How little girls get their “virginity tested”

Oct 18th, 2013 3:55 pm | By

Acharya S has had her Facebook account shut down, apparently because she posted a photo of “virginity testing” of little girls in Nigeria. She needs our help pushing Facebook to reinstate her account.

My Facebook account has been permanently disabled because – I’m guessing here – I shared a photo of little African girls suffering a “virginity test.” After I contacted Facebook, I received the following form response, in which, naturally, FB doesn’t give the specific reason:

Your account has been disabled because you violated the Facebook Terms.
Unfortunately, we won’t be able to reactivate your account or respond to your email directly.
For more information about our policies, please read the Facebook Community Standards:
Thanks, The Facebook Team

As we can see, there is no recourse, no ability to communicate, no consideration for the many years and thousands of posts I’ve made on FB, along with the several pages I created there, including my business pages for Stellar House Publishing and my books.

The (uncensored) photo I posted on Facebook is graphic, as it reveals the horrible TORTURE of little girls. It was published in the mainstream media, perhaps in 2009. I found the photo on Google Images, and include a blurred edition here – I don’t want to lose my blog too! Since it was in the MSM, evidently published in a magazine, and since I am a lifelong scholar of anthropology, I didn’t consider that it was anything but an anthropological news item, like those published in National Geographic for the past century. Apparently, by FB standards it was something else.

Acharya used a blurred version of the picture in her post but I’ll give you the original. With a trigger warning.

[Picture removed because I'm tired of the shouting.]

As we can see from the blurred edition to the right, the image is of a man with a row of little girls in front of him, lying on their backs with their lower bodies naked and legs spread, while he feels around inside them to make sure their hymens are intact. These little half-naked girls are lying on the ground out in the open, in public, with others crowding around and also performing these tests. What an utter humiliation!

For exposing this hideous sexist child abuse, apparently, I’m banned from FB for LIFE.

“For exposing this hideous child abuse, apparently, I’m banned from Facebook for LIFE.”

Just looking at this image, blurred or not, is so very upsetting to me. I cannot stress enough how this traumatizing tradition needs to be stopped! But now, instead of being part of the solution, Facebook’s policies here are only helping to keep this misogynistic behavior alive.

Seriously. The problem is not Acharya posting the graphic image, the problem is what is being done to those little girls.

The photo in question may have been taken in Nigeria, where such virginity tests have been performed frequently. In the past years, a principal in Nigeria was suspended for performing this humiliation on students, while we also read this headline out of Nigeria: “Lagos state seeks 50 virgins to avert flooding”:

Spiritualist who ply their trade in Lagos have warned that the state will experience another deluge of torrential rainfall and flooding of Biblical proportions unless 50 virgins can be found for a ritual to appease the gods.

I have many freethinking Nigerian supporters, and I see Nigeria as one of the places globally where the “light” can come in, so to speak. Let us hope that media suppression such as Facebook’s behavior here does not end this budding African “Age of Enlightenment.”

Why I posted the image

I posted the uncensored, shocking photo on Facebook because it is important to see the utter indignity these poor girls must suffer – this horrible abuse is now being done in the West. How can we battle it, if we can’t see what it is? As we can see from this Google Images search, the photograph is still there – is Facebook going to ban Google Images as well?

This abuse of girls can be found in many areas, including among Muslims and Christians in other countries. Such virginity examination is now spreading to the West. In fact, I attached the apparent FB-offending photo to an article about the battle in Canada to put an end to this practice there: “‘Degrading’ virginity tests on women must stop, Quebec doctors’ group urges.”

Time to rattle Facebook’s cage again.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Not appropriate for this area

Oct 18th, 2013 11:46 am | By

Remember what Mariette DiChristina @mdichristina said a week ago about why Danielle Lee’s SciAm post was taken down?

Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.

Kate Clancy, one of the SciAm bloggers, wrote a post the other day that was not about discovering science. You can tell this if you look closely.

This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science.

Then she lists some posts of her own that were also not posts about discovering science.

Then she summed up.

I almost never write about discovering science, and in fact write frequently about oppression and privilege. But when a black woman writes about an oppressive experience, it is grounds for removal. Folks, this is Ally Work 101: it doesn’t matter your intent, what matters is the impact. Silencing a black woman who just got called an “urban whore” is sexist, racist, silencing behavior. It is wrong, and it is shameful.

That was a week ago though. Since then DiChristina has clarified that Lee’s post “veered into the personal.”

It’s been a personal kind of week at SciAm blogs. It’s been getting more personal every day – in ways that are relevant to blog post titles like “I had no power to say ‘that’s not ok’”. If you don’t already know, and want to catch up, you could start at the (current) end, with the latest no power to say no post. It’s about the blogs editor at Scientific American, Bora Zivkovic. Or you could start at the beginning with Monica Byrne’s post from a year ago, updated on Tuesday to name the man in the post as Bora Zivkovic. You could follow that up with Bora’s post confirming and apologizing.

This one is downright tragic, because Bora has done a lot to promote women bloggers and an egalitarian environment. I don’t know him, but I know a lot of people who do, and they were all crazy about him. And then there’s his wife.

First, do no harm.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Idealism in action

Oct 18th, 2013 11:16 am | By

From Andy Borowitz at the Borowitz Report -

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Acknowledging that the government shutdown was coming to an end, an emotional Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took to the Senate floor today to make an impassioned speech, telling his colleagues, “The dream of keeping poor people from seeing a doctor must never die.”

His eyes welling up with tears, Sen. Cruz said, “I embarked on this crusade with a simple goal: to keep affordable health care out of the reach of ordinary, hard-working Americans. And while this battle was lost, that dream—that precious, cherished dream—will live on.”

What could make Ted Cruz a better human being? Skepticism?



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

To praise Jesus and Mo

Oct 17th, 2013 6:06 pm | By

My friend Author of Jesus and Mo did an interview with the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain Forum a couple of days ago.

CEMB started with a summary of the recent nonsense over Jesus and Mo at LSE, then linked arms.

In a spirit of solidarity, the ex-Muslim forum would like to praise Jesus and Mo and state our admiration for his empowering, important and deeply progressive, not to mention hilarious cartoon.

And then the interview.

Could you tell us a little about your influences as a cartoonist and stylist, and in a wider sense, who influenced you in terms of your sense of playfulness towards the conceits of religion, and your satirical sensibility?

I’m still a bit reluctant to call myself a ‘cartoonist’ even after 8 years of making Jesus & Mo. I think cartoonists need to be able to draw, and that is not a skill I would claim for myself.

That said, as a child I read a lot of Peanuts – had a load of Charlie Brown paperbacks which I’d read and reread. I still do. I love the gentle tone of Peanuts, the mixture of innocence and worldliness, the lightly worn wisdom. Schulz was a great artist – much too good for me to declare him an “influence” in any way other than the fact that he instilled in me a love of the 4-panel form.

Ah, so did I. I had a boy cousin best friend, a year younger, and we were both Peanuts fiends, as well as Mad magazine fiends and Jules Feiffer fiends. They did a lot to shape both of us, I think.

Your cartoons often are very topical. Do your ideas mostly come to you spontaneously? Are you always switched on and looking for an angle on these issues in the news and elsewhere?

I carry a notebook around, and keep online notes, too. When something happens in the news, often the irony jumps out at you. I get a lot of mileage out of religious people saying funny things – sometimes all I need to do is transcribe them (credit is always given to these unknowing guest scriptwriters). Other times I just sit down and tap away until something funny-ish comes out. Or not, as the case may be.

No, that doesn’t happen – the not.

We think that broadcasters like Channel 4 who consider themselves cutting edge should produce more religious satire and should give you a series. Do you think Jesus and Mo would lend itself to animation?

They’d have to be very short animations, but yes – I do think it would work. If not for Channel 4, then certainly for YouTube. If any animators out there would like to collaborate, get in touch!

Any animators out there? Do it!!

In your cartoons the barmaid is the sceptic who teases Jesus and Mo, answers back, exposes them and presses them on their beliefs. She is the audience for their comical folly, pomposity and hypocrisy. She is always unseen. She seems like great fun. Can you talk a little about her, her role, and the importance of their questioner being a woman?

I feel oddly uncomfortable talking about the barmaid. Not sure why.

She’s the voice of reason, obviously. It seems appropriate that the figureheads of patriarchal religion should be schooled by a woman. Her relationship with J&M is an affectionate one, though, if not exactly respectful.

I think that even when faced with the folly, pomposity and hypocrisy of the boys, the barmaid still recognises them as human beings, and so treats them humanely.

Religion is a human invention, after all.

And the barmaid is a humanist as well as a skeptic. Ba dum.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

There is such a thing as skepticism about morality

Oct 17th, 2013 5:43 pm | By

I’d better go back to the beginning, and explain very carefully, for the inattentive. (Not you, obviously.)

There is such a thing as skepticism about morality. There really is. There are people who ask why we should care about [the poor, immigrants, people who fall through the cracks, victims of natural disasters, all of the above in Bangladesh or Ethiopia or DR Congo, animals, climate change, future generations, other people's children, schools, famines, droughts, factories that collapse, slave labor, forced marriage, stonings, for example]. There are people who ask why we shouldn’t just take as much as we can of everything for ourselves or for ourselves and our families or for ourselves and our tribe. There are people who say we shouldn’t care, and we should take as much as we can. Those are all claims, about morality, and people make them.

Apparently I didn’t make that clear enough (because I thought anyone who bothered to read this blog would already know it).


Sara E. Mayhew @saramayhew

Ophelia Benson is fed up with skepticism thinking it answers all questions, like “why should I care?” Um, skepticism is for CLAIMS. #idjit

Skepticism is for claims, humanism is for morals. This is why #atheismplus is stupid.

See? Obviously I didn’t explain carefully enough, because that’s completely uncomprehending. I didn’t say skepticism thinks it answers all questions. I said it asks questions like “why should I care?” and that it’s not skepticism that can answer them. That’s really…quite different.

There are skeptics who think the whole concept of “morals” is bullshit. More skepticism isn’t the way to convince them otherwise. Skepticism isn’t the boss of all claims, and morality doesn’t float free of all claims. It’s not that easy.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Throughout the ceremony, she wept and shook with shock and fear

Oct 17th, 2013 1:21 pm | By

Well here’s a gut-wrenching story. A father forces his daughter into an unwanted marriage, then rescues her from that marriage when he realizes how horrible it is.

The parents are from Turkey. The father had lived in London for 25 years but still thought that his daughter’s having a boyfriend at 17 meant she was falling victim to “the ways of the western world” and had to be married off to a stranger in Turkey, no matter how much she didn’t want to.

He and my mother tricked me into thinking we were going to Turkey just for a holiday, something we had done every summer throughout my life. On the final day, Dad took me to one side and firmly explained that I wasn’t going back with them. “You’re staying here with your uncle and he’s going to find you someone to marry. You want to get married, then it will be to someone we choose rather than a stranger you bring home.”

Terrified, I pleaded with my father to take me back. I was a good girl. I didn’t drink alcohol or go clubbing and had mutely accepted all the restrictions he had put on my life that saw me spend most of my time outside college helping run the family home. Taking my first boyfriend at 17 didn’t mean I wanted marriage. Dad was unmoved, and drove away with my younger brother and sister sobbing in the car just as hysterically as I was. My mother swallowed any upset she must have felt through total loyalty to my father, which compounded my sense of betrayal.

My passport and notebook with all my friends’ contact details were locked away and, within weeks, a match had been hurriedly made and the wedding arranged. I lived with my uncle and his wife, who weren’t happy with the arrangement but wouldn’t go against my father’s wishes. I didn’t see my parents or siblings again until they returned for the ceremony. Again, my desperate pleas for them to take me home were blankly ignored.

On the day, as custom dictated, my soon-to-be in-laws arrived to collect me from the family home. I was led, sobbing, away from the house. When I saw tears fill my father’s eyes, I dared to hope he was about to change his mind. That he suddenly had become as fearful as I was about the kind of life I would have married to a man seven years older than me who I didn’t even know. But there was no reprieve.

Throughout the ceremony, I wept and shook with shock and fear. The so-called celebrations afterwards were sober. People were subdued, having witnessed my distress. Many were clearly uncomfortable with what had happened.

And then her husband and his family treated her like dirt, and she was trapped.

In the end he worked out a way to trick her in-laws and get her safely out. But…

I spent the flight home in stunned silence, as I listened to Dad explain how the British embassy in Istanbul and local police had been on standby, ready to step in if things had turned nasty. When we finally walked through arrivals at Heathrow I collapsed on the floor, overwhelmed with relief that I was safe and frustrated anger that my rescuer was the person who had put me in that terrible situation in the first place. Dad got on the floor with me and held Ali and me close. He’s been doing the same ever since.

I’m sure Dad’s guilt at what I went through has shaken his belief in himself as a man and a father. However much bringing me home again might have assuaged his guilt, I know he looks at my son and finds it very difficult to live with the feelings that get stirred up.

He has apologised to me repeatedly – my mum, too. Of course, Dad could never have known when he first set the wheels in motion for my forced marriage that it would cause me the suffering it did. But the idea that the very man who had provided me with a loving and secure childhood could abandon me to the vagaries of a culture that I’d only previously experienced through holidays and family weddings still hurts.

Dad certainly could have known that forcing a completely unwilling daughter to marry a stranger would cause her suffering, even if the stranger turned out to be a decent guy (and how decent could he be, really, when he accepted such an arrangement?). He could have and should have.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Oct 17th, 2013 12:01 pm | By

Chris Clarke has 10 reasons you should stop being so irrationally upset about your hair being repeatedly set on fire.

6. Because some people prefer their hair bright red, and they deserve respect and not shaming.

7. Because that man’s head is cold and he says that if someone set his hair on fire he would take it as a compliment.

8. Because if we just start putting out every fire we see without going through a calm and measured deliberative process in which we consider all the facts at hand, we will eventually be unable to cook food or smelt useful alloys.

9. Because you really ought to be used to it by now. It’s just the way life works in an oxygenated atmosphere.

10. Because my hair has never been set on fire.

11. Because it’s just disagreement.

12. Because it’s just criticism.

13. Because there have been very good caricaturists.

14. Because if you don’t like it all you have to do is stop writing on the internet.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

No can say

Oct 17th, 2013 11:29 am | By

Hmm. American Atheists is having a hard time finding a billboard company in Salt Lake City willing to take one of their billboards to run during next year’s convention. This one for instance:

 So it’s taboo, apparently, to say (conspicuously) that you were once a Mormon and are now an atheist.

Well if it’s taboo, how voluntary is the religion then? If you can’t do something as simple (and, admittedly, visible) as announce that you have left a particular religion…is that religion really fully voluntary? It seems to me it’s not. If there’s that much social disapproval, then it’s not.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The manosphere in the tv spotlight

Oct 17th, 2013 11:03 am | By

Manboobz tells us that mainstream media in the form of ABC’s 20/20 is airing a long-awaited show on the manosphere tomorrow.

It’s here at last! After numerous delays, the 20/20 story looking at the manosphere — and the part it plays in the online harassment of women — will be running on ABC this Friday, October 18, at 10 PM EST. Among the featured participants: the always charming Paul Elam of A Voice for Men; Anita Sarkeesian, the much-harassed feminist video game critic; and Jaclyn Friedman, the ass-kicking founder of Women, Action & the Media.

Here’s a teaser story on the ABC website which suggests that the 20/20 piece isn’t exactly going to be a triumphant moment in the history of the Men’s Rights Movement.

Yes, it does rather suggest that. Right from the title.

Women Battle Online Anti-Women Hate From the ‘Manosphere’

Deep in the underbelly of the Internet is a hidden corner known as the “Manosphere”— a collection of websites, Facebook pages and chat rooms where men vent their rage and spew anti-women rhetoric.

Protected by the anonymity of the Internet, men feel free to post hateful and violent comments. Posts such as “I really wouldn’t mind shooting a [expletive] dead in the face, they are evil, all of them,” and “Women are the natural enemies of men” are commonplace on sites like “A Voice for Men,” a Manosphere blog run by Paul Elam.

I’ve featured on the front page of that site. It wasn’t the very best moment of my life.

While Elam told “20/20″ that his site does not promote violence or hate toward women, some of his writing appears otherwise. In a post on his website, Elam wrote that women on welfare are “little more than thinly disguised layabouts.”

Elam claimed it’s not anger but satire and social commentary. “What I do is reflect and study what the attitude is in the culture,” he told “20/20.” “I am not creating the problem, I am documenting some of it.”

But experts like Mark Potok, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, believe this rhetoric is problematic. “The Manosphere is an underworld of so-called men’s rights groups and individuals on the Internet, which is just fraught with really hard-line anti-woman misogyny,” Potok told “20/20.”

And when a woman is on the receiving end of this misogyny, the Manosphere is unflinching in its attacks.

“Women who are targeted by these sites get a tidal wave of hate mail with rape threats and death threats,” Jaclyn Friedman, founder of Women, Action & the Media, told “20/20.”

And it’s not the best fun there is. I know there are skeptics who say it is, but they’re mistaken.

Friedman was also the subject of a cyber attack after campaigning on Facebook to remove photos and groups that promoted hate speech toward women.

“I got emails and tweets and posts on Facebook that say, ‘You are disgusting. You are fat. No one would ever want you. You should be raped,” Friedman said.

Friedman said the Manosphere is not satire as Elam claimed, but a space for people to cause damage to women.

“If you look at what they actually do, it’s all hateful rhetoric,” she told “20/20.”

“And it has real impact in the real world.”

It’s good to see major media paying attention.

Update: this show has nothing to do with our colleague Mano Singham. Heh heh.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

We have met the enemy and you know the rest

Oct 17th, 2013 10:13 am | By

One of the comments on The Troublemaker really stood out for me, because I’ve been thinking the same thing. It’s by one ADHDJ:

There is a huge overlap between skepticism and mansplaining.

I find cowardice in so much of what skeptics spend their time on — writing a 20 page article debunking a photo of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster and believing you did something intellectually valuable, like that makes you some kind of big thinker.  Considering whether or not fairies exist is worthy of great study and serious analysis, but whether some drunk dude acted like a creepy asshole at 3AM is so unlikely as to never merit a thought.

To quote the great Harry Frankfurt, “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”  And most of it is pretty easily debunked.  So if you’re fairly smart, lazy, and argumentative, skepticism is very emotional satisfying, as it supplies a constant stream of unequivocally silly bullshit and bullshitters to do battle with, a constant stream of reasons to feel superior.

Call it Cognitive Assonance.  Can you believe people who think the earth isn’t spherical?  (Seriously, there are.)  Good thing there are people like me to point out someone was wrong on the internet!  It leads to this mindset where you are the high arbiter of truth, the world’s designated bullshit-caller.  One can feel like a great intellectual even though you’re doing the equivalent of dunking over your 5 year old cousin on a Nerf hoop.

From this position, anything that makes one uncomfortable (like teh lay-deez and their mysterious lay-dee ways) is a target to be debunked or rebutted, and can be assumed to be wrong about everything.  One starts adopting the language of skepticism to opine about social issues and other things that are not debunkable, but just happen to be your opinion.

The skeptic community says that everyone is stupid except for you, and needs the benefit of your munificent belligerence — “what you ________ just don’t understand about science is _____”, etc.  It leads to a conversation that has the same shape as when I talk to my crazy brother about conspiracy theories.  “What the mainstream media don’t want you to understand about flouridation…”  Or my crazy uncle about economics.  “What you tax and spend liberals don’t understand about the laffer curve is…”

It’s fucking toxic.  It’s science that’s been bitten by a radioactive asshole.  It’s people who nominally detest conspiracy theories taking up the very language of conspiratorial certainty, in the name of rationality, to justify their own stupidity.  It’s a way to feel righter than everyone, smarter than everyone, because science, all while not having to challenge your own cultural beliefs or prejudices no matter what.

ADHDJ then responds to being called an anti-skeptic:

What on earth is an anti-skeptic?   I enjoy and in some circumstances see great value of debunking crazy bullshit.  I was a member of CSICOP for several years in the mid 80′s,  I was an active on alt.folklore.urban for a long time, and read many books by Shermer, Randi, Nickell, etc.

I was trying to describe what I’ve seen the movement turn into in the internet age: it’s another venue for Internet Tough Guys to feel smart, while either turning their rhetorical guns on social issues — feminism, “political correctness”, etc. often couched in a completely uncritical embrace of the pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology — or on the easiest targets in the world (faith healing, Bigfoot, etc).

Seeing a movement that’s supposed to be devoted to rationality and critical thinking turn anti-intellectual and authoritarian pisses me off.  I don’t think that makes me an asshole.  Plenty of other stuff does, though, so point taken I guess.  However if you do consider yourself a skeptic, you should give the No True Scotsman bullshit a rest.

So this is internal criticism, not external. It’s the same with criticisms I make here, and many of us make elsewhere on FTB and on social media. I’ve been writing on skeptical-type subjects since B&W started in the fall of 2002 (by the way it had its 11th birthday last month sometime), but by god I have plenty of criticism of “movement” skepticism. It’s what ADHDJ said. For a lot of people it’s just another way to be an asshole.

There are “skeptics” on Twitter right now offering “reasons” to think fat-shaming is a good idea. Yeah.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)