Notes and Comment Blog

Working on a reply

Jul 22nd, 2015 11:14 am | By

An item from Andy McSmith’s Diary in the Independent:

Stewart McDonald, MP for Glasgow South, arranged a Commons debate on civil rights in Saudi Arabia during which he raised the Badawi case. Replying for the Government, [Foreign Office minister Tobias] Ellwood claimed “the case is in the Supreme Court and is under review. We therefore cannot interfere with that process, in the same way that the Saudi authorities would not interfere with our process.”

When challenged, he insisted: “The case has returned to the Supreme Court, which reflects the fact that the leadership has taken stock of international opinion. The punishment has stopped and is under review. Until that process moves forward, it would be incorrect to comment on another country’s judicial process.”

The last the world heard was that in June the Saudi Supreme Court had upheld Mr Badawi’s sentence, and it was reported then that his only remaining hope was a royal pardon. I asked the Foreign Office if they could throw light on Mr Ellwood’s statement. More than seven hours after he spoke, I was told that their Saudi desk was working on a reply. When it comes, I will gladly pass it on.

It’s confusing. It’s not clear if Ellwood has inside knowledge that the Supreme Court did not rule in June after all and is still reviewing the case, or if he just got it wrong (or obfuscated).


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

Flying gun

Jul 21st, 2015 6:21 pm | By

Soooooo…stay out of the parks. Well just stay inside altogether. But they can come up to your windows I suppose, so…

I guess just kiss your ass goodbye.

The Feds are investigating.

The US Federal Aviation Administration says it is investigating an online video that shows an alleged home-made “drone” firing a handgun in the Connecticut countryside.

The 14-second video called Flying Gun shows a homemade multi-rotor hovering off the ground, buzzing furiously and firing a semiautomatic handgun four times at an unseen target.

It does, too. A gun. Firing. In a park.

It was posted on YouTube on July 10 and has been watched nearly 2 million times.

It was filmed by 18-year-old Austin Haughwout from Clinton, Connecticut.

Mr Haughwout is studying for a degree in mechanical engineering. Neither he nor police could be reached for immediate comment.

“The FAA will investigate the operation of an unmanned aircraft system in a Connecticut park to determine if any Federal Aviation Regulations were violated,” the group said in a statement.

“The FAA will also work with its law enforcement partners to determine if there were any violations of criminal statutes.”

Hey, if there’s no law against firing guns in parks, then there damn well should be.

But Mr Haughwout’s father denied his son had built a drone, which he said are pre-programmed, and said this device was manually controlled.

“People have been playing with RC [remote-controlled] toys for many decades,” he said.

“The proper name for this is an RC quadcopter.

“The media keeps using the inappropriate word because it helps you to generate fear.”

Because people shouldn’t have fear of some teenager firing a gun in a park? Is he serious?

The father said he doesn’t understand why people are making such a big deal of it. Sure, it’s just a gun, in a park. What’s to be afraid of?

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

The whole earth

Jul 21st, 2015 5:36 pm | By

From NASA:

On February 11, 2015, DSCOVR was finally lofted into space by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. After journey of about 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles) to the L1 Lagrange Point, the satellite and its Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) has returned its first view of the entire sunlit side of Earth. At L1—four times farther than the orbit of the Moon—the gravitational pull of the Sun and Earth cancel out, providing a stable orbit and a continuous view of Earth. The image above was made by combining information from EPIC’s red, green, and blue bands.(Bands are narrow regions of the electromagnetic spectrum to which a remote sensing instrument responds. When EPIC collects data, it takes a series of 10 images at different bands—from ultraviolet to near infrared.)

This first public image shows the effects of sunlight scattered by air molecules, giving the disk a characteristic bluish tint. The EPIC team is developing data processing techniques that will emphasize land features and remove this atmospheric effect. Once the instrument begins regular data acquisition, new images will be available every day, 12 to 36 hours after they are acquired by EPIC. These images will be posted to a dedicated web page by autumn 2015. Data from EPIC will be used to measure ozone and aerosol levels in Earth’s atmosphere, as well as cloud height, vegetation properties, and the ultraviolet reflectivity of Earth. NASA will use this data for a number of Earth science applications, including dust and volcanic ash maps of the entire planet.

It has not been possible to captures images of the entire sunlit side of Earth at once since Apollo 17 astronauts captured the iconic Blue Marble photograph in 1972. While NASA has released other blue marble images over the years, these have mostly been mosaics stitched together with image processing software—not a single view of Earth taken at one moment in time.

“This first DSCOVR image of our planet demonstrates the unique and important benefits of Earth observation from space,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “As a former astronaut who’s been privileged to view the Earth from orbit, I want everyone to be able to see and appreciate our planet as an integrated, interacting system.”

The home planet:

An EPIC New View of Earth

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

Dahlia day

Jul 21st, 2015 4:06 pm | By


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

More from Saudi Arabia

Jul 21st, 2015 12:12 pm | By

Elham Manea shares some news on the Raif Badawi front.

Important statement of the family of Raif Badawi

We have watched with great interest the response of the British Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Tobias Ellwood, in today’s Parliamentarian questioning regarding the case of Raif Badawi. Mr Ellwood said that he was informed that the case of Raif Badawi was sent back to the Saudi Supreme Court for consideration.

Although we cannot confirm this news due to the secrecy that shrouds the Supreme Court’s procedures, we do hope that the information is accurate. We recall with hope that the last statement issued by the Saudi Foreign Ministry on 12 June did deny that the Supreme Court has confirmed the sentence against Raif Badawi.

We would like to take this opportunity to call on his Majesty King Salman, his Crown Prince and the Deputy Crown Prince to pardon and release Raif Badawi and all the prisoners of conscious and reunite them with their families.

The Family of Raif Badawi

I didn’t know that about the statement issued by the Saudi Foreign Ministry on 12 June. That was when I was at the CFI conference, so I missed it.

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

The erasure of Mecca

Jul 21st, 2015 12:02 pm | By

This is something I didn’t know – the Saudis have demolished most of Mecca in order to put up shiny new modern boxes. Ziauddin Sardar wrote it up for the New York Times last year.

WHEN Malcolm X visited Mecca in 1964, he was enchanted. He found the city “as ancient as time itself,” and wrote that the partly constructed extension to the Sacred Mosque “will surpass the architectural beauty of India’s Taj Mahal.”

Fifty years on, no one could possibly describe Mecca as ancient, or associate beauty with Islam’s holiest city. Pilgrims performing the hajj this week will search in vain for Mecca’s history.

The dominant architectural site in the city is not the Sacred Mosque, where the Kaaba, the symbolic focus of Muslims everywhere, is. It is the obnoxious Makkah Royal Clock Tower hotel, which, at 1,972 feet, is among the world’s tallest buildings. It is part of a mammoth development of skyscrapers that includes luxury shopping malls and hotels catering to the superrich. The skyline is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling peaks. Ancient mountains have been flattened. The city is now surrounded by the brutalism of rectangular steel and concrete structures — an amalgam of Disneyland and Las Vegas.

Startling, isn’t it. And wrong way around – they hang onto the outdated cruel laws and exclusions, while ditching the beautiful objects and built environment. Next time do the opposite of that!

The initial phase of Mecca’s destruction began in the mid-1970s, and I was there to witness it. Innumerable ancient buildings, including the Bilal mosque, dating from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, were bulldozed. The old Ottoman houses, with their elegant mashrabiyas — latticework windows — and elaborately carved doors, were replaced with hideous modern ones. Within a few years, Mecca was transformed into a “modern” city with large multilane roads, spaghetti junctions, gaudy hotels and shopping malls.

Oof it makes me flinch to think of it.

The few remaining buildings and sites of religious and cultural significance were erased more recently. The Makkah Royal Clock Tower, completed in 2012, was built on the graves of an estimated 400 sites of cultural and historical significance, including the city’s few remaining millennium-old buildings. Bulldozers arrived in the middle of the night, displacing families that had lived there for centuries. The complex stands on top of Ajyad Fortress, built around 1780, to protect Mecca from bandits and invaders.

I would think Islamic history would be important to Islam and to Muslims, but Sardar explains.

The only other building of religious significance in the city is the house where the Prophet Muhammad lived. During most of the Saudi era it was used first as a cattle market, then turned into a library, which is not open to the people. But even this is too much for the radical Saudi clerics who have repeatedly called for its demolition. The clerics fear that, once inside, pilgrims would pray to the prophet, rather than to God — an unpardonable sin. It is only a matter of time before it is razed and turned, probably, into a parking lot.

Ah, so it’s the Puritan thing. Never mind anything material, just focus on the non-existent the Beyond. Ignore the stuff, embrace the abstract. Forget about this world, care only for the dream world.

Mecca is a microcosm of the Muslim world. What happens to and in the city has a profound effect on Muslims everywhere. The spiritual heart of Islam is an ultramodern, monolithic enclave, where difference is not tolerated, history has no meaning, and consumerism is paramount. It is hardly surprising then that literalism, and the murderous interpretations of Islam associated with it, have become so dominant in Muslim lands.

What a depressing and saddening state of affairs.

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

Zelig among the skeptics

Jul 21st, 2015 11:24 am | By

Mark Oppenheimer has a long piece at the Tablet about someone I don’t think I’d heard of before, Al Seckel.

In the early 1980s, freethought was especially hot in L.A. The city has always appealed to land’s-end, far-horizon dreamers: sci-fi aficionados, futurists, quick-buck schemers (L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology in L.A., was all three). But others take the same tendency toward the extreme and flip it around, into a radically skeptical, debunking mindset. Many magicians—James Randi, Penn and Teller, the sleight-of-hand master Jamy Ian Swiss—are committed atheists and scientific skeptics. And as the home of the postwar defense and aerospace industries, Southern California also attracted legions of scientists who were alarmed by the region’s growing influence in the evangelical movement. Illusionists and scientists, while unalike in many respects, shared a keen interest in how the mind works, and in how this understanding can be used for good and for ill.

While famous scientists like Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman were happy to lend their names to skeptical groups, to appear on the letterheads, they weren’t stuffing the envelopes. The organizing fell to worker bees like Seckel, who founded at least two skeptical groups and belonged to a third and possibly a fourth. He arranged meetings, managed mailing lists, contributed money of his own, did what had to be done. He also had a hand in one of the great publicity coups of freethought, the “Darwin fish” bumper sticker ubiquitous in the 1980s. John Edwards, the engineer and future competitive dancer who came to Seckel’s parties, had come up with an idea for a riff on the Jesus fish symbol: a fish with legs, to connote evolution, with the word “Darwin” inside. According to Edwards, Seckel helped him refine the final design.

But he implied credentials he didn’t actually have, and he owed a lot of people a lot of money. It’s a complicated story, and interesting.

Jim Lippard has more.

Mark Oppenheimer’s long-awaited exposé on Al Seckel, “The Illusionist,” has now been published and I urge all skeptics to read it. Seckel, the former head of the Southern California Skeptics and a CSICOP Scientific and Technical Consultant who was listed as a “physicist” in every issue of the Skeptical Inquirer from vol. 11, no. 2 (Winter 1987-88) to vol. 15, no. 2 (Winter 1991) despite having no degree in physics, has long been known among skeptical insiders as a person who was misrepresenting himself and taking advantage of others. Most have remained silent over fear of litigation, which Seckel has engaged in successfully in the past.

As an example of Seckel’s legal threats, Jim shares an email Seckel sent him a year ago. A long email.

So why should anyone care?  Who is Al Seckel, and what was he worried that I might be saying about him? This is mostly answered by the Oppenheimer article, but there is quite a bit more that could be said, and more than what I will say here to complement “The Illusionist.”

Al Seckel was the founder and executive director of the Southern California Skeptics, a Los Angeles area skeptics group that met at Caltech.  This was one of the earliest local skeptical groups, with a large membership and prominent scientists on its advisory board.  Seckel has published numerous works including editing two collections of Bertrand Russell’s writings for Prometheus Books (both reviewed negatively in the Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies, see here and here).  He has given a TED talk on optical illusions and authored a book with the interesting title, Masters of Deception, which has a forward by Douglas R. Hofstadter.  Seckel was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and developed an association with a couple of cognitive psychology labs at Caltech–in 1998 the New York Times referred to him as a “research associate at the Shimojo Psychophysics Laboratory.” His author bios have described him as author of the monthly Neuroquest column at Discover magazine (“About the Author” onMasters of Deception; Seckel has never written that column), as “a physicist and molecular biologist” (first page of Seckel’s contribution, “A New Age of Obfuscation and Manipulation” in Robert Basil, editor, Not Necessarily the New Age, 1988, Prometheus Books, pp. 386-395; Seckel is neither a physicist nor a molecular biologist), and, in his TED talk bio, as having left Caltech to continue his work “in spatial imagery with psychology researchers as Harvard” (see Oppenheimer’s exchanges with Kosslyn, who has never met or spoken with him and Ganis, who says he has exchanged email with him but not worked with him).

There’s more, a lot more. Readthewholething.

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

Are you now or have you ever been

Jul 21st, 2015 9:23 am | By

I almost never close posts to comments here, but I closed one just now because it was an explosion of inquisitorial dogmatic stupid. I deleted the last few comments, so don’t bother looking for them.

Don’t ever, ever ask me questions of the form: “Do you think X is Y, yes or no?”

And don’t ever follow up such a question (or any question) with “be aware that ‘yes, but’ or any other kind of ‘sort of’ or ‘maybe’” will be treated as a no and you will be excommunicated accordingly.

Just fuck right off with that kind of thing, because it’s ordering me not to think and analyze but just say yes or no, and that’s not what I want to be doing. I don’t do yes or no questions, and I don’t want people here prancing around like cops demanding that I do.

Yes or no questions are of no interest. Pretending that the way to deal with complicated and/or contentious subjects is to reduce them to yes or no is the enemy of thought.

I refuse to make that kind of forced choice. I refuse to be told to limit my answer to yes or no.

Then again I probably don’t even need to say this, because y’all don’t try to ask questions in that form or bully me into answering them in that form. It’s only people drunk on what they take to be the most radical of all radical politics who do that, and they mostly don’t read this blog, because it’s not their kind of thing.

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

Those concerns are overblown

Jul 20th, 2015 3:13 pm | By

The theocrats are fighting back.

Legislation granting protections for tax-exempt organizations and individuals objecting to same-sex marriage on religious or moral grounds is gathering momentum in the House. The bills, drafted by Representative Raúl R. Labrador, Republican of Idaho, and Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, already have 130 co-sponsors. On Thursday, the Republican Study Committee, the largest, most organized group of conservatives in the House, demanded a vote.

“All religious Americans deserve assurance that they can carry out their conscience without a federal government crackdown,” said Representative Bill Flores, Republican of Texas and the committee’s chairman.

Do they? What if their conscience tells them they have to kill same-sex couples? Or set fire to their houses, or kidnap their children? What if their conscience tells them white Christians should have dominion over everyone else, and they start shooting up government offices? What if their conscience tells them to persecute immigrants, or independent women, or atheists, or Jews, or trans people?

A competing Republican group has drafted a bill that goes in the opposite direction – it would would narrow the scope of protection offered to groups declining services to same-sex couples seeking to marry.

Last week, after Republican governors in South Carolina and Alabama pressed for the removal of the Confederate battle flag at their capitols, Southern Republicans in the House moved to preserve the right to lay those flags on Confederate graves at federal cemeteries, prompting an uproar led by African-American House members.

Oh for god’s sake – can they leave no provocation undeployed? Do they have to go to the wall for racism?

Republican leaders made it clear they saw a need for a legislative response to the court’s action. Without legal protection, Republicans fear religious broadcasters could lose their federal licenses if they do not grant same-sex marriage benefits to employees. Faith-based charities like World Vision, which rely on government grants, could face pressure — or even the loss of their tax-exempt status — if they do not drop requirements that employees sign a statement of faith, including respect for “traditional” marriage. Catholic schools risk losing federal teacher-assistance grants and assistance with school meals, Republicans say.

Mr. Labrador, in an interview Friday, said he was willing to work with Mr. Dent — and even the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group — to get the language right, although he said measures expanding legal protections for homosexuals were outside the scope of the bill.

“We’re trying to draft the narrowest bill possible. We’re just trying to protect people’s freedom of religion,” he said.

Gay rights advocates say those concerns are overblown. In the last 30 years, only a handful of organizations have ever lost their tax-exempt status, and those have been mainly over fraud charges. Religious organizations that do not hire women have never been threatened.

Of course not. Nobody gives a fuck if women are shut out. Women are just women. Discrimination against then just doesn’t matter, it’s trivial, it’s fluff, it’s nothing.

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

Proud to be top

Jul 20th, 2015 11:35 am | By

At a different Pride parade, a month ago…

Just days after Pride Toronto’s dispute resolution process banned the group from forthcoming celebrations, the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE) — a group denounced by critics for being anti-feminist and misogynist — were peacefully walking the streets of Richmond Hill for Pride York Fest.

Oh good grief. That’s Justin Trottier’s group.

MRAs marching in a Pride parade.

And so the nine-person CAFE contingent, including a handful of women, marched, sandwiched between contingents from the federal and provincial Liberal parties as well as a local newspaper.

Few who lined Yonge St. between Crosby Ave. and Vern Dynes Way batted an eye when CAFE members doled out buttons and leaflets advertising their group, aimed at improving the status, health and well-being of boys and men.

Were there also groups aimed at improving the status, health and well-being of white people, rich people, straight people? I worry about them. How do the advantaged get even more advantaged?

“It’s not that men’s issues are more important than other people’s issues, it’s that they are relevant,” said Justin Trottier, CAFE’s executive director.

He told the Star the group was “so excited” to participate in the parade because the group’s “principles and values are the principles and values of the LGBT community, certainly of the Pride Parade.”

He dismissed accusations of having an anti-feminist agenda as being “knee jerk decisions about our motives . . . generally made in ignorance of the facts.” He urged critics to become familiar with CAFE’s work for men and boys before jumping to conclusions.

Ever the bullshitter.

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

Good lad

Jul 20th, 2015 10:58 am | By

Inspired by karmacat, I looked up the Good Lad Project that so irritates Dan Bell of InsideMAN.

What We Do

The Good Lad Workshop is an Oxford-based effort to empower men to deal with complex gender situations and become agents of positive change within their social circles. We run workshops throughout term time for groups of men within the university, such as sports teams, drinking societies, clubs and JCR/MCR members.

Our workshops focus on issues relating to consent, masculinity, peer pressure, power and responsibility. Instead of casting men as potential perpetrators who just have to learn to obey the law, we promote the idea of ‘positive masculinity.’ We challenge men to see not just obligations to avoid harming women, but opportunities to make a positive difference in women’s lives.

Is that such a bad thing? It doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. What would you have to believe to see it as a bad thing? I guess either that men should be dominant over women, or that there are no familiar predictable conflicts between women and men. Both of those beliefs seem pretty hard to defend.

What does Dan Bell seem to believe? That men are hard done by, that men get too much criticism and re-education, that men are disadvantaged just as much as women are, or perhaps more.

Even if he’s right on all counts, it seems to me the Good Lad approach could still be a useful one. It seems to be a workshop meant to get people to think harder about how to behave decently. Who among us couldn’t use some of that?

Workshops are an hour long. Their focus is a series of scenarios developed from real life situations. We believe the scenarios involve difficult issues where there are not necessarily clear answers and are, therefore, genuinely worthy of reflection. Ultimately, our aim is not to tell any man what to do, but to equip them with a powerful, alternative framework to analyse complex gender situations.

Doesn’t sound very dogmatic or doctrinaire, does it.

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

Not just for their own good, but for women’s too

Jul 20th, 2015 9:23 am | By

So much ugly. It’s the Torygraph, so whaddayouexpect, but all the same – the bluntness is a little surprising. Dan Bell says We must stop indoctrinating boys in feminist ideology.

On Wednesday, the Daily Mail reported that a school in Oxford has become the first to introduce “Good Lad” workshops, in which boys are singled out for sessions that teach them about “the scale of sexual harassment and violence aimed at female students” and how they must stand up for women’s rights.

The workshops are the latest in a mushrooming series of initiatives in which ideologically-driven activists are being invited into schools, driven by the belief that boys need to be re-educated to prevent them from becoming a threat to women.

And? Boys shouldn’t be taught not to harass or attack girls?

Another organisation, A Call to Men UK, also goes into schools, stating on its website: “A CALL TO MEN UK believes that preventing violence against women and girls is primarily the responsibility of men. We re-educate through trainings (sic), workshops, presentations, school projects and community initiatives.”

And yet another, the Great Men Value Women project, frames its mission as about helping young men, but it’s also driven by the belief that young men need to be re-educated as feminists – not just for their own good, but for women’s too.

And? Boys shouldn’t be taught things that benefit women as well as men?

What kind of sick worldview does this guy have, that he finds it shocking to see children taught to act for the good of others as well as themselves?

[S]ince when was it acceptable to impose ideology on school children? And for that matter, would we ever dare to suggest school girls ought to be taught that Great Women Value Men?

Uh…yes? Every second of every day? We’re all taught from birth that the important valuable complicated interesting people are all men. And if he thinks school girls are not taught that they have to value men…jumping jesus is he ever out of touch.

In March, the Government announced the introduction of new consent classes for children aged as young as 11. The plans were launched on International Women’s Day and the PSHE guidelines repeatedly state they are primarily part of the Government’s A Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls strategy.

According to a “Fact Sheet” published by one of the guidelines’ key contributors, a top priority for the lessons is “challenging notions of male sexual entitlement” and the lessons should be seen “in the context of a society in which gender inequality is the norm… and girls and young women are subjected to high levels of harassment, abuse and violence – overwhelmingly from men and boys they know”.

And? Has Dan Bell not looked at the culture lately?

And the indoctrination doesn’t stop when a boy leaves school, it continues when he gets to university too – the “Good Lad” workshops in Oxford, are in fact a spin-off from compulsory consent classes for new male students that are now springing up across UK universities.

And? Male students shouldn’t be taught that consent is not optional?

What impact must all this be having on boys and young men, who are themselves at one of the most vulnerable stages of their lives? Last year, insideMAN published findings of a focus group of young male students, which gave a disturbing glimpse into the ideological classroom climate faced by boys, this time told by young men themselves.

They told us that when it came to expressing any view that contradicted feminist orthodoxy, they were shouted at and publicly humiliated. They said their motives routinely came under immediate suspicion simply on account of their gender. And they said they wanted to be protected against fundamentalism by prominent and leading figures in the campaign for gender equality.

In other words they want to go on being dominant. Well people who have had a place high up in the hierarchy usually do want to go on having it, because there are a lot of perks attached to having it. Sadly for them, people lower down have their wants too. That’s life.

Dan Bell is the Features Editor at insideMAN magazine

Oh is he. I see what I’ll be doing for the next little while.

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

The imam simply smiled

Jul 19th, 2015 6:15 pm | By

The New Yorker ran a long piece on slavery in Mauritania last year, by Alexis Okeowo.

In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, while making no provision for punishing slave owners. In 2007, under international pressure, it passed a law that allowed slaveholders to be prosecuted. Yet slavery persists there, even as the government and religious leaders deny it. Although definitive numbers are difficult to find, the Global Slavery Index estimates that at least a hundred and forty thousand people are enslaved in Mauritania, out of a population of 3.8 million. Bruce Hall, a professor of African history at Duke University, said that people endure slavelike conditions in other countries in the region, but that the problem in Mauritania is unusually severe: “Some proximate form of slavery has continued to be a foundation of the social structure and the division of labor within households, so there are many more people who are willing to support it as an institution.” While Abeid was travelling, a well-known imam had given a televised interview. A journalist asked whether slavery existed in Mauritania, and the imam said no. Then why, the journalist asked, had the imam recently given the journalist’s boss a slave girl as a gift? The imam simply smiled.

But isn’t Islam all about the brotherhood of all believers? That’s what we’re told, at least.

Many Mauritanian slaves, isolated by illiteracy, poverty, and geography, do not recognize the possibility of a life outside servitude, and part of Abeid’s mission is to make them aware. The job is complicated. Slaves are tied to their masters by tradition, by economic necessity, and, Abeid argues, by a misinterpretation of Islam.

Mauritania is an avowedly Muslim country, and though the constitution endorses both secular and religious law, in civic matters Islamic precepts dominate. But the Koran is ambiguous on the essential question of whether slavery should exist. In much of the world, Muslim scholars argue that the only Islamic basis for slavery is in jihad: after conquering unbelievers, Muslim warriors may take them as slaves, provided that they treat them well.

Wait. There’s no such thing as “treating them well” while keeping them as slaves.

Also, I get to be “an unbeliever” meaning not a Muslim without being conquered and enslaved. My not believing in Islam does not equal an acceptable reason to enslave me.

And that’s the more generous interpretation.

In Mauritania, there is little consensus. Imams who defend slavery often refer to a set of interpretive texts that date back as far as the eighth century. One prominent example is a mukhtasar, or handbook of Islamic law, written by the fourteenth-century Egyptian scholar Khalil ibn Ishaq. According to its precepts, a slave cannot marry without her master’s permission, nor does she have any right to her children; a free man who murders a slave will not be punished by death, but a slave who murders a free man will be; slaves are whipped for fornicating, though a master may have sex with his slave girl; and slaves may not inherit property or give testimony in court.

Nice stuff. Slaves are just about as worthless as women, which means that slave women are worthless squared.

Biram Dah Abeid is working to improve the situation.

More later.

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

Obtaining the unpaid services of a child

Jul 19th, 2015 5:29 pm | By

Jakub Sobik reports at Anti-Slavery:

We have just received news of a verdict in one of our slavery cases in Mauritania – a 10-year-old boy called Issa who we’d been supporting through our UN-funded project.

The Criminal Court reclassified the slavery charge as ‘obtaining the unpaid services of a child’ which carries much smaller sentences. Slavery crimes are meant to carry sentences of 5-10 years in prison.

So the slave-owner was given a 3-month sentence, which he already served through the time he’d been in detention, and was consequently released.

Neither the child, the lawyer nor the guardian of the child [was] even informed that the ruling was due to take place so they weren’t present in court.

As our Mauritanian partners SOS Esclaves noted, “justice has again been manipulated to disguise slavery crimes, and the courts ultimately continue to protect slave-owners and deny the legitimate rights of the victims.”

This is all very typical and I should be used to it by now but it still never fails to amaze me how outrageously unfair the treatment of people in slavery get compared to the perpetrators. Just to be clear, we are talking about people who literally own other people from the moment they are born and have complete control over their lives, confining them to lifetimes of misery, exploitation and abuse.

This all stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric of ‘prioritising an end to slavery’ that the Mauritanian government keeps spinning in international circles, and unfortunately to some extent it succeeds.

They have more than thirty cases in the works right now, he says, and none of them is making any progress.

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


Jul 19th, 2015 3:43 pm | By


ITV News reports:

[Labour leadership contender] Liz Kendall told a Mail on Sunday journalist to “fuck off” when she was asked how much she weighed during an interview.

When she was asked what?? For what reason? Was the journalist planning to ship her somewhere? Is there an official weight limit for party leaders?

In the much-criticised article, journalist Simon Walters wrote: “In fact she looks the same weight as the Duchess – about 8st – though when I ask she slaps me down with a raucous ‘fuck off!’, adding quickly: ‘Don’t print that.’”

The Duchess? What duchess? The one in Alice in Wonderland? The one who was married to Andrew Windsor for awhile? The one who’s married to William Windsor? What does a duchess have to do anything? And how sweet of Simon Walters to goad Kendall with a stupid sexist question and then publish what she told him not to publish.

Reacting to the piece, Ms Kendall told BuzzFeed during a BBC Radio 5 Live segment:

I just think it’s unbelievable that in the 21st Century women still get asked such very, very different questions from men.

Can you imagine the Mail on Sunday asking the weight of the prime minister, George Osborne or any other leading politician?

Nope. It wouldn’t happen. (I suppose it could happen in a very particular kind of interview, a hair down, personal, backgrounder sort of interview that went into stuff about home life and exercise and do you jog yadda yadda. But it’s a stretch.)

Helen Lewis shared the relevant part of the article, saving me the misery of having to read the Mail:

Embedded image permalink

So f***ing patronizing.


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

Guest post: Off to America on a coffin ship

Jul 19th, 2015 12:52 pm | By

Originally a comment by Marcus Ranum on David Brooks tells Ta-Nehisi Coates to try some social mobility for a change.

For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms. For them, the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise.

My ancestors came over because they faced near certain death in potato famines; they would have gone anywhere, except the landed class restricted the poor’s ability to relocate. So: off to America on a coffin ship; one more than half of the family made it, the rest were buried at sea. I started to read great great-grandpa’s journal, once, and couldn’t bear it.

Perhaps the famine was the “crushing restrictiveness of European life” though the pogroms were certainly nothing to sneeze at. I’m not sure what’s a dream of uplifting spirituality woven into “I hope the fucking neighbors don’t kill us this easter! let’s move to America!” Glad they made it. Europe has some fucking awful problems. Awful problems they exported to North America in the form of religious/ethnic cleansing of most of the extant population. That’s some fucking uplifting spiritual message, Europeans, right there.

The Chinese mined the guano and laid the track, and so did the Irish and Welsh and not a few Norwegians. Of course the Africans had it vastly vastly worse. The US would not exist without them, because Europeans didn’t have resistance to Malaria like many Africans (unfortunately, they get Sickle Cell in return; some tradeoff) The US economy was able to take advantage of slavery by force and slavery by necessity. When your choice is to surely starve in Ireland, New York City looks mighty fine. The entire American Dream is built – like all of the other wonders of the world – on the blood, sweat, and tears of slaves.

you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie

What the dumbass doesn’t realize is this:
a dream shown to be a lie … is still a lie.

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

Panto dames and other drag queens on TV

Jul 19th, 2015 11:24 am | By

The day after Free Pride Glasgow issued its statement saying No to drag performances, Pink News ran a story about a Scottish broadcaster saying No to a drag queen. Uncomfortable timing eh?

Pride Glasgow has attacked Scottish broadcaster STV, for refusing to allow a drag queen to appear in its Pride coverage.

According to the Herald, the group were due to appear on the Riverside Show on the newly-launched STV Glasgow ahead of this week’s Pride event, but the show’s producer refused to allow drag queen Bee Fiarse Beaujambes to appear in the coverage.

Alastair Smith of Pride Glasgow said: “We had suggested to them that a drag queen come on the show to promote the gay pride event, but they said that they didn’t want young children asking what a drag queen is.

“It was really insulting. Basically they’re saying they want to do a feature on gay pride without actually mentioning anything gay. It was just a bit odd.”

Much the same way Free Pride’s exclusion of drag performances is just a bit odd, it seems to me.

“It’s just absolute nonsense, children who ask questions grow up to be the well-informed, open-minded adults of the future.

“They’re already used to seeing panto dames and other drag queens on TV, so I don’t understand what all the fuss was about.”

Right? Panto dames are a big thing in the UK, not to mention all the drag that Monty Python did. Mind you, there’s plenty of room for political analysis of that too, to point out that Monty Python could after all have included some women, but that’s another post. The point is just that drag is well familiar on the sacred family telly boxes of Britain, so what the hell, STV.

Beaujambes said in a Facebook post: “Those of you who know me will know that I am not the kind of person to feel rage, until today that is.

“After hearing that STV GLASGOW withdrew their request for me to be interviewed on the Riverside Show Tomorrow night to talk about Pride Glasgow because having a drag queen wouldn’t be ‘appropriate’ as ‘parents could be watching with their kids’..?!

“Anita Bryant and Brian Souter would be proud! Save the children!

“STV have shown themselves to be narrow minded and prejudiced. Pride was built on the stilettos of Drag Queens, they started the first one.”

I’m curious about what Pride Glasgow thinks about Free Pride Glasgow’s ban on drag performances.

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

Starvation and jaguars

Jul 18th, 2015 4:52 pm | By

Al Jazeera on slavery in Brazil.

Slavery is reported across the country, from farms in the wealthy south to five-star hotels in Rio de Janeiro and factories in São Paulo. But for decades, the heart of the problem has been this well-trodden route. It leads from northeastern states such as Maranhão and Piauí, known for their poverty and political corruption, to Pará, a vast state in northern Brazil encompassing much of the Amazon rain forest.

Former slave Elenilson de Conceição, whose furrowed face belies his 29 years, knows it intimately after he was himself enslaved to deforest the jungle. He was not paid a cent for three months of grueling labor and slept under the stars amid a forest filled with jaguars and deadly snakes. As he retraced the route with Al Jazeera America to highlight the problem, the raggle-taggle truck stops; the caged vans barely fit for animals; the shrill ferry horn, all brought back painful memories.

It’s estimated that nearly 5 million people were enslaved in Brazil.

Slavery was abolished in 1888, but land reforms forced the poor to continue to be exploited in terrible conditions on the same farms, historians say.

Oh gosh, you know what that sounds like? What happened here in the US. Slavery was replaced by a racist prison system that made a profit from contracting “prisoner” labor. Many of the prisoners were there on extremely fanciful charges. And then of course there was sharecropping…

Conceição, like many others, did not grow up understanding the concept of slavery. Instead, many of his parents’ generation understood themselves to be migrant workers. He, like those before him, was living in poverty when he was tempted by an unscrupulous agent — or gato — who lived locally and promised work. Conceição was trafficked to the Amazon and, amid death threats and violence, set to work without pay, days off, decent food, safety gear or bearable living conditions.

And no protections, because nobody had “bought” him with a large capital outlay.

Conceição said the bus finally stopped on the roadside near Santana do Araguaia, in Pará state. The men were ordered onto a cattle truck with a cage section on the back — a design that still gives him flashbacks when he sees it.

“The promise was that we would go to a farm, but actually when we arrived, there was no farm,” he said. “We simply walked into the Amazon forest. When we were in the middle of the forest, we stopped, and we were ordered to put up a canopy.”

The men’s mission was to deforest that part of the Amazon to create a ranch and sell the timber. Many others who are enslaved there are put to work on livestock farms, with others forced to do dangerous work in coalmines.

The 100-odd workers on the farm were woken at 4 a.m., when Barba would shout at them to get up. It would still be pitch black. There would be a long walk through the forest until work started at 5:30 a.m. It would not finish until 6 p.m. They never had a day off, and they had no idea how long they would be held before they were released. The food was white rice and uncooked black beans, with only dirty water to drink.

The men were left to fend for themselves in the middle of the jungle, sleeping in hammocks in the open under a leaking canopy.

“We spent most of the nights on our feet, since when it rained, the water would blow everywhere,” he said. “Most of our protection from the rain came from the trees above.”

There were snakes and jaguars and other animals around. They kept a fire going to scare the jaguars but found their paw prints in the mornings anyway.

The workers were not paid and were told they had a debt to their masters they would have to repay. “It turned out the bosses had everything we needed — food, water, work clothes, tools, medicine — but their intention was to sell it to us,” he said.

A debt to pay. For what? The gas it took to drive them there?

“In the evenings, we just kept talking and thinking, ‘How are we going to get away?’” he said. “Barba heard us and told us the bosses would find us and kill us.”

“I do not think I could have escaped. I had no money. I had left what I had at home. We could not have gotten away from there. There’s nowhere to go on foot. They took us to a place that you cannot walk, return, return on foot at all,” Conceição said.

So many crimes here. Fraud, kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, extortion, theft, menacing…

Then after three months, the men were suddenly released and put on a bus to Monsenhor Gil. “In those three months I did not receive a single cent,” he said.

The decision to release the workers came in the aftermath of a raid by inspectors from Brazil’s Ministry of Labor on a neighboring farm, in which 78 slaves were rescued. Conceição was given $77 to cover his trip home, but unlike the slaves rescued by the government, does not have a right to claim compensation. The owner of the raided farm was not arrested but was eventually ordered to pay $257 to $322 to each worker after a civil case brought by the Land Pastoral Commission.

For three months of hard work in horrific conditions.

I suppose David Brooks would tell them to look on the bright side.

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

Glasgow Pride says no drag

Jul 18th, 2015 3:49 pm | By

Free Pride Glasgow says no drag performances.

At Free Pride we hope to create a safe space for all people within the LGBTQIA+ community. We understand that sometimes this will disappoint some people within the community, however our priority is always to put the needs of the most marginalised groups within our community first.

Sometimes it will disappoint some people within the community? Why? Do some people within the community want an unsafe space?

Or maybe it’s that “a safe space” isn’t exactly the right thing to hope to create, or at least not exclusively. For a lot of people “a safe space” is one that has only straight people in it, after all. Gay pride has always been rowdy and raunchy and Dionsyian, proudly so – that’s always been part of the point. I’m not sure wanting to create “a safe space” is compatible with that.

This is why, after much discussion, the trans and non binary caucus decided not to have drag acts perform at the event. This does not mean that people of any gender can’t wear what they want to the event, we simply won’t be having any self-described drag acts perform at our Free Pride Event on the 22nd August.

Um…so no more playing around with gender, now it’s either trans or cis?

Is that really a good idea?

The decision was taken by transgender individuals who were uncomfortable with having drag performances at the event. It was felt that it would make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable. It was felt by the group within the Trans/Non Binary Caucus that some drag performance, particularly cis drag, hinges on the social view of gender and making it into a joke, however transgender individuals do not feel as though their gender identity is a joke.

So there you go then. The answer is yes: no more playing around with gender. No more mocking it, no more teasing it, no more parodying it.

Is that really a good idea?

We would like to reaffirm that this is not to say that we do not want gender expression, which we do encourage, at our event. We encourage everyone to wear what they want and express their gender however they please! There will be no policing of peoples gender identity.

Except for no drag. There will be no frivolous performance of gender, there will be only serious expression of gender.

Safety first eh.

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

Apocalypse on the freeway

Jul 18th, 2015 1:47 pm | By

You’re riding along in a car on the freeway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas on a hot sunny afternoon, and the traffic slows, and then you see some weeds on fire next to the freeway, and then in the distance a car bursts into flames. And no it’s not a movie.

The fire, which erupted just after 2:30 p.m. and quickly grew to 3,500 acres, shut down the highway in both directions. By evening, it had destroyed 20 vehicles and at least four homes, and was bearing down on mountain communities. Most lanes of the 15 were open by Saturday morning, but hundreds of firefighters were still on the lines.

In a region where brush fires are a way of life, the scene on the main route to Las Vegas was surreal.

Many of those who fled their vehicles panicked, unsure of where to find safety as they watched the land around them burn. Cars, trucks and even a boat went up in flames on the freeway. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft made dramatic drops of water and flame retardant.

Once they could. They were delayed because there were drones in the area.

Officials said heavy winds mixed with dry chaparral and grass created a dangerous combination.

Shortly before the fast-moving blaze jumped the freeway and the cars caught fire, officials had to halt water drops because of a recreational drone flying nearby. It was the third time in recent weeks that firefighters were grounded because of drones. The devices could collide with aircraft that fly at low altitudes, authorities say.

It was not a movie.

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