Notes and Comment Blog

Our short and pithy observations on the passing scene as it relates to the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Woolly-headed or razor-sharp comments in the media, anti-rationalist rhetoric in books or magazines or overheard on the bus, it’s all grist to our mill. And sometimes we will hold forth on the basis of no inspiration at all beyond what happens to occur to us.

Public figures who make their controversial opinions known to the world

Oct 22nd, 2012 12:58 pm | By

After all these somber and/or infuriating items, a funny one. Justin Vacula on Facebook.

A lengthy post I authored months ago concerning what certain Freethought Bloggers are calling ‘stalking’ and ‘cyberstalking’ is below. This is especially relevant considering Ophelia Benson’s recent post “It’s all trolling, when you come right down to it” in which she claims that the “pro-misogyny crowd” stalks bloggers “day in and day out.”

TL;DR – criticism, even when it is excessive, isn’t stalking or cyberstalking. Public figures who make their controversial opinions known to the world will get responses. Reductio ad absurdum: Major cable news networks must be stalkers for their coverage of Obama and Romney.

Well thank you! That is very flattering. I’m as important as Obama. Who knew?!

But let’s be real. I’m not a “public figure.” That phrase doesn’t mean people like me. It means truly public; famous. I’m not famous by any stretch of the imagination.

And then, saying that people “will get responses” doesn’t mean that all responses are fine, or that there is no reason to say some responses are more reasonable or acceptable than others. It’s just a factual statement, so obvious that it’s almost empty. It amounts to “if you say something, you might get replies.” It says nothing about whether some kinds of reply are intrusive or aggressive or stalker-like.

What about this claim that excessive criticism isn’t cyberstalking? I think it’s dead wrong. I think highly excessive – indeed, obsessive – criticism is indeed cyberstalking. It’s cyber because it’s not literally someone following you down the street, so it is less scary than literal stalking. It’s mostly a lot less scary than that. But it is stalkerish in being obsessive out of all proportion to anything actually done or said or otherwise perpetrated. Having people posting and tweeting about you every day, repeating the same meagre list of offenses over and over again, monitoring every word you say – yes, that is stalkerish.

Another thing. What we get isn’t “coverage.” It isn’t journalism, it isn’t reporting, it isn’t news. It’s a campaign of vilification. That’s all it’s about; that’s its only purpose. It never stops. I posted a lot about Chris Mooney during the summer of 2009 – but that was because he kept writing articles for major media outlets, attacking “new” atheists. I posted about those articles. He stopped writing them, and I stopped writing about them and about him. I didn’t latch onto him like a lamprey and never let go.

So, no. None of what he said is right. I’m not talking about disagreement and discussion. I’m talking about non-stop monitoring and lying and smearing. I’m not a public figure, much less Obama or Romney, so no, the same rules don’t apply.

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

Flip the terms

Oct 22nd, 2012 11:48 am | By

The New Yorker has an article on billionaires who’ve convinced themselves they’re “victimized” by Obama.

A hedge-fund billionaire called Leon Cooperman wrote an open letter to Obama which has been “widely circulated in the business community.”

Evident throughout the letter is a sense of victimization prevalent among so  many of America’s wealthiest people. In an extreme version of this, the rich  feel that they have become the new, vilified underclass. T. J. Rodgers, a  libertarian and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has taken to comparing Barack  Obama’s treatment of the rich to the oppression of ethnic minorities—an  approach, he says, that the President, as an African-American, should be  particularly sensitive to. Clifford S. Asness, the founding partner of the hedge  fund AQR Capital Management, wrote an open letter to the President in 2009,  after Obama blamed “a small group of speculators” for Chrysler’s bankruptcy.  Asness suggested that “hedge funds really need a community organizer,” and  accused the White House of “bullying” the financial sector. Dan Loeb, a  hedge-fund manager who supported Obama in 2008, has compared his Wall Street  peers who still support the President to “battered wives.” “He really loves us  and when he beats us, he doesn’t mean it; he just gets a little angry,” Loeb  wrote in an e-mail in December, 2010, to a group of Wall Street financiers.

Oh lordy – it’s so funny and so disgusting, both at once.

It’s familiar, certainly. I’m distantly acquainted with some rich people who talk that way. Aggrieved; resentful; embattled…in their huge SUVs and their 14 expensive houses.

It’s also familiar from the way MRAs and white supremacists and the Vatican talk. We are the real victims around here – we the rich, we the white, we the men, we the priests and cardinals and popes. We are not the bullies, we are the ones who get bullied.

Nick Hanauer is a Seattle entrepreneur and venture capitalist who was one of  the first investors in Amazon. In a book published this year, he argues that  since the Reagan era American capitalists have enjoyed a uniquely supportive set  of ideological, political, and economic conditions. Their personal enrichment  came to be seen as a precondition for the enrichment of everyone else. Lower  taxes for them were a social good, rather than a selfish perk.

“If you are a job creator, your fifteen-per-cent tax rate is righteous. If  you aren’t, it is a con job,” Hanauer told me. “The idea that the rich deserve  to be rich is a very comforting idea if you are rich.” Referring to Obama’s “You  didn’t build that” remark, at a rally in Virginia in July, which became a  flashpoint with the right, Hanauer said that “the notion that you built it  yourself is what you need to believe to feel comfortable with yourself and your  desire not to pay too much in taxes.”

I know people like that. They don’t just think all that, they even think everybody agrees with them. It’s bizarre.


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

Paul Kurtz

Oct 22nd, 2012 10:52 am | By

As you probably know already, Paul Kurtz is gone.

The Center for Inquiry marks with great sadness the passing of Paul Kurtz, founder and longtime chair of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry, who died at the age of 86. A philosopher, activist, and author, Kurtz was for a half-century among the most significant and impactful figures in the humanist and skeptic movements.

“Impactful”…ah well, I won’t do a fogeyism about it. Anyway yes, he was.

Kurtz’s legacy includes the above organizations, the creation of the skeptics’ magazine Skeptical Inquirer, the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry, independent publisher Prometheus Books, and a library of books and scholarly articles that will continue to inform discussions of morality, ethics, reason, and religion for generations to come.

I knew him a little. I was at CFI Amherst for almost three weeks in 2007; I did a talk and hung out. PK was a fan of B&W at the time, and he was pleasant to me. He took a bunch of us to lunch one day and invited me to go in his car. We talked about B&W and he said (very flatteringly, so perhaps not truthfully) that he’d had thoughts of setting up a skeptical inquiry website but then decided it would just duplicate B&W so why bother.

Free Inquiry has been one of my favorite magazines for years and years, with Skeptical Inquirer close behind it. I have a lot of Prometheus books on my shelves. I’m not the only one.

I’m grateful for all of it. I’m not the only one.

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

Italy makes fallibility a major felony

Oct 22nd, 2012 10:13 am | By

Hey kids! Got dreams of being a scientist? Well don’t do it – because if you do, you risk being thrown in prison for six years, barred from public employment for life, and liable for court costs and damages, all because you failed to say exactly when an earthquake was going to happen.

Yes really.

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila.

A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.

The seven – all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks – were accused of having provided “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report.

In addition to their sentences, all have been barred from ever holding public office again, La Repubblica reports.

The judge also ordered the defendants to pay court costs and damages.

The irrationality of it is frightening. Yes it was a really bad earthquake, but the badness of the earthquake doesn’t make scientists who failed to predict it more guilty. Jeezis. Wouldn’t you kind of expect a judge to realize that?

I have a prediction: Italy will suddenly find itself bereft of scientists.


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

One step ahead of a mob

Oct 21st, 2012 4:52 pm | By

Tahrir Square. Another live broadcast, another reporter attacked and groped by a mob. The French journalist Sonia Dridi was the target this time.

A mob of about 30 men has turned “crazy” and groped and robbed a French  television journalist near Tahrir Square in Cairo, in the latest case of  violence against women at the epicentre of Egypt’s protests.

She’s ok now, but it was frightening and nasty.

Ashraf Khalil, a colleague who works with France 24′s English language service,  said the crowd was closing in on him and Dridi while they were doing live  reports on a side street off Tahrir.

Khalil said they retreated into a fast food restaurant called Hardee’s, which  had a metal door, to keep her out of the reach of the attackers.

He told The  Guardian: “What was depressing is that the employees inside Hardee’s  knew exactly what to do because this seems to happen all the time. Some terrified woman running in one step ahead of a mob.”

That’s incredibly depressing.

Khalil said the doors were locked and when he later went out to hail a taxi  and usher Dridi out, there were men banging on the bonnet of the car.

“Sexual harassment is a 20-year problem here, but now there’s a feeling of  impunity and the knowledge that the police won’t do anything about it, it breeds  this culture of lawlessness.

“Sexual violence is a way of denying women journalists access to the story in  Egypt,” Logan said.

“It’s not accidental. It’s by design.”

British journalist Natasha Smith of the Fair Observer also reported being sexually assaulted by a mob near Tahrir  Square.

The square has seen a rise in attacks against women since protesters returned  this summer for new rallies, including incidents of attackers stripping women -  both fellow demonstrators and journalists – of their clothes.

No official numbers exist for attacks on women in the square because police  do not go near the area and women rarely file official reports on such  incidents, but activists and protesters have reported an increase in assaults  against women.

And although sexual harassment is not new to Egypt, suspicions abound that many of the recent attacks are organised by opponents of various protests in a  bid to drive people away.

Amnesty International said in a report in June that such attacks appeared  designed to intimidate women and prevent them from fully participating in public  life.

That would do it, too.


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

But we allow them to use the front door

Oct 21st, 2012 3:38 pm | By

CNN describes American Atheists as calling out religion; that term again.

American Atheists has a long history in using billboards to call out religion and get its message out. During the political conventions in August and September, the group put up billboards attacking Mormonism and Christianity, taking aim at the faith of both presidential candidates.

It’s such a standard idiom by now. I don’t think it can be seen as particularly ideological, let alone loony.

Anyway. The Mormons say it’s all a misunderstanding, of course.

The billboard, which American Atheists says will follow the Romney campaign for seven days, features two messages on Mormonism: “No Blacks Allowed (until 1978)” and “No Gays Allowed (Current).”

The first line is a reference to the church’s practice of denying lay priesthood to black male members until 1978.

Though the church did not allow black male members to be ordained before that year when the church head says he received a revelation to reverse the policy it did allow blacks and members of all racial and ethnic groups to be church members.

Ah yes but that sounds more liberal than it is, because all “worthy” white male members are lay priests, so excluding non-white males is pretty unmistakably racist.

This mobile billboard, however, is a departure from the standard American Atheist tactic of multiple billboards on multiple religions. According to Silverman, this is because Romney’s faith hasn’t been addressed enough in the 2012 election.

“We all understand the implications of having a Christian president. We do not understand the implications of having a Mormon president,” Silverman said. “We are not taking a position on the election, we are taking a stance on ignorance.”

Oh but we’re not supposed to decide on the basis of things like that. We’re supposed to figure out which one we want to have a beer with, and vote for him.


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

Another good visual

Oct 21st, 2012 3:24 pm | By

And speaking of posters and messages – American Atheists has a new one. It’s on wheels, and it’s going to follow Romney’s campaign throughout southern Florida. Yessss.

Atheist billboard attacks Romney’s faith, but Mormons say it's misleading


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

Backbone Zone

Oct 21st, 2012 3:11 pm | By

I hadn’t heard of Backbone Zone before. Ant Allan informed me via tumblr. They have some great posters.


You can order them at their site.

I like this one, too:


I like it because I detest the “shame men by calling them girls” trope. It makes me feel murderous.

Another good one (they’re all good):


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

Brady Judd in Gilead

Oct 21st, 2012 11:03 am | By

About Polk County and the 14-year-old girl charged with first degree murder of her newborn…and about Amanda Todd, and many other people and incidents, and a way of thinking.

From the Handmaid’s Tale, chapter 13. The scene is a Testifying session during the re-education phase of Gilead.

It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion. She told the same story last week. She seemed almost proud of it, while she was telling. It may not even be true. At Testifying, it’s safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal. But since it’s Janine, it’s probably more or less true.

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.

Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.

She did. She did. She did.

Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?

Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.

Aunt Helena, meet Brady Judd. You two will get along just fine.


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

Return to Polk County

Oct 20th, 2012 5:34 pm | By

A 14-year-old girl in Lakeland, Florida has been charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the death of her newborn infant. You probably know the story: secret pregnancy, birth in the bathroom of mobile home with mother a few feet away, dead infant in shoebox under the bed.

They’re trying her as an adult, which is moronic, since that’s just what she isn’t. But no surprise – this is Lakeland, Florida. It’s Polk County. It’s Sheriff Grady Judd.

Polk County, where Cassidy attended high school, teaches community-based abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula in its schools. Nurse Jamie Kress facilitates Polk County’s Prevention Program that brings registered nurses to schools to cover a variety of subjects that might fall under the category of sex-ed.

According to Kress, contraception is only addressed within the context of marriage, and instead, the program promotes abstinence from all sexual contact as STD and teen pregnancy prevention. A student thinking about having sex, or who is already sexually active, would not be advised to use condoms or other forms of birth control.

If a student were already under the impression that she has committed the one act that runs contrary to the basis of everything she’s been taught in school, I would argue that she would be less willing to approach adults at school with concerns that she is pregnant. Although little has been said about Cassidy’s character, or her home life, the facts of the case demonstrate that she was in dire need of support outside of her family regarding her pregnancy.

According to Sheriff Grady Judd, Cassidy’s mother was “in denial,” ignoring family members who said that Cassidy might be pregnant and the bulge likely visible on Cassidy’s 100 pound, 5’3” frame.

Polk County. Home of Polk Under Prayer, as I wrote last March after the secularism event in Orlando.

One of the first talks was EllenBeth Wachs, who explained what’s been going on in Polk County, Florida. Theocracy, that’s what. The mayor of Lakeland and the Polk County sheriff are involved in something called Polk Under Prayer.

Grady Judd, the sheriff who arrested EllenBeth because she pissed him off. Lakeland, whose mayor is teamed up with Grady Judd to christianize everything they can get their hands on.

Naturally Cassidy Goodson didn’t get sex education in school. Naturally Polk County is trying her as an adult. This is what theocracy looks like.

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

This shit is sexist, and feminism is the fight against sexism

Oct 20th, 2012 4:06 pm | By

Soraya says hell yes she’s a feminist.

Remember the woman who asked Romney about the wage gap?

You know what she got for her efforts?  A good and proper Slutshaming 101 from conservatives who dug up her Facebook page and her Twitter account to reveal that she has in the past used alcohol and maybe suggested her interest in sex. Like Sandra Fluke, she’s a whiny, entitled trollop who should shut up and go home.  Now, Fenton might not have memorized the Slut Manifesto, but she sure as hell knows that a man asking this exact same question would not be treated this way. Just like Jim Lehrer’s weight hasn’t become an Internet discussion point, while Candy Crowley’s has.  As Chloe Angyal so succinctly put it earlier today in Feministing, “This shit is sexist, and feminism is the fight against sexism.”

Furthermore, sexist shit is everywhere, so the fight against it is needed.

When people say “I’m not a feminist” or “I’m a feminist, but…” they invariably imply that it’s undesirable error made by an unhinged fringe.  This is a testament to the success of at least 40 years of conservative backlash branding feminism the devilish work of man-hating, barren, aggressive, ugly (no greater sin), humorless, lesbian, she-devils.

Fucking fools who call people like me and my colleagues and friends “radfems” for example. This? This isn’t radfem, you clueless goons. It’s just fem. You sound like people who scream that Obama is a communist. Obama! For crying out loud.

…we don’t have one easily recognized national celebration or public marker of any kind testifying to the sacrifices made in the movement to secure women’s civil rights or to celebrate its achievements.  Instead this history is buried under a thick tome of historical denial. We’ve left an entire generation bereft of the knowledge of a powerful legacy and sedated by the idea that, as XOJane put it, “anti-feminist behaviors are feminist because feminism is about choice.”

They think it’s all done and dusted. That’s so sad. They’ll learn better, but it will be sad.

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

Treasure found

Oct 20th, 2012 3:23 pm | By

This is a nice story. Huge map collection not thrown in the garbage, given to Los Angeles public library instead.

The occupant of the 90-year-old cottage had died in February. Greenberg’s job was to empty the home so it could be demolished and its 18,000-square-foot lot, near the top of Canyon Vista Drive, divided into two parcels. His clients had told him to rent a Dumpster and throw away whatever he found inside.

But Greenberg couldn’t bring himself to do that, especially after he read a recent Los Angeles Times article about the Central Library’s map collection. Instead, he invited its map librarian, Glen Creason, to Mount Washington to look at the trove.

Creason called the find unbelievable. “I think there are at least a million maps here,” he said. “This dwarfs our collection — and we’ve been collecting for 100 years.”

Creason returned to the home Thursday with 10 library employees and volunteers to box up the maps. The acquisition will give the city library one of the country’s top five library map archives, behind the Library of Congress and public libraries in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, he said.

One map is from 1592.

Feathers’ trove contained both run-of-the-mill gas station and Chamber of Commerce street maps as well as historic gems, Creason said.

“He has every type of map imaginable. There’s a 1956 pictorial map of Lubbock, Texas. He’s got a 1942 Jack Renie Street Guide of Los Angeles,” Creason said. “He has four of the first Thomas Bros. guides from 1946. Those are very hard to find. The one copy we have is falling apart because it’s been so heavily used. We had to photocopy it.”

Gingerly fingering an atlas-sized 1918 map with a faded blue cover, Creason opened it up to show the National Map Co.’s “Official Paved Road” guide to the United States. The tattered pages illustrated the location of paved roads with red and blue ink.

Creason was also enthralled by the discovery of several “Mapfox” Los Angeles street guides published in 1944. Creason said in his 32-year library career he had never seen one. Also tucked into Feathers’ collection was a pocket-size “Geographia Authentic Atlas and Guide to London and Other Suburbs,” showing streets, parks, lakes and rivers that Creason dated as pre-World War I.

I want that one.

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

Way back

Oct 20th, 2012 12:14 pm | By

Somebody asked me yesterday about the Library section of the first B&W, so I dug it up on the Wayback Machine and sent him the link. I was quite fond of that section, so I thought I would post a few items from Favourites.

Frederick Crews ed., Unauthorized Freud

Unauthorized Freud is a collection of excerpts from books and articles by eighteen writers, all of whom as the title hints are Freud-skeptics.  The collection is edited and annotated by Frederick Crews, whose own article ‘The Unknown Freud’ in The New York Review of Books in 1993 generated a torrent of controversy.  The authors include Frank Cioffi, Malcolm Macmillan, Frank Sulloway, Stanley Fish and Ernest Gellner.  Crews’ Preface and Introduction give a useful guide to the chronology  and character of recent revisionist scholarship on Freud, starting with Paul Roazen, Henri Ellenberger and Frank Cioffi in 1969 and 1970, and continuing with book after book by a variety of authors, especially during the 1990s.  The aim, Crews points out, is merely to scrutinize Freud’s system of psychological presuppositions as one would that of any other science–a proceeding Freudian loyalists like to call “Freud-bashing”.  Even some semi-critics, Crews says, admit certain of Freud’s mistakes but still avoid criticising the self-validating character of his method, what Crews calls “the black hole of circularity”.  Freudians on the defensive, Crews points out (p. xxvii), say that critics “are ignorant of postmodern insights into the relativistic nature of science.”  Such defenders treat us to a simplification of Thomas Kuhn on the incommensurability of competing paradigms and, ignoring Kuhn’s disclaimers, interpret this to mean that “evidence” is whatever a given paradigm-partisan says it is.  Others give up the science ground altogether and say that psychoanalysis is not a science but a hermeneutic activity, which is all very well except that real world truth-claims are still made on the basis of Freudian “hermeneutics,” notions of repressed memory prominent among them.  All of these arguments and counter-arguments make the subject a “paradigmatic” study in Fashionable Nonsense.

Frederick Crews ed., Unauthorized Freud, Viking:  1998.

Susan Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays

There’s nothing like a good witty oxymoron in the title to set the tone, and this one is well chosen. It makes the point, in a subtle, implicit way, that moderation doesn’t necessarily have to mean fence-sitting and bland and indifferent. Haack’s moderation consists in not pushing concepts or words to extremes of meaning, and she is far from indifferent. She casts a cold eye, for instance, on Richard Rorty’s way of stretching Pragmatism’s view of truth until it squeals, and provides some good laughs in the process. The second essay for example presents Rorty in conversation with Charles Peirce, juxtaposing quotations from each as if they were chatting; the effect is fairly hilarious.  But Haack is not only witty, she is also admirably clear and clarifying, for instance on another concept stretched until it squeals: what she dubs the ‘passes for’ fallacy. This is a popular move in which critics of science observe that scientists sometimes (or often) allow their interpretations of the evidence to be shaped by pre-existing biases, and conclude from that not that they should do better, but that all interpretations of all evidence are so shaped and thus all knowledge is mere mud-wrestling. Haack give short shrift to this sort of fuzzy thinking; her Manifesto is both an indispensable tool and an excellent read.

Susan Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays, University of Chicago Press: 1998.

Susan Miller Okin et al., Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? consists of an essay by Susan Moller Olkin that first appeared in the Boston Review, along with fifteen replies, many of which also appeared in the Boston Review.  In the title essay, Okin discusses ‘a deep and growing tension between feminism and multiculturalist concerns to protect cultural diversity’ and argues that ‘we,’ especially those of us who think of ourselves as progressives, have assumed that feminism and multiculturalism are two good things and so must be compatible.  ‘I shall argue instead that there is considerable likelihood of tension between them–more precisely, between feminism and a multiculturalist commitment to group rights for minority cultures.’  She points out that most cultures are organized around the control of women by men, and that they ‘substantially limit the capacities of women and girls of that culture to live with human dignity equal to that of men and boys, and to live as freely chosen lives as they can.’  She cites a paper by Sebastian Poulter in which ‘Almost all of the legal cases discussed by Poulter stemmed from women’s or girls’ claims that their individual rights were being truncated or violated by the practices of their own cultural groups.’

The replies, some of which agree with Okin and offer supporting arguments and evidence, and others of which agree in part or disagree, are by among others Katha Pollitt, Martha Nussbaum, Homi Bhabha, and Cass Sunstein.  Pollitt points out that ‘not just any immigrant’ can appeal to his culture to explain why he murdered his wife or married his twelve-year-old daughter.  ‘A Russian, an Italian, could not justify beating his wife to death by referring to the customs of dear old Moscow or Calabria…That is partly because of multiculturalism’s connections to Third Worldism, and the appeals Third Worldism makes to white liberal guilt…The cultural rights argument works best for cultures that most Americans know comparatively little about: cultures that in our ignorance we can imagine as stable, timeless, ancient, lacking in internal conflict, premodern.’  But there are few such societies left.  Furthermore, Pollitt adds, the excuse works with gender issues in a way that it wouldn’t with others, ‘due to the fact that gender and family are retrograde areas of most majority cultures, too: these are accommodations majority cultures have often been willing to make. How far would an Algerian immigrant get, I wonder, if he refused to pay the interest on his Visa bill on the grounds that Islam forbids interest on borrowed money?’

The subject is important, fascinating, and entirely unresolved and pressing.  This book presents an excellent discussion and excellent arguments.

Susan Miller Okin et al., Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, Princeton University Press: 1999.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World was Carl Sagan’s last book (apart from the posthumously published book of essays Billions and Billions).   It is an impassioned defense of science, aimed at the general reader, in which the opposition mostly consists not of Social Constructivism or the Strong Programme or Postmodernism (although Thomas Kuhn does get a mention) but fans of UFOs, alien abductions and John Mack their prophet, New Age, therapy and recovered memory, Satanic ritual abuse, faith healing, and similar popular and populist versions of pseudo-science.  Sagan wrote a column for the US Sunday supplement Parade, and much of Demon-Haunted World is an expanded version of those columns, or is an outgrowth of responses to them.  Sagan was a dedicated and tireless public educator, a mission that on the one hand made him rich and famous but on the other hand long prevented his election to the National Academy of Sciences.

But he persisted.  He patiently and clearly explained how science works and how much less likely to claim certainty it is than pseudo-science.  He mused on how struck he always was, when people asked him (as they did incessantly) whether he “believed” in UFOs, by the suggestion that this is a matter of belief not of evidence.  He pointed out that religious and New Age people like to say that scientists think “what they find is all there is,” and how far this is from being the case.  He explained that when we confuse wishes with facts, that is pseudo-science.  He remarked that one of the great commandments of science is “Mistrust arguments from authority,” and added that as scientists are primates and so given to dominance hierarchies, they don’t always obey their own rule.  In short he did his best to make it clear that evidence, testing, doubting, and questioning tend to get at the truth about the world better than credulity and blind leaps.  As Richard Dawkins said in The Skeptical Inquirer after Sagan’s death, ‘It is hard to think of anyone whom our planet can so ill afford to lose.’

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, Random House: 1995.

Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism

Ryan’s study of Dewey is an intellectual biography, which keeps the parochial personal details to a minimum and concentrates on the ideas.  Ryan carefully and delicately examines Pragmatism, analysing both strengths and weakenesses, and discussing the criticisms of thinkers hostile to Pragmatism.  Ryan is particularly interesting on Bertrand Russell, since he has written a book about him as well, and also because he shares Russell’s experience of teaching at American universities and thus seeing American life and ideas at close range but as an outsider. (There are several dry asides about the shock of first encountering strange American institutions, such as multiple-choice tests.)  Dewey’s ideas on truth were anathema to Russell, Ryan says, because ‘in a cold and Godless world the only objective value mankind had left was the belief that what is true is true because of the way the world is, whether we believe it or not, and whether we are helped by it or not’.  There were also interesting differences (as well as similarities) in their ideas on education: Dewey wanted to integrate the child into society whereas Russell wanted to protect the child from society.

Dewey had a long life and was involved in many projects and currents of thought.  He was a close friend of Jane Addams’, he helped to found the Laboratory School in Chicago, he wrote extensively for the New Republic, he had a very public quarrel with Randolph Bourne over his support for US entry into WWI and then backed the Outlawry of War movement, he headed a committee that investigated the Moscow Trials, and much more.  This is a dense, rich book, full of implications and suggestions for thought.

Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, Norton: 1995.

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

Meet the bishop

Oct 20th, 2012 11:46 am | By

Summer 1983. A Massachusetts woman, Carrel Hilton Sheldon, was eight weeks pregnant and had a life-threatening medical problem. Alternet goes on:

Sheldon’s doctor advised her that the overdose of Heparin might have also harmed her 8-week-old fetus and, given the possible fatal repercussions to her, he recommended that she abort her pregnancy.

Sheldon, a mother of four at the time (a fifth child had died as an infant), was then a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), outside of Boston. The LDS leader in Massachusetts at that time, called the “stake president,” was a Harvard-trained physician, Dr. Gordon Williams, and he counseled Sheldon to follow her doctor’s advice to terminate the pregnancy and protect her own life, so that she could continue caring for her four living children.

“Of course, you should have the abortion,” she recalled him saying.

But then she got a visit – an uninvited visit – from her bishop, Mitt Romney, who was there to try to bully her out of having the abortion.

“He regaled me with stories of his sister and her retarded child and what a blessing the child had been to the family,” Sheldon wrote of the incident. “He told me that ‘as your bishop, my concern is with the child.’”

That certainly sums it up, doesn’t it. “As your bishop, my concern is with the non-existent ‘child’ and not at all with you, the living breathing thinking hoping adult woman, and not at all with your four existing children, either. My concern is to ignore your needs and your children’s needs in order to focus on an eight week embryo. My concern is to try to negate your judgment and your doctor’s judgment and substitute my judgment, as ‘your bishop.’ My concern is to try to force you to obey a church official instead of doing what makes sense for all involved.”

There was no empathy forthcoming from Romney, according to Sheldon, no warmth or sympathy. Moreover, Sheldon contends, Romney cast doubt on her story about the stake president’s approval. He simply didn’t believe her. He threatened to call him and track him down. He didn’t seem to care a lick about her personal well-being.

“At a time when I would have appreciated nurturing and support from spiritual leaders and friends,” Sheldon wrote, “I got judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice, and rejection.”

In essence, Romney strapped Sheldon’s destiny to the hood of his Chevy and put his foot on the gas pedal, both literally and figuratively. He was so agitated about the matter that he confronted Sheldon’s parents about her decision as well.

According to R.B. Scott, author of the insightful Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, Romney’s only concern was for the unborn fetus. Last year, Scott, who is also a Mormon, interviewed Sheldon’s 90-year-old father, Phil Hilton, who remembered the incident quite vividly.

“I have never been so upset about anything in my life,” he told Scott. “[Romney] is an authoritative type fellow who thinks he is in charge of the world.”

Hilton was so offended by Romney’s single-mindedness and absolute lack of sensitivity to his daughter’s health that he ordered the young bishop out of his home. Hilton told Scott that he was fully prepared to “throw [Romney] off the porch if he paused for even a second.” Romney kept moving.

Sheldon had the abortion, and left the Mormon church.

And because of her ward bishop, Mitt Romney, Sheldon eventually left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, never to return. “Here I—a baptized, endowed, dedicated worker, and tithe-payer in the church—lay helpless, hurt, and frightened, trying to maintain my psychological equilibrium,” Sheldon wrote, “and his concern was for the eight-week possibility in my uterus—not for me!”

When he was confronted about the incident by reporters from the Boston Globe in 1994—little more than a decade afterward—Romney claimed no memory of the incident.

“”I don’t have any memory of what she is referring to,” Romney would later declare, “although I certainly can’t say it could not have been me.” It became the patterned Romney response to other conflicted moments in his life (the bullying of a classmate in prep school was a similar incident). Mormon feminists came up with a term for Romney’s calculated lack of memory: “Romnesia.”

That’s only a fraction of the article. It describes an amoral, cold, self-righteous man who thinks he’s always right.

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

An invitation to picket a cathedral

Oct 19th, 2012 4:32 pm | By

From Janet L. Factor

Hello fellow freethinkers! My local group, Springfield Area Freethinkers, is undertaking an action this Sunday that we would like more of the secular community to be aware of. We are going to picket an honest-to-goodness cathedral! Since you are a person in a position to spread the word, I am sending this information to you in hopes that you will blog or otherwise report about this event in advance. Feel free to forward this info if you have contacts who might be interested in writing about this as well.

While our group has existed here for years, this will be our first venture into public protest. It’s important that it be a success. We would like to get as much participation as possible from those who can join us, and as much psychological support as we can from those who cannot. I’m hoping that this will be the little push that gets the secular activism ball rolling here in Illinois’ capital city.

Here’s the bare-bones information (more detail follows):

WHO: Springfield Area Freethinkers are the local hosting group. Also participating are CUFree of Champaign and the Peoria Secular Humanist Society.

WHAT: A picket in support of Church-State separation as an American value. We are calling it “Buttress the Wall of Separation.”

WHEN: 9:15 AM until approximately 11:30 AM on Sunday, October 21st.

WHERE: Sidewalk surrounding the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Springfield, Illinois, at the intersection of S. Sixth St. and E. Lawrence Ave.

WHY: Bishop Thomas Paprocki who heads the Diocese recently issued a statement warning Catholics that if they vote for Democrats they will burn in hell. He has also put the Diocese on several lawsuits challenging church-state separation. He is determined to change the law. We are determined to stop him.

HOW: The city of Springfield has told us that we may legally picket the Cathedral SO LONG AS we do not obstruct pedestrian traffic and remain off the private property. We intend to carry signs emphasizing the American ideals of separation of church and state and of freedom of conscience. The focus must remain sharp on these issues. Many believers will support us on this. It will gain us respect and build bridges.


Springfield Area Freethinkers web page:

Paprocki Bio:

Paprocki is both a civil and a canon lawyer. He is actively seeking to change the law on church-state separation. He has put the Springfield Diocese on court actions challenging the contraception mandate and on a case trying to force the state to fund Catholic adoption agencies even if they turn away same-sex couples and unmarried couples. He once said that victims of pedophile priests who sue the church are tools of the devil, and he organized a national training of priests in exorcism in order to revive the practice. Oh yes, and he’s on the panel of bishops  trying to repress liberal nuns. This guy is something out of the Dark Ages.

His statement: Maddeningly worded, but nonetheless a clear endorsement of the Republican platform, with a threat to back it up.

This obviously violates the tax code, which you can find explained here:

In fact, all the bishops of Illinois are collaborating in offering “guidance” to Catholic voters in this election. They have written a series of pastoral letters being inserted into church bulletins every week. You can find those here:  (I find the second one particularly infuriating.)

The local paper’s story on it:

Their editorial:

And a long series of letters to the editor on the topic: Including this one from a Catholic upset with Paprocki:

AlterNet has listed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as one of the top ten most dangerous religious right organizations:

If you want some real fire-breathing rhetoric on the bishops, plus some EYEPOPPING figures on how much TAXPAYER money they get, go here:

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: For those hoping to attend: parking is free downtown on Sundays. The Cathedral is slightly less than one mile from the Amtrak station. The weather forecast is very favorable at the moment. Anyone who might come the night before and want something to do, the annual Springfield Zombie Walk for charity takes place Saturday evening:

Some ideas for signs:

“People aren’t Pawns, Bishop!”

“If you want to play you have to pay!—Tax churches that play politics.”

“it’s a voting booth, not a confessional.”

“It’s supposed to be a SECRET ballot.”

“Don’t tell me how to vote.”

“Keep religion out of politics.”

“Democracy not theocracy”


Phil Ferguson of CUFree has done an initial post on this event: And Rachel Maddow covered Paprocki’s statement in “This Week in God”:

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


Oct 19th, 2012 4:09 pm | By

Yes Malala may be doing better, but gurlz still must not be allowed to go to school in Pakistan. Everyone knows the whorey little sluts only want to go to school so that they can fuck all the boys there. Bitches.

Another school was blown up today, bringing the total for the year to 18.

On September 7th a school was blown up by suspected militants in Swabi, northern Pakistan.

Two improvised devices had been planted in the veranda of the school which went off one after the other during night.

Two classrooms of the school building developed cracks and were rendered useless. The watchman of the institution survived the attack.

On September 9th militants blew up a government primary school for girls in lower Orakzai Agency, northern Pakistan

Explosives were planted at the school, located near Khail Maat Shah village in Storikhel area, that exploded before dawn. The school building was destroyed completely in the blast, they added.

Some people build schools, others destroy them. Some people teach girls, others shoot them in the head.

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

Malala again

Oct 19th, 2012 12:59 pm | By

A doctor tells us about Malala’s progress in a video.

She’s communicating freely, though she can’t talk until the tracheostomy tube is removed, probably in a few days.

She thanks everybody for the messages.


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

Calling out

Oct 19th, 2012 12:24 pm | By

Janet Stemwedel has a sharp and to the point post on sexism among scientists, The point of calling out bad behavior.

There’s a blog discussion of a particular guy and his particular sexism, with lashings of sexism-denial Bingo. Free speech! Whassa big deal?! Give the guy a chance to grow!

It’s almost like people have something invested in denying the existence of gender bias among scientists, the phenomenon of a chilly climate in scientific professions, or even the possibility that Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook post was maybe not the first observable piece of sexism a working scientist put out there for the world to see.

The thing is, that denial is also the denial of the actual lived experience of a hell of a lot of women in science (and in other fields — I’ve been sexually harassed in both of the disciplines to which I’ve belonged).

And the denial itself is part of the lived experience. So is the rage and sexist name-calling that goes with much of the denial.

I can’t pretend to speak for everyone who calls out sexism like Maestripieri’s, so I’ll speak for myself.

I saw a tweet earlier today – by a denialist – saying

Can we please just stop using this expression “calling out”? If you use it, you sound like a self-righteous, ideologically driven loon.

Really? That’s a strange claim. What’s wrong with the expression? Atheists call out theists talking nonsense. Lawyers call out people who talk uninformed nonsense about the law. Lots of kinds of people call out journalists on bad reporting. And so on. I wonder if the denialist was talking about Stemwedel’s article, or something else.

Stemwedel says what she wants.

  1. I want to shine a bright light on all the sexist behaviors, big or small, so the folks who have managed not to notice them so far start noticing them, and so that they stop assuming their colleagues who point them out and complain about them are making a big deal out of nothing.
  2. I want the exposure of the sexist behaviors to push others in the community to take a stand on whether they’re cool with these behaviors or would rather these behaviors stop.  If you know about it and you don’t think it’s worth talking about, I want to know that about you — it tells me something about you that might be useful for me to know as I choose my interactions.
  3. I want the people whose sexist behaviors are being called out to feel deeply uncomfortable — at least as uncomfortable as their colleagues (and students) who are women have felt in the presence of these behaviors.
  4. I want people who voice their objections to sexist behaviors to have their exercise of free speech (in calling out the behaviors) be just as vigorously defended as the free speech rights of the people spouting sexist nonsense.
  5. I want the sexist behavior to stop so scientists who happen to be women can concentrate on the business of doing science (rather than responding to sexist behavior, swallowing their rage, etc.)

2 is where we are mostly stuck right now. There are a hell of a lot of others in this particular community (to use that word for the sake of argument) who are refusing to take that stand, and in fact supporting people who engage in the behaviors.

And, I’ll level with you: while, in an ideal world, one would want the perpetrator of sexist behavior to Learn and Grow and Repent and make Sincere Apologies, I don’t especially care if someone is still sexist in his heart as long as his behavior changes.  It’s the interactions with other people that make the climate that other people have to deal with.  Once that part is fixed, we can talk strategy for saving souls.

Absolutely. Ditto. Same here. The first order of business is getting people to stop the fucking behavior. The improved attitude can come later, or we can leave that for the next generation. Repression is a good thing.

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

Malala is awake

Oct 19th, 2012 10:45 am | By

She’s awake, and she has stood up. She’s making good progress. She might make a full recovery.

The hospital held a news conference and said the teenager is aware of her surroundings and making good progress.

Malala, CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata reported on “CBS This Morning,” has some memory as to what happened, and remembers she was in Pakistan on a school bus one moment, and then, in the next, woke up in a foreign country. One of the first things she asked when she came out of her medically-induced coma Tuesday, D’Agata reported, was what country she was in.

At this early stage, in terms of neurological damage, doctors are say[ing] they hop[e] she will make a full recovery. She’s not out of the woods, they say, but she’s close to the edge of the woods.

That is good news.


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

For Greta

Oct 18th, 2012 4:12 pm | By

As many of you probably already know, Greta is in a situation where some financial support would relieve her of some extra worry that she doesn’t need. Passing on that message would help her too, including if you can’t help financially. Kind words also help. So do suggestions of stuff to watch or read while recuperating.

If you can’t or don’t want to donate money, but you still want to help, other helpful things would be:

Help spread the word about this fundraiser: on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, your own blog, any other reasonable means that you have access to.

Buy my book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and/or encourage other people to buy it and publicize it.

Give me suggestions for books and DVDs to keep me occupied during my recovery. I’m looking for books, movies, and TV shows that are engaging and entertaining, but not heavy or serious, and that don’t take too much brainpower to follow.

Send kind words. They help, more than I can say.

Buttons to donate, again, here. 

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