Ashley speaks out

Ashley Paramore reveals an absolutely horrible event that happened to her at a con, dealing with it with aplomb.

TAM handled it well, and the youtube commentariat seem mostly stunned — they don’t seem to be able to marshal their usual denials and whines, although there are a few hyperskeptics lurking there. But the person dealing with it best is Ashley herself, making the effort to speak out for everyone who has been put in these ugly situations.

(via Jen.)

But weren’t their brains “pretty much normal”?

Brains develop; they go through a process of change and refinement that is dependent on interactions with the environment. As ought to be obvious, then, brains are going to be exquisitely sensitive to their inputs. This state suggests all kinds of interesting experiments we’d like to perform on human fetuses and infants — except that good scientists also pay heed to ethical constraints. Other social institutions may lack such inhibitions, though, and go out and do the experiments for us: witness the case of Romanian orphanages.

Romania has had orphanages for centuries. But its orphan crisis began in 1965, when the communist Nicolae Ceaușescu took over as the country’s leader. Over the course of his 24-year rule, Ceaușescu deliberately cultivated the orphan population in hopes of creating loyalty to — and dependency on — the state. In 1966, he made abortion illegal for the vast majority of women. He later imposed taxes on families with fewer than five children and even sent out medically trained government agents — ‘The Menstrual Police’ — to examine women who weren’t producing their quota. But Ceaușescu’s draconian economic policies meant that most families were too poor to support multiple children. So, without other options, thousands of parents left their babies in government-run orphanages.

By Christmas day in 1989, when revolutionaries executed Ceaușescu and his wife by firing squad, an estimated 170,000 children were living in more than 700 state orphanages. As the regime crumbled, journalists and humanitarians swept in. In most institutions, children were getting adequate food, hygiene and medical care, but had woefully few interactions with adults, leading to severe behavioural and emotional problems. A handful of orphanages were utterly abhorrent, depriving children of their basic needs. Soon photos of dirty, handicapped orphans lying in their own excrement were showing up in newspapers across the world.

Efforts to correct this situation were hampered by the mythology of the government that the deplorable state of these childrens was not caused by institutionalization, but that the ill, weak, mentally retarded children were placed there because of their prior condition. This wasn’t just an opportunity to explore the effects of early socialization on children’s development, but also an ethical obligation to determine the causes of their problems.

This is how the Bucharest Early Intervention Project was launched, a study that tries to examine how social neglect affects children placed in Romanian state orphanages. The answers were obvious, despite state denials: we’ve known for years, at least since the work on Harlow’s monkeys, that the primate brain needs extensive interaction with responsive and caring conspecifics to mature properly. And that’s what they’re finding: these poor desperate children have been damaged and are suffering thanks to long-term policies of social impoverishment.

What they found was unsurprising: children’s brains can be harmed by growing up in the harrowing setting of a state orphanage (read the full story to get the picture of just how awful these particular orphanages could be):

In the Hilton Hotel in Bucharest, with representatives from several Romanian ministries and the US ambassador in attendance, the researchers reported that, as expected, the 136 children who started in institutions tended to have diminished growth and intellectual ability compared with controls who had never lived outside of a family. But there was a surprising silver lining. Children who had been placed in foster care before the age of two years showed significant gains in IQ, motor skills, and psychological development compared with those who stayed in the orphanages.

Oh, and were their brains “pretty much normal”? Nope. You have to be very careful interpreting MRI data, but they got some dismaying results.

As the children got older, the researchers gave them brain scans (renting out time with a private clinic’s MRI machine, one of only a handful in the country). These scans showed that, at around the age of eight, the children who grew up in institutions have less white matter, the tissue that links up different brain regions, compared with those in foster care. The researchers looked at the children’s genomes, too, and found that those who lived the longest in orphanages tend to have the shortest telomeres, the caps on the end of chromosomes that are related to lifespan.

It’s a depressing story, not just because the fate of these children is so sad, but because the availability of strong scientific data that explains what needs to be done to correct the problem seems to be affecting government social policy very, very slowly or not at all.

That didn’t hurt as much as I thought

Salon has another article on those sexist atheists, and I braced myself for yet another garbage dump — they’ve been on an anti-atheist jag for a while. But this one wasn’t so bad — it actually brought up the issues we’re struggling with in the atheist movement, and made it clear that there is a an effort to correct it, or at least didn’t condemn atheism.

It list 5 real problems we face.

  1. Lack of community support within atheism, which religion is well-practiced at providing. More women are in economic peril and can appreciate the safety net church provides.

  2. Endemic sexism, not just within atheism, but everywhere. And as we’ve been learning, labeling yourself a rationalist and embracing atheism is perfectly compatible with otherwise acting like a privileged pig.

  3. Media bias: the media treat men’s voices as more authoritative than women’s.

  4. This is related to #2, but it’s a common trend in social movements that men gravitate towards taking power.

  5. Fighting against sexism in atheism may take a back seat to fighting against sexual predators, sexual discrimination, or for reproductive rights.

I can agree with that list, and am always happy to accept valid criticisms of the paths we’re taking. Now let’s go fix them.

A classic example of an evolutionary psychologist unable to read

My experience has been that the only way evolutionary psychologists know how to deal with criticism is by flagrant denial.

Recently, I discussed some remarks by PZ Myers, who might be called – though I’m sure he would object – a creationist of the mind. (This term isn’t original with me. Anyone know who coined it?) By this I refer to the view that the theory of evolution by natural selection ought to be used to inform the study of the traits and behaviors of every living thing on the planet except the bits of the human mind that cause behavior, especially social behavior. Again, I’m not saying he’s literally a creationist; I’m saying that there are some who are very comfortable insisting that evolutionary ideas inform biology in all other domains except the human mind.

Ho-hum. I am quite confident that the mind evolved, that it is the product of natural processes, and that it would be profitable to our understanding to explore it scientifically. And I do believe I’ve said it quite a few times.

Does Robert Kurzban understand that there’s more to the theory of evolution than natural selection?

Just when you thought it might be safe to use the elevator again…

Along comes the Playboy ethos.

What strikes me about this kind of advertising is the complete absence of empathy for the woman: she’s a fantasy object, and the man is the one doing all the fantasizing about the woman as a meat puppet. Yeah, it’s advertising targeted specifically for men, but only a certain kind of man: men who don’t like autonomous women.

I hope that’s a shrinking share of the market, but it’s ads like this that help keep it alive.


It’s a good cause. Send two young women around the country to play with bugs for our entertainment.

Follow us as we film the incredible insects and spiders of America! This coast-to-coast journey will take place with a vintage sofa that will be placed in different ecosystems across the country. At each stop we will inspire you to “get off the couch” to explore America’s backyard wilderness and the most diverse animals on the planet….

We specialize in fun, quirky educational videos. Nature programming has been leaning toward fear and myth lately, which we find alarmingly sad. The natural world is mind-blowing; we don’t really need to embellish it.

Oh, yeah, there are a few cable tv networks that once upon a time were all about educating us entertainingly and have since abandoned all pretense. Let’s hope the Bugchicks don’t follow suit and create a program about Nazi ghost bugs deposited in pawn shops and hoarder piles by UFOs.

No, they won’t! This is going to be cool!

The Weekend of Unbelievable Fun

Brianne reminds us that Minnesota’s regional atheist convention is coming up in less than two weeks. Get your tickets now!

Don’t skip the Friday night baseball game. Maybe you’re not a sports fan — I’m not — but it was still a fun evening with a bunch of cheerful atheists who are just relaxing and having a good time. You know, that community thing? It’s actually very nice.

No gods, no masters…and no revelations, no miracles

Rachael Slick, the daughter of moderately well-known Christian apologist Matt Slick, has become an atheist. Her story is the kind evangelical Christians don’t like to hear: she was definitely a True Christian™, brought up deeply imbedded in Christian culture, with a father who coached her intensely in the minutia of Christian theology. In her story there is no hint that she was unloved, or worse, a victim of abuse (please keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of devout Christians love their children and do not abuse them physically at all). So what happened? She was raised to think rigorously about theological issues, and eventually, she thought her way out of the confusing Christian muddle.

That happens a lot. Most of the former Christians I know did not get to that point by trauma or emotion — it was an intellectual decision. via Russell Glasser shares his experiences with deconversion, and it’s the same story everywhere.

All I can say is, I know quite a few deconverted fundamentalists myself, and almost none of them that I know personally, changed their minds due to these petty personal issues. It is such a common cliche among apologists that it has its own section of the Atheist Community of Austin’s FAQ. “Q: What kind of horrible experience did you have that caused you to become an atheist?”

The stories I’ve heard are most frequently very similar to Rachael Slick’s — that is to say, what Rachael Slick actually wrote, and not the creative spin that Glenn Peoples decided to put on her words. People don’t abandon a religious belief they’ve held their whole lives over something as trivial as “boyfriend issues” in my experience. Over and over again, what I’ve heard is “I set out to defend my faith as well as I could, I looked for opposing points of view, and I found that the responses to the opposition weren’t satisfying. Over a period of time, I gave up on defending the faith.”

Christians aren’t stupid people — they’re people dwelling in a certain habit of thought and in environment that makes it comfortable to accept a lot of nonsense. The trick to getting people to leave their faith is to simply get their brains to turn towards an evaluation of their beliefs — to wake them up! — and then they do the work of hauling themselves out of the morass. There are a thousand different ways to do that: atheists can shock them by being nice, normal people; atheists can point out the absurdities of their religion (I get lots of people telling me they lost their faith in their efforts to prove me wrong); they can witness the bad behavior of fellow Christians; they can feel a sense of injustice when they see atheists treated poorly.

The one thing we can’t do is do their thinking for them. You don’t see much in the way of abrupt revelations in the atheist world — it’s a matter of hard thinking to abandon familiar beliefs that saturate our environment.

Casualties of War

[This is a guest post by Iris Vander Pluym]

The War on Drugs is not a war on drugs, at least not as that phrase is commonly understood in the English language. Assess the misery associated with the drug trade, and you would have to be on drugs yourself to believe the War on Drugs is anything other than a total, abject failure. From measures of public health, addiction rates, narco-terrorism, police corruption, gang violence, vast criminal networks spanning the globe to the inhumane prison-industrial complex here at home, the War on Drugs has made the world a far worse place.

Of course the U.S. government has long known that (a) military strategies do not work and may actually boost profits for drug traffickers, and (b) drug treatment is far cheaper and twenty-three times more effective than supply-side approaches. If the War on Drugs is such a spectacular failure in every respect, why would the feds continue to perpetrate it? The answer is that it is not a failure in every respect: the War on Drugs provides an excellent pretext for violent action by the U.S. and its client states in the Western hemisphere. Not in service to democracy, freedom and human rights, mind you—strictly for the benefit of elite U.S. business interests.

Since 1946, the U.S. Army has been training Latin American government and military officials at its School of the Americas (now WHINSEC) in "counterinsurgency," for the purpose of suppressing leftist movements that might interfere with the unimpeded exploitation of natural resources by U.S.-based conglomerates. We helpfully trained these people in various torture techniques, civilian targeting, extrajudicial executions and extortion. We enthusiastically encouraged terrorism, sabotage, arresting people’s relatives and blackmail. We have engineered violent coups and murders to keep in power cooperative governments. We have deposed, assassinated and otherwise interfered with democratically elected officials and other leaders who exhibit the merest hint of socialism.

In recent decades in Colombia alone, the U.S.-trained army and its allied right-wing paramilitary groups have killed thousands upon thousands of union organizers, peasant and indigenous leaders, human rights workers, land reform activists, religious leaders, leftist politicians and their supporters. Some paramilitary leaders have attempted to ‘cleanse’ Colombian society by murdering drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, petty criminals and the homeless. It’s true that some Colombian presidents have attempted to address the social, political and economic issues that the guerrillas claim are their grievances. But the United States government will not have any of that. With assistance from its allies in the Colombian political, economic and military elite, efforts at meaningful reform have all been thwarted. And so those pesky guerrillas—who have no love for the drug trade—will continue to strike back the only way they can: by blowing up oil pipelines. That is why there is a "War on Drugs" in Colombia.

Sound familiar? It should. The War on Terror works exactly the same way in the Middle East. That is, it doesn’t work, at least not for its stated purposes. No one seriously doubts that our policies create far more terrorists than we could ever capture or kill, or that we have long supported and armed some of the most brutal, tyrannical, anti-democratic and oppressive dictators in the region for the benefit of the world-warming, profit-pumping petroleum industry. Take a look at this nifty interactive map of Yemen , and then try to tell me with a straight face that we’re over there drone bombing Muslims to Keep Us Safe… from terrorists, as opposed to, say, protecting a very cooperative Yemeni regime .

The War on Terror has led to profound changes in American society. The populace has meekly accepted the militarization of domestic police forces, the rise of a vast and insidious surveillance state and the erosion of constitutional rights and civil liberties, all in exchange for empty promises of safety. It’s long been clear that none of it works . Meanwhile, on the home front the War on Drugs has subjected generations of citizens to mass incarceration. More than two million people are behind bars in the U.S.: that is 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Prison populations have exploded since the 1980s, with the majority of the increase comprising low-level offenders, particularly drug offenders, and disproportionally black and Latino men who are no more likely to dabble in drugs than their white counterparts . What happened after the 1980s? The previous go-to excuse for invading, bombing and otherwise imposing our imperial will on other countries—the Cold War—had just collapsed, but the War on Drugs had already begun. Eventually, Osama bin Laden did America’s Owners a big favor, and the rest, as they say, is history. What could be a more perfect pretext than a "War on Terror"? Let’s invade Iraq for oil! We’ll just say Saddam’s in league with Al-Qaeda or something! The press?! Pfft. They’ll help us do it, bro.

This is not a Republican-Democrat thing. No matter which party is nominally in power, the U.S. government will use every tactic at its disposal keep the American left marginalized as effectively as the Colombians do. Obama saw to it that the Occupy movement was crushed. FBI, NYPD, State Police and other law enforcement agencies have long been infiltrating and monitoring groups opposed to U.S. economic policy, immigration policy, harmful trade agreements, union-busting and racial profiling. The feds are also interested in keeping tabs on anti-death penalty groups, labor organizers, those who support Palestinians or the Israel divestment campaign,and, unsurprisingly, anti-war groups. After all, how are we all going to be duped into the next War on Whatever if we have a formidable peace movement?

All of this is precisely what one would expect from a system of unbridled, imperialist capitalism constrained by neither law nor conscience. The System is the problem.

On Tuesday afternoon, I attended a rally at Union Square. It was the NYC kickoff for an "Abortion Rights Freedom Ride," a cross country caravan organized by , with rallies planned along the route including places where some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws have been passed: Fargo, North Dakota; Wichita, Kansas; and Jackson, Mississippi. Take Mississippi , for example: since 2002 only a single clinic providing abortion services has been in operation. The state’s legislators and governors, who clearly have no other problems to attend to , have been very busy attempting to shut down that last remaining clinic by passing disingenuous laws purporting to protect women’s health. (As if anyone, anywhere, believes conservatives are concerned about anyone’s health. OMGLOL .) Not to be outdone, North Dakota —another state with only one remaining clinic—passed a ban on abortions after six weeks, a point at which many women have no idea they’re pregnant.

I had recently written a piece mentioning and their refreshingly plain language and savvy messaging: "Abortion on Demand Without Apology." "Women are NOT incubators." "Forced motherhood is female enslavement." When their campaign started to gain attention, the liberal hand-wringing came right on cue . There were concerns, you see. This Abortion Rights Freedom Ride will be "too confrontational, too vociferous and may turn off people to the cause." The activists will be viewed locally as "invading outsiders." Mass political protest only "distracts from important court cases." Besides, it’s better to "rely on officials channels of politics."

Really. How’s that been working out? In the past three years , states have passed nearly 180 restrictions on abortion, and 2013 is already on track to record the second-highest number of abortion restrictions in a single year, ever.

And these concerns sounded familiar. Where had I heard this before? Oh, that’s right: from critics concerned about the Occupy movement, who in turn echoed nearly verbatim critics of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, and critics of the women’s suffrage movement before that. Quiet down, they said. Wait. Work with The System. Please. When has anything short of confrontational, vociferous, mass political protest ever yielded more than lip service or a few table scraps from The System?

America’s Owners do not care one whit about abortion rights, except insofar as the issue drives conservatives to the polls to elect their Republican servants or outrages liberals enough to elect their Democratic servants . Indeed, they have every reason to keep the War on Women raging.

This is why voting is not enough: the game is rigged. As Chris Hedges put it so succinctly , "There is no way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs."Democrats have concern-trolled themselves right into irrelevance. They are The System. The System is the problem. The math is not hard.

I’ll leave you with something promising. There are people who get it. I met some of them at the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride rally.


Meet (L-R) Noche Diaz, Jamel Mims, andCarl Dix, members of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network , and defendants in cases brought for nonviolent civil disobedience actions protesting the NYPD’s Stop & Frisk practices. To be honest, when they were first introduced I wondered why three d00ds would be speaking together at an abortion rights rally. It didn’t take long to find out: their explicit message was that if women, who make up half of humanity, are not free, then none of us are free. They spoke powerfully and eloquently about the oppression that they and their communities have faced—and linked it directly to the same source of oppression and exploitation that women, workers and millions of marginalized people face, here and abroad: The System.

The difficult part is predicting what will spark the revolution—and where we will end up after it’s all said and done. To have a shot a desirable outcome, we need more citizens to realize that we, too, are casualties of war.

I’ll see you in the streets.

Iris Vander Pluym is a godless, feminist lefty blogging at perrystreetpalace, a contributing columnist at The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy, The Feminist Hivemind, Worldwide Hippies/Citizen Journalists Exchange, and an occasional guest poster at Pharyngula, The Greanville Post, and elsewhere. When she is not busy mocking conservatives and other fools, she is an artist and activist living happily in New York City’s West Village.