Baby killers

I saw the documentary film Winter Soldiers on Wednesday night at Strosacker and it was a very moving experience. (The film will be shown again on Sunday at 1:30pm. I strongly recommend it. See below for details.)

In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, more than 125 veterans of the Vietnam war came to a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit and spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. The documentary gives voice to these soldiers as they describe what they had seen and done.
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Secret Agent Vice President

What amazed me is that after Vice President Cheney shot 78-year old Harry Whittington, the administration started by essentially blaming the man for getting shot.

From what I have read (see here and here), the consensus among bird hunters is that in such incidents, the fault almost always lies with the shooter. It is like rear-end collisions, where placing the blame is a no-brainer because it takes an extraordinary series of events for the person who gets rear-ended to be at fault. But this is an administration that however much it messes things up, always finds other people to blame and insists that what it did was right.

The Daily Show satirized this attitude with correspondent Rob Corddry saying, “Jon, tonight the Vice President is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. Now according to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time there were quail in the brush. And while the quail turned out to be the 78 year old man, even knowing that today, Mr. Cheney insists he still would have shot Mr. Whittington in the face.”

After it became clear that the attempt to blame Whittington was not getting any traction and was inviting outright ridicule and contempt, after four days, the Vice President in an interview absolves Whittington from blame.

What is interesting about the whole story is the reticence to reveal information about the incident and the sometimes contradictory nature of the information that is disclosed.

For example, although there were reports of three hunters in the party, the identity of the third was kept quiet and was only revealed after much prodding to be that of Pamela Willeford, the US Ambassador to Switzerland. Since she was an eyewitness to the events, why was her identity not revealed earlier? Why was she not questioned about her version of events? After all, she is a public employee.

Noted criminal lawyer and Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz also questions the reasons for the 14/18/24-hour delay (depending on who is reporting) in revealing the details of the shooting, and brings his experience to speculate on possibilities.

And others are questioning the story that the shooting distance was 30 yards since that does not square with the density of pellets that hit the victim, and the degree of penetration of the pellets. Those facts suggest that he may have been much closer, say 30 feet.

If this is a simple accidental shooting, why is it so hard to have a simple, straightforward, accounting of the events? In fact it is amazing that the VP waited four days before speaking on the matter, and then, rather than give a full-fledged news conference, he spoke only to Brit Hume of Fox News, who can be counted upon to be very sympathetic, if not outright sycophantic.
Why was it so hard for the Vice President to come forward quickly and publicly apologize and say that he is terribly sorry about the accident and the resulting pain he has caused Mr. Whittington and his family? He could have turned it into an important lesson learned, that even people experienced with guns can make mistakes and thus should always exercise extreme caution when handling firearms. That seems to me to be the gracious thing to have done. (I am assuming that he has already done all this privately to the Whittingtons. If he hasn’t, that becomes even more appallingly ungracious behavior.)

The Vice-President seems to think that he can simultaneously have all the privileges of a private citizen while having all the perks of being on the taxpayer payroll. As James Wolcott points out:

The question the press should ask itself when it has time to pause and (ha-ha) reflect is: Why has Dick Cheney been allowed to be secret-agent vice president since 9/11? Everyone foolishly accepted that he needed to be in an undisclosed location in case of terrorist attack, but there hasn’t been a terrorist attack and Cheney has used the 9/11 moment as a permanent opaque bullet-proof shield between himself and accountability on everything pertaining to his office. Has there ever been an administration where the vice president was more aloof, arrogant, and stealthier than the president himself? As Dana Bash said the other night on CNN, the vice president’s office routinely refuses to let anyone know what the veep’s schedule is, what his travel plans are, who he’s meeting with, etc. They didn’t know he was spending the weekend shooting quail and the occasional fellow hunter until the news broke in Texas. He’s an elected official, which he seems to have forgotten, as has the press, as has the Republican Party, as have the American people.

Good points. The VP is not a private citizen, although he seems to think he can act like one. As many people have pointed out, the media fuss over this incident is surprising since they glossed right over all the much more serious things the VP has been involved in, especially in making the fraudulent case for attacking Iraq.

Just this very week, on February 10 it was reported that Cheney’s indicted former chief-of-staff Lewis Libby “testified that his bosses instructed him to leak information to reporters from a high-level intelligence report that suggested Iraq was trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, according to court records in the CIA leak case.

Cheney was one of the “superiors” I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby said had authorized him to make the disclosures, according to sources familiar with the investigation into Libby’s discussions with reporters about CIA operative Valerie Plame.”

That criminal investigation by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is ongoing.

Then Paul Pillar, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005 said on February 10 “In the wake of the Iraq war, it has become clear that official intelligence analysis was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made,” Pillar wrote. And Cheney was one of the people who made those decisions.

These news items, although very serious, have received scant attention from the media because of the shooting on the very next day (February 11), which led comedian Bill Maher to joke that the VP may have deliberately shot Whittington to draw attention away from those more serious policy revelations.

So why the media focus on the shooting? After all, no one is seriously suggesting that at bottom it was anything more than an accident. Some are suggesting that the way the shooting episode news release was handled is the straw that broke the camel’s back. At some point, the White House media got fed up with the almost obsessive secrecy and stonewalling that they have been receiving on so many issues.

For example, just on Tuesday, the White House press secretary in the morning was trying to laugh off the whole shooting incident by joking about it and then during his daily briefing in the afternoon, while knowing that Whittington’s condition had taken a turn for the worse that day with a heart attack, and did not share this information with the assembled unwitting press corps. This kind of secrecy is hard to understand.

Perhaps the media are taking their frustrations out on the White House using a story that is simple to understand and write about, even though it does not have the serious policy implications of the Iraq war and the other controversies of which the VP is at the center.

POST SCRIPT: Parody film trailers

Sleepless in Seattle as a stalker thriller? The Shining as a warm family comedy? These are some of the parody film trailers circulating on the internet that take scenes from the real film and present them as belonging to a completely different genre. Of course, Brokeback Mountain has also spawned its share of parodies such as Brokeback to the Future and Top Gun 2: Brokeback Squadron.

To see them (and others), go here.

Ohio Sets Back Intelligent Design

Yesterday the Ohio Board of Education (OBE) struck a huge blow against intelligent design by voting 11-4 to remove benchmarks in its science standards that called for “critical analysis” of evolution and to eliminate a lesson plan based on that benchmark.

Here is some background to the issue. In 2001 I was selected to be part of Ohio’s Science Standards Advisory Board to set new science standards for Ohio. After many months of work, we approved a set of standards to be fleshed out by other people in writing committees. There was some discussion of what to do about intelligent design creationism (IDC) but the consensus was to keep it out.
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Hot buttons and the people who push them-2

Continuing yesterday’s posting, what I find most difficult to sympathize with are the other newspapers that later reprinted the Jyllands-Posten cartoons that have inflamed some Muslim sensitivities. Far from being free speech champions, they seemed to simply want to provoke anger in the Muslim world. They were not defending free speech rights because, as far as I can tell, those were not in any danger. It is true that some who opposed the publication of the cartoons were asking the government of Denmark to take action against Jyllands-Posten but there was no indication that this was a serious request or that there was any chance of the Danish government was doing so. And even if it made moves towards doing that, there are other ways to defend the rights of that paper.
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Hot buttons and the people who push them

Like most people, I have been dismayed by the demonstrations, the arson, the boycott threats, etc. caused by the publication in Denmark of twelve cartoons that were seen as disrespectful to Islam. I have resisted commenting on it because there was so much coverage that anything I would say would seem superfluous.

But it seems some important aspects of the story are not being told. The coverage has settled into a familiar storyline: The countries of the Islamic world do not understand western concepts of free speech, not to mention western humor in which no sacred cow is immune from skewering. Furthermore those countries are full of irrational religious fanatics who respond with violence to things that offend them, rather than peaceful dialogue.

Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the person who decided to publish the cartoons issued a statement that reinforces this view.

“This is about standing for fundamental values that have been the (foundation) for the development of Western democracies over several hundred years, and we are now in a situation where those values are being challenged,” he said.

“I think some of the Muslims who have reacted very strongly to these cartoons are being driven by totalitarian and authoritarian impulses, and the nature of these impulses is that if you give in once they will just put forward new requirements.”

Once the media finds a storyline that is congenial to its readers (and this one definitely reinforces a positive self-image of the west combined with a stereotype of Muslims who currently regarded with suspicion and hostility) it usually tends not to delve too deeply into more subtle issues. But in this case, when you do so, you find that the story is more complex than has been portrayed.

For instance, consider the timeline of this story that is presented. The cartoons were first published on September 30, 2005.

Approximately two weeks later, nearly 3,500 people demonstrated peacefully in Copenhagen. In November, several European newspapers re-published the images, triggering more protests.”

On January 10, 2006, the cartoons were reprinted in the small Norwegian Christian newspaper Magazinet (circulation: 5.000).

On January 30, the Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten apologizes, saying “In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize.”

So far, this story seems reasonable. A newspaper publishes something edgy, some people get upset and protest, and the newspaper apologizes for unwittingly causing offense but defends its rights to free speech. This kind of thing happens routinely.

But apparently some other newspapers saw this apology as some kind of free speech violation, and the Danish newspaper’s apology as capitulation. In order to assert the right to free speech, on February 1, the cartoons were reprinted in the French daily France Soir, and many other European newspapers. And this is what has led to the big demonstrations that we see going on now, with some Muslim communities seeing this as a deliberate insult to their religion.

The main issue of rights seem to be fairly clear. The Danish newspaper had every right to publish the cartoons. People who find the cartoons offensive have every right to protest in non-violent forms, such as holding demonstrations, and even organizing boycotts and breaking off diplomatic relations.

In apologizing, the newspaper was not being censored by governments, it was just saying it was sorry for causing offense. Newspapers depend on advertisers and routinely avoid printing some things to avoid losing readers.

That is the standard storyline. But when you look underneath it, the division between right and wrong, good and bad, start getting blurry, and the motives of the people who published the cartoons become increasingly suspect.

For one thing, the cartoons about Prophet Mohammed were actually solicited by the cultural editor of the newspaper not for their humor but in order to test Muslim sensitivities. Flemming Rose is supposed to have done so because he had heard that cartoonists “were too afraid of Muslim militants to illustrate a new children’s biography of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad,” since depictions of Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, as they are considered idolatrous.

Furthermore, the very same Danish newspaper had rejected cartoons three years earlier that made fun of Christianity because they feared they would cause offense.

Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused a storm of protest throughout the Islamic world, refused to run drawings lampooning Jesus Christ, it has emerged today.

The Danish daily turned down the cartoons of Christ three years ago, on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny.

In April 2003, Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to Jyllands-Posten.

Zieler received an email back from the paper’s Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: “I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them.”

What this demonstrates is a certain level of hypocrisy because the editor felt that the sensitivities of Muslims were not worth considering but that of Christian were.

The story gets even murkier. Justin Raimondo points out that Flemming Rose seems to be an admirer of those in the US like Daniel Pipes who are “fanatically hostile to Islam.” So the whole story of a somewhat naïve editor who innocently publishes cartoons that caused a surprising amount of offense starts becoming unraveled and becomes more and more like a case of deliberate provocation aimed at Muslims.

And it gets worse. More on this tomorrow. . .

POST SCRIPT: Mainstream Churches Fight Back

It looks like mainstream churches are getting fed up with fundamentalist attacks on evolution. Commenter Cathie points out this notice for “Evolution Sunday” organized by them (now past, unfortunately). But it is a good sign. Here is the introduction to their website. You can check if your own church is here, or encourage them to join for next year.

On 12 February 2006 hundreds of Christian churches from all portions of the country and a host of denominations will come together to discuss the compatibility of religion and science. For far too long, strident voices, in the name of Christianity, have been claiming that people must choose between religion and modern science. More than 10,000 Christian clergy have already signed The Clergy Letter demonstrating that this is a false dichotomy. Now, on the 197th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, many of these leaders will bring this message to their congregations through sermons and/or discussion groups. Together, participating religious leaders will be making the statement that religion and science are not adversaries. And, together, they will be elevating the quality of the national debate on this topic.

The New York Times reports that “more than 10,000 ministers from around the country had signed [An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science], which states, in part, that the theory of evolution is “a foundational scientific truth.” To reject it, the letter continues, “is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.”

On the 197th birthday of Charles Darwin, ministers at several hundred churches around the country preached yesterday against recent efforts to undermine the theory of evolution, asserting that the opposition many Christians say exists between science and faith is false.

At St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, a small contemporary structure among the pricey homes of north Atlanta, the Rev. Patricia Templeton told the 85 worshipers gathered yesterday, “A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all.”

And don’t forget, Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species both occur in 2009. Mark your calendars now for the big party that is sure to happen on February 12th of that year.

The divide between modernists and medievalists

The current attacks on science in the US are often portrayed as a battle between religion and science but that is not really the case. The widespread beliefs about the rapture (taking seriously the claim that 44% of Americans believe that the rapture will certainly or most probably occur within their lifetimes) and the attempts at overthrowing evolution by natural selection because of religious reasons signals something more serious.

When these beliefs are coupled with the fact that 53% reject common ancestors for humans and apes and that 45% of Americans can still, in this day and age (according to a Gallup poll in November 2004), believe that “God created man in present form within the last 10,000 years,” indicates that what we have here in the US is a far deeper and more disturbing phenomenon. I think that it is fair to say that it pretty much represents a rejection of modernity and a yearning for an almost medieval, pre-Renaissance way of thinking.

The great divide in the current culture wars in the US is not between religious people on the one side and scientists on the other. It is between those who are modernist and those who are medieval. The modernist camp contains both religious and secular people. Religious people who are modernists believe that god somehow works in the world and in their lives, but don’t seek an explicit mechanism. They leave god out of the secular world and science. The medievalists on the other hand are rejecting almost entirely the modern worldview, arguing that religious doctrine must take precedence over everything else and that whenever science and religion are in opposition, it is religious beliefs that must take precedence.

It seems (to me at least) that if post-renaissance life reveals anything at all, it is that we are more likely to get useful information and results from putting our faith in science to make progress and solve problems than in praying for solutions. This is not to promote science triumphalism. Science and scientists can and do make mistakes and one should not yield to them sole decision making power, even over important and esoteric scientific questions.

What I am saying is that is absurd to reject those scientific theories and methods that have brought us to where we are because of religious objections, which is what the opponents of modernism are essentially advocating.

The rejection of modernity represented by these religious beliefs seems to me to be similar to the attitudes of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In both cases, these groups identified the current state of life as morally iniquitous and identified social and moral well-being with a return to “traditional values.” They did this by rejecting all the trappings of modernity (TV, clothing, films, popular music, etc.) and tried to return their countries to a more primitive lifestyle, seeing that as somehow morally superior. In the case of Afghanistan this was driven by religion and in Cambodia by ideology, but the end result in both countries was similar – “back-to-basics” on steroids.

This rejection of modernism by about 150 million Americans (i.e., the people who believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis) is disturbing because it means that the foundations on which US society is built is shaky. What may save the situation is that in the US, the rejection of modernity, unlike in Afghanistan or Cambodia, is somewhat contradictory in practice. While appealing for a return to “traditional values,” the groups advocating this show no indication whatsoever of giving up all the trappings and luxuries that modernity provides. They want to be worthy of heaven, but will hold onto their iPods until they are pried from their “cold, dead hands” as Charlton Heston famously said about his right to have guns.

Take for example stem-cell research. Currently, religious objections in the US have resulted in other nations taking the lead in this area. Since no major breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases using this new technology have yet been achieved, it seems like it costs nothing to reject this technology. But as soon as it produces a treatment or cure for a major disease, I predict that religious objections to this research in the US will collapse. Whatever their religious objections, people who have the disease will demand the treatment and the authorities will have no choice but to acquiesce.

With the Taliban or Khmer Rouge, they would have just said “tough.” If the price for moral purity is a primitive lifestyle and early death, then so be it. But somehow I cannot see the members of the fundamentalist Christian community in its suburban megachurches in affluent communities, people who think that having a long, materially rich life is a sign of god’s favor, being willing to accept that tradeoff.

But can you essentially reject the premise of the scientific approach while clinging to the fruits that science provides? I don’t think so, at least not over the long run. Collisions between those two sets of values is inevitable and whether we like it or not, scientific advances always trump religious objections.

And ultimately, this is why science always wins in the end. Not because it is obviously true or always correct or aesthetically appealing or emotionally satisfying but because it is just too useful and practical to reject.

The religious beliefs of scientists-2

In yesterday’s post, we saw that the degree of belief in a personal god or in immortality among scientists had not changed much over time, staying at roughly around 40% for nearly a century, as long as one used a broad definition of scientist.

But the picture changed quite dramatically when one looked at more elite groups of scientists, those who were acknowledged by their peers as having done superior work. For this group, the figure started lower (around 30% in 1914) and dropped dramatically (to less than 10%) by 1998. The results of this research by Larson and Witham become even more interesting when disaggregated by academic discipline.
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The religious beliefs of scientists-1

Are science and religion compatible? There are two ways to approach this question. The first is a philosophical one where one tries to see if there are any irreconcilable contradictions between the beliefs and practices of science and those of theistic religious beliefs. The second is an empirical one where one surveys scientists to see if a significant number of scientists are also religious.

In the first case, I discussed in an earlier posting that all that being a scientist committed one to was methodological naturalism, while denying the existence of god required a commitment to philosophical naturalism as well. So there seems to be no inherent difficulty with being a god-believing scientists.

What about the empirical results? In a recent post, I speculated on the possibility of a high level of atheism among clerics but said that unfortunately it would be hard to get honest poll results on this question. But scientists are not so hesitant to answer this question and such surveys have been done and the results are extremely interesting.

These surveys were done early in the twentieth century (in 1914 and 1933) by James H. Leuba and repeated at the end of the century by Edward J. Larson
 and Larry Witham who published their findings under the title Leading scientists still reject God in the journal Nature (Vol. 394, No. 6691, p. 313 (1998)).

What the earlier Leuba studies found in his survey of 1,000 scientists in general, selected randomly from the standard reference work, American Men of Science (AMS) was that in 1914, 58% of scientists expressed “doubt or disbelief” in god, with the number rising to 67% in 1933.

Larson and Witham’s repeat of this study in 1996 using the current edition of the same source (now called American Men and Women of Science) to select their sample and found the number to be 60.7%. So these numbers have remained fairly steady.

In fact, the 1996 survey found that about 40% of scientists believe in a personal God as defined by the statement “a God in intellectual and affirmative communication with man … to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer.” This is a sizeable number (close to the figures in the 1914 and 1933 surveys), indicating that, at least empirically, there seems to be little problem with being a scientist and also believing in the existence of even an activist, interventionist god who directly answers individual prayers.

But the really interesting changes have come from the beliefs of a more elite group of scientists. One criticism about the studies quoted so far was that perhaps the selecting of the sample of scientists was not discriminating enough. Larson and Witham quote Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins as criticizing their 1996 study on these grounds saying: “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge.” (my emphasis)

But how does one define a “real” scientist as opposed to, presumably, a run-of-the-mill scientist. It turns out that Leuba had also surveyed the beliefs of “greater” scientists, using as his sample those scientists designated as such by the editors of the AMS. He found the rate of “disbelief or doubt in the existence of God” to be higher that that of the general scientist population, being 70% in 1914 and as much as 85% in 1934. So it seems as if the more eminent one becomes, the less one believes.

In repeating this particular aspect of the study in 1998, Larson and Witham were hampered by the fact that the editors of American Men and Women of Science stopped designating people as “greater scientists.” So Larson and Witham used as their sample source the member list of the highly prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). What they found was that the number among this group who expressed “disbelief or doubt in the existence of God” was a whopping 93%.

Here are the detailed results:

Belief in personal God 1914 1933 1998
Personal belief 27.7 15 7.0
Personal disbelief 52.7 68 72.2
Doubt or agnosticism 20.9 17 20.8
Belief in immortality 1914 1933 1998
Personal belief 35.2 18 7.9
Personal disbelief 25.4 53 76.7
Doubt or agnosticism 43.7 29 23.3

Some interesting questions arise from these results. Belief in a personal god has dropped by half from 1914 to 1933 and again by half by 1998. The latter drop may have as a contributing factor the fact that the NAS members are probably a more elite group than the “greater scientists” designated by the editors of AMS. But that means that religious beliefs among elite scientists are either decreasing with time and/or with increasing eminence.

In tomorrow’s posting, I will look at this data (and others that give the breakdown according to scientific discipline) more closely and speculate as to the reasons behind these results.

POST SCRIPT: More Iraq war lies surface

The British newspaper The Guardian reports on a yet another memo that reveals that all the talk by Bush and Blair about trying diplomacy was (surprise!) a sham and that they were going into Iraq whatever the UN said.

A memo of a two-hour meeting between the two leaders at the White House on January 31 2003 – nearly two months before the invasion – reveals that Mr Bush made it clear the US intended to invade whether or not there was a second UN resolution and even if UN inspectors found no evidence of a banned Iraqi weapons programme.

What is even more astounding, the memo alleges that Bush was even prepared to try a Gulf of Tonkin-like act of trickery to create a pretext for war. “Mr. Bush told Mr Blair that the US was so worried about the failure to find hard evidence against Saddam that it thought of “flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft planes with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours”. Mr Bush added: “If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach [of UN resolutions].”

The British government has not denied the existence of the memo.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat acting leader, said last night: “The fact that consideration was apparently given to using American military aircraft in UN colours in the hope of provoking Saddam Hussein is a graphic illustration of the rush to war. It would also appear to be the case that the diplomatic efforts in New York after the meeting of January 31 were simply going through the motions.

“The prime minister’s offer of February 25 to Saddam Hussein was about as empty as it could get. He has a lot of explaining to do.”

One wonders why this kind of news gets so little coverage, and generates so little outrage, in the US.

Harry Belafonte and the politics of language

In 1946, George Orwell published his classic essay Politics and the English Language which is something that anyone interested in politics or writing should read because of the deep insights that Orwell provides about how to learn to write clearly, and the ways that language can be abused, especially by people trying to use it to serve political ends.

I was reminded of this article again by the flap created by Harry Belafonte when on a visit to Venezuela he called Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.” (UPDATE: Harry Belafonte’s visit to Case today has had to be rescheduled to an as-yet unspecified date since he is giving a eulogy for Coretta Scott King.)
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Harry Belafonte

For those of you fortunate enough to be in the Cleveland area, Harry Belafonte has been invited by the University Program Board to speak at Case Western Reserve University. The talk will be in Strosacker Auditorium at 7:00pm on Tuesday, February 7, 2006. The talk is free and open to the public but tickets are required. For more information and to get tickets see here. (UPDATE: Harry Belafonte’s visit has had to be rescheduled to an as-yet unspecified date since he is giving a eulogy for Coretta Scott King.)
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