jump to navigation

The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi November 12, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Religion, Science and Technology.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Roger’s note:

 “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible

I believe in magic, the magic of an incredible sunrise, the magic of a tender kiss.  I do not believe in the magic of bending spoons with the mind.  This is not magic, it is fraudulent pandering to human susceptibility, to mindless superstition.  I believe that those who claim to have paranormal powers are not simply entertainers, but rather dangerous frauds.  Despite the unbelievable advances in all branches of science and the equally unbelievable expansion of human knowledge, we live in an a “dark” age where unscrupulous agents of enormous economic power and interests take advantage of the credulous instincts of human beings in order to override scientific fact (evolution, climate change) in favor of superstition and “faith.”  This often in the service of profit, war and environmental degradation.

I have faith.  I have faith in those who have shown themselves reliable enough to merit belief.  I do not have faith in fairy tales and myths that were created as metaphors but are taken as literal scientific truth by those who enjoy power through manipulation.

I have long followed the life and work of Henry Gordon, another Canadian magician (unfortunately not mentioned in this article) who dedicated his life to debunking the paranormal frauds.  These men are heroes in my opinion.

 

Photo

James Randi in front of a painting done by his partner, the artist José Alvarez. Credit Jeff  Minton for The New York Times

A few minutes before 8 o’clock one Sunday evening last July, around 600 people crowded into the main conference hall of the South Point casino in Las Vegas. After taking their seats on red-velvet upholstered chairs, they chattered noisily as they awaited the start of the Million Dollar Challenge. When Fei Wang, a 32-year-old Chinese salesman, stepped onto the stage, they fell silent. Wang had a shaved head and steel-framed glasses. He wore a polo shirt, denim shorts and socks. He claimed to have a peculiar talent: from his right hand, he could transmit a mysterious force a distance of three feet, unhindered by wood, metal, plastic or cardboard. The energy, he said, could be felt by others as heat, pressure, magnetism or simply “an indescribable change.” Tonight, if he could demonstrate the existence of his ability under scientific test conditions, he stood to win $1 million.

The Million Dollar Challenge was the climax of the Amazing Meeting, or TAM, an annual weekend-long conference for skeptics that was created by a magician named the Amazing Randi in 2003. Randi, a slight, gnomish figure with a bald head and frothy white beard, was presiding from the front row, a cane topped with a polished silver skull between his legs. He drummed his fingers on the table in front of him. The Challenge organizers had spent weeks negotiating with Wang and fine-tuning the protocol for the evening’s test. A succession of nine blindfolded subjects would come onstage and place their hands in a cardboard box. From behind a curtain, Wang would transmit his energy into the box. If the subjects could successfully detect Wang’s energy on eight out of nine occasions, the trial would confirm Wang’s psychic power. “I think he’ll get four or five,” Randi told me. “That’s my bet.”

The Challenge began with the solemnity of a murder trial. A young woman in a short black dress stood at the edge of the stage, preparing to mark down the results on a chart mounted on an easel. The first subject, a heavyset blond woman in flip-flops, stepped up and placed her hands in the box. After two minutes, she was followed by a second woman who had a blue streak in her hair and, like the first, looked mildly nonplused by the proceedings. Each failed to detect the mystic force. “Which means, at this point, we are done,” the M.C. announced. With two failures in a row, it was impossible for Wang to succeed. The Million Dollar Challenge was already over.

Stepping out from behind the curtain, Wang stood center stage, wearing an expression of numb shock, like a toddler who has just dropped his ice cream in the sand. He was at a loss to explain what had gone wrong; his tests with a paranormal society in Boston had all succeeded. Nothing could convince him that he didn’t possess supernatural powers. “This energy is mysterious,” he told the audience. “It is not God.” He said he would be back in a year, to try again.

After Wang left the stage, Randi, who is 86, told me he was glad it was all over. For almost 60 years, he has been offering up a cash reward to anyone who could demonstrate scientific evidence of paranormal activity, and no one had ever received a single penny.

But he hates to see them lose, he said. “They’re always rationalizing,” Randi told me as we walked to dinner at the casino steakhouse. “There are always reasons prevailing why they can’t do it. They call it the resilience of the duped. It’s with intense regret that you watch them go down the tubes.”

The day before the challenge, Randi was wandering the halls of the casino, posing for snapshots and signing autographs. The convention began in 2003 in Fort Lauderdale, with 150 people in attendance, including staff. This year, it attracted more than 1,000 skeptics from as far away as South Africa and Japan. Often male and middle-aged, and frequently wearing ponytails or Tevas or novelty slogan T-shirts (product of evolution; stop making stupid people famous; atheist), they came to genuflect before their idol, drawn by both his legendary feats as an illusionist and his renown as an icon of global skepticism.

One fan, in his early 20s, with a thick mop of dark hair, introduced himself with, “So, I read that you spent 55 minutes in a block of ice.”

“A cinch,” Randi replied.

Ajay Appaden was 25 and had come from the Indian city Cochin. He was attending the conference for the second year with the help of a travel grant from the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), which was established with donations from the Internet pioneer Rick Adams and Johnny Carson. In addition to offering grants, JREF holds the $1 million in bonds that back the challenge, and pays Randi’s annual $200,000 salary.

Raised as a Catholic, Appaden told me that he discovered Randi in 2010, when he watched the magician in an online TED talk discussing homeopathy. At the time Appaden was a student at a Christian college, struggling with his faith; two years later, during Randi’s first visit to India, he took a 13-hour bus ride across the country to see Randi in person. “It literally changed my life,” he told me, and explained that he now hopes to help teach skepticism in Indian schools.

The magician looked small and frail, lost in the folds of his striped dress shirt, leaning on his cane, but he mugged gamely for every acolyte. For many of his most zealous followers, the opportunity to meet Randi at TAM may be as close as they will ever come to a religious experience. “It’s an obligation, it’s a very heavy obligation,” he said. “I can’t stand one person being turned away and not being given the same attention that others have been given.”

A few days before the conference, I visited Randi at his home, in Plantation, Fla. The modest octagonal house was almost hidden from the street by a lush garden of finger palms, elephant ears and paperbark trees. As we sat upstairs, surrounded by some 4,000 books — arranged alphabetically by subject, from alchemy, astrology, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle to tarot, U.F.O.s and witchcraft — he said that he disliked being called a debunker. He prefers to describe himself as a scientific investigator. He elaborated: “Because if I were to start out saying, ‘This is not true, and I’m going to prove it’s not true,’ that means I’ve made up my mind in advance. So every project that comes to my attention, I say, ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to find out.’ That may end up — and usually it does end up — as a complete debunking. But I don’t set out to debunk it.”

Born Randall James Zwinge in 1928, Randi began performing as a teenager in the 1940s, touring with a carnival and working table to table in the nightclubs of his native Toronto. Billed as The Great Randall: Telepath, he had a mind-reading act, and also specialized in telling the future. In 1949 he made local headlines for a trick in which he appeared to predict the outcome of the World Series a week before it happened, writing the result down, sealing it an envelope and giving it to a lawyer who opened and read it to the press after the series concluded. But no matter how many times he assured his audiences that such stunts were a result of subterfuge and legerdemain, he found there were always believers. They came up to him in the street and asked him for stock tips; when he insisted that he was just a magician, they nodded — but winked and whispered that they knew he was truly psychic. Once he understood the power he had over his audience, and how easily he could exploit their belief in the supernatural to make money, it frightened him: “To have deceived people like that . . . that’s a terrible feeling,” he said.

Once Randi understood the power he had over his audience, it frightened him: ‘To have deceived people like that . . . that’s a terrible feeling.’

He turned instead to escapology — as The Amazing Randi: The Man No Jail Can Hold — and feats of endurance. He broke a record for his 55-minute stint encased in ice, and bested the time his hero Houdini had spent trapped in a coffin on the bottom of the swimming pool at the Hotel Shelton in Manhattan. But Randi never forgot the believers, and how susceptible they were to exploitation by those who lacked his scruples. And so, as his reputation as a magician grew, he also began to campaign against spiritualists and psychics. In 1964, as a guest on a radio talk show, he offered $1,000 of his own money in a challenge to anyone who could show scientific evidence of supernatural powers. Soon afterward, he began broadcasting his own national radio show dedicated to discussion of the paranormal. He bought a small house in Rumson, N.J., and installed a sign outside that announced randi — charlatan. He lived there alone, with a pair of talking birds and a kinkajou named Sam. Although Randi had known he was gay since he was a teenager, he kept that to himself. “I had to conceal it, you know,” he told me. “They wouldn’t have had a known homosexual working in the radio station. This was a day when you had to keep it completely hidden.”

During the late ’60s and early ’70s, popular interest in the paranormal grew: There was a fascination with extrasensory perception and the Bermuda Triangle and best sellers like “Chariots of the Gods,” which claimed Earth’s ancient civilizations were visited by aliens. There were mystics, mind-readers and psychic surgeons, who were said to be able to extract tumors from their patients using only their bare hands — and without leaving a mark. Randi continued on his crusade. Few of his fellow illusionists were interested in exposing the way that conjuring tricks were used to dupe gullible audiences into believing in psychic abilities. “Everybody else just kind of rolled their eyes,” Penn Jillette, a good friend of Randi’s, told me. “’Why is Randi spending all this time doing this? We all know there is no ESP. It’s just stupid people believe it, and that’s fine.’ ”

Randi kept up his $1,000 challenge — and eventually increased it to $10,000 — but found few takers. Then in 1973, he met the nemesis who would define his struggle: Uri Geller, who had recently arrived in the United States from Israel. Geller was a charismatic 26-year-old former paratrooper who performed mind-reading feats similar to those with which Randi baffled audiences as a young mentalist. But Geller said that his powers were real and also claimed to have psychokinetic abilities: He could bend spoons, he said, using only his mind. His supposed gifts were studied by a pair of parapsychology researchers at Stanford Research Institute, who were persuaded that some of them, at least, were genuine. Randi told me that he met Geller soon afterward. “Very flamboyant,” he recalled venomously. “Very charming. Likable, beautiful, affectionate, genuine, forward-going, Handsome — everything!” His manner, Randi explained, was the key to the techniques employed by Geller and others like him. “That’s why they call them con men. Because they gain the confidence of the victim — and then they fool ‘em.”

Geller provided Randi with an archenemy in a show-business battle royale pitting science against faith, skepticism against belief. Their vendetta would endure for decades and bring them both international celebrity. Recognizing that the psychic’s paranormal feats were a result of conjuring tricks — directing attention elsewhere while he bent spoons using brute force, peeking through his fingers during mind-reading stunts — Randi helped Time magazine with an exposé of Geller. Soon afterward, when Geller was invited to appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” the producers approached Randi, who had been a frequent guest, to help them ensure that Geller could employ no tricks during his appearance. Randi gave Carson’s prop men advice on how to prepare for the taping, and the result was a legendary immolation, in which Geller offered up flustered excuses to his host as his abilities failed him again and again. “I sat there for 22 minutes, humiliated,” Geller told me, when I spoke to him in September. “I went back to my hotel, devastated. I was about to pack up the next day and go back to Tel Aviv. I thought, That’s it — I’m destroyed.” But to Geller’s astonishment, he was immediately booked on “The Merv Griffin Show.” He was on his way to becoming a paranormal superstar. “That Johnny Carson show made Uri Geller,” Geller said. To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real: If he were performing magic tricks, they would surely work every time.

Randi decided Geller must be stopped. He approached Ray Hyman, a psychologist who had observed the tests of Geller’s ability at Stanford and thought them slipshod, and suggested they create an organization dedicated to combating pseudoscience. In 1976, together with Martin Gardner, a Scientific American columnist whose writing had helped hone Hyman’s and Randi’s skepticism, they formed the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Csicop, as it became known, was funded by donations and by sales of a new magazine, which became The Skeptical Inquirer. Randi, Hyman and Gardner and the secular humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz took seats on the executive board, with Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan joining as founding members. Soon Randi was traveling across the globe, often “as the ambassador” of Csicop, Hyman told me recently, “the face of the skeptical movement all over the world.”

In his new role as a paranormal investigator, in books and on TV shows, Randi debunked everything from fairies to telekinesis. But he also stalked Geller around the chat-show circuit for years, denouncing him as a fraud and duplicating his feats by levering spoons and keys against the furniture while nobody was looking. In 1975, Randi published “The Magic of Uri Geller,” a sarcastic but exhaustive examination of the psychic’s techniques, in which he argued that any scientist investigating the paranormal should seek the advice of a conjurer before conducting serious research. The campaign helped make them both more famous than ever. Even today, Geller credits Randi with helping him become a psychic phenomenon — “My most influential and important publicist,” as Geller described him to me.

In 1989, Randi and Geller were booked to appear together on a TV special, “Exploring Psychic Powers, Live!” According to Randi, before the broadcast, Geller pulled him into his dressing room and offered to end the feud. “There’s no way that we are going to make peace until you level with your audiences,” Randi replied. “Until you say that you are a magician like the rest of us, and that you don’t have supernatural powers.” Geller refused. (Geller says he does not recall the incident.) Soon after, Geller brought the first of several libel actions against Csicop and Randi — who, among other things, had characterized him as a sociopath and suggested his psychic feats had been learned from the backs of cereal boxes. Geller’s suits in the United States were eventually dismissed. But the legal costs of fighting the cases were overwhelming, and Randi went through almost all of a MacArthur Foundation grant of $272,000 awarded to him in 1986 for his paranormal investigations. Finally, the struggle with Geller even cost Randi his place in Csicop; when Paul Kurtz told him it had become too expensive to keep going after such a litigious target, and demanded he stop discussing Geller in public, Randi resigned in fury.

Geller, who now lives in a large house beside the Thames River in England, says he long ago put the feud with Randi behind him. He claims to have used his show-business career as a cover for paranormal work on behalf of Mossad and the C.I.A., but he no longer calls himself a psychic. “I changed my title to ‘mystifier,’ ” he told me. “And I love it — because it means nothing.” But Randi’s contempt for him still burns brightly. “He knows he is deceiving these people — individuals, in most cases — and he doesn’t care what damage he does to them,” Randi said. “They depend on the paranormal after they have met Geller, and you cannot talk them out of it. And that has crippled them for life.”

Early one morning last summer, on a visit to Randi’s house in Florida, I drew up outside a few minutes later than we had agreed. Randi, wearing a canary yellow sweatshirt, was waiting at the front door, holding his watch in his hand. “You’re late!” he barked, and it was hard to tell if he was joking. We sat down in the living room to talk, and Randi spent half an hour laboriously adjusting his watch, winding the hands to display the correct date. “I am a little bit obsessed with having the right time,” he said. “I’ve always been very, very, big on knowing what time it is. That’s one of my connections with reality.”

Randi has never smoked, taken narcotics or got drunk. “Because that can easily just fuzz the edges of my rationality, fuzz the edges of my reasoning powers,” he once said. “And I want to be as aware as I possibly can. That may mean giving up a lot of fantasies that might be comforting in some ways, but I’m willing to give that up in order to live in an actually real world.”

That fixation on science and the rational life — and a corresponding desire to crusade for the truth — has a long history among magicians. John Nevil Maskelyne, who founded a dynasty of English conjurers in 1855 and became a prolific inventor, began his career by exposing fraudulent spiritualists and reproducing their tricks. Houdini turned to debunking mediums in his middle age as his career as an escapologist went into decline. He offered his own $10,000 reward to any spiritualist who could perform a “miracle” he could not duplicate himself. Martin Gardner, whose book “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science” is a founding text of modern skepticism, was also fascinated by magic, and became well known for his books explaining how many conjuring and mind-reading tricks rely upon strict laws of probability and number theory. Penn and Teller have since followed Randi down the path of conjurers who have become debunkers.

Randi now sees himself, like Einstein and Richard Dawkins, in the tradition of scientific skeptics. “Science gives you a standard to work against,” he said. “Science, after all, is simply a logical, rational and careful examination of the facts that nature presents to us.”

09randi_ss-slide-SWK6-jumbo

 

CreditCharles Reynolds

 

Although many modern skeptics continue to hold religious beliefs, and see no contradiction in embracing critical thinking and faith in God, Randi is not one of them. “I have always been an atheist,” he told me. “I think that religion is a very damaging philosophy — because it’s such a retreat from reality.”

When I asked him why he believed other people needed religion, Randi was at his most caustic.

“They need it because they’re weak,” he said. “And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy.”

In the 1980s, Randi turned his talent for deception to debunking the supernatural. He set out to expose New Age channelers, mediums who — on shows and in profitable public appearances — purported to be possessed by ancient spirits. One, JZ Knight, a former cable TV saleswoman, claimed to be the terrestrial mouthpiece of Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior from Atlantis who could predict the future.

To show how credulous audiences could be in the face of such claims, in 1987 Randi collaborated with the Australian version of “60 Minutes.” He invented Carlos, a 2,000-year-old entity who, his publicity material stated, had last appeared in the body of a 12-year-old boy in Venezuela in 1900 but had now returned to manifest himself through a young American artist named José Alvarez. He prepared to take Alvarez on a tour of Australia.

Alvarez, at the time a 25-year-old student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, was in fact Randi’s boyfriend, and also his assistant. They met the year before in a Fort Lauderdale public library, where Alvarez was seeking visual references for a ceramics project. Randi, who had only recently relocated to Florida from New Jersey, struck up a conversation with him. They talked all afternoon and moved in together soon afterward.

Randi coached Alvarez carefully for his role as Carlos, rehearsing him through mock news conferences and TV appearances. He taught him how to squeeze a Ping-Pong ball in his armpit so that his pulse would appear to slow as he became “possessed” — “an old, old thing from Boy Scout camps,” Randi told me. Before the trip, Randi sent out press kits to Australian TV networks and newspapers, filled with reports charting the apparently sensational — but fictional — progress of Carlos across the United States.

Soon after they arrived in February 1988, Alvarez was booked on many of the country’s leading TV shows. Through an earpiece, Randi fed him answers to interview questions and the lines of doomsday prophecies. The climax of his tour was an appearance at the Sydney Opera House, after which the audience was invited to place orders for crystal artifacts, including the Tears of Carlos, priced at $500 each, and an Atlantis Crystal, offered at $14,000. Each proved popular — though Randi’s team never accepted any money for them.

When the hoax was revealed a few days later on “60 Minutes,” the Australian media was enraged at having been taken in; Randi countered that none of the journalists had bothered with even the most elementary fact-checking measures.

Afterward, Randi and Alvarez returned to Florida together, and Alvarez’s reputation as an artist blossomed. For the next 14 years, he toured the Carlos persona around the world as part of a performance piece, appearing onstage in Padua, Italy, and sitting for photographs on the Great Wall of China re-enacting the hoax. In 2002, the work Alvarez created from the Carlos episode was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in New York.

Meanwhile, the establishment of the James Randi Educational Foundation in 1996 allowed Randi to continue his own pursuits with the foundation’s headquarters, a Spanish-style stucco building in Fort Lauderdale, as his base of operations. He created the Million Dollar Challenge and regularly wrote bulletins for the foundation’s website, where the message boards formed an online hub for skeptics worldwide. In recent years, he began making regular podcasts, and he also created his own YouTube channel to discuss everything from Nostradamus to cold fusion. In 2007, during his TED talk taking aim at quackery and fraud, Randi delighted his audience by gobbling an entire bottle of 32 Calms homeopathic sleeping tablets — which Randi speculated was certainly a fatal dose.

Disappointed by what he saw as the media’s indifference to the Million Dollar Challenge, that same year Randi revised the rules and announced a plan to take the challenge to high-profile psychics, including Sylvia Browne, John Edward and — once again — Uri Geller. None of them agreed to participate. He had more success in 2008, when he invited James McCormick, a British businessman, to take the challenge. McCormick had built equipment that could supposedly detect explosives from afar, which Randi recognized was simply a telescoping antenna swiveling on a plastic handle — a dowsing rod. Randi publicly offered the million-dollar prize to McCormick if he could prove that the device worked as claimed. McCormick, who was selling his product to security forces in the Middle East, never responded. But the British Police began an investigation, and last year McCormick was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison, having sold at least $38 million worth of his miraculous device to the Iraqi government.

Photo

Randi with his partner of more than 25 years, the artist José Alvarez, at their Florida home.CreditJeff Minton for The New York Times

Recently, age and illness have begun to slow Randi down. In 2009, following chemotherapy for intestinal cancer, he presented the opening address at TAM from a wheelchair. Earlier this year, JREF’s Fort Lauderdale building was sold, and its reference library and collection of memorabilia were boxed up and relocated to Randi’s home. When I visited, many of the cartons remained unpacked; the portrait of Isaac Asimov that once hung above the fireplace in the JREF library was propped against a wall.

Randi was all but marooned in the house — he was forbidden to drive while he awaited cataract surgery — and Alvarez had been forced to surrender his driver’s license, after a series of events that began on Sept. 8, 2011. That morning there was a knock on the front door. When Randi opened it, a pair of federal agents stood before him. They asked to speak to Alvarez. Outside, Randi could see two unmarked S.U.V.s blocking the driveway and at least half a dozen agents surrounding the perimeter of the property. When Alvarez came downstairs from his room, the agents explained there was a problem. They wanted to talk to him about passport fraud. They cuffed him and took him out to the car. Randi was left alone in the house, holding business cards from State Department agents, who, Randi said, gave him instructions to wait 24 hours before calling them.

The agents took Alvarez directly to Broward County Jail, where he was photographed, issued a gray uniform and registered as FNU LNU: “first name unknown, last name unknown.” In an interview room at the jail, he told an agent everything: He had fled homophobic persecution in Venezuela and had come to the U.S. on a two-year student visa. He met Randi and knew he wanted to stay with him. But when his visa expired, there was no way to renew it. He said he was given the name and Social Security number of José Alvarez by a friend in a Fort Lauderdale nightclub, and used it to apply for a passport in 1987. Alvarez told the agent he was deeply sorry for the trouble he had caused the real Alvarez — who he believed was dead but turned out to be a teacher’s aide living in the Bronx. FNU LNU said his real name was Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga.

Charged with making a false statement in the application and use of a passport and aggravated identity theft, Peña faced a $250,000 fine, a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and deportation to Venezuela. After six weeks in jail, he was released on a $500,000 bond, and he subsequently agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of passport fraud. At a sentencing hearing in May 2012, the judge considered letters of support from Randi and Peña’s friends from the world of art, science and entertainment, including Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette, as well as from members of charities to which Peña had given his time and work. The judge considered Peña’s long relationship with Randi, and Randi’s failing health. He gave him a lenient sentence: time served, six months’ house arrest and 150 hours’ community service.

But Peña still had to contend with the immigration authorities. After the sentencing hearing, he had been home for five days when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents appeared at the door. “Say goodbye,” they told him. Peña assured Randi he would be back that afternoon. He was taken to the Krome detention center in Miami, and remained there while his lawyer tried to find a way of keeping him in the United States. After two months of incarceration, Peña was finally released from Krome on the evening of Aug. 2, 2012, to find that Randi had spent half the day waiting outside the front gate for him. The couple were married in a ceremony in Washington the following summer.

Today, Peña remains on probation and no longer holds any identity documents except a Venezuelan passport with his birth name. United States immigration authorities have agreed not to deport him for now, but he has no formal immigration status in the United States: were he to leave the country, he would be unable to return. Since his arrest, Peña has not entirely shrugged off his former persona. He signs his paintings with the name he has exhibited under for 20 years — but now followed by his true initials, D.O.P.A.

Sometimes when Randi forgets himself, he still refers to his partner as José. Yet exactly how much Randi — the master of deception and misdirection — knew about his partner’s duplicity, and how complicit he may have been in it, is unclear. When Randi first met him in the Fort Lauderdale public library, it seems certain that Peña would have introduced himself by his real name: A profile of Randi published in The Toronto Star the following year describes the magician’s young assistant, named David Peña, struggling through La Guardia Airport with Randi’s luggage. When they traveled to Australia together for the “60 Minutes” stunt, Randi may have been masterminding a deception one level deeper than he ever acknowledged: Deyvi, pretending to be José, masquerading as Carlos, the 2,000-year-old spirit from Caracas. What followed might be the longest-running hoax of The Amazing Randi’s career.

When I asked Randi how much he knew about Peña’s true identity before the federal agents came to his door, he demurred, citing legal concerns. “This is something I don’t think I’d like to get into detailed discussion about,” Randi said. “Simply because it could prejudice our status in some way.”

When he was still a young man appearing in Toronto nightclubs and pretending to predict the future, Randall Zwinge created what he hoped would be his greatest trick. Each night before he went to bed, he wrote the date on the back of a business card along with the words “I, Randall Zwinge, will die today.” Then he signed it and placed it in his wallet. That way, if he were knocked down in the street or killed by a freak accident, whoever went through his effects would discover the most shocking prophecy he ever made. Zwinge kept at it for years. Each night, he tore up one card and wrote out a new one for the next day. But nothing fatal befell him; in the end, having wasted hundreds of business cards, he gave up in frustration. “I never got lucky,” he told me.

Since then, Randi has had several brushes with death. But nothing has shaken his steadfast rationalism: neither the heart attack he suffered in 2006, nor the cancer that followed. Nor, for that matter, did a conversation he had with Martin Gardner a few years before Gardner’s death in 2010, when his friend confessed to having chosen to believe in the possibility of an afterlife. “That really surprised me, because he was the rationalist supreme,” Randi recalled. “He said: ‘I don’t have any evidence for it, you have all the arguments on your side. But it brings me comfort.’ ”

Randi told me that he now feels mild trepidation each time he goes to sleep at night, and pleasant surprise that he wakes up in the morning. But he insists he does not need the sort of reassurance that Gardner sought in his own last days. “I wouldn’t have any comfort from it — because I wouldn’t believe in it,” he said. “Oh, no, I have no fear of my demise whatsoever. I really feel that sincerely.”

Most mornings, Randi is already awake at 7 o’clock, when Peña comes in to check on him; sometimes he’s up at 6. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, still,” he told me, “and I’ve got to make use of my viable time.” He is currently completing his 11th book, “A Magician in the Laboratory,” and spends several hours a day responding to emails from his desk in the chaotic-looking office he maintains upstairs. He Skypes with friends in China or Australia once a week. Peña likes to cook, and paints downstairs, beside the framed lithograph recalling the triumphs of the Man No Jail Can Hold. The couple have spent much of the last year traveling to film festivals and screenings across the United States, helping to promote a new documentary about Randi’s life, “An Honest Liar,” which will be released in February. Randi has been surprised by the response. “Standing ovations, the whole thing,” he told me.

In July last year, Randi came closer than ever to the end. He was hospitalized with aneurysms in his legs and needed surgery. Before the procedure began, the surgeon showed Peña scans of Randi’s circulatory system. “Very challenging, a very difficult situation,” the surgeon told him. “But he lived a good life.” The operation was supposed to take two hours, but it stretched to six and a half.

When Randi began to come to, heavily dosed with painkillers, he looked about him in confusion. There were nurses speaking in hushed voices. He began hallucinating. He was convinced that he was behind the curtain before a show and that the whispering he could hear was the audience coming in. The theater was full; he had to get onstage. He tried to look at his watch, but he found he didn’t have it on. He began to panic. When the hallucinations became intensely visual, Peña brought a pen and paper to the bedside. It could prove an important exercise in skeptical inquiry to record what Randi saw as he emerged from a state so close to death, one in which so many people sincerely believed they had glimpsed the other side. Randi scribbled away; his observations, Peña thought, might eventually make a great essay. Later, when the opiates and the anaesthetic wore off, Randi looked at the notes he had written.

They were indecipherable.

The Chilling Reason Our Government Wants to Erase These Americans from History July 28, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Racism, Religion, War on Terror.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

 

Most of those held in Communications Management Units, which imprison people linked to terrorist activity, are Muslims.

July 24, 2014, Molly Crabapple, http://www.alternet.org

Andy Stepanianis one of the kindest humans I have ever met.

An activist publicist, Andy draws attention to Americans imprisoned for their beliefs. He is straitlaced and gentle, and the only time he ever declined to buy me dinner was when I offended his veganism by eating chicken fingers. But Andy is also a felon. As one of the SHAC7, he spent three years locked in a cage for urging people to employ militant protest techniques against the animal-testing corporation Huntingdon Life Sciences. He spent his last six months in prison in a Communications Management Unit (CMU).

CMUs exist to cut off prisoners from the outside world. The prisoners’ every word is recorded. They are strip-searched before and after each visit from loved ones (in case they write messages on their body). Letters are severely restricted; phone calls are limited to two 15-minute calls a week. CMU prisoners may spend decades without hugging their wives or children.

Like Guantanamo Bay, the CMU is a child of the war on terror. In 2006 and 2008, respectively, the Bureau of Prisons, under the directorship of Harley Lappin, created two secret units: one in Terre Haute, IN, and the other in Marion, IL. The bureau’s stated purpose was “Limited Communication for Terrorist Inmates.” But as at Guantanamo, Muslims were the real targets. Muslims make up roughly 70 percent of the prisoners in CMUs but only 6 percent of the federal prison population. The CMUs are part of a philosophy that makes Muslim synonymous with terrorist, that views “terrorists” as both contagious and superhuman—so dangerous that they must be subject to ultimate control.

Andy was the rare white CMU prisoner. Guards told him he was there as a “balancer.” CMUs are another reflection of the double standard to which the United States holds Muslims. Acts of speech, travel or association that would be A-OK for a Christian are enough to get a Muslim branded a terrorist.

Shifa Sadequee, 2014.
Photo Credit: 
Molly Crabapple
Click to enlarge.

CMU prisoner Shifa Sadequee was kidnapped by U.S. forces in Bangladesh at the age of 19, allegedly tortured and rendered to the United States. He spent three years in solitary awaiting his trial for terrorism. His crimes? He played paintball and took video footage of U.S. monuments. The former activity was labeled “paramilitary training”; the latter, “casing videos” for an attack. The judge sentenced him to 17 years.

Pharmacist Tarek Mehanna should be called a dissident—but that’s not a label America allows Muslims. A scathing critic of U.S. foreign policy, Mehanna believed Muslims under attack in their own countries had the right to armed self-defense. He translated and subtitled some jihadi materials and briefly traveled to Yemen. Nothing he did would have been looked at askance if he were a Tea Party member speaking about fellow gun enthusiasts. But as a Muslim Mehanna was convicted of material support for terrorism. His sentence? Seventeen years.

At his sentencing, Mehanna delivered a chilling, eloquent statement about resisting oppression: “In your eyes, I’m a terrorist, I’m the only one standing here in an orange jumpsuit and it’s perfectly reasonable that I be standing here in an orange jumpsuit. But one day, America will change and people will recognize this day for what it is. They will look at how hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed and maimed by the U.S. military in foreign countries, yet somehow I’m the one going to prison for ‘conspiring to kill and maim’ in those countries…

“The government says that I was obsessed with violence, obsessed with ‘killing Americans.’ But, as a Muslim living in these times, I can think of a lie no more ironic.”

Tarek Mehanna, 2014.
Photo Credit: 
Molly Crabapple
Click to enlarge.

Mehanna is in a CMU for speech. Few American free speech defenders noticed.

While most Americans were rightly nauseated by the NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden, they gave less thought to the brutal surveillance that Muslim communities have suffered since 9/11. Mosques, student associations and even restaurants were monitored throughout the country. Informants tried to rope the naive or the mentally ill into expressing support for jihad. If an agent was able to pressure an unstable young man into driving a car or buying some backpacks, he could arrest him for assisting terrorism. The agent would receive professional accolades for making the arrest; the young man, decades in jail. For the untold cash it poured into spying on Muslims, the FBI seldom discovered a plot that it did not concoct itself.

Shahawar Siraj, 2014.
Photo Credit: 
Molly Crabapple
Click to enlarge.

CMU prisoner Shahawar Matin Siraj had no explosives or concrete plan of attack, but that did not prevent a judge from sentencing him to 30 years for plotting to bomb New York’s Herald Square. The informant who befriended him, and then goaded him into the plan, was paid $100,000 by the NYPD.

Imprisonment is erasure. The state locks a person in a cage—without context, without community, without love. He becomes not human but a widget passing through a system of absolute control. The CMU enacts a double erasure: it represents the ultimate scission of the prisoner from his non-prison self. You are in a box. You are no one. You belong to us.

Andy is working on a documentary about CMUs. He asked me to draw pictures of some prisoners. Drawing is slow, deliberate. It is an antidote to forgetting men the state wants the world to forget.

One night I worked on a portrait of Ghassan Elashi. A former vice president of an internet company, Elashi was sentenced to 65 years in prison for running the Holy Land Foundation, which was the largest Muslim charity in the United States until the Bush administration shut it down in December 2001. Through charitable organizations in Gaza, Holy Land allegedly funneled money to Hamas, which the United States classifies as a terrorist organization.

Ghassan Elashi, 2014.
Photo Credit: 
Molly Crabapple
Click to enlarge.

Andy invited Elashi’s daughter, Noor, to my studio. She brought a photograph of her father. I was unable to draw him from life, as the USP Marion is not easy to visit. The three of us stayed up late into the night, me rendering Noor’s father’s eyes in careful watercolor, Andy filming us as she watched me draw.

Noor is a stylishly dressed young writer who sidelines as a baker of gluten-free cupcakes. But when she talks about her father, her voice grows cold with pain. She remembers how FBI agents threw him to the floor when they raided their home. She remembers prison guards screaming at her young brother, who has Down syndrome, when he tried to hug his dad (she and her brother were subsequently denied visits for months). She remembers how her father was barred from making phone calls for writing his name on a yoga mat.

She does not believe for a moment that her father deliberately funneled funds to Hamas.

Noor’s situation shows how CMUs rip apart not only prisoners’ lives but also the lives of their families and community. Noor is still fighting for her dad.

In “Counterpunch,” Noor wrote, “My father is my pillar, whose high spirits transcend all barbed-wire-topped fences, whose time in prison did not stifle his passion for human rights.”

Noor’s words point to one of the war on terror’s most insidious legacies. The war on terror flattened Muslims into bogeymen. They could no longer be troubled young men. Nor could they be political dissidents, heads of charities or defenders of human rights. Dissent was equated with terrorism.

In making a fetish of the word “freedom,” America revoked the freedom of so many within her borders. Civil liberties defenders must remember that Muslims are not a separate class of people. Attacks on Muslims’ rights are attacks on human rights.

Pope Francis Co-operated with the Military Junta in Argentina May 31, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Argentina, Human Rights, Latin America, Religion, Right Wing.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Roger’s note: The Catholic Church. from the parish priests up to the bishops, cardinals and Popes, has a long history of supporting brutal dictatorship, not only in Latin America, but around the globe.  The two most glaring examples of the 20th century were in Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany, where the Church was at best voluntary blind to atrocity and at worst complicit.  There is not reason to believe that this was not true with respect to the current Pope Francis during his tenure as leader of the Church during the period of Argentina’s vicious dictatorship.

By (about the author)

OpEdNews Op Eds 5/31/2014 at 11:09:08

It is claimed by two priests that Pope Francis handed them and other leftists to the military death squads, and did not attempt to protect lay people who then became part of the 30,000 ‘disappeared’ in Argentina.

A letter is one of several documents that de la Cuadra and other human-rights activists say shows that Bergoglio (i.e. Pope Francis), as head of the Jesuits, may have turned a blind eye to some atrocities, then later denied knowing about those atrocities despite his own testimony to the contrary and that ultimately as head of the catholic church in Argentina, he did little to open the church’s archives to reveal the truth about its complicity.

The testimony of Argentine war criminals in tribunals showed that Catholic priests and chaplains played a central role in the torture and murder of dissidents by blessing torture chambers and absolving troops of their sins after they had thrown dozens of bound and drugged dissidents from a plane into the 50-mile-wide Rio de la Plata.

The accusations have been around for years, but no official court has accused Bergoglio of wrongdoing. He has argued that he lobbied the junta to free the kidnapped priests and quietly worked to hide or protect many other suspected dissidents.

But Bergoglio has had to make that case amid a stream of revelations about other Catholic leaders’ collaborations with the junta. In a jailhouse interview the former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who is serving a life sentence for human-rights abuses, confirmed that some top church officials were aware of the dictatorship’s kidnappings and killings of dissidents.

There were also allegations that Father Bergoglio knew where two of his Jesuit priests were held and tortured for five months by the junta, but did little to help them.

Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi rejected those charges, calling them “slander,” and saying that instead “there have been many declarations of how much he did for many people to protect them from the military dictatorship.”

The main chronicler of the priests’ kidnap case is investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky, a former member of a ’70s-era leftist guerrilla group who tends to favour the policies of Kirchner’s populist government. It was Verbitsky’s past and political slant that allowed a Vatican spokesman, shortly after Francis’ election, to dismiss the complaints against the new pope as a campaign by “left-wing, anti-clerical elements.”

But Verbitsky is also highly regarded for shedding light on some of the worst abuses of the dictatorship. He famously established that security forces drugged dissidents and dropped them from aeroplanes and helicopters into the Rio de la Plata.

Pope Francis has never been implicated directly in any actions, but many in Argentina who support him, including 1980 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, said that “he was not complicit in the dictatorship but he lacked courage to accompany us in our struggle.”

The International Tribunal into Crimes of Church and State was formed of survivors of church and state terror in Dublin, Ireland. The event was initiated by Nobel Prize Nominee Reverend Kevin Annett of Canada and members of Irish survivors’ groups and has since charged Pope Francis with child abuse. Via citizens courts by 2013, this group successfully prosecuted and convicted former Pope Benedict, Joseph Ratzinger, for Crimes against Humanity in Canada. Pope Benedict subsequently resigned, the first Pope to do so in 600 years.

Reports of any of these accusations in the mainstream media as might be expected are infrequent.

With the knowledge of the United States, Latin American dictators used terrorism to wage their war on terrorism.

Pope Francis’ Junta Past: Argentine Journalist on New Pontiff’s Ties to Abduction of Jesuit Priests

Satanic 9th circle murder evidence links Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury

http://ahaadotme.wordpress.com/

Cully Downer is Irish and the author of ‘Ahaanews’ a UK based blog activist site. He has been a mental health advocate and freelance author both in the UK and North America. He works independently and now lives in the south coast of England.

 

Next Page  1  |  2

‘Worst of All Worlds’ as Neoliberal BJP Wins India Elections in Landslide May 17, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in India, Religion, Right Wing.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Roger’s note: I had no sooner posted an article about neo-Nazism in Europe, where I commented that the phenomenon is world wide, than I came across this analysis of the results of the Indian election.  Apart from virulent and racist Hinduism represented by the BJP, there is the lesson of what elections really stand for in capitalist democracy.  Indian voters had the choice between the endemically corrupt Nehru/Ghandi Congress Party dynasty versus the racist BJP, both parties sold out to the corporate elite.  Makes one think about Democrats and Republicans, doesn’t it?

Critics say victory of Hindu nationalist party and asendancy of Narendra Modi put nation on perilous course

- Jon Queally, staff writer

The BJP’s Narendra Modi will be India’s next Prime Minister which critics say puts India on a perilous path of neoliberal economics and nationalist politics. (Photo: Hindustan Times)In national elections in India, the rightwing Hindu nationalist party, called the Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP), has won a landslide victory for the country’s parliament and their leader, businessman Narendra Modi from Gujurat, is now set to become the nation’s next Prime Minister.

According to Reuters:

With more than six times the seats of its closest rival, Modi’s is the most decisive mandate for any leader since the 1984 assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi propelled her son to office. Since 1989, India has been governed by coalitions.

The BJP was winning in 278 seats of the 543-seat parliament, counting trends showed. An alliance led by the party was ahead in 337 seats, TV channel NDTV said.

Though many are framing the BJP’s victory as the result of widespread disgust with the current government, led by the Congress Party, and a win for those calling for an end to systematic corruption in the world’s most populous democratic state—critics of the neoliberal BJP say its ascendency puts India on a perilous path.

For progressive-minded Indians, says Vijay Prashad, a historian and professor at American University of Beirut, the BJP victory “is the worst of all worlds.”

In statements ahead of the elections, activist and author Arundhati Roy said that India’s election were not about serving the interests of the nation’s poor and disenfranchised, but about “which corporation would come to power.”

Referring directly to the now victorious Modi, Roy stated, “This time, [the elections were] corporate war and he is a corporate candidate.” She indicated that all the major parties continue to ignore the pervasive poverty, including mass malnutrition which plague vast sections of the country.  Despite India having the third-fastest growing economy in the world, Roy said, its democracy is being steadily destroyed by “unequally distributed wealth” and a political elite that pays only lip service to the nation’s farmers, marginalized youth, and  underclass.

To de-mystify Modi’s victory and put his party in context, Prashad explains:

“BJP never ran against the roots of inequality or deprivation, but only what it deemed to be its symptom – corruption. This was a clever strategy. It both rode the anti-Congress wave, which had been produced by anger at the inequalities in the country, and it mollified the corporate community, which would not have been interested in any criticism of the policies of neoliberalism.”The BJP’s record in governance is not any different from that of the Congress – with inequality and corruption being the order of the day in its bastion of Gujarat, for instance. To take one indicator as illustrative, in Gujarat the mal-nutrition rate is so low that it is worse than the average level of malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa (where the rates of mal-nutrition remain very disturbing). Gujarat’s ‘development model’ also favored the privileged businessmen of the ruling party, the BJP, and its chief minister, Narendra Modi. Family firms such as the Adani group earned substantial gifts from the BJP government, which enhanced their profits, and helped Gujarat increase its own profile as “open for business.”

Modi was able to dodge questions of the “Gujarat Model.” He was quickly anointed by the BJP as its Prime Ministerial candidate and hastily favored by the media with far more coverage than any other politician. Modi ran as the development candidate with a carefully calibrated argument – he suggested that it was not neo-liberalism that created inequality, but its symptom, namely corruption, which the BJP tied to the mast of the Congress. In other words, the BJP never ran against the roots of inequality or deprivation, but only what it deemed to be its symptom – corruption. This was a clever strategy. It both rode the anti-Congress wave, which had been produced by anger at the inequalities in the country, and it mollified the corporate community, which would not have been interested in any criticism of the policies of neoliberalism.

Writing in the Guardian on Friday, Indian author and writer Pankaj Mishra argues that with Modi at the helm, India is facing “its most sinister period since independence.” Providing context for both Modi’s rise within the BJP and the rightwing fanaticism of the party now set to control India, Mishra writes:

Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founder’s belief that Nazi Germany had manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging the Jews is by no means unexceptional among the votaries of Hindutva, or “Hinduness”. In 1948, a former member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims. The outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant woman and extracted her foetus. Modi himself described the relief camps housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslims as “child-breeding centres”.

“Modi is never less convincing than when he presents himself as a humble tea-vendor, the son-of-the-soil challenger to the Congress’s haughty dynasts. His record as chief minister is predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or outright gifts – of national resources to the country’s biggest corporations. His closest allies – India’s biggest businessmen – have accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced.”.

Such rhetoric has helped Modi sweep one election after another in Gujarat. A senior American diplomat described him, in cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, as an “insular, distrustful person” who “reigns by fear and intimidation”; his neo-Hindu devotees on Facebook and Twitter continue to render the air mephitic with hate and malice, populating the paranoid world of both have-nots and haves with fresh enemies – “terrorists”, “jihadis”, “Pakistani agents”, “pseudo-secularists”, “sickulars”, “socialists” and “commies”. Modi’s own electoral strategy as prime ministerial candidate, however, has been more polished, despite his appeals, both dog-whistled and overt, to Hindu solidarity against menacing aliens and outsiders, such as the Italian-born leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, Bangladeshi “infiltrators” and those who eat the holy cow.

Modi exhorts his largely young supporters – more than two-thirds of India’s population is under the age of 35 – to join a revolution that will destroy the corrupt old political order and uproot its moral and ideological foundations while buttressing the essential framework, the market economy, of a glorious New India. In an apparently ungovernable country, where many revere the author of Mein Kampf for his tremendous will to power and organisation, he has shrewdly deployed the idioms of management, national security and civilisational glory.

Boasting of his 56-inch chest, Modi has replaced Mahatma Gandhi, the icon of non-violence, with Vivekananda, the 19th-century Hindu revivalist who was obsessed with making Indians a “manly” nation. Vivekananda’s garlanded statue or portrait is as ubiquitous in Modi’s public appearances as his dandyish pastel waistcoats. But Modi is never less convincing than when he presents himself as a humble tea-vendor, the son-of-the-soil challenger to the Congress’s haughty dynasts. His record as chief minister is predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or outright gifts – of national resources to the country’s biggest corporations. His closest allies – India’s biggest businessmen – have accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced.

____________________________________

K-Street Lobbyist Threatens a Mass Boycott of the NFL Team That Drafts Michael Sam May 10, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Human Rights, LGBT, Religion, Right Wing, Sports.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Roger’s note: it is astounding, almost surreal, the amount of time energy and money invested by right wing bigots in the name of Christianity on a campaign of pure hatred against people who love.

“Children of a future age

Reading this indignant page

Know that in a former time 

Love, sweet love, was thought a crime.” 

William Blake

It is indeed an upside-down world we live in.  It would almost be worth it to be a believer and to witness these troglodytes meeting their Maker, who has a big smile on Her face and is sporting a rainbow colored pink triangle.

 

By Kyle Mantyla

imageshuffingtonpost.com
Jack Burkman, a K-Street insider, is also seeking to ban gays from the NFL.
The NFL Draft will take place this weekend and there has been  a lot of speculation about which team, if any, will draft gay defensive end Michael Sam.

If Sam does get drafted, the team that picks him will get to look forward to dealing with Washington, DC lobbyist Jack Burkman who, as part of  his campaign to pass legislation that would ban openly gay players from playing in the NFL, is vowing to unleash a “relentness” boycott against the team that drafts him.

Burkman says that he has a “coalition of Evangelical Christian leaders from across the nation” ready to go as soon as Sam is drafted who will teach the NFL that “when you trample the Christian community and Christian values, there will be a terrible financial price to pay”:

Jack Burkman, head of the Washington, D.C. lobbying firm J.M. Burkman & Assoc. who is seeking to ban gays from the NFL, says he intends to build a national coalition to boycott any football franchise that picks openly gay football player Michael Sam in the NFL Draft, which starts Thursday at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

In a release issued Thursday, Burkman said he would “leverage his political clout” to ensure that the franchise that selects the 6-foot-2, 260-pound defensive end from Missouri would get “roughed up financially.”

“We shall exercise our First Amendment rights and shall not stop until the drafting NFL franchise cannot sell a single ticket, jersey or autographed football,” said Burkman. “In short, we shall be relentless.”

Burkman claims in the release that he is currently mobilizing “powerful grassroots organizations in 27 of the 50 states,” as well as a “coalition of Evangelical Christian leaders from across the nation to take part in a protest if Sam is drafted.”

“The NFL, like most of the rest of American business, is about to learn that when you trample the Christian community and Christian values there will be a terrible financial price to pay,” said Burkman.

Republished with permission of Right Wing Watch.

It’s Not Just Uganda: Behind the Christian Right’s Onslaught in Africa April 3, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Africa, Human Rights, Kenya, LGBT, Nigeria, Religion, Right Wing, Zimbabwe.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

For years now, evangelical activists from the United States have been speaking out against homosexuality and cheering on antigay legislation all over Africa.

As their influence has waned at home, antigay evangelists from the United States have been flexing their sanctimonious muscles influencing policymakers in Africa. (Photo: Travis Lupick / Flickr)

In Uganda, being gay can now earn you a lifetime in prison.

Last month, the East African country was again thrust into the international spotlight after President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a draconian bill that criminalized homosexuality. The high profile, on-and-off battle over the so-called “kill the gays” bill has drawn headlines for years as the most extreme example in a wave of antigay legislation on the continent. But homophobia in Africa is not merely an African problem.

As the gay rights movement has gained traction in the United States, the more virulently homophobic ideologies of the religious right have been pushed further out of the mainstream and into fringe territory. But as their influence has waned at home, right-wing evangelists from the United States have been flexing their sanctimonious muscles influencing policymakers in Africa.

For years now, evangelical activists from the United States have been injecting themselves into African politics, speaking out against homosexuality and cheering on antigay legislation on the continent. The influence of these groups has been well documented in Uganda. The now-defunct Exodus International, for example, sent Don Schmierer, a board member, to Uganda in 2009 to speak at a conference alongside Scott Lively, a pastor who was later sued by a Ugandan gay rights group for his role in promoting human rights violations against LGBTQ people. The two participated in a disturbing anti-gay conference, where speakers blamed homosexuals for the rise of Nazism and the Rwandan genocide, among other abhorrent acts. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a hard-right Christian group that is active in U.S. politics as well, similarly supported anti-gay laws in Uganda. At the peak of controversy over the “kill the gays” bill, Perkins praised the Ugandan president for “leading his nation to repentance.”

But such groups aren’t just active in Uganda. They have promoted antigay legislation in Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe, just to name a few other places. The support ranges from popular agitation and sideline cheerleading to outright intervention.

In 2010, for example, when Zimbabwe began the process of drafting a new constitution, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ)—a Christian law firm founded by evangelist Pat Robertson—launched a Zimbabwean counterpart called the African Centre for Law and Justice. The outpost trained lawyers for the express purpose of putting a Christian stamp on the draft of the new constitution.

The African Centre joined forces with the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ), an indigenous organization, to promote constitutional language affirming that Zimbabwe is a Christian nation and ensuring that homosexuality remained illegal. These and other hardline views are outlined in a pamphlet distributed by the EFZ and ACLJ. Jordan Sekulow, the executive director of ACLJ, announced that his organization would lobby for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in political and religious circles in the event of any controversy over the provisions, despite the fact that the Zimbabwean president has been sanctioned by the United States and the European Union for violating human rights. Last year, Zimbabwe’s new constitution, which includes a ban on gay marriage, was approved by an overwhelming popular vote.

ACLJ’s Kenyan-based offshoot, the East African Center for Law and Justice (EACLJ), made an effort to lobby against Kenya’s progressive new constitution as well. In April 2010, a report on the group’s website called homosexuality “unacceptable” and “foreign” and called for the Kenyan constitution to clearly define marriage as between a man and a woman, thus closing the door on future laws that could attempt to legalize same-sex marriage. In this case the ECLJ was unsuccessful, and the new constitution was approved without any language regarding same-sex marriage.

Pat Robertson’s entanglements in Africa go well beyond Zimbabwe and Kenya.

In 1960, Robertson created The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which broadcasts through cable and satellite to over 200 countries. Robertson is a co-host on the 700 Club, arguably CBN’s most popular show. From his perch on the show, Roberts has made a seemingly endless variety of inflammatory remarks about LGBTQ people and just about everyone else that does not fall in line with his own religious thinking.

In the United States, Robertson’s vitriol can be brushed aside as the antiquated ravings of a fringe figure. Not so in much of Africa. A survey conducted in 2010 found that 74 million people in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, had watched at least one CBN show in the previous year. That’s a remarkable reach considering Nigeria is home to over 80 million Christians.

Robertson’s influence plays into an increasingly hostile political climate for gays in the country. Last January, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which provides punishments of up to 14 years imprisonment for a gay marriage and up to 10 years for membership in or encouragement of gay clubs and organizations. The enactment of the law was followed by a wave of arrests of gay men—and widespread denouncement from the international community.

The religious right, however, doesn’t see Nigerian laws regarding homosexuality as a gross violation of human rights, but rather as protection of “traditional marriage.” In 2011, on the heels of the Nigerian Senate passing an earlier version of the anti-gay law, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would officially promote LGBTQ rights abroad as part of its development framework. In response, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute denounced the administration’s directive for putting “U.S. foreign policy on a collision course with religious freedom.”

MassResistance, a Massachusetts-based organization that bills itself as a “pro-family” activist group, praised Nigeria when the Nigerian House passed an earlier version of the bill that President Jonathan signed into law on January 7. In a statement, the group said that African nations are “feeling the brunt” of the gay rights movement, claiming that the “huge spread of AIDS” and the “breakdown in society caused by the homosexual movement seems to bring more general social destruction in African cultures than in the West.” Anti-gay laws in Nigeria have enjoyed unequivocal support from some hardline evangelical groups in the United States, with some going so far as to travel to Nigeria to spread anti-gay sentiment.

One such group is Family Watch International (FWI), another U.S.-based “pro-family” advocacy group. Formed in 1999 and headed by Sharon Slater, FWI boasts members and supporters from over 170 countries. In 2011, Slater was the keynote speaker at a meeting of the Nigerian Bar Association, where she touted her beliefs on homosexuality, telling delegates that they would no longer have religious freedom and homosexuals would prey on their children if they supported “fictitious sexual rights.” To Slater and her ilk, the rights of LGBTQ persons are imaginary.

FWI even wields influence within the United Nations. In early 2011, FWI co-hosted a “Global Family Policy Forum” in Phoenix, Arizona. Over the two-day event, FWI coached 26 UN staffers from 23 different countries in attendance on how to resist UN initiatives on gay rights. An FWI newsletter claimed that conference attendees were finally hearing scientific and clinical “evidence” that homosexuality was not genetically determined and could be cured by therapy.

To some, the belief that homosexuality is a disease that needs to be cured may seem too ridiculous to even entertain. But if the devout can’t win at home, they’ll take their message abroad. It’s up to the international community and African activists dedicated to human rights to put an end to this export of hate.

U.N. Panel Questions Vatican Officials on Child Sex Abuse January 16, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Children, Criminal Justice, Religion.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Roger’s note: This paragraph knocked me off my seat:

“Written answers from the Vatican emphasized the distinction between the Holy See and the Catholic Church and said that although it encouraged adherence to the principles of the convention globally, it was responsible only for implementing the convention in the territory of the Vatican City State.”

The Vatican, whose long vindictive arm reaches to the farthest corner of the glove to punish a priest or theologian who dares to advocate, for example, the ordination of women priests, this poor powerless Vatican, perhaps the most centralized authoritarian institution on the face of earth, this poor impotent Vatican finds that its hands are tied when it comes to enforcing the law that protects children from its abusive priests.  Five stars for chutzpah and hypocrisy.  But kudos to the Pope and his Cardinals for “encouraging” their priests to keep their hands (or worse) off children.  Not to mention protecting all those children running around the halls of the Vatican.

NICK CUMMING-BRUCEJAN. 16, 2014, New York Times

GENEVA — In an unusual appearance before a United Nations committee, Vatican officials faced questions on Thursday about the Holy See’s handling of sexual abuse of children by the clergy.

The officials, including Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, who served as the Vatican’s chief sex crimes prosecutor for a decade up to 2012, are appearing before the Committee on the Rights of the Child to show how the Vatican is implementing a legally binding convention promoting child rights, which it signed in 1990.

Human rights organizations and groups representing victims of clerical abuse welcomed the hearing as the first occasion the Vatican has had to publicly defend its record.

“It’s a moment that has given hope and encouragement to victims across the globe,” Barbara Blaine, president of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in Geneva ahead of the hearing.

Amid the shake-up launched by Pope Francis in the 10 months since he took office, rights groups also saw Thursday’s hearing as an occasion that could shed light on the pontiff’s approach to dealing with the clerical abuse scandal.

Pope Francis announced last month the creation of a new committee to tackle clerical abuse but has so far said little on the scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic Church around the world.

In questions posed by the U.N. committee before the hearing, the Vatican was asked to provide details of cases of sexual abuse committed by clergy that were brought to its attention, to detail measures for ensuring clergy accused of sexual abuse did not remain in contact with children, and to explain what explicit instructions it had given to ensure compulsory reporting of sexual abuse to the competent national authorities together with the cases where instructions had been given not to report abuse.

Written answers from the Vatican emphasized the distinction between the Holy See and the Catholic Church and said that although it encouraged adherence to the principles of the convention globally, it was responsible only for implementing the convention in the territory of the Vatican City State.

“It was quite shocking. It was a pretty direct, pretty blunt effort to sidestep the questions,” Pam Spees, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which is seeking to hold Vatican officials responsible for sexual abuse crimes, said in an interview.

 

Trayvon Martin Nativity Display At Claremont United Methodist Church Urges Us Not To Forget Gun Violence Victims December 28, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Gun Control/Violence, Racism, Religion.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Roger’s note: I am not that big on organized Christianity or the nativity myth, but there are some few who call themselves Christian who actually do reflect the ethic of love and peace.  And I am big on remembering Trayvon Martin and the institutionalized racism and gun industry that were responsible for his murder as much as the fool Zimmerman.

 

Posted: 12/27/2013 1:41 pm EST  |  Updated: 12/27/2013 6:02 pm EST Huff Post

Trayvon Martin hasn’t been forgotten at Claremont United Methodist Church in Claremont, Cali.– in fact, he appears front and center in their Nativity display. He serves as a bloody and tragic reminder of the dangers of gun violence and racial privilege in today’s America, reports David Allen of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.

Amongst the traditional holy family, Martin sits hunched over in his iconic black hoodie, blood pouring from his chest and pooling at his feet, reports Patch.com. The title of the scene, “A Child is Born, a Son is Given,” is outlined within the blood and evokes themes of both Christmas and Easter, according to artist John Zachary, who has been creating thought-provoking displays since 2007.

tm

Zachary told Allen in an interview that the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot the unarmed teenager in 2012, “struck him as a worthy subject for Christmas comment.”

“There is no better time to reflect on gun violence than advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus,” says a sign at the church.. “Jesus was born into a state of total vulnerability as an innocent, unarmed child during a time of great violence much like Trayvon Martin.”

As families gather together at Christmas to celebrate, Zachary hopes to get them to think long and hard about their own blessings and privileges. He told Allen that many Christmas traditions of gifts reflect “privilege, and there’s a lot of people who don’t have that privilege. Maybe I should do something that’s provocative, that’s more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.”

trayvon
Artist John Zachary

This isn’t the first time that the church has used the Nativity as an opportunity to remind people about issues of social justice and inequality, which probably would have been of great concern to Jesus himself. Past displays have included Jesus and Mary as a homeless couple struggling to feed their newborn child, as Iraqi refugees next to U.S. soldiers, as immigrants from Mexico stopped by the wall at the border, among others. In 2011, Zachary’s Nativity display was of the outlines of three couples, two of them same-sex, gathering under the banner “Christ Is Born.”

Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, lead pastor at the church, told Allen that she finds this year’s scene difficult to look at, due to its violence. “It’s hard to look at a young man who’s shot and bleeding to death,” she said. “But even though I’m uncomfortable, that’s the point. We have to take a look at the violence.”

Response to the display has been surprisingly muted. “I thought this would be more controversial, but I come to find out people don’t really like people getting shot,” Zachary told Allen. “They may not agree what to do about it, but they agree it’s a bad thing.”

Rhodes-Wickett said that her congregation is progressive, and that “Most people like something that makes us think and makes us search our hearts.”

sign

Also on HuffPost:

Pope Francis Takes Aim At Ideologically Obsessed Christians, Says They Have Illness (VIDEO) October 23, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Religion, Right Wing.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

 

Roger’s note: There is definitely something strange going on in the universe when I find the Pope’s remarks relevant (although I will not forget that as Bishop he at best kept quiet during the era of atrocities under the military dictatorship in Argentina). What he says about the church and ideology also applies to the world of Marxism, where the continent of thought created by Marx’s brilliant mind and his political activity has been ossified into a materialist and economic ideology by many who call themselves Marxist rather than a living and dynamic philosophy of human liberation that needs to be re-worked out for each generation.

 

Based on past statements, Pope Francis’ remarks were aimed mostly at the Christian Right.

While Pope Francis did not specifically mention Christian right-wing ideology during the Mass, his past remarks suggest he was talking about that ideology most of all.

In September, Pope Francis attacked “savage capitalism” and took up the plight of the unemployed against a system that worships money. Earlier that month, the Pope also criticized conservative Catholics for focusing so much on abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. And in July, Pope Francis put the brakes on hating gay people, saying that we shouldn’t judge or marginalize them.

Clearly, Pope Francis isn’t fond of the extreme ideals of the Christian Right. He supports helping the poor. He believes in economic fairness. He denounces hatred of gay people. He thinks the war against abortion and birth control has gone too far. Considering all of these things, it’s pretty obvious that Pope Francis was mostly talking to right-wing Christians on Thursday. Their ideological fanaticism has damaged religion. They have abandoned the true teachings of Jesus to pursue an extremist agenda. And Pope Francis just called them out for it. Cue right-wing rage in 3, 2, 1…

 

“In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements. The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”

Drive, She Said: Saudi Women Drive In Rolling Protest, Ovaries Fail to Explode October 17, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Israel, Gaza & Middle East, Religion, Women.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

 

Roger’s note: I remember, growing up in New Jersey back in the 1950s, that when another car did something untoward or reckless on the road, the reflex reaction was to shout “woman driver!”  So the Muslim clerics take this sentiment to the extreme.  The opinion reported below is so hilariously absurd as to put a five star comedy writer to shame.  But the reality of patriarchal oppression of women under fundamentalist Islamic regimes is not laughing matter.

 

by Abby Zimet

Gearing up for an Oct. 26 protest against their country’s de facto ban on female drivers – there exists no explicit law or Islam ban against it – Saudi women have posted scores of videos of themselves driving, often taken by a female Saudi filmmaker who helped organize the protest and was then briefly detained. In taking the wheel, women are thus defying a conservative cleric who claimed that driving would have “negative physiological impacts (as) medical studies show that it affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards,” resulting in children “with clinical problems of varying degrees.” Despite these grave if wholly unfounded warnings, over 15,000 people signed an Oct26Driving petition before the website was shut down. Here’s one driving video in which, as expected, no lightning descends from on high, no lady parts disintegrate, and nothing happens – except, charmingly, some drivers in other cars give them thumbs-up.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 232 other followers