All posts by Julian Vigo

Why Julian Assange Matters for the Freedom of the Press

There is no one issue that unites those of us on the left so firmly with the right as the topic of freedom of the press. And the case of Julian Assange, Wikileaks co-founder, encapsulates perfectly this dilemma that seems to have many drinking the Kool-Aid of Russiagate which seems to have an endless season renewal. Like so many current events, the case of Julian Assange divides many within political camps as the feminists are shouting “believe the women” and those analyzing the meta-narrative in all its intricacies see no crime has been committed by Assange whom they view as being demonized for bringing to light the crimes of the U.S. government. Worse, mainstream media is acting as the mouthpiece for the government efforts to shut down Wikileaks, or as Craig Murray writes, that the collaboration of the Guardian, New York Times and Washington Post in the hunt for Assange “is clear evidence that the idea of the “liberal media” no longer exists in the new plutocratic age. The press are not on the side of the people, they are an instrument of elite control.”

Yet, the media continues its onslaught of information through inundation. And, of course, sharing anything on social media by RT will land you with comments like, “He works for the Russians.” For those confused about what to do or think related to the Assange affair, here are some items we need to put on our ethical to-do list. First, read articles from a wide array of political spectrums. Don’t take my word for it that this is a stitch-up. Basic human rights have been denied Julian Assange that even Isis fighters under interrogation have from the barring of Julian Assange’s lawyer, Per Samuelson, when questioned at the Ecuadorian Embassy by the Swedish prosecutor in 2016 to the evidence that suggests that the so-called “accusations” made against Assange for sexual assault and rape seem to be highly contested. Reading the history of this case and there is a yo-yo effect from the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office in 2010, regarding the veracity of the allegations where Eva Finne, the chief prosecutor, states that the rape accusation was without merit to when Swedish Director of Prosecution, Marianne Nye, later re-opened the case issuing an international arrest warrant for Assange when he offered to answer questions at the Swedish Embassy in London.

Reading news reports of this initial stage of the investigation, however, and the major media tells a different story to include the elision of basic facts such as the two “accusers” stating in text messages to each other that the police started the accusations, that the “police made up the charges”, and that “the police were keen on getting their hands on him.” It is even hard to call these two women “accusers” since even this part of the story is entirely muddled by what seems to be an usurpation of basic legal protocol as both women, known as AA and SW, went to the police to see if Assange could be obliged to get a test for STIs since they had unprotected sex with him.

As many gleefully scream on social media “Got him!”, these individuals are oblivious to the dangers of Assange’s arrest. And most of the Americans in favor of Assange’s capture are perfectly molded sycophants—in true cookie-cutter fashion—of the Obama administration. You know, the kinds of liberals who saw Obama as a leftist (he wasn’t) and believed the lie that Obama perpetuated about Assange: that publishing classified documents on Wikileaks amounted to espionage. Of course, this was during an administration where a record number of reporters’ sources were imprisoned. Still, the Obama administration, while critical of Assange, weighed on the side of the First Amendment as it realized that charging Assange with a crime would call up the central issue of freedom of the press. As Paul Waldman writes in The Washington Post, “That’s because, whatever you think of WikiLeaks, if we criminalize receiving classified information, some of the most important works of journalism in American history would be transformed into crimes, and every reporter who works on national security would be a potential criminal.”

So, if you notice among the crimes Assange was charged with yesterday, both the previous espionage and 2016 hacking claims are nowhere to be found. Why? This goes back to the Obama administration’s reason for not pursuing this line of attack: where does the freedom of the press end and a journalist instructing an informant how to hack information to later hand over to him. This seems to be the crux of the issue at heart. Even former federal prosecutor, Renato Mariotti, has weighed in on this, stating that despite the impetus on the UK government to extradite Assange, the federal government must “prove a criminal conspiracy between Manning and Assange, and Manning does not appear to be cooperative.” Even Robert Mueller’s indictment of Russian intelligence officers for crimes related to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta where batches of the hacked emails were released by Wikileaks excluded Assange for this very reason. Did Assange conspire in the hacking? This is the question that needs to be answered.

Given that Mueller hasn’t pressed for this investigation to be re-opened ought to be a clue as to how much evidence is lacking to make such a link. From Guccifer 2.0 to the Russian military intelligence to the 2016 presidential election, Mueller’s probe has not confirmed that Assange is key to unlocking this enigma. As for the sexual assault probe in Sweden, it was long ago dropped with chief prosecutor Marianne Ny officially revoking Assange’s arrest warrant. Given his arrest yesterday, however, the investigation may possibly be reopened given that the statute of limitation does not expire until August 2020.

As for those banging on about Assange’s guilt, I can only recommend to revisit the basic civics lessons that most of us had in high school. In the United States, not only is due process sort of part of the deal when assessing someone’s guilt, but the history of the world is replete with false allegations made to frame journalists and whistleblowers. Using accusations of rape to ensnare or entrap innocent men is hardly new—from the use of the rape myth as a political tool during the antebellum and postbellum American South used to keep black men under control, false accusations of rape are astonishingly effective in reframing who is oppressed by whom. Even sex has long been a tool of intelligence agencies with the Israeli government catching Mordechai Vanunu through a “honey trap” operation and the recent revelation of British spying operations using  GCHQ’s SIGINT (signal-intelligence) program which monitors diplomats’ hotel bookings.

The recent EU Copyright Directive is part of the greater assault on independent journalism which views digital media as a huge threat to the monolithic powers of government and major media. As both state and media agencies are buttressing each other in order to tighten their hegemonic grip on information and democratic expression, it is time for people to check their knee-jerk reactions of glee in reaction to Assange’s arrest. Instead, we should seriously reflect upon how supporting his arrest only feeds to legitimate yet another chapter of state-sponsored censorship.

The Battle for Free Speech: Meghan Murphy vs. Twitter

Last week, Canadian feminist and journalist, Meghan Murphy, announced that she is suing Twitter. Having been permanently suspended from Twitter last Fall, Murphy’s lawsuit challenges Jack Dorsey’s contention made last September to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Twitter Transparency and Accountability wherein he stated, “We don’t consider political viewpoints, perspectives, or party affiliation in any of our policies or enforcement decisions, period.” Taking aim at Twitter’s contradictory and unevenly-applied policy, Murphy’s lawsuit is legally challenging Twitter by accusing  this big tech company of censoring content made by users based on conflicting political perspectives (eg. conflicting with those of Dorsey or others at Twitter). Meghan confirms that Dorsey has acted against his own company’s mandate which was “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. Our business and revenue will always follow that mission in ways that improve and do not detract from a free and global conversation.”

In a video explanation, Murphy details the reasons for her lawsuit, outlining the many contradictions within Twitter’s exercise of its policies and its censorship of its users, most notably feminists and anyone who is gender critical. Murphy’s “crime”? She tweeted this: “Men are not women” and “How are transwomen not men? What is the difference between a man and a transwoman?” Reminiscent of the tenor preceding the Scopes Monkey Trial, this lawsuit is bound to mark the stark terrain between free speech and censorship while also legally cementing the fundamental right to discuss critically the pitfalls of politically acceptable speech when multi-billion tech firms are today sponsoring the main arenas of free speech: social media.

It’s not only conservative pundits who are perplexed by this double-standard of who gets to have a Twitter account (eg. Donald Trump and Louis Farrakhan), but also centrist publications are covering this event. But why are many left-wing news sources ignoring both Murphy’s banning from Twitter in addition to the more problematic elision of women’s rights around which this issue turns? And how will such a lawsuit affect the levels of responsibility that everyone from website/domain hosting companies to social media elites must maintain in order to keep in check with national laws that protect freedom of expression?

This lawsuit is bound to be a game-changer for everyone as it will challenge many basic “givens” about social media and the power of tech giants like Twitter. Without a doubt, Facebook, Instagram and Google, among others in this field, are playing close attention to this lawsuit, since what results from this lawsuit will potentially set out case law for a good many years.

For starters, tech giants are today controlling public opinion through censorship and how they excise certain individuals from public participation on what Twitter itself admits is not a private—but a public—platform. Dorsey is on record numerous times stating just this. When interviewed by Sam Harris about Meghan Murphy two weeks ago, Dorsey is asked about why Murphy was banned when Twitter has kept accounts by numerous people and groups that have posted inflammatory content. Dorsey’s answer contradicts what he told the U.S. government last fall: “I don’t believe that we can afford to take a neutral stance any more…I don’t believe that we should optimize for impartiality.” Harris then asks Dorsey, “Why not take refuge in the First Amendment?” as a comprehensive response. Dorsey’s response: “The enforcement of [our rules] is not always apparent….If you just look at one enforcement action, we don’t suspend people purely for saying one particular thing permanently.” While Dorsey exempts violent threats from this rule, it is clear that Dorsey is playing language games in how he has shifted Twitter’s role as arbiter of free speech: “I don’t think we can be this neutral passive platform any more.”  Effectively, Dorsey is advocating for censorship. Hence, the disconnect between what he said to Senate last year and where Twitter asserts itself as a public arena for the democratic sharing of ideas and against what Dorsey calls the “shutting down” of those who “weaponise” Twitter. He goes on to claim that Twitter’s role is more about what the platform “amplifies” and and what conversations it “gives attention to”—all this to couch removal of those who produce content that Twitter does not agree with.

Harris warns the listener before the interview that Dorsey is skilled at stepping around difficult questions, but as you listen to the interaction, it is painfully clear that Dorsey promotes censorship by stating that Twitter’s focus is on promoting certain ideas, not people. Still Dorsey is cognizant that people produce ideas, not the inverse. So in this interview he is slippery, plays with terminology and essentially justifies the removal of what he deem disagreeable viewpoints through the removal of the creators of such viewpoints. Renaming censorship as focusing on “what are we amplifying”, Dorsey has come up with a slick media spin for a metaphorical “re-education camp” for banned Twitter users.

As is the case for Murphy, social media is used for building a brand and career, marketing, research and company promotion. Murphy’s suit argues that being banned from Twitter negatively impacts her work as a journalist pointing to how news publications cite Twitter from The New York Times and beyond. Additionally, where the public geographic spaces of old are being deferred to social media, this brings up new challenges for what Dorsey has repeatedly called Twitter—a “public square.” In fact, in his Senate testimony last year, Dorsey used this term five times to refer to Twitter. So one must wonder why the public square is being privately controlled, or at the very least, why private companies hosting the public forum are exempt from upholding the laws which guarantee free expression.

Like Twitter, fellow tech giants are dangerously approximating the role of censors of free speech in their respective empires which they had claimed, years earlier, to have created to expand free speech. Dorsey clearly expresses a desire for “healthy conversation” but fails to uphold the promised platform for freedom of expression one year later.

GDPR and Big Tech: The Cookie Monster Versus Joe Public

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation which was implemented last summer has far-reaching privacy rules. Commonly referred as the , this is now the standard which has forced most tech companies to rethink not only data collection practices but also how data is collected or they risk high fines. Where the US lacks a similar regulation to protect privacy of Internet users, many characterize Europe’s GDPR as hurting privacy instead of protecting it while others accuse the EU of policing across its own borders.

The Washington Post announced last week that France has fined Google almost $57 million for the first major violation of the GDPR and tech companies in Silicon Valley and beyond are paying close attention. Accused of  failing to disclose the collection and use of personal information to users, Google also failed to obtain permission from these users to do things such as to expose them to personalized advertisements. To most North Americans, such regulation are almost joke-worthy, but that is because most internet users are completely unaware as to how Google harvests the information it uses, which does involve accessing private data. Yet, there is cause for concern when Android users set up a new mobile phone and followed Android’s setup process.

Two nonprofit organizations, None Of Your Business (noyb) and La Quadrature du Net originally filed a complaint back in May 2018 but noyb filed its complaint against Google and Facebook. Under the GDPR regulations, complaints must first be transferred to local data protection watchdogs so France’s top data-privacy agency, CNIL (Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés), took the case in hand and started its investigation 1 June, 2018. Concluding that Google did not comply with the consent and transparent aspects of the privacy law, it pointed to specific areas of non-compliance such as how information is not easily accessible and that information is not clear or comprehensive. Of particular note is how data is processed:

Users are not able to fully understand the extent of the processing operations carried out by GOOGLE. But the processing operations are particularly massive and intrusive because of the number of services offered (about twenty), the amount and the nature of the data processed and combined. The restricted committee observes in particular that the purposes of processing are described in a too generic and vague manner, and so are the categories of data processed for these various purposes. Similarly, the information communicated is not clear enough so that the user can understand that the legal basis of processing operations for the ads personalization is the consent, and not the legitimate interest of the company. Finally, the restricted committee notices that the information about the retention period is not provided for some data.

So what is the information that can be accessed by Google and other tech companies? Take browser cookies, for instance. While “cookies” sounds like a cute word, these small files store a lot of private data: where you have browsed, information you have filled in online forms, even information you have entered into highly personal online financial sites, free website builders, and basically everything you have done on your browser, everywhere you have browsed.  Tracking cookies are used for advertising purposes, specifically involving what is called retargeting, a tactic that depends upon tracking cookies to show ads to people who have previously visited a specific site or shown interest in a particular product. If you’ve ever looked up something on Google or on Amazon and then saw it or a similar item on a popup advertisement while browsing, this is no coincidence. You’ve simply been retargeted.

The information cookies contain is set and accessed by the servers of the websites that you visit and cookies allow servers to identify you and remember things about you.  So, while a cookie might be considered to be no big deal by some people, imagine that any website having access to your cookies would potentially have access to anything you have typed into your web browser. Silktide founder, Oliver Emberton explains cookies like this:  “The problem is that those same cookies can also be used to track people, and do things that many people don’t like, like deliver targeted ads. And this has got a lot of people understandably concerned.” The GDPR means that users are to be asked for consent before cookies can be accessed. You can read the CNIL summary of their report here.

Google is now fined for violating France’s General Data Protection Regulations to the tune of US$57 million. When the GDPR was first announced, many claimed that this would be bad for business. But on the other side of the argument, privacy groups have firmly stood behind the necessary privacy measures to be observed by all companies to include tech giants like Facebook and Google which have come under scrutiny in recent months.  And earlier this week, Poland, the UK and Ireland were implicated in not safeguarding users with regard to “how ad auction companies, including Google, unlawfully profile Internet users’ religious beliefs, ethnicities, diseases, disabilities, and sexual orientation.”

Ultimately, there is a clear contradiction between what’s good for big business and what is good for privacy protections of individual. The real question is what will give in first–our human right to privacy or big business’ desire for profit?

Why We Need to Say Sex, Not Gender

Since May of this year, every website in the EU has had to update its terms and conditions since earlier this year to include a GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) tick box for all visitors, adding to the virtual bureaucracy of privacy. The evolution of Internet bureaucracy, to include people’s web hosting needs which now incorporates where servers are storing data, has coincided with the waterfall of identity tick boxes. As the Internet expands in its mediatization of the social and individual identity recognition to include more and newer adjectives by the month, we can see how the proliferation of bureaucratic structures coincides with the exponential manners in which the individual to “curates” the self—especially the “gendered self.” Yet, none of these terms that refer to a so-called “gender identity” have anything to do with the material reality of sex.

While the Internet has proven to be the perfect superficial space where people can fashion themselves another identity and avatar where “flying” in Second Life is as real as one’s purple haired anime, turn the corner and the Internet contains the very brass tacks of material bureaucracy as we must click on our iTunes user agreement and hundreds of other agreements 99% of us never read. What could be more capitalist than the notion that more equals better?  More adjectives, more identities, more tick boxes. We have bureaucratized ourselves into a nonsensical blur of self-concentration with a side-dish of narcissism for sure. But where does this leave those of us on the left who are aware that you cannot identify out of material reality?

So, last week I shared an article on social media from earlier this fall about the UK’s Labour Party calling for a ban on sex-selective abortions. “Early gender tests ‘leading to selective abortions of girls in UK‘,” headlines an article which discusses a “baby’s gender” and “gender determination.” But to anyone who has studied the basics of elementary school science, the body does not have a gender, bodies are clearly sexed. You don’t need a tutor to understand that sex is what is determined by the Non-Invasive Prenatal Test (NIPT), a blood test used to detect genetic abnormalities in addition to biological sex.

And as I read the article on selective abortions, I had to wonder why any journalist would make such a glaring mistake since gender is a social construct and is well-cemented in everything from sociology to anthropology. Similarly sex is enshrined into the World Health Organisation (WHO) policies as well as medical and biological science. In fact, the people who generally see gender as innate, tend to be religious conservatives who view gender as something deeply connected to the sexed body. This means that no matter how much we demonstrate demographic data on “gender,” as so many studies today do, this word “gender” is constantly misused and often conflated with “sex.” Yet, anyone knows that the somatic (the body) is sexed, not gendered.

As a woman, it is a constant annoyance to be at a doctor’s appointment, for instance, only to be given the form that asks me for my gender, followed by male or female to tick. “Wait,” I think to myself, “I don’t have a gender—I have a sex.” And this happens quite regularly—especially online—where I am asked about my gender or “gender identity.” Wait a minute—I don’t have one of those. I do have a collapsable umbrella, however.

We are witnessing the slow erasure of sex despite it being a necessary category for medical forms, the census, and all sorts of statistical data used to test public services (eg. if there are enough cervical screening centers for women?). For no matter how you identify, there are certain realities of the body that are inescapable.

Speaking with other women, I have come to learn that more and more women have similar concerns that our bodies are being written out of reality and that the weight of someone’s identification (gender) is replacing the somatic. Several women have told me that they take their pen out and cross out the word “gender” and write above it “sex” in protest.  Others tell me that they write a mini-essay in the margins as to why the terms are incorrect. And no scientist worthy of their credentials would state that gender is anything but a social construction that has long functioned to keep women at home, childbearing and busied with domestic chores men leave the home, for centuries marginalized from political and social life. So why is “gender” popping up on our medical records?

Despite the fact that London’s first public toilets for women were built for the 1851 Great Exhibition or that, it was not until the early twentieth century where public toilets for women were regularly constructed for women’s use. This coincided with the production of leisure goods and the fad called “shopping” which brought women out of their homes and into the public sector, to do everything from perambulating to drinking coffee and buying goods. This allowed for women to leave their homes and take part in public life since “respectable” women were not able to relieve themselves in infrequently used streets or alleys as men did and still do today. And of the few public toilets that existed during the Victorian era, they were designated for men. This formula ensured that the public sphere was male-oriented and the private female-oriented.

Sex was clearly that which put women in danger of leaving the safety of the private sphere, not their gender. Women had little choice in anything related to their rights, much less the ability to influence lawmakers to construct separate facilities for their use, much less have the right to vote for such changes. Sex is what has left 63 million women classified as “missing” from India’s population. And sex is what leaves one million foetuses aborted annually and 21 million unwanted in India alone. If only these females could identify their way out of the brutal reality that they face.

Like millions of women on the planet, I have also faced sex-based discrimination in the work force. I think to a job interview I had with one of the UK’s top universities while seven months pregnant, where I was asked during the interview this: “But don’t you want to stay at home and be with your baby?” That’s a question a non-female will never be asked.

The sex-based oppression of females is a reality and although the wage gap has improved in limited measures over past decades, it’s definitely not a “gender pay gap”—it’s a sex-based pay gap. Nothing that females suffer happens because of how we “identify” or see ourselves. The oppression and discrimination we suffer very much occurs because of social modeling of what gender means to families, societies, employers, and individuals in power. While we might dislike the visceral term “sex,” often used to describe the sexual act, we need to stop being linguistic prudes about this term and start employing it again.

Sex-based inequality isn’t going away just because we say “gender.”

UK’s Snoopers’ Charter Ruled Unlawful: What Does Privacy Mean to You?

Two weeks ago the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) gave a landmark ruling against the UK government’s mass surveillance program, stating that it violated human rights and offered “no real safeguards” to the public.  This surveillance programme, according to the Strasbourg court, allowed the British intelligence agencies’ to violate the right to a private and family life with “insufficient oversight” over which communications were chosen for examination. Of equal importance the ECHR found that the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), also known as the Snoopers’ Charter, did not give enough protection to journalistic sources which would violate the rights to freedom of expression guaranteed in UK and EU laws and would discourage whistle-blowing.   In its judgment of the case, Big Brother Watch and Others v. the United Kingdom (applications nos. 58170/13, 62322/14 and 24960/15), the court concluded that police and security services had breached citizens’ right to privacy by intercepting communications data in bulk, with little oversight of when these powers could be used, just as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden had revealed.

In its judgment, the ECHR expressed concern that “intelligence services can search and examine ‘related communications data’ apparently without restriction’ – data that identifies senders and recipients of communications, their location, email headers, web browsing information, IP addresses, and more.” This means that Internet service providers must store details of everything we do online for twelve months and render it accessible to dozens of public bodies to include everything from browsing records to data on private citizens, search engine activity, to every phone call to text message and geographical location we have held in any of our electronic devices.  The IPA also requires that tech companies hand over the data that they possess to intelligence agencies.

Yet, what does this mean for those of us who just use our computers for work and our mobiles for texting friends to meet up for drinks? Surely, this does not affect us, right?  Wrong.

The catch is that we are all implicated, to include the simple text message to confirm dinner plans. Do you use a social media account? Do you have photos on your mobile and laptop that you have or have not posted online? Did you rate a restaurant on Google? All this information to include your list of Facebook friends are being mined by the government along with all the tracking information that your many apps provide, your bank, credit card and financial details, biographical information, your resume, your medical records, and all the information in the world that you store on these devices which you might even deem harmless. In this day and age there is no such thing as harmless information. At that, there is no such thing as privacy when the government believes it has already rewritten the IPA in measure with the previous court’s instruction.

As many are concerned with the interception of personal data and parents are reading online privacy and safety guide for kids, the government’s secret interception, processing and storing data of millions of people’s private communications, should alarm each and every one of us.  The current form of the IPA means that any information that you have in the UK can be shared with secret intelligence agencies like the CIA, and well beyond. With which other countries does the US also share information under similar secret legal frameworks?  Also important to consider here are the impediments to tech development that are under threat such as when then Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to ban Snapchat, WhatsApp, and any other encrypted messaging services unless these companies provided the government with backdoor access to user data. Such measures actually deter technology since most tech companies are aware that the minute they undermine their users’ privacy, their company will not last.

In short, by stripping away our privacy, the government is undermining everything that keeps us free: our expression, our right to protest and to fair trials, our legal and patient confidentiality, our free press. And one can argue our individuality is at stake whereby everything we do, consume, record, and say is potentially up for monitoring and scrutiny, as are those with whom we interact.  As Edward Snowden stated, “Because privacy isn’t about something to hide. Privacy is about something to protect. That’s who you are.”

We need to prize our privacy and human right not to be spied upon in this day and age where governments are pulling out the “terrorism” card in order to goad its citizens into surrendering one of the qualities which makes us most human.

Lysenkoism Today and the Return of Ideological Warfare

This month, Current Biology published an article about the revival of Lysenkoism, a pseudo-scientific concept developed by Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898– 1976), the Ukrainian-born Soviet agronomist. His theory was that environmental changes to crop plants like wheat, rye, potatoes, and beets, are heritable through the organism’s cells, dismissing entirely the role of genetics.  Developed in the 1920s, Lysenko’s theories were fully adopted under Stalin and had disastrous consequences for the people of the Soviet Union when v_e_r_n_a_l_i_s a_t_i_o_n (the chilling of seeds to stimulate germination) combined with his complete rejection of modern genetics contributed to the disaster for the people of the Soviet Union who were to starve during the Great Famine of 1932-1933 and the 1946-1947 drought.

Although Stalin holds the brunt of the responsibility for these famines which killed at least 7 million people, Lysenko’s anti-science practices greatly contributed to these deaths. Lysenko, Stalin’s Director of Biology, headed the group of animal and plant breeders who rejected the work of botanist, Gregor Mendel, and American evolutionary biologist, Thomas Hunt Morgan. Instead, the Soviets of this era promoted the work of Ivan V. Michurin who espoused the ideas of the Lamarckian evolution which held, for instance, that giraffes stretched their necks to such extensive lengths that this trait was necessarily passed to their direct offspring. Of course, there was no scientific merit for this any more than vernalisation would effect future generations of seeds, but these ideas stuck largely because Joseph Stalin launched an aggressive campaign to effectively destroy any work in genetics.

Lysenkoism is a fitting example of how social and political idealism can be imposed on society and even the sciences—despite having absolutely no merit. Where Lysenkoism appealed to the masses who survived poverty made a revolutionary force happen in their environment, they wrongfully applied political changes of revolution to that of science.  Yet, today we are not light years away from Lysenkoism where there is now an initiative in the United States to allow for Creationism to be taught as a scientific theory in schools. There is also pressure from lobby groups, like Heartland, which have heavily invested in debunking climate change science to encourage climate denial be taught.  With a new wave of bills aimed at changing what school children are learning in the US and the fact that Creationism is still taught in faith schools in the UK despite their being publicly funded, scientific debates can be the most ferocious on the political front. Why is it that scientific disagreements turn into battlegrounds when, ostensibly, science is supposed to be clear cut?

The answer to this question dates back to when Nicolaus Copernicus published his manuscript, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), which states that the earth orbits the sun. Although not formally banned, this work was removed from circulation marking the moment when religious belief and science have been perpetually at odds. Then in 1616, when Galileo was issued an injunction not to “hold, defend, or teach” heliocentrism, who would have imagined that just over 500 years later the same passionate urge to silence what is taught or practiced would have such ideological echoes to the present. With the waning of religious presence within western institutions and government over the past fifty years, religious belief has been largely replaced with the politics of selfhood where the neoliberal belief in the individual or in a specific ideology results today in ferocious debate.

We are living in an era of “post-truth” where not only media is proliferated with bogus news stories, but where there seems to be an upsurge of individuals who believe in pseudoscience: the anti-vaxxers, those who use homeopathy for cancer treatments, climate change deniers, those who live their lives guided by horoscopes, clean coal advocates, and myriad other anti-science beliefs. Yet, many of these science skeptics still believe in certain areas of science such that some are even making ecologically-sound purchases based on scientific reports they read informing them which green vehicle, insurance, or solar panel will be the most ethical.  And this is the contradiction: many of the very same people who are aware that science is vital to our collective growth, health and social adhesion, have one specific area where they flat-out disbelieve the science and that leans towards a neoliberal, individualist approach to the problem.  Similar to Lysenkoism, these beliefs do not emerge in a vacuum but have their roots in culture, political ideology, and even personality.

For instance, a very recent study spearheaded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center examines the Dunning-Kruger effect in the endorsement of anti-vaccine policy attitudes.  In psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a “cognitive bias whereby people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognise their own incompetence.” So Motta and his team hypothesised that those with little understanding of autism would be the most likely to think they are the best informed on the subject. And the results were shocking: they found that 35% of the respondents thought they knew as much as more than doctors and 34% knew more than scientists on the causes of autism. Moreover, the research has linked this uninformed overconfidence to the endorsement of misinformation to include the “increased support for the role that non-experts (e.g., celebrities) play in the policymaking process.”

While this study only applies to one specific paradigm, it is important to keep in mind the reasons why people might be quick to attack science to underscore their belief system.  Anyone who has seen Donald Trump’s opinions on climate change as a conspiracy, might have a laugh at some of his claims, but it is important that we face myths with facts, to include being ready to expand our own views when new facts come to light. After all, we are living in an era where car choices and politics are directly related to each other such that we invest into our political ideals the scientific knowledge which has convinced us to buy a certain vehicle, and not another.  In essence, we need to stop cherry-picking our science. And this also means that we need to take Russia’s recently rekindled love affair with Lysenkoism seriously and understand how nationalism can breed a blind faith in tradition. With the growing love affair for epigenetics in Russia, we have a scientific cold war beginning where genetics are being dismissed in parallel with Putin’s renewed nationalist project.

While belief systems which challenge science will likely always exist, it is important that we can separate our individualist notions of the self that seem to be overwhelming our society today. As Lysenkoism is in full revival mode today due to anti-American sentiment in Russia, it is important that we learn from this desire to ally ourselves with an ideology simply to counter our enemy.  While much of science is in evolution, it is important that we value what it has to show us through evidence and not for what it represents politically or emotionally.

On Sudden Infant Death: the Unrepresentable

Living in New York City as a graduate student and young professor, thoughts of having a family were not only far from my mind, I deemed the very notion of having a child as abject. It was not uncommon for me, when being asked for seating preference in a restaurant, to point to the table with children and exclaim, “Anywhere far away from them.”

The joke was on me, however, when years later I decided to have a child through IUI (intrauterine insemination) and I became pregnant. I was quite innocent about the entire process since I knew I wanted a loving relationship in my life and simply had found anything but this with my previous partners, the last of whom stalked me for well over a year. I had also come to a personal acceptance of my potential to nurture and love a child and to be a better parent than my own mother who currently holds the honorary Joan Crawford Prize of childrearing. In short, I knew I wanted a healthy and loving relationship with a human despite thinking, for much of my adult life, that the only loving relationship I would ever have would be with another adult. Thanks to my ex-the-stalker, my thinking on this subject changed as I came to understand that creating my own family—even and especially without a partner—was suddenly a possibility.

Upon getting pregnant I continued the renovation of my house, I worked steadily upon research and book projects and I undertook the search for that person who would help take care of my child. I was by all measures extremely fortunate with a full-time job in academia which allowed me the personal finances to afford the freedom of having a child on my own. I knew I was extremely lucky and I ran with this newly found desire to create a family.

Dealing with pregnancy as a single woman revealed a world of sitcom hilarity and ethnographic realism. One man jokingly told me he would have helped me get pregnant “the natural way” saying, “Now why did you do it at the hospital and spend perfectly good money to get pregnant? I would have helped you out for free!” Others would share their divorce stories to exclaim, “I wish I had my child on my own since my ex-wife doesn’t let me see my daughter.” And at a friend’s birthday party in a Montreal lesbian club, I was given the “evil eye” by a few women who didn’t seem to understand that I actually wanted to be a single parent. Overall, I found people immensely supportive of me despite the cultural baggage of sexism, homophobia, racism and classism rearing their heads from time to time.

During my pregnancy what concerned me most were the “practical” ends of having a child which I thought would be limited to the search for someone to help me with childcare and buying clothing and a car seat. I was no more prepared for the mountainous volumes of junk mail that concerned life insurance and installment plans for the future education of my children than I was for handling the sexist and classist presumptions about my child. For instance, I did not wish to know the sex of my child yet people would persist, “But don’t you want to know?” Obviously my not wanting to know was in itself the answer to their question, but these individuals desperately needed to understand why I didn’t wish to know my child’s sex, some asking “But aren’t you dying to know?” Invariably, I would retort: “Are you asking me if I am dying to know if my child has a vagina or a penis? I just want a healthy baby.” Yet there were those who continued to insist that I “had to know,” asking me what was my preference. Finally, I would cave and say, “Yes, I do have a preference: a hermaphrodite.” Just one conversation stopper and I was freed.

The sexism did not stop there. Then came the questions from both women and men alike about the child’s “need” to have a “male role model.” I would usually engage these questions head on with a deconstruction of sex asking, “What makes you think that if I were with a man that both of us wouldn’t be the female role models, or that I might not be the male role model? What is a bloody ‘role model’ anyway?” Or, when one Haitian gentleman asked me, “How will you raise a child without a male figure present?” I answered, “The same way I will raise my child without the presence of my pet giraffe.” He looked at me confused saying, “What does a pet giraffe have to do with having a child?” I responded, “Precisely as much as a “male figure” has to do with having a child.

There were many times when parents would attempt to warn me about the task I was about to engage in saying, “You will see–you will no longer sleep! Say goodbye now to life as you know it.” I always expected horror film music to start playing amidst these lectures (it never did) and I would usually answer such premonitions with , “I ordered the silent model.” The class situation was equally as unpredictable to me–I was truly puzzled by people’s need to project education and wealth onto my fetus. For those obsessed with my child going to the best schools and universities I would declare that my child would be an illiterate–albeit rich–plumber or electrician, joking of course. I wanted to protect my child from expectations of any sort since it would be for her/him to decide all matters of life. Some of my friends were perplexed as many of them were engrossed in the rat race typical to New York City parents where enrolling your child in preschool while the child was still in utero is considered a necessity. I was told, “You don’t think of this now, but trust me, you will regret not getting on the list now.” So “The List” became my reference for all the things I did not want to do.

My not wanting to conform to such notions of parenthood was not in resistance to being “different” from the rest, but my reaction had much more to do with my having taught for over two decades in higher education where I faced, on a regular basis, the products of parents who over-planned their children’s lives: university students with great doubts as to who they were, what they wanted to study, and tremendous fears of disappointing their parents. So my response to this paradigm was to tell those concerned that my unborn child go to the university one day that my child would be the king or queen (or both) of solar panels. My attempts to subvert were not always met with kind responses, but generally people in my life understood my desire to give my child the possibility of creating his/her own life with the freedom to resist the weights of my own or society’s expectations.

Finally, my beautiful child was born and I was beyond euphoric. I understood only then what parents meant when they would say, “You can’t understand being a parent until you do it.” When I saw my son for the first time in his incubator, I remember feeling overpowered by the magnanimity of this new life, as if I had stepped into Michelangelo’s fresco lining the Sistine Chapel‘s ceiling which reveals God’s and Adam’s fingers almost touching. As I approached the nursery, my son knew immediately who I was–it was as if he saw through me. And all I could think when I laid my eyes on him was not how beautiful he was, nor how he looked like myself. Instead, I immediately thought, “No nanny is taking care of my child!” I surprised myself by the speed with which I had become the cliché I had resisted all my life and I not only cancelled the nanny and back-up nanny’s services but I found myself bragging what a “genius” (I actually used that word) my son was when he latched onto my nipple on the first try. I was so worried about every detail of this new life that the nurses in the hospital laughed at me and inevitably so did I. From the moment my little tadpole was born there was nothing I would not do to protect him. Our days were spent feeding, sleeping, and diaper changing and then in the evening we would listen to music, entertain dinner guests and even dance to the music Om Kalthoum or Warda. Occasionally we would watch an episode of The L Word and I would forewarn my child, “This is why your mommy is single.” I would cuddle him as we watched the drama unfold on my computer screen with my editorializing certain scenes with, “She is crazy.” My son would just look around the room, at me and of course at my milk-filled breasts. He was seven weeks old and life was beautiful…dare I say, perfect.

That is, until one night when I woke up to find my child’s lifeless body next to mine.

I remember calling 911 and the drive to the hospital taking forever. I remember the doctor saying, “I am sorry but I could not save your little boy.” I remember a minister asking if I wanted to pray. I remember turning to her to say, “What for? There is no God.” I remember a nurse coming into the room where I was asking me if I wanted to to take a photo of my dead child, lying on the gurney. I refused. She asked if I wanted his footprint saying, “you will want a memory of him for the future.” I told her my memories where “here”, as I pointed to my heart. I remember wishing that my child had not been “the silent model” so that I might have heard him. I remember laying for six hours with my child’s body on a hospital bed before I was transferred to the psychiatric ward of another hospital. Sadly, in Canada many institutions conflate mourning with psychiatric illness. So I was sent off to spend the rest of the day watching people with various mental disorders hit walls and scream as I awaited a psychiatrist who would prescribe me 40 sleeping tablets. In Islam the mourning period is 40 days. I said to myself that I did not want to spend my life in grief so I gave myself these 40 days to take these sleeping pills, these forty days to mourn. I do not remember much else. I had amnesia and to this day I have holes in my memory associated with the weeks and months following my son’s death.

What proved most troubling to me in the aftermath of my child’s death was how so many people, to include some friends, could not cope with my child’s death in any way. Instantaneously people avoided me as if I had a communicable disease. Some people were there for me, but mostly my contacts with the outside world were institutional (ie. a SIDS specialist from the Montreal Children’s Hospital) and the many strangers whom I would meet in my daily life. It was through my isolation that I came to learn about so many other parents just like myself and I learned mine was not a unique story. The Italian fruit and vegetable saleswoman at the Marché Jean Talon gave me a medallion of Maria as she confessed having lost her child many years before. The tears welled up in her eyes as she told me her story. The salesclerk at the paint store in north Montreal similarly told me her story of having given birth to her daughter who had a congenital disease wherein every day of her daughter’s life had been spent awaiting her daughter’s inevitable death. The man from whom I bought olive oil told me of his sister who was still struggling with her son’s death. The Mexican immigrant who worked at Home Depot told me of his daughter’s birth defect and his family’s struggle to remain positive. On each occasion where people empathized with me it was often accompanied by their sharing their own personal stories of the loss of a child in their life. I had stumbled upon, sadly, a forbidden subject I never wished to experience–that of the dead child.

There is something intrinsically taboo about a death of a child. The innocence of the child’s life coupled with the loss of hope for the future and the finality of death create this unspeakable event that nobody wishes to discuss, especially in Western societies. In the months following my son’s death, the way I viewed the world changed vastly for me both because of the loss of my son and because of the way people treated the subject of his death. I remember having coffee two weeks after my son’s death with a friend who had brought her 10-month old daughter with her. She turned to me and said, “At least he wasn’t her age when he died” as if there were a better age for a child to die. I never heard from her again after this meeting. Another friend advised me to “get a dog” as a replacement for my son. Another friend was upset and found it “suspicious’ that I didn’t answer her email to explain my son’s death. I wrote her back asking her to “never contact me again.” The blood stopped in my throat as I imagined the inhumanity of this person. I remember someone telling me, “Everything happens for a reason… I know it hurts now but you will see.” I did not strangle that person, but my eyeballs did. And if I had a dollar for every time I heard about how my little child was now an angel, I would be an extremely wealthy mother of a dead angel. Like Nicole Kidman’s character in The Rabbit Hole, I would grow frustrated with people’s attempts to make me feel better by saying that God needed another angel. Kidman’s response to this God’s need for an angel was spot on: “Why didn’t he just make one? Another angel. He’s God after all–why didn’t he just make another angel?”

I could not relate to the religious metaphors, the afterlife beliefs, nor the pernicious desire to “see the bright side” of the situation. Many friends–especially those with children–avoided seeing me as if death were a contagion. I began to realize that the death of a child is a contagion, a kind of social malaise in our society. Most people in our culture are uncomfortable around death–especially that of a child. Because of others’ discomfort, my task in the following months was to deal with my loss on my own and to attempt to forgive those who were not strong enough to be supportive. I can say that this was a most awful task.

So just weeks after becoming a mother, I had to rewind my life and step back to a pre-child time demystifying anew all the cultural prejudices and projections that are married to our incapacity to deal with death. And so it went that all the classist, homophobic and sexist and predilections were revealed in the mourning process just as they had been in the prenatal period. The discourse of the natural was one of the most common references I heard and although this might not a seem to be an offensive discourse, the resonances of the “natural” were unavoidable even in this very de-homophobizing world. For instance, I heard on many occasions: “It’s not natural that your child dies before you.” Of course I knew what the interlocutor meant by this statement, but it was hard–if not impossible–for me to respond to it. Having experienced the death of dozens of friends from AIDS, I knew that neither life nor death was qualifiable. Yet, I cannot deny that the death of my son felt so much worse than even my own brother’s death as a result of AIDS years before. The discourse of the natural smacks of that which should be so, a form of biologistic entitlement, and it smelled of truisms which I found as comforting as they felt troubling. After all, why enter into discourses of the “natural”? Certainly we cannot forget that this is the history of homophobia and of sexism to include the resentment towards women’s liberation from certain canonical (sic “natural”) roles they must play in society. I was not about to enter into the discourse of the “natural” because what mattered was not the “unnatural” aspect of my son’s death, what mattered was the simple fact that he was dead. Full stop.

Others would tell me, “It must be so much harder on you than on your husband” to which I would ask my interlocutor a simple “Why?” The general response went something like this: “Well, your child came from your body…you carried him nine months.” I realized the patent absurdity and offensiveness of this statement because attachment is not biological–it is emotional. However, to allege that a child’s loss is harder because of the nine months of gestation unveils all the somatic and biologistic discourses that prefer the “natural” child to the adopted child and that evidence a society for which adopted children are the “backup plan” to the hetero-normative (sic preferred) reproductive model. Such statements which implicated my suffering as somehow “worse” touch upon a society which privileges a constructed love based on biology over emotional love. In the months after my child’s death I found myself having to explain to complete strangers that loss is personal, that it is individual, and that it certainly has very little to do with the nine months I carried this child in my uterus. For when I miss my child, I miss his smell, his stomach, his smile, the sounds he would make, and just about every living experience we shared. I miss my beautiful child and not any emotional projection of a child I had not yet met. What I mourn are the moments I will never have with my child to include the day he would have been crowned the king or queen or solar panels.

What I have realized in the months and years since the death of my child is that one does not ever “get over” the death of a child. We can just move through the pain and inhabit it in a way that becomes part of who we are in all the beauty and bitterness that life and death embody. To this day I still maintain a rather bizarre relationship to the amnesia I experienced in the time after my son’s death as the impact of those beautiful seven weeks took over my heart and mind. I realized I was in trouble when I found myself driving one day in Montreal and somehow ended up on Celine Dion Boulevard. I could not remember where I was going and I certainly did not recall how I got there. I just sat in my car and attempted to understand this strange geographic trajectory I had just made.

For months after my son’s death I would obsess over the following subjects:

cryogenics

time travel

why George W. Bush didn’t choke to death on the pretzel

the man who threw his child off the balcony somewhere in China

the Madeleine kidnapping

the couple who, after the death of their child, jumped off Beachy Head with the body of their son in a rucksack and his toys in another

what if I had just woken up five minutes earlier?

or ten?

what if?

why a terms like SIDS would be used to explain an unexplainable death?

why give it a name at all?

I looked for answers only to find there were none and I found myself isolated by our society’s refusal to embrace anything that would not sell fast cars and plasma televisions. Indeed, my sympathizing with world news events made complete sense given that the community I had before 2007 was greatly reduced in and by death. I felt more sympathy by world events and struggles of people who really were suffering than by platitudes to take up a hobby or dive into my work. Also my political work in the field of human rights helped me grow stronger and more realistic about both life and death issues. I met men and women who had lost all of their children and still continued living.

I tried to move on from this experience of having and losing my child only to realize that there is no “moving on”–there is only moving through. While I learned that there is no correct way to discuss or represent my son’s life or death, I was thankful for those friends and colleagues who would make the simple gesture of stating, “I don’t know what to say.” Their presence, their silence, their sitting with me in silence, meant more to me than comments which would attempt to dismiss death. Indeed, these conversations incur bumps and ironing out of misunderstandings as we are not given a handbook called 101 Things Not to Say When Someone You Know Loses a Child.

I had to learn how to react to certain comments and not cut off completely from people who had good intentions but little or no tact. For instance, one well-meaning friend turned to me after the death of my son and said, “Have you thought of adoption?” I looked at him and said, “If your boyfriend died today, would you want me to set you up with my hot, single friend tomorrow?” He immediately apologized and I realized that many of these comments I was told that deeply hurt me were mostly made out of the individual’s inability to cope on a very raw level with the fact of death. We do not like death, we do not wish to think about it and certainly we do not want to be reminded that we could lose that very precious promise of life, the child. Certainly I felt much in common with some of those men and women with whom I had worked years earlier at Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York as I recalled their stories of friends and family disappearing once they were diagnosed with HIV.

When I was two weeks pregnant I lectured at the university in Freiburg, Switzerland. I had already begun to be exhausted in the late mornings from the surge in hormones. Just after checking in to my bed and breakfast, I laid down and turned on the television to watch Swiss television. The first channel had a program on congenital birth defects. I changed the channel. The next channel had a show about a child who suffered from a debilitating disease whose name I cannot remember. Even more quickly this time, I changed the channel. I thought to myself how I should not think about such “negative” conditions. Now I realize how in our culture we maintain superficial notions of “negativity” attaching it to something that is simply part of life–death. Back in Freiburg I did not want to think that such diseases could occur in my life, I did not want to embrace their reality. Ten months later however I was living a reality that was inescapable and that was there all the time, even had my son not died.

When you lose a child you remind people of what they stand to lose and there will never arrive a moment such as that which often occurs months after a break-up where you realize what you gained from such an awful situation thinking to yourself, “Well now I am so happy to be out of that unhealthy relationship! I have learned a lot about myself from that dreadful experience.” There is no way to represent that lost child as anything but the beautiful creature s/he was and there is no narration which will leave people feeling chipper and upbeat. There is no “lesson” to be learned. I have certainly tried and failed miserably on that count. Once I walked into a small shop and the owner and his friends were inside telling comparative tragedy stories as part of a competition. A woman who talked of her horrid childhood; a man who mentioned his ex-wife’s antics; another man who discussed his treatment and recovery from cancer and so the stories rolled out from one person to the next. After finding what I had been looking for I returned to the front of the shop and one of the group turned to me and said, “Do you have a sadder story?” I answered thinking I was being clever, “Absolutely…but if we were to take bets, I would win hands down.” The crowd became silent in their curiosity and one woman asked me to share my sad story. “My son died when he was seven weeks old,” I replied. I don’t know what I was thinking–I imagine a small part of me was hoping they would laugh because indeed I had won the contest. Instead, they all grew sad and said collectively, “I am so sorry.” And that is where death is the most painful: the silence after hearing “I am so sorry.” I wish there were a follow-up as in quality control surveys: “In order to serve you better, please give us your feed-back.” I certainly would have written this: Please kill sadistic world leaders and leave my child alone. Oh and make rose water and astroid ice cream. Thank you!

About a year after my son’s death I was in New York with an old friend, Noritoshi. I hadn’t seen Noritoshi since before my pregnancy and when I told him about my son he retorted quite matter-of-factly, “So he decided to leave.” Somehow those words helped me and I cannot completely understand why. Perhaps it was this ability to lend agency to my son wherein he made a choice to leave this world and life was not taken from him? Or maybe it was this notion that my son could possibly have had agency and I was unable to allow that thought into my head because Western societies do not allow infants such agency in relationship to their own lives and deaths? Or could it have simply been the fact that Noritoshi came up with this response as an answer and not the answer? I still do not know exactly why, but I feel comfortable with this idea that my child left and from his life I take inspiration for how I deal with his death. So, instead of mourning the 60 years I so desperately wanted to know my child, I am thankful for the beautiful seven weeks that I shared with him in which he was in perfect health and happiness. Likewise, as hard as it is to understand why people abandon the site of death and scamper from anything that detracts from the projected televised “perfection” of family and friends, I have learned to remain vocal about my son while remaining compassionate to those who chose to live in their carefully constructed death-negating closets… And I still hope to one day taste rose water and asteroid ice cream.

The Spawn: Feminism’s Misandry Problem

According to Greek myth, the King of the Titans, Cronus (Latin: Saturnus), heard a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him.  In response to this prophecy, Cronus, father to the gods Demeter, Hestia, Hera, Hades and Poseidon by Rhea, devoured his children as soon as they were born to prevent his loss of power.  Zeus narrowly escaped this fate as Zeus’ mother fed Cronus a rock dressed in baby clothes which Cronus assumed was his. This myth is immortalized by Dutch painter Peter Paul Rubens in Saturn Devouring His Son (1636) and then almost two centuries later by Francisco Goya in one of his fourteen Black Paintings that he painted directly onto the walls of his house, Quinta del Sordo, also named Saturn Devouring His Son (c. 1819-1823). Through artistic representation, the myth of Cronus has come to be understood as a conflict between youth and old age in addition to those with power who fear losing it to the younger generations.

This story of Cronus is what came to mind this past week when I found myself set upon by dozens of so-called “radical feminists.”  I am obliged to put this term in quotation marks to refer to these women since this brand of radical feminism seems to have been hijacked by individuals who are very much out of touch with what feminism is about (eg. women), much less anything related to the tenets of radical feminism.   By all accounts from what I have witnessed this past week, what these women believe to be feminism is merely a vindictive table-turning of history, dare I say a buffet of those women who are in any way tainted by their proximity to the male body—especially those women who have not spawned Satan’s seed: the male child.

What kicked this shit storm off was when a post I made last week on my timeline regarding a feminist event this summer which I might have been interested in attending.  As a mother to two small children, my participation in such events is entirely related to my ability to bring my children with me, especially when an event is not a local one-day affair. So as with all logistical communications, I wrote and asked if I could bring my children aged two and five. This is the exchange I posted on my Facebook wall:

I just received this as an email for a “feminist” event:

“It is a female-only space so we do not allow male children.”

My response: “You have just written the most fucked up email I have ever received in my life. Happy not to attend. Wow!!!”

From this post I received comments like, “Why is that fucked up?” where I was expected to explain to an adult female who considers herself a feminist why barring a two-year old because he is male might present a moral problem for any group which not only calls itself “feminist” but which seeks to liberate all females from sex-based oppression whereby the mothers of these children are necessarily excluded.  The irony in posing such a question made my head reel, but no sooner could I realize the incongruence of this assertion did another woman write, “I actually don’t understand, either. I’m not being snarky. I really don’t see why it’s wrong to have female-only spaces.”  I had to underscore many times in these conversations that my objection had to do with being asked not to bring a two-year-old male to a feminist event, not the fact that, as per many social events, children in general were not welcome. My disagreement had nothing to do with “female-only spaces,” but dealt with the more serious matter of excluding small male bodies because of some deeply prejudiced views of males from birth.

I then reminded these women of the Facebook groups I have had to leave in recent years where some feminists had actually advocated for the abortion of male fetuses to counter the historical injustices of femicide and misogyny.  I had left those groups upon reading this eugenical proposition and reminded these women last week that the disdain for and the planned elimination of male bodies from the site of the social is nothing other than eugenics. It was upon this basis that I protested the demonization of male bodies as a political strategy.  I even, somewhat ironically, invoked the term “feminazi” demonstrating how a word so often misused by men’s rights activists, actually makes sense in this specific context of willing and orchestrating away males as a class, all under the guise of “safe spaces.”  Certainly, “female-only spaces” is the lie these “feminists” tell themselves to commit to a essentialism of male guilt through birth.

Some women chimed in stating that small boys under five should be acceptable to bring, but such sentiments were rarely allowed to remain unchallenged with others angrily writing about male babies “tak[e] the attention from their mothers,” that female babies “deserve to have female-only spaces,” that “[w]omen have the right to not want penis-having people of any age, in a group or gathering,” and one woman even maintained that young boys “absorb misogyny.”  It is as if these women emerged from medieval alchemy whereby the site of evil, the male as misogyny par excellence, is the contagion and not the social and political structures into which we are all inculcated.

These responses and anger directed at males emerged this past week, all from the context of newborn and toddler males who simply cannot be tossed in the crisper for a week, or where a parent like myself—single by choice—cannot just drop this child somewhere at such a tender age.  It was clear, despite the word “sister” and “sisterly” being thrown about that this sub-brand of “radical feminism” was anything but feminist.  There was a clear framing of these “penis-having” bodies as abject and this abjection was extended to any woman who produced these male lives.  Could the irony of such a feminism be any clearer?

And then things went off the rails.  And when I say “off the rails” I mean Cronos eating all of his children in one spoonful off the rails.

The thread on my wall quickly exploded with references to toddler rapists with women writing of young children under five being sexually aggressive stating, Small children do rape. It just wasn’t me making that assertion or using that fact in this argument in this thread,” “ I’m sure 5 year old boys rape. They socialize into masculinity very fast, didn’t you feminists know that by now?” and this piece of work:  “Years ago, I was with a feminist friend while she was babysitting a 2 year old boy. His mom was a swim coach at a local college. The boy was grabbing at our breasts and had this really creepy smile on his face. We both got it: it came across as sexist-creepy. At age 2, he’d already learned to objectify women. I’ve seen this in other boys at age 2.”  One woman went on to post a link repeatedly to an article which allegedly maintains that that toddlers can also rape. In reality, however, this article merely demonstrates the links between those boys who had committed sexual offenses at the age of almost nine and the co-extensive “history of sexual and physical abuse in the majority of the families of these children, as well as a history of substance abuse.”  Hardly toddler rapists.  Alas, the myth of the toddler rapist was born and I was horrified by both what I was reading and worried about this madness unfolding upon my wall.

So, from my original Facebook post—what I thought was the complete “out there” of feminist politics—was merely the Marco Rubio to these feminists’ Donald Trump, with this latter group exercising, in perfect congruence to the trope of “legitimized” racism towards Mexicans, the emotionally-charged branding of young male children as potential rapists. As these women sung their version of a fundamentalist feminism, the chorus couched their desire for female-only spaces as the “loving of other women.”  It is the comic bordering on the insane, with a heavy dose of the very patriarchy these women claim to be fighting tossed into the mix.

I tried to dialogue with these women who kept persisting in derailing the discussion.   Indeed, for many women making a humanist argument for feminism, stating that feminism is not about individuals but structures, the response was consistently U-turned back to “all-female spaces.” But for those of us alarmed by the constant references to “penis-free spaces,”  it became quickly clear that this debate was never about all-female spaces.  This was about enforcing patriarchy 2.0 fiercely spun against women who had any contact with males, to include those who had procreated them.  I tried to reason against these women’s position writing: “You don’t make society disappear because people perceive a two-year-old as a patriarch.”  Others chimed in: “Having read the original post, I’m really disturbed that this all came from the prospect of a 2 year old child (with a penis) attending an all women event. Projecting the attributes of adult males on a toddler is surely part of the problem we are fighting against and it feels to me that it is akin to the sexualization of children.”  And yet another, “We want a society where each sex respects and values each other surely, not one dominance replaced by another.” The pushback to such reasoned thoughts was once again to derail the discussion with the repeated insistence of women’s individual rights to not have any “penis-bodied” humans in the mix, all the while excoriating the mothers of these male babies as having “mother privilege.”

Identity politics gone amok with these self-styled “radical feminists” who have basically fashioned a new ideology by stitching together neo-liberal tropes to an identity politics of victimhood.  Lacking any sort of structural critique of sex-based inequality or even a coherent political narrative, these women have passed the ball to the so-called “privileged mothers” who are shamed for procreating on the one hand, and then falsely painted as bourgeois and wealthy on the other.  The contradictions are so fast and furious that one could have whiplash reading through all the sexist paradigms that appear to be neatly cut-and-pasted from several generations earlier.  Who knew that women having children would upset the neo-liberal “radical feminist” who views herself as emancipated merely because she has earmarked children as oppressive!

Then one woman let loose the nugget of truth at the heart of this matter:  “Why did [these women] make more males? I know we are definitely not allowed to think or say such things because of the motherhood worship cult and myth of motherhood oppression, but seriously, the world is being destroyed by males and we are running out of time.”  I was to learn that there is a “motherhood worship cult” as I was accused of having “motherhood privilege.”  You can’t make this delusional nonsense up!  So, in the absence of the dominant patriarch, these women had merely replaced that symbol with the next best thing: females impregnated by the patriarch.  It is as if the last 100 years of feminism had never taken place, because with “feminists” like this, who needs patriarchy?

Many comments attempted to belittle our critiques of this tacit form of eugenics, asserting that it was our “natural attachment” to our male offspring which clouded our ability to “sympathize” with women who wanted no “penis-bodied” individuals in their midst. Other comments insinuated that we could not “understand” this “need” because of our being “handmaidens to patriarchy” as one woman wrote that we refuse “to admit that their son (Nigel) will be an oppressor, even when all evidence points to it.”  Personally speaking, it was overwhelming to watch so many so-called feminists assume that I had a male partner—much less any partner. It was largely this assumption that formed their beliefs that I and my “toddler son rapist” were polluted and thus unworthy of being part of their purity feminism. It is not bad enough that women are already framed as being gold-diggers, false rape accusers, and manipulative bosses, but in the absence of  women must face the same sets of arguments from other women who deem that the problem of sex-based inequality is suddenly the fault of other women who reproduce with the “devil’s seed” and dare give birth to males.

Apparently there is a whole mini-cult of these “feminists” who pop about the Internet to inform women that all males are tyrannical, to include boys.  A few such feminists have actually written a book about how males are “inherently dangerous” with a chapter entitled, “Boys Oppress All Females.”  The authors of this text promote the belief that males are naturally oppressive, noting that giving birth does not mean that a female is not “bringing another rapist into the world” and ”that no matter what you do, if you have a boy, he will likely terrorize and assault girls and, later, adult women and Lesbians, and likely will be a rapist.” This text is comedy gold!

The arguments of those who view male babies as oppressors from birth are as comic as they are sad, since insinuating that young boys present a danger to grown women plays into the very rhetoric of patriarchy these women otherwise espouse. Reducing a male to a monolith of presumed guilt is no different than the historical reductions of women as free laborshopping addicts, or fashion-victims.  Such essentialism decries the necessary structural critiques of patriarchy by individualizing power such that male babies are not only born as abusers but they also present a danger to the pure-driven innocence of females.  Arguments which position male violence not as a social but as a “genetic condition” only serve to duplicate the very essentialist arguments which actual feminists are fighting today where correlating certain gendered behavior to sexed bodies is not the solution, it’s the problem.

One person posted that male babies “aren’t primal rape seed”  pointing to the the issues of class that this newly minted brand of so-called “radical feminists” blatantly ignore.  She  continues:

They don’t have capital to pay for a servant class of working people to raise their child every single day while they do Real Things Of Importance because having a child is totally an absolutely meaningless biological mechanistic thing, unless something MALE is involved and is therefore on the rape spectrum. I don’t think any of you believe your own bullshit about constructionist gender and that your real worldview is of a Darwinist hellscape in which women are biologically inferior praying for the Messiah to come in the form of virgin births. It’s highly phobic of sex and sexuality. I’m totally done with this sorry excuse for feminism.

The deflections of class analysis took place in tandem with the demonstrable inability to sustain an ethics of male elimination.  Some women flailed so desperately for an argument that a few floated the falsehood that the event I was interested in attending actually allowed male children (it doesn’t).  And while these “feminists” attempted to sound theoretical, they weren’t really saying anything except that mothers are to blame for reproducing children—mostly male children—while pointing to the audacity of these mothers who asked to bring their young children with them to an all-female event. The responses of “get a partner” were less than unhelpful; they were a stark reminder that sexism is not about individual men but is very much about the structures that both men and women adopt in marginalizing the most disempowered.

While I found the events of this past week shocking, I didn’t find them surprising.  Last summer, I met up with a British radical feminist for brunch one Sunday morning, I was aghast by her annoyance that I had brought my two children with me. I told her, “It’s Sunday, I am a single parent. Should I have stuck them in the refrigerator?”  She went on to insult me and my children insinuating my male child was patriarchal, adding, “Women who are raped by their husbands, I get them having children, but these….” she said, waving her hand in the direction of my children. She never finished her sentence but it was quite clear where she was heading.  I had broken her stereotypical mold as a single woman who chose to have children on my own. There was nobody to blame, nobody to accuse of a “marital rape” which resulted in children. In this feminist’s mind, children are uniquely the result of rape, no sane woman would have anything to do with men, and women have zero agency concerning their own lives.  She ranted for another ten minutes or so until I finally turned to her and said, “For someone who dislikes children so much, you behave an awful lot like one.”

Thinking of this encounter over the past week, I was happily reminded by many radical feminists who have not confused trauma for solidarity of the importance of including mothers in their events.  And many of these women have spoken out over the past week reminding the younger feminists of the imperative to offer childcare at all events and not to exclude mothers.  Somehow this message missed these other “radical feminists” whom I am forced to resign permanently to quotation marks.

Feminism—no matter what brand you call it—must be about structures, not individuals. We cannot create a movement for social reform and the advance of human rights of women based upon the reversal of atrocity or an “eye for an eye” type of vigilante feminism. That model has proven throughout history not to work and we are constrained to cohabiting this planet together with be-penised bodies, like it or not. Inasmuch as I am happy to support all-female spaces—something that concerns half the population—this very same half also happens to be the sex that reproduces children.  It is hard to build a case for human rights when only those who do not reproduce are given any sort of social power and credibility, or where their dislike of the “penis” becomes that emblematic moment for a feminism where women who reproduce males are cannibalized for the cause.

Where I have been critiquing identity politics in recent years, I cannot exempt this self-appointed subset of “radical feminists” whose political claims exist uniquely as a grievance instead of as a movement fomented upon the centering of a class-based analysis.  This spin on “feminism” is heavy-laden with many of the same issues that these very feminists differently oppose in other political landscapes.  Their is an identitarianism driven uniquely by a politics of suffering and hyper-individualism where the rhetoric of “healthy boundaries” becomes a cover for patriarchy v1.2 as the exclusion of inconvenient bodies is collateral damage to their storefront window of “woman as utopia.”

As Chazz Brandon wrote to one woman, “You can keep repeating that [it’s about all-female spaces] but it’s a calculated misrepresentation and shameful. It’s about some women’s aversion to males even in diapers. Excluding women on that basis is ridiculous.” Brandon then went on to create this meme which has since amped up the kray kray while encouraging more women on the left to critique the myth of the “toddler rapist.”

In addition to Brandon’s meme, I received numerous emails and messages of support from women who were horrified by what was taking place.  Many similarly took up the task of responding to these claims: one pointing out that “feminism is a political theory and practice” not a brand of vengeance as political action, another writing that “when feminism loses class analysis it becomes hollow,” and a feminist who threw up her hands likening these women to “cult abductees.”  Daily, women have come out to voice their criticism about some of the more delusory tales of the “pervy toddler” and the narrative being spun that males are the beholders of original sin in tandem with the bizarre sexualization of both male and female children.  This was a full-on reversal of the historical tables of injustice and these women were clearly using “female-only spaces” as their cover for a revenge narrative to enact their anger upon all males—infants, toddlers, and the whole gamut of born-to-be-rapists.  Thankfully, many radical feminists have stood up to the bullying and the misandry in recent days, speaking out against the implications of eugenics for such a theoretical and practical intolerance of male bodies, some comparing this self-appointed brood to “cult abductees” and others questioning if trauma has played a role in the creation of such a discourse.

This off-shoot of the radical feminist movement is framing women as perpetual victims and men as the genetic spawn whose threat to women begins at birth.  Cronus eating his children is embodied by these women who seek to locate and destroy any perceived threat to their dreamscape of “penis-free space.”   Such politics shows no desire to transcend the political reality of the sexes; instead, these women opt for a victim-politics of emotion whereby the only permissible voice allowable is that of a hyper-individualized feminism which refuses to reconcile bourgeois neoliberal freedoms with their private beliefs.  Or, as one woman told me, “It’s slut shaming by proxy.”

This off-label brand of radical feminism has driven away women because of its very internalized hatred of men—women who are polluted by their physical proximity to males, reproduction, and their male children. Such political narratives fracture any sense of solidarity and ultimately prevent any type of revolutionary action.  We’ve seen this story before–and it isn’t a political narrative. It’s a religion.

The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South

Photo by woodleywonderworks | CC BY 2.0

Argentina just experienced its worse drought in thirty years; California recently suffered its worse drought since the 1400s according to ring tree research carried out by the University of Arizona; Oregon Governor Kate Brown just signed an executive order over the dire conditions of drought in the Klamath Basin, agriculture disaster was recently declared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in four states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas) due to drought, concentrated in to a total of 25 parishes and 124 counties; last week Iranian farmers in Isfahan protested the government’s failure to act on a drought that has plagued the region for over a decade; farmers in Maharashtra, India protested over loan waivers, prices, and land rights with state ministers due to the growing problem of drought in the region; on Tuesday, Kansas Governor, Jeff Colyer, signed a drought declaration for all 105 counties in the state of Kansas; and also on Tuesday the South African government declared that the drought afflicting Cape Town and other parts of the country is a national disaster.

These are just a few facts regarding the mounting problems of water supply around the world with Cape Town being one of the more serious cases.  Aside from the obvious problems of climate change where drought poses a threat to green spaces and wildlife, to the local economy, and tourism, the more obvious danger is to agriculture as well as to health and sanitation.  In its third year of consecutive drought, Cape Town residents are limited to 50 liters of water per day and “Day Zero,” said to arrive on 9 July of this year, is that moment when the water supply is so low that three-quarters of the population will have its water shut off.

While droughts are a natural phenomenon in the Western Cape, climate change has exacerbated the conditions for inhabitants of this region and it is widely believed that climate change is playing a principle role in the devastation.  While global warming has already resulted in extreme conditions in this region and beyond, scientists underscore the need for humans to adapt to this new reality where, for instance, in the Western Cape, the weather is expected to warm by around 0.25C over the next decade. This fact alone means that the likelihood of drought will increase sevenfold and affect the state of health, hygiene, and food insecurity in the region.

One strange player that has come to the “rescue” in the Western Cape is Coca-Cola Peninsula Beverages, in partnership with the Coca-Cola Foundation and suppliers. Attempting to provide millions of liters of water to the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town during the water crisis, providing free “prepared water” in 2-liter recyclable PET bottles marked “Not for resale.”  South Africa is the only country in the world which has a Constitution that guarantees the right to water in the Bill of Rights but this right is not only being denied to millions of residents of the country.   In the Western Cape and other provinces, over 1 million people have been affected by water shortages and water restrictions with many having to walk tens of kilometers to source drinking water.  So the protection of South Africa’s constitutional guarantee of water has become especially dear to many.

Back in the early 2000s, townships surrounding the cities of Johannesburg and Durban became politically mobilized in protesting water privatization given the fact that at the time over 10 million residents had their water cut off by the government’s implementation of a World Bank-inspired “cost recovery” program.  This program made water availability dependent on a company’s ability to recover its costs plus a profit and more than 100,000 people in Kwazulu-Natal province became ill with cholera after water and sanitation services to local communities were cut off for nonpayment.

In their brilliant exposé of this situation in South Africa and beyond, “Who Owns Water?”, Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke give a scathing explanation of what was at stake back in 2002, the situation far more aggravated today.  They identify the ten major corporations making a profit from freshwater beginning with France’s Vivendi Universal and Suez whom they label the “General Motors and Ford of the global water industry.” Barlow and Clare go on to characterize how these two and other companies:

deliver private water and wastewater services to more than 200 million customers in 150 countries and are in a race, along with others such as Bouygues Saur, RWE-Thames Water and Bechtel-United Utilities, to expand to every corner of the globe.” In the United States, Vivendi operates through its subsidiary, USFilter; Suez via its subsidiary, United Water; and RWE by way of American Water Works.

But what about the World Bank and its’ “cost recovery” programs?  Aren’t they working?  The short answer is yes: they are working to help increase the coffers of theWorld Bank and the IMF as poor countries continue to become poorer and Barlow and Claire elaborate:

They are aided by the World Bank and the IMF, which are increasingly forcing Third World countries to abandon their public water delivery systems and contract with the water giants in order to be eligible for debt relief. The performance of these companies in Europe and the developing world has been well documented: huge profits, higher prices for water, cutoffs to customers who cannot pay, no transparency in their dealings, reduced water quality, bribery and corruption.

In a country where the minority of white farmers (six hundred thousand) consume 60 percent of the country’s water supplies for irrigation, it is no surprise that the country’s 15 million black citizens have no direct access to water. Labor unions like the South African Municipal Workers Union have collaborated with township activists to organize neighborhood actions where citizens are connecting water up themselves and ripping out water meters.  The injustices of foreign-owned companies coming into South Africa are being addressed but all too slowly as residents’ water is cut off, rarely is it the water of white South Africans.

Such is life in the twenty-first century when older trade deals such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) saw governments signing away their control over domestic water supplies and the later failed attempt to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and also the the World Trade Organization.  It is increasingly clear given the current state of drought which bodies have access to water, which ones do not.  And despite our desire to “fix” these problems thought hackathons in the Nevada Desert or by adjusting the Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) which can be used to address drought structurally, the reality is that there is a lot of neo-colonial control over those areas of the world in conditions of severe draught, and a load of white, western institutions making money over the death and hardships of dark-skinned bodies. So of course, it is not surprising to see white South Africans asking that Coca-Cola be put in charge of its water supplies!

Skip over the Indian Ocean to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and a similar story has erupted in recent years. Indians have been protesting the condition of drought that has been pushed to the hilt by Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola depleting local water resources.  Amit Srivastava, director of India Resource Centre, an ecological NGO, estimates that it takes 1.9 liters of water to make one small bottle of Coca-Cola only if you don’t factor in the use of sugar. Sugarcane uses a lot of water to cultivate for which Coca-Cola is the number one purchaser of sugarcane and Pepsi-Cola number three.  If you account for the water used to create all ingredients in Pepsi-Cola or Coca-Cola, then it actually takes 400 liters of water to make a bottle of cola.

The move against fizzy drinks in Tamil Nadu gained momentum in March, 2017 when the High Court rejected rejected the request by petition to ban the use of water from the Thamirabarani River used to produced Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.  This effectively has nullified a previous injunction passed by a court in November, 2016.  Petitioners have argued that thousands of farmers in Tamil Nadu have been suffering from water shortage and drought while both companies freely used the river water for their commercial gains. Coincidental to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Spring of 2017 was another ban on jallikattu, a local form of bullfighting, pronounced in January 2017.  The momentum from these two court decisions resulted in a reinvigorated mass protest against both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.  And in the state of Kerala in March 2017, retailers voted to ban the sale of sodas.

In 1999, Coca-Cola established a bottling plant in the village of Kaladera in Rajasthan, a desert state where farmers rely on groundwater for the cultivation of their crops.  Since this time, these farmers have been confronted with a steep decline in water levels whereby the irrigation of land and the sustenance of crops is nearly impossible.  Official documents from the government’s water ministry show that water levels remained stable from 1995 until 2000:  “According to data compiled by the Rajasthan Groundwater department, in the 16 years from 1984 the groundwater levels at Kaladera dropped from 13 to 42 feet, at an average annual rate of 1.81 feet. But from 2000 to 2011, the drop was sharp from 42 to 131 feet at the rate of 8.9 feet a year.”

India and South Africa are not alone in this usurpation of public resources for the private sector. In San Felipe Ecatepec in the state of Chiapas, a Coca-Cola factory run by FEMSA is draining wells which forces local residents to buy bottled water.  It is reported that this bottling plant “consumes more than a million liters of water a day.” FEMSA  claims to be  “committed to the sustainable development of its associates, communities and the environment,” but little action is seen to demonstrate this.  And in Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia, and Mexico, PepsiCo faces similar problems with criticism for depleting water resources in these areas.  Both Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola seek out the clean image it needs to win over public opinion, much most of their claims are theatre.  While Coca-Cola claims to replenish the water it removes from the ground, the fact is that the water is never replaced at the source of its original removal. And as much as these companies try to rebrand and “green up” their image, you will never win over a population whose water you steal while selling the public their own water back to them.  For instance, Ethiopia’s East African Bottling Company has introduced Dasani to its market which is more rinse and repeat of the same old for Africans:  Coca Cola owns Dasani.

In 2017, 81 million people in the world experienced severe food insecurity or shortage. Approximately 80 percent of those affected live in Africa.  The reality of food and water shortage is one that can be addressed and rectified, but we can do neither if our societies do not recognize the need to understand how the privatization and abuse by corporations of public resources is adding to or creating conditions of drought. The human contributions leading to the credible risk of famine and thirst experienced in countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, and South Sudan, though more pronounced, are emblematic as to what is happening in South Africa, India, Mexico and beyond.

There is a corporate takeover of public resources and we need to support a Global Water Convention now such as the proposed model, The Treaty Initiative: To Share and Protect the Global Water Commons, penned by Maude Barlow and Jeremy Rifkin that lays out what we must do to secure the right of access to water.  There are also others proposals for a Global Water Convention similar to the model suggested by Barlow and Clarke in their 2002 Nation article.  Still, so many people around the planet have not mobilized towards a legal decree obligating the sharing of water resources and the end to corporate encroachment upon public resources. As water is the 21st century’s most precious commodity, we need to act quickly to ensure that the limited resource of water does not translate to the limited resource of life.

The True Stories That Fake News Tells: The Forced Sterilization of Women

I am constantly amazed in this day and age where Americans have a President who touts anything he doesn’t agree with as “fake news” that is the moment that people grow cynical of the term.   Despite Donald Trump’s ability to shun astute critique of his politics, the term does carry currency in terms of how true or false news stories are.  But it is not just American media that is stuck within this paradigm of readers never knowing what is or is not true, the British who have a nationally subsidized media whereby residents in the UK must pay a TV license are subjected to another sort of “fake news,” namely, the endless stream of trivia regarding the Royal Family.

What is “news” today can range from the entirely vapid stories of an impending Royal Wedding to the recent story of a pedophile found in his cell with his penis chopped off.  The former is entirely not newsworthy and stokes the fire of many British who resist paying television taxes because of this sort of abuse of public funds to cover “fluff” and the latter is largely untrue. Yet, both stories are widespread because who doesn’t want to read about a pedophile who has come to his just-deserved end or the happy royal marriage between a Hollywood actor and a prince?

And this is why fake news has become so prevalent: the market forces of advertisement rewards social media shares. Conterminous to this reality of capitalism and social media there is a recent study published in Science last week, untrue stories are shared at far higher rates than factual new items:

About 126,000 rumors were spread by ∼3 million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.

And this paradigm of news “out there” ranging from the entirely fantastical to the well-researched and objectively true means that readers are either constantly suspicious about what they read or just more gullible about the intake of news given the paucity of time to research every media byte.

For instance, last fall when the cryptocurrency market began to rise ever so speedily, many people wrote me to ask me about bitcoin and if the stories were true about its reputed rise.  The quality of fake news is so wide-ranging today in subject matter and analysis that it is hard for people to recognize the difference between actual true news, fake news, and as I found out yesterday when posting a satirical piece about a man who abandoned his family to live out his dream of living life as a squirrel. Indeed, at times it is difficult to recognize fake news from real news simply because reality is also troublingly “unreal” and indistinguishable from fable.

So yesterday, I came upon a story which I shared on Facebook where my stream there is largely a bookmarking of stories I hope to read in the not-too-distant future.  The story I posted is entitled “Big Pharma Co. Has License Suspended As Vaccine Sterilizes 500,000 Girls” and immediately upon posting the thread was flooded with skeptical comments asking if this is true, one wondering why the British media hadn’t reported this, and even one posting to a fact-checking website which rates news stories on the conspiracy range from “none” to “tin foil hat.”

This article received a “mixed” review.  And on Snopes, this related to a story from 2014 which was labelled as “false” despite the origins of the story being factually correct:  a press statement released on 7 October, 2015 by the Catholic Health Commission of Kenya – Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) who state their concerns that the Tetanus Toxoid vaccine (TT) might be laced with Beta human chorionic gonadotropin (b-HCG). This press release expressed concern for the role played by sponsoring development partners since such programs had “previously been used by the same partners in Philippines, Nicaragua and Mexico to vaccinate women against future pregnancy.”  A component of experimental birth control vaccines, b-HCG caused alarm to these bishops as it is common knowledge that development aid has historically and negatively affected the bodies of women—especially those of women of color.

Anyone who has lived in countries outside the west becomes acutely aware as to how “humanitarian aid” is peddled, offered up as the panacea to all social and medical ills, when, in fact, such aid usually debilitates local economies, medical practices, and educational institutions.  And view the video of the man at the center of this debate, former Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga (1992-2013), who has spoken at length on his concerns. Watching this video, it is clear that Odinga is no biologist and that his statement does not account for presence of b-HCG. Similarly, the Washington Post report on this subject makes clear that the results are inconclusive either way due to how the sample of this vaccine was analyzed.  Still many remain cautious about dismissing the accusations, such as Keith Donovan of Georgetown’s Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, stating:

[T]here are aspects of this that need to be raising red flags because of history and because of the way it was all being done. But raising red flags doesn’t mean that there’s something that actually has occurred.

What Donovan is getting at here is the importance of understanding how women’s bodies have been historically controlled by colonizing forces, especially with regards to their reproductive capacity.  The accusations which target this long-running vaccination program sponsored by the WHO and UNICEF, inoculates women of reproductive age against tetanus in a country where tetanus is a deadly health problem.  Yet the phrase “women of reproductive age” mentioned in the same sentence as any UN organization or NGO will set off alarms for many who have seen the horrors of mass sterilization programs which, oddly enough, British media has rarely covered.

One of the most infamous mass sterilization projects in recent history was that carried out by the Peace Corps in Bolivia in the 1960s and early 1970s. This resulted in the Peace Corps being thrown out of the country in 1971, in large part because of the production of one of Bolivia’s most important films on the topic, Blood of the Condor (Yawar Mallku), by Jorge Sanjínes (1969), which informed the people as to what this US agency was doing to women.  This project involved Peace Corps volunteers distributing contraception, even inserting IUDs into indigenous Quechua women, without their informed consent.  This set off a series of accusations which in turn fueled rumors about widespread US-funded sterilization programs.  Through the 1980s there was a distrust of all US programs, food products, and birth control products.  Meanwhile in this same period, between 1965 and 1971, an estimated 1 million women in Brazil had been sterilized. And in Mexico in 1974 there was a massive sterilization program which gave an anti-fertility vaccine to 1,204 females under the guise of “family planning.”

In Colombia, between 1963 and 1965 more than 400,000 women were sterilized in a program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. And in the Philippines, where similar concerns of the tetanus vaccine was blamed for sterilizing women just last year, USAID has sponsored family planning programs there to the tune of $40m, with poor women being offered money to go through the sterilization procedure in rural villages.  The Philippines has a long history of sterilization projects dating back to the 1970s which has resulted in a healthy skepticism about any “vaccines” that Filipina women will logically view with great suspicion.

In recent years, there have been numerous reports from the Gauteng province of South Africa of women who are HIV+ people told that sterilization is the “best form of contraception” and others who have been sterilized without any consent whatsoever. Similar reports have been emerging from Uganda, Namibia, and Slovakia as well. In Israel, the government has been sterilizing Ethiopian immigrants to the country with a notable decline in their birthrate in the country. And both Kenya and Chile have various important court cases which specifically address the illegality of forced sterilization in well-documented cases. It is no surprise that the former Prime Minister of Kenya is suspicious of a vaccine that has been called into question by the Catholic Health Commission of Kenya.

Still, let us not forget where such eugenicist notions of sterilization originated.  From the early twentieth century, the eugenics movement in the UK was born which led to the formation of the Eugenics Education Society in 1907. This organization campaigned for the forced sterilization of mentally disabled women, a program supported by mostly Labour MPs such that by 1931 there was a draft bill proposed in Parliament to this end. On the other side of the Atlantic, sterilization laws were enacted in 32 of the US states between 1907 and 1937 only to be repealed from the 1970s onward. Although the sterilization was to affect the bodies of both males and females in the United States, the focus of sterilization would come to bear its weight on the bodies of women.

For instance, in California, even when the state’s eugenic sterilization law was repealed in 1979, other legislation paved the way for operations in state prisons to sterilize female inmates. Between 2006 and 2010, there were 146 female inmates in two of California’s women’s prisons who received tubal ligations with at least three dozen of these procedures directly violating the state’s own informed consent process. Not surprisingly, the majority of those who were sterilized were not only first-time offenders, but largely African-American and Latina. The logic as explained by the physician responsible for these surgeries, Dr. James Heinrich: that the state would save money “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.” In 2013, a journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting published on this story which eventually led to the passage of a bill banning sterilization in California state prisons.

And sterilization campaigns have been more than common outside of prisons in the United States and its territories such as the case of Puerto Rico where from the 1930s to late 1960s mass sterilization was underway such that by 1965, a survey revealed that one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterile.  Similar to the surgeries undertaken in prisons was the rationale rooted in the desire to save the government’s money from women who were perceived as reproducing at high rates, especially when Puerto Rican immigrants were coming to the US in the 1970s. Also, there was the fear that Latinos might edge out “white America” which is why so many Latina women in Puerto Rico, New York City, and California were specifically targeted by the government for sterilization throughout the 20th century.

African American women have also been the targets of population control throughout the country’s history and have been disproportionately affected by sterilization abuse. In North Carolina, the state which has one of the worse records for sterilization abuse, 65 percent of its sterilization procedures were performed on black women despite the population of black women in that state hovering at 25 percent.  The case Madrigal v. Quilligan (1978) was ground-breaking in that, even if the judge ruled in favor of the doctors who abusively coerced Latina women into sterilization, this case set the precedent of informed consent, underscoring the obligation to provide forms in multiple languages for non-native English speakers.

So while some are outraged by the claims of UNICEF and the WHO being accused of sterilizing women in countries like Kenya and the Philippines, others view the historical veracity of what similar agencies have done historically and more recently (eg. USAID’s support of Peru’s sterilization of indigenous women from 1997 through 2002 where “USAID provided $18 million to CARE for training doctors to perform sterilization and supplying sterilization equipment used in the coercive campaigns.”1

What is important to take away from these reports is that the suspicion exercised over the control of women’s bodies by foreign agencies and/or by these agencies exercising their monetary power through local politics needs to be regarded with great scrutiny.  Has the Kenya Accreditation Service (Kenas) truly suspended Agriq-Quest Ltd’s license as a testing laboratory? I called their corporate number this morning and received no answer and went onto their Facebook page only to find it removed.  I went onto the Kenas’ website to see that Agriq-Quest Ltd is delisted.

The whole story has not been told and we have only a few blips of information here and there that can easily seem like fake news, or a story that western media doesn’t really care to tell. The larger question is why more western media isn’t concerned about the medicalization of the bodies of teenage girls and young women to the extent that the WHO and the UN are given carte blanche to create policy and to avoid answering any and all questions put to them about these policies.

What consoles me about seeing Odinga’s statement to the press is not that the reports about sterilization are necessarily inaccurate, but they reveal a healthy dose of cynicism towards foreign agencies that have never had these peoples’ best interest at heart.  We need to applaud the reports that may be inaccurate since they at least stick their neck out for the lives and rights of women to have a say in their corporeal autonomy, reproductive health, and lives.

  1. Peru’s Ministry of Health, “Final Report Concerning Voluntary Surgical Contraception Activities,” July, 2002.