The Burning Cloak of Infallibility

This is the second part of the Silverman Heresy. The previous part illustrated various contexts where David Silverman made his abortion remark that caused an outrage. In this installment, I chase down various arguments against the “witch hunts” allegations, show the history of the meme and the even larger context. We also get and idea how the faction frequently accused of instigating “witch hunts” thinks about the matter.divider We don’t know where FreeThoughtBlogs’ Jason Thibeault read the “Witch Hunt” charge he dismisses, and what prompted Stephanie Zvan of the same network to add a sarcastic “It’s just like the blogosphere, isn’t it?” below a historical witch hunt text. We do know, however, that the “witch hunt” meme is quite alive and that the Social Justice faction had to deal with it before. Often.

Where they Burn books…

Foreshadowing with Heinrich Heine:

“It was only the prologue, where they burn books, they eventually burn people.” — Heinrich Heine, Almansor (1821)

Heinrich Heine puts these words into the mouth of the Muslim Hassan in his tragedy “Almansor”. Hassan comments on the burning of the Quran in the conquered town of Granada at the end of the “Reconquista” in 1500. The quote often appears in Germany on memorials, as our history had seen plenty of book and people burnings, literally and figuratively. I foreshadow with this interlude, as Heine’s words were seen as a foreshadowing of what would come a little over a hundred years after he wrote it.

book burning & witch burning

Wait. Isn’t this is about Silverman? Hyperbole!


Some people will likely think: Surely, this is hyperbole! David Silverman was only criticized for what he stated in public – a completely normal procedure: standard activism. And as far as we know, he still walks among the living. If anything burned, then only his Cloak of Infallibility. And we don’t have infallible leaders. Tone it down!


Moral Panic

But not so fast. The “witch hunt” term has multiple meanings, and we will explore where it fits and where it doesn’t. Obviously, David Silverman wasn’t set on fire. That was the easy part. Yet, the suspects during the McCarthy Era weren’t set on fire, either and yet still, it is where the figurative usage of the “Witch Hunt” was popularized. It is a mistake to confuse the McCarthyian “witch hunts” as the defining source of what “witch hunts” are like, and not the other way around –  that the “witch hunt” is a thing itself that can be seen in both the McCarthy Era as well as in the historical Witch Hunts, and – perhaps – in Mr Silverman’s case. We could compare it the cognate moral panic. Wikipedia lists five characteristics, according to  Goode and Ben-Yehuda:

Concern – There must be awareness that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative effect on society.

Hostility – Hostility towards the group in question increases, and they become “folk devils”. A clear division forms between “them” and “us”.

Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the “moral entrepreneurs” are vocal and the “folk devils” appear weak and disorganised.

Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.

Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic.

This is surprisingly close to the situation at hand. The “movement” or community isn’t a public or the nation in the classical sense, and there are some other differences that have to do with the different media landscape that now includes social media and blogs. Other than that, it has it all. There was the concern that Mr Silverman is eroding human rights of women. Then we saw organized hostility and a consensus of the vocal actors who coordinated their efforts across multiple blogs, social media and organisations (such as Secular Women). Their statements and their volume was disproportional to an offhand remark that merely asserted a secular argument exists, and of course the whole affair itself is gone soon afterwards, only the grudges persist. In our case, it was replaced by Stollznow and Radford as the next big thing.

Not convincing? The venerable Oxford Dictionary defines a “witch hunt” as:

A campaign directed against a person or group holding views considered unorthodox or a threat to society.

Their American-English variant adds unpopular views:

informal, A campaign directed against a person or group holding unorthodox or unpopular views.

Merriam-Webster’s definition emphasises unfairness:

[An] act of unfairly looking for and punishing people who are accused of having opinions that are believed to be dangerous or evil

Chasing Down the Meme

Within the Atheist-Skeptics “movement” the meme seems to have made its debut in late 2011, in the aftermath of “Elevatorgate”. I only heard of Elevatorgate and “Dear Muslima” as a distant echo at the time and my readers might know more about this, than I do. The earliest case seem to come from Russell Blackford, who put it into a comment that is no longer available.

Sometime in May 2012 it must have been floating about, as Stephanie Zvan deals with it for the first time in the Atheist-Skeptics context. We learn from her that it is apparently a feminist or anti-feminist thing (which is often indistinguishable, it seems):

I’ve been accused of being on a witch hunt before. The same is probably true for pretty much any feminist who ever dares to point out that multiple men have demonstrated bad gendered behavior. – Stephanie Zvan, cont.

She then believes the backdrop of witch hunts are Salem, and when a situation isn’t like Salem, it isn’t a witch hunt proper. Power relations were, she argues, very different even in the figurative McCarthyian sense.

Even someone who only took away the lessons of McCarthyism should understand how the balance of power in a metaphorical witch hunt works. […] By comparison, what’s the situation I described in my post? A group of men too important to be touched. A group of women who share (and have shared for some time) knowledge privately among themselves because they don’t have the power it would take to protect them if they spoke publicly. – Stephanie Zvan, On Witches and Hunting Thereof

The balance of power doesn’t matter according to the definitions of “witch hunt” seen above. I don’t know what the situation was at the time, though at least later, the Social Justice League had quite an influence; many known and frequent speakers in the conference circuit; and very vocal fans and followers. Accusing someone of misogyny and worse is (or was) also a very potent weapon.

The main popularizer of the “Witch Hunt” meme in the Atheist-Skeptics community was probably Michael Shermer, who received a lot of flak for his “guy thing” remark. This is now early 2013 and again, a “Famous Atheist-Skeptic” is the target for a statement that was seen as “anti-women” by the social justice faction (of PZ Myers, Zvan et al). Mr Shermer’s reply had it all: witches, McCarthy and the Nazis. His original comment is now behind a login-wall, but PZ Myers quoted it and commented:

Astonishing. Apparently, criticizing anything Mr Michael Shermer says is now a “McCarthy-like witch hunt”, an “inquisition” with the goal of “purging” Shermer from the ranks of…what? He’s a publisher and author. Is there a threat to take his word processor away? But see, this is why the atheist movement can’t have leaders. The ones we’ve got, informally, all seem to think they’re like gods and popes, infallible and unquestionable, and that normal, healthy, productive criticism within the movement is all a conspiracy to dethrone them. – PZ Myers, The Delicate Ego of Mr Michael Shermer

PZ Myers’ argumentation became the standard reply on the matter. The gist is that he and his faction are just offering criticism of some perceived leaders and that people who cry “witch hunts” treat these “leaders” as infallible, and they shouldn’t. With some armchair psychology, that looks more like projection since their own opinion leaders shield themselves from criticism and consistently demonize it as misogynistic. It is also quite apparent that PZ Myers and others tend to make it about picking a side. He wants that we believe him and not the other person. He wants that the “movement” prefers his version of events over the version someone else maintains. I suspect that if the Social Justice people hadn’t made it all a zero-sum game of Whom-To-Believe and “With us Or Against Us”, a much more constructive situation could have emerged than it did.


Another year later, PZ Myers argument emerges again, this time jotted down by then-FTBlogger Ian “Crommunist” Cromwell, and the “witch” was Ron Lindsay for his most-criticized WIS2 conference opening talk.

“It is, however, a distressingly common circumstance to see people decry any and all criticisms of or actions taken against someone who is on ‘their team’ as a “witch hunt”. Oftentimes they will invoke the ghost of old Joe McCarthy, and generally bloviate about how innocent people are being dragged through the muck by (fill in the blank).” – Crommunist, Abused Meme Roundup: Witch Hunt

By the time the infamous Slymepit already took over the “Witch of the Week” meme with usual jest: TV shows intersperse so-called “Monster of the Week” episodes into their story arcs to draw in new viewers. I found this a rather apt way of looking at the situation.

There are quite a lot “Witches of the Week” already: next to ones already mentioned, there is Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Lawrence Krauss. Not the worst gallery to be featured in. Dawkins was nominated at least twice, and was perhaps the very first “Witch of the Week” with his “Dear Muslima” comment. When he reprised his role, it was extensively discussed by the Irish activist Michael Nugent who is somewhat above suspicion of being one of the evil “anti-women” apologists. Mr Nugent didn’t use the word “witch hunt”, yet his article has the same thrust and criticizes the very same people, PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, Stephanie Zvan and so forth – namely the Social Justice faction. He describes a pattern:

The smears typically follow parts of the following pattern. Some people place the most uncharitable meaning they can on a comment by Richard, or else exaggerate it out of proportion to reasonable debate, and continue to do so even after he clarifies what he meant. Then, instead of correcting these false allegations, which are pounced upon by his enemies, some people either ignore the clarification or else blame Richard further for allowing himself and/or atheism to be misrepresented.– Michael Nugent, Richard Dawkins’ nuanced memoir and the unjust personal smears against him


The Pattern

And then we have the latest “witch” David Silverman. And here again, the same folk who are infected by social justice blogging make a concerted effort of critique. I think the pattern described by Mr Nugent in the other context holds up fairly well. Mr Silverman’s remark that there is a secular argument for abortion somehow morphed into him attempting to take away human rights of women. It is the most uncharitable interpretation possible aired with maximum volume.

Entertaining anti-choice arguments delegitimizes women’s humanity and bodily autonomy; which is why we have been disturbed and appalled to witness the President of American Atheists, David Silverman, commenting on the existence of secular anti-choice arguments during an interview at CPAC without providing any context as to the validity of said arguments. – Secular Women, Rending the Tent

We can already extrapolate what the Social Justice League people would reply: we shouldn’t treat “leaders” such as Mr Silverman as infallible; that it must be okay to criticize them for what they do and say; that statements made in public have consequences and that this whole “witch hunt” thing is anyway pure hyperbole and that real witches were mostly women accused for misogynistic reasons, and those men are misogynists themselves and it is therefore a perversion of the situation. Further, when someone’s reputation suffers from the criticism, this isn’t like actually putting them to the fire and finally, the influence of the “Witch Hunters” is anyway limited and Mr Silverman and all the others will be fine. And lastly, the criticism is anyway really mild.

However, even though Social Justice people hate dictionaries, these definitions of “witch hunt” do describe – even if polemical – the current situation with David Silverman. He pointed to “unorthodox” and even “dangerous” views in their eyes and there was a campaign against him, which was unfair, because he neither promoted nor himself agreed to these “unorthodox” values and even if he did, they don’t necessarily infringe on the human rights of women.


It also fits for the simple reason that those “witches” are effectively removed from the Social Justice League spaces, which they themselves hope to expand that it encompasses the whole “movement” (the metaphor for that is “tent”, which appears for instance in the various headlines of the Secular Women articles on the matter, e.g. rending the tent).

It is not that someone is merely “called out”, everyone learns their lesson and next time we are a bit smarter. That’s not what happens. Social Justice members have grudges and love feuds. They can’t let go. In part one, I illustrated that there was already a history with David Silverman. They kept building the animosities over time and when Silverman finally presented a weakness, it was immediately exploited.

The reputation of the “witch” is trashed to such a degree that any mentioning by commenters results in severe backlash and what is called “dogpiling” (when many commenters overwhelm one commenter by insulting and attacking them). That means, the “witch” is also ideologically infectious and cannot be mentioned in a positive sense anymore, unless they are useful (e.g. when former “witch” Ron Lindsay critisizes people liked even less). This brings it much closer to the historical situation than it might be apparent.

Infallible Comedy

Witchfinder General by Gumby

I like to come to the end with something comical and it illustrates some of the claims I made. This one is from November, around the time when Richard Dawkins was the “Witch of the Week” and when Michael Nugent just wrote his critique linked to above.

PZ Myers thought it a good idea to point his self-styled “horde” to Richard Dawkins’ “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. He probably wanted to prove that his fans and followers can be polite and articulate. He wanted to prove that the critics were wrong. His post is plain and neutral. “Don’t give them the wrong ideas” he might have thought to himself. However, it becomes apparent with the first comment that Dawkins is a persona non grata and that the grievancs the commentariat has with him must be aired. The space must be ideologically disinfected so that newbies also understand clearly what to think of Dawkins.

PZ Myers manages to overlook all comments so far and claims, bravely, on comment #23 that his critics were lying when they say that Dawkins isn’t particular popular among his crowd:

[…] However, if you look over the questions posted on the IamA, you’ll see that they’re polite and friendly throughout. Kinda gives the lie to the idea that the horde was sent out “after” Dawkins, don’t you think?  I also suspect that the majority of the readers here, like me, respect Dawkins for his expertise and merely do not endorse the idea that he’s infallible, and are willing to call him out on differences of opinion. – PZ Myers, Comment #23

I don’t remember where anyone cared whether he sent his horde to pharyngulate Dawkins AMA. The issue was much more general hostility and smearing, not some AMA. He just tried to lower the bar so he can claim the hostilities weren’t that severe. Though even that failed. In stark contrast is his argument, again, that he and his followers merely burn the Cloak of Infallibility and nothing else. Remember folks, it’s just mild criticism! And that makes their whole show so hilarious often times, immediately afterwards regulars casts doubt on PZ Myer’s words. The brave host has to give in and tries to mitigate the damage only seven comments later. At #30 he claims:

Dawkins is a very smart guy and a great communicator…in his field. I will agree that he often digs himself a deep hole on social issues. But, you know, when we say that there should be no masters and no heroes, and that everyone should be subject to criticism, and there’s no one who’s perfect, we also need to recognize the complement to that: no one is totally bad, everyone has some area in which they’re right and good, and there’s no one who is perfectly bad. – PZ Myers, Comment #30

That makes PZ Myers the tragi-comical character that he is, as his commentariat keeps carping on.

As an other illustration and since it’s just in, some more hilarity comes today from the Atheism Plus department of the Social Justice League. It shows what kind of authoritarians they are. The admin proposes guidelines for April Fools Day.

[…] I’m not opposed to April Fools jokes here, but I think maybe we should put out guidelines that include, among other things:

  • No screamers (dangerous for epilepsy & anxiety disorders)
  • No shock photos (triggering)
  • No other dangerous jokes
  • If a joke is reported as triggering or otherwise dangerous, it may be hiddentexted or deleted per mod discretion
  • And if your joke takes the form of a link to media (e.g. Rickrolling), it should be explicit what kind of media it is (for sensory disability and potentially for epilepsy)

My intention is to encourage people to be safety-conscious and considerate to others. Thoughts? Opinions? Things I missed?  Rules for April’s Fool 

This is almost certainly not a (meta) joke. They would never make a joke on the backs of people who have epilepsy and the like, though by know they are governed by Poe’s Law, so we never know for sure.

(h/t windy)

People who want to control everything, narratives, language, what you can think of famous people and even April Fools jokes give a first glimpse of the more sinister aspects that will be featured in part three. For now I like to conclude that Mr Silverman was a target of a “witch hunt” in a polemical sense. Not everyone will agree, because we have to estimate what constitutes a campaign, and what exactly is unfairness. I hope though that even those who disagree get away with the understanding that it’s not entirely off the mark.

Until part three arrives you could read my take on the historical Witch Hunts here. Don’t hesitate, there is a comment section:  I love critique, feedback, disagreement, questions and additional thoughts. 🙂

The Silverman Heresy

Templar Cross decorationMarch 18th in 1314, seven-hundred years ago, Jacques de Molay, and two other high-ranking Knights of the Temple were consigned to the flames after they retracted their confessions made under torture. Philip IV of France deemed the Templars too powerful and too rich and annihilated their order seven years before in 1307. Another motive for their annihilation was their intention to found their own Crusader State, inspired by the states of Knights Hospitaller, and the ur-stormtroopers, the Teutonic Knights.

Teutonic Knights in “Alexandre Nevski”

Teutonic Knights throwing insurgents in Sergeï Eisenstein’s “Alexandre Nevski” (1938) into the fire. Burning or getting burned wasn’t a matter of wearing the right symbol. The classic can be viewed here.

Officially, however, the Templars were indicted for heresy. Their recruits allegedly had to spit or urinate onto a cross, literally kiss somebodies behind and according to records of their trial, worship a satanic figure named “Baphomet”. The name Baphomet, in turn, was probably a French misspelling of Mohammed – the founder of Islam.

This was enough to jail the leaders for life. But as they retracted before a crowd right outside Notre Dame, an enraged Philip IV ordered to burn them at the stake on the same day on an island in the Seine.

It’s just like the blogosphere, isn’t it? – Stephanie Zvan, This is what a Witch Hunt looks like


In March 2014, almost exactly seven-hundred years later, American Atheists president David Silverman was also accused of kissing the false backsides when he attended CPAC (an annual gathering of conservative activists in the USA). PZ Myers wrote:

That’s what I don’t get about American Atheists courting CPAC. I could see it as an attention-getter, to highlight and criticize the right-wing religiosity of an organization of nutbags, but as outreach? No way.PZ Myers

As self-proclaimed progressives proper, the Social Justice League (PZ Myers and many more on FTB, SkepChick and the like) naturally disapproves of conservatives, and already had some displeasure with Mr Silverman.


A while ago, Mr Silverman was their hero when he called out alleged “harassers”. PZ Myers even rewarded it with a lifetime membership of American Atheists, and called Mr Silverman “a principled atheist”.

But over time, David Silverman apparently had this strange idea to be president of all American atheists. He started to build bridges again and recommended a few “wrong” people to follow on twitter (the ritual is called Follow-Friday, or #FF).

Last September, he ended up on the Social Justice League maintained Twitter “block bot”, a tool that allegedly protects people from harassers. Its actual main function is that of an online pillory that makes visible a list of “enemies” who in many cases didn’t even interact with them or did only when included by others into a conversation, much less “harass” anyone by any stretch of the definition. The block bot operators claimed Mr Silverman was added only by accident.

There was also the blacklist kerfuffle, where Sara Moglia (Social Justice League: SkepChicks) overheard a conversation between Silverman and Dawkins in 2011. She blogged about it years after the fact. Ironically, PZ Myers “not blacklisted” Abbie Smith and it was no issue to any of the Social Justice people, for PZ Myers is ingroup and Dawkins is not. However, according to American Atheists, Sara Moglia didn’t report on the instance truthfully. She then felt “thrown under the bus” by Silverman (who is president of American Atheists). Twitter conversations like this one show some of the situation. I know there are lot of different names here  but it’s quite interesting to see how they fit into a larger pattern. In the exchange you see Monette Richards, of Secular Women, stating:

“@Mowgli3 I think it has become apparent that the harassment doesn’t even hit @MrAtheistPants [Silverman] radar.” — Monette Richards (Secular Women), Twitter on February 7.

It’s thus fair to say that when Mr Silverman went to CPAC, there were already animosities toward him from the Social Justice faction. But Silverman’s attendance alone wasn’t yet enough to heat up the flak machine, until he asserted something that apparently was the last straw.

I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion […] You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage — David Silverman

To find out whether his critics were on a “witch hunt”, we would have to see how outrageous his remark actually is. Once we cleared that up, we can look into the nature of “witch hunt”-style persecution and compare it to the situation.

Secular Argument

In his now infamous quote, Mr Silverman merely asserted that a secular argument exists and stated elsewhere he disagrees with it. In that sense, he is correct, even though there are a few thorny details in his communication.

There are indeed secular arguments against abortion. Some fall under “Pro-Life” and some that would (I think) even fall under “Pro-Choice”. I am not an American, so it was a bit difficult to find out what the “Pro-Choice” side really advocates (“Pro-Life” by contrast is easy, they’re against abortions in all cases and want to prevent them with often shady tactics).

It seems Pro-Choicers are generally content with the Roe vs Wade ruling which is similar to what is legal in most countries of northern and western Europe. Namely, abortion within the first trimester is no issue whatsoever. It’s legal, safe and covered by health care. As it should be. There are some strings attached after that and they thicken as time passes by. Which seems sensible to me provided essentialism is false and neither conception nor birth are good to determine what makes a human. At some point the unborn can survive outside the mother with advanced medicine, rendering arguments based on bodily autonomy moot (there are a couple of more details, but I’m not interested in laying them out now).

Late term abortions are morally difficult and nobody makes such decisions lightly. They are rare and arguments against these abortions would be neglible, wouldn’t there FreeThoughtBloggers suddenly make it an issue.

Zinnia Jones makes a case for infanticide, which is the killing of infants, and perhaps meant satirical. But it hits a bit too close to home when Dana Hunter of the same network posits that the unborn are “parasites” and it would be no issue to get rid of them. I take the silence of Stephanie Zvan, Jason Thibeault, Secular Women, PZ Myers and all the others who are otherwise very vocal in this affair as agreement to this position.

As we would expect, Sara Moglia deals with Silverman here, and Massimo Pigliucci responds to it. Greta Christina follows up by criticising Massimo Pigliucci for his assertion that abortions should be “a very difficult and emotional step”, but PZ Myers claims abortions were like disposing of “bloody towels” after an operation – just throwing biohazard waste way. Why not leave it to the people involved how to feel or not feel about this?  Since Social Justice League writers think in stark ingroup and outgroup categories as we see here, I doubt Ms Christina will make a point and lets PZ Myers know, too, that “it’s incredibly patronizing to tell women how to feel about their own abortions” – but maybe there are miracles after all.


When Mr Silverman referred to the secular argument, he perhaps thought of the late Christopher Hitchens. Let’s hear it from the horseman’s mouth himself:


Zinnia’s argument (in the infanticide post) that Mr Silverman made an exception with abortion was weak sauce as well, since no known secularist comes to mind who disagrees on the other positions, as opposed to the well-known Christopher Hitchens and his sort-of Pro-Life views.

There is also context. A certain “Dave”, who may or may not be Mr Silverman himself wrote a clarification on another blog:

[…] Rather than take the road to discussing abortion, I acquiesced to his correct counterpoint [whether a secular argument exists], returned to my point, and said that school prayer, LGBT equality, and Death with dignity were better examples of purely Christian positions (“it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage”), and we went on with the discussion on why American Atheists was there. – “Dave”, comment

Problematic in Mr Silverman’s communication was only that he gave the impression that a serious argument exists for the Pro-Life view (something a conservative might hear in his words) that regards a clump of cells fewer than in a fly’s eye already as a human being. Only a tiny minority of secular people believe this.

In any case, Mr Silverman’s words somehow caused an outrage. You already saw a couple of sources as a result and there are many more. To be fair, it’s not all due to Mr Silverman words directly. He somehow opened up the “abortion debate” allegedly nobody wanted to have. One fire accelerant was Hemant Mehta as he featured a “Pro-Life” guest post on his blog, and this led to another kerfuffle with Secular Women, who are part of the familiar group around FreeThoughtBlogs and SkepChicks. Here is one statement dealing with Silverman and Mehta, and even a follow up.

Kiss the cross, don’t spit on it. The outrage opened up another question: does this “calling out” of David Silverman count as a “Witch Hunt”? We will look into that one in part two.


Magic is Afoot: Alan Moore on the Arts and the Occult

I attached an older interview with Alan Moore below (originally to test the reblog function but it looked ugly, now I made a post). It’s a fascinating read. It’s one of the cases where you can be open minded, but not so much that your brain falls out. It’s about art, magic, the occult and about words and partially about the things I wrote about from my point of view in the in the Scarlet Letter series.

As author Daniel Pinchbeck pointed out in Arthur’s debut issue last fall, magic is afoot in the world. It doesn’t matter whether you think of magic a potent metaphor, as a notion of reality to be taken literally, or a willed self-delusion by goggly losers and New Age housewives. It doesn’t matter. Magic is here, right now, as a cultural force (Harry Potter, Buffy, Sabrina, Lord of the Rings, the Jedi, and of course, Black Sabbath) , as a part of our daily rhetoric, and perhaps, if you’re so inclined, as something truly perceivable, in the same way that love and suffering are real yet unquantifiable–experienced by all yet unaccounted for by the dogma of strict materialism that most of us First Worlders say we “believe“ in. Magic is here. — Jay Babcock, Arthur Magazine

Continue Reading: 
MAGIC IS AFOOT: A Conversation with ALAN MOORE about the Arts and the Occult

The Almighty Quinn

shell-bear“What is this shit!” exclaimed the public-relations team at the oil and gas company Shell in June of 2012 – probably – as they saw a PR nightmare unfolding on social media. What happened?

The Shell campaign site announced new opportunities in the Far North with blithe optimism, now that the ice is releasing profitable oil fields from its “eternal” embrace. The campaign was kicked off with an event in Seattle’s Space Needle, when something went wrong…

“Let’s Go! Shell in the Arctic”

Shell and other companies indeed already expand their business into the arctic. However, the campaign site and the event was part of an elaborate hoax created by the world’s best pranksters “the Yes Men”. They teamed up with Greenpeace to bring a message across which is still as pressing as it was in 2012: human-made climate change causes a warming (on average) of the planet, and a melting of the ice caps. The very product – oil – that contributed greatly to global warming and melting of ice now makes it possible that even more oil becomes available, which will further contribute to our carbon footprint. But that is not the only issue.

Earth’s oceans cover about 71% of the entire surface and water density is dependent of its temperature. When the oceans warm up a little, they take more space and the sea level rises. Melting glaciers that otherwise tower over the waterline will additionally contribute to it [edit link added]. The current pace of sea level rise is about 3mm per year, which may not sound much. But other possible effects that could be triggered as a result of global warming aren’t even factored in, and yet it is already “a significantly larger rate than the sea-level rise averaged over the last several thousand years” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA –pronounced like Noah. It seems the whole issue can only be approached with a grim sense of humour.

Good old times: “Each day, Humble supplies enough Energy to melt 7 million tons of glacier!” (1962 Ad for Humble Oil / Enco, belongs to ExxonMobil today)

Another issue is the shrinking of biotopes that not only endangers iconic species such as the Ringed Seal and the Polar Bear. “Sea ice, especially during the sunlit seasons, serves as habitat for an ice-specific food web (sympagic foodweb)” as this NOAA essay illustrates. The dissertation for the “Institut für Polarökologie” (Kiel, Germany) summarizes:

“Sea ice is an important structural element of polar marine ecosystems, but also in the Baltic, Caspian and Okhotsk Seas (Horner et al. 1992, Thomas and Dieckmann 2002). At its maximum, sea ice covers 13% of the earth’s surface, making it an important biome encompassing a similar area as deserts or tundra systems (Lizotte 2001). The sea-ice canopy greatly modifies the exchange of energy and material between the atmosphere and the sea (e.g. Wettlaufer 1991, Rahm et al. 1995, Haapala and Leppäranta 1997). Sea ice reduces the amount and quality of light in the water column and thus, strongly influences the onset and composition of pelagic spring blooms (Maykut 1985, Haecky et al. 1998).”

As a result of global warming, record warm winters are observed at the poles, while we all might see more extreme temperatures in either direction because of currents and winds that begin to flow differently. The global warming has an impact on various anticyclones such as the Siberian High or North American High, which in turn have a large influence on the weather in Europe, North America, as well as in East Asia. As you probably noticed: it’s not always getting warmer where you live, just because the poles warm up. Apparently this week saw the coldest day in the USA in 20 years.

How bad is it? A new study published last October in Nature suggests that 2047 will be the End of the World As We Know It. At least this is the impression when you plug in the date “2047” with “global warming” into your favourite search engine. It might devastate ecosystems; the “natural” climate as we know it might end; it might be a “point of no return” and tropical and poorer areas of the world will be affected first, perhaps setting mass migrations in motion with rather gloomy political implications.

Occupy Oil Rig

Next to extreme weather, rising sea levels, shrinking habitats and unpredictable side effects, the oil drilling itself poses a threat to the environment, due to oil contamination from drilling, leaky pipelines and oil spills. Who knew?

But only when some issue makes the news again, and preferably around the corner, as in the Shetland Islands, there is some awareness.

This happened when Royal Dutch Shell (it is an Anglo-Dutch venture) seriously considered to just blow up their oil rig “Brent Spar” in deep sea waters after it was time for it to retire in 1995. Their seemingly careless conduct led to calls for boycott in many countries and some significant damage to Shell’s brand.

Greenpeace occupied the rig with 25 activists (including journalists and photographers), but grossly overestimated the remaining storage, and as a consequence their reputation was damaged as well. Eventually, Shell pulled the rig to the shore where it was dismantled. That wasn’t Shell’s only issue. The company is apparently involved in some unethical oil production in Nigeria, which originally brought the Yes Men onto the scene.

 “The effects of oil in the fragile Niger Delta communities and environment have been enormous. Local indigenous people have seen little if any improvement in their standard of living while suffering serious damage to their natural environment. According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 oil spills between 1970 and 2000.” Niger Delta, Wikipedia

Shell claimed a loss of about 400,000 barrels (in total) of crude oil per day to oil leakage in Nigeria. Assuming UK barrels, they lose crude oil of about 0.72 of Olympic sized swimming pool per day. Shell claims that 98% of this is due to oil thefts. The thieves drill holes into the pipelines, capture the oil, but leave them open allowing the oil to spill out.

However, Shells’ numbers where contested by Amnesty International. Before Dutch parliament, Shell revised them down to 70% loss due to such theft, which would be about half a swimming pool of crude oil, per day. Greenpeace or Shell, the truth isn’t always affordable when the stakes are high. Provided we don’t know what happens with the stolen oil, still almost a quarter of an Olympic sized swimming pool of crude oil is released to the environment per day from normal operation.

The Nigeria affairs of Shell seems to be a very dark chapter indeed. In my cursory research on that matter I found Shell allegedly corrupted the Nigerian Authorities. I also happened across the fate of the Nigerian environmentalist Ken Saro Wiwa, who was arrested and executed by the Nigerian authorities in 1995. There were also cases of bribery by the government itself and other very dubious activities. The situation in Nigeria urged the Yes Men to take action and it seems it was the beginning of their cooperation with Greenpeace.

We Are Sorry. Not.

The Yes Lab page shows a few sources and news coverage of the “Murder is Bad” campaign.

“In the 1990’s when Nigerians began to nonviolently protest Shell’s oil development, Shell collaborated with the Nigerian military regime to violently suppress opposition. More than 60 villages were raided, over 800 people were killed, and 30,000 more were displaced from their homes.” – the Yes Lab, Project “Murder is Bad”

But the first prank took place in 2010, known as the “Shell: We are Sorry” hoax, executed in a similar way as they did with Dow Chemicals some years before (known for their “Bhopal Disaster” in India). Each of the Yes Men somehow convinced the media they were legitimate spokespersons of the companies and claimed they acknowledge the damage done and would be fully responsible for their actions. Of course real corporations would never take responsibility for their actions in that manner.

Pitch Black Humour, with Rainbow Shine™

What began with Pranksterism in Nigeria seems to have become the campaign with Greenpeace for the protection of the arctic.

Shell as a target remained, and the Russian company Gazprom was added in 2013. The campaigns were supported by some “classic” Greenpeace activism which was resolved only just after Christmas when the 5 last activists of the “Arctic 30” held captive for 100 days were eventually released by the Russian government.

The activists planned to hang banners onto the Russian drilling platform “Prirazlomnaya”, were captured and accused of “piracy”. “It was the stiffest response that Greenpeace has encountered since the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985, said Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA” reported the Washington Post in late September, and 11 Nobel Peace laureates wrote to Putin to drop the excessive charges against the activists.

Meanwhile the pranksterism continued. Mimicking overly enthusiastic (and naïve) companies trying to harness this new thing “social media”, the Shell hoax site ArcticReady asked users to submit slogans for various motives.

Here are a few examples. Check out the social media gallery – apparently some users thought they were trolling Shell.

As if on cue, only a few month after the start of the hoax campaign, Royal Dutch Shell’s actual drill barge “Kulluk” ran aground in the western Gulf of Alaska near the Kodiak Islands. The ArcticReady hoax website comments with pitch black humour (quite literally) and unabated optimism:

Yes, the reports are true. Our 266-ft drilling barge containing over 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel has run aground in a highly sensitive ecosystem off the coast of southern Alaska. But what is failure but a bump on the road to triumph? In fact, we consider this an auspicious beginning to our 2013 Arctic adventure. Contrary to the numerous warnings by scientists, environmental activists, and people indigenous to the region, we take this recent occurrence as a sign that Shell is in the right place, doing the right thing. Nature has spoken, and it’s asking the Kulluk to stay a while longer.”ArcticReady.Com, “#RepairingFreedom”

The hoax campaign continued in 2013 when Shell and Gazprom allegedly announced a partnership to tap the oil in the Russian arctic. This time the Yes Men and Greenpeace launched the hoax website with this fine explanation:

“Welcome to website celebrating partnership for Arctic petroleum project of two mighty companies […] Today, Gazprom and Shell together are making far-reaching plans to uncover new vast energy reserves in Russia Arctic region, now available to public through sea-ice-loss. We welcome the opportunity to use Shell’s state-of-the-art extraction technologies, as well as our unique laser technology for eliminating oil pollutions in real operating conditions” –

Take your time to read both hoax websites for a lot more subversive humour, like the section for “science-minded people” which notes among other “positive” points a “strong downward trend in worker fatality following 2011”, “Heavy ties to Russia political structure” or Russian “Powerful laser technology for accident elimination at wells (no world analogues)”. The launch of the partnership was once again opened with a seemingly positive “PR event”:

I think they could have done the Gazprom part without the cliché Russian-English, but there are a lot of hidden jokes. On the 0:50 mark, Gazprom allegedly succeeded in a “relocation of salmon” and we get to see apparently found footage of a polar bear in the sunset, someone firing, and hitting a polar bear with a flare among other things…

Sports events were also targeted. In august, Greenpeace added a pythonesque element to the Formula 1 Grand Prix victory ceremony.

Another high profile example was the “don’t foul the arctic” banner which was unveiled at a soccer champion’s league match in Basel (Gazprom is a major sponsor of the Swiss team).

Here Comes the Communication Guerrilla

The Yes Men may or may not be Discordians, which may or may not be a reason why I am interested in their activism for a long time.

This type of activism has a number of names. I would put it below the guerrilla communication heading. Under the premise that for example corporations attempt to communicate with possible customers, guerrilla communication seeks to make this act of communication and manipulation not only visible, but to disrupt or subvert it. The audience is made to think and question the messages that are otherwise ubiquitous and accepted often without giving them much thought.

The simplest way of doing guerrilla communication is probably through subvertisement (also known as Adbusting) and can be done by everyone, albeit on a much smaller scale. The activists draws attention to their message by presenting it through an established brand:

“A well produced ‘subvert’ mimics the look and feel of the targeted ad, promoting the classic ‘double-take’ as viewers suddenly realize they have been duped. Subverts create cognitive dissonance. It cuts through the hype and glitz of our mediated reality and, momentarily, reveals a deeper truth within.” – AdBusters Magazine

The subversion can be targeted directly at the company, the branch they are representative for (like Shell and Gazprom for companies drilling in the arctic), or against lifestyles or cultures promoted by the brand. While ArcticReady and Polar Partners target more the companies, some user-submitted ads also attack lifestyles.

Adbusting a lifestyle.

The Yes Men often times work with a technique called “over-identification”. They put themselves into the shoes of the WHO, Dow Chemicals, Shell and Gazprom and “genuinely” try to advance their goals in an “upfront” manner. But by overdoing it, the dubious goals of such companies become entirely obvious; perhaps like the Monty Pythons, who start many of their sketches fairly low-key and gradually make them ever more bizarre.

The method has its benefits as initially, the audience buys into the message, and gradually realizes something is wrong and then begins to think about it. Oil companies probably rejoice because of the melting ice, but of course in reality it would be a bad idea to cheer too much.

Too much, or too little Skepticism?

Advertisement taps into values most find agreeable. Making you prettier always works. You probably like “freedom”, “authenticity”, “honesty”, “independence” or “budget-friendly”. Perhaps you like it when it is “good for the economy”, and “creates jobs”. Wouldn’t you want to support something?

“Anything that’s totally vacuous and diverts, after all what does it mean to be in favor of … suppose somebody asks, do you support the people in Iowa, can you say I support them or no I don’t support them. It’s not even a question it doesn’t even mean anything. And that’s the point of public relations slogans like ‘support our troops’ is that they don’t mean anything, they mean as much as whether you support the people in Iowa […] the issue was do you support our policy but you don’t want people to think about the issue that’s the whole point of good propaganda, you want to create a slogan that nobody is gonna be against and I suppose everybody will be for because nobody knows what it means because it doesn’t mean anything”  —Noam Chomsky, On Propaganda (1992)

One way how this has been used in advertising is by presenting the product with these agreeable values (often times in a very contrived manner), while everything that could upset customers is hidden away. Indeed, such messages don’t mean anything.

“Don’t be Maybe” campaign with streetart adbusting / subvertizement

A healthy lifestyle can be framed as boring, because it isn’t risky. Risk is cool (somehow people really seem to confuse Evel Knievel style stunts with inhaling toxins, for example). That way, many can be even convinced to buy cancer-sticks, perhaps believing it makes them more assertive, or they think ruining one’s lungs is somehow setting them free on the American plains. Free like a cowboy. The Yes Men hoax site mocks some of this spin with their “#RepairingFreedom” idea. Which probably is already governed by Poe’s Law.

“Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing”

It is probably common knowledge by now that the tricks of the Tobacco industry, alas, gave the Oil Industry (and Creationists) a smoker’s leg up.

Yay, for musical references. Also a great slogan for tobacco products.

The companies would create credible sounding “scientific” institutes, hire “experts” who would draw on every straw there is, while misrepresenting real science with the goal of giving the impression scientists were still debating on whatever is actually decided by an overwhelming majority. This technique is sometimes called creating a “manufactuversy”.

The confused public and law makers would react with an otherwise common sense attitude: “if the experts are disagreeing, it’s too early to take sides or draw conclusions.” The created uncertainty then delays necessary legislation and regulation. For some reason such conduct seems to appear often with conservatives and right-wing politicians, who perhaps quite happily delay regulations for their buddy industries.

Ironically, they love to have maximum freedom to pollute the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, at the same time love to pile regulations on women’s bodies or what consenting adults can or can’t do, when they aren’t quite the traditional couple. And somehow, conservatism rarely includes the environment.

Yours Truly, the Environmental Friendly Oil Company

Meanwhile, the real oil companies in all seriousness present themselves as environmental friendly and it is not a hoax. Gazprom touts the benefits of “environmental friendly fuel”.

“Natural gas” sounds great, doesn’t it? We all love nature and all things natural and organic. But gas isn’t any more “natural” or “chemical” whether it was produced artificially or pumped out of the ground. And organic materials just means “contains carbon atoms”, like CO2.

Less dangerous isn’t exactly “friendly” by any stretch of the definition. While the extraction of gas seems less problematic as that of oil, this “natural gas” is Methane.

Methane has the potential of trapping 62 times more heat in the atmosphere than Co2 over a 20 year period, and still 8 times more over a 500 year period. Methane is therefore not an “environmental friendly” option. Shell has a nature page, too, where the hoax activists perhaps got some inspiration:

“Our goal is to have zero fatalities and no incidents that cause harm to our people and neighbours and put our facilities at risk.”

Oh, really? I hope my journey through issues and communication pays off now, as this one is completely meaningless in Chomsky’s sense. There is probably no single company on earth that likes fatalities in their facilities.

I do wonder who rubber-stamped such rubbish. Is there actually a single person, interested enough to happen on their site thinking “Oh, this is great! They actually don’t want fatalities in their facilities!”?– I almost cannot believe it.

The other issues on their page are downright obscene considering their arctic adventures and their conduct in Nigeria. The “Code of Conduct” allegedly written for employees, even lists “fighting corrupt practices”. Perhaps, they send this over to the Nigerian Government.

Noaa’s Ark

Religion is always a reliabel preservative of bad ideas. They emerged thousands of years ago when bad ideas were still more commonplace and were then captured faithfully in scriptures.

As a consequence, Christians and others rarely lead any cause but rather are like the ball on a chain on humankind’s ankle. And everyone with vested interests could rely on that religion will be around and fine tune their arguments to the anti-science ignoramuses among the faithful, where they are most plentiful.

Indeed, what religious people believe became a good indicator of nonsense. The biblical Genesis was dreamed up a few hundred years before the Common Era, maybe 2500 years ago when environmentalism was no issue. Yet many Christians believe that it was dictated by their allegedly almighty deity and thus true at all times:

 “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’.”Genesis 1:28

And since God’s Mysterious Divine Plans™ are about other things than worrying about the environment, evangelical Christians are convinced that whatever we do, it won’t be a problem. God takes care of it, as usual in their infantile religion.

The whole world is drowning.. hah haha haha to wash away our sin!

To be fair, the “Christian Science Monitor” has a good article on the “2047” study mentioned above. Perhaps such Christians could talk to their peers more decisively.

Again, religion poisons everything. It creates an irrational foundation which is by default in opposition to science as new knowledge might contradict the “eternal truths” of scriptures. A crack in the door that can be exploited…

“Conservative groups may have spent up to $1bn a year on the effort to deny science and oppose action on climate change, according to the first extensive study into the anatomy of the anti-climate effort. The anti-climate effort has been largely underwritten by conservative billionaires, often working through secretive funding networks. […] The groups collectively received more than $7bn over the eight years of Brulle’s study”The Guardian, on December 20, 2013

The Almighty God emerged in the deserts of Western Asia and not in the ice of the north and seems to not care. “Nature” will do just fine of course. The question is whether we do as well. But don’t despair, when Quinn the Eskimo gets here everybody’s gonna jump for joy.

The Almighty Quinn

The first line of my eccentric montage was a classic opener in Greil Marcus’ review of Bob Dylan’s album “Self-Portrait” on which “Quinn the Eskimo” appeared. It was released long before my time, but the controversy about it struck me as interesting as various critics were unsure whether the album was meant seriously.

 “Everybody’s building the big ships and boats
Some are building monuments, others jotting down notes
Everybody’s in despair, every girl and boy
But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here everybody’s gonna jump for joy
Oh come all without, come all within
You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn
Come all without, come all within
You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn.”
– Bob Dylan “Quinn the Eskimo” / “the Mighty Quinn”

Meanwhile in Gazprom Russia, Shell scammed the Nigerians. Or something like that. At least Shell can’t expect “criminal activities” from Inuit, also known as Eskimo (the term is considered a racial slur by some).

Alas, the Mighty Quinn is only mighty. Many places will experience a human-made flood if we aren’t making changes fast. By then, Ken Ham might have completed building his monument. He may hope it doubles as a big ship, filled with Evangelicals and it may begin to float. Or so it seems in frozen Kentucky in July.


Consider supporting / following the Yes Men, they have a (non spam) Twitter account here, or help out the folks at Greenpeace. And well, you could help “Spread the Weird” Discordian Times, too. Just in case.

As usual, I greatly appreciate comments. Don’t be shy. It is also okay to tell me you really want more 550 word blog entries on one, just one subject, not five. And now everybody… “Come all without, come all within”


It’s almost over. Probably no Triskaidekaphobe survived this year. Allegedly, there are such sufferers from fear of thirteens. In China not the thirteen, but the four is considered an unlucky number. Which might have something to do that “four” is pronounce like “to die”. Poor Chinese, it also extends to all numbers that end with the four, as in 2014. This fear is known as “tetraphobia”.

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A Somewhat Counter-Intuitive Christmas Origins Story

Even though the things I wrote about lately were more like “evergreens”, not bound to particular events, I often like to latch onto some dates. To my dismay I found that I couldn’t make the deadline of the death of mysterious faith healer Grigori Rasputin in mid-December (of 1916) and was then determined to sit the whole Christmas season out. Reader Matt Cavanaugh debunked The Nativity throughout (go read it), and everyone else was writing on the annual “War on Christmas”. There are probably a lot of “Christmas-Pagan-Rites” articles out there, and I didn’t feel like adding one of my own. But then Outwest and some other Twitter friends prodded me to write. This was very nice. What’s left to write about on Christmas? There is something I could think of, and it is again a fabulous journey through everything. How about “Headless Hessians and Other Humorous Germans?”. Let me foreshadow a little…

“They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning.” – nameless officer of George Washington before the Battle of Trenton

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Remember the V

V is the Roman number five, today is the Fifth of November, and it’s the fifth part of the series on meaning and another Scarlet Letter. I keep this loosely connected, to allow you to catch up.

guy-fawkesWhen future historians look back at our time now, they will most likely include something on Guy Fawkes and have some explaining to do. How come a Puritan Age “insurgent” became the face, literally, of a whole movement that seems to be quite influential today? And what could this have to do with this series on meaning and beliefs?

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Fear of the Dark

Welcome back to the series of the Scarlet Letter (Magic of MeaningMark of the Witch). If you’re new, you will do fine without having read anything before, but some parts may be a bit difficult to understand without the themes introduced before (and I hope I haven’t written them for naught).

For us visual creatures, the darkness is the omnipresent metaphor of the unknown – that which is outside of our senses and faculties. Thus recognizing a “thing”; giving something a name, labelling it, or learning the “true name” means not only knowledge, but control.

Fear of the dark, fear of the dark
I have constant fear that something’s
always near
Fear of the dark, fear of the dark
I have a phobia that someone’s
always there
— Iron Maiden “Fear of the Dark” (excerpt)

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The Mark of the Witch

And quick! As long as the iron is red hot! This is the next instalment of this series of meaning with the Red Letters. You can jump in without having read anything previously (but it can’t hurt either). Since today, 496 years ago the Reformation was kicked off, and since today is also Halloween, this part will be a tad gruesome. Brace yourself.

Theistic Phobocracy

Old Europe was an unpleasant place to live in the Early Modern Period (ca. 16—18th century), the period that saw the Puritans as well as the Gunpowder plot.

This time, I hope to explore a bit how meanings change and what all this symbology meant in practice by giving a tapestry of the times. It is not merely historical backdrop. Our ancestors at the time were like you and me. History could tell us a lot about how we (as humans) tick. The general populace at the time was perhaps simultaneously more pious than ever, while it also lost faith in their traditional beliefs, and found itself surrounded by a rapidly changing world–like it is today.

Phobocracy: Greek phóbos (Φόβος), “morbid fear” and kratos (κράτος), “power” or “rule”: rule by fear or power through fear.

Burning Witches

Competing information flew in swarms out into the streets from the printing presses and hit upon minds that weren’t familiar with such a storm of symbology. The art of writing was arcane and magical, where we already saw some examples and possible (non supernatural) mechanisms. Words can have a strong effects on consciousness. The traditional symbolic culture was challenged, and collapsed and probably left people without orientation. Amidst this situation, the Catholic Church, the big bad of human history, tightened its iron grip on their flock.

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