Thursday Reads: The Blame Hillary Game; Russia’s Internet Crackdown, and “Religious Experiences”Posted: May 8, 2014
Josh Rogin of the Daily Beast (formerly of The American Conservative and Foreign Policy) is at it again. Not long ago, he caused an uproar by sneaking into a supposedly off-the-record meeting of the Trilateral Commission and secretly taping John Kerry saying that Israel is in danger of becoming an “apartheid state.” Not that there’s anything wrong with taping the remarks, but Rogin failed to note this fact in his subsequent reports. Instead he sourced the remarks to “an attendee” and “recording obtained by The Daily Beast.”
This morning Rogin has Hillary Clinton in his crosshairs: Hillary’s State Department Refused to Brand Boko Haram as Terrorists. Rogin’s point seems to be that Clinton is a hypocrite because since Nigerian group kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls, she has criticized them in no uncertain terms.
In the past week, Clinton, who made protecting women and girls a key pillar of her tenure at the State Department, has been a vocal advocate for the 200 Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the loosely organized group of militants terrorizing northern Nigeria. Her May 4 tweet about the girls, using the hashtag #BringOurGirlsBack, was cited across the media and widely credited for raising awareness of their plight.
On Wednesday, Clinton said that the abduction of the girls by Boko Haram was “abominable, it’s criminal, it’s an act of terrorism and it really merits the fullest response possible, first and foremost from the government of Nigeria.” Clinton said that as Secretary of State she had numerous meetings with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and had urged the Nigerian government to do more on counterterrorism.
What Clinton didn’t mention was that her own State Department refused to place Boko Haram on the list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2011, after the group bombed the U.N. headquarters in Abuja. The refusal came despite the urging of the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and over a dozen senators and congressmen.
“The one thing she could have done, the one tool she had at her disposal, she didn’t use. And nobody can say she wasn’t urged to do it. It’s gross hypocrisy,” said a former senior U.S. official who was involved in the debate. “The FBI, the CIA, and the Justice Department really wanted Boko Haram designated, they wanted the authorities that would provide to go after them, and they voiced that repeatedly to elected officials.”
Rogin goes on to quote numerous–some by name and some not–critics who essentially blame Clinton for the current situation. Rogin quotes these sources (largely Republicans) as saying that if Hillary had designated Boko Haram a terrorist group, the government would have been better able to cut them off from financial support and get other countries to do the same. Because of Hillary’s refusal to do this, according to Republican Patrick Meehan, chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, “We lost two years of increased scrutiny. The kind of support that is taking place now would have been in place two years ago.” John Kerry did add Boko Haram to the terrorist list late last year.
Rogin admits that not everyone agrees that designating Boko Haram a terrorist group would have made that much difference. Sources told Rogin that other efforts were made to deal with the issue. Yesterday f0rmer Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson defended the decision.
“There was a concern that putting Boko Haram on the foreign terrorist list would in fact raise its profile, give it greater publicity, give it greater credibility, help in its recruitment, and also probably drive more assistance in its direction,” he said.
The U.S. has plenty of ways to assist the Nigerian government with counterterrorism even without designating Boko Haram, Carson said. The problem has long been that the Nigerian government doesn’t always want or accept the help the U.S. has offered over the years.
“There always has been a reluctance to accept our analysis of what the drivers causing the problems in the North and there is sometimes a rejection of the assistance that is offered to them,” Carson said. “None of that has anything to do with putting Boko Haram on the foreign terrorist list.”
This sounds like a partisan issue to me, but I admit to having zero knowledge of Boko Haram and State Department policies in general. Frankly, I suspect Josh Rogin is trying to make a name for himself by undermining Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Obama administration foreign policy in general. But then, I’m also a partisan.
As for Hillary herself, she spoke to ABC News’ Robin Roberts yesterday: Hillary Clinton Calls Nigeria Kidnappings ‘An Act Of Terrorism.’ The occasion was a “philanthropy event” at the Ford Foundation in NYC. CNN provides more detail about Hillary’s remarks: Hillary Clinton faults Nigerian government’s handling of search for kidnapped girls.
The Nigerian government has been “somewhat derelict” in protecting their children, Hillary Clinton said Wednesday as international attention focused on schoolgirls kidnapped by a militant group.
“The seizure of these young women by this radical, extremist group, Boko Haram is abominable, it’s criminal, it’s an act of terrorism and it really merits the fullest response possible, first and foremost from the government of Nigeria,” Clinton said, later adding that “the government of Nigeria has been in my view somewhat derelict in its responsibility toward protecting boy and girls, men and women in northern Nigeria over the last years.”
During her remarks at a philanthropy event in New York City, Clinton went on to say “the Nigerian government must accept help – particularly intelligence, surveillance and recognizance help – their troops have to be the ones that (are) necessary but they could do a better job if they accept the offers that are being made.”
The U.S. government has offered to help in the search for the schoolgirls. Officials have told CNN the Obama administration is sharing intelligence with Nigerian authorities and could provide other assistance, but there is no plan to send U.S. troops. Legislators on Capitol Hill have also called for the United States to do more to help the Nigerian government.
A little more from the talk:
“The Nigerian government has failed to confront the threat or to address the underlying challenges,” Clinton said of the kidnappings. “Most of all, the government of Nigeria needs to get serious about protecting all of its citizens… and ensuring the every child has the right and opportunity to go to school.”
Standing in front of high profile financiers and donors at the opulent Waldorf Astoria, Clinton went on to urge Nigerian citizens to hold their leaders accountable and implored religious leaders, Nigeria’s neighbors, the African Union and the international community to continue to stay involved in finding the schoolgirls.
“Every asset and expertise should be brought to bear,” Clinton said. “Everyone needs to see this for what it is, it is a gross human rights abuse but it is also part of a continuing struggle within Nigeria and within North Africa.”
Follow me below the fold . . .
During the question and answer period after her speech, Hillary addressed the ongoing Benghazi hysteria. From the WaPo:
ABC News’ Robin Roberts asked former secretary of state Hillary Clinton about the Benghazi attacks: “Were you satisfied with the answers and are you content with what you know what happened?”
“Absolutely,” she said.”
“I mean, of course there are a lot of reasons why, despite all of the hearings, all of the information that’s been provided, some choose not to be satisfied and choose to continue to move forward. That’s their choice and I do not believe there is any reason for it to continue in this way, but they get to call the shots in Congress.”
According to Josh Rogin and his GOP sources, Hillary probably should have been down on her knees apologizing for being the sole cause of the Nigerian situation, although it’s not really clear how that would help. It’s just that Hillary must be shamed in every possible way for having the nerve to think she’s qualified to run for president.
Putin vs. the Internet
For a long time now, I’ve been arguing that the Snowden leaks and Edward Snowden’s presence in Russia has allowed Putin to use pretend outrage at U.S. surveillance activities to tighten his government’s control over the internet. He has shut down and/or tightened government controls on Russian media outlets while using Snowden as a stick to beat up the U.S. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Putin is now clamping down on bloggers, Russia Quietly Tightens Reins on Web With ‘Bloggers Law’.
MOSCOW — Russia has taken another major step toward restricting its once freewheeling Internet, as President Vladimir V. Putin quietly signed a new law requiring popular online voices to register with the government, a measure that lawyers, Internet pioneers and political activists said Tuesday would give the government a much wider ability to track who said what online….
Widely known as the “bloggers law,” the new Russian measure specifies that any site with more than 3,000 visitors daily will be considered a media outlet akin to a newspaper and be responsible for the accuracy of the information published.
Besides registering, bloggers can no longer remain anonymous online, and organizations that provide platforms for their work such as search engines, social networks and other forums must maintain computer records on Russian soil of everything posted over the previous six months.
“This law will cut the number of critical voices and opposition voices on the Internet,” said Galina Arapova, director of the Mass Media Defense Center and an expert on Russian media law. “The whole package seems quite restrictive and might affect harshly those who disseminate critical information about the state, about authorities, about public figures.” ….
Aside from the Internet law signed Monday, the Russian leader signed a new profanity law that levies heavy fines for using four common vulgarities in the arts, including literature, movies, plays and television.
Russia is not alone in efforts to control what their citizens are permitted to do and say on the internet–read more about that at the link.
There is lots more happening in Ukraine, Syria, and U.S. politics; but to be honest, I’ve had about all the politics I can handle for this morning. I’m going to shift to psychology for the rest of this post.
I want to share a link that Dakinikat sent me yesterday about a 2011 psychological study that found differences in brain structure between “individuals who identify with specific religious groups as well as those with no religious affiliation.” The study focused on a possible relationship between hippocampal volume in older adults. The hippocampus is involved in laying down long-term memories as well as the emotions associated with them.
The study collected high-resolution MRI data from 268 older adults and assessed specific religious factors. These included life changing religious experiences, religious practices and group membership. Researchers analyzed the hippocampal volume of the participants using the GRID program and discovered greater hippocampal atrophy in participants who had reported having significant “life changing” religious experiences.
Interestingly, the research also discovered that those who considered themselves to be “born again” Protestants, Catholics and those with no religious affiliations had more significant hippocampal atrophy than those who considered themselves to be “traditional” Protestants.
Religious belief has long been regarded to have some positive impacts upon mental health; however the new findings could prove otherwise. The researchers suggest in their report, that some religious factors could be a source for stress. Chronic stress can alter hippocampal volume due to elevating levels of glucocorticoids. Researchers claim that the measures of stress produced during the study had no correlation with the noted changes in hippocampal volume as they reported acute, rather than cumulative stressors.
I’m not really sure how to evaluate this result. There certainly would be many cultural differences, such as level of education, between the kinds of people who profess to be “born again” and those who attend mainstream protestant churches. The researchers seem to be suggesting that religious experiences in themselves are sources of acute or chronic stress; but they admit that stress in general (from many sources) has been associated with hippocampal atrophy.
While other studies have found increased in hippocampal volume among people who meditate, this study found different results:
In previous neuroimaging studies, the hippocampus has been seen to be activated during meditation. These reports discovered structural neuroanatomical differences between those who actively meditate and those who do not. The hippocampal volumes in mediation practitioners were seen to be significantly higher, as was gray matter concentrations. However, the new study found little correlation between the change in hippocampal volume and frequency of embarking on religious praise or meditative rituals.
Scientific American notes that this study is valuable in that it is longitudinal (examining changes in individuals over period of time), but the article also notes some shortcomings. The sample used in the study was originally recruited for a longitudinal study of depression in the elderly; that may have affected recruiting of participants.
The authors offer the hypothesis that the greater hippocampal atrophy in selected religious groups might be related to stress….This is an interesting hypothesis. Many studies have shown positive effects of religion and spirituality on mental health, but there are also plenty of examples of negative impacts. There is evidence that members of religious groups who are persecuted or in the minority might have markedly greater stress and anxiety as they try to navigate their own society. Other times, a person might perceive God to be punishing them and therefore have significant stress in the face of their religious struggle. Others experience religious struggle because of conflicting ideas with their religious tradition or their family. Even very positive, life-changing experiences might be difficult to incorporate into the individual’s prevailing religious belief system and this can also lead to stress and anxiety. Perceived religious transgressions can cause emotional and psychological anguish. This “religious” and “spiritual pain” can be difficult to distinguish from pure physical pain. And all of these phenomena can have potentially negative effects on the brain.
As for the shortcomings,
Thus, Owen and her colleagues certainly pose a plausible hypothesis. They also cite some of the limitations of their findings, such as the small sample size. More importantly, the causal relationship between brain findings and religion is difficult to clearly establish. Is it possible, for example, that those people with smaller hippocampal volumes are more likely to have specific religious attributes, drawing the causal arrow in the other direction? Further, it might be that the factors leading up to the life-changing events are important and not just the experience itself. Since brain atrophy reflects everything that happens to a person up to that point, one cannot definitively conclude that the most intense experience was in fact the thing that resulted in brain atrophy.
I think this study highlights the importance of not taking isolated media reports of psychological studies too seriously. Academic research is a slow process in which individual researchers design studies that ask questions about very small aspects of human behavior. Over time, those findings can be tied together to form more accurate general knowledge about human experiences. Neuroimaging studies are still in a very early stage, and it’s not always clear how to interpret them. Brain development depends on individual experiences; in many ways, each human brain is different and unique.
My personal reaction as someone who is not at all religious but who has had a number of what I call mystical experiences, I certainly hope these “life-changing” events haven’t caused my hypothalamus to atrophy as I get older. There’s not much I can do about it at this point, however.
OK, this post has gotten way too long and will be posted too late. Now I’ll turn the floor over to you to discuss these or any other topics you find interesting.