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The Military Invasion of My High School

Fri, 10/31/2014 - 04:00
JROTC programs are indoctrinating vulnerable high school students in the science of war -- with disastrous effects.

“Will you please write me a letter of recommendation for the Navy, Ms. McGauley? You’re my best class.” Thanh was enrolled in the recently established Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) at our high school and he, like many of my students, was enamored with the military’s alluring promises of a magic carpet ride away from poverty and uncertainty.

My heart ripped as I listened to Thanh’s plea. I want to do what is best for my kids. I want to support and honor them in making their own informed decisions. But, given the impact of JROTC at our school, I felt very uneasy about the balance of information students like Thanh were receiving about enlistment in the U.S. military. After much discussion with Thanh, I wrote an honest letter, emphasizing his sensitive poetic nature and his commitment to fairness. The Navy eagerly welcomed him.

The sprawling campus of Reynolds High School (RHS), the second largest high school in Oregon, rests atop a ridge at the entrance to the scenic Columbia River Gorge in tiny Troutdale, 17 miles east of downtown Portland. When I first started teaching here 23 years ago, Reynolds was an almost all white, working-class, conservative, sub-rural community, culturally distinct from its larger urban neighbor. As Portland has become more gentrified, lower rents have attracted numerous low-income families—immigrant, African American, Latina/o, and white. Today, the Reynolds School District is a high-poverty, culturally diverse district with two of the poorest elementary schools in the state—perfect prey for military recruiters who win points for filling the coffers of the poverty draft.

During the Vietnam War era, much was written about JROTC’s role in teaching military training; today JROTC high school (and even middle school) programs incorporate a broader curricular agenda and are expanding rapidly. Yet, within the education community, little has been written about the implications and effects of JROTC in schools.

The potent presence of the military at RHS shines a floodlight on educational inequity. One sees college recruiters walking the halls of affluent Lincoln High School near downtown Portland. At RHS, college recruiters are few and far between, but military recruiters, JROTC commanders, and ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) testers clamor to establish daily contact with potential recruits.

All too often I hear the refrain: “Well, the military is a good option—or perhaps the only option—for many kids.” As educators, we must ask critical questions: Whose interests do we ultimately serve by welcoming the military into our poorer schools? Is it really in any of our students’ best interests? What are the qualifications of the instructors? What does the JROTC curriculum actually teach our students?


The National Defense Act of 1916 established JROTC to increase the U.S. Army’s readiness in the face of World War I. The ROTC Vitalization Act of 1964 directed the secretaries of each military branch to establish and maintain JROTC units for their respective branches. In the 1990s, the programs began expanding rapidly throughout the country. Today, there are approximately 3,500 Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard JROTC units in schools in the United States and its territories. Last year, Congress instructed the secretary of defense to expand further and to report on “efforts to increase distribution of units in educationally and economically deprived areas.”

JROTC is not about education. But by housing recruiters and JROTC in public schools and offering them carte blanche privileges, we provide them a cloak of legitimacy. Militarism was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “giant triplets” of societal destruction (along with racism and extreme materialism), yet today it appears as a legitimate component of the educational system—most often at underfunded schools.

At our school, JROTC is an actual school within a school, one that offers four levels of classes for which students earn full credits. It meets state requirements for career training. At RHS and many other schools, it is accepted as a substitute for physical education. Our JROTC instructors have also given make-up credit for writing and study skills classes, using online programs in the main JROTC classroom. The RHS program is directed by Brian James, a retired colonel from the Oregon Army National Guard, who tells me he looks forward to being able to offer health, history, and government credits as well.

Promoting Gun Culture at School

RHS has embraced school-based initiatives, including a commitment to restorative justice and peer mediation, that teach and encourage students to resolve conflicts nonviolently. JROTC’s militarism runs counter to these programs. Schools across the country are employing a variety of methods to curb bullying and violent incidents, create safe learning environments, and teach peaceful means of conflict resolution. JROTC’s introduction of weapons training, its partnership with the NRA to sponsor marksmanship matches, and its modeling of authoritarian militaristic solutions to problems contradict the schools’ stated opposition to violence.

Critics have been successful in getting JROTC to discontinue the use of live weapons in schools on a national level, but units continue to use air rifles for target practice at RHS and numerous other schools. Organizing makes a difference. In San Diego, for example, the Education Not Arms Coalition, made up of students, teachers, parents, and community groups, successfully removed target practice with air rifles from San Diego JROTC programs in 2009.

One School’s JROTC Story

In 2011, a former RHS principal, with the support of the school board and many staff members, laid down the red carpet for JROTC to create a program at our school. The JROTC contract requires the hiring of a minimum of two retired officers for the first 150 students enrolled as cadets. After 150, another instructor must be hired for each additional increment of 100 cadets. James and other retired military personnel teach courses in military science, called Leadership Education Training (LET), during the school day.

Three full-time JROTC instructors lead 13 sections of LET 1, 2, and 3 to 280 students. Last year, a new principal tried to make the JROTC class loads comparable to other teachers’ loads by laying off one of the commanders. Although the effort failed, James says he does not plan to ask for additional staffing at this time: “Even though I won that fight and she’s gone, it’s political. I’m a laid-back kind of guy, but if you push me into a corner, I’ll fight back and I’ll win. . . . I brought in the superintendent and the school board, the mayor of Troutdale, and the commander at Fort Lewis. We’re all still here, and she’s gone.”

James adds that they really should have a fourth officer since their “job is bigger than a teacher’s. We teach, mentor, and coach kids, and we take them on excursions. We take them to Florida and other places for rifle competitions.” Every teacher I know teaches, mentors, and coaches students; and if we had the Pentagon’s money, we would take them on many more excursions.

At RHS today, student loads for most non-JROTC teachers hover between 180 and 220 students (more than twice the load of the JROTC instructors) with class sizes in the 30s and low 40s. JROTC cadets often take LET in place of physical education, and a single PE teacher would normally support 250 or more students. If JROTC were eliminated at RHS, the district would hire fewer than half as many teachers to replace them—although it would be wonderful for our students if we, too, had student loads of 70 to 90. In general, the federal subsidy covers less than half the total salaries and none of the employment taxes or benefits for JROTC instructors. Schools wind up using extra money from their budgets to, in effect, subsidize a high school military training/recruiting program for the Pentagon.

JROTC instructors are not certified in the same way as other school district teachers. In some states they are not required to have more than a GED (although the commander must have at least a BA). Generally, the military decides who is qualified to be a JROTC instructor and then presents them to the school district for hiring. According to James, each of the three JROTC instructors at RHS has at least a BA. He says getting certified to teach in the program is “a double whammy because we have to be certified by both the state of Oregon and the Army.” (There is no required teacher training; Oregon simply requires JROTC instructors to take a test on the history of discrimination in Oregon.)

Teaching Militarism, Not Critical Thinking

The Reynolds LET 1 course description apprises students that they will learn “leadership, follower, and citizenship skills.” JROTC is military training. Instead of teaching toward a just and peaceful world, military training emphasizes dominance and nationalism. In fact, once students enlist in the military, they are no longer guided by the United States Constitution. Rather they are governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The Pentagon contracts with Pearson to write JROTC curriculum, including social studies, health, and leadership textbooks. The local school district has no control over their content. No process exists for regular certified staff to review JROTC materials for appropriateness, accuracy, or conformity to educational standards.

Teachers focused on social justice are critical of the historical perspectives of many mainstream textbooks. But, because the JROTC curriculum is focused on developing leaders for the U.S. military, there is a specific danger to these texts. For example, Lesson 2 of the LET 3 textbook is titled “Ethical Choices, Decisions, and Consequences.” The authors compare and contrast the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. They state that the sole cause of the Vietnam War was containment of communism: “American military personnel began deploying to Vietnam in 1954 to strengthen the country against communist North Vietnam.” The authors cite then-President Johnson’s 1964 statements that North Vietnam attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin as the impetus for the broader war, ignoring overwhelming evidence from declassified documents that there was no such attack.

The narrative continues: “The United States went to war in Iraq as part of its global war on terrorism.” In the same paragraph, the authors introduce Osama bin Laden and explain the creation of al-Qaeda “to dislodge American forces in the Middle East.” The implication is clear—Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were working in cahoots to attack the United States. To further cement this alleged relationship, which did not exist, they quote George W. Bush: “Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.” Nowhere in the case study or various historical timelines do the authors indicate that both Hussein and bin Laden were at one time strongly supported by the United States. Describing the arguments for the second Gulf War, the text notes a “lack of indisputable evidence” (as opposed to the presence of manufactured false evidence) that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

In outlining alternatives to these military invasions, the authors identify the only potential consequences as unacceptably negative. In the case of Vietnam, they cite the “domino theory,” which predicted one country after another becoming communist threats to the United States. In the case of Iraq, they quote then-President Bush without additional commentary: “We cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

Lesson 3 is on “Global Citizenship Choices, Decisions, and Consequences.” The authors discuss intelligence as a tool of U.S. foreign policy: “The CIA focuses mostly on countries it thinks might be unfriendly. . . . Sometimes intelligence agencies have helped overturn the government of a country. . . . For example, the CIA took part in overthrowing the government of Salvador Allende. The United States government thought Allende was not favorable to our national interest. Like defense, diplomacy, foreign aid, and trade measures, intelligence is an important tool of foreign policy.” There is no questioning of the U.S.-led coup against the democratically elected president of Chile, nor is there any discussion of the consequences and implications of the decision.

“The Greatest Purveyor of Violence...”

The sole mission of the U.S. military is to prepare for and fight wars. JROTC in middle and high schools, ROTC in colleges, the ASVAB test, military partnerships with schools, research and development programs—all are designed as tools for fulfilling this goal. Military recruiters and JROTC personnel are notorious for not disclosing the whole truth and for making seductive promises—verbally and in writing—that can be broken at any time. For example, students and staff are often told that undocumented students will receive legal citizenship papers if they enlist. This is false. By law, undocumented immigrants may not enlist in the U.S. armed forces, or even enroll in JROTC. (Documented immigrants may enlist and can receive citizenship status for doing so if they fulfill all requirements. Last spring Pentagon officials approved a policy that would allow a limited number of undocumented young people “with critical language or medical skills” and who came to the United States as children to enlist in the military, opening a pathway to eventual citizenship.)

JROTC is a component of the U.S. military apparatus, what King called the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”—and nothing about the current world situation would encourage him to modify that statement. As educators, we need to teach students to read the world, to question, and to critically analyze the history of U.S. militarism. And we must get JROTC out of our schools.  

In June, after this article had been accepted for publication, an avid (and apparently mentally unstable) JROTC student at RHS armed himself with a semi-automatic rifle and pistol, a knife, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. He fatally shot one student and injured a teacher before police cornered him and he took his own life. This tragedy highlights the importance of closing down programs that feed violent tendencies in vulnerable students and contradict school-based efforts to teach nonviolent conflict resolution.

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Apple's Tim Cook: 'I Consider Being Gay Among the Greatest Gifts God Has Given Me'

Thu, 10/30/2014 - 10:33
Boss of world's largest company writes about his sexuality for first time.

Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, has officially come out as gay and described his sexuality as “among the greatest gifts God has given me.”

Cook, who had previously never denied being gay but neither had he publicly acknowledged his sexuality, wrote about being gay in an opinion article for Bloomberg.

“I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me,” the boss of the world’s largest company said on Thursday. “For years, I’ve been open with many people about my sexual orientation. Plenty of colleagues at Apple know I’m gay, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference in the way they treat me,” he said. Of course, I’ve had the good fortune to work at a company that loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people’s differences. Not everyone is so lucky.”

Cook, 53, who became the boss of Apple in August 2011 shortly before founder Steve Jobs died after a long battle against pancreatic cancer, said: “While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now. So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”

Out magazine listed him on its 2013 “power list”, while tech blog Valleywagcastigated the New York Times for erasing Cook when it wrote in May that “there is not a single openly gay chief executive at the nation’s 1,000 biggest companies.” Until today, Cook had also never confirmed that he is a gay man, to the extent that a CNBC anchor caused a minor fracas in June when he described Cook as “fairly open about the fact that he’s gay”.

Cook, who has worked at Apple since 1998, said he had not previously opened up about his sexuality in an effort to try and maintain a level of privacy while running one of the world’s most scrutinised companies.

“Throughout my professional life, I’ve tried to maintain a basic level of privacy. I come from humble roots, and I don’t seek to draw attention to myself,” he said. “Apple is already one of the most closely watched companies in the world, and I like keeping the focus on our products and the incredible things our customers achieve with them.

“At the same time, I believe deeply in the words of Dr Martin Luther King, who said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ” I often challenge myself with that question, and I’ve come to realise that my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important. That’s what has led me to today.”

Cook said being gay had been “tough and uncomfortable at times” but also made him “more empathetic, which has led to a richer life” and given him “the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry”.

“It’s also given me the skin of a rhinoceros, which comes in handy when you’re the CEO of Apple.”

While the essay is the first place Cook has publicly confirmed his sexuality, it’s not the first time he’s taken a stance against discrimination against LGBT people. In June, he tweeted his support for the White House’s decision to ban LGBT discrimination at federal contractors, calling it “a matter of basic human dignity”. And in February, he congratulated the football coach of the university he went to for saying he would be fine with a gay player on the team.

In the Bloomberg article, Cook said the world had changed considerably for gay people since he was a child, but more needs to be done to create a fair and more equal society. “There are laws on the books in a majority of states that allow employers to fire people based solely on their sexual orientation. There are many places where landlords can evict tenants for being gay, or where we can be barred from visiting sick partners and sharing in their legacies. Countless people, particularly kids, face fear and abuse every day because of their sexual orientation.”

Cook said he does not consider himself a gay rights activist, but he realised how much he has benefited from the sacrifices of equal rights activists in the past.

“I’ll admit that this wasn’t an easy choice. Privacy remains important to me, and I’d like to hold on to a small amount of it,” he said. “So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”

Other high-profile business figures who have discussed their homosexuality more openly in recent years include the former BP boss Lord Browne, who has now written a book about homosexuality within the business world.

Suki Sandhu, chief executive of OUTstanding, a not-for-profit professional network for LGBT executives, said: “This is amazing news. There is no stronger diversity message to send than the CEO of the world’s most valuable company saying it makes sense to be open and authentic about who you are in the workplace. Coming hot on the heels of the appointment of Christopher Bailey as the first openly gay CEO of a FTSE 100 company, it shows that attitudes are changing.

“But the fact remains that Cook and Bailey are in a tiny minority. When conservative estimates put the percentage of UK adults who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) at 6%, it seems crazy that so few business leaders are open about their sexuality.”


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Gun Nuts Sink to New Depths: How My Town's Fight Against "Open Carry" Revealed Their Horrifying Tactics

Thu, 10/30/2014 - 09:31
Nothing is out of bounds for gun extremists who want to intimidate their foes.

If you want to understand the fight the gun safety movement faces in trying to win over gun extremists in red states, my experience this summer will be instructive.

Moms Demand Action, a group formed after the Sandy Hook shooting to crack down on gun violence, began pressuring the Kroger supermarket chain to prohibit “open carry” in its stores after gun extremists used Kroger stores to demonstrate their “rights.” Gun laws are lax in many states, and it can be legal to openly carry a firearm with no training, and, in some cases, no background checks. The Kroger campaign is the most recent in a string of corporate responsibility efforts in which mothers, flanked by other gun violence prevention advocates, have asked companies to tighten gun policies, arguing that the businesses have an obligation to keep their customers safe.

Of course, gun extremists did not respond kindly to the Kroger campaign. What follows is a recounting of their disturbing tactics, from the shocking intimidation and harassment of unsuspecting commenters on Kroger’s Facebook page to right-wing media propaganda that disingenuously portrayed Kroger as being allies of the gun extremists.

Secret Facebook groups such as “People Who Were Blocked by Moms Demand Action Demand Action Now” — which has well over a thousand members — disseminated gun rights propaganda and helped orchestrate attacks on individuals commenting on Kroger’s page. Some gun nuts combed the profile pages of people commenting in support of gun reform, harvested personal photos of them and Photoshopped them to include obscene or humiliating comments, before reposting the photos on Kroger’s page, or on other social media sites. Because Kroger frequently bans users who post that kind of content, the gun extremists created disposable fake accounts — sometimes using the name and profile photo of an opponent— to quickly dump posts without being held accountable.

In one case, they found a photo of a woman’s preschool-age child and wrote on it, “My mom sucks more cock than Richard Simmons” and circulated it online. In another case, they grabbed a photo of a mother and her child and wrote “Big retard, little retard” on it before reposting it. One woman posted to Kroger a photograph of a receipt showing money she spent elsewhere, and gun extremists swarmed her post, with hundreds of responses, including comments like “what you could do is shut your god damned whore mouth,” “calm your tits,” and “fuck her right in the pussy,” which Kroger’s Facebook admin allowed to stand over a day later.

Some of the gun extremists’ targets regularly do battle with them online; others never expected such a response when they posted a message to Kroger and are alarmed and intimidated. One woman who was the target of a Photoshopped image told me that she considered shutting down her Facebook account over the reaction to her post on Kroger’s page. The gun extremists’ goal seems to be to mob individuals until they are scared into silence, and in some cases it is working.

The dirty tactics don’t stop at the street level. Recently the right-wing blog site BuzzPofeatured a post by Eric Reed, founder of Gun Rights Across America. Reed’s post claimed that CJ Grisham, head of Open Carry Texas, had met with Kroger executives for a “lengthy conversation” about their policy on guns at their stores. Reed links to a petition he said Grisham created after meeting with Kroger executives, “a way for Americans to support Kroger in their decision, to help them stand their ground.” If you sign the petition, Reed says, you can knock Moms Demand Action back “into their little liberal utopia where they can chase leprechauns and ride unicorns all day long” and “Kroger will appreciate your support as well.” Members of Moms Demand Action, including founder Shannon Watts, caught wind of Reed’s story and took to Twitter about it, claiming Kroger should meet with them, too.

Except it’s not clear that the meeting the gun nuts claim happened actually ever did. Kroger adamantly denied it, as did the one member of Open Carry Texas who spoke to Kroger executives. Reed’s source for this post was a Facebook exchange between Grisham and himself in a closed gun group, in which Grisham named a Kroger executive who he says suggested this counter-petition to Open Carry Texas. However, the Kroger executive named by Grisham told me he didn’t know who Grisham was, and that while he had received a phone call from the head of Houston’s branch of Open Carry Texas, he never encouraged OCT in any way or suggested any course of action to them.

The head of the Houston chapter of Open Carry Texas, David Amad, also vigorously denied that Kroger had suggested the petition and maintained that the Kroger executive was completely neutral in their brief phone call. In fact, he said, that was the whole point as far as he was concerned: He doesn’t believe that anyone should be asking businesses to take sides in the gun debate.

Never mind the fact that several days before our conversation, Open Carry Texas posted photos of themselves marching into Staples with semiautomatic rifles and a Texas flag. When “neutral” means almost anyone can openly carry loaded guns into your place of business, remaining “neutral” is in effect siding with the gun extremists. That’s how frightening this debate has become.



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Meet the People Who Watch Beheading and Animal Abuse Videos All Day So You Don’t Have To

Thu, 10/30/2014 - 07:30
Content moderators are responsible for removing offensive material from our social media feeds. But who is looking out for them?

When you scroll through Facebook or Twitter, you expect to see photos of friends’ recent vacations, well-wishing birthday posts and Buzzfeed articles about porcupines eating pumpkins. What you don’t expect are graphic images of child pornography or videos of people having their heads cut off. Though many of us don't know it, a vast labor force of content moderators, largely based overseas, works day and night to keep our social media feeds free of this sort of offensive material.

In an investigation for Wired, Adrian Chen travels to the Philippines to get the behind-the-scenes stories of the men and women responsible for sanitizing the experience of American Internet users. As Chen learns, there are well over 100,000 of these laborers, many of whom work in rundown urban areas outside of Manila. Their wages range from $300-$500 per month, and the work they do is draining. Moderators sit in front of computer monitors for hours at a time, sifting through a constantly updated stream of content that has been flagged as inappropriate: sexual solicitations, dick pics, savage street fights, suicide bombings. They repeat this cycle day in and day out, struggling to keep up with the oppressive volume of offensive content that never stops accumulating.

Needless to say, being exposed to the dark underbelly of humanity for eight hours each day takes a toll. The contractors Chen interviews describe struggling with insomnia, substance abuse, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Though some companies offer free counseling to their workers, many do not, and moderators are left to heal their psychological wounds on their own. A woman named Maria, who works as a quality assurance representative for a contracting firm, told Chen about her coping strategies.

“I get really affected by bestiality with children,” she says. “I have to stop. I have to stop for a moment and loosen up, maybe go to Starbucks and have a coffee.” She laughs at the absurd juxtaposition of a horrific sex crime and an overpriced latte.  

Though the bulk of this labor is outsourced overseas, the more specialized content screening is done here in the U.S., mostly by recent college graduates who are between permanent gigs. As Chen points out, U.S.-based moderators earn much more than those in other countries, and “a brand-new American moderator for a large tech company in the US can make more in an hour than a veteran Filipino moderator makes in a day.” But the psychological damage is the same, and the young grads screening videos for Bay Area startups are just as haunted by the images scrolling across their screens.

Rob, who used to work as a moderator at YouTube, recalls the job as an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Those who do it to have to become desensitized to the graphic images they process, so they can’t allow themselves to recognize the emotional and psychological burden they are carrying with them. Rob gained weight and turned to alcohol as a release. As he put it: 

“If someone was uploading animal abuse, a lot of the time it was the person who did it. He was proud of that. And seeing it from the eyes of someone who was proud to do the fucked-up thing, rather than news reporting on the fucked-up thing—it just hurts you so much harder, for some reason. It just gives you a much darker view of humanity.”

The removal of offensive content is one way our Internet experience is curated and polished without our knowledge. Another is the monitoring of the thousands of comments users post on social media networks and online publications. Anyone who has spent any time poking around the comments section on CNN or Reddit—or AlterNet, for that matter—knows that they are often cesspools of racism, bigotry, sexism and name-calling. But while we can close our laptops in disgust, comment moderators, like content moderators, must absorb the brunt force of the burbling mass of hatred and raw human id that is the Internet.

As recent articles in the New Inquiry and Jacobin noted, the bulk of comment moderation is done by young, poorly compensated women. They are, as the Jacobin piece phrased it, “the human buffers between an outraged public and the publication itself.” Even higher-ups within a publication are rarely aware of what gets said in the comments section; only the female college grads scrubbing the threads bear witness to all of the vitriol directed at the writers, the other commenters, and often the publication itself. In the New Inquiry piece, Jason Wilson argues that “this systemic resilience relies on a precariously employed and female labor force. We must understand how they are deputized to shore up the legitimacy of institutions which have historically excluded and currently exploit them, freeing the powerful to present all of this as a democratic undertaking.”

The same case can be made for the content moderators staring at computer screens in dingy offices thousands of miles across the ocean. Because online companies rely on an invisible, silent, underpaid labor force to do the dirty work of damage control, it is too easy to forget that these gatekeepers exist. Sarah Roberts, a media studies scholar at the University of Western Ontario, tells Adrian Chen that companies and social media users alike would prefer to pretend that they do not. As she says, “It goes to our misunderstandings about the Internet and our view of technology as being somehow magically not human.” Rob, Maria, and the thousands of other moderators around the globe are living proof that it is. 

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WATCH: Jon Stewart Makes 'Robber Baron' Koch Industries Regret Advertising on His Show

Thu, 10/30/2014 - 04:48
Stewart adds a little truthiness to a Koch brothers ad.

When Jon Stewart discovered that Koch Industries was advertising on his show, he decided to do a little investigating. What is this Koch Industries?

He discovered it is a little behemoth run by two brothers. "Two brothers working together, I like that," Stewart said. "Unless it is the Menendez brothers."

It's worse, of course. As Stewart points out, the Koch brothers are pouring $290 million into elections all over the country through a cleverly masked, intricate web of dark money organizations "to bend the democratic process to their will."

In the interest of countering Koch propaganda, the Daily Show aired its own Koch Industries ad. "We're Koch Industries," it went. "Making your planet warmer, your water more flammable and your birds more lubricated."


The Daily Show
Get More: Daily Show Full Episodes,The Daily Show on Facebook,Daily Show Video Archive


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Georgia Court Refuses to Intervene on Behalf of 56,000 Missing Voters

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 16:08
And the time to appeal is running out.

On Tuesday, a Georgia court refused to issue an emergency order adding more than 56,000 people to this fall's voter rolls.  

Civil rights groups sued Georgia's Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, a Republican, claiming that he and county election offiials were not processing voter registration forms submitted by the New Georgia Project, which turned in more than 81,000 applications gathered in communities of color. The election officials claim they don't have the missing applications.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Christopher S. Brasher threw out the lawsuit, writing that the New Georgia Project "failed to allege, much less show, the counties' registrars past or continued failure to process voter registration applications."

The ruling might have a big impact on Georgia's already close U.S. Senate race and governor's race. Across the country, as early voting starts this week in a handful of states where rightwing governors face tight races and the Senate's majority is up for grabs, decisions by federal and state courts have been shaping voting with partisan implications.

Most of the litigation is not about voter registration, but about new state-issued photo ID requirements to get a ballot. The Republican Party, nationally, has been behind most new laws that have made voting more cumbersome—and in some cases, impossible. But the GOP has not always been winning in court, despite what just happened in Georgia. In some states, Republican efforts to police the polls appear to be backfiring,

That's the case in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker is in a tight re-election fight and his new voter ID law was blocked by courts for this fall after a high-profile legal fight. In Pennsylvania, where another rightwing governor, Tom Corbett, is far behind in the polls, his voter ID law was also blocked by a judge this year. In Arkansas, the state Supreme Court also threw out a tougher voter ID requirement, which might boost turnout in a state with a close U.S. Senate race. Higher voter turnout is seen as possibly helping Democratic candidates, and negative press about the laws can motivate people to vote to be heard.

But Republican partisans also have been winning election laws cases in court. Before Tuesday's Georgia ruling, the most high-profile example was Texas, where the U.S. Supreme Court’s rightwing majority upheld its new and more restrictive voter ID law.

In her dissent in that ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that a lower federal court had found that upwards of 600,000 Texans lacked IDs, and that the state was doing little to inform voters about the new law’s requirements. The new ID law’s biggest beneficiary is likely to be one of its top defenders, Texas Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running for governor against Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis. 

The U.S. Supreme Court also upheld most of North Carolina’s tough-minded voting reforms, which are seen as helping Republicans in another state with a pivotal Senate contest. The Court agreed with ending Election Day registration, a policy that encourages turnout, and it also upheld a technicality where a provisional ballot turned in at the wrong precinct would not be counted. In a polling place, that “wrong precinct” could be another table in a high school gym. North Carolina’s tougher voter ID law will not be in place this fall, but Republicans have complicated the process, which can discourage voting.

A slightly different voter registration fights has been unfolding in Kansas, where Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach instituted a proof of citizenship requirement for state elections. More than 10,000 otherwise eligible Kansans—who were registered but didn’t have a copy of a birth certificate or passport to prove their citizenship—are in a “suspense” file. That means their registration is incomplete and votes won’t count even if they cast a provisional ballot. Kansas has several tight top races where rightwingers could be ousted.

Calling Out Voter Suppression

The 2014 election is not just seeing judges issuing voting rights rulings with partisan implications. A handful of federal judges who do not like the GOP's war on eligible voters—including at least one well-known conservative—have said so in their rulings.

In Texas, U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, whose ruling on voter ID was overturned by the Supreme Court, called the state's new voter ID law “a poll tax.” In her dissent, Ginsburg cited Ramos’ analysis that 600,000 Texans would not be able to get a ballot, and said that Republicans were motivated “because of, and not merely in spite of, the voter ID law’s detrimental effects on the African-American and Hispanic electorate.”

In Chicago, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner, a nationally known conservative, lambasted Wisconsin’s new ID law, saying it would disenfranchise 300,000 voters, including many people in communities of color, poor people and students.

“There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens,” Posner wrote.

Meanwhile, there is also new evidence that voter suppression tactics can make a difference in tight races. This month, Congress' investigative arm, the Government Accountablity Office, released a detailed study concluding that restrictive voter ID laws decreased voter turnout in Kansas and Tennessee by two-to-three percent once they took effect. The greatest drop was among young voters, first-time voters and African-Americans, GAO found.    



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The Terrible Truth About Bill Cosby

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 11:36
He asked us to invest in the lie of his own life, and the lie of "respectability." We can't laugh with him anymore.

Since the resurgence of conversation about the rape allegations against Bill Cosby, I have been thinking about what it means to honestly hold men in our society accountable for the varied forms of violence they do to women. On the heels of comedian Hannibal Burress’ skewering of Cosby over the allegations of 13 women who accuse him of drugging and raping them, we learned that Stephen Collins, who played the lovable dad Rev. Camden  to seven children on the show “Seventh Heaven,” allegedly molested and exposed himself to several young girls many years ago.

At the Crunk Feminist Collective, where I blog, last week I wrote a piece in which I argued that perhaps in light of these allegations about Bill Cosby, it might be time to slay not only Cliff Huxtable, but also Clair Huxtable, as exemplars of a (black) American family ideal to which we should all aspire. That suggestion, of course, was not received well. The Huxtables are a beloved family to most Americans who watched the show in the 1980s and 1990s, and even to a newer generation of children born in the 22 years since it has been off the air.

We are not a society given to slaying our patriarchs, even when they have proved over and over again that they are unworthy of our devotion. Despite increasing acceptance of gay families, the two-parent, heterosexual, nuclear narrative still anchors our notions of proper family. But what does it mean that while these men played progressive, loving family men on television, they potentially and allegedly raped and terrorized women and children in their personal lives?

It feels particularly egregious, because these men had access to literal scripts that could demonstrate another way to live and relate to women and children. Instead, they have perhaps shown themselves to be so many wolves masquerading as proverbial sheep.

Frankly, I think it is high time that these violent crimes begin to cost men something. And that might mean that it has to cost those of us who love them something as well. I have shared in these pages before that I do not romanticize patriarchal families because I did not grow up in one. My father was a complicated, brilliant, hilarious and violent man, and my home life and childhood were infinitely better after he left our home. His leaving and his alcoholism cost me a father. But it saved me a mother.

It is high time that we decide as a nation that the symbolic slaying (and perhaps the actual locking up) of some of our most beloved men is an entirely reasonable price to pay for creating a world safe for women and children, a world where we don’t accede to narratives that convince us yet again that predators are really “good guys.”

Many friends and colleagues made it plain to me last week that they would not “give up” either Cliff or Clair, suggesting that those representations do important cultural work that exceed the bounds of Bill Cosby’s many faults.

Twenty years after the Moynihan Report lambasted the black family, “The Cosby Show” was “the black family” personified. What Bill Cosby gave to us, albeit in a loving, hilarious and groundbreaking mold, was a benevolent patriarchal model of family. That black women have managed to creatively negotiate and make space for themselves in these kinds of families, to shine brilliantly in spite of them, does not mean we should invest in these narratives any longer. Successful black heteropatriarchy was never the proper solution to Moynihan’s effed-up assessment of black families in the first place.

To be clear, I loved both “The Cosby Show” and “Seventh Heaven.” An only child, I made friends with the characters on those shows, various other ’90s sitcoms, and the characters in my Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins books. I had serious emotional investments in television and storybook characters, which is why still today, on my off time I can be found reading romance novels that have recurring characters.  When earlier this year, the Disney Channel debuted “Girl Meets World,” a spinoff of one of my favorite ’90s sitcoms “Boy Meets World,” I tuned in eager to see what had become of Cory and Topanga Matthews.  I deeply understand what these characters have meant to our childhoods and to our own adult vision of the kinds of families and friendships we would like to have.

But part of the reason that systems of patriarchy, racism and heterosexism are so hard to dismantle is precisely because they compel our emotional investments.  And it is within our families that our race, gender and sexual politics congeal most concretely. Middle-class black folks love the Cosbys for the same reason that working-class black folks love Tyler Perry’s Madea stories. In them, we feel seen and heard – recognized.  But if that recognition comes through the creative vision of men who really don’t value women, do those representations not deserve our deepest skepticism?

I recognize Bill Cosby as a comedic genius, and black people — with good reason — don’t throw away our geniuses. Even when they beat and rape and kill women and abuse children. Far too often, racism becomes an excuse for us not to confront sexism. And internalized misogyny and victim-blaming keep Americans from ostracizing the Woody Allens and Charlie Sheens of the world.

Since 2004, in his infamous “Pound Cake” speech at Howard University, Bill Cosby has gone around the country lecturing to poor black people about our failure to uphold our end of “the bargain.” A Faustian bargain, if ever there was one, the idea that being respectable citizens, with “good” families, would pave the path to freedom has proved to be simply untrue.

Meanwhile, Cosby has lived a lie. He has asked us to invest not only in the lie of his own life, but in the larger lies of black respectability and patriarchy. His own crimes demonstrate in black-and-white the diseased, misogynistic, violent thinking at the heart of patriarchy. And as much as I might love “The Cosby Show,” we should perhaps consider it “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

So I argued that we ought to slay our patriarch and matriarch and make room for some new ideas about what black life and black family can be in the 21st century. I recognize the violence in my proposition. I recognize that it feels violent to those who looked at a television and for the first time saw a family that looked like themselves. I recognize that it feels extreme for those who saw a black family and felt like it was a family to which they could relate.

But while we watched the show, the man at the center of it, the man for whom it is named, allegedly victimized and terrorized more than a dozen women.

That has to matter. And it cannot matter simply in terms of criminal justice. This is a question about where our emotional and affective and representational investments lie.

The part of me that believes in notions of linear progress, the part of me that likes to believe that in knowing better, we do better, wants us to spend time in this 21st century solving the problems of the 20th century. And that means, on the one hand, not diminishing the representational value of “The Cosby Show,” not diminishing the heft of its artistic and cultural and political project. But it does mean rejecting its narrative as passé. It does mean not dragging a 30-year-old show kicking and screaming into times that call for something different. It does mean recognizing that the we, black, overachieving professionals, are allowed to be different kinds of men and women than Cliff and Clair, to have different kinds of families than they had, to be messy and not quite together, to be imperfect.

Bill Cosby broke a trust with America, and in particular, with black America, if he became just one more (black) man, who aspired to patriarchy on the broken, bruised bodies of women. Our knowledge of these alleged crimes demands we do something, and demands not simply a rhetorical denunciation of him while we continue to laugh absentmindedly at “Cosby Show” reruns.

And it is my hope that in slaying this beloved black patriarch, often branded as America’s favorite dad, we open space for a calling to account of the harms that men do, and that in doing so, we stand up and say, we won’t take it anymore.


Why I Love My Child-Free Existence

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 10:59
It’s a choice everyone should be able to make for themselves, without being seen as an irresponsible, immature or unfulfilled.

The following article first appeared on Role Reboot. 

I do not have children, nor do I ever want them.

That is an unremarkable statement, and yet I continue to get confused and skeptical responses from many people. Some people are even downright defiant, stating, “Oh, you’ll change your mind,” as if being nearly 34 years old, I haven’t fully matured enough to know myself.

That particular response is such a scripted and infuriating brush-off that, at this point, I don’t even like being asked if I have kids. To me, that simple question feels like the iron maiden of conversation devices, and each time I get asked it, it’s as if the cold, metal door begins to shut around me and I must escape quickly if I want to get out alive.

While I feel overwhelmed now to the point of histrionics, I suspect I’d get a lot more of that second-guessing if I were a woman. My partner—who is a woman—certainly does. Once, after saying that she did not have children, someone incredulously replied to her by saying, “Well, why not?”

This is how our culture regards the child-free—it’s as if the lack of being a parent has somehow stunted my maturity or growth, that I haven’t yet finished my climb to adulthood because I’ve sired no sons or daughters. It’s akin to how some people will regard unwed couples as less serious simply because they are not married (another circumstance that demands a shift in vocabulary).

I suspect this presumption is also why the term “childless” has been so prominent for so long, as if all adults are simply waiting and hoping to have a child similar to how the jobless are hoping to become employed. The “-less” denotes that something is lacking in my child-free adult life, that it’s a state of being that is happening to me rather than a choice I’m making for myself.

“Child-free” is a great alternative to the subtly pro-choice rhetoric of “childless,” and Chanel Dubofsky lays out a superb argument for preferring the former term.

Still, whatever term is used to describe adults without children, syntax doesn’t get to the heart of the fact that living as an adult without children somehow still designates you as living life incompletely.

If Condoleezza Rice—an incredibly accomplished person — is still reduced to a pre-pregnant woman by being asked if she’d consider her life fulfilled even if she doesn’t have kids, what hope could I have to be left alone on this whole child-having business? Not a lot, especially when New York magazine just ran a piece earlier this month featuring 25 famous women who do not have kids, yet used the term “childless” in their headline.

Let me be clear: There’s nothing wrong with asking people if they have kids. The problem is that so many people do not end their inquiry upon learning there will be no kids. My frustration is with the the cultural attitude toward my family as a DINK—Double Income, No Kids.

Truth be told, I’m completely fulfilled living my life with my partner. There are no ulterior motives for not having kids, and it’s not so I can obtain this “having it all” status. Really. I just don’t want to be a parent.

For most of humanity’s history, there were serious economic and sociological reasons why people needed to have children. One hundred and 50 years ago, I probably would have needed to have children just so I wouldn’t starve to death or die of exposure, and so I recognize that it’s an immense privilege to elect to be child-free these days.

It’s a choice everyone should be able to make for themselves, without the risk of being seen as irresponsible, immature or unfulfilled.

In my chattier moments, after having been asked why I don’t want children, I’ve offered reasons like how expensive it is to raise children, what a time commitment it is, how I’m too selfish at this point to have kids, how I’m hesitant to risk passing on my genetic disposition for mental illness, and so on. These are cop-outs I’ve nervously given to people that I use to deflect further scrutiny. I’ve never really meant any of them.

I simply don’t want to have children. The truth should be sufficient.


Our Warped Idea of Terrorism: It Only Applies to People Who Oppose America and Its Allies

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 10:50
The government and mainstream media's definition of terrorism is very convenient.

The definition of terrorism seems simple enough. The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that it is “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.”

But America’s leaders and corporate media have a radically different definition of terrorism.

“In the mainstream American media, the ‘terrorist’ label is usually reserved for those opposed to the policies of the U.S. and its allies,” Tomas Kapitan, professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University, recently wrote in a column for the New York Times. This terrorist label is usually slapped on Muslims, even when they use violence in the context of a war zone like the Gaza Strip over the summer.

Since the September 11 attacks, the U.S. has waged a war on terror. But as the writer Glenn Greenwald has repeatedly pointed out, the tactic the U.S. is waging battle against has lost its fundamental meaning. In the eyes of the U.S. elite, terrorism today means an act of political violence carried out by Muslims opposed to U.S. foreign policy. When political violence is carried out by non-Muslims, a different label is used. And when the U.S. and its allies launch wanton attacks on civilians to achieve a political goal, it is justified by invoking the specter of “terrorism.” The U.S., it seems, feels free to use terrorism—in the dictionary sense of the word—to wage a war on terrorism. Just look at the indiscriminate drone strikes the U.S. has carried out in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, which have terrorized the civilian populations there in the name of fighting terrorism.

Recent acts of violence show this reality clearly.

On October 22, a Canadian man named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed a soldier guarding a war memorial in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. He moved into the Canadian Parliament and also fired shots. American news outlets quickly labeled the incident a terrorist act, though at the time they had no indication of what motivated the attacker. President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also invoked terrorism when they denounced the attack.

In the days after the attack, the picture became hazier. U.S. and Canadian officials said that Zehaf-Bibeau was connected to people who had a “radical Islamist” ideology. But he also had a criminal record and suffered from mental illness. In a New Yorkercolumn, the Canadian writer Heet Jeer noted that “Zehaf-Bibeau talked not just about an external battle but an internal struggle with demons, spiritual beings he felt had a real existence. That was a battle he was fighting in his own mind, which may have been the ultimate source of the violence that he inflicted on the world.”

Nevertheless, Zehaf-Bibeau was called a terrorist before these relevant facts came out, exposing the hollowness of the word terrorism.

The immediate labeling of the event in Canada as a terrorist attack stands in stark contrast to a violent incident on American soil that took place last June. Jerad and Amander Miller killed two police officers in Las Vegas before going into a Walmart, where they shot another person before being slain by police officers. The Miller couple were right-wing extremists. After killing the officers, the Millers covered one of the officers with a flag of the Nazi swastika and a yellow flag with the words “Don’t Tread On Me.”

By the classic definition of the word, the Millers were terrorists. But as the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi pointed out at the time, “few media accounts have described the Millers as terrorists or their actions as terrorism.”

In 2010, Andrew Stack crashed his plane into a building with Internal Revenue Service employees, killing one. He left behind an anti-government suicide note. The Department of Homeland Security’s initial statement on the attack said there was “no reason to believe there is a nexus to terrorist activity.”

Since 9/11, mainstream U.S. discourse has become saturated with fears over (Muslim) terrorism. It’s easy to forget that the government’s focus on terrorism is fairly new. Remi Brulin, a scholar whose work focuses on the discourse around terrorism, documented this history in a recent talk delivered at New York University.

Brulin explained that American government focus on terrorism as a problem came to the fore in 1972, after Palestinian militants killed Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich, Germany. In a memo explaining the U.S. position on a UN resolution condemning terrorism at that time, the State Department offered a narrow definition of the word. The department said that terrorism was an act of political violence that occurs in territory outside of the state where the perpetrator is from and outside the state that the act was directed against.

America’s narrow definition didn’t last long. By the Reagan era, U.S. officials had adopted the Israeli discourse. As Brulin has explained, this discourse posits that what separates terrorists from the civilized world is the valuing of innocent life. Taken at face value, it bears a close resemblance to the common understanding of the word. But “the Israeli discourse...has been fundamentally ideological. It has been the discourse of de-legitimization, and of de-humanization,”Brulin argues. Israel and the U.S. use the word terrorism to describe the political violence carried out by its enemies. But when those states carry out acts of violence at civilians or allow their allies to do so, the word terrorism does not come up in mainstream discussion.

Tomas Kapitan’s New York Times essay points to the 1982 massacre of thousands of civilians in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. The perpetrators were Lebanese Phalangists, key Israeli allies. An Israeli investigative committee would later determine that Ariel Sharon, the Israeli defense minister at the time, bore “personal responsibility” for the attack and that he decided the Phalangists should be sent in to the camp. This was not thought of as terrorism, though. Instead, Israel’s commission of inquiry on the massacre only referred to Palestinian terrorists--a clear example of how the rhetoric of terrorism is exploited “to direct attention away from [states’] own acts of terror,” as Kapitan writes.

Terrorism is a politicized and racialized term. The words terrorism and terrorist are principally used to delineate which political actors can use violence legitimately and which cannot. In the realm of international politics, only Western states and their allies can use violence aimed at civilians to achieve political goals. But when Muslims do it, they are called terrorists and delegitimized, regardless of whether they were, in fact, using the tactics of terrorism.

If terrorism is to mean anything, the word should be used to describe all acts of political violence that target civilians. But if it’s not, “the whole analytical category of ‘terrorism’ needs to be abandoned," as Heet Jeer suggested on Twitter. Given the word’s use as a rhetorical weapon to justify state violence, the day when the category of terrorism is abandoned is far off.

PG&E May Have Secretly Altered Earthquake Standards for California's Last Nuclear Power Plant

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 10:50
The aging plant is located on an intricate network of earthquake fault lines.

Montaña de Oro State Park is a place where the rolling hills of the Central California coast drop from steep cliffs into crashing waves that are home to diverse sea life ranging from starfish and anemones to sea lions and migrating whales. Nestled among the wildflowers along the craggy bluffs of this majestic natural reserve is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon.

I grew up in the small beach town that bumps heads with Montaña de Oro and the ominous plant, aptly named for the devil himself. I recall the piercing screech of testing sirens, sounding the potential for a nuclear disaster to render our homes toxic and dangerous. Since Los Osos is located directly along a large and intricate web of earthquake fault lines, it was no mystery how that disaster would likely come to be.

At least, we were assured, the nuclear plant was regularly checked and tested, and would withstand even a significant amount of tectonic action. We had better regulations in place than Japan, didn't we? Diablo could not be the next Fukushima Daiichi because everything here was up to California's strict codes that take the Big One into account, or so we thought.

Surprise! This week a group of environmental activists brought a lawsuit against PG&E and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because, as it turns out, federal regulators secretly revised Diablo’s license “to mask the aging plant’s vulnerability to earthquakes,” as the San Francisco Chronicle put it.

“The suit claims that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and [PG&E] last year changed a key element of the plant’s license related to seismic safety without allowing public input as required by law — or even notifying the public at all. The changes concern the strength of earthquakes that the plant ... can withstand,” reports the Chronicle.

The public PG&E failed to notify consists of my parents, cousins, teachers, childhood friends, and their children. It’s heartbreaking to read about a nuclear disaster an ocean away, but it’s terrifying to realize that the same thing could happen here in California because of a greedy, negligent corporate coverup.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is specifically set up to review the decisions of federal agencies. The group behind the suit wants the court to shut down the plant until the necessary changes are in place. They want public hearings to take place to amend Diablo Canyon’s license. So far PG&E denies all of the allegations.

As the Chronicle points out, this isn’t the first time PG&E has been “accused of back-channel dealings with government regulators.” In 2010 it was accused of a similar hush-up effort when its natural gas pipeline in San Bruno exploded.

The local community, as well as global environmentalists, has long voiced safety concerns about Diablo Canyon and an effort is building to shut it down completely. After the plant's original construction in the '60s, several previously unknown fault lines were discovered nearby, including the Shoreline Fault which is just 600 yards from Diablo's twin reactors. 

"Environmentalists have long argued that the plant wasn’t designed to survive the shaking that some of the newly discovered faults could produce," states the Chronicle. "And last year, Michael Peck, one of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s inspectors at Diablo, recommended shutting down the plant until the commission determined that its equipment could withstand a strong quake from those faults. The commission rejected the idea."

When my parents first bought their house in the mid-90s, the county provided them with a small supply of iodine tablets (which protect against radiation exposure) and instructions for what to do in the unlikely case of a nuclear emergency. They never thought they’d have to use them. Now the odds aren’t looking great. It’s time to shut down California’s last remaining nuclear plant before it’s too late.

Read the details of the lawsuit here, and sign a petition to shut down Diablo Canyon here.

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I’m a Muslim With a Beard—What’s So Scary About That?

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 10:48
Since growing some rather impressive facial hair I’ve noticed Muslims are more open to me, but others view me with suspicion.

People stare. Sometimes, on the tube, they cross the carriage to create a space between us. There is something about me some people don’t like, or it makes them uneasy. It’s my beard.

My beard is about three and a half to four inches long now. I started growing it nearly a year ago; the result of a number of things coming together. One – if I am honest – was laziness. It also began not long after an incident at my university,King’s College London. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was guest of honour at a reception. I went along in traditional dress, thinking: “This is Desmond Tutu. He fought against discrimination and oppression. I can be myself because everyone will be welcoming and open.” Then I was stopped by security and they demanded to know it I had actually been invited. From then I just thought: “Why not?”

Slowly, I became more and more fascinated with having a beard. I can only liken it to the experience of black women who relax their hair and then one day stop relaxing their hair and find it opens up a brand new world to them. There are all these beard products, oils, shampoos, combs. People even blog about them.

Once I grew my beard, there was an immediate effect. Muslims are more open to me; others with beards notice me because they understand what I’m experiencing.

Of course, there is also the other issue that beards are big in mainstream popular culture. People started coming up to me and saying “Great beard”. Within my own community, it gives me a sense of solidarity; outside, there is a feeling of specialness. Some people ask: “Are you growing that for religious reasons or because it is fashionable?” At first, I would feel I had to justify it. I would say it was fashionable and then religious. But then I stopped doing that. If I was a white guy with a ginger beard, no one would ask those questions of me.

My mum is keen that I get rid of it. My dad thinks I should shorten it. Mum worries in the current climate about how people will perceive it. But for me it is quite empowering. I love it when another Muslim sees me and comes and says “Salam” on the street. It is a subculture I am tapping into; a sense of pride in my identity as a Muslim. Beards play a massive role as a key identifier of whether you are a Muslim or not. It gives a sense of community.

As someone who has a bit of a public profile because of the role I play at university, a beard can also help to normalise the presence of a visible Muslim. It helps me to demonstrate to people “If I can do it, you can do it; you can be yourself.” They see a Muslim outwardly practising.

There is an assumption in our communities that if you are in the public sphere, you sell out a little and lose the things that make you who you are. By growing my beard, I debunk that a bit. My face has been everywhere because of freshers week and the fact that so many Muslims have been coming up to me and talking about issues they were facing was really a milestone for me.

I think the benefits of having my beard – not least that it covers up my eczema – outweigh the disadvantages. Some people grow them for religious reasons, others because it is comfortable, others because they are hipsters. Who cares?

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With the Christian Right Dying Off, Who Fuels Misogyny? Enter Secular Sexists of #Gamergate and MRA Movement

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 08:59
There are plenty of people agitating to keep women second-class citizens.

Ever since the second wave of feminism started in the 1960s, the opposition movement to feminism has been rooted in and organized around the church. Of course, there have always been secular anti-feminists, but they were never organized into any coherent movement. In contrast, evangelical and Catholic churches and Christian organizations have done all the yeoman’s work of fighting feminism. Christian organizer Phyllis Schlafly shut down the Equal Rights Amendment. Christian conservatives have been the main force fighting reproductive rights. The Supreme Court just dealt a major blow to contraception access at the behest of Christian lawyers arguing on behalf of Hobby Lobby. For five decades now, if you wanted to fight the feminists, you turned your eyes to the church.

But relying on religion to organize against feminism might be a strategy that’s hitting a hard limit: age. As in, younger people are simply not as interested in religion as they used to be. As Adam Lee, writing for the Guardian, details, young people are disengaging with religion generally and the religious right in particular at an amazing rate. Millennials, he writes, are “the least religious generation in American history – they’re even getting less religious as they get older, which is unprecedented.” And the most anti-feminist denominations, the Catholics and the Southern Baptists, are seeing some of the highest levels of drop-off.

It would be nice if this drop-off meant that American anti-feminism was coming to a close and we can look forward to a glorious new era of secularism where challenges to women’s equality are few and far between. And maybe that will still happen, as much of the loss of membership in religious right circles is due to young people’s disgust with the “conservative” part of Christian conservatism. But, unfortunately, there’s also a less prominent but increasingly aggressive anti-feminist movement that has no religious component—is often downright secular, in fact—and is poised to take over and continue the fight against women’s equality even as religious dominance declines.

To be clear, there have long been non-religious men who are coiled and ready at a moment’s notice to defend sexual harassment or wax on with half-baked theories about how evolution “programmed” women to be a submissive or servile class. Anyone who has ever read the comments section under a feminist blog post could tell you that. But secular anti-feminists have largely kept their activities to pompous lecturing of the sort epitomized by atheist Christopher Hitchens in his half-baked essay denying that women evolved to have a sense of humor. Organizing defies the self-image of a born playboy draped in woman-toys that tends to accompany this kind of narcissistic but secular sexism.

But that may be changing. For years now, a crowd of angry men who are steeped in rage at women has been gathering online, often going by names like “men’s rights activists” or even “pick-up artists." “Maybe some men’s anger stems from good old-fashioned misogyny, which is then stoked by political, social and cultural forces that say there’s nothing lower in this world than a woman so how dare she ... well, anything,” writes Jessica Valenti of this crowd

Despite calling themselves “activists,” most of these men haven’t really organized in any meaningful way, but instead spend of their time complaining online about women. Unlike religious right activists, who tend to focus primarily on restricting women’s employment and reproductive rights, the angry men of the Internet are most upset with feminist work fighting sexual harassment, sexual abuse and domestic violence. To simplify things: Religious anti-feminists focus their hatred on Roe v Wade, but “men’s rights” activists are most angry about the Violence Against Women Act.

Until recently, their activities to fight against feminism have mostly been constrained to whining online. But this past year has given feminists real reason to worry that secular misogynists have started to get a little more organized. Back in June, the website A Voice For Men threw its first “men’s rights” conference, dedicated largely to minimizing the realities of sexual violence and pushing the claim that domestic violence is not a gendered issue. (A claim that is easy enough to disprove.)

In October, A Voice For Men took its attacks on the work of anti-domestic violence feminists a step further. The leader, Paul Elam, created a website with a similar look and URL to the White Ribbon Campaign, a Canadian organization dedicated to fighting domestic violence. His copycat website is full of misleading and distorted information that minimizes domestic violence and tries to paint it as primarily the fault of women. In an interview with Cosmopolitan, Elam said he objects to “presenting information on domestic violence as something men can control only, that men need to stop, that we need to approach this as something that's protecting women.”

All this is awful and annoying, but what is really concerning is that this secular, if loathsome, view of gender relations might reach an audience of young men who have no interest in religious arguments against feminism. The creation of a movement called #GamerGate in the past few months has demonstrated how serious a threat this is. A grassroots online movement of mostly men who are angry about feminists working in video game development and criticism has exploded across the Internet and garnered major attention from mainstream media sources. The movement has focused on using harassment campaigns to scare women and gaming publications into falling silent on the issue of sexism in gaming.

While #GamerGate will likely be unsuccessful in its mission to terrify women into never speaking out about sexism in gaming, it has caught the attention of anti-feminists who are looking for new recruits amongst the younger set. Right-wing leaders, most prominently anti-feminist Christina Hoff Sommers, with the backing of the American Enterprise Institute, have swarmed #GamerGate circles, seeing the participants as easy marks whose anger at feminists in gaming can be turned into anger at feminists, and at women generally.

Unfortunately, #GamerGate has already shown more organization acumen than simply bitching on Twitter about how mean women are when they stand up for their rights, as evidenced by successful campaigns to get advertisers to pull out of websites to punish them for giving #GamerGate negative coverage. As they merge with the “men’s rights” movement that’s already starting to do more besides run anti-woman forums online, they could start to be something that’s largely new in American politics: An organized but completely secular anti-feminist movement. So even as religion’s influence is waning in the United States, there will still be plenty of people agitating to keep women second-class citizens.

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Facebook Has Totally Reinvented Human Identity—For the Worse

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 07:42
Mark Zuckerberg's ideas about what constitutes identity aren't just laughable, they're downright destructive.

Let’s face it: Feminism is hot right now. Like, actually fashionable. Chalk it up to a boom in online journalism critiquing tired media tropes and holding politicians accountable with acerbic wit. But there’s one related trend that doesn’t seem to be getting fashionable again: “Cyberfeminism.” Remember that?

Cyberfeminism envisioned the Internet as a new frontier beyond the oppressive bodily boundaries of race and gender where new understandings of identity could take root. Cyberspace was going to be the stage of cultural transformation! We were all going to be super-cool cybernetic avatars, existing in multiple dimensions with boundless potential. Sadly, all we ended up getting was a bunch of porn and misogynistic cybermobs. (Perhaps feminism has emerged with renewed relevance, because the Internet has actually worked to regressively reinvigorate damaging conceptions of gender and promote hateful divisions.)

But then again, it’s undeniable that the Internet really has been nothing short of culturally transformative. Communication technologies have become woven into the very fabric of personhood. With companies increasingly making employees sign “social media contracts” holding them professionally accountable for their online presence, digital identities are gaining recognition for their representative authority.

Our Facebook profile pictures have symbolic weight, strengthened through the repetitive labor of association. Have you ever changed your Facebook profile picture and not really liked it, but then, after a while, decided it was awesome? Like our face in the mirror after a weird new haircut, we need time to readjust our self-image through repeated association.

It may not be as cool as we imagined it in sleek ’90s sci-fi, but we really are creatures existing in multiple dimensions, transcending space and time with our cybernetic reach. And who controls where your body ends and begins as this unholy fusion of man and machine? Those technologies through which you interface, of course, offering you the shape of your digital self, such as the Facebook profile. Sometimes the reduction of your person to Facebook’s arbitrary determinations can be uncomfortable and insulting.

Facebook has redefined the standard of what information should be immediately known about you as a person. It was a slow process, where it gradually increased the “About” fields, but now when I meet someone, it is somehow appropriate for me to see their exact age, residential history and entire résumé of work experience and education. (No, Facebook, I don’t want to display where I went to high school. Stop trying to guess at it!) Facebook can even reduce your personal journey on this earth to a chronological list of “Life Events.” It knows the true measure of what’s important in this crazy world and can tell you everything noteworthy that’s happened to you in this one helpful list. Facebook has turned our lives inside out to the point where all of this very specific information now seems to be what constitutes a social identity.

(The Facebook generation has gotten so bad that I’ve had to tell friends to inform me when they are making a recording of our conversation, and not to post my complete address online when they tag a photo of themselves at my house.)

What was once nebulous and unknown about a life is now defined and categorized in this culture of hyper-transparency. It is little wonder why the journalistic coverage of Facebook’s recent “real name policy” scandal was as uncritical as it was in accepting of Facebook’s legitimate right to the verification of users’ legal names.

In case you didn’t hear, Facebook was demanding that everyone use their “real" names on their profiles, which they defined as their legal names. Users were shut out of their accounts if they were suspected of being untruthful, and only allowed back in once they uploaded a copy of legal ID. Journalistic outrage over the event largely took a defensive position reporting on why certain people who do not use their legal names on Facebook are not being duplicitous, but have legitimate reasons for their actions. Articles documented cases, such as individuals who are transgendered, or victims of abusive relationships.

Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly affirmed that we only have one identity, and that the idea of having multiple constitutes a “lack of integrity.” Thus, Facebook has promoted a policy of authenticity, where everyone uses their “real" name under the banner of keeping everyone safe. Sounds familiar? If you are an American, you should know by now that invasions of your privacy are only for your own good!

Thus Facebook’s policy is viewed as legitimate, rather than hilarious, when it includes bullet points such as: “Pretending to be anything or anyone isn’t allowed.” That’s right, you must know the truth of your nature before you post anything on Facebook, and all posts must reflect this authentic self. Facebook’s technology is causing an existential shift in what we consider to be our personal identities, and how we interact in the world. This shift is caused by not only the material form of their technology, such as the “About” fields, but also by the discourse surrounding it.

There are great ideological stakes when asking, “What is your real name?” We are essentially asking: “What definitively constitutes a person?”

Historically, identification technologies have served to consolidate people as objects of knowledge into discrete political units. Their regulation is then easily rationalized and demonstrably justified. The question of what should be done with you is much easier to answer when we can definitively say what you are.

The crux of the issue boils down to this: Is Facebook’s normalization of hyper-transparency and information-oriented mode of self-definition conditioning young people to be submissive toward institutionalized forms of subject formation? Does it quell unrest in response to those power structures invested in telling you who and what you are? Will the young people of the future question social values if they are trained from a young age by technological demands to express their person in a corporately constructed template?

The outlook appears grim when the current conversation surrounding identity on the Web has been reduced to an impoverished debate weighing the importance between “safety” (real names + accountability) and “anonymity” (freedom of speech in theory, but trolls in practice).

However, there is still something interesting occurring in the wake of Facebook’s “real name policy” scandal. Facebook apologized for conflating legal names with “real names” and conceded that a legitimate identity may not be constituted by the name you were given at birth. Although Facebook failed to directly apologize to the members of the LGBTQ community disproportionately affected by the incident, Facebook’s concession is, in a sense, a deployment of Trans politics. The conceptual implications of their policy change are: somewhere, somehow, over the course of life, you go through a process of becoming, and your true identity may be something more elusive than what can be verified by a government document.

A rift has opened in Facebook’s discourse of “authenticity” and “safety.” And what do you know … It’s starting to look like something out of cyberfeminism! The revelation of this chink in their ideological armor is actually strangely reminiscent of cyber-feminist prophesies, such as Donna Haraway’s iconic “Cyborg Manifesto.” Haraway famously argues that essentialist ideologies would be revealed as inadequate in a complex world where nature fuses with the artificial; thus overflowing the boundaries of the conceptual regimes used to justify their regulation.

We’ve just witnessed exactly this occurring in the politics of Facebook. The company relied on a certain understanding of authenticity, which was revealed by complex subjectivities interwoven with technology to be a gross oversimplification. Facebook then lost the justification for their power to regulate and was forced to open their concepts to an amorphous process of reconfiguration. As Facebook scrambles to “update” how they verify “real names,” how will this technological giant redefine its reality.


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I'd Been Married Less Than a Year When My Husband Was Diagnosed With Cancer

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 07:24
I'd promised “in sickness and in health.” I just didn't expect the sickness part to be quite so soon.

The wedding was beautiful. It was winter in Oregon, but we'd miraculously discovered a reception site where you could see green out the windows. We'd had an unexpected snowstorm the weekend before, but the weather had finally turned, and the sun even came out for the photos. My family, his family, our friends; so much laughter. And him. Perfect.

Six months later, I was crying in a parking lot in Pasadena, sweating in the 100-degree weather and blubbering into my cell phone, while my dad tried to make sense of my choked-up sentences. They'd found a tumor, six inches across, pressing on my husband's lung. They didn't know what it was. They didn't want to tell us anything until we came in person.

It wasn’t anything concerning at first. A nagging cough that wouldn’t go away. He eventually went to the doctor, who gave him a prescription. Sometimes these things happen after a bad cold, it should clear up in a week or so. 

It didn’t, so he went back. New prescription. Same problem. This went on for a while, along with a handful of cough drops each day. It grew familiar, nothing to worry about, a refrain that accompanied waking and sleeping.

There were other things too. We’d go on hikes together—small ones, no big elevation climbs—that would leave him panting and breathless. We’d joke about his being out of shape. It’s amazing how easy it is to miss things. So many dots on a page you never think about connecting. Who’s to know which details end up being the important ones?

It was an accident, the way we found out. He’d gone in to see another doctor about recent troubles with acid reflux. They took a chest X-ray. Afterward, the technician came in to the room.

“Tell me,” he said. “How’s your general health been?”

“Fine,” my husband said. “I’ve had a cough, but otherwise fine.”

“How long have you had the cough?”

“I don’t remember; a couple months, at least. Why?”

The technician shrugged, looked away. “Just curious. We’ll be in touch.”

And then the phone call from my husband, one day after class in Pasadena. They’d found a tumor. They wanted us to come in as soon as possible.

We went, the two of us, holding hands, silent in the waiting room. The doctor was a cardiothoracic surgeon. You could tell behind the somberness he might have been a little pleased to have caught this. It was probably not something he found regularly.

“No way you have acid reflux,” he said. “What you have is a tumor, pressing on your lung.”

“What is it?”

“Could be one of three things.”

Medical terms. The doctor outlined them briefly, but they remained floating above our heads, without meaning. We tried to ask questions.

“Look, what you really need to do is see an oncologist for more testing. I have a colleague I can recommend, great guy. In the meantime, I’d recommend you go home, and don’t do a lot of research. It will make you crazy. Just wait and see.”

Just wait and see.

We went home and ate dinner at the kitchen table. I tried my hardest not to think about it, to think about anything else. But the thoughts kept creeping in anyway. We’d only been married six months. How much longer? What if...? Too many what ifs.

Later that evening, while he was getting ready for bed, I snuck into the living room and opened the laptop. Only five minutes, I promised myself. I had written down the three possibilities on a notepad, and I looked them up now. Three possibilities, ranging from not-so-bad to oh-God-please-no. I still didn’t know anything for sure, but I’d read enough to know that this could be bad. My husband called from the bedroom, and I slammed the lid of the computer, guiltily.

Two weeks of waiting, accompanied by a series of blood tests and two biopsies on the tumor. I tagged along for all of them, working early or staying late to make up for lost time. The first biopsy was especially challenging. He would have to stay awake, while they pierced his chest with a large, hollow needle and pulled out a sample.

My husband lay in a mobile hospital bed in the operating room, while the surgeon explained the procedure to both of us. Somewhere after the "large, hollow needle" part, my face flushed, I broke out in a sweat, and I realized, with a sharp and unmistakable clarity, that if I didn’t leave that room immediately, I was either going to faint or throw up all over the operating room.

“Ok, well, hope it goes well, bye!” I gasped, interrupting the doctor mid-sentence. He turned to stare at me as I hot-tailed it out of there. I made it out the door before my knees gave out, and I sunk to the floor against the hallway wall, head spinning. Several minutes later the surgeon followed me out, squatting down next to me.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

“Fine. Sorry,” I said, embarrassed.

“No worries,” he said. “Let me help you up. Can you make it to that waiting room down the hallway?”

I nodded, and he escorted me down the hall, explaining as we went the medical rationale behind why I had almost fainted. I spent the next hour watching daytime TV and flipping through year-old magazines—anything to keep from thinking about hollow needles.

Several days later the hospital called. The sample they had pulled wasn't quite big enough for a sure diagnosis, and he’d need to come in for another round. We both agreed I’d stay in the waiting room.

After the second biopsy, they called again, this time to let us know they had the results. No, they couldn’t tell us anything over the phone. More waiting. More pretending to live life normally, and trying not to imagine what might come next.

We sat again in a chilly hospital room, neither of us speaking. My palms were sweating, my breathing rapid. A large lump in my throat threatened to lead to tears, but I was determined. No crying. Not yet, anyway. 

I stared at the scuffs on my shoes, bounced a knee up and down, trying to keep warm. Finally the door opened, and a middle-aged man in a white coat entered. He had a slight paunch and dark circles under his eyes. He shook our hands, and I wondered if in the future I would remember his face with sadness or relief. He spoke quickly in a clipped voice, serious, sympathetic, straight to the point.

“Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” he said.

We stared at him. I couldn’t remember which one of the three things that was. Was it even one of the three things?

“So is that...” my husband trailed off.

“It is cancer,” he said. “But you’ll be fine. This is very treatable. You’re lucky.”

It was a refrain we heard often at the hospital, while in line for blood work, or sitting for eight hour days while drugs dripped slowly from IV bags into my husband’s veins. If we got there early enough, we could get our own little room. There was a row of them, separated from the rest of the floor with sliding glass doors. Otherwise, a big chair. He’d sleep, or watch movies. I’d do homework, read, look for nurses when he ran out of saline solution or needed another blanket.

“You’re lucky.”

And in the hospital, we were. Chemo until Christmas, radiation until Valentine’s Day. There were others in the hospital whose treatments had no end date.

“We’re lucky,” we kept saying, while his hair and eyebrows fell out, and his face thinned, eyes growing large in their sockets. His white blood cell count plummeted, leaving him with a weakened immune system. He worked for an afterschool program: lots of kids, lots of germs. He had to stop. Nothing to distract him from the nausea, while I went to work and he stayed at home, waiting. But, we joked, at least the cough was gone.

The last day of chemotherapy was two days before Christmas. He was exhausted, and giddy to be finished. We traveled home to visit family, relishing the break from our new reality. After the holidays, it was time for radiation. Which seemed to be better than chemo, hardly any side effects at all, until after several weeks it hurt to swallow, and he was reduced to drinking smoothies and speaking softly. But that too, ended, after eight weeks, just days before his 26th birthday, two months after our first anniversary.

It’s been five years now, and the cancer is still in remission. Life moves on, other things happen, and it’s tempting to block out those early memories, to forget that that was the first year of our marriage—the smell of hospitals, the quiet hours of waiting, the thinning hair and eyebrows. 

Sometimes when going through old photos, I’ll come across one from that year, and pause. I’ll remember the refrain of the doctors, the nurses: “Hodgkin’s? You’re lucky.” And I’ll look across to where my husband is typing on the laptop, or watching the game, or just being goofy, and think, yes. We were. 

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10 Most Insane Fear-Mongering GOP Lies in Time for Halloween

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 06:20
The GOP is pulling out its worst scaremongering tactics to get voters to the polls.

As Halloween approaches, the Republican Party is offering up its own scares, pulling out its worst scaremongering tactics to try to use fear to get voters to the polls for their candidates. AlterNet has rounded up 10 of the worst fear-mongering lies.

1. Michelle Nunn Is Pro-Terrorist Because She Worked With A Muslim Charity: In Georgia's remarkably close Senate race, GOP nominee David Perdue ran a smear commercial claiming her charity was linked to terrorists because of its work with the Islamic Relief USA. Poltifact found the claim so outlandish it gave it one of its coveted “Pants on Fire” ratings.

2. Obama Cut A Secret Deal To Bring Ebola To The United States: Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) had this revelation on Sean Hannity's radio show: “I can’t help but believe, just based on the way we’ve got all these nebulous excuses why not to have a travel ban, this president, I guarantee you, we’re going to find out, he has cut a deal with African leaders. They’re going to bring people in.”

3. ISIS Is Coming Over The Border Due To Discovered Prayer Rugs That Are Actually Adidas Jerseys: Texas Lt. Governor David Dewhurst claimed that ISIS prayer rugs were recently found at the border, signaling a possible invasion. The prayer rugs turned out to be Adidas jerseys.

4. Sexual Assault Is A Result Of Taking The Bible Out Of Schools: Jody Hice, the GOP nominee for Georgia's 10th congressional district, which is currently represented by extremist Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), warned that if we don't stop taking prayer out of public school, we'll see more of the kind of sexual assault that took place at Penn State.

5. ISIS Will Send Ebola-Infected Fighters To The U.S.: Topping Gohmert and Dewhurst, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) went as far as to say that ISIS will weaponize Ebola suicide bombs. "Think about the job they could do, the harm they could inflict on the American people by bringing this deadly disease into our cities, into schools, into our towns, and into our homes. Horrible, horrible,” he said.

6. Arm Yourself, Just In case The Government Tries To Take Away Your Guns: Iowa Senate GOP candidate Joni Ernst warned that she carries her pistol just in case the government tries to confiscate it: “I have a beautiful little Smith & Wesson, 9 millimeter, and it goes with me virtually everywhere. But I do believe in the right to carry, and I believe in the right to defend myself and my family — whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important."

7. If You Vote For Democrats, They'll Let Loose Violent African-American Inmates: In Nebraska's second congressional district, Republicans are running a Willie Horton-esque ad that implies Democrats were responsible for a mentally ill violent inmate being released and then going on a murder spree. The ad juxtaposes the Democratic candidate with the African American inmate.

8. Obama Is Going To Import Terrorists Into Our Neighborhoods: The RNC cut an ad warning of Obama's “plans to bring terrorists from Guantanamo to our country,” implying that under any successful executive action somehow terrorist suspects will be walking American neighborhoods rather than be sitting in maximum-security prisons.

9. Equal Pay Laws Would Scare Employers And Put Women Out Of Work:Monica Wehby, running for Oregon's Senate seat, said that she opposed equal pay laws for women because it would “make it more difficult to hire women, because of the fear of lawsuits. They would tend to steer away.”

10. Social Programs Are Leading To Suicide: Rep. Don Young (R-AK) said that government social programs are leading to a rise in suicides due to corresponding decline in support from family and friends. He eventually apologized.

What's scarier, these lies or the fact the GOP thinks Americans will fall for them?

Woman Spends Day Walking Around NYC, Is Catcalled Over 100 Times

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 05:53
Hidden camera footage reveals what it's like for women to walk down the street.

There are the whistles, the stares, the exhortations to smile. Any woman who has ever walked down a busy city street knows the routine. Street harassment—euphemistically known as catcalling—is a daily reality for hundreds of thousands of women, who receive unwanted, unprompted male attention every time they leave the house.

In a new video, Hollaback, an organization dedicated to ending street harassment, provides an undercover look at how these interactions play out. Actress Shoshana Roberts spent 10 hours walking around Manhattan, dressed in jeans and a crewneck T-shirt. Her stroll was discreetly captured by the video’s creative director, who walked ahead of her wearing a GoPro camera strapped to his backpack. Over the course of the day, Roberts received over 100 comments from men, ranging from the relatively benign (“How you doing?”) to the downright creepy (a man who walks next to her wordlessly for five full minutes).

Whenever people speak out against street harassment, they’re met with a standard set of responses:

a) It’s meant as a compliment!
b) As long as they're dressed appropriately, women won’t receive sleazy comments.
c) What’s the big deal anyway?

This video tears down those responses in less than two minutes. Checking out a stranger’s ass is not a compliment. Reprimanding a woman for not smiling isn’t flattering. And a man forcibly inserting himself into a woman’s personal space simply isn’t okay. Catcalls are about power and control; they’re a way of saying to women, “This is our territory and you’re just passing through.” 

Watch the full PSA below. 

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Hightower: Toxic, Mud-Slinging Campaign Ads Make Voters Stay at Home

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 04:31
A tsunami of corporate cash is drowning our people’s democratic rights.

When five Supreme Court justices decreed that corporations are entitled to full free speech rights in our elections and that corporate money is a form of speech that can’t be restricted, they produced a nightmare tsunami of corporate cash that is now drowning our people’s democratic rights.

After all, if money is speech, then speech is no longer free — it’s for sale.

This year, we’re seeing what the Court’s absurd edicts are costing us.

First, the corporate purchase of political speech has reached tsunamic force in the 2014 midterm elections. Spending may cost a record total of $4 billion, with somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion dished out on TV commercials intended to influence voters.

Second, the bulk of this speech isn’t being bought by candidates or parties, but by secretive outside front groups that hide the corporate interests funding the ads. In Senate races alone, these shadow groups have already run some 150,000 TV spots. The Koch brothers’ main front group, Americans for Prosperity, is by far the biggest buyer of speech.

Third, and most pernicious, the court-created “right” of moneyed front groups to flood the airwaves has handed them the power to dictate any campaign’s message. Advertising created and bankrolled by those secret fronts now define the issues and even the candidates themselves before races really get going.

Because the outside groups are anonymous, their “speech” consists almost entirely of the nastiest, most vituperative attacks on candidates they oppose, turning our election-year discourse into toxic slime-fests that turn off voters and shrivel turnout.

To help stop the corporate purchase of the People’s political speech rights, connect with

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Jon Stewart Scolds Democrats for Losing Ground to Pathetic GOP Candidates

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 03:36
Republican Candidate Scott Brown: “Do I have the best credentials? Probably not. ‘Cause you know, whatever."

This is the home stretch. With only five days left before Election Day, Democrats are praying for some favorable last-minute press to improve their flagging prospects.

The Daily Show isn’t where they’re going to get it. Jon Stewart used his extended opening monologue to scold Democratic candidates for their campaign-trail gaffes and inability to overtake weak Republican rivals. In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan-Grimes lost precious ground to Mitch McConnell for refusing to say whether she voted for President Obama in 2008. In New Hampshire, popular incumbent Jeanne Shaheen is in a dead tie with Republican Scott Brown—who only moved to the state a year ago.

When asked about being a carpetbagger, Brown responded, “Do I have the best credentials? Probably not. ‘Cause you know, whatever. But I have long and strong ties to this state.”

This is what we’re up against. A friendly reminder from AlterNet: please vote on Tuesday the 4th! 

Check out the rest of the clip, and Stewart’s spot-on impression of Mitch McConnell, below. 

The Daily Show
Get More: Daily Show Full Episodes,The Daily Show on Facebook,Daily Show Video Archive


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Why College Students Nationwide Are Carrying Mattresses Around Their Campuses Today

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 16:04
Thousands of students are taking part in the National Carry That Weight day of action.

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr lived on the same floor as Emma Sulkowicz their freshman year at Columbia University. They didn’t talk much, but during the summer after their first year, they were both sexually assaulted by fellow students. The first person Ridolfi-Starr told about what happened was her former partner, who blamed her. Ridolfi-Starr didn’t talk about the incident again for a year and a half.

Then she read about Sulkowicz’s story in the media about her own sexual assault at Columbia.

“Then I read about other survivors who were coming forward, sharing their experiences, sharing their stories,” Ridolfi-Starr said. “I saw myself, I saw my pain, and I saw my experiences reflected in those other stories. I began to understand what I had been through, and it was less about these individual, painful, private, shameful experiences and part of a bigger thing that was affecting so many people in our community. That was the moment I decided I had to do something.”

Ridolfi-Starr reached out to Sulkowicz and others, and they helped kickstart a movement that is launching its first national day of action on Wednesday. Thousands of students from more than 100 campuses are taking part in National Carry That Weight Day of Action to support survivors of sexual assault. The event’s name takes inspiration from Sulkowicz’s performance art thesis piece, titled "Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight," in which she vows to carry her mattress around Columbia each day her rapist remains on campus.

"I was raped in my own dorm bed, and since then that space has become fraught for me," Sulkowicz said in a video published by the Columbia Spectator. "And I feel like I've carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then."

Those participating in the day of action, which include a few high schools and universities in Europe, will carry mattresses and pillows around their campuses. At Columbia, there will be 28 mattresses carried throughout the day to symbolize the number of students who have filed a Title IX complaint against the university. A rally will begin in the afternoon, with sexual assault survivors joined by public figures like NYC public advocate Letitia James.

“We really wanted to stress showing support for survivors and trying to start conversations in communities,” said Allie Rickard, one of the event coordinators and founder of Carry That Weight Together. “We wanted to create a space where survivors feel like they can talk about their experiences and they know that there are allies there for them.”

Various Community Actions Push Columbia to Be Better

After Ridolfi-Starr reached out to Sulkowicz and other survivors, they decided to found No Red Tape, a student organization pushing for better management of sexual assault cases at their university. Their pressure on the administration has made national headlines and has seen some success.

For one, the university opened a second rape crisis center. The center, which used to be run by mostly student volunteers, now has six new professional staff members. In addition, No Red Tape successfully waged a campaign pressuring Columbia to offer free emergency contraception. The university also is hoping to launch mandatory sexual assault education programming for all students.

The movement to reform Columbia’s handling of sexual assault cases has been bolstered by activist art. As a visual arts major, Sulkowicz decided that her senior thesis would be a performance art piece in which she would carry her mattress around campus. Ridolfi-Starr said she related to this plan almost immediately.

“I felt such a deep connection with it because Emma really was one of those people that lifted the weight off my shoulders,” Ridolfi-Starr said. “She was one of the first people to say, ‘That’s not right. It was not your fault for drinking. Your experience counts.’ All of those things I wish someone would have said to me before. And now I have the opportunity to say those things to people.”

Rickard was also moved by Sulkowicz’s project and wanted to help support her and other sexual assault survivors. This led her to create the Carry That Weight Together campaign, which organizes students to help Sulkowicz carry her mattress around campus. Rickard said Sulkowicz has only had to carry her mattress alone once and that was because reporters were surrounding her.

“It is really powerful in that it’s visibly imprinting itself all over campus,” Rickard said. “There has been great discussion among the students who are participating. It’s a really powerful reminder of the situation here.”

More Work to Be Done

Through different campaigns and actions, Columbia students have created an inspiring community on campus. Ridolfi-Starr said there’s still much work to be done, and students are continuing to fight for better handling of sexual assault cases.

She said that just hearing about the process of pursuing a case from others discouraged her from taking the steps.

“They told me horror stories of an eight-month-long process,” she said. “Having to stay here over the summer or else the school would continue the case without them. Getting calls all day, every day at inappropriate times. Having to read these painful testimonies with all these other people there. And the outcome never, ever being satisfactory—either they are found not responsible or they’re given a slap on the wrist.”

Ridolfi-Starr said the university has slightly changed its policy, and her group is still collecting case studies to see how it’s working. She said one of the problems with the process is that Columbia doesn’t have a formal system that guarantees victims receive the accommodations offered to them under the law, such as changing housing or dropping a class with no penalty.

Another issue is investigators’ failure to take accurate notes; recording interviews is against school policy. When victims correct investigators on the facts, some investigators add an addendum to the evidence that inaccurately implies the victim changed her story.

Ridolfi-Starr said investigators also have a history of failing to contact witnesses provided by the survivor. In one case, she said, the victim was told a few days before her hearing that it was hard to get in touch with her witnesses during summer. At the hearing, the perpetrator had six witnesses with him.

“It was a skewed presentation of what happened that night,” Ridolfi-Starr said.

Another concern with Columbia’s policy is that one dean has oversight over nearly every aspect of investigations. Not only does the process lack checks and balances, the dean has a conflict of interest in wanting to protect the university’s name from scandal.

Carrying That Weight Together

The struggle to transform Columbia’s policies is continuing, and the students are garnering nationwide support. No Red Tape and Carry That Weight Together have received much support for the day of action from national organizations, especially Hollaback! and Rhize.

“Sexual and domestic violence is a problem in every community,” Allie Rickard said. “As college students, we are in the very fortunate position in which we have another avenue to pursue justice through Title IX at our schools. And it’s important that we make sure that we’re holding our institutions accountable to make our communities safer, and holding each other accountable to do the same. We really want to work toward for community-level and cultural-level change to dismantle rape culture and end sexual and domestic violence.”

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr said one of the first steps to ending this violence is making sure victims are heard. She said when she told Emma Sulkowicz what had happened to her, it was life-changing because she was finally able to share her story outloud.

“I’m participating because Emma has done so much to help me carry my weight and her coming forward publicly with her story has created space for survivors to share their stories and to understand that we’re not alone,” she said. “I’m excited to get the chance to help her amplify that message and engage more students, more survivors all over the country in being a part of it. ”

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The Polar Vortex Controversy: Extreme Predictions Launch Debate Among Weather Experts

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 12:55
AccuWeather's weather model questioned.

Last year, conservatives led by Rush Limbaugh called the Polar Vortex — the large-scale Arctic-air cyclone that dipped deep into American skies last year — nothing more than a “hoax” and a “left-wing media conspiracy.” Limbaugh insisted it was created for the sole purpose of frighting people into believing in climate change. Meteorologists and other scientists retaliated, insisting the phenomenon was, indeed, real. NBC weatherman Al Roker got the last word in this public spat when he posted a page from a 1959 college textbook on Twitter that contained the term and its definition. Limbaugh was uncharacteristically silenced. ​

​​This year, however, the debate isn’t about the vortex’s existence, it’s between the two commercial forecasting networks, AccuWeather and the Weather Channel, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. The commercial forecasters are telling us to brace for the return of the Arctic air in the U.S. while the federal forecasters have countered by saying another wavy vortex dipping far south is “unlikely.”

Some climate scientists ​we talked to said they're particularly curious about AccuWeather's methodology, considering that it's quite a daring prediction. And while meteorologist Eric Holthaus, writing for Slate, points out that AccuWeather (along with the Weather Channel) does not make its verification data available for review, he assures us that, “these folks are not the Farmer’s Almanac. There’s some science at work here.”

So, is AccuWeather the Fox News of meteorology or not? It has recently drawn fire for other ambitious long-term forecasts, with some critics calling them notably inaccurate. Last year, meteorologist Jason Samenow, the weather editor for the Washington Post, called AccuWeather's new 45-day forecasts "a joke" and "not rooted in science." He says AccuWeather "is simply peddling a useless product to people who don’t know better."

Outrageous Forecasts?

Earlier this month, AccuWeather released an audacious long-term forecast, covering the meteorological winter (December through February) in the U.S. With some certainty, it wrote:

Cold air will surge into the Northeast in late November, but the brunt of the season will hold off until January and February. The polar vortex, the culprit responsible for several days of below-zero temperatures last year, will slip down into the region from time to time, delivering blasts of arctic air.

AccuWeather also sees higher than usual snow accumulation, especially for the Northeast, and cold temperatures, ice and a few wintry blasts for the South. However, its long-range forecaster, Paul Pastelok, assures us that “it’s not going to be the same type of situation as we saw last year, not as persistent.”

Compared to AccuWeather, the​ Weather Channel​'s forecasts are a bit more conservative.​ The Atlanta-based company typically only issues regional temperature outlooks, instead of focusing on precipitation and weather patterns like its competitor. The Weather Channel's winter forecast is guessing that the winter's chill will be more focused on the Northeast. The meteorological media network cites research that links the size of Siberian snowpacks in October to with frigid conditions impacting the U.S. in the winter. Theoretically, when the Siberian snow advances rapidly, it favors a negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation, which is often associated with colder than average weather in the Eastern U.S. Notably, points out the Weather Channel, the snowpack in Siberia is accumulating greater than it was last year at this time.

Capping off this month’s string of predictions, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center countered with its own forecast, saying its probable that the upcoming winter months will not be nearly as cold and unpleasant as last year, and persistent, large-scale atmospheric climate patterns are “really unlikely to form.” They’re calling for a weak El Niño to form toward the end of 2014, which makes incursions of cold Arctic air less likely. But as usual, the federal weather service is non-committal when it comes to winter weather in the Northeast, only indicating that there will likely be more precipitation than usual. Overall, it will be a pretty average winter without a lot of extreme conditions, says Mike Halpert, the acting director of the Climate Prediction Center.

Halpert says drawing a link between the Siberian snowpack and harsh winter weather in the U.S. is a compelling theory, but it's still relatively new. NOAA would need to see more years of data to determine if it's an accurate forecasting tool. 

So, which forecast should we believe?

“The NOAA forecast is truer to the science in that it is stated in terms of probabilities, and does not express a high degree of confidence in any one outcome,” says Prof. Adam Sobel, of Columbia University’s Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics. “That doesn't mean it won't be a cold winter, as AccuWeather says; it might be. It just means there is no way of being anywhere near as certain as their forecast implies.”

Sobel, the author of Storm Surge, a book about Hurricane Sandy and its relation to climate change, wonders if AccuWeather is taking its cue from the way daily weather forecasts are reported. He says that those, too, should be stated in terms of probabilities, but consumers seem more comfortable with deterministic forecasts where temperatures, precipitation amounts, wind speed and other measurements are predicted. So, this may be why AccuWeather and other weather news outlets choose to provide deterministic seasonal forecasts.

“I think that is unwise, given the low skill of seasonal forecasts in particular,” says Sobel. “It gives the public the wrong idea about the nature of the information they are being given. I believe most people are capable of understanding basic probabilities, and would be better served by forecasts stated in those terms.”

Sobel says that AccuWeather undoubtedly has access to most or all the same information as NOAA, but may be interpreting it differently.

“But I think it would be misleading to focus on this difference,” he says. “The more important point is that both forecasts are uncertain, and should rightly be expressed in terms of slight changes in the probabilities. NOAA does express it this way, while AccuWeather doesn't.”

Numbers Game

It should also be noted that the three seasonal forecasts aren’t so much forecasts as they are meteorological odds-making, and betting on weather on in some regions can be a high-stakes game.

“Seasonal forecasts such as these have only a modest amount of skill, even in the parts of the world where they are the best. That means if you bet on them every season for many years, you would make money in the net, but not a lot. Further, the eastern U.S. is an area where the forecasts are particularly unskillful,” says Sobel. “So a confident forecast that a cold winter — or a warm one — will occur, with no statement of uncertainty or probabilities, such as AccuWeather's, gives an exaggerated and misleading impression of the degree of certainty that is possible.”

Sobel notes that the weather in the U.S. Southwest is much easier to predict as it is more strongly influenced by El Niño events in the equatorial Pacific.

For those demanding more rigorous science behind long-term forecasts, NOAA says better seasonal predictions are coming. Halpert says that such forecasting is gradually improving due to the increased quality and quantity of data, more advanced technology and an improvement in forecasting models.

“In some ways, the improvement over time will be analogous to the improvement in weather forecasts, though at a slower pace,” says Halpert. “In the case of numerical weather prediction, at least some of the advance was due to increases in computer technology alone. In climate prediction, the science itself has to come along in addition to better computing resources.”

Sobel says that despite the headlines, it’s doubtful we will be seeing a winter as cold as last winter was in the eastern U.S.

“Last winter was very extreme by historical standards, so it is improbable in any year,” says Sobel. “No information currently available (including the state of El Niño), or that will be available ahead of time, is strong enough to change that. It's not impossible that this winter will be as cold or colder than last, it's just very unlikely.”​​

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