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A Year Ago the DOJ Agreed to Review the Police Killing of This Teenager -- His Family Is Still Waiting

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 06:24
A march on the Justice Department is scheduled for tomorrow, a year after the DOJ agreed to review NYPD shooting of Ramarley Graham.

On August 9th in Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. Brown was shot at least six times, according to the autopsy. Protests erupted in Ferguson and within days, thousands held rallies and vigils in nationwide solidarity. While protests continued and the #Ferguson hashtag kept trending, America watched as the hyper-militarized police repression in Ferguson grew more violent. Brown was eighteen years old.

The tragedy of the story is in its familiarity. In February of 2012, eighteen-year-old Ramarley Graham was shot and killed by NYPD Officer Richard Haste in the bathroom of his family’s home in the Bronx. His grandmother and six-year-old brother were in the next room. Months later, a grand jury indicted Haste on two counts of manslaughter, the first indictment of an NYPD officer for killing a civilian since 2007. 

But in May of 2013, Judge Steven Barrett dismissed the indictment due to a technical error: Barrett deemed the language that had been used by the District Attorney to present the case to the grand jury “misleading,” adding that his ruling did not establish that Haste had acted with justification, and that the DA had the right to reconvene a grand jury. As yet there’s been no movement in this direction.

Ramarley Graham was one of at least twenty-one people killed by the NYPD in 2012, according to the Stolen Lives Project, a joint project of the Anthony Baez Foundation, the National Lawyers Guild, and the October 22 Coalition. Members of the Project mine news articles and reach out to the community compile data regarding civilian deaths at the hands of police. In 2013, no less than sixteen people were killed by NYPD, and in 2014 thus far, at least seven people have been killed by NYPD—including Eric Garner, who died in the hospital after being put in a chokehold by NYPD in Staten Island this past July; Garner’s death was ruled a homicide August 1st and two officers held responsible face internal investigation.

Stolen Lives estimates that since Amadou Diallo was killed in 1999, unarmed and fired upon forty-one times outside his apartment building, at least 249 people have been killed by NYPD—the majority black or Latino men or teenagers. “To be black and male is to be always at war,” writes Ta-nehisi Coates in his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, “and no flight to the country can save us, because even there we are met by the assumption of violence, by the specter of who we might turn on next.” According to the Facebook group Killed By Police – which describes itself as having posted “corporate news reports of people killed by nonmilitary law enforcement officers, whether in the line of duty or not, and regardless of reason or method” since May 2013 – at least 685 people have been killed by U.S. police since January 1, 2014. The same Facebook group reports that at least 1,434 people have been killed since they began posting May 1, 2013.

For over two years, Constance Malcolm, Ramarley’s mother, has been tirelessly fighting for justice for her son. Heading the activist group Ramarley’s Call, Malcolm and Franclot Graham, Ramarley’s father, have been organizing with the support of the Justice Committee, a Latino/a-led grassroots organization working to combat police violence and systemic racism in New York City. A year after the Department of Justice indicated that it would review the case, it hasn’t demonstrated that it is undertaking a full investigation. Today, Malcolm releases a video calling on the Department of Justice to take action.

“I am tired of waiting for justice – the Department of Justice must uphold the civil rights of my son and convene a grand jury in his murder by NYPD officer Richard Haste,” said Malcolm in an August 8th release by the Justice Committee. “It cannot allow an officer of the law to violate that law and our rights by entering our home without cause and shooting my unarmed teenage son dead – the local criminal justice system has already failed us. The Obama administration and Attorney General Holder should stand up for fundamental civil rights that protect and value the lives of people of color.”  

ColorOfChange, a national civil rights organization, launched a nationwide petition demanding a thorough investigation and federal charges against NYPD officer Haste. And in April, the chairs and members of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus and the New York City Council Black, Latino & Asian Caucus, sent letters to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting an official investigation by the Department of Justice into the death of Ramarley Graham.

The video was released days after the families of New Yorkers killed by the NYPD over the past two decades met with the NYPD Inspector General. A protest against police brutality organized by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) was announced for August 23rd.

Tomorrow, Wednesday August 20th, at 12pm, Ramarley’s Call and supporters will march from Foley Square to the Department of Justice’s office to deliver a petition demanding that the DOJ meet with the family members of Ramarley Graham and investigate Ramarley’s murder by reconvening a Grand Jury.

“Something bigger than Stand Your Ground, the drug war, mass incarceration or any other policy is haunting us,” writes Coates of Ferguson and the logical distrust of police by communities of color. “And as long we cower from it, the events of this week are as certain as math. The question is not ‘if,’ but ‘when.’”

To read more about Ramarley Graham and racialized police brutality, see here.

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Why New York State's Common Core Test Scores Should Be Ignored

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 05:00
Test scores in the accountability era reflect political, not pedagogical, priorities.

Late last week, New York schools learned how they performed on Common Core-aligned state tests in reading and math. Results show an incremental improvement over last year’s scores, when passing rates plummeted to below 30 percent. The black-white achievement gap remains unchanged.

With few exceptions, news outlets have reported the scores as a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark picture: though scores have inched up, around two thirds of students are still performing “below proficient.” While last year’s drop was steep, the Common Core, we’re told, is working. The marginal gains seen this year have quickly been spun to legitimate the tests, while entrenching a familiar narrative of school failure.

Establishment media and policymakers have taken for granted a simple fact: the legitimacy of these tests. But as empirical measures, are they worthy of our attention?

Like the rest of the country, New York has seen its standardized test scores vacillate over the last decade, at times drastically. But as the recent history of standardized testing shows, these changes haven’t been rooted in the classroom so much as in lawmaking chambers. Test scores in the era of accountability reflect political, not pedagogical, priorities.

The age of standardized testing began in earnest with Bush’s No Child Left Behind in 2002, which mandated that literally every student be “proficient” by 2014. Facing the impossible, states did the expected: they diluted education standards to increase test scores.

Nowhere was this more pronounced than in New York. Between 2002 and 2008, New York City eighth-grade passing rates nearly doubled in English and math. By 2009, the New York Timeswas giddily reporting how “state test scores before and after the mayor took control chronicle a steady march upward.” Bloomberg told the paper, “I’m happy, thrilled… ecstatic, I think, is a better word.”

But on national tests given biannually and unattached to any incentives, New York’s scores remained static. As the news media credulously trumpeted each new report of gains, they appeared unconcerned that the same state actors pushing education policy also set the cut scores—the marks students need to be deemed passing. Meanwhile, schools increasingly centered their curricula around rote test preparation.

By 2010, the achievement data had grown suspect, and state officials were being pressured to address the soaring passing rates.When they finally realigned the benchmarks, scores dropped precipitously. The Timesblared, “On New York School Tests, Warning Signs Ignored,” glossing the role the paper itself had played in its uncritical coverage of inflated scores. 

With notable exceptions (see: Massachusetts), similar storiesplayed out across the country. In fact, the modern era of standards-based school reform, often pegged to the 1983 Reagan-commissioned reportA Nation At Risk, was forged from fudged data. The report warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.” To drive the point home, the authors evinced decades of drooping SAT scores.

A 1990 reappraisal of the data told a different story. Researchers divided test takers into subgroups along socioeconomic lines and found that SAT scores had actually increased—in every subgroup. So why the overall decline? The pool of test-takers had expanded: Lower-income students were taking the SAT in increasing numbers, which depressed the aggregate score. A Nation At Risk mistook a story of expanding opportunity for one of declining achievement.

Three decades later, accountability crusaders wave the banner of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a set of tougher curriculum guidelines intended to replace less rigorous state standards. The introduction of tests aligned to the Common Core has had reform types like Jeb Bush predicting drops in achievement massive enough to have “people running for cover.”

When Kentucky debuted CCSS-aligned tests, Bush’s predictions were borne out: scores dropped about thirty points. Officials in New York warned of the same as they prepared to become the second CCSS-tested state. Indeed, 2013 scores plummeted by about thirty points, as predicted. The whole thing was sold as a “reality check,” finally a real accounting of “how far the state has to go to prepare children for jobs in the new global economy.”

But there’s a simple reason officials knew precisely how far the scores would drop: once again, they themselves set the cut scores.

As New York principal Carol Burris outlined in the Washington Post, education chiefs set benchmarks at points they knew perfectly well would render about two thirds of students “below proficient.” Participants in a panel that reviewed the cut scores described a process circumscribed by testing giant Pearson, which manufactures the tests. As one panelist related:

“The problem is the underlying assumption that these tests are helping us. They're not. Pearson's tests were unbelievably bad, the worst I've seen, and the reality of using tests designed to rank students is something we haven't gotten our heads around.”

This year, officials predicted slight gains before scores were tabulated—not surprising given the added familiarity schools had with the tests. But there was also the matter of cut scores: as in the late ‘00s, this year administrators lowered the hurdles for passing tests. They justified the move by claiming this year’s tests were harder, but they’ve released only half of the data necessary to evaluate such claims, raising the hackles of testing transparency advocates.

Dubious as such a process may be, it serves potent political purposes. Education reform groups interested in curtailing teachers unions and promoting market solutions like charter schools delight in accounts of the public education’s failure.

Take Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter group that dropped an unprecedented $6 million on political advertising for charter schools this year. Earlier this month they released a report warning that 90% of students were below grade-level in a quarter of New York’s schools—numbers derived, of course, from last year’s test scores. “Our city is facing a K-12 schools crisis of epic proportions,” the group’s CEO told the Daily News.

All told, test scores in the age of accountability have never been the empirical and objective measures they purport to be, let alone stable social indicators. This isn’t to say these efforts are totally unjustifiable. Test-based accountability has undoubtedly spurred a few apathetic teachers to buck up, while new standards may help novice teachers focus their instruction.

But there are far more teachers who’ve seen testing pressures narrow and dull their curricula. Nationwide, the ranks of music and art teachers have thinned, while those in tested subjects have grown. Cheating scandals have proliferated, as exemplified by Rachel Aviv’s recent New Yorkeraccount of otherwise stellar educators driven to alter exams in test-crazy Atlanta.

So what good are test scores? As a snapshot, they do provide a reliable proxy for socioeconomic levels. Study after study demonstrates the primacy of parental income in test score variation. And in outlier cases like Success Academy charter schools, impressive scores might evidence phenomenal teaching—or a scholastic culture dominated by monomaniacal test preparation, together witha system that winnows out the neediest students.

But the national fetish with testing data has the insidious effect of distracting us from actual problems. Low-income and nonwhite students, for example, experience far more repressive discipline regimes than their white peers. Every year, budget-conscious districts shear more arts programs from their offerings—again, particularly in black and Latino schools. And in the furor over Common Core, educational progressives have dropped demands for culturally relevant curriculum and restorative justice.

The blathering class will continue to cast test scores as the be-all-end-all of schooling. It makes for good soundbites and quick headlines. Meanwhile, arts education and rich, creative curriculums are sacrificed at the altar of achievement.

That will continue as long as the media stays complicit, and as long as we lend credence to the political mechanism of test scores.

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10 Takeaways From Obama's Ferguson Speech: Cops Should Not Be Militarized

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 16:42
The president says he understands the deeper problems. But what can he change?

In a White House press conference on Monday, President Obama told police and demonstrators in the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, to cool their passions and hard-nosed responses. He also said Congress should take a closer look at providing military equipment and training to local police forces which claim they are preparing for terrorists while using the equipment for domestic policing.

The president also said Americans need to understand that unequal treatment by society that perpetuates poverty and fewer economic prospects feeds into anger and rage, but he said those injustices are no excuse for inciting violence or looting. What follows are 10 excerpts from his remarks.

1. Most Protesters Were Peaceful

“It’s clear that the vast majority of people are peacefully protesting; what’s also clear is that a small minority of individuals are not. While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving in to that anger by looting, or carrying guns, and even attacking the police, only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos. It undermines, rather than advancing justice.”

2. Police Must Defend Protesters’ Rights

“Let me also be clear that our constitutional rights to speak freely, to assemble and to report in the press must be vigilantly safeguarded, especially in moments like these. There’s no excuse for excessive force by police for any action that denies people the right to protest peacefully. Ours is a nation with laws, for the citizens who live under them, and for the citizens who enforce them.

3. Stop Fighting and Start Talking

“Let me call once again to seek some understanding rather than to holler at each other. Let’s seek to heal, rather than to wound each other. As Americans, we’ve got to use this moment to seek out our shared humanity that’s been laid bare by this moment.”

4. Too Many Young Men Of Color Are Left Behind

“I’ve said this before, in too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear. Through initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper, I’m personally committed to changing both perception and reality…but that requires that we build and not tear down, and that requires that we listen and not just shout.

"That’s how we’re going to move forward together… We’re going to have to hold tight to those values in the days ahead. That’s how we bring about justice. That’s how we bring about peace."

5. Local Police Shouldn’t Be Armed Military Forces

“I think one of the great things about the United States is our ability to maintain a distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement. That helps preserve our civil liberties. That helps ensure that the military is accountable to civilian direction. And that has to be preserved. After 9/11 I think understandably a lot of folks saw local communities that were ill-equipped for a potential catastrophic terrorist attack. I think people in Congress, people of good will, thought we’ve got to make sure that they get proper equipment to deal with threats that historically wouldn’t arise in local communities. And some of that’s been useful…

“Having said that, I think it’s probably useful for us to review how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars, to make sure that what they are purchasing is stuff that they actually need, because there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement. And we don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions. And I think there will be some bipartisan interest in reexamining some of those programs.”

6. National Guard’s Role Should Be Limited 

“With respect to the National Guard… this was a state-activated National Guard, so it’s under the charge of the governor. So it’s not something that we initiated at the federal level. I spoke to [Gov.] Jay Nixon about this, expressed an interest in making sure, if in fact a National Guard is used, it is used in a limited and appropriate way. He described the support role that they would be providing to local law enforcement, and I will be watching over the next several days to assess whether it’s helping rather than hindering progress.”

7. Why Obama Can’t Go To Ferguson

“We’ve seen events in which there’s a big gulf between community perceptions and law enforcement perceptions around the country. This is not something new. It’s always tragic when it involves the death of someone so young. I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed, because, although these are issues of local jurisdiction, the DOJ works for me, and when they are conducting an investigation, they don’t look like I’m putting my thumbs on the scales one way or the other.

"So it’s hard for me to address a specific case, beyond making sure that it’s conducted in a way that’s transparent, where there’s accountability, where people can trust the process, hoping that as a consequence of a fair and just process, you end up with a fair and just outcome.”

8. Americans Must Understand the Historic Roots Of Rage

“But as I think I’ve said on some past occasions, part of the ongoing challenge of perfecting our union has involved dealing with communities that feel left behind, who as a consequence of tragic histories, often find themselves isolated, often find themselves without hope, without economic prospects. You have young men of color in many communities who are more likely to end up in jail, or in the criminal justice system than they are in a good job or in college. And part of my job that I can do, without any potential conflicts, is to get at those root causes. That’s a big project. It’s one we’ve been trying to carry out for a couple of centuries. And we’ve made extraordinary progress, but we have not made enough progress.”

9. We Must Address and Fix Institutional Racism

"Part of that process is also looking at our criminal justice system to make sure that it is upholding the basic principle of everybody’s equal before the law. And one of the things that we’ve looked at, during the course of investigating where we can make a difference, is there are patterns that start early. Young African American and Hispanic boys tend to get suspended from school at much higher rates than other kids, even when they’re in elementary school. They tend to have much more frequent interactions with the criminal justice system at an earlier age. Sentencing may be different. How trials are conducted may be different.

"And so, one of the things that we have done is include the Department of Justice in this conversation, under the banner of My Brother’s Keeper, to see where can we start working with local communities to inculcate more trust, most confidence in the criminal justice system."

10. Despite American Racism, Violence Is Inexcusable

“Sometimes there’s confusion around these issues and this dates back for decades. There are young black men that commit crime. And we can argue about why that happens, because of the poverty they were born into and the lack of opportunity, or the school systems that failed them, or what have you. But if they commit a crime, then they need to be prosecuted, because every community has an interest in public safety. If you go into the African-American community or the Latino community, some of the folks who are most intent on making sure that criminals are dealt with are people who have been preyed upon by them.

“So this is not an argument that there isn’t real crime out there, and that law enforcement doesn’t have a difficult job, and that they have to be honored and respected for the danger and difficulty of law enforcement. But what is also true is that given the history of this country, where we can make progress in building up more confidence, more trust, making sure that our criminal justice system is acutely aware of the possibilities of disparities in treatment; there’s safeguards in place to avoid those disparities.”

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False Facts and the Conservative Distortion Machine: It’s Much More Than Just Fox News

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 11:53
A new study found that voters’ values and partisanship had the strongest associations with distorted beliefs.

Citizens are misinformed — often badly so. It’s not just that they lack good information — which would merely make them uninformed — they have plenty of bad information that leads them to believe untrue things. Or more likely the other way around: They believe untrue things, and that leads them to collect — even invent — bad information to flesh out what they already believe.

This was vividly illustrated by a1991 study that found that the more people watched TV during the first Gulf War, the less they knew about fundamental issues and facts, even as they were more likely to support the war. Wanting to believe that the U.S. was involved in a noble cause, for example, only 13 percent knew that when Iraq first threatened to invade Kuwait, the U.S. said it would take no action, while 65 percent falsely “knew” that the U.S. said it would support Kuwait militarily.

But the problem is hardly limited to this one example, or to issues of war and peace more generally. Misinformation in public life isn’t the exception, it’s the rule, and researchers have been grappling with that fact, and its implications, for some time now. Anew study published in Social Science Quarterly employs a “knowledge distortion index” and looks at two competing explanations for why this is so — one more top-down, the other more bottom-up — using three Washington state initiatives from the 2006 general election cycle to examine the dynamics of what is going on in this particular sort of political environment.

The study, “How Voters Become Misinformed: An Investigation of the Emergence and Consequences of False Factual Beliefs,” found that “voters’ values and partisanship had the strongest associations with distorted beliefs, which then influenced voting choices. Self-reported levels of exposure to media and campaign messages played a surprisingly limited role,” despite the presence of significantly mistaken “facts,” which were used to help construct the knowledge distortion index.

“Two of the competing theories on how people analyze political issues and develop factual beliefs are heuristics and cultural cognition,” the study’s lead author, Justin Reedy, told Salon. “Both of these theories recognize that citizens can develop distorted factual beliefs because of their political views, but they disagree about how those distortions might happen. Heuristics researchers generally think that citizens have limited attention for politics and try to process information quickly and efficiently.”

This is the more top-down approach, as we’ll soon see.

“People who are fairly politically knowledgeable can figure out whether political information and factual claims match up with their own ideology or not — and therefore whether they should accept or reject those,” Reedy explained. “Cultural cognition researchers, however, see political opinions as driven by deep-seated values about how the world works, and not contingent on someone’s political knowledge.”

Dan Kahan of Yale Law School is the figure most associated with cultural cognition approach (websitehere). He found the study useful. “I think it worked,” he told Salon. “It adds information.” He also found the broader project of studying the initiative process promising. “The opportunities to observe how people form their views will probably really be enhanced in many cases where there’s some kind of a high-profile referendum,” he said, “and where you can be confident that members of the electorate are engaged by it.”

“The two theories differ on the importance of media and campaign messages, too,” Reedy continued. “Heuristics theory argues that citizens need to get at least some information from the media or from a campaign itself, like endorsements from political parties or key politicians, to help them align their views with their ideology.” This is the sort of thing that campaign workers everywhere fervently believe. But they, too, could be misinformed. “Cultural cognitive theory, though, argues that citizens will get enough cues about nearly any issue in the public sphere to help them align their views on that issue with their underlying values.”

Finally, Reedy said, “The last distinction between the two models is on policy preferences: Heuristics researchers would argue that once a citizen has developed a factual belief, whether distorted or not, that belief will become an important factor in their decision on a public policy issue. Cultural cognition, however, sees a citizen’s core values as the key in them deciding on a policy issue — the distorted factual beliefs are just another phenomenon that happens along the way.”

Before discussing how the two models measured up, we need a better understanding of what went into the study, which involved a combination of new and tried-and-true approaches. On the “new” side, the knowledge distortion index — developed by the same team in an earlier study — is a particularly promising tool. “My colleagues and I thought it would be useful to be able to quantify the way that someone’s factual beliefs about politics could be distorted. Other researchers had done similar research on distorted factual beliefs, but we wanted to create some kind of index that helped show how a person’s factual beliefs were systematically distorted in a partisan or ideological direction,” Reedy explained. “That was the idea behind the knowledge distortion index – to not just show that some people had the facts around a political topic wrong, but to quantify how those factual beliefs might be incorrect in a systematic, ideologically driven way.”

Just imagine if pollsters routinely adopted the knowledge distortion index in covering any public issue. Imagine not just seeing cross-tabs showing the difference between liberals vs. conservatives or Democrats vs. Republicans, but also seeing how people’s opinions varied according to the balance of mistaken factual beliefs. Simply having the relevant false beliefs for any issue identified in the polling process would be an eye-opening experience. There have been a handful of polls showing how birthers differ from non-birthers in their views, and those have been rather illuminating in themselves. But that’s just a single piece of misinformation on a single — though broadly significant — subject. Imagine if it simply became routine for pollsters to measure how distorted people’s “knowledge” was in the course of eliciting their opinions.

“Political debate and policymaking are hard enough, but if people from opposing ideological camps come in with their own sets of facts, that makes it really tough to have a vibrant debate that leads to good public policy,” Reedy said. “That’s a big part of why we created the knowledge distortion index and have been studying these issues, is to try to help figure out how to combat the problem of ideological distortion of political knowledge.”

In this study, eight different items — gleaned from “surveying campaign websites, news reports, and commentary” — were used to create an index specific to each of the three initiatives. The first, “Landowner Compensation Policy, would have rolled back land-use regulations by forcing the state to reimburse landowners for expenses incurred from those regulations,” the paper explained. The second, “Renewable Energy Mandate, required a proportion of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources.” The third, “Estate Tax Repeal,” was self-explanatory. Only the second was approved by the voters. A distortion index item for the Landowner Compensation Policy, for example, was “Washington landowners can be forced to leave their land unused if it provides habitat for species that are not even endangered” — a false statement that 45.2 percent of respondents nonetheless identified as “true.” While all three scales were balanced so that “liberal” and “conservative” distortion scores were equally possible, conservative distortions predominated in all three cases, though only modestly in two of them.

These are not your typical hot-button culture-war issues, nor are they dry, purely technical questions, or issues so specific as to defy comparison. They represented the broad middle range of issues that make up a significant portion of the public debates that Americans have carried on in the public square since the earliest days of the republic.While it wouldn’t be warranted to assume they’re representative of all public questions, they do make a good place to start. In the study itself, the authors noted future research possibilities:

Reflecting on the technical nature of the ballot measures in the present study, we believe it would advance this line of research to assess the importance of values, belief distortion, and knowledge in shaping voters’ beliefs on issues that are more heavily values-based or culturally contested (Lakoff, 2002), such as gay rights or abortion. Voters may be less likely to hold incorrect factual beliefs on those higher-profile issues simply because there is much more information about those issues present in the public sphere. On the other hand, the more obvious connection between values and policy for such issues may result in an even greater distortion of empirical beliefs to fit with the disparate values held by opposing sides.

In short, this current study has established a useful baseline for future studies.

In addition to measuring knowledge distortion for each item, the study also measured value orientations to compare with knowledge distortion — another promising new idea. The authors used a combination of responses (agree/disagree) to two statements for each value orientation. Two initiatives involved a single value orientation. For the Landowner Compensation Policy, the statements concerned government’s role in regulating land use. For the Renewable Energy Mandate, the statements concerned how society should approach the production of clean energy. For the Estate Tax Repeal, one set of statements concerned the primacy of property rights, while a second set concerned commitment to public education, which is the primary beneficiary of Washington’s estate tax.

This approach “offered more concrete measures of respondents’ issue-relevant value orientations than could be obtained by left-right ideology,” the paper noted, “or abstract cultural orientation measures” — referring to the two-factor framework (hierarchy/egalitarianism and individualism/communitarianism) used by Kahan and others in the cultural cognition tradition.

Reedy acknowledged that this represented a potential weakness in testing the cultural cognition hypothesis generally. “This is a good point,” he told Salon. The study relied on survey questions they were able to get included in a poll that was run by the University of Washington Department of Political Science, he explained. “So we were a bit limited on the space we had available in the survey,” and thus “didn’t have enough room to include more general measures of cultural orientation like Dan Kahan typically uses.”

But Kahan told Salon that he didn’t regard this as a significant problem. “To me, cultural cognition is a research program” concerned with how “people are forming their understandings about facts in relation to evidence in a particular way in political life and related domains,” he said. “Now, operationalizing it, there are different ways to do that,” which can include whatever tools happen to be available. Identifying it too narrowly with the two-factor model as an alternative to single-factor left/right model is “kind of missing the point,” Kahan said.

“Cultural cognition says there are these kind of affinities — you can’t directly observe them, there are different ways we can measure them — and makes a claim about how it is that they influence people’s information processing,” Kahan explained. He’s even used partisan affiliation himself, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t doing cultural cognition work. “I just see myself as using an alternative way to measure what the motivating affinities are.” Sometimes the affinities may be more simple; other times, more complex. So he had no problem with the value scales Reedy and his co-authors used.

In contrast to these recent innovations, the study also measured political knowledge, a very old practice that’s been used for half a century or more, using a standard approach of asking people to identify a mix of public officials and parties in control of various bodies at the state and federal levels.

With those three measures explained — knowledge distortion, value orientation and political knowledge — we’re set to appreciate the study’s results.

“We set out to test these two competing views in a couple of different ways,” Reedy said. “First, we looked at whether someone’s political knowledge had a moderating effect on how much their values shaped their distorted factual beliefs — that is, whether people at higher levels of political knowledge were more likely to have values-based knowledge distortion than, say, people at lower levels of political knowledge. Our results here were a bit mixed. On one of the issues, more knowledgeable voters were indeed more likely to develop distorted factual beliefs.” This was the Landowner Compensation Policy. In this case, “those with greater political knowledge had more distorted empirical beliefs than did their low-knowledge counterparts,” the study reported.

“However, the other two issues fit more with cultural cognition theory, in that overall political knowledge was not important in the development of distorted factual beliefs,” Reedy said.

The second test produced more unified results. “We also tested whether people needed to be exposed to news media messages and campaign messages in order to pick up these distorted factual beliefs about political topics,” Reedy explained. “We found no connections between self-reported exposure to media and campaign messages and knowledge distortion, which gives more support to the cultural cognition view, that people are able to connect their values with a political issue regardless of media messages about that issue.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that there were no such effects, however. As the study itself explains, “the most straightforward explanations for these findings are either that message effects are too small for samples such as ours to detect or that we lacked sufficiently sensitive message exposure measures. We relied on self reported measures of media and campaign exposure, which are subject to errors of varying magnitude.”

But these sorts of caveats are always involved in scientific research, as even Kahan pointed out. Studies add weight to one view or another, nothing more. “It’s not like a study is kind of a definitive contest, or a duel, some position is going to shoot the other from a pace of however many yards,” he said.

“Third,” Reedy said, “we looked at the connection between people’s distorted factual beliefs and their views on the public policy issues related to those. We ran statistical tests to see the effects of the typical factors on someone’s opinion on a policy issue — things like their demographics and political values — and also the impact of knowledge distortion. We found that knowledge distortion did indeed have an independent effect on one’s policy preferences, which is more in keeping with the heuristic view of opinion formation.”

This inference is arguably subject to dispute, however. Kahan himself was untroubled by the results, and the study itself said that “those with more knowledge more consistently expressed their value orientations through their votes,” which is one of the most important findings that Kahan has consisting stressed as validating his approach: those more engaged and more knowledgeable politically tend to be more polarized on issues like global warming, for example.

What is certain is that a growing community of researchers, and those who follow them, are developing an increasingly textured feel for the phenomenon of knowledge distortion — a phenomenon that not too long ago wasn’t even acknowledged to exist. Reedy himself expressed a similar sentiment. “Our strongest results, I think, are just confirming that this values-based political knowledge distortion is happening and it’s having an independent effect on one’s vote choice,” he concluded.

As the study itself said:

Whatever future refinements may be made to the values-based distortion model, the unsettling evidence remains that many voters are systematically misinformed on political issues, and those erroneous factual beliefs appear to influence how they mark their ballot on election day.

This is a disturbingly serious problem for a political system that purports to not only reflect the “will of the people,” but that also respects reality as a basic matter of course. “Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams observed — a true man of the Enlightenment. “Facts are stupid things,” Ronald Reagan famously misquoted him. It’s painfully obvious whose world we’re living in now. It’s a good deal less obvious how to escape. But thanks to folks like Reedy and Kahan, we’ve at least got a chance to start working on that.

 

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10 Things You Need to Know About Ferguson

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 11:45
The latest developments from Ferguson. Ten days after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by officer Darren Wilson, police and protestors continue to face off in the city of Ferguson. Last night's protests broke into chaos as riot police descended on the streets of the city in an attempt to disperse protestors.  On Monday, Gov. Jay Nixon deployed the National Guard, allegedly without alerting the White House. The first Humvees have left the National Guard base, according to reports from the scene highlighted in the Guardian.  As the tense situation on the ground quickly evolves, here are 10 things you should know: 1. National Guard trained in fighting protesters. The Missouri National Guard troops being sent into Ferguson are military police, which, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), have studied the Occupy protests and demonstrations that followed George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. These soldiers are now trained to deal with “crowd control measures, understanding protester tactics, incident management, and operating inside an area contaminated with chemical and biological hazards,” FEMA said, in a chillingly bland report on its website touting the anti-protester training that military police now receive. "We serve as a force multiplier during a natural disaster or civil unrest,” a platoon leader and deputy sheriff who completed the training said. “We have experienced protest from the Occupy Movement and, most recently, from the Zimmerman trial. This training makes us all more proficient MP soldier[s] and helps us communicate more effectively with local law enforcement." The photos on FEMA’s site show the military police practicing with protesters who are sitting down in the street and shows MPs cutting through plastic pipes that some protesters have used to chain themselves to each other. One can only imagine how military police, whose main training is designed for overseas war zones, will fare in Ferguson, where the underlying issues are institutional racism and police brutality. 2. Autopsy report: Why so many bullets? It's not clear how many bullets were fired by Officer Darren Wilson, and whether he fired his gun while he was still in his car. But according to a private autopsy report, Michael Brown was hit by six bullets. Four hit him on the right arm, and two hit him in the head. Some of the bullets created several entry points.  According to the New York Times,  "One of the bullets shattered Mr. Brown’s right eye, traveled through his face, exited his jaw and re-entered his collarbone. The last two shots in the head would have stopped him in his tracks and were likely the last fired."   Meanwhile, eye-witness Piaget Crenshaw  said a shot was fired wildly and hit a house, and that the bullet was removed by police shortly after Brown was shot.     3. Iraq vet: cops have more weapons than soldiers. The violent police crackdown in Ferguson has revealed the extent to which America's police departments have become militarized, with officers wielding military-grade weapons against protestors.  Writing on Bill Moyers.com, Iraq veteran Rafael Noboa y Rivera points out that police officers actually have more weapons than soldiers:  ... here we are in August of 2014, 10 years after I got back from Iraq, and the police agencies that have patrolled the streets of Ferguson, Missouri – until they were relieved of duty on Thursday amid public outrage over their heavy-handed tactics — have the kind of armor and weaponry that my men and I would have envied in the performance of our duties in an actual combat zone.

Let me repeat that: the police in Ferguson have better armor and weaponry than my men and I did in the middle of a war. And Ferguson isn’t alone — police departments across the US are armed for war.

The gear and weaponry worn by police officers in Ferguson aren’t just clothing and tools. They’re meant to accomplish certain tasks, and they will elicit certain responses from the people who encounter them. When my men and I donned our helmets and body armor, and carried our weapons out on patrol, we were at war. Our gear wasn’t just protective, it was meant to be downright unwelcoming. That was the point — it’s combat gear, not a costume you wear to look “tactical.”

 4. More journalists detained. Despite the outcry following the arrests of journalists Ryan Reilly and Wesley Lowery, Ferguson police continue to hassle, threaten and detain reporters. On Sunday, three journalists were handcuffed and briefly held by Captain Ron Johnson, Talking Points Memo reports. The Financial Times' Neil Munshi tweeted that he was cuffed and searched, later specifying that while he and the other two reporters were handcuffed, they were not arrested.  Munshi tweeted, "It was tense, he seemed to realize it wasn't a great look, and had them release us after cuffing and searching - another cop was apologetic." Sports Illustrated's Robert Klemko, also held by police, tweeted, "Entire goal was to document police action towards protesters. Johnson wouldn't let us enter a visibly secured area." The Washington Post reports that faced with hazards normally associated with war zones, journalists have taken to wearing bullet proof vests and gas masks. Mustafa Hussein was confronted by an officer while filming police. The cop allegedly pointed his gun and yelled, "Get down, get the fuck out of here and get that light off, or you're getting shot with this." Over the weekend, Chris Hayes of MSNBC and the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel also reported that police threatened to mace them. Hayes tweeted, "Riot cop to me just a few minutes ago: "Get back! Or next time you're gonna be the one maced." 5. Pro-police backlash. When the world’s media comes to town, you can almost expect some contrarians to get an outsized slice of the headlines. And so it was as an almost all-white crowd assembled outside a local TV station, KSDK-TV, whose coverage has supported the Ferguson police. The rally in downtown St. Louis in Sunday sold t-shirts supporting Darren Wilson, the 28-year-old police office who shot and killed Michael Brown. Those who bought the t-shirts did not cite the issue of institutional racism that is seen as prompting the growing protests. “He was doing his job,” Kaycee Reinisch, 57, told the Huffington Post. “This sounds wrong, but I don’t think the black community understands the system,” John Neshaw, a retired St. Louis county police officer, told The Guardian. “They’re screaming about why isn’t he arrested, why isn’t he in jail? Well, without the investigation being done, you can’t go and apply for a warrant.” The only black member of the crowd was Martin Baker, a former GOP congressional candidate, told The Guardian that people “were too quick to play the race card.” But others at the pro-police rally freely made racist statements. Damon Anderson predicted that Ferguson, where 50 out of 53 police officers are white, will “now be forced” to hire black officers. “Let the black officers see how difficult it is to try and deal with the black criminals on the beat they are patrolling,” he told the Guardian. Like many in this crowd, he assumes there are no motives behind the unrest.     6. Unsurprisingly, Fox delivers awful coverage. As Raw Story notes, Fox News held a panel on Brown's shooting Monday that was made up of all white men, including disgraced former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who was indicted for conspiracymail fraudwire fraud, and lying to the Internal Revenue Service was another participant in the panel. Kerik was sentenced to 4 years in jail after pleading guilty to eight charges, according to the New York Times.  So that's Fox's go-to expert.  Expert number 2 was Bo Dietl, who showed his brilliant analytic skills  by saying that Brown was shot in the head because “bullets go that way.” In a series of non-sequiturs, Deitl went on to add, “We have a thing called due process,”  “What’s happening in Chicago? All our young black kids are being shot? Where is the outrage in Chicago? Where’s Jesse Jackson? Where’s Al Sharpton in Chicago? We got kids killed every day, black on black crime.”  Dietl is a former NY City Detective, but is mainly known as a big mouth commentator on Fox News. 7. The role of Twitter. For the most part, Twitter has been an accurate, up-to-date resource for anyone wanting to understand what is happening in #Ferguson. The small town earned hashtag status soon after Michael Brown was killed last week. Photos of his slain body circulated around social media for hours before journalists began reporting the story. It even served as something of a human rights monitor for reporters who were met by confrontational members of law enforcement.  The New York Times' David Carr explained the role played by Twitter:For people in the news business, Twitter was initially viewed as one more way to promote and distribute content. But as the world has become an ever more complicated place — a collision of Ebola, war in Iraq, crisis in Ukraine and more — Twitter has become an early warning service for news organizations, a way to see into stories even when they don’t have significant reporting assets on the ground. And in a situation hostile to traditional reporting, the crowdsourced, phone-enabled network of information that Twitter provides has proved invaluable.

Police officials in Ferguson made it clear that they had no interest in accommodating news coverage. Officers in riot gear tear-gassed a crew from Al Jazeera working on a stand-up far from the action, then walked over and laid their equipment on the ground after they fled. Two reporters, Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Postwere arrested at a McDonald’s, perhaps for the crime of lurking with intent to order a cheeseburger. Antonio French, a Democratic alderman from St. Louis who had been documenting the protests and the security response nonstop on Twitter, was arrestedas well.
 Some understandably balk at the suggestion that Twitter is an official news source, but one thing is clear: Twitter can document news that sometimes even the news producers aren't able to cover. 8. Michael Brown and Eric Garner: victims of aggressive policing and character assassination. The Rev. Al Sharpton believes Michael Brown and Eric Garner have two things in common besides their race: both died as a result of over-aggressive policing and both were victims of character assassination in the aftermath of their deaths. Sharpton blasted police in Ferguson, Mo., from his National Action Network headquarters, in Harlem, N.Y., for releasing video of Brown that appears to show him shoving a store clerk, according to Newsday.

"To come out with that tape," Sharpton said, "is to assassinate his character after you've already taken his life. It's the epitome of an insult to people of this country."

He said the move is very similar to the actions of the NYPD, who released Garner's criminal record, which mostly consisted of petty crimes. And to add insult to injury, Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said Garner did not die from a chokehold, despite video clearly showing the opposite, and a coroner's report to the contrary.

Garner died in July after a police officer arrested him for selling loose cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo, one of the cops who helped to take Garner down, applied the chokehold, which was recorded on a cellphone. Garner is heard saying, "I can't breathe" as the officer continues applying the illegal chokehold. Garner's death was ruled a homicide. Officer Pantaleo has not been charged in Garner's death.

Rev. Sharpton said Brown's family will join Garner's family Aug. 23 at a rally on Staten Island, in New York City.

9. The New Yorker Magazine says there's a larger movement growing from Ferguson. While the New Yorker is not usually the greatest barometer for social change, writer Jelani Cobb detailed the ways in which a movement is being born in Ferguson. As Cobb writes:  In the eight days since Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old, was killed by a police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, what began as an impromptu vigil evolved into a sustained protest; it is now beginning to look like a movement. The local QuikTrip, a gas station and convenience store that was looted and burned on the second night of the protests, has now been repurposed as the epicenter for gatherings and the exchange of information. The front of the lot bears an improvised graffiti sign identifying the area as the “QT People’s Park.” With the exception of a few stretches, such asThursday afternoon, when it was veiled in clouds of tear gas, protesters have been a constant presence in the lot. On Sunday afternoon the area was populated by members of local churches, black fraternity and sorority groups, Amnesty International, the Outcast Motorcycle Club, and twenty or so white supporters from the surrounding area. On the north side of the station, a group of volunteers with a mobile grill served free hot dogs and water, and a man stood on a crate, handing out bright yellow T-shirts with the logo of the National Action Network, the group led by Al Sharpton. 10. Amnesty International calls for investigation into police tactics. The behavior of the police in Ferguson—in recent days; not just surrounding Michael Brown’s killing—has lead to more calls for independent investigations, showing that institutional problems that contributed in his death are deep-seated and not going away. Amnesty International has called for an investigation into the police tactics used in recent clashes with protesters. Their demand came after sending a 12-person team to train protesters in non-violent organizing and seeing the police’s overly harsh responses. “We’ve issued reports on, for example, Israel and the Occupied Territories, how tear gas is supposed to be administered—never in an indiscriminate way where children and the elderly could be subject to very harmful effects, even death, from tear gas,” Amnesty International USA executive director Steven W. Hawkins told Democracy Now. “So, we sent down observers to be on the ground. We have been thwarted in our efforts to be able to go out on curfew with the police, which would be a clear standard in these circumstances, as well as the opportunity for the press to be able to be in the space.” Other calls for independent investigations also show how entrenched police attitudes are, especially to protect officers by smearing the victims of police brutality. The ACLU of Missouri initally called on local police to release more information about the shooting—including videos. When Ferguson police began to selectively release details, they said that Brown was a robbery suspect—smearing him. Monday’s police reports that he had traces of marijuana in his blood continue this pattern. “The Ferguson police’s disclosures seem more like spin control than objective investigation,” the ACLU said, demanding that the U.S. Justice Department take over. The FBI later announced it would do so. While some Missouri police officials have made efforts to de-escalate tensions, such as Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson repeatedly talking with protesters, it’s clear that the mindset driving the local police is resisting change and accountability every step of the way.

 

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Is It Possible to Move Beyond this Century of Disaster?

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 11:34
The tale of the 20th century—from Stalin to Barbie Dolls.

To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com. The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s history of humanity, Mirrors (Nation Books).

Stalin

He learned to write in the language of Georgia, his homeland, but in the seminary the monks made him speak Russian.

Years later in Moscow, his south Caucasus accent still gave him away.

So he decided to become more Russian than the Russians. Was not Napoleon, who hailed from Corsica, more French than the French? And was not Catherine the Great, who was German, more Russian than the Russians?

The Georgian, Iosif Dzhugashvili, chose a Russian name. He called himself Stalin, which means “steel.”

The man of steel expected his son to be made of steel too: from childhood, Stalin’s son Yakov was tempered in fire and ice and shaped by hammer blows.

It did not work. He was his mother’s child. At the age of 19, Yakov wanted no more of it, could bear no more.

He pulled the trigger.

The gunshot did not kill him.

He awoke in the hospital. At the foot of the bed, his father commented:

“You can’t even get that right.”

The Ages of Josephine

At nine years old, she works cleaning houses in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi.

At 10, she starts dancing for coins in the street. At 13, she marries.

At 15, once again. Of the first husband she retains not even a bad memory. Of the second, his last name, because she likes how it sounds.

At 17, Josephine Baker dances the Charleston on Broadway. At 18, she crosses the Atlantic and conquers Paris. The “Bronze Venus” performs in the nude, with no more clothing than a belt of bananas.

At 21, her outlandish combination of clown and femme fatale makes her the most popular and highest-paid performer in Europe.

At 24, she is the most photographed woman on the planet. Pablo Picasso, on his knees, paints her. To look like her, the pallid young damsels of Paris rub themselves with walnut cream, which darkens the skin.

At 30, she has problems in some hotels because she travels with a chimpanzee, a snake, a goat, two parrots, several fish, three cats, seven dogs, a cheetah named Chiquita who wears a diamond-studded collar, and a little pig named Albert, whom she bathes in Je Reviens perfume by Worth.

At 40, she receives the Legion of Honor for service to the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation.

At 41 and on her fourth husband, she adopts 12 children of many colors and many origins, whom she calls “my rainbow tribe.”

At 45, she returns to the United States. She insists that everyone, whites and blacks, sit together at her shows. If not, she will not perform. At 57, she shares the stage with Martin Luther King and speaks against racial discrimination before an immense crowd at the March on Washington.

At 68, she recovers from a calamitous bankruptcy and at the Bobino Theater in Paris she celebrates a half-century on the stage.

And she departs.

Photograph: Saddest Eye in the World

Princeton, New Jersey, May 1947.

Photographer Philippe Halsman asks him: “Do you think there will be peace?”

And while the shutter clicks, Albert Einstein says, or rather mutters: “No.”

People believe that Einstein got the Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity, that he was the originator of the saying “Everything is relative,” and that he was the inventor of the atom bomb.

The truth is they did not give him a Nobel for his theory of relativity and he never uttered those words. Neither did he invent the bomb, although Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have been possible if he had not discovered what he did.

He knew all too well that his findings, born of a celebration of life, had been used to annihilate it.

Father of the Computer

Alan Turing was sneered at for not being a tough guy, a he-man with hair on his chest.

He whined, croaked, stuttered. He used an old necktie for a belt. He rarely slept and went without shaving for days. And he raced from one end of the city to the other all the while concocting complicated mathematical formulas in his mind.

Working for British intelligence, he helped shorten the Second World War by inventing a machine that cracked the impenetrable military codes used by Germany’s high command.

At that point he had already dreamed up a prototype for an electronic computer and had laid out the theoretical foundations of today’s information systems. Later on, he led the team that built the first computer to operate with integrated programs. He played interminable chess games with it and asked it questions that drove it nuts. He insisted that it write him love letters. The machine responded by emitting messages that were rather incoherent.

But it was flesh-and-blood Manchester police who arrested him in 1952 for gross indecency.

At the trial, Turing pled guilty to being a homosexual.

To stay out of jail, he agreed to undergo medical treatment to cure him of the affliction. The bombardment of drugs left him impotent. He grew breasts. He stayed indoors, no longer went to the university. He heard whispers, felt stares drilling into his back.

He had the habit of eating an apple before going to bed.

One night, he injected the apple with cyanide.

Red Emperor

I was in China three years after the failure of the Great Leap Forward. No one talked about it. It was a state secret.

I saw Mao paying homage to Mao. In Tiananmen Square, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Mao presided over an immense parade led by an immense statue of Mao. The plaster Mao held his hand high, and the flesh-and-blood Mao answered the greeting. From an ocean of flowers and colored balloons, the crowd cheered both.

Mao was China and China was his shrine. Mao exhorted all to follow the example set by Lei Feng and Lei Feng exhorted all to follow the example set by Mao. Lei Feng, a young Communist apostle of dubious existence, spent his days consoling the sick, helping widows, and giving his food away to orphans. His nights he spent reading the complete works of Mao. When he slept, he dreamed of Mao, his guide for every step. Lei Feng had no girlfriend or boyfriend because he did not waste time on frivolities, and it never occurred to him that life could be contradictory or reality diverse.

Fidel

His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity.

And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like Granma, no Frenchman would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo.

And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices.

And in that his enemies are right.

But some things his enemies do not say: it was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders’ bullets,

he faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane,

he survived 637 attempts on his life,

his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony,

and it was not by Lucifer’s curse or God’s miracle that the new country managed to outlive 10 U.S. presidents, their napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.

And his enemies never mention that Cuba is one rare country that does not compete for the World Doormat Cup.

And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what it managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and wider thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.

And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.

And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of its people, and also of the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castile.

Ali

He was butterfly and bee. In the ring, he floated and stung.

In 1967, Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, refused to put on a uniform.

“Got nothing against no Viet Cong,” he said. “Ain’t no Vietnamese ever called me nigger.”

They called him a traitor. They sentenced him to a five-year jail term, and barred him from boxing. They stripped him of his title as champion of the world.

The punishment became his trophy. By taking away his crown, they anointed him king.

Years later, a few college students asked him to recite something. And for them he improvised the shortest poem in world literature:

“Me, we.”

Walls

The Berlin Wall made the news every day. From morning till night we read, saw, heard: the Wall of Shame, the Wall of Infamy, the Iron Curtain...

In the end, a wall which deserved to fall fell. But other walls sprouted and continue sprouting across the world. Though they are much larger than the one in Berlin, we rarely hear of them.

Little is said about the wall the United States is building along the Mexican border, and less is said about the barbed-wire barriers surrounding the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the African coast.

Practically nothing is said about the West Bank Wall, which perpetuates the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and will be 15 times longer than the Berlin Wall. And nothing, nothing at all, is said about the Morocco Wall, which perpetuates the seizure of the Saharan homeland by the kingdom of Morocco, and is 60 times the length of the Berlin Wall.

Why are some walls so loud and others mute?

Barbie Goes to War 

There are more than a billion Barbies. Only the Chinese outnumber them.

The most beloved woman on the planet would never let us down. In the war of good against evil, Barbie enlisted, saluted, and marched off to Iraq.

She arrived at the front wearing made-to-measure land, sea, and air uniforms reviewed and approved by the Pentagon.

Barbie is accustomed to changing professions, hairdos, and clothes. She has been a singer, an athlete, a paleontologist, an orthodontist, an astronaut, a firewoman, a ballerina, and who knows what else. Every new job entails a new look and a complete new wardrobe that every girl in the world is obliged to buy.

In February 2004, Barbie wanted to change boyfriends too. For nearly half a century she had been going steady with Ken, whose nose is the only protuberance on his body, when an Australian surfer seduced her and invited her to commit the sin of plastic.

Mattel, the manufacturer, announced an official separation.

It was a catastrophe. Sales plummeted. Barbie could change occupations and outfits, but she had no right to set a bad example.

Mattel announced an official reconciliation.

Lied-About Wars

Advertising campaigns, marketing schemes. The target is public opinion. Wars are sold the same way cars are, by lying.

In August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson accused the Vietnamese of attacking two U.S. warships in the Tonkin Gulf.

Then the president invaded Vietnam, sending planes and troops. He was acclaimed by journalists and by politicians, and his popularity skyrocketed. The Democrats in power and the Republicans out of power became a single party united against Communist aggression.

After the war had slaughtered Vietnamese in vast numbers, most of them women and children, Johnson’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, confessed that the Tonkin Gulf attack had never occurred.

The dead did not revive.

In March 2003, President George W. Bush accused Iraq of being on the verge of destroying the world with its weapons of mass destruction, “the most lethal weapons ever devised.”

Then the president invaded Iraq, sending planes and troops. He was acclaimed by journalists and by politicians, and his popularity skyrocketed. The Republicans in power and the Democrats out of power became a single party united against terrorist aggression.

After the war had slaughtered Iraqis in vast numbers, most of them women and children, Bush confessed that the weapons of mass destruction never existed. “The most lethal weapons ever devised” were his own speeches.

In the following elections, he won a second term.

In my childhood, my mother used to tell me that a lie has no feet. She was misinformed.

Riddle

They are the most important members of our family.

They are gluttons, devouring gas, oil, corn, sugarcane, and anything else that comes their way.

They own our time: bathing them, feeding and sheltering them, talking about them, and opening the way for them.

They reproduce faster than we do, and are 10 times as numerous as they were half a century ago.

They kill more people than do wars, but no one condemns the murders, least of all the newspapers and television channels that live off their advertisements.

They steal our streets. They steal our air. They laugh when they hear us say: “I drive.”

Lost and Found

The twentieth century, which was born proclaiming peace and justice, died bathed in blood. It passed on a world much more unjust than the one it inherited.

The twenty-first century, which also arrived heralding peace and justice, is following in its predecessor’s footsteps.

In my childhood, I was convinced that everything that went astray on earth ended up on the moon.

But the astronauts found no sign of dangerous dreams or broken promises or hopes betrayed.

If not on the moon, where might they be? Perhaps they were never misplaced.
Perhaps they are in hiding here on earth. Waiting.

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Would You Have Sex With a Robot? The Age of the Sexbot Is Fast Approaching

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 11:04
Some experts predict a not-so-distant future of human-robot sex ...and love.

What exactly makes the sex act sexy? Is it the rush of pheromones and invisible storm of sex-chemicals? The emotional uncertainty and fear that accompany intimate encounters with fellow humans? The pillow talk?

Proponents of robosexuality hold that you don’t need homo sapiens for a satisfying sexual experience. For them, the sleek proportions and permanent willingness of mechanical contraptions beat the complexity and messiness of sexy time with living, breathing organisms any day of the week.

Robots, after all, don’t tattle; they don’t reject you, and they don’t give you STDs. Soon enough, they may be able to simulate the verbal and cognitive responses of a real live person. In recent years, sex dolls (the Real Doll is a good example) have been getting much more realistic, some featuring vibrations and electronics that mimic human movements. Granted, they still look a little freaky. But the race for the perfect sex machine is on, and as robot technology advances, from the University of Texas' cutting-edge work on robot facial expressions to Cornell University's research into self-aware robots, Rosie the Robot is getting better all the time.

MacMil Cybernetics, Inc., maker of Sex Bots, invites you into the exciting world of the “life-like and life-size adult sex robot designed as an adult sex toy as well as a sexual companion.” The website features a blonde unit perched expectantly on a sofa wearing lacy underpants and Mary Jane pumps. She’s waiting for you, cowboy, and she won’t ask you to take out the trash.

Sex Bot devices come with various options such as radio remote control and/or interactive touch sensory, so if you touch it correctly it will "turn on." Ready for this? The skin can be removed for cleaning, or simply to change the look of your “companion.” 

OK, maybe you were ready for that. But what about this? Over at Forbes, Kashmir Hill discusses a future in which child sex robots will be readily available. Ron Arkin, Georgia Tech’s Mobile Robot Lab director does not approve of child sexbots, but he does think they might be useful as a way to deal with pedophiles, kind of like methadone for addicts. (Surely for some pedophiles, the chase and the interaction with the child is part of the allure, but maybe there are some who could be satisfied with a bot.)

Artificial intelligence researcher David Levy of the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands forecasts that by 2050, humans will not only be having sex with robots, but will be enjoying romances, and even marriage with them.

Culturally, we do seem to be warming up to the idea. In Japan, where 40 percent of the world’s robots are made, manga and anime series regularly show sex and love between robots and humans. In the U.S. the 2013 film Her, which depicts a man falling in love with an intelligent computer operating system, explores the territory of human/non-human relationships. And readers of science fiction like Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? were already into ‘droid sex and romance back in the '80s.

Still sound a little far-fetched?  Consider this: A recent UK survey cited at the Daily Beast revealed that 1 in 5 people would do it with a robot. (One in 10 would have sex with a child robot.) Researcher Martin Smith, who conducted the study, advised that “robots will be able to show most, if not all, of the signs and behaviours of emotional intelligence…The robots will not feel, but like actors they will be able to show emotional intelligence.”

Emotional intelligence is where the latex really hits the road. Inventor, futurist and Google engineering director Ray Kurzweil sees not only sex with robots in our future, but romantic experiences like strolling a "virtual Cancún beach.” His 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machinespredicts robots that will seem to have their own free will and even the capacity for "spiritual experiences.”

David Levy, artificial intelligence guru and author of Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships outlines a future in which human-robot sex and love are perfectly normal. He compares the connections we will have to robots to those we already have with pets, which many people, particularly Americans, treat like humans, despite knowing cognitively that they are not.

Others are more skeptical. Commenting on a new Pew report “AI, Robots, and the Future of Jobs,” GigaOM Research head Stowe Boyd acknowledges that robotic sex partners will become commonplace, but sees them as being “the source of scorn and division, the way that critics today bemoan selfies as an indicator of all that’s wrong with the world.”

David Holmes of PandoDaily doesn’t think that stroll on the beach is coming anytime soon:

“People will build sex robots, and they’ll continue to grow closer and closer to some acceptable level of simulated robot sex, but for the foreseeable future, they will be little more than glorified dolls, toys, and flesh-lights, only with more moving parts and therefore a greater risk for embarrassing hospital visits.”

So will the rise of sexbots put real live sex workers out of business? The jury is out on that one. The Pew report shows that experts are evenly divided between those who think robots will produce a net gain of jobs in industries where they become more prominent, and those who see a net loss. (I’m more convinced by the net gain camp.) Certainly, sexbots could be an attractive option for people with disabilities, like extreme shyness, but these are people who would be unlikely to visit a human sex worker.

John Danaher, lecturer in law at Keele University, does not see sexbots replacing sex workers. In an interview with Mother Jones, he draws a sports analogy, asking us to imagine a sports competition between robots. Sure, he says, some people will be interested in that. But it won’t replace the excitement of watching humans test their abilities against each other. He also mentions a phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley effect.” This hypothesis, put forth by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, holds that humans will find sexbots more, not less creepy the more sophisticated they become. An example of this effect has been observed in cases like audiences becoming uncomfortable watching overly realistic CGI effects in animated films. Danaher also proposes that if more people are unemployed in the future, more humans will turn to sex work, thus increasing the supply and allowing sex workers to out-compete sexbots.

However you feel about the rise of sexbots, one thing’s for sure: they are inevitably going to be on the menu, whether you order or not.

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Top Florida Republicans Are Nastier And More Vindictive Than You Thought, Tell-All By Ex-State GOP Chair Says

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 10:53
Jim Greer, the high-flying state party chair, was thrown to the alligators.

Political tell-all books usually make big headlines because they expose the secret lives of famous people. The latest is a dark expose of Florida Republicans by Jim Greer, the ex-state GOP chair, who spent 18 months in jail after pleading guilty to illegally skimming party funds. 

Peter Golenbock’s The Chairman: The Rise and Betrayal of Jim Greer pulls back the curtain on Florida Republicans’ inner circles and their shady dealings. Greer lambasts his former colleagues for trying to scuttle Charlie Crist when he was the Republican governor, and then accuses Crist of betraying him. (Today, Crist is again running for that office as a Democrat.)

Greer says U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is little better than an extortionist, taking fellow Republicans to strip clubs and taking photos to subsequently bribe them. 

Is it true? Greer wants us to believe him, and recent Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) actions bolster his claims of skullduggery and high-flying Republicans. 

Greer made national headlines in 2012 when he was accused of taking $125,000 in Republican Party funds when he was state chair and Crist was governor. Now, according to the book, Greer says he was railroaded and scapegoated by Tea Partiers who really wanted to target Crist. He said he pleaded guilty to avoid a longer sentence, and blamed his misfortune on unswerving loyalty to Crist, who has denied any prior knowledge of Greer’s misdeeds. (On the 2014 campaign trail, Crist said he hadn’t read it and did not recognize anything in reporters’ accounts as “truthful.”)

After a severe drubbing in the press during his trial, Greer wanted to tell his side of the story, so he sought out author Golenbock, who agreed to work with him. The result is The Chairman. Greer has no financial stake in the book.

The account is filled with behind-the-scenes views of top GOP officials, power plays and treachery. There’s lots of steamy stuff. Greer recounts the pay-offs, prostitution, powerful “dragon ladies,” blackmail and more. One of the most eyebrow-raising episodes concerns Rubio and his cronies.

“According to Greer, Rubio would take first year politicians to Miami strip clubs, get them drunk, and then take pictures so they could blackmail them,” Golenbock said. “That’s the one thing in the book that surprised me...I know politicians will go far, but I didn’t think anyone would go that far."

Greer says Rubio doesn’t want African Americans or gays in his Republican Party. He doesn’t want immigrants to have any rights either. Neither does Rubio want the state to take federal funds to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, or to build high-speed rail lines, another Obama-proposed economic stimulus program.

The prevailing ethos in GOP circles is the quid pro quo, which, according to Greer, means that no one does anything for anyone without getting something in return, and keeping that side of party business secret. A recent Tampa Bay Times article lends credence to Greer’s claims of GOP secrecy.

The Times investigated Republican legislators and their regular hunting trips to the King Ranch in Texas. At the ranch, hunters can shoot wild boar, deer and even large antelopes, depending on how much they are willing to pay. Texas records show that thousands were paid for hunting licenses for Republican legislators. These are compounded by questions of who paid for the airfare. The Timessaid the state GOP did, but the politicians are keeping quiet.

King Ranch is not exactly a bystander either. Its owners have made generous donations to the state GOP. It’s deeply involved in the sugar industry outside the Everglades. This chummy relationship calls into question delays in long-awaited cleanups of sections of King land holdings in the ecologically fragile preserve. Democrats have not taken these hunting trips to Texas, the Timesfound.

Golenbock has written nine bestsellers in his career, beginning with Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, a history of the New York Yankees under Casey Stengel. In The Chairman, he takes on Florida’s recent Republican-run politics. 

Since Jeb Bush was elected governor in 1998, Republicans have dominated the state. The legislature is in Republican hands. Democrats feel disenfranchised. The Florida Tea Party's rise after President Obama's 2008 election was easily foreseen. According to Greer, the Tea Party played a big role in his downfall.

Greer says the Tea Party was angry because Crist wasn't conservative enough—a claim that seems plausible enough, now that he’s running for governor as a Democrat. They called him a RINO, or “Republican in name only.” The Tea Party despised Crist for a number of reasons, he said, including appointing a liberal African-American judge to the Florida Supreme Court in 2009.

“They hated Crist for going to Miami and allowing himself to be hugged by President Obama,” Golenbock wrote. “That was the worst thing that he did, Greer said. Once Crist hugged Obama, he had a target on his back... a target from all these Tea Party people who wanted him out.” 

The Real Marco Rubio

Greer recounts his first meeting with Rubio, who was a state representative from West Miami when Greer first became party chair. Legally, you cannot earmark campaign donations to the party for a special purpose. It’s the chairman who decides how the money is spent, but party leaders like Rubio had other ideas. When Greer became chair, they worried that he wouldn’t play ball with them. 

“We eat what we kill,” Rubio supposedly told Greer, meaning, “If I bring you the money, it’s my money. It may be in your account, but it’s still my money and I can use it any way I want.”

Greer said he initially agreed. When Crist picked him to run for party chair, Greer was a low-level county politician, deputy mayor of Oviedo, a small Florida town in Seminole County near Orlando. He was active in the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and had been Oviedo’s Businessman of the Year. He fundraised for Republicans and was a family man. But he was ignorant of the workings of the party’s statewide organization. He was flattered by Crist’s attention, and they became friends. 

Greer said he succumbed to Crist’s charms. For five years, Greer said that he and Crist did everything together. Their families spent weekends on Fisher Island, where Carole Rome, Crist's wealthy wife, had a home. They took trips together, and seemed to be inseparable. But in the end, Crist threw Greer under the bus, turned his back on him, and denied knowing about any of Greer's financial malfeasance. 

Greer said he was a political novice when he joined the uppermost ranks of the state GOP. Though he was business-savvy, big-time politics was new to him. That got him in trouble, Greer said, but he was mesmerized by the high life: socializing with wealthy and influential Republicans on the state and national stage. 

Blackmail and threats were business as usual, Greer said. When U.S. Senator Mel Martinez stepped down in 2009, Crist had to appoint a replacement. Conservative George LeMieux wanted the job. Crist had no interest in appointing him, Greer said, but apparently LeMieux made it clear he would spill some beans if he didn’t go to Washington. In the end, Crist appointed him. What was he going to reveal? We can only guess, because Greer doesn't say. 

Many of the fiscal misdeeds laid at Greer's doorstep concern paying the tab for other top party members. He passed around the RPOF American Express card, but he was the only one responsible for it. When time came to account for these expenses, everything pointed to him, and others distanced themselves. Greer had the only paper trail, suggesting the funds were put to personal use. 

A 2007 episode recounts just how fast and loose the top party officials were, however. Greer, Crist, Meredith O’Rourke, and Harry Sargeant, Crist's two top fundraisers, attended an event in the New York home of Mori Hosseini, an Iranian-American and CEO of ICI Homes, one of the largest home builders in Volusia County, Florida. They arranged for a helicopter from their Manhattan hotel to avoid heavy Saturday traffic on the Long Island Expressway. The RPOF picked up the tab because it seemed to be part of the job. Hosseini had donated $200,000 to George W. Bush's presidential campaign. When O’Rourke decided she needed a second helicopter for their luggage ($12,000 a ride), Greer thought nothing of it. No problem, he thought, paying the tab.

At a certain point, Greer said he wanted out, but Crist would not agree. Every time he went to Crist, the governor would say, “You're not allowed to. You're the only thing standing between me and them.” So he stayed. Greer said he thought,  “Okay, well I owe it to Charlie to protect him, so I’ll hang in here.”

Ignored By The Media

The Chairman has received scant attention in Florida mainstream media despite its insider information on major Republican figures like Rubio, Le Mieux and Bill McCollum, and asides on others, such as Sarah Palin, who Greer says is “dumb as a box of rocks.” 

“There’s a cone of silence around this book,” said Golenbock. "It's not favorable to anyone...it shows how manipulative the Republican Party is, and how Charlie Crist betrayed his best friend. Both parties want this book to go away.”

“Democrats won't love it because it shows Charlie stabbed Greer in the back, and now he's running for governor as a Democrat,” Golenbock said. “Republicans don't want all this stuff out in the open. It was more important to Crist not to fall farther behind Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate campaign of 2010, so he sacrificed Greer, his most loyal friend, for that lie...it's inexcusable.”

"Greer kind of blows the lid off the Republican Party in Florida,” the author said. “That’s why it’s so amazing to me when I read the stuff about the book in the media. There are probably a hundred things they could have written instead of the fact that I spelled DelRay Beach wrong. (It's Delray.) It makes me scratch my head... Whatever happened to reporting?"

Golenbock said he and Greer spoke by phone every day for the three months before Greer went to prison. Though Crist and other players in the book have been dismissive about Greer's allegations, Golenbock thinks he's telling the truth because he was boxed in by the state’s most powerful people.

“The Tea Party wanted a scalp,” said Golenbock. “They couldn't get Charlie Crist's scalp so they went after Jim's. They ruined his life. They bankrupted him, and for the last 15 months he's been in federal prison, and then three months in a halfway house in Orlando… He's completely bankrupt and even lost his kids’ college fund to pay his defense. And he's not getting any of the proceeds from this book.”

Golenbock admits the book is only Greer's side of the story. He includes several legal documents in the book's appendix to verify some of Greer's claims. So, it's up to readers to decide what's true and what's fiction, but there's certainly no lack of material for that assessment in The Chairman

Crist, New Democrat  

Crist currently leads in the upcoming Democratic primary for Florida governor against Nan Rich and leads in the polls against the highly unpopular Republican incumbent Gov. Rick Scott, who has his own record of fraud. Colombia/HCA, Scott's former company, paid the highest fines ever levied for Medicare billing fraud and related violations, totaling $1.7 billion in 2002. 

Despite what Golenbock calls Crist’s “inexcusable behavior” that left Greer holding the bag, Greer said that he supports him in the upcoming governor’s race. “Given the choice of what Rick Scott and his people have done to the state, he'd support Crist,” said Golenbock.

“Carole Rome is a Democrat, a liberal Democrat, and Greer says Charlie has come around to a lot of her positions,” Golenbock said. “She wants a higher minimum wage. She wants people to be treated fairly. And if she wants it, Charlie will give it to them. If he is elected governor this time, Democrats are going to be far more thrilled with the new Charlie Crist than they would be if he hadn’t met her." 

And Jim Greer? He became a free man on July 5, but he's not talking just yet. He's back at his home in Oviedo, spending time with his family and trying to put his life back together. “He's just doing whatever he needs to do to ensure his future,” said Golenbock.

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12 Things White People Can Do Now Because of Ferguson

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 10:44
In the wake of Michael Brown's murder, there's been silence from the majority of my nonactivist, nonacademic white friends.

This article first appeared on What Matters with Janee Woods.

As we all know by now, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenage boy, was gunned down by the police while walking to his grandmother’s house in the middle of the afternoon. For the past few days my Facebook newsfeed has been full of stories about the incidents unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri.

But then I realized something.

For the first couple of days, almost all of the status updates expressing anger and grief about yet another extrajudicial killing of an unarmed black boy, the news articles about the militarized police altercations with community members and the horrifying pictures of his dead body on the city concrete were posted by people of color. Outpourings of rage and demands for justice were voiced by black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, Arab American Muslims. But posts by white people were few at first and those that I saw were posted mostly by my white activist or academic friends who are committed to putting themselves on the frontlines of any conversation about racial or economic injustice in America. And almost nothing, silence practically, by the majority of my nonactivist, nonacademic white friends- those same people who gleefully jumped on the bandwagon to dump buckets of ice over their heads to raise money for ALS and those same people who immediately wrote heartfelt messages about reaching out to loved ones suffering from depression following the suicide of the extraordinary Robin Williams, may he rest in peace. But an unarmed black teenager minding his own business walking down the street in broad daylight gets harassed and murdered by a white police officer and those same people seem to have nothing urgent to say about pervasive, systemic, deadly racism in America?

They have nothing to say?

Why? The simplest explanation is because Facebook is, well, Facebook. It’s not the New York Times or a town hall meeting or the current events class at your high school. It’s the internet playground for sharing cat videos, cheeky status updates about the joys and tribulations of living with toddlers, and humble bragging about your fabulous European vacation. Some people don’t think Facebook is the forum for serious conversations. Okay, that’s fine if you fall into that category and your wall is nothing but rainbows and happy talk about how much you love your life.

However, I think the explanation is more complex and mirrors the silence of many people that I witness in real life. A lot of white people aren’t speaking out publicly against the killing of Michael Brown because they don’t see a space for themselves to engage meaningfully in the conversation so that they can move to action against racism. It’s not so much that they have nothing to say but rather they don’t see an opportunity being opened up for them to say something or to do something that matters. Or they might not be sure what to say or how to do it. They might have a hard time seeing a role for themselves in the fight against racism because they aren’t racist, they don’t feel that racism affects them or their loved ones personally, they worry that talking about race and differences between cultures might make things worse, or they think they rarely see overt racism at play in their everyday lives. And, sometimes, they are afraid. There’s a real fear of saying the wrong thing even if the intention is pure, of being alienated socially and economically from other white people for standing in solidarity with black people, or of putting one’s self in harm’s way, whether the harm be physical or psychological.  I’m not saying those aren’t valid fears but I am challenging white people to consider carefully whether failing to speak out or act because of those fears is justified when white silence and inaction mean the oppression and death of black people.

Let’s talk about an active role for white people in the fight against racism because racism burdens all of us and is destroying our communities. And, quite frankly, because white people have a role in undoing racism because white people created and, for the most part, currently maintain (whether they want to or not) the racist system that benefits white people to the detriment of people of color. My white friends who’ve spoken out harshly against the murder of Michael Brown end with a similar refrain: What can I do that will matter in the fight against racism?

White people who are sick and tired of racism should work hard to become white allies.

In the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown, may he rest in power, here are some ways for white people to become white allies who are engaged thoughtfully and critically in examining the situation in Ferguson and standing on the side of justice and equity. This list is a good place to start your fight to dismantle racial inequity and shine a light on the oppressive structures that lead to yet another extrajudicial killing of a black person.

1. Learn about the racialized history of Ferguson and how it reflects the racialized history of America.  Michael Brown’s murder is not a social anomaly or statistical outlier. It is the direct product of deadly tensions born from decades of housing discrimination, white flight, intergenerational poverty and racial profiling. The militarized police response to peaceful assembly by the people mirrors what happened in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement.

2. Reject the “He Was a Good Kid” narrative and lift up the “Black Lives Matter” narrative. Michael Brown was a good kid, by accounts of those who knew him during his short life. But that’s not why his death is tragic. His death isn’t tragic because he was a sweet kid on his way to college next week. His death is tragic because he was a human being and his life mattered. The Good Kid narrative might provoke some sympathy but what it really does is support the lie that as a rule black people, black men in particular, have a norm of violence or criminal behavior. The Good Kid narrative says that this kid didn’t deserve to die because his goodness was the exception to the rule. This is wrong. This kid didn’t deserve to die because he was a human being and black lives matter.

3. Use words that speak the truth about the disempowerment, oppression, disinvestment and racism that are rampant in our communities.  Be mindful, political and socially aware with your language. Notice how the mainstream news outlets are using words like riot and looting to describe the uprising in Ferguson.  What’s happening is not a riot. The people are protesting and engaging in a justified rebellion. They have a righteous anger and are revolting against the police who have terrorized them for years.

4. Understand the modern forms of race oppression and slavery and how they are intertwined with policing, the courts and the prison industrial complex.  We don’t enslave black people on the plantation cotton fields anymore. Now we lock them up in for profit prisons at disproportionate rates and for longer sentences for the same crimes than white people. And when they are released, they are second class citizens stripped of voting rights and denied access to housing, employment and education.  Mass incarceration is The New Jim Crow.

5. Examine the interplay between poverty and racial equity. The twin pillar of racism is economic injustice but do not use class issues to trump race issues and avoid the racism conversation. While racism and class oppression are tangled together in this country, the fact remains that the number one predictor of prosperity and access to opportunity is race.

6. Diversify your media. Be intentional about looking for and paying close attention to diverse voices of color on the tv, on the internet and on the radio to help shape your awareness, understanding and thinking about political, economic and social issues. Check out Colorlines, The Root or This Week in Blackness to get started.

7.Adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence as you resist racism and oppression. Dr. Martin Luther King advocated for nonviolent conflict reconciliation as the primary strategy of the Civil Rights Movement and the charge of His Final Marching Orders.  East Point Peace Academy offers online resources and in person training on nonviolence that is accessible to all people regardless of ability to pay.

8. Find support from fellow white allies. Challenge and encourage each other to dig deeper, even when it hurts and especially when you feel confused and angry and sad and hopeless, so that you can be more authentic in your shared journey with people of color to uphold and protect principles of antiracism and equity in our society.  Go to workshops like Training for Change’s Whites Confronting Racism or European Dissent by The People’s Institute.  Attend The White Privilege Conference or the Facing Race conference. Some organizations offer scholarships or reduced fees to help people attend if funding is an issue.

9. If you are a person of faith, look to your scriptures or holy texts for guidance. Seek out faith based organizations like Sojourners and follow faith leaders that incorporate social justice into their ministry. Ask your clergy person to address antiracism in their sermons and teachings. If you are not a person of faith, learn how the world’s religions view social justice issues so that when you have opportunity to invite people of faith to also become white allies, you can talk with them meaningfully about why being a white ally is supported by their spiritual beliefs.

10. Don’t be afraid to be unpopular. Let’s be realistic. If you start calling out all the racism you witness (and it will be a lot once you know what you’re looking at) some people might not want to hang out with you as much. That’s a risk you’ll need to accept. But think about it like this: staying silent when you witness oppression is the same as supporting oppression. So you can be the popular person who stands with the oppressor or you can be the (maybe) unpopular person who stands for equality and dignity for all people. Which person would you prefer to be? And honestly, if some people don’t want to hang out with you anymore once you show yourself as a white ally then why would you even want to be friends with them anyway? They’re probably racists.

11. Be proactive in your own community. As a white ally, you are not limited to being reactionary and only rising up to stand on the side of justice when black people are being subjected to violence very visibly and publicly. Moments of crisis do not need to be the catalyst because taking action against systemic racism is always appropriate because systemic racism permeates nearly every institution and community in this country. Some ideas for action: organizea community conversation about the state of police-community relations* in your neighborhood, support leaders of color by donating your time or money to their campaigns or causes, ask the local library to host a showing and discussion group about the documentary RACE – The Power of an Illusion, attend workshops to learn how to transform conflict into opportunity for dialogue. Gather together diverse white allies that represent the diversity of backgrounds in your community. Antiracism is not a liberals only cause. Antiracism is a movement for all people, whether they be conservative, progressive, rich, poor, urban or rural.

12.Don’t give up. We’re 400 years into this racist system and it’s going to take a long, long, long time to dismantle these atrocities. The antiracism movement is a struggle for generations, not simply the hot button issue of the moment. Transformation of a broken system doesn’t happen quickly or easily. You may not see or feel the positive impact of your white allyship in the next month, the next year, the next decade or even your lifetime. But don’t ever stop. Being a white ally matters because your thoughts, deeds and actions will be part of what turns the tide someday. Change starts with the individual.

This is a list of just 12 ways to be an ally. There are many more ways and I invite you to consider what else you can do to become a strong and loyal white ally. People of color, black people especially, cannot and should not shoulder the burden for dismantling the racist, white supremacist system that devalues and criminalizes black life without the all in support, blood, sweat and tears of white people. If you are not already a white ally, now is the time to become one.

People are literally dying.

Black people are dying and it’s not your personal fault that black people are dying because you’re white but if you don’t make a purposeful choice to become a white ally and actively work to dismantle the racist system running America for the benefit of white people then it becomes your shame because you are white and black lives matter. And if you live your whole life and then die without making a purposeful choice to become a white ally then American racism becomes your legacy.

The choice is yours.

*Disclosure: I work at this organization but the views expressed in this piece are my own and not necessarily those of the organization.

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5 Ways to Avoid Seafood’s Dirty Secrets

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 10:18
It's time to eat fish in a sustainable way if we hope to continue eating fish in the future.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by Jane Brody says it's time for us to "relearn" the way we eat seafood. America's fish consumption habits are simply not sustainable. Along with ensuring your fish is fresh, Brody cautions it’s more important than ever to eat fish that is sustainable and sourced from a fish farm. Here are five essential practices to follow.

1. Watch Your Shrimp: Half of imported shrimp comes from Asia. Not only does Brody warn of “bacterial and viral infections” swarming Asian shrimp farms, but a recent investigation by the Guardian revealed a long history of participation in slave labor in Thailand’s shrimp processing chain. Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods was found to purchase fish meal from fish boats manned with slave labor.

Thai authorities told the Guardian they condemned human trafficking; meanwhile, some of the largest supermarkets like Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco are investigating the suppliers. In addition to these problems, when a shrimp farming site becomes unusable, Brody writes that “shrimp farmers simply move on, destroying more miles of mangrove along the shore and wrecking habitats for all manner of wildlife, including spawning fish.”

2. Wild Fish Won’t Meet Demand: Paul Greenberg, author of American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood tells Brody that beginning the process of eating our seafood from a sustainable, environmentally friendly fish farm would help fulfill the world’s need for fish. Already, nearly 86 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported. But consumers who turn to salmon for their omega-3 vitamins will not be so fortunate without farmed fish — nearly 170 billion pounds of wild fish are taken from our oceans, rivers and lakes. Greenberg notes that if everyone ate two servings of fish a week, another “60 billion pounds would be needed to meet the demand.”

3. Buy Farmed, Not Wild Fish: Although wild salmon sounds more natural, it also costs more (at least 50 percent more) because “the supply has been devastated,” writes Brody. Greenberg adds that farmed salmon is not as bad as some think, pointing to the argument that some believe farmed salmon could affect the wild salmon gene pool. In reality, most farmed salmon comes from Chile where “there are no wild salmon,” writes Brody. “There is little chance that those farmed fish will cross the Equator and mingle genetically with our wild stock.”

4. Step Outside the Salmon Box: The aversion to shellfish could be doing more harm than good for other fish. It’s time to step outside the usual salmon menu to make sure overfishing one species doesn’t continue. “Other species have all but disappeared from seafood counters and restaurant menus,” Brody writes, adding that “stocks of cod have declined so much from overfishing that many Northeastern fisheries were forced to shut down before the entire species disappeared.”

She asks: “Where is the orange roughy that was all the rage a decade ago? When was abalone last on a regular seafood menu?” Her suggestion: try mackerel, bluefish, herring or anchovies instead of salmon. To replace shrimp, try mussels that contain an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and are low in cholesterol. Squid and lobster, however, are fairly high in cholesterol.

5. Fish Is Still Good For You: Don’t leave fish off the table. Oily fish including bluefish and sardines are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids. Numerous studies of fish’s benefits also prove that fish should appear on any dinner menu. Fish consumption is both related to a “reduced risk of strokes” and in one study, a lower risk of heart attack and death, reports Brody.

Even so, America is far from being a fish-eating, fish-loving country — the U.S. still loves its chicken, while beef consumption is decreasing. “Meat intake by Americans has nose-dived from a peak of nearly 150 pounds a person in 1971, it is still at 100 pounds per capita,” reports Brody. “Poultry intake has risen from 41 pounds in the 1960s to 99 pounds a person today.” (Pregnant women should avoid fish that can have high levels of mercury like tuna and swordfish.)


 

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VIDEO: John Oliver's Brilliant Rant on Why Police Must Have Their Military 'Toys' Taken Away

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 09:14
'If they can go a whole month without killing an unarmed black man, they can have their f*cking toys back.'

HBO's John Oliver dove right into events in Ferguson last night, entertaining as he informed his audience about the absurd over-militarization of America's police forces and, of course, the ugly underlying racism of this push. "Police are dressed like they are ready for an assault on Falluja," Oliver said of the now famous photo featured on CNN of multiple camo-clad police officers pointing high-powered rifles at a black man with his hands raised. "Police are not soldiers," Oliver stressed. "Why are they wearing camouflage? If they want to blend in with the surroundings, they should be dressed as Dollar Stores."

The rant is Oliver's usual blend of hilarity, facts and outrage. And he has, as always, done his research helpfully deepening the story of police militarization in America. One New Hampshire town police department got an armored vehicle to protect its pumpkin festival from terrorist threats. Another fun fact: There are 50,000 swat raids per year, 79 percent of which are for low-level drug offenses. "Yes," Oliver counsels, "if you are getting high in your dorm room right now, you are not paranoid. There is a SWAT team waiting outside."

Watch, learn, and you too can be as appalled as Oliver:

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5 Clues to Know You're Trapped in a Relationship That Is Based on Fear

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 09:04
Fear has no place in a healthy, interpersonal relationship.

A recent report on NPR told the story of red deer who still refuse to cross the Czech-German border even though the electrified fences that once stood there have been deactivated. Researchers explained that fawns follow their mothers for the first year and, because the mothers avoided the fences, so did their offspring. The mothers taught their fawns to fear that area even when there was nothing left to fear.

It got me thinking about fear and how we humans experience it. Why are some folks fearless while others seem scared of their own shadows? Like anything else, fear (and fearlessness) may be hardwired. And, like the Czech fawns, there's always the nurture factor -- and what we absorb from our caregivers about fear -- that is surely in the mix.

Perhaps I'm using the term 'fearless' glibly here. Those we may perceive as fearless -- and idolize for their talent -- struggle with their own fears. Barbra Streisand, Adele and Rod Stewart battle stage fright. It's been said Judy Garland violently retched before live performances. Was Robin Williams fearful the noise in his brain would never abate? Sadly, we won't ever know.

Fear is the great paralyzer. And perhaps it serves an evolutionary purpose in anesthetizing society at large. Can we even imagine a world in which we were all fearless powerhouses? Would everyone be a Cory Booker or a Neil Armstrong? Would there be a dog-eat-dog fight to the top of every profession? It's a moot point because, although we may dream, we're loathe to challenge ourselves far beyond our fear threshold.

Because I study relationships, I'm also interested in how fear affects them. Do we enter into iffy relationships because we fear loneliness? Do we stay in dead relationships because we're afraid of the inevitable changes if we leave? How many victims of abuse live in fear of their partners? And it's not always in the romantic relationship where we find fear. In a recent article that garnered over a million "likes" on Huffington Post, British nanny Emma Jenner wrote about parents fearing their children as a crisis of modern day childrearing.

Scant few of us include a fear-filled relationship on our vision boards, but many find ourselves in one. Healthy fear, conversely, may keep us on our best behaviors in relationships; we value them and, hence, toe the line. But here are five ways to determine if unhealthy fear features prominently in your interpersonal relationships:

1. You feel fear. Simple as it sounds, fear is a visceral response to something we perceive as dangerous. Fear is marked by angst and anxiety, a pit in our guts. Not sure if you're fearful in your relationship? Check in with yourself when you know you're going to have contact with the other person. Do you regularly feel light and happy? Or heavy and trepidatious? There's your answer.

2. You follow the rules.Okay, yes, every relationship has some. Where would we be without them? But what about rules put into place by another person? Has it been established that you'll talk, dress or behave in ways that don't trigger another's anger or disappointment? Do you comply to avoid his/her negative responses? Just as an FYI, people in fearless relationships don't live that way.

3. There's only dread and distrust. You see his/her name pop up on your cell phone and you feel what can only be described as ugh. Perhaps you steer clear of certain topics because they're ongoing hot potatoes. When did you last feel safe to share your experiences, hopes and dreams without fear of judgment? Maybe it's pie-in-the-sky to think you can tell this person anything, but you should be able to share most of your innermost thoughts without retribution.

4. You think about your escape.Do you spend countless hours fantasizing about leaving the relationship but can't act on it? Are you able to share your misgivings about the relationship? If not, you can chalk it up to fear. As difficult as it may be, you are free to leave any relationship. If you feel you can't, you're afraid of the repercussions.

5. Fear keeps you quiet.Because of that, your inner life doesn't match your outer life. Folks on the periphery of your world may have no idea how unhappy your relationship has become. You don't want to expose the other person in ways he/she may experience as unflattering so you keep it all under wraps.

Fear has no place in a healthy, interpersonal relationship. If you're fearful in your relationship, ask yourself why. Like the Czech deer, you may find your fears are based on old, worthless beliefs that are now worth a second look. And whether you're afraid emotionally or physically or both, you must find a way to love yourself enough back to safety and peace.

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A Pregnant, Suicidal Rape Victim Fought Ireland's New Abortion Law—The Law Won

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 08:11
Bureaucrats violated this teenager's humanity.

There is one thing that suicidal rape victims need: immediate assistance. But for one young woman in Ireland who was pregnant and seeking an abortion after reportedly being attacked, the only thing her government offered was the slow, bureaucratic violation of her humanity.

The unnamed woman, now 18, was reportedly raped as a minor and sought an abortion just eight weeks into her pregnancy. Even after experts found her to be suicidal – a prerequisite for abortion under a new Irish law – she was denied access to the procedure. According to a report by the Sunday Times, the woman, who is not an Irish citizen, believes that the government deliberately delayed her case – both through the state’s decision to ignore psychiatric experts and via her inability to travel because of her legal status – so that she would have to carry the pregnancy at least through the fetus’s viability. After going on a hunger strike, she was forced to undergo a caesarean section at just 25 weeks into her pregnancy.

That’s 17 full weeks after she first sought help.

That is not a policy; it’s a persecution. And now a country with a barbaric abortion ban that killed Savita Halappanavar in 2012 will be forced to reckon with the horror it has inflicted on yet another vulnerable woman.

Halappanavar’s death, caused by an infection after the 31-year-old Indian dentist was denied an abortion under Ireland’s strict laws, sparked outrage across the country. So Ireland passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which made abortion legal if a woman’s life were threatened by the pregnancy or if she were suicidal.

Doctors warned, however, that the legislation could still stop women from obtaining the care that the law was meant to allow. Dr. Mary Favier, a member of Ireland’s Doctors for Choice, told me, “We predicted it would be a bad law, that it was going to be trouble and quickly that’s been proven.”

Psychiatry professor Veronica O’Keane told the same thing to the Guardian earlier this month:

The repeated examination of a woman’s mental state by at least four doctors, and possibly seven, the repeated question specifically about suicidal ideation and intent, will not only be overly invasive, confusing and distressing emotionally, it will also be time-consuming in a period of crisis when a suicidal woman needs access to a termination as soon as possible.

It’s not just confusing for patients, either: the guidelines for healthcare providers on how to implement the law is confounding, complete with complicated charts and figures that demonstrate the unrealistic hoops women and doctors must jump through in order to comply with the legislation.

It’s clear from this latest young woman’s case that those guidelines and policies did what many suspect that they were designed to do: make it as difficult as possible for women to get the care they need. For women here in the US who are familiar with the war on reproductive rights, this likely sounds familiar: laws said to be in our best interest – like mandating hospital admitting privileges for abortion providers – actually only serve to further limit our access to abortion.

Sarah McCarthy, a spokesperson for Galway Pro-Choice, told me that “even those who are entitled to an abortion under our severely restrictive legislation can still be denied that right”, and that the latest case highlights how vulnerable women are the most impacted by the law. Middle-class Irish women who have money to travel can leave the country for their abortions: “If you can’t afford to travel or don’t have the papers, it’s a nightmare,” she said. Again, this is also very much the case here in the US: if your county doesn’t have an abortion provider and you can’t afford the gas or time off from work to travel (sometimes out-of-state), procuring the procedure is near-impossible.

The other piece of this horrific puzzle is the questionable ethics of delivering a fetus at 25 weeks. As mother to a daughter who was born at 28 weeks, I’m well-versed in the nightmare scenarios of babies born too early. Preemies born before 26 weeks – sometimes called micropreemies – are at high risk for brain bleeds, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, necrotizing enterocolitis (when tissue in the intestines die off) and many other physical and mental disabilities. They also must endure serious invasive medical procedures, including surgeries, intubation, feeding tubes and central intravenous lines. And while the survival rates of young preemies has gone up in recent years, the chances of severe and lasting disabilities have not gone down.

I understand that, to those who believe all abortion is unequivocally wrong, a suffering child might be better than no child at all – but that is not a decision best made by government flow-charts and distant bureaucrats, but by the family members involved.

As more information on this case comes out, the outrage over Ireland’s treatment of women will only grow. Dr Favier calls what happened to the teenager “a shocking indictment of Ireland – there’s no other country in the civilized work where this would have happened”. McCarthy told me the case “illustrates quite clearly that women are treated as little more than incubators under Irish law”. The United Nations agrees – just last month, UN Human Rights Committee chairman Nigel Rodley said Irish abortion laws treat pregnant women as “a vessel and nothing more”.

We may not know her name, but we know that this woman is more than a vessel – even if she was treated as such. And we know she was wronged by a government that should have protected her when she needed it most.

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Krugman on the Terrifying Reason Nations Keep Waging War

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 07:02
War is a huge money loser. So the motive is not greed.

One of the more enduring myths about waging war is that it helps the economy. Not so, this cold inhumane calculation, Paul Krugman writes today.

Alarmed by the escalation of rhetoric and events in the Ukraine, Krugman casts his shrewd eye on warfare since the start of World War I a century ago, and concludes that we haven't learned much since. "The war to end all wars" just didn't. Why, given the overwhelming amount of evidence that war is ruinous in every way, including economically, would that be so?

First, the columnist takes a quick detour into history:

Once upon a time wars were fought for fun and profit; when Rome overran Asia Minor or Spain conquered Peru, it was all about the gold and silver. And that kind of thing still happens. In influential research sponsored by the World Bank, the Oxford economist Paul Collier has shown that the best predictor of civil war, which is all too common in poor countries, is the availability of lootable resources like diamonds. Whatever other reasons rebels cite for their actions seem to be mainly after-the-fact rationalizations. War in the preindustrial world was and still is more like a contest among crime families over who gets to control the rackets than a fight over principles.

But times have changed, Krugman points out. "If you’re a modern, wealthy nation, however, war — even easy, victorious war — doesn’t pay," he writes. "And this has been true for a long time."

A British journalist named Norman Angell proved long ago that "military power is socially and economically futile" in his 1910 book “The Great Illusion,” Krugman points out. War has only gotten more expensive in the meantime. "For example, by any estimate the eventual costs (including things like veterans’ care) of the Iraq war will end up being well over $1 trillion, that is, many times Iraq’s entire G.D.P.," he computes.

So, are leaders just dumb about arithmetic, or is something else at work? Krugman wonders. Putin seems to be under the delusion that he can seize a portion of the Ukraine on the cheap. And the Bush administration drastically underestimated the cost of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and replacing him with a new government. $50 billion or $60 billion? Ha!

So, having dispensed with the economic arguments. Krugman looks elsewhere for the causes of war—and finds politics.

The larger problem, however, is that governments all too often gain politically from war, even if the war in question makes no sense in terms of national interests.

Recently Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review suggested that the roots of the Ukraine crisis may lie in the faltering performance of the Russian economy. As he noted, Mr. Putin’s hold on power partly reflects a long run of rapid economic growth. But Russian growth has been sputtering — and you could argue that the Putin regime needed a distraction.

Similar arguments have been made about other wars that otherwise seem senseless, like Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, which is often attributed to the then-ruling junta’s desire to distract the public from an economic debacle. (To be fair, some scholars are highly critical of this claim.)

And the fact is that nations almost always rally around their leaders in times of war, no matter how foolish the war or how awful the leaders. Argentina’s junta briefly became extremely popular during the Falklands war. For a time, the “war on terror” took President George W. Bush’s approval to dizzying heights, and Iraq probably won him the 2004 election. True to form, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have soared since the Ukraine crisis began.

Krugman concedes that shoring up Putin's regime may be somewhat of an oversimplification of motivations there, but still finds a kernel of truth in the truly frightening idea. Here's why that's so terrifying:

If authoritarian regimes without deep legitimacy are tempted to rattle sabers when they can no longer deliver good performance, think about the incentives China’s rulers will face if and when that nation’s economic miracle comes to an end — something many economists believe will happen soon.

Starting a war is a very bad idea. But it keeps happening anyway.

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An Illuminating Sat. Night with Key Witness to Ferguson Shooting (Autopsy Update)

Sun, 08/17/2014 - 19:32
Coroner concludes Brown was shot 6 times by cop, twice in the head.

Ferguson, Missouri has been on my mind all week, as it has for most people in the media. On Saturday night, I had just finished reading more articles about the killing and ensuing uproar, assigned followup content for AlterNet to publish, and went out to Barzini's in Manhattan, the local alternative to Whole Foods, to pick up some groceries and a pint of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia.

While I was paying, a young, well-dressed women stuck her head into the store and asked if she could buy something there that would only be sold in a different kind of store. We all smiled, as this immediately flagged her as an out-of-towner. We sent her to Duane Reade, two blocks south. As we walked out together, I asked where she was from. 

"St. Louis," she said. "This is the first time I've been in New York."

She said she just had dinner at Carmine's, across the street, and had two friends who were still inside finishing up. As we walked back from the drugstore to Carmine's, I asked why she was in New York. She said, "Have you ever heard of Ferguson, Missouri?"  

I said, "Well, yes, as a matter of fact—I know an awful lot about Ferguson. Why do you ask?"

"I am one of the eyewitnesses to the killing of Michael Brown," she said. She was in New York to appear on CNN in the morning and probably Anderson Cooper as well.

What were the chances of the stars aligning like this? 

Well, of course, I had a million questions for Piaget Crenshaw, which was her name. While friendly and open, she was a little cautious, since she was on CNN's dime. Only 19, she'd come to New York to tell the world her bird's-eye view to help solve the question that is vexing the entire country: How did Darren Wilson come to gun down Michael Brown in the middle of a quiet street in Ferguson? 

From my vantage point, up until now, the media had almost exclusively spoke to Dorian Johnson, Michael Brown's friend. But now, with the police chief Thomas Jackson passing out screenshots of Michael Brown apparently grabbing some cigars from a convenience store, accompanied by Dorian Johnson, Johnson as the key witness might not be treated the same way. The appearance of other eyewitnesses is a crucial development over the past couple of days. Piaget Crenshaw's companion eyewitness is Tiffany Mitchell, Crenshaw's work supervisor, who was picking her up when the incident occurred. Both have views from different vantage points, and have appeared together on television interviews.

I started by asking Crenshaw the big question. Did her view of Brown's shooting differ in any way with what Dorian Johnson has said?

"Absolutely not," she responded. "I saw the cop shoot Brown several times in the face, even after he had turned around and had his hands raised. I can tell you the essentials, since I've been interviewed on local TV, by newspapers, and most of this information is already on the Internet, and I posted my video from immediately after the shooting to my Facebook page."

Crenshaw told the LA Times, "I witnessed the police chase after the guy, full force. He ran for his life. They shot him and he fell. He put his arms up to let them know that he was compliant and he was unarmed, and they shot him twice more and he fell to the ground and died. (Read her most in-depth interview here.)

The Big Question

There seems little doubt given videos of the shooting site, those taken by Crenshaw immediately after Brown went down, and the location of the police car vis a vis the body, that Brown was finally shot down in the street some 20 or 30 feet away from the car. Now the crucial question becomes what happened at the first stage with the cop car and Brown to cause the second stage. It is hard to imagine what could have happened in the initial moment of the confrontation that would require Darren Wilson to pursue and shoot Mike Brown several times, including in the head, while Brown was standing in the middle of the street.

Both Piaget Crenshaw and Tiffany Mitchell said they saw a kind of scuffle—or "tussle" as Crenshaw called it—when the cop grabbed Brown from inside the police car. Then apparently a shot—or two—was fired, since Crenshaw reported a wild shot hit a nearby house (and shortly after cops came to take the bullet away). Brown broke away from the struggle at the police car window, perhaps wounded, and started running, may have been hit by another shot, then turned around and raised his hands, according to all witnesses, and was shot several more times before going down. [Update:Dr. Michael  Baden, former chief medical examiner in NYC reported Monday, according to the New York Times, that the unarmed Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head, and four times on the right side of his body. "One of the bullets entered the top of Brown's skull," likely the last bullet to hit him. Protests became violent again on Sunday night in Ferguson, moving Gov. Jay Nixon to call in the National Guard to help quell the disturbances.]

A local television station, in an interview with Crenshaw and Mitchell, kept returning to the statement made by the police chief that Brown was in the car when the struggle took place. But none of the witnesses saw Brown in the car, and given the quick dynamics of the moment, Brown being 6 '4" and close to 300 pounds, it seems unlikely that the police officer would have gotten Brown into the car.

Nevertheless, Chief Thomas Jackson has consistently claimed that Brown was in the car and grabbed for Darren Wilson's gun and a shot was fired. "Brown died in a dangerous struggle after trying to grab the officer’s weapon." But witnesses—including Crenshaw, Mitchell and Johnson—say it seemed a brazen act of aggression by the officer and that Brown was unarmed and not threatening. 

Tensions still rile the community of Ferguson. Much of the tension has to do with the handling of the case by local police, who took more than five days to reveal the identity of the officer who shot Brown, and with the community's anger over the many conflicting stories. The release of photographs of the cigar theft at a convenience store only stoked the anger of the protestors. While Chief Jackson has said any number of contradictory things, parsing it all, it seems that Officer Darren Wilson had told Mike Brown and Dorian Johnson to get off the street, and was not aware of the potential cigar theft when the confrontation took place. Something happened that made Wilson shoot Brown at the door of the police car, and then run after him and shoot him several more times.

What's clear is that we do not yet know all the facts about what happened that night in Ferguson, Missouri. 

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Michael Eric Dyson Spells It Out for White People: Police Won’t ‘Kill Your Child’

Sun, 08/17/2014 - 17:38
"White privilege obscures from them what it means that their children can walk home and be safe."

Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson on Sunday called on President Barack Obama to use his position to explain to white Americans that they do not continually have to fear that police would “kill your child” as African-American parents do.

In an appearance on CBS, Dyson said that protests in Ferguson, Missouri after a white police officer shot 18-year-old Michael Brown while he was unarmed was a symptom of a larger problem in the nation.

“Ferguson is emblematic of those larger shifts,” he pointed out. “You’ve got white flight of a formerly white suburb that’s now 65 percent black. You’ve got 22 percent poverty, you’ve got the over-policing of an entire community who feel racially harassed by the police. Every 28 hours across America a black person is killed by a security guard, a police officer or some other executive of the state or police force.”

Dyson said that President Obama “knows better than most what happens in poor communities that have been antagonized historically by the hostile relationship between black people and the police department.”

“It’s not enough for him to come on national television and pretend that there’s a false moral equivalency between police people who are armed, and black people who are vulnerable constantly to this,” he insisted. “He needs to use his bully pulpit to step up and articulate this as a vision.”

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, however, argued that the president had “struck a good, balanced tone because he is at the head of a criminal investigation, and he doesn’t want to go too far in overstepping the bounds there.”

Dyson agreed that Obama’s tone was not the problem: “What I’m talking about is leadership. That’s not simply a matter of tone.”

“Because there is no functional equivalence between police people who are armed to the teeth with military-grade weaponry trained at vulnerable black communities who are inflamed now as a result of decades of negligence,” he noted.

According to Dyson, the president needed to use his “unique experience as an African-American male” to spell out discrimination for white people.

“I’m saying to you that if he can inform American society that, ‘Look, yes, we must keep the law. Yes, we must keep the peace. People must calm their passion. But let me explain to you why people might be hurt, why they might be angry, and why they might be upset,’” Dyson continued. “He has a responsibility to tell that truth.”

“Especially white people, whose white privilege obscures from them what it means that their children can walk home and be safe, they’re not fearful of the fact that somebody will kill their child who goes to get some iced tea and some candy from a store,” he remarked. “Until that equality is brought, the president bears a unique responsibility and burden to tell that truth.”

Watch the video below from CBS’ Face the Nation, broadcast Aug. 17, 2014.

(h/t: Mediaite)

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The Carnage of Capitalism

Sun, 08/17/2014 - 17:11
Capitalism is expanding like a tumor in the body of American society, spreading further into vital areas of human need like health and education.

Capitalism is expanding like a tumor in the body of American society, spreading further into vital areas of human need like health and education.

Milton Friedman said in 1980: "The free market system distributes the fruits of economic progress among all people." The father of the modern neoliberal movementcouldn't have been more wrong. Inequality has been growing for 35 years, worsening since the 2008 recession, as a few well-positioned Americans have made millions while the rest of us have gained almost nothing. Now, our college students and medicine-dependent seniors have become the source of new riches for the profitseeking free-marketers.

Higher Education: Administrators Get Most of the Money

College grads took a 19 percent pay cut in the two years after the recession. By 2013 over half of employed black recent college graduates were working in occupations that typically do not require a four-year college degree. For those still in school, tuition has risen much faster than any other living expense, and the average student loan balance has risen 91 percent over the past ten years.

At the other extreme is the winner-take-all free-market version of education, with a steady flow of compensation towards the top. Remarkably, and not coincidentally, as inequality has surged since the 1980s, the number of administrators at private universities has doubled. Administrators now outnumber faculty on every campusacross the country.

These administrators are taking the big money. As detailed by Lawrence Wittner, the 25 highest-paid presidents increased their salaries by a third between 2009 and 2012, to nearly a million dollars each. For every million-dollar public university president in 2011, there were fourteen such presidents at private universities, and dozens of lower-level administrators aspiring to be paid like their bosses. At Purdue, for example, the 2012 administrative ranks included a $313,000-a-year acting provost, a $198,000 chief diversity officer, a $253,000 marketing officer and a $433,000 business school chief.

All this money at the top has to come from somewhere, and that means from faculty and students. Adjunct and student teachers, who made up about 22 percent of instructional staff in 1969, now make up an estimated 76 percent of instructional staff in higher education, with a median wage in 2010 of about $2,700 per course. More administrative money comes from tuition, which has increased by over 1,000 percent since 1978.

At the for-profit colleges, according to a Senate report on 2009 expenses, education companies spent about 23 percent of all revenue on marketing and advertising, and almost 20 percent of revenue on pre-tax profits for their shareholders. They spent just 17.2 percent of their revenue on instruction.

Medicine: A 10,000 Percent Profit for Corporations

As with education, the extremes forced upon us by free-market health care are nearly beyond belief. First, at the human end, 43 percent of sick Americans skipped doctor's visits and/or medication purchases in 2011 because of excessive costs. It's estimatedthat over 40,000 Americans die every year because they can't afford health insurance.

At the corporate end, drugmakers are at times getting up to $100 for every $1 spent. That's true at Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer of the drug Sovaldi, which charges about $10 a pill to its customers in Egypt, then comes home to charge $1,000 a pill to its American customers. The 10,000 percent profit is also true with the increasingly lucrative, government-funded Human Genome Project, which is estimated to potentially return about $140 for every $1 spent. Big business is quickly making its move. Celera GenomicsAbbott LabsMerckRocheBristol-Myers Squibb, andPfizer are all starting to cash in.

The extremes of capitalist greed are evident in the corporate lobbying of Congress to keep Medicare from negotiating better drug prices for the American consumer. Americans are cheated further when corporations pay off generic drug manufacturers to delay entry of their products into the market, thereby ensuring inflated profits for the big firms for the durations of their shady deals.

Global Greed

Lives are being ravaged by unregulated, free-market capitalism, in the U.S. and around the world. According to the Global Forum for Health Research, less than 10 percent of the global health research budget is spent on the conditions responsible for 90 percent of human disease.

And the greed is getting worse. Perhaps it's our irrational fear of socialism, peaking in the years after World War 2, that has inspired our winner-take-all culture. In the Reagan era we listened to Margaret Thatcher proclaim that "There is no such thing as society."

In a more socially-conscious time, in 1955, after Dr. Jonas Salk had developed the polio vaccine, he was asked by reporter Edward R. Murrow: "Who owns the patent on this vaccine?" Responded Salk, "Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

A free-market capitalist might remind us that a skillful hedge fund manager can make as much as a thousand Jonas Salks.

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The Terror Behind Our Grief: What We Talk About When We Talk About Robin Williams

Sun, 08/17/2014 - 16:32
Our sadness about the deaths of celebrities is about a lot more than just mourning their loss.

If you want to see how the world really works, watch a tragedy unfold on Facebook.

What critics say about the social network is oftentimes accurate: It can be nasty and brutish, chaotic and dim, full of terrible information and the rankest expressions of ignorance. This is especially true in the case of tragedies as their full dimensions are just starting to come into focus: Ferguson. Gaza. Sanford. Isla Vista. People share without thinking, then stake untenable positions with the appearance of adamantine resolve, showing little or no compunction about inflaming their friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances and even the completest of strangers. The combustible mixture of social media, ego, politics and pride can turn even minor disputes into epic conflagrations. Basically it’s civilization, but in miniature.

There is, however, a flip side to this equation — another way in which tragedy finds new-media expression — and it’s actually just as revealing.

The news last week of Robin Williams’ death occasioned a massive outpouring of public grief. Within moments of hearing the terrible news, millions flocked to social media to post their own personal remembrances of the beloved actor. In place of the normal vicissitudes of Facebook and Twitter, a rare consensus was established of the type we rarely ever see — except when someone famous dies uncontroversially.

It would have been easy to take this all at face value and leave the psychology of these displays unexplored; thankfully, that wasn’t the case. For every action on the Internet, there is bound to be a reaction (especially in the media world, where the well-time rebuttal is its own form of cultural capital). And the reaction to the glut of Robin Williams tributes, just like similar reactions after tragedies past, says an awful lot about where our heads are at, collectively — both by being right, and also by being incredibly wrong.

As tends to happen these days when a famous person passes away, once the rush of memorials reached a certain critical mass last week, a minority consensus began to emerge — that many, if not most, of those individuals professing heartbreak were not doing so in full earnestness. There was, this argument goes, an element of vulgar performance.

Some critics contended that the displays of mourning were actually lazy and inadequate — “homogenized grief,” as this widely shared Clickhole article put it. Others, like Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, suggested darker ulterior motives:

I just wish ONE person would just come out and say "I love when celebrities die." One person.

— Richard Lawson (@rilaws) August 13, 2014        

Politico’s Dylan Byers, meanwhile, explained his own frustrations thusly:

At times, it can seem like people are trying to out-sad one another. Allow me to let you know how devastated I am about this person I never met. Allow me to tell you what my favorite films were. Allow me to share my favorite quote. — You have to imagine that the people who are truly grieving over said individual’s death do not, in those first minutes, think to take to their Twitter accounts. The stream of personal remembrances reminds you of social media’s true raison d’être, and throws it into sharp relief: Every post, every tweet, every click is ultimately about you.

On the one hand, there are plenty of obvious reasons why Williams’ death hits hard. He was a special performer. More than that, the circumstances of his death understandably strike a chord for people who have experienced in one way or another the struggles of clinical depression. But I will admit that on some level, there’s an appeal to Byers’ contentions nonetheless: There is something of the rote and derivative in much of the mourning we’ve seen.

Honest question: How much could “Dead Poet’s Society” really have changed your life, Internet? As much as plain-old empathy could explain the outpouring of grief over Williams last week, it doesn’t totally explain why people have been trying to stake ownership of his work in the process.

So for what it’s worth, I think Byers is partly right: It is about us, and it always has been, every time we take to social media to grieve a beloved figure. But his hypothesis is also incomplete. Left unmentioned is the biggest question of all:

Why, exactly, are we making it about us?

An earlier attempt at answering this question was made in a 2011 Washington Post article by Monica Hesse. At the time of its writing, several prominent figures — Donna Summer, Maurice Sendak, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, among others — had all just died in quick succession, resulting in an unusually intense period of Internet shiva-sitting.

Hesse interviewed experimental psychologist Spee Kosloff, who identified the resulting memorials as the manifestation of a phenomenon called “Basking in Reflected Glory,” or BIRG:

 “Celebrities are symbols,” Kos­loff says. Symbols of fame, wealth, uniqueness, good hair. “By our association with them, we can BIRG and gain a feeling of cosmic specialness.” When they die, the specialness disappears, so we cling however we can — reminding everyone that we identified with them, understood their writing, listened to the B-side more than all the other Twidiots out there. “It’s inflating your own personal tie to the thing that makes you exceptional.”

There is a certain amount of logic here. And it explains all the trying to take credit for appreciating Williams’ work. But Byers’ and Hesse’s arguments smack a little too strongly of condescension, and their mutual insinuation — that the memorials are just acts of emotional opportunism — is a claim that rings especially false.

Dr. Charles Figley is an associate dean at Tulane University, and an expert in disaster mental health affiliated with the American Psychological Association. When I asked Figley about the charges of selfishness, he acknowledged the influence of our egos in the grieving process, but was unconvinced that the calculation was as cynical as Hesse and Byers suggest.

What we’re really trying to do by staking ownership in the departed isn’t just bolster our esteem. We’re trying to solve a problem. In one sense, it’s the same problem we’re trying to solve when we’re coaxed into those aforementioned conflagrations with people who disagree with us on matters of ideology or politics or art, contradicting the things we feel to our cores.

That problem — which may seem obvious, but always seems to go unexamined in periods of mourning — is our overwhelming and underexplored anxiety. ”That’s the whole thing about grief,” Figley explained. “It’s really a masking of our own fear of reality.”

The simple answer: “It’s about our fear of death.”

* * *

In his Washington Post interview, Spee Kosloff identified the symbolic power of celebrities, and the dissonance that arises when they die, as a central factor in such grief. But once we arrive at the conclusion that it’s our fear of death that motivates the creation of those symbols, it’s hard not to talk about one guy in particular: cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker.

In 1973, Becker published his most famous work, “The Denial of Death.” The book was heralded upon its release as a landmark text, and won Becker the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. While it still commands respect even today — comedian Marc Maron is a notable proponent — the book actually made its most explicit cultural footprint a few years after its original publication, when a nebbishy Woody Allen lookalike, foisting “The Denial of Death” on his reluctant new girlfriend, Annie, expounded his Becker-informed and death-obsessed philosophy:

“Life,” he said, “is divided up into the horrible and the miserable.”

That philosophy is actually a major focus of “The Denial of Death,” which contains as its primary insight this searing idea: that the refusal to accept our mortality — a fundamental but nearly invisible pathology, baked right into the human condition — is the literal cause of all evil in the world.

While you can pick bones with Becker’s unapologetically bleak worldview (or also with my massively simplified version of such), it’s hard to deny him the basics. A cursory look at the world around us gives the very strong impression of a civilization in the thrall of death-panic.

And anyone who’s ever attempted to intuit the (essentially unintuitable) depths of mortality can probably find merit in this key Becker passage:

This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-­expression—and with all this yet to die.

Our first line of defense against the specter of mortality is to straight-up pretend it doesn’t exist. And when that doesn’t work — because how could it? — we go to more elaborate lengths to ease our trembling psyches. In particular, Becker contends, we fashion “hero systems” for ourselves, and fill them with heroic avatars — famous people for one, but also ideas, like religion or nationalism — which you might recognize as those “symbols” that Kosloff was talking about earlier.

Because of the exceptional qualities we’ve invested in these heroes and ideologies, they seem to defy the very idea of death. But this impulse to invest heroic, nearly deific properties in our leaders and social structures is a double-edged sword, Becker argues. While they might salve our creeping sense of existential dread, they can also lead to all sorts of calamitous problems: inequality, prejudice, violence — even war. (See: nationalism.)

The degree to which this is true is beside the point for our purposes. Look around and you’ll see plenty of anecdotal data to support the idea that our worldviews are informed by a yearning to outstrip our material circumstances. Viewed in that context, it’s not hard to see that what inspires our attraction to celebrities — like the singular comedic talent of someone like Robin Williams, or the credulity-straining acrobatics of professional athletes — actually comes from the same place as our attraction to something like ideology. Both promise, Becker argues, a sense of reality that transcends the limits of death.

What we saw then last week in the mourning of Williams isn’t a phenomenon unique to social media at all. It actually spans the entirety of our history. While you might be able to explain away the pyramids as a dynastic vanity project, it’s harder to account for those portions of the historical record that document widespread grief at the passing of a king or a president. These emotions have been a linchpin of state power from the time of Caesar — if much expedited in the Westphalian era by the introduction of mass communication. This grief is as old as civilization, coming forth from the dense coils of our recursive minds.

No, Robin Williams wasn’t a king. But he did command respect, and adoration, and even love from his fans. More important, he’s always been there, if not center-stage then milling around the periphery of our cultural consciousness for the better part of four decades. At his heights he was one of our most celebrated cultural heroes. For millennials, as my colleague Dan D’Addario pointed out last week, he occupied a place in the pop cultural pantheon. His once-automatic presence in our lives makes his absence now incongruous with our sense of the world.

That dissonance is felt any time a person dies. When it’s someone we knew personally, it’s easy to ignore the existential dread. There is, after all, a perfectly rational explanation for our sorrow, and one that isn’t so difficult to broach. But when we didn’t know the person — when it’s Robin Williams, for example — we’re left grasping for a palatable explanation for the sickness we feel: It’s because we loved his movies. It’s because they touched us deeply. It’s because he meant so much to us. He changed our lives.

Never mind if that’s actually the case.

Public grief has always been a clumsy thing — hackneyed and sentimental maybe, or unartfully expressed, sometimes even giving the impression of selfishness. But ultimately, it’s visceral and sincere , if not often entirely honest.

We’re all terrified of death, but no one wants or knows how to talk about it. That terror bubbles to the surface at moments like these, after a national tragedy, or the death of a celebrity; but it’s almost always sublimated into a form — what some might call “homogenized grief” — that’s more manageable, less queasy-making, easier than the truth to articulate and explain away. We try to rationalize our feelings through the safety of boilerplate lamentations, because the alternative — to accept that we’re scared shitless by the fact of our contingent nature, that we too will someday expire  — is too to hard to internalize, much less accept.

“Try this experiment,” Dr. Figley suggests. “As you talk to someone, shift the subject to death and watch the loss of eye contact. Like any subject that is rarely discussed in depth, it is highly variable depending on the level of trust when discussed.” So, for once, let’s be honest and trust each other.

I’ll begin:

Something I don’t like to admit about myself, except in the company of very close and trusted relations, is that over the past few years I have become increasingly obsessed with the prospect of death, and regularly consumed by the terror of it.

As the influence of my parents’ Catholicism has ebbed over time and drifted into the resignation of a mostly unspoken atheism, the gravity of that change has slowly come into focus: Someday I will be dead, and my subjective sense of self lost forever. That same fact holds true for all of us, and eventually for the prospect for any life, anywhere. Over time, the universe will rend itself apart, one final prolonged act of atomic torsion borne out over the course of eons. When all is said and done, we won’t just be gone; any trace of us will as well.

But we’re still here now. We still need to live with one another. And we’re leaving our greatest anxieties unacknowledged, only revealing them under duress, or in the anodyne remembrances of people we never knew, but whose absence we nonetheless feel silently shattered by.

Honesty about our death-obsessed station in life means more than just understanding on an intellectual level why it might be. It means giving words to it, letting it breathe, relinquishing the control we think we have over the idea when it’s sequestered in the back of our brains.

“It is the disguise of panic that makes us live in ugliness,” Ernest Becker wrote in his book, ”and not the natural animal wallowing.”

So let’s talk.

 

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Gruesome Tales Surface of Israeli Massacres Against Families in Gaza Neighborhood

Sun, 08/17/2014 - 14:00
Visiting what remains of Shujaiya yields evidence of massacres and stories of impossible courage.

As the five-day ceasefire between Israel and Hamas took hold on August 15, residents of Shujaiya returned to the shattered remains of their homes. They pitched tents and erected signs asserting their claim to their property, sorting determinedly through the ruins of their lives. 

Those who managed to survive the Israeli bombardment have come home to bedrooms obliterated by tank shells, kitchens pierced by Hellfire missiles, and boudoirs looted by soldiers who used their homes as bases of operations before embarking on a series of massacres. Once a solidly middle-class suburb of Gaza City comprised of multi-family apartments and stately homes, the neighborhood of Shujaiya was transformed into a gigantic crime scene.

The attack on Shujaiya began at 11pm on July 19, with a combined Israeli bombardment from F-16s, tanks and mortar launchers. It was a night of hell which more than 100 did not survive and that none have recovered from. Inside the ruins of what used to be homes, returning locals related stories of survival and selflessness, detailing a harrowing night of death and destruction.

Outside a barely intact four-level, multi-family home that was hardly distinguishable from the other mangled structures lining the dusty roads of Shujaiya, I met members of the Atash family reclining on mats beside a makeshift stove. Khalil Atash, the 63-year-old patriarch of the family, motioned to his son heating a teapot above a few logs and muttered, “They’ve set us back a hundred years. Look at us, we’re now burning wood to survive.”

Bombed-out remnants of Shujaiya after Israeli bombing. Photo by Max Blumenthal.

Khalil Atash led me inside the home to see the damage. The walls of the second floor that was to have been home to two of his newly married children had been blown off by tank shells. All that was left of the bathroom were the hot and cold knobs on the shower. On the next floor, four small children scampered barefoot across shattered glass and jagged shards of concrete. A bunk bed and crib were badly singed in the attack. But the damage could have been far worse.

Khalil Atash with his grandson in the ruins of his home in Shujaiya. Photo by Dan Cohen.

As the attack on Shujaiya began, the Israeli army attempted to evacuate the Atash family, according to Khalil Atash, phoning them and ordering them out in Arabic. But the family was sure the call was a prank. When the army called again, a soldier exclaimed, “You think this is a joke? You have five minutes.” Three minutes later, an F-16 sent a missile through the roof. In an incredible stroke of luck, the missile did not explode. It remained lodged in the ceiling until a day prior to my visit, when a bomb detonation crew dismantled it. 

I asked why the family remained in ruins when the army could attack again at any time.

“We have nowhere else to go now,” Khalil Atash explained. “You only die once and we’re not afraid after what we’ve been through. So we just decided to live in our house.”

The Atash family was among only a small handful willing to brave the nights in an area that was comprehensively flattened. Shujaiya stood within the long swath of Gaza Strip towns and cities that had been rendered uninhabitable by Israeli bombardment. All of these areas had one thing in common: They abutted the vast buffer zone the Israeli military had established between its border and the Gaza Strip. By pounding neighborhoods like Shujiaya and cities like Beit Hanoun until nearly all of their residents were forced to flee west for shelter, Israel was tightening the cage on the entire population.

Sprint for Survival

Khalil Atash’s son, 30-year-old Tamer, related his story of survival.

“The missiles started getting closer and began to hit everywhere so randomly,” he recalled, detailing how the strikes on Shujaiya gradually intensified after the first hour. “So I just lost it. I was watching my neighbors die and I was so close to them, I felt like I was dead too. I had two choices: Either I die doing nothing at that house or do something about it. So I chose to do something.” 

Tamer called an ambulance crew and begged the driver to help transport his family out of the attack. “All I can do is pray for you,” the driver told him. But other first responders rushed headlong into the maelstrom, risking their lives to save as many of the fleeing residents as they could. By this time, the neighborhood was engulfed in flames and shrouded in darkness — Israeli forces had bombed all of its electricity towers. He and his family decided to make a run for it in the street. Neighbors followed closely behind them, embarking on a desperate sprint for survival as homes went up in flames around them.

Relying on cellphone flashlights to illuminate their path, the fleeing residents rushed ahead under withering shelling. Tens of people fell every few hundred meters, Tamer told me. But they continued anyway, sprinting for a full kilometer until they reached safety close to Gaza City. 

As soon as he reached sanctuary, Tamer said he was overcome with guilt. Friends and neighbors were stuck in the neighborhood with no one to evacuate them. He decided to return to help anyone he could. “I’m from Shujaiyia, I have no other place to go, and we don’t own land,” he explained. “This is our only place here. So of course I came back.”

It was well past midnight, Shujaiya was in flames, and the Qassam Brigades — Hamas’ armed wing — was beginning to mobilize for a counterattack. “The situation outside was literally hell,” Tamer said. 

In previous assaults on Gaza, Israeli forces met only light resistance. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, when the army attacked Gaza’s civilian population with indiscriminate firepower, most Israeli casualties were the result of fratricide. But this time was different. With little more than light weapons at their disposal, uniformed Qassam fighters engaged the Israelis at close distances, sometimes just a few meters away, exposing a glaring weakness of the Middle East’s most heavily equipped, technologically advanced armies. During the battle, Qassam fighters scored a hit on an Israeli armored personnel carrier, killing five soldiers inside, then momentarily captured the fatally wounded Lt. Shaul Oron. 

The loss of soldiers and the possible capture of Oron — a situation that raised the specter of a politically devastating prisoner swap — sent Israeli forces into a vengeful frenzy. “The F-16s were no longer up in the sky bombing us, they were flying just above the houses,” Tamer recalled. “It felt like an atomic bomb with four F-16s coming one way and another four from the opposite direction, weaving between the houses. At this point, we realized we were not surviving. We said our last prayers, and that was it. Because we know that when the Israelis lose one of their soldiers they become lunatics. We just knew they had suffered something, we could sense it.”

Tamer watched some of his neighbors jump from fourth-floor windows as their homes burst into flames. Others rushed out in their night clothes, nearly nude, prompting him and other men to hand over their shirts and even their trousers to women scurrying half exposed through the darkened streets. After giving the shirt off his back to one woman, he gave his sandals to another who had sliced her feet open on rubble. 

“Sure, I was crazy and stupid, but I just wanted for them to survive,” he said. “If I had to die, then fine, but someone had to make a sacrifice.” 

By dawn, waves of survivors poured from Shujaiya into Gaza City. Sons had carried their fathers on their backs; mothers had hoisted children into lorries and ambulances; others searched frantically for missing family when they arrived, only to learn that they had fallen under the shelling. For many, it was another Nakba, a hellish reincarnation of the fateful days of 1948 when Zionist militias forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their land. This time, however, there was almost nowhere for the refugees to flee. 

Evidence of Chilling Plans

Back in Shujaiya, the shelling momentarily subsided for a one-hour ceasefire. But the International Committee of the Red Cross proved unable to evacuate those trapped in the area, possibly because of the Israeli army’s refusal to coordinate with its first responders or because the army had targeted its ambulances in airstrikes. Thus the stragglers and wounded were at the mercy of Israel’s Golani Brigade special forces troops, which had taken up positions at the edge of Shujaiya, occupying homes just east of the area’s main mosque.

I visited almost a dozen homes occupied by Israeli soldiers in eastern Shujaiya, wading through rubble and piles of shattered furniture in search of clues into the Israeli plans of operation. I found floors littered with bullet casings, sandbags used as foundations for heavy machine guns, sniper holes punched into walls just inches above floors, and piles of empty Israeli snack food containers. 

In the stairwell at the entrance to one home I visited, soldiers had engraved a Star of David. In another, soldiers used markers to scrawl in mangled Arabic, “We did not want to enter Gaza but terrorist Hamas made us enter. Damn terrorist Hamas and their supporters.”

I found a wall in another home vandalized with the symbol of Beitar Jerusalem, the Jerusalem-based football club popular among the hardcore cadres of Israel’s right-wing. Below the Beitar logo was the slogan, “Price Tag,” referring to the vigilante terror attacks carried out by Jewish settlers against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

Graffiti by Israeli soldiers in a home in Shujaiya reads, "Price Tag." Photo by Max Blumenthal.

In each home the soldiers occupied, I found walls etched with crude maps of the immediate vicinity. Each house was assigned a number, possibly to enable commanders to call in air and artillery strikes ahead of their forward positions. Names of soldiers, including those wounded or missing, were listed on several walls, but they were concealed with spray paint upon the troops’ departure.

In the ruins of a second-floor bedroom, in an empty ammo box under a tattered bed, a colleague discovered two laminated maps of Shujaiya. They were photographed by satellite at 10:32am on July 17, just days before the neighborhood was flattened. The date in the upper-right-hand corner of one map was written American-style, with the month before the day, raising the question of whether a US or Israeli satellite had captured the image. Outlined in orange was a row of homes numbered between 16 and 29; the homes immediately to their west were labeled with arrows indicating forward troop movements.

 A map of Israeli army operations discovered in a destroyed home in Shujaiya. Photo by Max Blumenthal.

A local man who had accompanied us into the house pointed at the homes on the map outlined in orange, then motioned out the window to where they once stood. Every single house in that row had been obliterated by airstrikes. I looked back at the map and noticed that the dusty field we faced was labeled in Hebrew, “Soccer Field.” Two areas just west of the field were marked, “T.A. South” and “T.A. North,” perhaps a cryptic reference to Tel Aviv. Devised at least two days before the assault, the map sectioned Shujaiya into various areas of operation, with color-coded delineations that were impossible to decipher but suggested disturbing intentions.

Eran Efrati, a former Israeli combat soldier turned anti-occupation activist, interviewed several soldiers who participated in the assault on Shujaiya. “I can report that the official command that was handed down to the soldiers in Shujaiya was to capture Palestinian homes as outposts,” Efrati wrote. “From these posts, the soldiers drew an imaginary red line, and amongst themselves decided to shoot to death anyone who crosses it. Anyone crossing the line was defined as a threat to their outposts, and was thus deemed a legitimate target. This was the official reasoning inside the units.” 

In the area occupied by Israeli soldiers, the killing that had previously taken place by air and distant artillery assaults took on a gruesomely intimate quality. It was there, in the ruins of their homes, that returning locals told me of the cold-blooded execution of their family members. 

Massacres in Broad Daylight

At the eastern edge of the “Soccer Field” now occupied by tents and surrounded by demolished five-story apartment complexes, I met Mohammed Fathi Al Areer. A middle-aged man wearing an eyepatch, he led me through the first floor of his home, which was now a virtual cave furnished with a single sofa, then into what used to be his backyard, where the interior of his bedroom had been exposed by a tank shell. It was here, Al Areer told me, that four of his brothers were executed in cold blood. One of them, Hassan Al Areer, was mentally disabled and had little idea he was about to be killed. Mohammed Al Areer said he found bullet casings next to their heads when he discovered their decomposing bodies.

Just next door was the Shamaly family, one of the hardest hit in Shujaiya. Hesham Naser Shamaly, 25, described to me what happened when five members of his family decided to stay in their home to guard the thousands of dollars of clothing stocks they planned to sell through their family business. When soldiers approached the home with weapons drawn, Shamaly said his father emerged from the home with his hands up and attempted to address them in Hebrew. 

“He couldn’t even finish the sentence before they shot him,” Shamaly told me. “He was only injured and fainted, but they thought he was dead so they left him there and moved on to the others. They shot the rest — my uncle, my uncle’s wife, and my two cousins — they shot them dead.” 

Miraculously, Shamaly’s father managed to revive himself after laying bleeding for almost three days. He walked on his own strength toward Gaza City and found medical help. “Someone called me to tell me he was alive,” Shamaly said, “and I thought it was a joke.”

Hesham Shamaly’s 22-year-old cousin, Salem, was also executed by the Israeli soldiers who had taken up positions in the neighborhood. When Salem Shamaly returned to his neighborhood during the temporary ceasefire at 3:30pm on July 20 to search for missing family members alongside members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), he apparently crossed the imaginary red line drawn by the soldiers. When he waded into a pile of rubble, a single shot rang out from a nearby sniper, sending his body crumpling to the ground. As he attempted to get up, another shot struck him in the chest. A third shot left his body limp.

The incident was captured on camera by a local activist named Muhammad Abedullah, then disseminated across the world by the ISM. Israeli military spokespeople were strangely silent. Back in Gaza City, where survivors of the Shamaly family had taken shelter in a relative’s apartment, Salem Shamaly’s sister and cousin received an emailed link to the video.

Over the next three minutes, they watched Salem die. They knew it was him because they recognized the sound of his voice as he cried out for help. 

Despair and Resistance 

In an apartment on Remad Street in Gaza City, I met the parents, siblings and cousins of Salem Shamaly. They had been forced to relocate here after their home was completely obliterated by Israeli tank shells and drone strikes in Shujaiya. The apartment was crowded but impeccably clean. It was a more desirable arrangement than one of the UN schools where most of their neighbors lodged in squalid conditions with little to no privacy, though no less an indignity.

Salem Shamaly’s father, 62-year-old Khalil, said the family evacuated Shujaiya at 8am. As soon as they reached safety, they realized Salem was missing. “It’s impossible to put into words how difficult it was,” Khalil Shamaly said. “We waited for two or three days not knowing and when we found out, it was too difficult to handle. I have had to call on God and he helped me.”

The attacks on Shujaiya continued for days, making it impossible for the Shamaly family to retrieve Salem’s body. They beseeched the ICRC for help but after so many attacks on their vehicles from the Israeli army, which had declared all of Shujaiya a “closed military zone,” they were unwilling to approach the area. Salem’s father, Khalil, still believes his son might have been saved if he was evacuated right away. 

When Salem’s family finally retrieved his body, they found it badly burned, almost unrecognizable, and tossed dozens of meters from the location where he had been killed by subsequent bombardments. The death toll had reached such unbearable levels he could not be buried in Shujaiya, where the cemetery was overfull. When Shamaly’s finally found a place to bury him, they had to open a pre-existing grave because that cemetery was also full. This was just one of many stories I heard this week of a rushed burial, a family thrown into chaos, and a young life truncated and denied dignity in death.

Salem’s cousin, Hind Al Qattawi, whipped out a laptop and played for me a clip of a report on the killing by NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin. Al Qattawi had wanted to demonstrate for me the international impact the incident made, but instead, she summoned barely submerged emotions back to the surface. As soon as the video of Salem’s murder began to play, his mother, Amina, sobbed openly.

“The real problem is not just losing your home in the bombardment,” Muhammad Al Qattawi, the brother of Hind, told me. “The problem is you have lost your future, you lose your hope, and you can even lose your mind. Two million people here are on the verge of losing their minds.”

He handed me a packet of pills that had been prescribed to various family members. Deprived of justice, they had been given antidepressants to numb their despair.

Among those suffering most was Salem’s younger brother. The slightly built 14-year-old recalled his brother as a bright accounting student who paid for his education by working in his father’s corner store. He was one of his best friends. 

“We used to go out with him whenever we were bored and he used to take us places,” Waseem said, fighting back tears. “Now, he’s gone, and there’s no one else to fill his place.” 

When Waseem recovered, I asked him what he wanted to be when he came of age. He replied without pause that he planned to join the resistance. A look of intentness had replaced his sorrow. He said he had not considered becoming a fighter until the war came down on Shujaiya. 

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Important Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-War Movement

Sun, 08/17/2014 - 13:28
A Q&A with author Penny Lewis on her new book examining working class opposition to the Vietnam War.

A new book examining working class opposition to the Vietnam War, Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks (Cornell University Press, 2013), by Penny Lewis, is a timely and important book filled with lessons for today’s labor, peace and especially, environmental movements. She unpacks the myth that working class Americans supported the Vietnam War. A fiction created by Nixon and the Republicans in service to the industrial military complex. The book’s subhead, "The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory," challenges the constructed narrative of the antiwar movement and focuses our attention on the motivations of those who created the false storyline. Though the research for and origins of her book were the subject of her doctoral dissertation, the book is a good read, accessible to all. She argues that in the early years of the antiwar movement, the formal organizations that opposed the war were dominated by middle class and often college students, but that shifts dramatically in the later years. And, had the early activists reached out to broader audiences, like workers, the movement could have been more successful, much sooner. She examines the many characters and films about Vietnam, from Gump to Platoon and everything in between, and compares Hollywood to reality. The book documents the particularly important contribution to end the war made by Chicano and Black movements.

Lewis explains the crucial role of the active duty and Vietnam veterans during the war. Anyone who has successfully gotten Vietnam vets to open up and discuss the war will not be surprised by the stories Lewis recounts. But most will be surprised at the sheer volume of everyday acts of resistance by warriors trying to save themselves and their coworkers, and, get out of Vietnam altogether. The key turning points in the war were the veterans as they came home, themselves suffering mightily. This brings us to the present in the USA, and why Lewis’ book is so timely. With two absurd wars raging, and at least theoretically one hundred thousand vets coming home (we are told), what are progressives doing to engage vets? Today’s movements err in the same ways the movements in the sixties did, with veterans sort of sitting all by themselves. A constituency largely ignored by social movements.

And yet, according to all polling, it’s veterans who support government and see paying taxes as their patriotic duty. There’s no better messenger for a pro-government and pro-taxes narrative then the women and men who have worn a US uniform. As an organizer-turned-doctoral graduate student myself, now significantly removed from the day-to-day of forging decisions in our movements, I have repeatedly asked almost every organization I know of and work with the following question: Why aren’t you working with today’s new veterans? They have no economy, the automation of the war through the use of drones is going to increase the jobless rate for working class families that used to rely on military jobs, and veterans are a unique voice in both calling to end war and support government. They are skilled in the art of battle, often making them an asset in union and other campaigns. They are resilient against employers and politicians, and aren’t easily pigeonholed as “left” or “progressive” or “communist” the way non-military service people can be by the opposition.

In the context of our enfeebled barely-a-progressive-movement summer I decided to sit down with Lewis to ask her about the lessons for today’s movement that line the pages of her book. Both of Lewis’ parents were in the military, as were both of mine. My father piloted a P-51 Mustang fighter in the 359th Fighter Group, flying 29 missions into Germany during his four years as a fighter pilot in the European Theater during WWII. My mother was a WAVE, the acronym for the US Naval Reserves, Women’s Reserve (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Within weeks of returning home from WWII, my parents became pacifists and began to volunteer with the Dorothy Day Catholic Workers in NYC. Lewis’ parents were fortunate, signing up for the military just after the Korean War and before the Vietnam War.

I recommend the book wholeheartedly; it raises all the right questions and even answers some.

The following is a Q&A with author Penny Lews: 

Jane McAlevey: You chose this really interesting topic for a book, what in your background made you interested in challenging the dominant narrative about the antiwar movement?

Penny Lewis: I grew up in NYC. My parents are highly moral people and very community engaged people. They are the kind of people who would stop a fight on the street, yell at somebody who they thought was doing the wrong thing, get themselves involved in situations without even thinking if they thought an injustice was happening. They were highly engaged community people. I can’t really describe their politics, they are left of liberal but it’s more complicated than that, they were not and are not particularly ideological but they have strong moral convictions.

I grew up with them involved in parent stuff, we had a community garden and my mother probably started or led 10 voluntary organizations. They were involved in our coop. I grew up in a Mitchell Lama housing development in NYC and they were very involved in Mitchell Lama politics. All of these experiences shaped my politics.  And very specifically on this book, my Dad’s family was all military, and also both of my parents served in the military. My Dad was in the army and my mom was in the air force.

And, they were opposed to Vietnam, and everyone around me was opposed to Vietnam.  And I grew up near the VA hospital on 23rd street so we had a lot of vets in the neighborhood and who helped on the community garden that my parents started and so my own personal impressions about what it meant to be antiwar was very much that veterans are antiwar and that people who are pro military are antiwar. I had a lifetime of experience of living in a slightly different reality about war and I think this sensitized me to the mythic character of who is antiwar.

JM: Did you become a scholar to write about antiwar movements?

PL: I had a long history of left activism since before college through the time I got to graduate school. I was very interested in the issue of who is in social movements today and what the class cultures are of today’s social movements. But a story that I frequently confronted when I started as a grad student, is the story of new social movements being middle class in character and in orientation; that these social movements were post scarcity movements, and I was aware of the divides that existed and appeared to exist between the environmental movement and the labor movement. I was highly invested in the labor movement being successful and a powerful vector for social change and equality.

I decided I wanted to study labor and the environment. I wanted to see the extent to which these two movements could work together, but also to more closely examine the obstacles. I was influenced by big 1999 Seattle anti World Trade Organization (WTO) movement, a breakthrough of sorts. So I studied labor, social movements, and environmental sociology and was completely ready to have labor and the environment as my doctoral project. I took my orals on September 7th, 2001. Four days later, everything changed and I started working within the antiwar movement as an activist from my union. I basically took all the same questions I was examining but decided to instead look at the peace movement. I thought I would rather have a historical appreciation for what’s happening here. So I started talking to people I was working with, first with NYC Labor Against the War, then with people in US Labor Against the War. These are labor union orientated groups and I began to ask people about their experiences with the Vietnam War. I thought if I looked at antiwar activism historically, it would help me understand the present.

JM:What’s the top lesson for today’s movements?

PL: Today’s movements need to stop having preconceived notions of who will or won’t support the cause, and, set out with the broadest possible goals of who to involve from day one. Stereotypes of working class conservatism disabled the early antiwar movement because it prevented activists from making better connections among working class communities. This isn’t to say it would have been easy, but that some of the stereotypes didn’t get challenged and could have been pushed aside.

It’s not easy to build cross-class or intraclass coalitions on different issues. And of course, it’s not just class that’s difficult; it’s not easy to build diverse movements. The ways that different groups come at their connection to an issue looks different depending on where you come from and what your experiences are and who you trust and who you don’t and how you think change happens. People committed to building strong movements need to be flexible listeners and facilitators in order to draw out those differences. We have so much that unites us across all these differences but we don’t communicate well. We don’t bridge the gulfs in experience and in language or in ideas about how to make change. So I think that people building movements today from every angle need to be aware of these gulfs and need to learn better ways to bridge them.

Working class people have traditionally opposed wars in this country. When I look at the peace movement that I was a part of, the ways in which the peace movement blindly supported John Kerry was really troubling to me. Kerry was a real hero of the antiwar movement, back during the war. He was amazing during Vietnam in many respects. But then he ran completely distancing himself from any part of that old John Kerry. And he’s a total Boston Brahmin, the most alienating Democratic figure in a million ways, incredibly elite and elitist; not an antiwar candidate. And, the movement just saw getting rid of Bush as its complete mission. But in a peace movement, you have to be thinking how is my movement broadening, who is it connecting with well, and how can we make this movement as powerful as it can be? Kerry wasn’t the right choice.

JM: What can we be doing better?

PL: The economic draft, the issue of why people join the military, is the obvious issue we need to wrestle with. Aside from family tradition, the incentive for people to get into the military is because they need money and jobs, and they need access to college and benefits. We need to really think through what does that mean for today’s wars and who is going into the military and who is being killed. Some of the best recent antiwar work was the military families speak outs and gold star medal movements and of course Cindy Sheehan going to Crawford. She was incredibly effective and did start that connection and great for Cindy Sheehan and all the family organizations that were starting to do that. But I don’t think UFPJ and the more mainstream movement organizations were doing that work the way we could have been. 

JM: There’s starting to be activism around drones, but the issue of the economic implications of the automation of war hasn’t been taken up, has it?

PL: We need way more discussions about drones, period. I don’t accept the either/or of labor intensive warfare vs automated warfare, we need to shift the entire conversation to one of conversion. We have to get past the industrial military complex and convert the extraordinary final resources we spend on destruction and militarization and convert this money to green jobs, to all the people who need good jobs. To be clear I don’t think there’s enough organizing around drones, but to the extent that we are organizing around automated warfare, linking it to the question of automation and how this plays out in the lives of people in U.S. is important. We have to lift up the conversion demand because automation will strip some of the only jobs that come with a pension and benefits, assuming you survive the war. We also need to lift up the struggle with the Veterans Administration both because vets deserve better care, but also because the rightwing is using it as a wedge issue.

JM: One of the things you challenge well in your book is the notion that the working class, or, workers, are what you called “white, goods producing, men.” There’s still too much mythic symbolism about “oh, can we just go back to the days when white, beefy men could pull a leverl and go on strike.” Is the imagery of who a worker is today any better than the sixties?

PL: It’s evolved, but in some places there’s still an inaccurate short hand that’s used but I think that the racialization of the class is more explicit today. People now talk about the white working class as being more conservative. I think forty years ago people just said the working class was more conservative and now they say the white working class. And, I think it was the Vietnam period when this began to be challenged. It was in the sixties that we began to see unions organizing in the public sector and stronger unions beginning to be built in the service sector, and just the sheer diversity of these working classes began to challenge the image of the white working class. We’ve also lost a ton of those white male workers with deindustrialization, trade, and, more.

JM: Is the white working class a more conservative?

PL: Yes, I do think racially speaking white workers are more conservative. But I also think that like any of these categories, white workers look different in different parts of the country, and look different if they are organized into a union versus if they are not, and its difficult and shortsighted to purely generalize.

I think that one of the main reasons the Republicans can wedge white workers right now is because the Democrats and Labor are not doing an effective job representing working class interests. They aren’t framing the problems of the day with effective class character, there’s little difference from either party on questions of jobs and the economy. This provides an opportunity for what Thomas Franks talks about, the values voters, when there’s no economic platform around which we can coalesce a different kind of political grouping. So what we can do, the movement, because the Democrats won’t do it, is that we have to link the economic just demands that are at the core of how we envision a better society but make the strong arguments that these same economic demands mean we have to be anti-racist  and feminist and supportive of rights of gay people to marry and all the anti-oppressive values that get challenged by the Republican values work. 

We need a very strong economic platform, but I don’t know who the we is anymore. The language of the AFL-CIO is worlds improved to what it was 40 years ago, and the language and frames have finally caught up with what the labor left was pushing forty years ago but the labor movement has nothing like the power we used to have back then. And, I think the AFL-CIO should stop wasting all its money on national elections and instead spend its money talking with and listening and bringing people together across localities, issues, diversities, etc. We need national organizations and networks but the amount of money spent on chasing these national elections is bananas and imagine what could happen if these resources were being poured into ground up organizing?

JM: How does this book relate to the need for unions and greens to hook up in a serious way on climate change and the worsening ecological crisis?

PL: Unions are in a bind because they represent workers who want jobs and want to keep their jobs, and they represent workers who are displaced and recently lost jobs and who see the construction of a pipeline or fracking or all kinds of energy development jobs as great jobs that will keep them in their houses for another year and allow them to buy presents for their kids or send their kids to camp or just get child care. All workers want to provide for their family. But our model for what that kind of growth and what the direction is for our economy is suicidal for the planet and the communities involved. And yet beyond the Steel Workers union, no industrial unions have had strong conversations internally or worked hard externally to confront the question of at what cost do we create jobs? It’s safe to say there hasn’t been nearly enough of these kinds of hard conversations.

Given how weak the labor movement is right now, and how high the stakes of climate change are, I think labor doesn’t have that much to lose and would benefit if it dived into the climate change and green jobs debate way more robustly. Building an alternative economic model that involves uncritical support for clean energy, for infrastructure development and that calls for jobs that are not destructive  of the world seems like a no brainer despite how completely hard and risky that would be. But I blame this partly on the national environmental groups who have framed this without attention to jobs and conversion and who have put workers and unions into a terrible and false choice, paychecks versus poverty.

If the environmental movement doesn’t put good jobs at the center of their demands, it’s not going to go anywhere.

JM: You end the book touching on #OWS. I’ve heard that you’ve been doing some research on #OWS, too, any closing thoughts on this?

PL: For the first time really in eighty years, #OWS started with an economic question and raised inequality and class within a left social movement. That’s a little cut and dry,  people have been talking about economic inequality all through the social movements we have seen erupt, but not with that being the main focus. This was incredible to watch, and it was very popular and #OWS had support all over the country. It outpaces support for the Tea Party in lots of surprising places. Because of my deep research into the anti-Vietnam war movement, I was less surprised than others at how quickly the Occupy message spread. One of the key points of my book is the extent to which people have hardened and rigid ideas about how people think and how they will react and have wrong we often are. With #OWS, the media narrative was about hippies, and strangeness, and drums, and hippy hair, and the media tried to do all the things that the media does to disparage and push aside and mock a lot of social movements. But despite that, and, despite the fact that a lot of people fit that description, the points that Occupy was making cut through those images for a whole lot of people. If we want to wedge in the other direction, Occupy showed us the salience of a lot of economic questions. There are a lot of weaknesses to Occupy, but the salience of the message is powerful.

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