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Updated: 12 min 41 sec ago

CHP Officer Admits to Sharing Stolen Nude Photos of Female Suspects with Fellow Officers for Years

Sat, 10/25/2014 - 15:59
A California Highway Patrol officer confessed to stealing explicit photos from the cellphone of a DUI suspect and sharing them with officers, describing it as a “game.”

A California Highway Patrol officer accused of stealing nude photos from the cell phones of DUI suspects has told investigators he and other officers have been doing it for several years.

According to documents acquired by the Contra-Costa Times, CHP Officer Sean Harrington, who was accused of stealing photos earlier this week,  confessed to stealing explicit photos from the cellphone of a second Contra Costa County DUI suspect in August and sharing them with fellow officers, describing it as a “game.”

Harrington told investigators he has been stolen photos “half dozen times in the last several years,” forwarding them with leering text messages to fellow officer Officer Robert Hazelwood.

The investigation into Harrington began following an Aug. 29 arrest of the San Ramon woman who discovered photos had been stolen from her phone five days after her release, when she noticed on her iPad that the photos had been sent to an unknown number. According to the woman, a record of the messages had been deleted from her iPhone but the information was available on the  iPad which was synched to the phone.

After contacting authorities, Contra Costa district attorney inspector Darryl Holcombe compared video surveillance and time-stamped text messages from the woman’s phone and determined Harrington was in possession of the woman’s phone at the moment the photos were forwarded. The woman was being processed in the Martinez County Jail at the time when the photos were stolen, according to court records.

Harrington admitted under questioning that he stole five photographs from the woman and forwarded at least one to Hazelwood.

“Harrington said he first learned of this scheme when he was working in the Los Angeles office,” Holcombe wrote in an affidavit. “Harrington said when he was assigned to the Dublin office, he learned from other officers that they would access the cell phones of female arrestees and look for nude photographs of them. Harrington said if photographs were located, the officers would then text the photographs to other sworn members of the office, and, to non-CHP individuals. Harrington described this scheme as a game.”

Authorities have discovered texts with photos from Harrington to Hazelwood discussing one woman’s “rocking body.”

CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow said in a statement that his agency is conducting an investigation too,

“The allegations anger and disgust me,” Farrow said. “We expect the highest levels of integrity and moral strength from everyone in the California Highway Patrol, and there is no place in our organization for such behavior.”

According to an attorney for one of the women, the actions of the officers could have far reaching consequences in cases the officers are involved in.

“The callousness and depravity with which these officers communicated about my client is dehumanizing, horribly offensive and degrading to all women,” attorney Rick Madsen said. “It’s going to lead to another level of mistrust and skepticism to the motive of law enforcement in general.”

Neither officer has been charged, however Deputy District Attorney Barry Grove said he expects a decision about charges against officers in the CHP swept up in the probe will be made next week.

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From Gary Webb to James Risen: The Struggle for the Soul of Journalism

Sat, 10/25/2014 - 15:50
Two courageous reporters dug up dark government secrets. Only one was betrayed by his peers. Why did it happen?

In thinking about the cases of Gary Webb and James Risen, two famous investigative reporters aggressively persecuted for their explosive revelations (in very different situations, and with different results), we are drawn into the thorny question of journalism and its so-called professional ethics. How well do the supposed codes of journalism work, and whom do they serve and protect? Is the primary role of journalism as a social institution to discover the truth as best it can and raise the level of public discourse, or to preserve its own power and prestige and privilege? I don’t claim to know the answers with any certainty. If anything, the stories of Webb and Risen suggest that those questions yield different answers in different contexts.

I’ve been a working journalist for more than 25 years, across the demise of print and the rise of the Internet, and I’ve always viewed the idea of journalism as a profession as, at best, a double-edged sword. I mean the word “profession” in the sense that law or medicine or accounting is so defined, each with its own internal codes of conduct administered by various self-governing institutions. All too often, the ideal of professionalism in journalism becomes an excuse for “the View from Nowhere” described by media critic Jay Rosen – a bogus conception of impartiality and “balance,” a refusal of critical thinking and a disinclination to challenge official sources or disrupt accepted narratives.

Amid the chaos of Internet journalism, and the evident fact that many people in the field have no conception of ethics or responsibility, it seems laughably nostalgic to talk about professionalism. But in any case journalism never resembled those listed professions, which was always a strength and a detriment. There is no examination to pass and no credentialing board to face. Graduate programs in journalism have grown more influential, paradoxically or not, even as the trade itself has decayed. But no one would claim they are necessary. I’ve known plenty of journalists who didn’t have college degrees at all; Hunter S. Thompson never finished high school. It’s one of those jobs you learn best by doing, with the right guidance and mentorship. Most of the people who got me interested in the possibilities of journalism in the first place, like Joan Didion and Thompson and Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau and the underappreciated, long-dead San Francisco critic John L. Wasserman, had no professional training, would have refused to join any such association and repeatedly violated the norms and customs of the trade.

On the other hand, maybe journalism does qualify as a profession, in that it displays a sense of tribal identity also found among the doctors and the lawyers. Insiders with the right connections, who conform to established codes, are zealously protected; outsiders perceived as threats to the established order are thrown to the wolves. This is an entirely understandable human reaction, and not always a bad thing. Mainstream journalism has pretty much circled the wagons around Risen, a national-security reporter for the New York Times who was working to uncover the extent of illegal or unconstitutional NSA spying long before anybody had heard of Edward Snowden. His work has sometimes made his own editors uncomfortable – former Times editor Bill Keller repeatedly killed Risen’s NSA story in 2004 and 2005, after a private meeting with President Bush – but in broad terms both the Times and what’s left of the journalism establishment have grasped that the government’s attempt to shut Risen down or send him to prison was a direct assault on the role of the press in a so-called democracy.

Over the course of the past decade, Risen has been the focus of malevolent attention from several grand juries and two successive presidential administrations. Ostensibly, the government wants to compel Risen to reveal the identity of a confidential source who told him about a botched CIA operation in Iran. But it’s not unduly paranoid to speculate that the real issue is not a 10-year-old leak no one cares about anymore but rather an attempt to single out and scapegoat a reporter who has repeatedly revealed the most corrupt and disturbing and even tragicomic aspects of the war on terror. (Risen’s new book, “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War,” is full of horrifying and sometimes hilarious detail.) Risen recently told Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now!” that he believed the government was reluctant to come directly after the Times over his NSA stories, which might have provoked a constitutional showdown at the Supreme Court level. Instead, the apparatchiks fixed on the Iran-CIA leak – which was revealed in his 2006 book “State of War,” but not in the newspaper – as a way “to isolate me from the New York Times.” Risen has become the central test case in the Obama administration’s vindictive and adversarial relationship with the press, and its unprecedented persecution of whistle-blowers.

I’d like to believe that some of the professional journalists who stand with Jim Risen today, largely because he’s a credentialed member of the tribe and an employee of the flagship American newspaper, feel ashamed when they look back at the case of Gary Webb. We know at least one does. Jesse Katz was one of the 17 Los Angeles Times reporters who were assigned to pick apart “Dark Alliance,” Webb’s groundbreaking 1996 CIA-Contra-cocaine investigative series for the San Jose Mercury-News, which became one of the first viral phenomena in the short history of the Internet. In retrospect, it looks an awful lot like the L.A. Times management felt embarrassed by a cowboy reporter at a smaller regional rival, who had broken a huge story on their turf, and set out to demolish him. As Katz told a radio interviewer last year, the Times counterattack was “kind of a tawdry exercise … Most of us who were involved in it, I think, would look back on that and say it was overkill.”

If you don’t know much about Gary Webb or his big story, you can learn his basic narrative – in an admittedly truncated and Hollywoodized form – in the new movie “Kill the Messenger,” a tidy drama anchored by a fiery performance from Oscar-nominated actor Jeremy Renner, who also produced the film. A Pulitzer-winning reporter with a reputation as a maverick and a checkered personal life, Webb broke one of the biggest scoops of the 1990s, working essentially on his own for a paper that had modest resources, limited experience with investigative reporting and almost no experience in international coverage. “Dark Alliance” put the Mercury-News on the journalistic map, partly because it was published simultaneously in print and in the newborn electronic medium many old-school journalists believed was a passing fad. “Dark Alliance” remains well worth reading more than 18 years later, but here’s the “too long; didn’t read” version: The Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, which was avidly sponsored and supported by the Reagan administration, was at least partly funded by Latin American cocaine smugglers who fueled the crack epidemic in America’s cities. At the very least, the CIA knew about these big-time drug smugglers, tolerated them and protected them.

Here’s the important thing to say about Webb’s big story: In general terms, and in most of its specifics, it was true. Virtually no one would deny that today; congressional commissions, internal CIA investigations and scholarly articles by historians have reached similar conclusions, shrouded in more lawyerly or diplomatic language. You can say that the CIA was apparently complicit in drug-dealing but not directly involved; you can say that the agency “turned a blind eye” to evidence that smuggling revenue was being used to fund the Contras; you can say that “the CIA knew or should have known that some of its allies were accused of being in the drug business,” in the exceedingly careful phrasing of New York Times media reporter David Carr. If the tone of Webb’s reporting was sometimes inflammatory, what he said happened pretty much happened. Webb never stated or implied that the CIA had deliberately imported crack cocaine into African-American neighborhoods; that construction or interpretation came later, from other people.

There is no question that amid Webb’s thousands of words of prose and his months of exhaustive reporting on “Dark Alliance” there were a handful of factual claims he didn’t nail down, along with a few misstatements or overstatements. Some critics have said that the whole package carried a sensationalistic tone that suggested a widespread conspiracy without exactly saying so. That charge should have been directed at Webb’s editors at the Merc, first of all, and could be applied to almost every Pulitzer-seeking investigative series ever published by any American newspaper. As we see in “Kill the Messenger,” Webb and his entire project came under an extraordinary and unprecedented tripartite assault from the L.A. Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post, each of which launched teams of reporters to explore every actual or perceived flaw in “Dark Alliance.” Webb’s credibility as a reporter was destroyed, his own editors flung him to the curb and he was driven from the profession; he never held a full-time newspaper job again. After a series of personal and financial setbacks and a battle with depression, he took his own life in 2004.

Here we see the dark side of journalism as a “profession” with its own internal codes and mores. Webb was an outsider from a Nowheresville paper who made the big boys look bad, and who declined to take dictation from government sources. As Ithaca College journalism professor Jeff Cohen writes in an extensive essay for Common Dreams, elite reporters from the Big Three papers simply accepted denials from anonymous CIA sources as fact, as if they simply hadn’t noticed how often and how avidly the agency has lied to the media and the public. (An internal CIA memo approvingly cited this as “a ground base of already productive relationships with journalists.”) Peter Landesman, a former investigative reporter who wrote the screenplay for “Kill the Messenger,” has suggested that each paper had its own reasons for wanting to destroy Webb: The L.A. Times was envious of a smaller rival, the Washington Post was way too cozy with the CIA and the national-security apparatus (then as now), and the New York Times was simply a profoundly arrogant institution with its head firmly up its butt. (My words, not Landesman’s.)

There were countervailing voices at the time, and there have been many more since. Even in 1996, L.A. Times ombudsman Geneva Overholser criticized the paper for its “misdirected zeal,” writing that her colleagues seemed more interested in “sniffing out the flaws” in Webb’s reporting than in investigating the larger issues he had raised. After Webb’s death, Chicago Tribune public editor Don Wycliff wrote, “He got the treatment that always comes to those who dare question aloud the bona fides of the establishment: First he got misrepresented … Then he was ridiculed as a conspiracy-monger.” Former Associated Press and Newsweek reporter Robert Parry, who first broke the Contra-cocaine story way back in 1985, has tirelessly worked to redeem Webb’s reputation, and recently wrote a fascinating dissection of David Carr’s cautious push-me-pull-you piece for the New York Times about Webb and the movie, which amounts to a guarded admission that the Gray Lady screwed up this story the first time through.

Yet the “professionals” have not entirely surrendered. Jeff Leen, an editor who runs investigative reporting at the Washington Post, recently wrote an Op-Ed response to “Kill the Messenger” that offers a tepid defense of the witch hunt against Gary Webb. Leen’s article has been subjected to a vigorous takedown by filmmaker and journalist Marc Levin and widely debated on social media, so I don’t need to pile on, but it’s a masterpiece of mediocre equivocation. Leen says he feels sorry for Webb, but cannot bring himself to say that Webb was treated despicably for despicable reasons. He complains about the way Hollywood simplifies real-life stories (there’s an original observation!) and recites a litany of journalism-school clichés. Leen begins with the old saw, “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof” and ends by urging younger reporters to “keep the hype out of their nut graphs.” I do not claim to have Leen’s experience with the kind of laborious reporting done by the Post, but I’m inclined to respond by saying no and no. All claims of truth require proof; you either have it or you don’t. And the “nut graph,” meaning the paragraph near the top of an article that summarizes its argument, is precisely the place to make grand claims, as long as you have the evidence to support them.

Gary Webb had the evidence, and Jim Risen does too. Both men did noble and necessary work exposing the misdeeds of high government officials who broke the law, overreached their constitutional authority and lied about it. That does not make you popular with those in power, or with those in the media who want to protect their gigs as court stenographers. Risen and Webb have both paid the price for their tenacity and courage, but Risen had the “professional” juice to ensure that when the government came after him his colleagues mostly had his back (even if he makes them uneasy). When the government came after Webb, the profession’s leaders were suspiciously and disgustingly eager to destroy him. They scourged him and smeared him and hounded him to disgrace and death, and then, years later, they decided they felt a little bit bad about it. Sometimes those same people wonder how and why journalists lost the public’s trust.

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Apocalypse Now: Seriously, It Is Time for a Major Rethink About Liberal and Progressive Politics

Sat, 10/25/2014 - 14:30
We are losing badly to the corporate state. Here's what we need to do.

As the Editor of AlterNet for 20 years, I have read and seen the entire range of horrendous and growing problems we face as a society and globe virtually every day. It is not just climate change, or ISIL, or Ferguson, or poverty and homelessness, or more misogynistic murdering of women, or the Democrats about to lose the Senate as Obama gets more unpopular. It is much, much more. Every day. It passes by before my eyes. At AlterNet, there are no issue silos—there is just the open faucet of depressing political information coming and going every hour of every day (with the occasional story of success and inspiration). 

So I am sorry to share my deep-seated opinion, which should jibe with anyone who is paying attention. After decades of engagement in progressive politics and media, it is very clear to me: we progressives, liberals, common sense people, are losing badly to the conservative business state, the tyranny of massively expanding tech companies, theocratic right-wing forces and pervasive militarism, home and abroad. By virtually every measure, things are getting worse. And are trending much, much worse in ways we can easily measure, like inequality, climate, militarization of police forces, etc., and in ways that are more psychological and emotional.

Americans are very pessimistic: 76 percent of respondents in a Wall Street Journal poll did not feel confident that their children’s generation will have a better life than they. That’s up from 60 percent in 2007. Optimism for Americans peaked in 2001. The percentage of American adults who believe the country is on the wrong track jumped eight percentage points just this summer, to 71 percent, the WSJ poll found.

And Americans dark views of the future are rational, as their lives have become so much more difficult and depressing. People are working longer hours, working far past previous retirement age—if they can retire at all. Many Americans do not take vacations. And many Americans of all ages can't find good jobs, or can only find low-paying and often part-time work, which causes their lifestyles to plummet. College graduates are burdened with heavy debt.

Younger generations know that the perhaps romantic notion of the American Dream, for most people, lies in the trash bin. Over the past 15 years there was more than a 50 percent increase in people thinking there is a lack of opportunity in America (it is now just about half of all Americans). And 59 percent of Americans believe the American Dream is impossible to achieve for most people.

In terms of inequality, The Huffington Postwrote: "more than 45 million people, or 14.5 percent of all Americans, lived below the poverty line last year, the Census Bureau reported. … The annual income threshold for being counted as living in poverty was $11,490 last year for a person and $23,550 for a family of four." 

Poverty is particularly dire for single mothers: A third of all families headed by single women were in poverty last year—that's 15.6 million such households. The black poverty rate was 27.2 percent. … More than 11 million black Americans lived below the poverty level last year. About 42.5 percent of the households headed by single black women were in poverty. The Hispanic poverty rate was 23.5 percent.”

The Long March Toward Conservative Corporate Dominance

The relentless push for the conservative anti-government business agenda, that has created most of reality described above, has been underway for more than 40 years, since the age of Reagan. The infamous and ubiquitous Koch Brothers, and dozens of very conservative, super rich allies, joined the right-wing corporate band wagon post Reagan, when their Libertarian electoral efforts fell flat. They then used their massive money, infrastructure and energy to turn the existing propaganda, political and business lobbying machine into a juggernaut.

So now the corporate, business-state power nexus, which includes the political arms that have a range of conservative political entities—from fundamentalist religious groups to the Tea Party—has it all. There are large numbers of organizers, highly visible gatherings of the faithful, and a powerful media and online presence—complemented too often by an eagerly compliant corporate media which repeats reactionary and business state talking points like stenographers (as often even does progressive media). There are thousands of paid conservative talking heads on all the news shows, lavishly funded think tanks, and of course the omnipresent Fox which hugely dominates cable news and influences public attitudes more than any other media. And the leaders of this conservative colossus really hate to lose. Thus they hold people accountable to get results. They are relentless, not unlike many other fundamentalists across the globe, who are intent on imposing their will and crushing their enemies.

Sure, the torch-keepers of the corporate agenda may lose elections along the way, but they now can pretty much stop any major laws from passing in America on the national level. They have tilted our politics far enough in their direction, that the public at large lacks the leverage to regain the balance, to protect most things that we believe in. It is not clear when, or even if we can regain the balance. 

Blips on the Screen, But the Larger Truth 

Of course, there are a few blips of good news here and there. We live in a complex society with some contradictions. But often when the occasional success gets appropriately celebrated, like gay marriage, it is often seen as proof of how things are going to change, and not as the anomaly that it is with very particular ingredients. Public opinion has certainly shifted on gay marriage, and obviously among leaders like Hillary Clinton, and even some conservatives. That is progress.  But we would have no gay marriage if there wasn't huge money in favor of it, if powerful people didn't have skin in the game, and if it threatened corporate power and profit, which it doesn't, since gay marriage has been somewhat of a boon for the business sector, and many corporations support it.

At this point, it is a basic tenet of American politics that corporate power rules the roost. Nothing significant that will become law in America if corporate power, profits, global competitive advantage, military might, national security and privatization are in any significant way threatened. And while I personally understand, the motivation in a situation of dire straits, I am weary of what is often knee-jerk optimism among some progressive cheerleaders, about how things are going to change: something better is right around the corner; the pendulum is going to swing back, what goes around comes around, etc. People, it is not going to happen. Every indicator signals that things are going to get worse, perhaps much worse.

Another favorite line that many smart people utter, almost everyday out of some kind of unmoored hope is: "if only the American people knew how bad these things are, like children's hunger, the wage gap or how rich the .001 percent is, they would get angry and do something about it." Well, no. First, most people know how bad things are—they don't need to have the exact statistic to understand it. They live it every day.  

The bigger problem is that people don't know what to do. They are overwhelmed on the Internet, asked to sign dozens of petitions a week, give money to a myriad of uncoordinated, stand alone causes. But the truth is, the political system is blocked in almost every way, as never before. There is voter suppression to the extremely conservative Supreme Court and the Citizen's United decision. There is massive lobbying budgets (analyst James Thurber estimated that the actual number of working lobbyists in Washington was close to 100,000 and the industry brings in $9 billion annually) and corruption on many levels. There is often what seems like police-state repression and the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, drug use, and of immigrants, people of color, and often those who venture to protest and express their constitutional rights. Things may feel relatively fine for many educated white folks living on the coasts and in cities and university towns, but this will not last. Sooner or later the rising tides of massive inequality and increased repression will affect most of us. 

Who to Vote for? 

For most people federal elections change nothing. Rarely is there someone to vote for who might even try to shake up the system. As research has shown, the entire elected apparatus in America serves the wealthy almost exclusively—and especially those who pay for their campaigns.

In New York, for instance, Senator Chuck Schumer, perhaps the second or third most powerful person in the Senate, is a staunch advocate of protecting the special tax status of hugely wealth hedge funders. He is strongly resistant to even modest reforms, like a tiny transaction tax on stock trading advocated by the United Nurses and many others that would bring more money for much-needed programs and infrastructure. But come election time, if you don't vote for Chuck, your option is likely a conservative Republican, who is even worse. What an option.

Sorry to say, but the "arc of history" is not bending toward justice—and hasn't for the last 50 years, since shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached it, was assassinated. Maybe some time in the future, people will be able to claim that beautiful phrase for truth. But will it be in our lifetime? I don't think I would take that bet. But then, I am older than many of you reading this. So I do hope you all will figure it out.

We Can't Keep Doing the Same Thing 

It's my observation, that many people, often comfortable, highly-educated ones, who control the progressive establishment (the foundations, the wealthy individuals, the think tanks, the large, heavily-funded Washington groups) continue to do the same thing over and over as if things will actually change by continuing the same path. We know people are fond of calling that repetitive compulsion "insanity," and they have a point. There, of course, are notable exceptions to every one of my general statements throughout this article, but I'm talking about the big picture.

Sure, every once in a while there is an incremental change. Some positive things have happened internally within the Obama administration, despite the rabid right-wing opposition. But the Obama administration deported a record 438,421 unauthorized immigrants in fiscal year 2013, continuing a streak of stepped up enforcement that has resulted in more than two million deportations since Obama took office, newly released Department of Homeland Security data show.

Dan Froomkin, writing at the Intercept, insists that in terms of the building of an excessive national security state, "in a lot of ways, we’re worse off today than we were under George W. Bush.There will be no snapping back to a pre-Bush-era respect for basic human dignity and civil rights. Thanks to Obama, it’s going to be a hard, long fight. In some cases, Obama has set even darker precedents than his predecessor. Massively invasive bulk surveillance of Americans and others has been expanded, not constrained. This president secretly condemns people to death without any checks or balances, and shrugs as his errant drones massacre innocent civilians. Whistleblowers and journalists who expose national security wrongdoing face unprecedented criminal prosecution."

As for Obama and climate, take a look at Mark Hertsgaard's comprehensive review in Harpers of the Obama environmental record. It is a depressing read. And there's every indication that the presumed next Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, is a big advocate of fracking and would be worse on climate.

So yes, we do have Obamacare and that will help million of poor people, as long as they don't live in most red states. But Obamacare, for the most part, made the health care and drug companies happy because there are no cost controls. There is no public option, or single-payer model, and our government still can't negotiate with drug companies for more fair prices on our behalf. 

So it is quite bad. Yet, year in and year out, we in the progressive universe write essentially the same books and articles (though the story does get worse), advocate for the same policies, go after the same grants, meet with each other at the same think tanks, and conferences, because that is what we have always done.

However, and I think this is crucial, very little brain power, funding, large-scale energy is invested in serious organizing, and in thinking how political power can be leveraged to even remotely move toward the sensible or sometimes grandiose ideas the progressive establishment spends its time thinking up. We don't have to read Thomas Piketty's dense prose to understand how much worse the currently unacceptable inequality is going to be ten years from now, or to even try to guess how many trillions of dollars of wealth are sitting hidden off shore, or in countries like Ireland, where one of our "favorite corporations" Apple, keeps billions to avoid paying taxes. 

We all can easily imagine many ways our world could be better. That is the really easy part. We also have all the analysis we need. We have access to a tremendous amount of information from the data-producing establishment to understand and prove the existence and cause of virtually every social problem. But we do not have a clue how to address these myriad of problems in a hardcore, political way and defend our values of fairness, inclusion, and responsibility.

This is in stark contrast to the conservative corporate state that dominates in order to relentlessly cut social programs, lower taxes, privatize government, erode women's rights, and on and on. Too often, all we have is the progressive religion of eternal hope, and sometimes magical thinking, that change will come in some way and at some point. Yes, change will come, but it very well might not be the change we want. It might make things quite a bit worse than they are right now. 

Is There Any Organizing?

There has been both a sharp decline in union membership and influence, as anti-union campaigns from Reagan to the present day have decimated a chunk of the union movement. The State of Michigan, the birthplace of the autoworkers and the labor vision, is now a right-to-work state. Some unions spend many millions of dollars fighting each other over decreasing numbers of members. 

The same can be said of community organizing. Over the past 40 years, organizing has shrunk dramatically. Part of the blame is that large foundations, who represent individual and corporate wealth, have given billions of dollars to organizations with the end result of moving away from efforts to exercise power, to make trouble and push for change. Instead, they study things and become calm advocates for policy shifts. Often progressives have their own revolving doors between non-profits and foundation jobs. The result is a philanthropic, non-profit establishment that appears to fit in too comfortably with the status quo, despite thousands of people within it who are unhappy with their feelings of impotence and lack of change.

There is still some semblance of organizing going on in America—in California, Kentucky, and Minnesota—and by groups like PICO, the Domestic Workers Alliance, Partnership for Working Families, National People's Alliance and U.S. Action, to name some of the key players. But indicative of how modest this organizing now is, the overall budgets of the largest national groups combined is $130-150 million, roughly in the range of one year of the budget for mainstream environmental group The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and for the ACLU. And this is the same ACLU that supports the Supreme Court in their Citizens United decision, treating money as speech, corporations as people—one of the truly horrendous developments in American politics in the last decade. 

Many progressives, myself included, have the luxury of letting our imaginations play because our lives, our lifestyles, our families, our futures, are not dependent on having most of the major and intractable problems solved, at least in the short term. In this sense, climate change could finally be the great game changer, since it directly affects families and generations to come. But there is little evidence, at this point, that the wealthy elites and corporate leaders in America, are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to protect the future. 

This Weekend's Conference on Technological Utopia

One reason for this rant at this moment, which probably will piss a lot of people off, is that a gaggle of major progressive thinkers and advocates have come together in NYC at Cooper Union, organized by my old friend Jerry Mander, formally a guru at the Public Media Center in San Francisco. Mander, perhaps is best known for his somewhat culty, much loved anti-technology critique in 1978 called "4 Arguments for the Elimination of Television." He made the case that problems with television are fundamental to the medium and the technology, and consequently cannot be reformed. And for this current conference Mander's organizing principle is to critique the technological utopia and get people to change their consciousness.

Hmm. I'm not sure that beyond a crowd of very wealthy libertarian venture capitalists and technology stars and their minions in Silicon Valley and the accompanying "bro culture," that many people still think there is anything utopian about technology at this point. 

And I hope that all that brain power downtown in the Village spend some time thinking about how to politically leverage all those big ideas, and think hard about how to ameliorate some of the worst excesses of the technology revolution. 

One place Jerry could start: would be by making the same point he did in his earlier book, by writing  "4 Arguments -- or perhaps 10 or 20 -- for the Elimination of the Internet." Arguably, the Internet is much worse than television was as a distracting influence back in the old days. These days, television seems a blessing when compared to the Internet, which is the home of rampant misogyny, racism, polarization and invasion of privacy. Plus, it’s a huge multiplier of our massive wealth gap, with billions of dollars going to a small group of almost all white men, mostly with a libertarian bent who don't really believe in government providing services or a social safety net or much of anything that we call progressive values. Although they do think that people should be able to smoke pot. 

And two massive companies dominating our every day lives, Facebook and Google, are fundamentally shaping our news  and pushing journalists and media to write about and cover superficial things they would not have in the past to get the eyeballs they need to make money. This is not a good thing. As Aaron Sankin writes at The Daily Dot's Kernal: "It’s almost impossible to overstate how important Facebook is to online news sites, which live and die at the whims of the social network’s algorithm. ... Once you stop to think about that, however, the entire system seems insane. If you’re a journalist, or even someone who cares about the role journalism plays in society, it’s utterly terrifying."

Why We Are Losing and What We Can Do 

Folks, very little happens in this country is in the name of the public interest. The country is more polarized. The fundamentalists are attacking good sense and crushing progressive ideas. And sadly, too often we keep doing that we have always done. Among progressives and liberals we have great thinkers, comprehensive information, hundreds of compelling books about all of the horrors of the bank meltdown, of racism and trauma, of fears of climate change, and so much more.

But we have almost no investment from these big brains (and their organizations, which get a lot of the funding) about, not what should be changed, but how it can be changed. The stars of progressive America media, and the leaders of the liberal establishment are not organizers; they are not strategists. They really don't know how to leverage change, in the way conservatives do. Everyone thinks that it's some one else's job. But who is doing it? Community organizing is a ghost of what it was compared to 30 years ago. 

Some months ago, I wrote an article: " The 4 Plagues: Getting a Handle on the Coming Apocalypse," in which I provided an analysis that there are four especially powerful and pernicious overarching economic and political mechanisms operating in our country that are fundamentally responsible for the situation we are in: They are privatization, financialization, militarization and criminalization, which together are producing a steadily creeping authoritarianism—a new authoritarianism—to fit our times. Let’s call them the Four Plagues, or if we wish, “The Four Horsemen of Our Apocalypse,” from the Book of Revelations in the New Testament.

Many people wrote that they found this article very helpful to understanding the bigger picture of how some fundamental elements of American-style capitalism and hegemony affects almost everything and are intricately connected; how the exploitation/lobbying/revolving door model of corporations is so finely honed, that we often don't realize when our pocket is being picked; how hundreds of billions of dollars is being poured down rat holes in wars, but mainly passed through the pockets of our giant military contractors.

In response to the article, many people said to me: "you are going to write about the other side, the other half, the good news, aren't you?" It was as if people thought in tandems and balances.  Many seemed to think that there is an ongoing equality between the bad and the good. At that point I said sure. I thought of course I would write about the good stuff, and of course there are plenty of successes. There are great people working on crucial issues, and some cities like Seattle, New York, Portland, have politics with a strongly progressive hue. But every time I sat down to try to write the good news piece I realized comparatively how little success there was and how inconsequential. When contemplating the fundamental issues of our times—corporate power, climate change, inequality and poverty, racism, collective trauma, etc.—I realized I could not in good conscious make a strong good news case.

So now I am finally following up on that article, and I'm saying things are even worse. So for me I/we need to get more radical, and more self-supporting, both financially and emotionally. I am not advocating for despair or for dropping out. But we absolutely need to work more locally. The old adage that "all politics is local" is still very true. It is clear that very little can be accomplished on the national level of law making. 

With the billions of dollars available in the liberal and progressive funding world, how do we get lot more of those resources to the local level, in the hands of local organizers, not outside experts? We need money and commitment to people who are invested in where they live, in their neighbors and community, who show, as they have in Detroit, amazing ingenuity, persistence, and responsibility. 

And let's not forget, 2010 was a huge political debacle for Democrats and progressives because the Obama people were too focused on themselves, and too busy with trying to run a government. They abandoned the nitty-gritty politics in the states to the deep pocketed right-wing. Our side lost huge ground when the right completely out organized Democrats and gained control of the formally blue states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and purple North Carolina. As a consequence, all sorts of bad policy is now law—much of it pushed and coordinated by ALEC.

And then those legislatures redrew the lines from the census, and made more safe districts for hardcore right-wingers, and protected their incumbents. Unpleasant, huh? The same situation will present itself in 2020. Will there be more powerful liberal and progressive groups in place in all those states and others? If there are not, the road to progressive oblivion will be further greased. For those who are electorally oriented the next 6 years are very important if we are able to make headway electorally, which sadly is not going to happen in 2014, with a few notable exceptions.

In a recent AlterNet article by Amanda Marcotte, I was struck by this statistic about the extent of steady polarization going on in the country: "Previous Pew research shows the percentage of Americans who are ‘mostly’ or ‘consistently’ conservative has grown 50 percent from 18 percent in 2004 to 27 percent in 2014, while the number of people considered liberal has remained the same."

The conservative propaganda apparatus is changing minds, convincing people that climate change is not a problem, that government is the problem, and motivating them to vote for increasingly extreme candidates in very red districts that are committed to paralyzing our government. For them it is a war; and they are not interested in compromise. 

Most progressives are not prepared for a future where politics is even more dicey and dangerous than it is now. So we have to stop going through the motions of not producing change and get down to the basics  where and when we can make a difference. 

Let 's do more political action with friends and colleagues. Let's agree a higher level of popular political education and self-reflection is necessary. Let's build up ways in our neighborhoods, cities and towns, where progress can be made to protect ourselves from hostilities and repression from the hugely militarized police and the massive network of spying on us. More repression is bound to come.

So yes, is time to take a hard look at why and how we have failed. And we need to rethink pretty much everything, along the way. As Robert Jensen writes in his mini book and on AlterNet, "we are all apocalyptic now."

In that light, I have started describing myself as a pragmatic/apocalyptic, which means there are huge problems on the horizon, likely severe crises ahead, and there is at present no light at the end of the tunnel. So let's stop fantasizing about all the ways our world should be when there isn't the remotest chance of those ideas coming to fruition any time soon, if ever. Let's focus on what can be done, on building local and regional strength, on developing thousands of new organizers and less think tankers, and bringing people together in ways they feel supported, as opposed to on their own, with no one at their backs. 

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5 Craziest Right-Wing Moments this Week: Christian Celeb’s Bonkers Ideas about Halloween

Sat, 10/25/2014 - 13:23
Plus Fox Newsian just doesn't get young women.

1. Kirk Cameron: Obama Halloween masks are actually celebrating Jesus’ triumph over Satan.

Former "Growing Pains" star Kirk Cameron is doing his darndest to rebrand Halloween as a Christian holiday. At the same time, the uber-right-wing Christian actor is getting his digs in at Obama.

When you go out on Halloween and see all people dressed in costumes and see someone in a great big bobble-head Obama costume with great big ears and an Obama face, are they honoring him or poking fun?” Cameron said to one of his favorite publications, The Christian Post.

Of course, he knows the answer: "They are poking fun at him."

Crazy started when Cameron compared this to how early Christians dressed up in devil, goblin and witch costumes to make the point that these evils were vanquished by Jesus.  “The costumes poke fun at the fact that the devil and other evils were publicly humiliated by Christ at His resurrection.”

Just as Obama has been vanquished by Jesus. Amirite?

Cameron is also anxious to assert Christian ownership of Halloween, despite the fact that most historians and anthropologists say its origins are pagan and go back to harvest festivals. In Cameron’s cheery rewriting, Halloween isn’t even about death. So, what Christians should do for Halloween is throw a party and show how “death was defeated,” by Jesus.

We did not know that death had been defeated. Has this been widely reported?

For his next act, Cameron will save Christmas. From the Grinch, presumably.

2. Fox Newser Kimberly Guilfoyle: Young women should not vote or serve on juries. They should just go back on Tinder.

Women—especially young women —tend not to vote Republican. Hmmm. Wonder why that is. Nothing to do with the all-out assault on abortion rights. No. Nothing to do with Republicans not supporting equal pay for equal work laws. Nothing to do with “binders of women,” or “legitimate rape” or television ads suggesting that voting is much like choosing a wedding dress. 

Nope. Fox News’ “The Five” host Kimberly Guilfoyle thinks it’s because young women just don’t “get it.”

“It’s the same reason why young women on juries are not a good idea,” Guilfoyle said. “They don’t get it. They’re not in that same life experience of paying the bills, doing the mortgage, kids, community, crime, education, healthcare. They’re like healthy and hot and running around without a care in the world. ... I just thank and excuse them so they can go back on Tinder or,” Guilfoyle offered, jocularly.

Even some of the male panelists appeared to be squirming, though they love a good cat-fight. Saves them the trouble of insulting women.

Panelist Greg Gutfield soberly opined, “with age comes wisdom” and “the older you get, the more conservative you get.”

Still, strangely, the only young people who lack the wisdom to vote or serve on juries according to Guilfoyle are female.

Guilfoyle later clarified that she just meant that young women can maybe vote but they should not serve on juries.

"I said I want to 'thank and excuse' someone from jury service," Guilfoyle said. "That is the language you use in the courtroom. If they want to go back and do social media or dating websites, fine." She added, "I take the right to vote very seriously. I take the right to serve on a jury very seriously. And I think you should be informed when you do both things."

So there, not sexist at all. Why would you think that?

She did not mention that to be informed, you mustn’t watch Fox News, which actually sucks information out of your brain.

3. Texas wing-nut congressman sees parallel between Ebola crisis and zombie movies.

Speaking of brain sucking ... Texas GOP Representative Blake Farenthold already has the birther credentials that qualify him, some say, to succeed Michele Bachmann as the nuttiest nutjob in Congress. (Esquire political blogger Charles Pierce’s name for the post is the Royal Regent of the Crazy People, of which Louie Gohmert is Emperor for Life.)

But this man, Farenthold is a serious contender. His contribution to the national dialogue on Ebola, and the CDC’s handling of it this week was this:

“Every outbreak novel or zombie movie you see starts with somebody from the government sitting in front of panel like this saying there's nothing to worry about.”

So, he’s not having any trouble separating fact from fiction. None whatsoever.

4. Joni Ernst wants to go to Washington and be a senator packing heat, in case she’s attacked by the government.

It’s one thing to run on a shrink-the-government platform. Wing-nut Joni Ernst of Iowa is running for Senate on a “I’m scared of the government; that’s why I need to carry my gun with me everywhere to protect me from the government that I want to join,” platform.

OK, it’s a little long and unwieldy, but she’s working on it.

Video surfaced this week of this Koch-funded Iowa extremist speaking lovingly of her gun at an NRA event two years ago. Somehow, it seems relevant now. In it, Ernst says:

“I have a beautiful little Smith & Wesson, 9 millimeter, and it goes with me virtually everywhere… I believe in the right to defend myself and my family — whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”

This beacon of level-headed leadership won the GOP primary with the help of an ad showing her glee at castrating hogs.

“Washington’s full of big spenders,” she said to the camera before slicing into the unfortunate animal’s balls, “let’s make ‘em squeal.” Kind of like the guy in Deliverance."

Ernst has also gone on the record for promising to jail federal bureaucrats who try to implement Obamacare in her state. She is really a Koch kind of gal.

Now that we know that this loon’s got a gun and she knows how to use it—and she’s ahead in the polls—we can all sleep better at night.

Except the hogs.

5. Pat Robertson: The gay terrorist Inquisition is just so terribly wrong.

Pastor Pat's increasingly enfeebled mind is working overtime to come up with enough scary rhetoric about gay people. So he combined two really bad things—terrorism and the Spanish Inquisition—and told his viewers that gay people are doing both.

“These people are terrorists, they’re radicals and they’re extremists,” the hysterical evangelical told 700 Club viewers. “No Christian in his right mind would ever try to enforce somebody against their belief or else suffer jail. They did that during the Inquisition, it was horrible, it was a black mark on our history, but it isn’t being done now.”  Robertson thinks it’s time that pastors put up their dukes and fight these “homosexuals.” Because no one has thought of that, ha! Christians persecuting gays? Never.

No, the gentle Christians are just rolling over in the face of this scary gay terrorism.

“If the gays want to go out and do their gay sex, that’s one thing,” said the very Reverend. “But if they want to force you to accept and solemnify it by marriage, that’s another matter.. . .”

Hear that, the gays? Uncle Pat says it’s all right for you to go out and do your gay sex.

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Allies of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback Viciously Attack LGBT Rights As Marriage Ruling Nears

Sat, 10/25/2014 - 12:12
Another sign of why Brownback is one of the nation's most extremist Republicans.

As Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is behind in some re-election polls, allies of one of the nation’s most rightwing governors are circulating a vicious anti-LGBT flyer urging evangelical Kansans to stand with Brownback in the escalating courtroom fight over legalizing same-sex marriage.

The hate-filled flyer, which has a New Hampshire telephone number at the bottom, urges Kansans to call the governor’s office and support Brownback’s ongoing stance to fight federal court decisions that are expected any day now to order local officials to resume issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The flyer all-but calls for violence against LGBT individuals, saying, “If it is the nature of a person to be gay, it is in their nature to be extinct.”

It purports to quote “a homosexual declaration of war read in the California House of Representatives” that states, “We will sodomize your children. All churches who condemn us will be closed. The family unit will be eliminated. Any man contaminated with heterosexual lust will automatically be barred from any position of influence.”

It is not unusual for vicious political messages to emerge at the end of a campaign, where the public and press do not have time to identify the messengers. However, the timing of the flyer also comes as Kansas’ state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is likely to be struck down in federal court—which will bring the issue into the governor’s race.

In early October, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage rulings from the same federal appeals court that oversees Kansas. That prompted the ACLU to file a suit in that federal circuit to force the state to issue same-sex marriage licenses.   

On Friday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas held a telephone conference in that suit with lawyers for both sides—the ACLU and Kansas’ Attorney General. That judge ordered final briefs to be filed by Monday afternoon. That is likely to produce a ruling in the final phase of the governor’s race, where the Democratic challenger, state Rep. Paul Davis, has based his message on reversing Brownback’s extremism—starting with his fiscally irresponsible tax cuts.

Non-partisan state budget analysts have projected that Brownback's cuts will create a billion dollar state deficit within five years.

On Friday, the Kansas City Star reported that Davis was ahead of Brownback, 52 percent to 45 percent, in a poll by Rasmussen Reports, a firm known for a pro-Republican bias. Other tracking polls that have not been released publicly show a tighter race.

“Fifty-eight percent of voters thought Kansas was worse off today than it was four years ago when Brownback took office,” the Star said. “Most Kansans don’t trust Brownback with taxes, another bad bellwether given that income tax cuts are his seminal achievement during his first term in office.”

The impact of the anti-LGBT flyer supporting Brownback is hard to assess. While it may provoke religious conservatives to vote, it also may remind moderate Kansans that Brownback’s record as an extremist is not contained to cutting taxes, defunding public education, and gutting needed safety net programs.



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Hangovers: What the Hell Are They? And What Can You Do About Them?

Sat, 10/25/2014 - 11:31
A look at the most common remedies and which ones really help.

Last night: You were having such a great time. Good friends, fun atmosphere. Another drink won’t hurt. Let’s keep this party going! The next morning: Uh oh… We’ve all been there, done that. P.G. Wodehouse once described a hangover like this: “I sat up in bed with that rather unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that you’re going to die in about five minutes.” Sound familiar? There’s the crawling-through-the-desert dry mouth, the body fatigue, the pounding headache, the nausea. The room may be spinning, the hands may be shaking, the eyes bloodshot. You are just not in a good place… Why did you let this happen again? It might not be totally your fault. According to the Mayo Clinic, for some people, a single drink may be enough to trigger a hangover. For a lucky few, hangovers are rare or non-existent. For most of us, though, hangovers are a result of at least three drinks over the span of an evening. Where do they come from? More important, what can we do about them now that they're here?


Many factors play into the development of a hangover. Heavy drinking results in increased urination, which leads to dehydration. This dehydration is the primary a cause of the thirst and dizziness we experience the morning after. Alcohol may also trigger inflammation, causing an immune response from your body. Drinking increases stomach acid production, leading to stomach irritation. It can cause blood sugar levels to drop, causing weakness and shakiness, and blood vessels to expand, causing headaches. Richard Stephens, a professor of psychology at Keele University, explained to Atlantic Magazine that your body produces an enzyme when you drink that breaks the alcohol down. Ethanol in the drink is the first alcohol to be metabolized, and once it is fully broken down, you start to feel sober. Then the body begins breaking down another alcohol in the drink, methanol. This alcohol breaks down into toxic metabolites, formaldehyde and formic acid. Poisons. Not enough to kill you, but enough to make you feel ill. Thus, the dreaded hangover…

There are other ingredients in a drink called congeners that contribute to hangovers. Congeners give alcohols their color and add flavor. Generally speaking, darker alcohols like red wine, bourbon, scotch, and brandy are higher in congeners than lighter colored drinks, like pale ales, gin, vodka, and white wine. The higher the congener content, the more likelihood that you will suffer hangovers. Thus, the old advice, stick to lighter colored drinks to avoid hangovers, seems to have some scientific basis.

Ever since humans first experienced the high of alcohol consumption and the low of the morning after, the search has been on for the cure for the hangover. Sadly, most cures fall into the “ineffective” category. If you know you are going out for a night of merriment, eating beforehand helps. An empty stomach will absorb alcohol much faster than a full one. You can try to sleep longer than normal afterwards, in effect choosing unconsciousness during the worst phase of the hangover. You can avoid other drugs during your drinking festivities, especially smoking, which may worsen the morning misery. You can drink slowly (it’s a marathon, not a sprint!). You can drink a lot of water in-between drinks. Truly, though, only time will cure a hangover. To relieve your hangover symptoms, the usual remedies apply: drink water and/or sports drinks (for the electrolytes) to rehydrate, take an Advil or Tylenol for your headache (careful though: Advil can further upset your stomach and Tylenol combined with alcohol can be damaging to the liver), eat some bland food or soup broth to settle the stomach. Then go back to sleep if you can.


Of course, just because hangovers can’t be cured doesn’t stop cures from entering the mythos anyway. Here are some of the so-called “cures” that people still sometimes use:

Hair of the dog.

Having another drink in the morning, the proverbial hair of the dog, has long been touted as the perfect hangover cure. Believe it or not, there is some scientific basis for this. As noted above, the body prefers to break down ethanol first, then methanol. It is the methanol that makes us feel sick. By having another drink, you distract the body from the methanol breakdown, as it goes back to metabolizing the ethanol. The methanol remains intact, thus avoiding the poisonous aftereffect of the methanol breakdown. So by staying drunk, you avoid the hangover… Of course, when you finally do stop drinking, there might be hell to pay.

Greasy breakfast.

Some people head to the diner for a good greasy-spoon breakfast as the cure the morning after. Is there anything to it? Depleted blood sugar contributes to hangover symptoms, and a greasy breakfast would certainly provide lots of carbohydrates to break down into glucose. So probably no harm done. although you may add heartburn to your list of miseries.

Alka Seltzer.

As the old TV commercial went, “Plop, plop. Fizz, fizz. Oh what a relief it is.” Maybe. Alka Seltzer contains sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), which can help settle an uneasy stomach. Then again, it contains aspirin, which can, while helping your headache, irritate the stomach lining.


Oh, the dilemma! Skip your coffee when you have a hangover and risk enhancing your headache through caffeine withdrawal. Or drink your coffee, which narrows your blood vessels, increasing blood pressure, resulting in…a worse headache. Best solution? Drink a little coffee, wait a while and see how it makes you feel.

Water and sports drinks.

Dehydration certainly makes a bad hangover worse, so drinking lots of fluids, including fluids with electrolytes, can help a little. Try Pedialyte, a beverage used to treat vomiting and diarrhea in children and is sold in most drug stores. It contains electrolytes and is low in sugar. If your stomach can’t handle gulping more drinks, try Pedialyte freezer pops.


Exercise might make you feel better if you can swing it, but what your body really needs is rest. Sleep in if you can and then take a walk or jog.


Many people swear by a sauna to cure hangovers, sweating out the so-called toxins. This is a terrible idea. First of all, toxins in the body do not get sweated out. They are metabolized by the liver and kidneys and then excreted. Secondly, excessive sweating can cause dangerous drops in blood pressure and heart arythymia. This is a remedy to be avoided.

Cures around the world

Drinking being a worldwide pursuit, it is no surprise that “cures” have sometimes taken on a regional flavor:

Italy- Pizzle

Otherwise known as dried bull penis. Are you up for it?

South Africa- Sheep’s brain

The brain is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, so maybe they’re on to something there. 

Haiti- Voodoo

Sticking 13 pins in the cork of the bottle supposedly does the trick.

Vietnam- Efferalgan codeine

A combo of ephedrine to wake you and codeine to kill the pain. Completely illegal in the U.S. 

Hungary- Brandy with sparrow droppings

Yep. You heard right. Of course the bacteria and parasites in the droppings might cause a problem.

Philippines- Fertilized duck embryo

If you have a spare embryo around, the high levels of cysteine, which aids the liver in metabolism, might help. Might…

Mongolia- Tomato juice with pickled sheep eyes

We heard it's delicious.

The Wild West- Rabbit dropping tea

Steep the droppings in hot water, sip slowly, and pretend to be a cowboy.

Finally, my favorite cure:

Ancient Rome- fried canary

The perfect antidote to the overindulgence at last night’s orgy.

A hangover is the biological price we pay for our occasional lapses in judgment. However, if you find yourself constantly hung over, it may just be you have a problem. If so, please, seek help. 


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The Republican Party’s Electoral Philosophy: Cheating Wins

Sat, 10/25/2014 - 09:15
The explosion and enforcement of restrictive voter ID laws make this one thing very clear.

Last week, the Supreme Court upheld a law that could disenfranchise 600,000 Texans. But the effects of the law won’t fall equally: African-Americans and Latinos are 305 percent and 195 percent less likely (respectively) to have the necessary forms of identification than whites. The Republican party is increasingly unpopular, and relies almost exclusively on white voters. The charts below show the 2008 if only white men voted and if only people of color voted (source).

Since 2008, people of color become a growing share of the voting population while the GOP has, if anything, moved further to the right. It has further alienated voters of color with racist attacks and laws. But as they say: if you can’t beat ‘em, make sure they don’t vote. Over the last four years the Republicans have gone through elaborate attempts to make sure populations that don’t support them don’t get a chance to vote.

Since 2006, Republicans have pushed through voter ID laws in 34 states.  Such laws did not exist before 2006, when Indiana passed the first voter ID law. The laws were ostensibly aimed at preventing voter fraud, but a News21 investigation finds only 2,068 instance of alleged fraud since 2000 (that is out of over 146 million voters). They estimate that there is one accusation of voter fraud for every 15 million voters. As Mother Jonesnotes, instances of voter fraud are more rare than UFO sightings. There have been only 13 instances of in-person voter fraud (the sorts that a voter ID law would reduce), while 47,000 people claim to have seen a UFO. 

On the other hand, research by the Brennan Center for Justice finds that, “as many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have government-issued photo ID.” Those who do not have ID are most likely to be “ seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income voters, and students” — i.e.. people who vote Democratic (chart source).

There is now a large literature studying the effects of voter ID laws. James Avery and Mark Peffley find, “states with restrictive voter registration laws are much more likely to be biased toward upper-class turnout.” The GAO finds that voter ID laws reduce turnout among those between ages 18-23 and African-Americans (two key Democratic constituencies). A 2013 study finds that the proposal and passage of voter ID laws are “highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs.” They write, “Our findings confirm thatDemocrats are justified in their concern that restrictive voter legislation takes aim along racial lines with strategic partisan intent.” [Italics in original] The authors also find that increases in low-income voter turnout triggered voter ID laws. A more recent study finds, “where elections are competitive, the furtherance of restrictive voter ID laws is a means of maintaining Republican support while curtailing Democratic electoral gains.” That is, not all Republican legislatures propose voter ID laws — only those that face strong competition from Democrats. If Republicans are concerned about election integrity, why do they only pass voter ID laws when they’re about to lose an election? Because they’re cheaters.

Voter ID laws are also racially motivated. A recent study finds that voters are significantly more likely to support a voter ID law when they are shown pictures of black people voting than when shown white people voting. One voter ID group had a picture on their websiteshowing a black inmate voting and a man wearing a mariachi outfit — clearly playing off racial stereotypes.

But this isn’t the only time Republicans have tried to leverage state-level advantages into federal gains. After the 2010 walloping, Republicans decided they would need to tilt the odds in their favor. Using their control of state legislatures, they gerrymandered districts to ensure their victory. In 2012, Democrats actually had a larger share of the popular vote for the House of Representatives, while Republicans gained their largest House majority in 60 years. Cook Political Report noted, “House GOP Won 49 Percent of Votes, 54 Percent of Seats.” How? They cheated. Karl Rove came out and said it in an Op-Ed,writing, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.” They won in districts that were drawn specifically to allow them to win. There were certainly other factors at play, but it’s hard to image Republicans winning as many seats without their nifty swindle.

As Tim Dickinson points out, this isn’t the end:

In a project with the explicit blessing of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a half-dozen Republican-dominated legislatures in states that swing blue in presidential elections have advanced proposals to abandon the winner-take-all standard in the Electoral College…Thanks to the GOP’s gerrymandering, such a change would all but guarantee that a Democratic presidential candidate in a big, diverse state like Michigan would lose the split of electoral votes even if he or she won in a popular landslide.

If Republicans have their way, we’ll eventually be back to the days of the poll tax and the literacy test, where the votes of blacks, youth and the poor simply don’t count. We’re already halfway there. The Senate, with its antiquated system of two senators per state means that the largely rural, old, white and conservative Midwest and South have far more sway than liberal metropolitan areas. This gives Republicans a strong advantage in the Senate, something to remember if they win it this election.

Republicans have also made use of felony disenfranchisement to boost their electoral success. Some 5.85 million Americans are denied the vote due to felony disenfranchisement. Because of the racial bias in our criminal justice system and the war on drugs, a disproportionate share of these voters are black. One study finds that because felons are more likely to be poor and people of color, disenfranchisement benefits Republicans. The authors estimate that, “at least one Republican presidential victory would have been reversed if former felons had been allowed to vote.” Further, they find that such laws may have impacted control of the Senate, and even more state and local elections. It’s no surprise that in Florida, a state where 10 percent of voters can’t vote because of a felony conviction, one of Rick Scott’s first moves as governor was to tighten rules for felons trying to gain voting rights.

To a large extent, the radicalism of the Tea Party and the Republican Party at-large is due to the fact that they don’t represent the population at large; they represent a primarily white and middle- to high-income voting bloc. And that’s how Republicans want to keep it; they know they can’t win in fair race, so like Dick Dasterdly and Muttley, they set all sorts of obstacles in their opponents’ way. Hopefully, much like Dick Dasterdly and Muttley, their plan will blow up in their faces: Voters will be so angry about Republican attempts to suppress the vote that they’ll turn out in even higher numbers. Sadly, convicted felons, undocumented immigrants and many citizens without ID will still be denied the vote. In the movies, cheaters never win, for Republicans it’s been a successful electoral strategy for three decades running.


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Holy Wingnuts! This Week's Wacky Religious Rants About Gays and Atheists

Sat, 10/25/2014 - 08:31
The religious right is losing ground quickly ... and this is forcing them to resort to dishonest tactics.

The religious right is losing ground quickly in their fight against marriage equality and this is forcing them to resort to dishonest tactics. Take, for example, the couple from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho who claim they are being forced to perform same-sex weddings in their wedding chapel, despite it being against their religious beliefs.

Donald and Evelyn Knapp are ordained ministers who run the Hitching Post, a wedding chapel that operates under the International Church of the Four Square, an evangelical Pentecostal sect. The Knapps claim they were told they must start performing same-sex weddings, or face fines and possible jail time for violating a city ordinance.

The Knapps have quickly claimed religious discrimination and many religious groups are claiming that their worst fears have come true and that churches are being forced to perform same-sex weddings. But here’s the hitch (pardon the pun): the chapel is not a non-profit ministry, but a for-profit company, which means it’s required by law to follow state and federal laws.

If you think the gays are ruining your life here in the mortal world, don’t worry, says a Republican congressman; they’re not going to bother you in heaven. Iowa Rep. Steve King was asked by the Jefferson Herald about the recent growing acceptance of homosexuals by the Catholic Church. King is a practicing Catholic.

“I’ll just say that what was a sin 2,000 years ago is a sin today, and people that were condemned to hell 2,000 years ago, I don’t expect to meet them should I make it to heaven. So let’s stick with that principle,” said the congressman. “Let me say it isn’t to me to pass that judgment, and those who choose a lifestyle that I’ll say is not one that’s anointed and favored by my faith — or their faith, for that matter — that’s between them and God.”

Nothing makes fundamentalist Christians see red more than gays, except maybe atheists. Dragging out an old conservative meme, a Fox News host is insisting that atheists are waging a war on Christianity.

Ainsley Earhardt, the host of Fox & Friends First, complained to her viewers about a lawsuit brought against public schools that are displaying Christian plaques in their buildings by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Earhardt says that atheists “need to understand the culture” in the south. A guest on her show, Pastor Justin Coffman, agreed.“We want to see the cause of Christ in more public arenas in the American culture. We don’t want to take things away from. We want to see Christ in our schools,” he said.

Coffman claimed the lawsuit is atheists bullying Christians, to which Earhardt replied, “Yeah, Justin, you touched on it: the war on Christianity.”

It seems a week never goes by without Pat Roberston saying something preposterous, but this week it’s not what he said, it’s who he’s listening to. Roberston and the 700 Club hosted Anny Donewald, a former sex worker and a rape survivor who became pregnant and decided to terminate the pregnancy, but felt torn about her decision.

Donewald told Robertson, “I was an atheist at the time so I prayed. The running joke was that I was the praying atheist. And I said, God, I don’t know if you’re real or if you can hear me, but I don’t think you want me to do this. But I’m not going to be the one to stop it. You stop it."

She then went on to claim she made five different appointments and all of them were mysteriously canceled, which was proof enough to her that “God is real." But Donewald claims she wasn't sure of the nature of the god. Was it Buddha, Muhammad or Jesus? So just to make sure she was headed on the right path, God left a calling card for Donewald, putting a Bible verse in her head to steer her toward Christianity.

This, of course, is plenty of evidence for Robertson that heavenly intervention was at work, one that apparently didn’t question the sincerity of Donewald’s divine abortion cancellations.

How Wonky Homelessness Consultants Helped Ban Food-Sharing in 22 Cities

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 15:11
In less than two years, myths about sharing food with homeless people led to a wave of new restrictions.

In May, a Florida couple made national headlines when they were fined hundreds of dollars and threatened with prison for feeding homeless people. For over a year, Chico and Debbie Jimenez, had been feeding more than 100 homeless people every Wednesday at Manatee Island Park in Daytona Beach.

The police officers who ticketed the couple cited a local law in which a permit is required to share food with homeless people on public property. Daytona Beach authorities have since dropped all charges and fines, but the couple said they would face jail time if they hosted the gathering again without a permit.

“The worst thing is, these are people we have grown to love, they've become like family to us, and now we’re not allowed to go down and do that anymore,” Debbie Jimenez told NBC. “It's just heartbreaking. I have cried and cried and cried.” 

The Jimenez’s story is not unique. Food-sharing with the homeless has been criminalized across the country and is spreading. In its recent report, the National Coalition for the Homeless found that since January 2013 alone, food-sharing laws have been adopted in 21 cities. This past Tuesday, Fort Lauderdale, FL, passed the latest of these restrictions, making it city number 22. About 10 other cities are in the process of placing restrictions on food-sharing. This is a 47 percent increase since the coalition’s last report in 2010.

The coalition says this growing wave of restrictions is rooted in falsehoods about homelessness peddled by city advisers. It writes, "Such myths are detrimental to the lives of many homeless in individuals. These misguided notions from consultants and high-ranking officials have led to the increasing number of cities putting restrictions and bans on food-sharing across the country."

Myths About Homelessness

One of these myths is that sharing food with homeless people enables homelessness. The coalition quoted Robert Marbut, a homelessness consultant, who has traveled to more than 60 communities, warning, “If you feed people in parks, or on a street, or drive your car, all you’re doing is growing homelessness.”

Marbut suggests that homeless people should only be fed in places that provide them other services that could put them on a path out of homelessness. The coalition, however, writes that many homeless people don’t have access to meals each day at these facilities.

“I know of no city in the country in which a low-income person could eat three meals a day, seven days a week at an indoor location,” said Michael Stoops, editor of the new report. “And that’s why food-sharing programs are really important to narrow the gap.”

The next myth is the mistaken belief that there are more than enough existing meal programs. In the report, David Takumi, spokesman for the Seattle Human Services Department, was quoted saying, “We certainly appreciate… their work, but this has been the case where there are a lot of meals served at one time to the same population on the same day. It creates a possible food waste issue, garbage, and in that case a rodent issue.”

In reality, the coalition says these programs “are overwhelmed and often under-resourced.” They point to last November’s six percent cut in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, as well as a 2013 U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Hunger and Homelessness Survey, which found a surge of people in need. It found that 83 percent of cities surveyed reported an increase in the number of emergency food requests from the previous year. And 66 percent of emergency kitchens had to turn people away due to lack of resources.

Perhaps the cruelest myths is that by not feeding homeless people, they will disappear—which apparently is a desired outcome for some. The report quotes two city leaders who say homeless people shouldn’t be fed at all. One is a police captain in Cincinnati, OH, who stated, “If you want the bears to go away, don’t feed the bears.”

By depicting homeless people as unwanted animals, the statement practically rationalizes their mistreatment. In reality, homeless people are victims of cities’ failure to address real needs like affordable housing, job creation and living wages.

“The motivation behind all this is to get rid of homeless people and to make them less visible,” Stoops said. He continued:

"I think the real consultants should be people currently experiencing homelessness.… People who do studies or taskforces and come up with recommendations they’re doing it because they want to be the new kid on the block. And consultants are getting paid. Cities are paying them money to study the problem and come up with recommendations. Homelessness has been studied to death. We know what causes homelessness. We know the solutions. People sharing food with homeless people should be thanked profusely. Trying to shut down food-sharing programs is immoral and counterproductive."

How Cities Restrict Food-Sharing

These myths have led to a trend of restrictions on food-sharing programs, which happen three common ways: by requiring programs to obtain a permit, requiring them to comply with food-safety regulations, and by community actions that drive out the programs.

While obtaining a permit may seem easy, there are a lot of obstacles. For one, permits aren’t guaranteed if requested. In Shawnee, OK, the city has stopped giving permits to food-sharing programs.

They can also be extremely costly. In Raleigh, NC, a permit to distribute food in the park costs $800 a day. In Sacramento, CA, a proposed legislation has a permit costing up to $1,250, and groups are limited to four permits per year.

Not obtaining a permit can be pricey, too. In Houston, TX, groups that do not have city permission to feed homeless people can be fined up to $2,000. In Daytona Beach, FL, Chico, CA, Olympia, WA, and Myrtle Beach, SC, those without permits could face jail time. That's the reason the Jimenez family in Daytona Beach had to stop.

In addition to requiring permits, some cities are also requiring programs to adhere to food-safety regulations. In Salt Lake City, UT, food-sharing programs are required to have a food handler’s permit. While some city officials claim the standard is well intentioned, the coalition quoted a member of the ACLU saying, “If food safety really was an issue, then what about things like family reunions in parks.”

Restrictions on food-sharing programs sometimes come from the bottom up, with community members pressuring groups to end their services or the city to regulate it. Residents have complained about homeless people near their property, public urination or an increase in trash.

The coalition quoted one Los Angeles resident who said, “If you give out free food on the street with no other services to deal with the collateral damage, you get hundreds of people beginning to squat. They are living in my bushes and they are living in my next-door neighbor’s crawl space. We have a neighborhood which now seems like a mental ward.”

While legislation in Los Angeles has been proposed to ban food-sharing programs, community pressure has already been effective in restricting the programs in five other cities, including Seattle, WA.

Defending the Right to Food

The National Coalition for the Homeless concludes its report by explaining possible avenues for fighting back against food-sharing restrictions. They have already seen success in Albuquerque, NM, where three people filed a civil lawsuit against the city, claiming that their First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated because feeding homeless people was part of their religious expression. They won more than $100,000 in a settlement.

In St. Augustine, FL, city officials worked with food-sharing groups to secure a location in the downtown area to serve homeless people.

“Every city should walk a mile in the shoes of a homeless person and find out how difficult it is to get a meal three times a day, seven days a week that are nutritious,” Michael Stoops said, adding that they should create more indoor meal programs in convenient, downtown areas of cities. “If a city did that, there would be fewer people having to wait in the parks relying on Good Samaritans. And then for those still in the parks, we still have a moral obligation to share food with them.”

After a decade, the United States, in 2009, finally joined the rest of the United Nations in declaring a Right to Food. The coalition states, “Laws and restrictions [of food-sharing] violate that right.”

“We are looking at the strategies of litigation, at organizing boycotts, as a way to keep these ordinances from being enforced,” Stoops said. “We are not going to give up.” 

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Big Ag Spending Millions to Defeat GMO Labeling Campaigns

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 15:07
Industry giants spend more than $25 million to defeat mandatory labeling ballot initiatives in Oregon and Colorado.

Biotech and supermarket giants are spending more than $25 million to defeat ballot initiatives in two western states that would require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms. In Colorado, DuPont and Monsanto food companies are outspending supporters of mandatory labeling by 22-1 ahead of the 4 November vote, according to state campaign finance records.

In Oregon, meanwhile, industry is outspending supporters of the ballot measure by about 2-1.

The heavy industry spending resembles the last-minute infusions of cash for television ads, direct mail, and campaign staff that helped defeat earlier campaigns for mandatory GM labeling in California andWashington state.

“It is like David vs Goliath,” Larry Cooper, director of Colorado’s Right to Know campaign said.

He said the pro-labeling campaign had raised $625,000 by Thursday afternoon. Cooper’s opponents, meanwhile, amassed $14 million, after DuPont this week gave an additional $3 million to the campaign, and were advertising heavily on local television.

“Why they put $14 million in Colorado to keep us in the dark really doesn’t make sense to me,” Cooper said. “The bottom line is that we really don’t know what is in our food. We are shopping blindly.”

Monsanto alone has spent $4.7 million to defeat the measure. Other top donors to the campaign to defeat pro-labeling Proposition 105 read like a grocery shopping list. They include: PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, General Mills, Hershey Company, Coca-Cola and Kellogg, and Flower Food, according to Colorado state campaign finance records.

The spending is much less lopsided in Oregon where opponents of the state’s Measure 92 labeling initiative have raised $11 million while supporters have $6 million.

Monsanto is a major force in both states. “We oppose state-by-state mandatory labeling laws like Measure 92 in Oregon and Proposition 105 in Colorado,” a company spokeswoman said in an email. “The reason we don’t support them is simple. They don’t provide any safety or nutrition information and these measures will hurt, not help, consumers, taxpayers and businesses.”

Unlike Colorado, labeling advocates in Oregon have attracted some big donors to their side, including $1 million from Dr Bronners’ magic soaps.

An heir to the Hormel meat-packing fortune. Thomas Hormel, who has no connection to the company and lives in Florida, gave $500,000, according to state campaign finance records.

The company immediately ramped up its own donations, giving a total of $85,000 to defeat the labeling initiative.

Kevin Glenn, a spokesman for Oregon Right to Know, said the pro-labeling side hoped to counter the financial advantage by grassroots organizing. He said the campaign had opened five field offices in the state, and was about to start canvassing door-to-door.

Organizers also had a bit of a head start. In May, voters in two rural counties voted to ban cultivation of GM crops, on the grounds that it put conventional produce at risk of contamination.

Last year, a number of countries postponed wheat imports from Oregon after an outbreak of GM wheat from an experimental research station. Investigators have yet to discover the source of the GM outbreak, which occurred years after the tests were shut down.

Scientists generally agree that foods containing GM ingredients are safe to eat, but the “right to know” has emerged as a hugely emotional issue for some Americans.

Pro-labeling campaigners say the public has a right to know exactly what they are eating. Opponents say labels make no sense if there are no real health concerns, and risks stigmatizing their products.

Vermont earlier this year became the first US state to adopt mandatory labeling of GM foods – although the law does not go into effect until 2016.

Maine and Connecticut have also passed GM labeling laws, but put them on hold.


Inside the Fascinating and Terrifying Science of Ebola

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 13:38
Scientists are racing to find a cure, a vaccine and an answer to the question of how Ebola mutates.

By now, educated people in America know more about Ebola than they ever thought they would. While fearmongers have tried to terrorize the whole country into thinking it is on the verge of catching Ebola, cooler heads have largely prevailed. Bottom line, while Ebola is a devastating epidemic in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, most Americans are at virtually zero risk of getting it. The exception is truly heroic healthcare workers, like the two Dallas nurses who cared for Thomas Eric Duncan as he lay dying of the disease in Dallas, both of whom are now clear of the virus. And now there is Craig Spencer in New York, a physician with Doctors Without Borders who was infected while treating Ebola patients in Guinea. 

In the October 27 issue of the New Yorker, Richard Preston delves deeply into the fascinating science behind the virus, and how genomics research may help to contain the outbreak. Preston asks Ebola researchers all the questions everyone wants to know; most notably, could the Ebola virus mutate and become airborne, and how far away is a vaccine or a cure?

Here are five fascinating tidbits from that investigation into the frontlines of Ebola research. 

1. How infectious is Ebola?

In a fatal case, a droplet of blood the size of the “o” in this text could easily contain a hundred million particles of Ebola virus. Experiments suggest that if one particle of Ebola enters a person’s bloodstream it can cause a fatal infection.

Richard Preston explains that this could account for why many healthcare workers who contract Ebola cannot remember having made any specific mistake in protocol that would have exposed them. It also explains why the disease is so dangerous for healthcare workers and why even highly trained ones are at a high risk for getting the disease when they care for patients.

2. Is Ebola mutating?

Mutations, Preston explains, are errors in the genetic code that occur as a virus multiplies. As you read this and go about your business, the Ebola virus’ code is changing. Like any living thing, Ebola wants to survive.

So, yes, Ebola is mutating. The question is how.

“Ebola is not a thing but a swarm,” Preston writes. “It is a vast population of particles, different from one another, each particle competing with the others for a chance to get inside a cell and copy itself. The swarm’s genetic code shifts in response to the changing environment.”

3. Could Ebola become airborne?

As Preston explains, there are two ways for a virus to travel through air. One is inside a droplet (of sweat or mucus, or other bodily fluid).

Ebola is already traveling, and possibly infecting, people this way. The good news is that, because of gravity, it cannot travel very far in a droplet.

“The droplets travel only a few feet and soon fall to the ground,” Preston writes. “A rule of thumb among Ebola experts is that, if you are not wearing biohazard gear, you should stand at least six feet away from an Ebola patient, as a precaution against flying droplets.”

To really go airborne in the way that is far more worrisome, the Ebola virus would still be carried by the droplet of infected body fluid, but would have to remain alive once the droplet had dried out. It would then float through the air like dust, and in this drier state, be able to float longer distances, and be inhaled.

“Particles of measles virus can do this, and have been observed to travel half the length of an enclosed football stadium,” Preston writes, but thankfully, there’s no evidence that Ebola can.

So then the question is, could the virus mutate to a form where it could travel through the air dry—in other words, become airborne?

Scientists are fairly reassuring about this question. Preston spoke to Eric Lander, the head of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where the Ebola genome is being sequenced and tracked. “That’s like asking the question, ‘Can zebras become airborne,’" Lander told Preston. “That would be like saying that a virus that has evolved to have a certain lifestyle, spreading through direct contact, can evolve all of a sudden to have a totally different lifestyle, spreading in dried form through the air. A better question would be, ‘Can zebras learn to run faster?’ ”

What he means is, could Ebola evolve to be more contagious in ways that would not be as much of a change? One way it could, Lander told Preston, is by becoming less deadly in humans, killing a smaller percentage of them, but making them sick for longer.

“That might be good for Ebola, since the host would live longer and could start even more chains of infection,” Preston writes.

So, that’s a scary proposition.

4. Is ZMapp a cure for Ebola?

The New Yorker piece delves into the fascinating survival story of Kent Brantly, the American doctor who contracted Ebola and nearly died of it, before being brought back to Emory Hospital in Atlanta and being cured. Brantly was at death’s door when he was treated by an experimental serum called ZMapp. Before that, ZMapp had only been used on monkeys, but had shown promising results, bringing them back from being very close to death with three doses.

Brantly attributes his survival to the drug, but complete success cannot be claimed for it. A Spanish priest sick with Ebola was also treated with ZMapp and still died.

Another problem with ZMapp, which was developed in Canada, is that the world’s supply of it is now depleted.

According to Preston:

"More of the drug is growing in tobacco plants in a building in Kentucky. The plants have enough of the drug in them to make twenty to eighty treatment courses of ZMapp in the next two months, as long as there are no glitches in the process. The U.S. government and Mapp Biopharmaceutical are scrambling to get more plants growing, to increase production, but the scale-up will not be easy. The drug remains untested, and nobody can say whether it will ever become a weapon in the Ebola wars."

5. How far are we from developing a vaccine?

The New York Times reported the infuriating story Thursday that a vaccine was ready to be tested in humans 10 years ago. Had it gone forward, there could have been an Ebola vaccine in 2010 or 2011. But it went nowhere, because no one thought there was any money in it. Ebola outbreaks had been fairly limited, and only in poor countries. 

With the fresh crisis, the research is amping up again. Preston estimates that a vaccine might be available as early as next year “for use on people who have already been exposed to Ebola, though it will still not be cleared for general use.”

There are many ifs, but let's hope.  

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How Web Camming Is Transforming the World of Internet Porn

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 11:17
Web cam models enjoy all sorts of job benefits that aren't available to traditional sex workers.

Alice* spent a month and a half working at a BDSM dungeon in New York City. During her first solo session, a 70-year-old male client requested that she dress up as a dentist and administer an oral injection of lidocaine, a common anesthetic that causes numbness. Then she used tools and sounds to imitate teeth removal. But this was far from the strangest experience she had during her stint at the dungeon. People asked her to perform everything from golden showers to fisting to different forms of cock and ball torture. One client requested she blow cigarette smoke into his mouth for two hours while they watched gay porn and listened to music he had recorded.

“You never really know what you're going to get into unless they are your regular client and you've built a relationship with them,” Alice, 23, told AlterNet via email.

Unusual requests aside, Alice says she wasn’t explicitly threatened while working in the dungeon. Each room had a panic button, and she only met with clients who had been previously vetted by other women. Still, she concedes she never felt entirely safe because management did little to protect the women. “The money outweighed the girls’ safety a lot of the time and I didn’t like that,” she said in a phone interview. Eventually, Alice left the dungeon because the work left her with a wealth of negative feelings. Some of the acts she performed fell into a legal gray area, and some acts the other girls performed were downright illegal, which still put her in jeopardy with the law, even if she wasn’t doing anything wrong. “I felt like I was suffocating under that pressure.”

These feelings of pressure began to transcend the legal issues as her experiences at the dungeon bled into her personal life. “I went there one day and I realized how much I didn’t want to be there and how much it was draining me. I was consenting to things that I normally wouldn’t do because I knew it would make me more money.” She is in a committed relationship, but recalls that when she would go home after a day of work, she “didn’t want to be touched.”

Alice has since switched to the Internet where she works as a cam model performing one-woman shows for clients. Emotionally, the differences are already apparent. “I don’t feel sexually dried up,” she says. She works on a “girlfriend” cam site, which is distinct from the group rooms hosted on popular webcam sites like Men go there to meet her and message her individually, making the experience more personal. She likens it to a dating page, aside from the fact that she’s not allowed to share any personal information. If she violates this rule, her account will be terminated.

Alice gets paid for every message she receives. At the time of our interview, she had been working for the site for two weeks and had already made over $100 in messages alone. If she decided to start camming, it would be a private show, and she could decide the rate-per-minute. Within the field, payment seems to vary widely. Another web cam model wrote to me on the Internet forum Reddit and told me she works eight-hour shifts, typically making $500-$600 every two weeks for a total of $1300 a month. She explained that she can make anywhere from $10 per shift to $200. Income ranges depending on both the clients and the women; some models she knows make $300 per month while others make $3000. Though the numbers could well be inflated, MyFreeCams says its most popular models can make over $50,000 a month while several others earn $10,000 per month.

On the site Alice works for, live chats are free, so she’s using these as a less pressured entry point to the unfamiliar world of webcams. “But if they want to talk dirty or something, or they are really obviously trying to get off, you can tell them, ‘okay this conversation ends unless you put so-and-so amount of credits in my account.’” This way, she can set the tone and decide how much money she wants to make.

In a recent New York Times piece, Kari Lerum, a sociologist from the University of Washington Bothell desribes the comfort and independence that comes with web cam modeling compared to other types of sex work. “The women work out of their homes, it’s safe, they have more control over working conditions,” she said. MyFreeCams expressly addresses this as a pull for would-be models. It tells them “as a model, you are always in control of your chat room, and you have hundreds of different options and settings to make the site fit your needs." VividCamModels even gives potential models the option of blocking entire states or countries from seeing their live feeds.

The Internet also affords both sex workers and clients a clearer way of establishing consent. It allows models to set their limits before they step into the chat room. As Betabeat notes, they are less likely to be exploited by a director or a costar, as one may experience in traditional pornography. Moreover, solo performances put models at a decreased risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections.

The increased control afforded by the Internet extends outside the world of web cams. An article in the Economist explains how the Internet has normalized prostitution, allowing prostitutes to create personal websites to brand and market themselves, and clients to consult review sites to gain honest feedback about their experience, similar to Yelp and other user review sites. Women and men in the sex industry can do business on their own terms. Since prostitutes now have alternative ways to access clients, pimps are less likely to be abusive, as sex workers do not need to rely on them to market. Websites and apps can even help verify identities and share STD test results. One website, Britain’s Ugly Mugs, even allows sex workers to share information on dangerous individuals. In many ways, the Internet affords sex workers more choices, allowing them to accept and reject clients as they see fit, making acts between sex workers and their clients more consensual.

The health and safety benefits that come from formalizing sex work bring us one step closer to providing the basic labor rights that workers in other industries enjoy. As journalist and former web cam model Melissa Gira Grant explains in the Nation, even labeling sex work “work” changes its perception and the resulting conversation. Grant argues that “to do so is to insist that those who do sex work, in all of their workplaces and in varied conditions, deserve the rights and respect accorded to workers in any other industry.”

Nationcolumnist Katha Pollitt doesn’t agree. She responds to Grant in her column saying that when some feminists call for the normalization of sex work “they accept male privilege they would attack in any other area.” She suggests it perpetuates rape culture by placing the power in the hands of males because they are permitted to obtain sex without attracting a woman or even meeting her needs.

Yet, while some cam models may have entered the field under coercion or out of desperation, many others haven't. And the playing field between female workers and their male clients is leveled by the intimate setting of the web cam experience. Lerum told the New York Times that men are more open here than they would be in a strip club, for example. They can start caring about a relationship that may not exist outside of the Internet. She calls camming a “mutual objectification,” contrary to Pollitt’s view of sex work.

Cam sites also provide models with more economic security. Because live shows are harder to pirate than prerecorded videos, they are a steadier source of income. The numbers speak for themselves. The Times notes that the top cam sites receive 30 million users a month, according to, which measures Internet traffic. The article explains that, “At any given time, hundreds of models are online, some being watched by 1,000 or more people, others giving private shows. The money generated by cam sites is hundreds of millions of dollars at least, and very likely a billion or more, according to industry analysts and executives.”

Yet despite the money and relative safety, cam modeling is not a positive experience for everyone. One model I spoke with, who goes by the pseudonym Bethany Bellvue, started modeling to have some extra money to pay off her massive amount of debt. She found the experience exhausting. When we spoke, she had gone on hiatus and switched to making amateur porn clips instead. Back when she was live camming, she worked out of her one-bedroom apartment and every time she wanted to broadcast, she’d have to set up her camming area and take it down again. It became a burden, and the money wasn’t worth it.

Unlike Alice, Bethany found it difficult to get over the initial hump first-timers often experience and build a devoted fan base. She explained that a lot of successful web cam models have a day job to fall back on, but she didn't have another job. “They could just sit online...not worry about if they were getting paid,” she told me in a phone interview. “There’s just no time to do that when you’re actually relying on the money at first.”

The Times article describes other risks of camming, including clients outing the model, family members finding out, and feelings of isolation. Kathryn Griffin, a former prostitute and sex industry recovery coach, told the Times that cam modeling can act as a gateway, turning workers on to stripping or prostitution, for better or for worse. Cam models also run the risk of experiencing low self-esteem and using drugs to combat feelings of shame.

When sex workers experience shame, it raises questions about the validity of consent. In any other offline, unfinanced sexual encounter, post-coital embarrassment or remorse could indicate assault, rape or at the very least a lack of established and direct consent. The inclusion of money complicates the issue, but that’s the case for any type of service worker. How many waitresses would willingly bus tables if they weren’t getting paid? For Alice, at least, web cam sex work offers the best of both worlds. She can make money and feel in control. Physically, it’s a step removed. “I feel much freer to set my rules, my boundaries, and my hours.” For other sex workers, that could make a huge difference.

*Names have been changed by request.

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Did Elizabeth Warren Just Open the Door to a White House Run?

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 10:50
After months of insisting that a 2016 bid is off the table, the Massachusetts senator sounds a different note.

Liberal activists cheered Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s electrifying keynote speech at Netroots Nation this summer with chants of “Run, Liz, run!” There’s even a Ready for Warren super PAC, formed in July with the mission of encouraging the senator to mount a presidential bid. But the longtime thorn in the side of Wall Street has insisted that she’s not running, and even took the unusual step of formally disavowing Ready for Warren in August. So Warren 2016 is off the table — right?

Not so fast. In a new interview with People magazine — flagged by The Nation’s George Zornick — Warren sounds a different note. Asked whether she’s “on board” with a presidential campaign, Warren replies, “I don’t think so.” But then she adds this: ”If there’s any lesson I’ve learned in the last five years, it’s don’t be so sure about what lies ahead. There are amazing doors that could open.”

“Right now,” Warren continued, “I’m focused on figuring out what else I can do” from the U.S. Senate.

Zornick notes that this is “more ambiguous than she’s ever been on the subject,” and while the senator stopped well short of signaling plans to proceed with a campaign, her comments certainly won’t do anything to squelch speculation.

Like Hillary Rodham Clinton — another potential White House contender — Warren has been hitting the midterm campaign trail as the 2014 elections approach, firing audiences up with her message of economic populism. By this weekend, Warren’s midterm stops have included Iowa and New Hampshire — two states she had previously been reluctant to visit for fear that setting foot in the states would set off 2016 chatter.

If Warren opts to run, don’t expect the senator to sell herself as an extension of the Obama administration. Speaking with Salon’s Thomas Frank last week, Warren unloaded on the administration, saying that its policies “protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. And it happened over and over and over.”  


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Meet the Kansans Who Bravely Fought for Gay Rights Against a Formidable Conservative Movement

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 10:13
Their years long struggle affected families, church, work, law and politics.

Michael Nelson stared at the room packed with students from the University of Kansas’ various LGBT groups. The 2014 school year had barely begun and the white-haired pastor, poet and gay rights advocate had come to talk about his lawsuit challenging Kansas’ same-sex marriage ban and other discriminatory laws in state court. Nelson could not help but see his younger self in the students’ eager, contempletive and occasionally vulnerable faces. So as he started to speak, he took a personal turn, because in Kansas, as he and the students already knew, anti-LGBT discrimination runs deeper than what is written into law—or deliberately kept out of it.

“People do ask us, ‘Why are you continuing with the lawsuit when it looks like the U.S. Supreme Court is going to rule in favor of gay marriage equality?’” he began, glancing at Charles Dedmon, his husband of 30 years who stood steps away. “Well, let me tell you, there’s a lot more to this effort than seeing marriage equality happen in Kansas, which in time it will. It’s about every human rights effort in this state that needs attention. Every part of what we’re doing overlaps with every need of a person that has been denied their right to live a full and good life.”

Nelson and Dedmon’s story started at that same campus in Lawrence four decades ago. They fell in love but hid that reality for years, from themselves, their friends and others, causing personal, family and professional turmoil that took years to unwind. Some of what they said, such as police raiding gay bars when they were at KU, was unfathomable to the students. But other prejudices still endured, which led them to add their names to one of the legal fights for equality, they said, as they kept returning to their experiences as youths trying to make their way.

“Forty years ago, I would not have guessed we would be here today, because I did not even know what the word gay meant,” Nelson said. “But when you find out at the age of 20 that your best friend is someone more than that; that your girlfriend is not the person that you feel the strongest attraction to; and there is no organization on campus that is public enough for you to find a home in that will allow you to begin to articulate and identify who you are, you do it all in the dark—literally.”

There is no one storyline that traces the journey of an estimated 80,000 LGBT Kansans. There are gay farmers in the state’s western plains just as there are gay librarians and theologians in university towns. Some are out and some are closeted. Some are still in traditional marriages. But there seem to be common threads in their lives, where the personal almost always collides with outside pressures—as a child at home, growing up in schools and church, in family and career choices, or on the receiving end of politics in a state where social conservatives, including many top Republican elected officials in the state, still demonize LGBT people and don’t want to treat them equally under law.

These currents are still alive in Kansas today, even as it is increasingly likely that the federal court overseeing Kansas may rule any day now that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, or short of that, decree that the state must issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples who want them. But even if the U.S. District Court takes that step, the state’s political culture continues to be dominated by those like GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, a longtime opponent of LGBT and abortion rights, and a Republican-dominated legislature that is not likely to start repealing state laws that treat LGBT Kansans as second-class citizens—which is why Nelson and Dedmon, a lawyer, sued in state court: to start the repeal process.

As that history-making confrontation unfolds, it’s important to note that anti-LGBT attitudes are not merely in state law. They are in families that until recently could not accept interfaith marriages. They are in right-wing churches where the clergy preach that LGBT people are sinners who cannot have a relationship with God. They are in jobs where bosses do not want LGBT employees to speak up or fight for the same rights as others in the workplace. They are in state politics where Democrats are often reluctant to defend LGBT rights, and where right-wing Republicans keep pushing bills to stop same-sex couples from raising children and to allow businesses to discriminate against gay customers. Beyond the fight for marriage equality, there is a stubborn status quo that preserves many state laws that do not protect LGBT people, or grant benefits given to heterosexual couples. These laws range from putting a spouse’s name on a driver’s license to more dire matters such as one’s rights in family medical emergencies.

“People react against it—people react in a range of ways,” said Tami Albin, a librarian at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who has been compiling an oral history archive of LGBT Kansans. “People in Kansas do not want to be represented or seen as tragic, lonely, sad queers in the Midwest who can’t figure out how to get to a large urban city on a coast where life is supposed to be better, safer and more welcoming,” she said. “Kansas isn’t any better or worse than any other location.” 

The U.S. Census reports that there are several thousand same-sex couples in the state, a figure Albin said was ridiculously inaccurate. She points to a study a decade ago by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, which tracks LGBT statistics and estimated there were almost 80,000 LGBT Kansans, or 3.5 percent of its population. “We know it’s more than that,” she said, “if you start to include trans people or people who identify as queer or gender non-conforming.”

Following are the stories of several LGBT Kansans. Their lives reflect the difficulties of growing up different in rural communities that were often hostile to the mere notion of homosexuality—and the sense that although official anti-LGBT bias remains ingrained, change may be on the horizon.

Sandra Stenzel

Sandra Stenzel turned her aging pickup truck onto another dirt road south of Wakeeny, a northwestern Kansas town founded in 1879 along the old Union Pacific rail tracks that sit in the shadow of Interstate 70. In every direction, manicured mile-square fields of straw-colored grass or brown milo, a feed grain that looks like corn, color the landscape. Stenzel’s family were Russian homesteaders and she lives in the small house built a century ago by her grandfather, who also helped build the austere white Zion Lutheran Church whose spire rises above the rolling horizon.

She passed the two-room schoolhouse she attended in the early 1960s and slowed down, pointing to nearby sheds. “Right here is a chicken house. First time I kissed a girl. We said we were practicing for boys,” she said, proud of her deep links to a community built by immigrants. Stenzel drove into Zion Lutheran’s parking lot, where she and the pastor reminisced about Mark Deines, a musician who grew up with her, played the church organ and sang, but left the state as a young gay man and returned more than 20 years ago as he was dying from AIDS.

Stenzel is still moved by Deines' granite tombstone in the cemetery, complete with its engraved rainbow flag, next to the graves of Zion’s other founding families. “Mark’s death brought some awareness in this county, in this church,” she said. “These guys came home to be buried. They ended up not being ignored….Was it too high a price to pay? Yes, it was. But Mark’s been dead for 20 years and people are still talking about him.”    

Stenzel came back to Trego County a dozen years ago and tried to revive its economic life. Its largest towns were filled with empty storefronts as its population dropped when children like Deines left. She was adopted, an only child, and knew early that she was “very different” from her family. “They didn’t know what to do with me. I always had a sense that there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know what was wrong, but it was pretty fucking horrible,” Stenzel said. “I was queer like a three-dollar bill. There’s tomboy and then there’s—I don’t know what it was. I had no context for it. I didn’t know any other people like that. I just didn’t know what was wrong with me. When I got to junior high or so, I’d be sitting next to girls and I think...this is how I would phrase it, ‘If I were a boy, I’d really like to kiss her.’”

Stenzel got married when she was age 20, to prove there was nothing wrong. She was the first of 17 cousins to graduate from college, and studied economics in graduate school. She returned with her husband to the family farm and also found work at a bank. After eight years, they divorced and she left for Austin, Texas, where at age 32, Stenzel came out and found work at a national consulting firm. But after 16 years, she returned to an aging parent and her farm. “There’s a saying: You can take the girl off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the girl,” she said.

When a county economic development job opened, she applied and got it. Then, working with a board that didn’t care about her sexuality, Stenzel did something remarkable. She didn’t organize parades or class reunions, but instead raised several million in grants to spruce up Wakeeny’s neglected downtown and build a 30-unit senior living center. She became the Trego County Democratic Party chair – all before 2004, when the religious right launched its major campaign to amend Kansas’ Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

The beginning of the end of her career came when Stenzel crossed a line she did not know existed. She got permission to take a day off and go to Topeka, the state capital, to testify against the amendment. “I got up the next morning and I was on the front page of every newspaper in Kansas,” she said, after saying that a marriage ban would be bad for business­—which, today, is commonly heard in the hallways of corporate America. “I don’t know why, but for some reason, apparently this 'bad for business, bad for depopulation' argument, really hadn’t been made and it just splashed all over. My phone started ringing, e-mails started pouring in, and I thought, oh shit."

Stenzel didn’t want to be the face of LGBT issues statewide. And neither did local clergy. “Some of the ministers in Wakeeney got together and went to the city council and said, you know, this is not good for our community to have an openly gay woman being our economic development director and representing us with this kind of visibility,” she said. “They said, ‘We need to get rid of this woman.’ And my board of directors said, ‘Screw you. We like her. She’s doing a great job.'"

But a course was set. The Trego County economic development agency didn’t get funded the next year, which prompted an unprecedented fight in which county taxpayers raised the sales tax to support Stenzel’s eforts, yielding hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in February 2005, newly elected officials found a way to shut down the agency and seize that money, using it to build a pool. That April, Amendment 1 passed with a 70 percent majority, banning same-sex marriage.

“I had people in the community who were willing to give me money to wage a legal fight,” Stenzel said, but there was no fight to be waged because under Kansas law there was—and still is—no penalty for firing a person based on sexual orientation. “The other interesting thing that happened was people would sort of sidle up to me on the street and say, ‘My son who lives in Chicago is gay,’ or ‘My daughter who lives in Dallas is gay.’ There’s no family in Trego County that isn’t touched by this.”

Yet even as her neighbors confided in her, Stenzel’s life fell apart. “I was devastated,” she said. “I would sit on my farm and I wouldn’t come to town for six weeks, and then I’d slink into town to buy groceries and slink back out. Or I would just go to a grocery store 40 miles away so I didn’t have to talk to anyone in Trego County. I quit the Democratic Party. I quit political activism. I quit everything.”

A decade later, Stenzel is still struggling. She gets spotty freelance work. She is the last of her cousins left on a farm, which she might be forced to sell. She is in a new relationship but will still drive three-plus hours to Wichita for Pride weekend, to feel less alone. She says she loves the land and her ties to it, but that western Kansans are not her people anymore.

“Talk to me about gay marriage and religious dogma,” Stenzel said, as she leaned against her doorstep. “It was a generation ago that Lutherans and Catholics didn’t intermarry. And it was a very big deal what religion their kids would be if they did. You’ve got all this religious dogma here and the descendants of that culture have heard the world would end if they intermarried. I wonder in a generation if people will say, ‘Really, gays weren’t allowed to marry?’”

Stephanie Mott

More than 200 miles east of Wakeeny sits Topeka, the sprawling state capital where skyscrapers tower over the commercial and government center. As one drives into the city, passing malls filled with chain stores and franchise restaurants, it is easy to forget that much of the state’s political identity comes from an earlier era, when farming, family and faith were the anchors.

Social conservatives from both political parties still invoke nostalgia for a Kansas where people farmed, raised families and lived by the Bible. The view that LGBT relationships are sinful comes from clergy and believers who are drawn more to the Old Testament’s fire and brimstone than to the New Testament’s spiritual renewal. The state’s best-known example of an anti-LGBT ministry is the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church. Pastors and parishioners from the church protested at gay-themed events long before it became known nationally for interrupting the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kansas politics is filled with conservatives who only are slightly less extreme than the Westboro clan, such as top legislators promoting bills in 2014 to criminalize surrogate parenting, because it is seen as bringing children to LGBT couples; or proposing that women who miscarry must register with the state, under the guise of stopping abortion. After the same-sex marriage ban passed in 2005, the LGBT community began organizing and lobbying. For the past half-dozen years, Kansas politics on LGBT issues have been deadlocked. Right-wingers cannot pass their bills, and the LGBT community cannot pass its bills protecting gay rights or ending unequal treatment under state law.

But this stalemate hasn’t stopped LGBT activists from being visible in other ways. In September, Topeka held its first Pride weekend, drawing 2,000 people when organizers expected 300. Like many of the state’s cities and university towns, there are ministries that welcome LGBT Kansans and gay-straight student alliances in the public high schools. It was here, not in the Statehouse’s ornate chambers where Stephanie Mott, a transgender women in her mid-50s and the Kansas Equality Coalition’s past president, decided to confront the religious roots of discrimination.

“I found a church where I could be who I was and it opened up doors for me that had always been closed,” said Mott, whose soft voice belies a steeliness. “It was the Metropolitan Community Church here in Topeka. One of the ladies there asked me to go speak at a local gay-straight alliance. I said okay and I did. I was really nervous….but afterwards, this 17-year-old transgender girl came up and gave me a hug and said, ‘Oh, my God, you changed my life.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, no, you just changed my life, because I didn’t realize that everything I had gone through had been preparing me to be able to do something like this.”

As a leader for Kansas Equality, Mott had spoken to educators, school nurses and police about LGBT youths and their struggles. But she had not taken that talk, with her life story as a starting point, into conservative churches. “My journey is a faith journey because I was seperated from God for a very long time,” Mott said. “As I’ve discovered that I could be who I am and have a relationship with God, my faith has grown tremendously. I have this relationship with God that I never knew I could have, which is a source of energy for me being able to accomplish stuff that I might not otherwise be able to do.”

This phase of Mott’s advocacy began after a Baptist preacher in Seneca, a town 75 miles north of Topeka, gave a sermon saying that government should execute gays. “He said they wouldn’t, but they should,” she said. “I went to Seneca and I did a public library presentation. The Seneca newspaper asked me, ‘Why are you coming?’ I said I wanted them to hear a different message. I wanted them to hear a message of hope because that’s a very dark message that you are unacceptable to the Creator.”

Mott said that she has been “compared to the most horrible things on the planet” in public hearings. “I guess it comes down to, do I want to respond to that or do I want to be effective at creating change?” Her conclusion is “the Transgender Faith Tour…where I am going to different religious institutions, faith institutions, and sharing my journey of faith.” She has spoken to Unitarian Universalists, Baptists, Catholics and Methodists in Kansas, and this month held events in Norman and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Mott says she starts by telling her story before turning to the Old and New Testaments. “The very first thing I remember knowing about myself is that, on the inside, I was like my sisters. On the outside, I was like my brothers,” she said. “The second thing I remember knowing about myself was therefore, that meant that I couldn’t talk to anybody about it; that there was something dreadfully wrong with me that I couldn’t be who I was. This is [when I was] a six- or seven-year-old.”

“I just go through and start telling what it was like to grow up with this chain I carried around for a long time,” she continued. “I got involved with alcoholism and spent a long time, 30 years of my life, abusively using alcohol to hide from my reality. I share that. Then I talk about finding a church where I could be me. Finding a way to have a relationship with God. Then seeing my life come back into focus, and being able to do what I hope is God’s will in the community; which is to feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty, and take care of the oppressed and the marginalized.”

Mott said it is hard to underestimate the psychological damage and undermining of a person’s potential that comes when they are on the receiving end of negative stereotypes and constant reminders of second-class status. In a deeply religious state like Kansas, where there are so many ministries with differing interpretations of scripture, Mott said it was crucial to challenge the religiously observant to open their hearts.

“Three years ago, the idea of me talking to a Sunday school class in the Baptist Church, I wouldn’t have even dreamed of it,” she said. “Today, I walk out of that church thinking I’m going to give a sermon here one day.”

Ryon Carey

Today, the faultline that separates western Kansas’ cradle-to-grave Republicans from easterners who will vote for Democrats literally runs through Ryon Carey’s 40-acre farm at the end of Main Street in Lindsborg, a town founded by Swedish immigrants after the Civil War. Carey is a muscle-bound man who grew up on a farm 25 miles away. He went to Bethany College, a private Lutheran school in town, and returned home, only to become frustrated as his community withered. He ended up buying 40 acres and literally moving his woodframe house there (there were no buyers) after putting in a new foundation. Carey wears many hats: he is a chicken breeder; he chairs the Kansas Democratic Party’s LGBT Caucus; and he works as a campaign consultant to elect Democrats who will embrace LGBT issues, when many will not.

Carey knew he was gay as a teenager, but, “I was busy enough on the farm and had enough things going on that I just didn’t worry about it.” By age 30, he said he didn’t care what anybody thought about him. “I just do my thing and I really don’t care what people think….There’s a lot more [gay] farmers than you would ever think, too.”

One of Carey’s political consulting partners is Tom Witt, the brash Kansas Equality Coalition director, who, among other things, has been working to get cities that are near tipping points on supporting LGBT issues to add sexuality and gender protections into local anti-discrimination laws. The coalition has waged four tough campaigns and only one anti-discrimination ordinance—in Roeland Park, a Kansas City suburb—remains on the books. Social conservatives repealed or blocked the others. Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, has the state’s only other local LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance, adopted years ago.

“The biggest obstacle to passing non-discrimination ordinances is frankly that there isn’t a lot of overt discrimination,” Carey said, sitting at a table under a peeling antique ceiling and surrounded by oil paintings by local artists. “There are so few people who will tell someone you’re fired because you’re gay. There are so few landlords who won’t rent to people because they are gay. They are never going to tell you that.”

Deliberate silence is a predictable part of rural and small state politics, where everybody quickly knows everybody else and their stances. That silence can be a wall, or even a cancer, Carey said, that resists change. “Small towns in Kansas are dying because of their intolerance and it’s not just about gay rights. I like to describe small towns as a pot of water that’s been left on the stove on low boil. Eventually the water is gone.”

That resistence can also be found in Democratic Party circles, Carey said, where, for example, House Democratic leaders did not wage a fight earlier this year when right-wing Republicans brought and passed a “religious liberty” bill. That bill, which died in the Senate but is expected to be revived in 2015, would allow any government or private employee to refuse service to a person, such as an LGBT individual. “They were corralled by leadership not to” oppose it, Carey said.

Like other LGBT activists, Carey has found a way to speak out that fits his personality, which, in his case, is trying to remake the state Democratic Party from the inside out. The party “basically doesn’t exist west of Highway 81, which is Lindborg’s Main Street,” he said, and is “scared to death of social issues.” His response, working with Witt and Chris Reeves—who is straight but was nearly killed in a knife attack in 1995 at Kansas State University in Manhattan, where his assailants later told a judge they thought he was gay—is to try to elect Democrats who will show some backbone, including on LGBT issues.

“There are districts in Kansas where you can be pro-gay rights and pro-choice and still win,” Carey said. “We have candidates who are pretty good but don’t know how to run a campaign.”

Carey's team is now working with four Democrats running for the Kansas House of Representatives and one Democrat running for Congress. In the U.S. House race, their candidate,  Jim Sherow,a history professor and the former mayor of Manhattan, has already had an outsized impact. Sherow, who was Reeves’ professor when he was nearly killed in that hate crime, later helped to pass that city’s LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance—which right-wingers overturned. This August, at their urging, Sherow surprised the state Democratic Party establishment by not endorsing its U.S. Senate candidate, Chad Taylor. LGBT and women’s groups said they could not back Taylor, who, as prosecutor for the county containing Topeka, refused to pursue domestic violence cases because of a budget spat with the city. That helped to push Taylor out of the race, boosting independent Greg Orman, whose upstart candidacy is considered key to which party will control the U.S. Senate.

But Ryon Carey’s crew is hoping to do more than remind Democrats that there are consequences for willful inaction. Even if Paul Davis, the House Democratic leader running for governor who is tied in polls with Brownback, wins this fall, Democrats need five more seats to stop Republicans from overriding gubernatorial vetos. Carey said his candidates, such as Democrat Von Peterson, running in the Kansas House district in nearby McPherson County, are running competitive races.

“We have a chance,” he said. “And if we don’t win, we’ll get into the 40s [percent-wise], which is something that has never happened before….That’s the reason why Tom and I and Chris are working on campaigns, because these candidates are pro-choice and pro-LGBT. If they win, we’ve changed minds.”

Michael Nelson and Charles Dedmon

Back at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Michael Nelson turned to the room packed with more than 50 students from various campus LGBT groups. The Unitarian Universalist minister described how he had met his husband, Charles, almost 40 years ago, when both were KU students. That was followed by a decade of turbulence, he said. The two didn’t know what to do about their attraction to each other after they graduated.

“Charles, being the analytical one, decided that he could not be gay,” Nelson said, saying that Dedmon went to law school and he left Kansas for San Francisco. “I did my very, very best to forget him, to absolutely try to eradicate him from my heart, and I found that was impossible to do,” Nelson said. “No matter how many people I thought I might be in love with, it never touched the depths of experience and that profound place where everything comes together, and you know yourself as a real and vital human being, in a way that you haven’t known before….You don’t walk away from that.”


Nelson said both of them lived through “a decade of torture.” Dedmon got married to a woman and Nelson was his best man. He graduated from law school and passed Kansas’ bar exam, which he could not have done if it was known that he was gay. Lawyers must pass a moral fitness review to get their license, and Kansas had, and still has, criminal sodomy laws, which meant Dedmon could not swear he was not engaging in illegal activity.

By the mid-'80s, Dedmon gave up on his marriage. He and Nelson reunited and moved to Oklahoma City, where Nelson had gone after graduating from seminary. There, supposedly progressive church leaders and social workers told him to hide their relationship or give it up. The pair came back to Lawrence, where Nelson opened the city’s only LGBT bookstore. Dedmon, meanwhile, became a top public defender in the federal court system, until a freak accident in which he was disabled in a lightning strike. Both of their families came around to accepting them, after some skipped their wedding or others wouldn’t display photos of them in their homes.

Nelson and Dedmon told the students their intensely personal story because they wanted them to know that they too are deserving of equal and dignified treatment. Nelson asked how many students had come out to their parents and half raised their hands —which would have been inconceivable when he was at KU. Then he turned the podium over to the quieter Dedmon, who began by describing how deeply interwoven their lives are: buying cars and a home, combining finances, taking turns being the breadwinner.

“If you think about it, what is a household?” Dedmon asked. “All of the decisions get so inextricably entwined that you are in a marital relationship. That’s what it is. It doesn’t make any difference what someone else really calls it—unless they make sure it makes a difference. And so, that’s what all this [fight for equality] is all about.”


Dedmon said there was one story that propelled him to put his name on the lawsuit in Kansas courts to challenge the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and other state laws that treat LGBT people unequally. Several years ago, a gay couple who were married in New York moved back to Alabama, when one of the men had a very bad car accident.

“The other man went to the hospital and tried to find out how he was doing—and they wouldn’t let him,” Dedmon said. “He said, ‘Look, we have the documents right here. We have medical power of attorney. I need to know.’ And they said, ‘Sorry, this is Alabama, and we don’t recognize gay marriages in Alabama.’ He tried. He tried. He tried. And finally when the rest of the family came, which did not like the relationship, they said, ‘Okay, you can see him.’ So he’s walking down a corridor and he asks a nurse, ‘How’s he doing?’ and she says, ‘He’s dead.’”

Dedmon paused and looked at the students. “These are the kinds of things that can happen if a relationship isn’t recognized,” he said. He then referred to the legacy of similarly discriminatory policies and laws that remain on the books in Kansas.

“There’s no way to come back from that. No way. There’s no way for that ever to be made right,” he said. “To be made right requires us, who aren’t in that situation, to file a lawsuit before there is harm. Not after there’s harm. Before. Because there’s so many areas which federal law does not reach.”

This is Part II of a two-part series. In Part I, AlterNet investigated Kansas' ultra-conservative political leadership and how the state has become home to more anti-LGBT bills, laws and state policies than anywhere in the country—and how members of the LGBT community there are reacting. 

The series was supported by the American Independent Institute.

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How One Innocent Slip Turned an Online Security Expert into a Spam Magnet

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 09:59
How a little bird made me the target of hundreds of email scam artists.

I’ve got nothing against spam…so long as it’s clogging up someone else’s inbox.

But when you waste my time trying to sell me all kinds of crap or, worse, sucker me into wrecking the security of my computer or bank account, I’m going to do everything in my power to avoid you. And I have.

Since I first wrote and advised consumers about spam for Consumer Reports way back in 2002, when spam was still in its infancy, I’ve learned a lot about how to minimize the time spam wastes. For example:

• Don’t post your e-mail address publicly, especially not on a website.

• Don’t open a spam and don’t respond to it.

• An off-beat e-mail domain makes you less of a target (e.g.

• Using e-mail filters helps you get your important mail sooner

I’ve used these, and other techniques, to keep spam under control for many years. Not eliminate it; just keep it down to a tolerably low level. Until this past spring, that is.

There I was in March, coasting along with only 3 to 5 spams per day, nearly all of which my e-mail client, Outlook, was catching. (Yes, I know that webmail can do a better job of foiling spam. But I prefer client-based e-mail, as I explained in 4 reasons not to use webmail for Consumer Reports.)

In April, without warning, my spam experienced an uptick. By May, I was averaging about 15 per day. As the chart below shows, month by month it climbed until, by mid-August, I was often getting 150 to 200 spams per day.

Loose Lips

Where had I slipped up?

After a little research I learned that, in the course of doing me a favor, a friend had unwittingly included my e-mail address in a single tweet. That’s it. One tweet. Some 8,000 spams later, I have a far greater appreciation for that old World War II era caveat, Loose lips sink ships.

Still, how was it that spammers got hold of that tweet? It’s possible that one of my friend’s many Twitter followers was actually a spammer who jumped on that tweet. More likely, though, the tweet was picked up for a reason of which many Twitter users may not be aware: All public tweets are posted on the web and are as accessible to spammers as if they were posted on the front page of

To see how many others might be revealing personal e-mail addresses through their tweets, I used Google to find some of the most common e-mail addresses on (You can find e-mail addresses buried with tweets this way, too. Just use the search term: “” and substitute the domain or address of your choice between the quotes).

For you would-be spammers, here’s a handy list of how many hits I found at for some of the largest e-mail domains. The actual number of unique addresses and users exposed this way is likely to be far smaller. But this still shows that many e-mail addresses whose owners think they are private are publicly available to spammers.

•, 230 million

•, 102 million

•, 7.5 million

•, 2.5 million

•, 303,000

•, 148,000

What to do about it

If you don’t relish the prospect of having your e-mail address harvested by spammers combing through your (or your friends’) tweets, don’t disclose it via your tweets. And ask your friends not to use your address that way, either: “Friends don’t let friends tweet their e-mail address.”

As for me, I’ve got two choices now:

1. I can stick with Spam Assassin, the server-based spam blocker from my e-mail provider, which works very well. But if I do so, I will be forced to forever update my “white list” of contacts (now numbering 165) to keep Spam Assassin from blocking them. And because I make new contacts fairly often, I will still have to regularly comb through hundreds of spams on the server just to make sure its Junk folder doesn’t contain an important e-mail.

2. Using a domain that I own, I can create an entirely new (and hitherto unknown) e-mail address and switch my entire online life over to it, which I’ve done before. In the long run, that would probably save more time than would choice #1. Provided I keep a tight lid on the new address and make sure none of my friends tweet it 

 So here’s fair warning to my friends: Do not tweet my new e-mail address. If you disregard this request, I may be forced to take drastic measures–such as tweeting yours!

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Mussels May Be the World's Most Sustainable Meat, So Be Smart and Buy Fresh Ones

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 09:43
Mussels are one of the cheapest and tastiest forms of animal protein available.

The lowly mussel is making a comeback lately, for many good reasons. Mussels are tasty, cheap, and virtually guilt free—an increasingly rare quality among animal proteins.

The environmental consequences of meat-eating are becoming difficult to ignore, which is enough to give pause to most any carnivore with a conscience. Cows fart and burp methane, which is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. Pig waste is polluting waterways. Nearly a third of the earth’s ice-free land is devoted to raising animals for eating and milking—or to the farmland on which animal feed is grown. Vegetarianism, many argue, is the only responsible way to eat. But we love our animal protein. 

There are loopholes in this vegetarian guilt trip. If you live in a place where animals are sufficiently abundant that they can be hunted without pressuring the populations, you can eat wild game. You could eat insects, of which there appears no shortage, although that’s not the kind of extra protein most people have in mind. Someday soon you might be able to sink your teeth into lab-grown meat, but today that option remains prohibitively expensive.

What does that leave us? Mussels, that’s what.

Mussels are one of the cheapest and tastiest forms of animal protein available, and their environmental resume is impressive. They require no feed, as they filter plankton and other microscopic nutrients from the water. Diseases are few, making the use of antibiotics virtually nonexistent. And the fact that mussel shells are made of calcium carbonate means they absorb carbon from the environment. This is true of other shellfish as well, including clams, oysters, snails and scallops. But mussels contain the highest percentage of carbon per dry weight, in both their shells and soft tissues, of any shellfish, according to a 2011 paper published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

But while mussels might be part of the solution to high atmospheric carbon dioxide, they’re also victims of the problem. One consequence of high atmospheric CO2 is it lowers the pH of the oceans, making the water more acidic, which messes with the mollusks. Off the coast of Washington state, where ocean acidification has been observed, mussel beds have been replaced by acid-tolerant algae.

A Duke University study suggests that the increased acidity takes a toll on oyster and mussel shells, weakening them, and requiring more energy for the organisms to produce calcium carbonate. But while this may be happening, it’s also possible that mussels are trying to fight back. A study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute found that in conditions of high ocean acidification, some shellfish, including mussels, grow thicker shells to absorb the excess carbon.

Meanwhile, a study published in Nature Climate Change and reviewed in Scientific American found that lower ocean pH saps the legendary strength of the mussel’s byssal threads, often referred to as “beards,” which connect them to the rock, ship, or whatever substrate they are attached to. “The shellfish industry, already adjusting to the fact that acidifying oceans hurt the abilities of sea creatures like oysters to make their shells, is also likely to experience losses when mussels lose their ability to cling,” notes Scientific American. “If the mussels' byssal attachments are weakened, they are more likely to fall off the rope when it gets pulled up.”

Mussels are commonly grown on ropes dangling in the water. Some mussels are grown on seafloor beds, a less desirable method because dredging is necessary to harvest them. This practice is extremely disruptive to the ocean floor, according to Seafood Watch, which rates farmed mussels a “Best Choice,” and recommends seeking suspended culture mussels, which are the most common.

An order of mussels served in a wine sauce can be the most affordable meal option at many a restaurant. But before you place that order, it’s worth heeding the cautionary words of Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential:

“I don't eat mussels in restaurants unless I know the chef, or have seen, with my own eyes, how they store and hold their mussels for service. I love mussels. But, in my experience, most cooks are less than scrupulous in their handling of them. More often than not, mussels are allowed to wallow in their own foul-smelling piss at the bottom of the reach-in.”

All it takes is one bad mussel to ruin a whole meal. When cooking mussels at home, you can take precautions to avoid that one bad mussel. These measures start at the store: if you notice a lot of open shells in the mussel pile behind the seafood counter, it might be an old batch, and perhaps mussels shouldn’t be in the cards that day. If you decide to go for it, make sure the fishmonger picks through them and removes any open ones, or mussels with broken shells. Smell them before you pay—they should smell like the ocean, not like fish. Keep them cool until cooking time.

Some people recommend purging mussels before cooking, to remove grit from their bellies. This is commonly done by soaking them in saltwater with cornmeal, which they supposedly eat, while expunging the grit from their bellies. There is conflicting evidence over whether the cornmeal works. In any case, cultivated mussels are purged before being shipped, so purging is only necessary with wild mussels.

For a simple preparation of the type most commonly served in restaurants, start by sautéing a minced shallot and a few cloves of garlic in olive oil in a pot or deep pan. Add a half-cup of dry white wine and let it boil for a minute to evaporate the alcohol. I like to add a few cherry tomatoes here, but it isn’t necessary. Add your mussels and a handful of chopped parsley, and cook for about five minutes, covered, until the mussels all open. (Any mussels that refuse to open should not be eaten.) Add another handful of parsley, mix it all around, and serve, jus and all, with bread. 

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VIDEO: Louis CK Crashes Brad Pitt's Hilariously Awkward 'Between Two Ferns' Interview

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 08:43
Comedian saves the day with awful ISIS and Ebola jokes.

In a hilarious turn, Brad Pitt appeared on Zach Galifianakis's send-up interview show 'Between Two Ferns,' and true to form, the host hurled one insulting question after another at Pitt (or Bradley Pitts, as Galifiniakis introduced him.)

In the middle of this excruciatingly squirmy chat, Louis CK barged in to "liven things up," and provide some comic relief.

"I saw a rat on the subway, and I didn't know if it was Ebola or ISIS," the comedian said.

Galifiniakis turned to Pitt, and asked: "Do you think your looks get in the way of people realizing that you're just a shitty actor."

Funny. Watch:

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Right on Cue: Five Craziest Right-Wing Reactions to New York's First Ebola Case

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 08:13
Wait, so how is this related to Obamacare?

New York had its first Ebola patient when a doctor returning from Guinea tested positive for the virus Thursday night. The case immediately provoked legitimate concerns from some about screening procedures and the public health response, and some people even expressed concern about doctor's well-being. But, of course others reacted in a completely over-the-top manner, many of them right-wingers looking to score cheap political points on it. Here are five of the craziest reactions:

Ummm, what's the connection?

“Before Obamacare, there had never been a confirmed case of Ebola in the U.S.,” tweeted Nick Muzin, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)'s deputy chief of staff.

What's next, O-bowla?

“Bowling with ebola is a disastrous public health policy. Obama Administration slowness and inadequacy is endangering Americans,” tweeted former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Trump, of course.

Donald Trump was quick to jump on the bandwagon, tweeting, “Ebola has been confirmed in N.Y.C., with officials frantically trying to find all of the people and things he had contact with.Obama's fault.”

Paranoid much?

Perennial presidential candidate Alan Keyes warned that President Obama had “plans for exploiting the Ebola crisis” by importing “Ebola-infected persons into the United States.”

Blame the courageous doctor.

Fox News's Megyn Kelly took out her ire on the patient himself, saying, “You’re well aware of the contagiousness of this disease. He comes back into New York City. He knows he’s been handling Ebola patients, and he’s here for a week? He doesn’t tell anybody and if he starts to feel symptomatic before his 103 fever, he’s still out there bowling and taxing taxis and not quarantining, not just self-quarantining?”

For it's part, Doctors Without Border, the main NGO coordinating medical relief in Ebola outbreak countries, issued the following statement in response to the hysteria. It reads in part: “As soon as he developed a fever, the...staff member was immediately isolated and referred to Bellevue Hospital. As long as a patient hasn’t developed symptoms, the risk of contagion is close to zero. Ebola is not an airborne virus like the flu. It is only transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids, such as blood or vomit.”

Health officials in New York have also assured a jittery public that Dr. Craig Spencer poses little public health threat, since his subway travel and bowling outing both occurred before he developed symptoms.

Not that facts will get in the way of the haters.


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Bullied 14-Year-Old Fights Back and Gets Severely Injured—Now HE Faces Assault Charges

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 07:29
Eric Martin's ordeal continues at the hands of law enforcement.

14 year-old Eric Martin of Henrico, Virginia had reportedly been bullied for years at school, hounded with homophobic slurs and constant harassment. One day in September he stood up to his bullies, and physically confronted them. Although his family says that he did indeed start the fight, his bullies walked away with no real injuries, but Martin was so badly hurt that he ended up hospitalized.

Martin's injuries are severe enough that even seven weeks after his beating he is still receiving care from medical professionals, as he has a traumatic brain injury and broken bones.

But school officials and local police delivered another blow to Martin by charging him with two counts of assault and refusing to allow him back into the school until he signs a written statement saying that he threatened the school (which is something he denies). Local news station NBC-12 did a short report on the case. Watch it:

Martin is currently attending a different high school, and went to court for the first time last week to hear the charges against him. A judge has set a trial date for November 21st. His family's advocate, Tammy Matola, reflects on the fact that the school failed to provide a safe environment for him, which is what led to the confrontation in the first place:

The ugly truth of it all is that kids are just not speaking up anymore. After all, given the current tolerance for such otherwise intolerable behavior, why should they? When they do, too often nothing happens to the perpetrators, and they are only ostracized even more. I’m truly confused as to a school’s definition of zero tolerance. I’m over their anti-bullying policies. What’s the point in any policy if it’s not mandated and enforced? I know, with absolute certainty, that every kid deserves to walk into a school and receive an education without prejudice or persecution. For Eric Martin that day is long overdue.

The family has set up a legal fund for Martin. You can go here to donate to it.


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Krugman Dismantles the Right's Hysterical Fear of Actual Democracy

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 05:54
What's really behind the fight against non-existent voter fraud.

Plutocrats, they all think alike.

Take the leader of Hong Kong, Paul Krugman writes in his column Friday, who accidentally blurted out the truth when he expressed his opposition to the pro-democracy demonstrators' demand for open voting. “You would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month. Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies,” he said.

Oh no, not those kinds of policies—the ones that help people with lower incomes!

The fear that people who make less money will vote for "bad" policies is an oft-expressed one among America's plutocrats and their lackeys as well. It was there in Mitt Romney's "47 percent" remark, and even more radically in the 60 percent that "Representative Paul Ryan argued pose a danger because they are 'takers,' getting more from the government than they pay in," Krugman writes. "For the political right has always been uncomfortable with democracy. No matter how well conservatives do in elections, no matter how thoroughly free-market ideology dominates discourse, there is always an undercurrent of fear that the great unwashed will vote in left-wingers who will tax the rich, hand out largess to the poor, and destroy the economy."

It's not just Rush Limbaugh and his listeners. The political elite is filling their minds with propaganda that the real problem in America is "runaway redistribution."

Krugman cracks that nut open and examines it a little more closely.

Is there anything to fears that economic populism will lead to economic disaster? Not really. Lower-income voters are much more supportive than the wealthy toward policies that benefit people like them, and they generally support higher taxes at the top. But if you worry that low-income voters will run wild, that they’ll greedily grab everything and tax job creators into oblivion, history says that you’re wrong. All advanced nations have had substantial welfare states since the 1940s — welfare states that, inevitably, have stronger support among their poorer citizens. But you don’t, in fact, see countries descending into tax-and-spend death spirals — and no, that’s not what ails Europe.

So, the main problem with the welfare state isn't the destruction of the economy at all, it is, as suspected, that the wealthiest of the wealthy have to pay higher taxes, which puts a crimp in their style... barely. That is, of course, unacceptable to them. Their solution is to launch an all-out propaganda war, which includes the ongoing fiction that tax cuts will help job creation. (Not working. Look at Kansas, for a case in point.) Next piece of propaganda, per Krugman:

Another answer, with a long tradition in the United States, is to make the most of racial and ethnic divisions — government aid just goes to Those People, don’t you know. And besides, liberals are snooty elitists who hate America.

A third answer is to make sure government programs fail, or never come into existence, so that voters never learn that things could be different.

And finally, because these strategies don't work 100 percent, suppress the vote!

That's what Hong Kong's leader is trying to do, and that is precisely the motivation behind the right's effort to get Voter ID laws passed here. Krugman concludes: "The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy. And it’s by no means clear which side will win."


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