Blogs

Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier Delivers a Captivating New Solo Album

| Mon Sep. 22, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Laetitia Sadier
Something Shines
Drag City

 

Best known as the singer for the long-running British-French band Stereolab—now on an indefinite hiatus—Laetitia Sadier has always been able to address pointedly political and deeply personal concerns with equal eloquence. The debut of Sadier's side project, Monade, was titled Socialisme ou Barbarie, while her first solo outing, The Trip, was her attempt to come to grips with her sister's suicide. On this captivating third solo album, she continues to range far and wide, mixing acoustic sounds with the retro-futurism that made Stereolab's electro-pop so inviting. Whether asking tersely, "Do the rich need the poor to be rich?" on "Oscuridad," or accentuating the positive on the soaring, Beach Boys-inspired "Life Is Winning," her serene, lovely voice is a remarkable oasis of calm that's sure to make you feel better about things to come.

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Roger Goodell's Life Just Got a Whole Lot Worse This Weekend

| Sun Sep. 21, 2014 3:40 PM EDT

There's been a mountain of talk about the Ray Rice domestic violence case, but the evidence about exactly what happened and when it happened has remained stubbornly fuzzy. That changed this weekend. ESPN's blockbuster piece, like all stories of this nature, relies a lot on unnamed sources and therefore still isn't quite rock solid. Unnamed sources can have their own agendas, after all. But on the surface, anyway, it seems pretty damn close to rock solid. And it looks very, very bad for Roger Goodell, the Baltimore Ravens, and the NFL. Read it.

How Can The Atlantic Give Us 5,000 Words on Prison Life Without Interviewing Prisoners?

| Sun Sep. 21, 2014 1:34 PM EDT

As someone who writes about prisons, and who two spent years behind bars, I devour nearly everything written about it, especially the long-form stuff. So I was excited when I saw that The Atlantic’s latest issue had a major story called “How Gangs Took Over Prison.”

Then I read it. Anyone who has ever survived anything traumatic—domestic abuse, rape, torture, war—knows the particular jolt that happens in the body when someone makes light of that thing that you once thought could destroy you. I am a former prisoner—I was held captive in Iran from 2009-2011—and a survivor of solitary confinement. In my experience as a reporter who writes about prisons, it is surprisingly rare that I come across people outside of the prison system who justify long-term solitary confinement. Even within the world of prison administrators many are against it. The last two times I’ve attended the American Correctional Association conferences, there have been large, well attended symposiums on the need to curb the use of isolation.

Graeme Wood, the writer of the Atlantic story, gives a different impression of the practice. He visits Pelican Bay State prison, which probably has more people in solitary confinement for longer periods than any other prison in the world. He goes to the Security Housing Unit, or SHU, where people are kept in solitary confinement or, as he gently puts it, are “living without cellmates.” When he enters, he says it’s “like walking into a sacred space” where the silence is “sepulchral.” The hallways “radiate” and the prisoners are celled in the “branches of (a) snowflake.” Beautiful.

It’s difficult to understand why Wood does not find it worth mentioning that the cells in those snowflakes are each 7x11 feet and windowless. Men literally spend decades in those cells, alone. I’ve been to Pelican Bay, and wrote a story about it in 2012. I met a man there who hadn’t seen a tree in 12 years. Wood tells us categorically that everyone there is a hard-core gang member. This is what the California Department of Corrections consistently claims, but if Wood did a little digging, he would find that number of the prisoners locked away in the SHU are jailhouse lawyers. There are people like Dietrich Pennington who has been in the SHU for six years because, in his cell, he had a cup with a dragon on it, a newspaper article written by another prisoner, and a notebook filled with references to black history, which a gang investigator counted as evidence of gang ideology. People get locked away in the SHU based on all kinds of flimsy evidence that doesn’t involve violence. I won’t say it’s a breeze to get ahold of the documentation of this stuff, but it’s not anything a seasoned reporter like Wood couldn’t handle.

Keep in mind that the UN considers solitary confinement for anything more than 15 days to be torture or cruel and inhumane treatment. University of California-Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney did a review of psychological literature and found that there hasn't been a single study of involuntary solitary confinement that didn't show negative psychiatric symptoms after 10 days. He found that a full 41 percent of SHU inmates reported hallucinations. The corrections department’s own data shows that, from 2007 to 2010, inmates in isolation killed themselves at eight times the rate of the general prison population.

Wood, on the other hand, makes the experience of living in one of those cells sound transcendental. It is as if everyone is “on one of those interstellar journeys that span multiple human lifetimes.”

It’s hard to know where that impression came from because, in his story on prison gangs, Wood doesn’t interview prisoners. Well, that’s not completely true. He does go to the doors of several inmates’ cells—with prison staff—to ask them about prison gangs, then tells us breathlessly that almost no one would talk to him. Wood travels to England to interview a scholar on prison gangs, but there is no indication that he attempted to conduct a single serious interview with a prisoner. Not that California makes this easy—since 1996, the state has given prison authorities full control over which inmates journalists can interview in person. But still, you can write to anyone. Nearly every one of the dozens of people I’ve written in the SHU have eagerly written back.

Wood tells us that no prisoner can talk about gangs because doing so would mean death. Yet there are plenty who do. I’ve had inmates break down gang culture to me in letters, and I didn’t even ask them to. There are whole wards in prisons for gang dropouts, many of which are eager to talk about the life they left behind. There are former prisoners like Andre Norman who used to be in gangs and now make their living by exposing gang culture. These people are primary sources that could have given Wood intimate details and a nuanced understanding. They’d also tell him about what it’s like to live in a place like Pelican Bay, though chances are he wouldn’t find anyone who would describe living in the SHU as “interstellar.”

It’s remarkable that a publication as reputable as The Atlantic would run such a thinly sourced story. Its 5,000 words are based almost entirely on four sources: an academic, the spokesperson of Pelican Bay, the warden, and the gang investigator. Wood prints their claims straight away. At the beginning of the story, for example, Wood is standing with the prison’s spokesperson, Lt. Chris Acosta, and together they are looking out onto the yard, observing prisoners and their behavior. Then he quotes Acosta saying, “There’s like 30 knives out there right now. Hidden up their rectums.”

Well hold on a second. How did Acosta know that? Did Wood verify this? How did his editor let that one slide?

Claims like this make what could be an interesting story hard to trust, and the piece is full of them—the size of the bar of soap on an inmate’s sink indicates what kind of phone he shoved up his ass; requests for halal food are a way to “create work for the staff” rather than a sign of religious conviction. Since when does this pass as acceptable journalism? Prison reporting is tricky, sure. When I reported on Pelican Bay, I had to take pains to verify every claim a prisoner made through extensive documentation or verification by prison officials. No good journalist would print a claim made by an inmate about a guard, for example, without carefully corroborating it. Many prisoners have an agenda. But so do guards and wardens. Prison officials have a long record of trying to stymy public inquiry. I was recently booted from a prison convention—for which I was registered—for my reporting. When you have two sets of people, like inmates and prison administrators, who each have interests in misrepresenting each other, you make every effort to verify their claims about each other. Those are the ground rules of journalism.

One last thing. Jokes about things in prisoners’ asses are not funny. In a presentation for Wood, a gang investigator likens gang leaders to 1980s Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca. As an aside to us readers, Wood quips, “I have found it impossible to look at a picture of Iacocca without imagining him stuffing his cheeks and rectum with razor blades.” It sickens me that I am meant to laugh at this. 

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 September 2014

| Fri Sep. 19, 2014 2:47 PM EDT

We have a very busy squirrel in our backyard. He is tireless in his quest to find pine cones and bury them in our garden. In fact, every time Marian goes out to do some gardening, she routinely digs up half a dozen pine cones. They're everywhere. But squirrels are squirrely little critters, and it's hard to catch them in the act. Yesterday, however, our local squirrel was zipping across our fence with a pine cone in its mouth, and stopped just long enough for me to acquire hard photographic evidence of his hardworking ways. If I were a squirrel, I'd spend my autumns just keeping an eye on this guy so that I could pilfer his treasure during winter.

In other news, certain of my family members were annoyed with my choice of catblogging photo last week. They wanted the picture of Mozart snoozing on my mother's car with his face reflected in the paint job. Well, patience is a virtue, and this week that's the picture you get. As for next week, who knows? Perhaps by then we'll no longer have a need for guest cats.

Quote of the Day: Nathan Deal Is Tired of Barack Obama's Treachery

| Fri Sep. 19, 2014 1:26 PM EDT

From Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, apparently upset that his tax-fighting economic policies aren't yet producing a paradise on earth:

It’s ironic that in a year in which Republican governors are leading some of the states that are making the most progress, that they almost, without exception, are classified as having a bump in their unemployment rates. Whereas states that are under Democrat governors’ control, they are all showing that their unemployment rate has dropped. And I don’t know how you account for that. Maybe there is some influence here that we don’t know about.

Maybe! It might be that the Obama administration is cooking the books to make Republicans looks bad. Or maybe Democrats in Georgia are deliberately refusing work in order to spike the unemployment numbers. Or—and this is my suspicion—maybe computers have finally acquired human-level intelligence and they don't like Nathan Deal! If I were a computer, I sure wouldn't.

When I Was 5, I, Um -- What Were We Just Talking About?

| Fri Sep. 19, 2014 1:06 PM EDT

I remember approximately diddly-squat1 about my childhood. But why? Melissa Dahl explains the latest research to me today:

The way parents tend to talk to their sons is different from the way they talk to their daughters. Mothers tend to introduce more snippets of new information in conversations with their young daughters than they do with their young sons, research has shown. And moms tend to ask more questions about girls’ emotions; with boys, on the other hand, they spend more time talking about what they should do with those feelings.

This is at least partially a product of parents acting on gender expectations they may not even realize they have, and the results are potentially long-lasting, explained Azriel Grysman, a psychologist at Hamilton College who studies gender differences and memory. “The message that girls are getting is that talking about your feelings is part of describing an event,” Grysman said....“And it’s quite possible, over time, that those tendencies will help women establish more connections in their brains of different pieces of an event, which will lead to better memory long-term.”

So I can blame my crappy memory on my mother? Cool.

1This is a technical term used by neurologists and memory researchers.

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Guy Buys First New iPhone, Immediately Drops It On National TV

| Fri Sep. 19, 2014 12:22 PM EDT

It's new iPhone day! All around the globe thousands of hungry ducks are lining up to be one of the first few to get their hands on Cupertino's fresh new phones. In Perth, "a boy called Jack" got the very first one. Naturally, he was swarmed by media, which led to this:

Thankfully, the iPhone was not hurt.

Mother Jones Senior Australian James West was not immediately available for comment.

Republicans Really, Really Want to Send Ground Troops Into Iraq

| Fri Sep. 19, 2014 10:44 AM EDT

I missed this NYT/CBS poll when it came out a couple of days ago, but a friend pointed it out to me this morning. I don't think much comment is necessary. It's pretty easy to see how the fight against ISIS is going to turn into a massive game of Munich-mongering and appeasement-baiting in short order. Yikes.

Obama Signs Order to Take Away Your Antibiotics

| Fri Sep. 19, 2014 10:30 AM EDT

Here's the latest from the White House:

The Obama administration on Thursday announced measures to tackle the growing threat of antibiotic resistance, outlining a national strategy that includes incentives for the development of new drugs, tighter stewardship of existing ones, and improvements in tracking the use of antibiotics and the microbes that are resistant to them.

....John P. Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told reporters that the new strategy — established by an executive order that President Obama signed on Thursday — was intended to jolt the federal government into action to combat a health crisis that many experts say it has been slow to recognize.

I guess we can all see where this is going, right? It'll start with Alex Jones, maybe, and then Glenn Beck will catch the infection. Drudge will get it next, then Limbaugh, and finally the entire crew of Fox News will come down with it. The tyrant Obama is taking our amoxicillin away from us! Think of the children and their earaches!

Sadly, there's no treatment for this airborne virus. We just have to let it burn itself out. Maybe someday scientists will find a cure for vox bardus.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 19, 2014

Fri Sep. 19, 2014 9:42 AM EDT

US Marines board the USS Germantown, an amphibious dock landing ship in the Philippine Sea. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray)