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Satellite Imagery Shows the Extent of Boko Haram Devastation in Nigeria

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 5:53 PM EST
Residents stand outside burnt homes in Gambaru, Nigeria after a Boko Haram attack in May 2014.

Update, Thursday, January 15, 2015: New satellite imagery released by Amnesty International shows the extent of the devastation Boko Haram has visited upon northern Nigeria over the past week. Below are before and after images of the town of Doron Baga. Healthy vegetation is colored red.

The Islamist militant group may now control up to 20 percent of the country, according to NPR. Journalists are unable to report on the killing in the north, because approaching the area would be a "death wish," The New Yorker's Alexis Okeowo told host Melissa Block Tuesday.

Update, Friday, January 9, 2015: On Friday morning, Amnesty International said the latest Boko Haram attack could be the "deadliest massacre" in the group's history, if the early reports that as many as 2,000 people were killed turn out to be true.

This week, Boko Haram, the Islamist terror group based in northern Nigeria, launched a massive attack on the town of Baga, killing dozens, according to Reuters. Other initial reports put the number of dead in the hundreds or thousands. The attack is the latest in the group's increasingly bloody campaign to establish an Islamic state in the West African country. The group attained international infamy last April after it abducted some 300 girls. More than 200 of them are still missing.

Over the course of this Tuesday and Wednesday, the militants set fire to buildings in Baga and shot indiscriminately at civilians. Nearly the entire town was torched, according to the BBC. Baga, which had roughly 10,000 residents, is now "virtually non-existent," Musa Alhaji Bukar, a senior government official, told the British news agency.

Here's more from the BBC:

Those who fled reported that they had been unable to bury the dead, and corpses littered the town's streets, he said.

Boko Haram was now in control of Baga and 16 neighbouring towns after the military retreated, Mr Bukar said.

While he raised fears that some 2,000 had been killed in the raids, other reports put the number in the hundreds.

The attack follows an assault by Boko Haram on a military base in Baga on Saturday.

The AFP reported late Thursday that the terror group also decimated over a dozen towns and villages surrounding Baga:

Boko Haram launched renewed attacks around a captured town in restive northeast Nigeria this week, razing at least 16 towns and villages, a local government and a union official told AFP.

'They burnt to the ground all the 16 towns and villages including Baga, Dorn-Baga, Mile 4, Mile 3, Kauyen Kuros and Bunduram,' said Musa Bukar, head of the Kukawa local government in Borno state.

Boko Haram has been terrorizing Nigeria for more than five years. Over the past year, the group has killed more than 10,000 people, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Mickey Mouse Still Stricken With Measles, Thanks to the Anti-Vaxxers

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 5:47 PM EST

Update (1/23/2015): At least 59 Measles cases have been confirmed in California this year, 42 of them linked to the Disneyland outbreak, according to the state health department. Public health officials around the state, but particularly in Southern California, where the outbreak is the worst, are practically begging parents to have their children immunized. The disease is highly transmissible by air—droplets from an infected person's cough can remain suspended for up to two hours, the CDC notes, and the virus can live for just as long on surfaces. The current outbreak is "100 percent connected" to the anti-immunization movement, Dr. James Cherry, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California-Los Angeles told the New York Times: "It wouldn't have happened otherwise—it wouldn't have gone anywhere," Cherry said. "There are some pretty dumb people out there."

Update (1/13/2015): The number of reported Measles cases linked to Disneyland has grown to 22, reports the Los Angeles Times. At least 12 of the infected people were unvaccinated, while four had had a Measles shot at some point. The vaccination status of the other six was unknown.

****

Yesterday, instead of cherishing freshly made memories of mouse ears or trying to get the song "A Pirate's Life for Me" to stop looping in their heads, nine Disneyland visitors were left battling a potentially deadly disease. As The LA Times reports, the California Department of Public Health has confirmed nine cases and is investigating three others in California and Utah, all people who visited the Anaheim theme park last month.

The highly infectious disease, which is transmitted through the air, can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis, and sometimes death in children. In 2000, the US Centers for Disease Control declared it eliminated in the United States, thanks in large part to an effective vaccine. But because of anti-vaccination hysteria, fueled by discredited claims about links between vaccines and autism, many parents have opted out of vaccinating their kids, leaving them—and others, including children too young to be vaccinated—vulnerable. And while some children do react badly to vaccines, it's important to remember that the diseases we vaccinate against are killers; the shots save countless lives.

Of the seven California cases, six hadn't been vaccinated—two because they were underage. (Doctors administer the vaccine twice after the child is 12 months old.)

This outbreak is part of an ongoing trend. Measles rates have risen dramatically over the past few years. As my colleague Julia Lurie pointed out last May, the CDC reported record numbers in 2014, due in large part to gaps in vaccinations. According to a CDC press release, "90 percent of all measles cases in the United States were in people who were not vaccinated or whose vaccination status was unknown. Among the US residents who were not vaccinated, 85 percent were religious, philosophical, or personal reasons."

In the video below, my colleague Kiera Butler interviewed a Marin County pediatrician who caters to anti-vaxxer parents:

Jessica Chastain Hits Back at Russell Crowe's Denial of Hollywood's Ageism Problem

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 3:27 PM EST

Jessica Chastain is firing back at comments made by actor Russell Crowe, after he attempted to explain why there aren't enough roles for women over the age of 40 by blaming unrealistic, female desires to only play the hot young thing.

Crowe's controversial comments came during a recent interview with Australian Women's Weekly:

The best thing about the industry I'm in – movies – is that there are roles for people in all different stages of life. To be honest, I think you'll find that the woman who is saying that (the roles have dried up) is the woman who at 40, 45, 48, still wants to play the ingénue and can’t understand why she's not being cast as the 21 year old.

In response to Crowe's victim-blaming away Hollywood's well-documented ageism problem, Chastain told reporters, "Russell keeps getting his foot stuck in his mouth!"

"There are some incredible actresses in their 50s and 60s that are not getting opportunities in film, and for someone to say there are plenty of roles for women that age, [that] is not someone who's going to the movie theater," she added. 

Riding to Crowe's defense, however, is 18-time Academy Award nominee Meryl Streep:

I read what he said -- all of what he said. It's been misappropriated, what he was talking about. He was talking about himself. The journalist asked him, 'Why don’t you do another 'Gladiator,' you know, everybody loved that.' He said, 'I'm too old. I can't be the gladiator anymore. I'm playing parts that are appropriate to my age. Then the conversation went on to actresses. So that was proving a point, that he was talking about himself, as most actors do. That aside, I agree with him. It's good to live in the place where you are. You can put old age on; it's a lot harder to take it off.

But as Jezebel points out, Streep is not dismissing the charge that Hollywood lacks roles for older women—she has spoken out against both sexism and ageism in the film industry on numerous occasions. Streep is suggesting actors in general play their own age. Chastain is saying that many great actresses aren't given that opportunity. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson Is Bringing Science to Late Night Television

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 2:39 PM EST

"April is the cruelest month, breeding/ lilacs out of the dead land, mixing," wrote T.S. Eliot. I don't know what the hell he was on about because this April is going to be awesome.

Famous science man Neil deGrasse Tyson's new late-night talk show Star Talk, based on his acclaimed podcast, is coming to the National Geographic Channel in that very merry fourth month of 2015. With it brings the promise of dozens of easily embeddable, highly shareable video clips of Tyson debunking anti-science nonsense to creationists, and explaining actual science goodness to America's sweethearts (movie stars) and black sheep (comedians). The Hollywood Reporter, err, reports:

Star Talk will indeed follow a similar format to Tyson's podcast, which marries science and popular culture and feature interviews with celebrities, comedians and scientists. He's still sorting through all of the elements that he'll add to the television iteration, but he does intend to give Bill Nye a platform for a minute-long rant in each show, much as Andy Rooney had for many years on CBS' 60 Minutes.

Look out, John Oliver: America fucking loves science.

(via NYMag)

Don Lemon to Prominent Muslim Human Rights Lawyer: "Do You Support ISIS?"

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 2:26 PM EST

After Arsalan Iftikhar, a prominent human rights lawyer and editor, explained at length to CNN's perpetually clueless Don Lemon why it's dangerous "to conflate the actions of a very few to a population of 1.7 billion people" when discussing the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Lemon followed up with a stat claiming 16 percent of French citizens support ISIS.

"They obviously have sympathies for that ideology,” Iftikhar said. "I don’t think that would mean they would justify the killing of innocent civilians or murdering people on the streets."

Unsatisfied with Iftikhar's response, Lemon says, "I just want to get more specific. Do you support ISIS?"

"...Did you just ask me if I support ISIS?" Iftikhar asked in apparent disbelief. 

"Mmm hmm," Lemon nodded in confirmation, yet again blinded by the sheer offensiveness of his question.

"I just answered your question. I said that obviously these 16% of people support the ideology, but I don’t think that would necessarily extrapolate to supporting of killing of innocent people. You can have sympathy for an ideology and not support the mass murdering of people."

Watch below:

(h/t Mediaite)

Free Speech Doesn't Require You to Offend People Just to Prove You Can

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 1:50 PM EST

Andrew Sullivan points to the following postscript in a Washington Post story about the Charlie Hebdo killings:

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included images offensive to various religious groups that did not meet the Post's standards, and should not have been published. They have been removed.

Sullivan calls this a "capitulation," and says, "If any reader knows exactly what images they removed, let us know and we’ll post them here."

Hmmm. Something is off kilter here. I don't normally publish things that are gratuitously offensive to Catholics or Muslims or other religious groups. That's just me, of course, and obviously there's a ton of judgment involved in how I personally choose to conduct myself as a public writer. But Sullivan goes further: He's suggesting that even if I wouldn't normally publish something because it's offensive, I should actively do so now just to prove that I can. And so should the Post.

I don't buy that. If there's news value in reprinting some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons so that their readers have some idea of what motivated the attacks, the Post should print them. But that's all they should do. If they normally try to avoid gratuitous offense, there's no reason to change that policy. That's free speech.

UPDATE: I suppose this was inevitable, but my point is being widely misunderstood. Let me try again. Anyone who wishes to publish offensive cartoons should be free to do so. Likewise, anyone who wants to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as a demonstration of solidarity is free to do so. I hardly need to belabor the fact that there are excellent arguments in favor of doing this as a way of showing that we won't allow terrorists to intimidate us.

But that works in the other direction too. If you normally wouldn't publish cartoons like these because you consider them needlessly offensive, you shouldn't be intimidated into doing so just because there's been a terrorist attack. Maintaining your normal policies even in the face of a terrorist attack is not "capitulation." It's just the opposite.

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Pharma Marketing: Pretty Much the Same As Every Other Kind of Marketing

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 1:16 PM EST

Charles Ornstein and Ryann Grochowski Jones published a story yesterday that's gotten a lot of attention. It's an examination of where pharmaceutical companies spend most of their marketing budgets:

The drugs most aggressively promoted to doctors typically aren't cures or even big medical breakthroughs. Some are top sellers, but most are not. Instead, they are newer drugs that manufacturers hope will gain a foothold, sometimes after failing to meet Wall Street's early expectations.

"They may have some unique niche in the market, but they are fairly redundant with other therapies that are already available," said Dr. Joseph Ross, an associate professor of medicine and public health at Yale University School of Medicine. "Many of these, you could call me-too drugs."

Maybe this is just my marketing background blinding me to an obvious outrage, but....what else would you expect? This is what every company does. If you're in marketing, you spend a lot of money on new product launches and you spend a lot of money where you most need to differentiate yourself. This is nothing unique to pharma. It's just the common-sense way that marketing works.

There's a lot that's wrong with pharmaceutical R&D priorities, and there's also a lot that's wrong with pharmaceutical marketing strategies. But spending a lot of money on new products that have entrenched competitors? If that's wrong, then every consumer products company on the planet is doing something wrong. I'm a bit at a loss to figure out what the story is supposed to be here.

"They Were Brave. And They Are Dead." Best Friend of Paris Cartoonists Honors Fallen Comrades.

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 12:22 PM EST
Mourners hold signs depicting victims' eyes during a rally in support of Charlie Hebdo, in Union Square in New York.

Our friend and Mother Jones alum Sydney Brownstone has published an extraordinary interview today over at The Stranger: A Q&A with a French editor who gave refuge to Charlie Hebdo staff members after the weekly's offices were fire-bombed in 2011, and who counted the murdered cartoonists amongst his best friends. Nicolas Demorand is the former editor-in-chief of the leftist French newspaper Libération, which was founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, and Brownstone reached him at the end of a truly harrowing day in Paris—after protests swept into the streets.

The interview is well worth your time. Amidst overwhelming grief, Demorand eloquently—and with great dignity—discusses the issues emanating from yesterday's attack: suburban disadvantage in France, American missteps post-9/11, the threat of hard-line right-wing parties scoring points using tragedy, and the meaning of secularism in France today. But this bit instantly made my hairs stand on end, as it would anyone who works in journalism:

You know, I cried all day long. I never cry. You know, we're journalists. We know about shit, about sadness, about horror, about misery, about terror, about all that shit. We know about that. I cried all day long, you know. They killed the best guys. They killed the best guys. It's horrible. It's really horrible.

Read the whole interview at The Stranger.

Here's the Story on Party ID: There's Not Really Much of a Story

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 12:17 PM EST

Several people have already commented on a new Gallup poll showing that Democrats and Republicans are continuing to lose ground to self-identified independents. And it's true: the percentage of independents has risen steadily since 2008 from 35 percent to 43 percent.

But my advice is to ignore the noise. As Gallup itself says, "Although independents claim no outright allegiance to either major party, it is well-known that they are not necessarily neutral when it comes to politics." Quite so. In fact, "leaners" tend to vote the party line just about as loyally as folks still willing to explicitly call themselves Democrats and Republicans. For most people, identifying as an independent isn't so much a genuine political commitment as it is a lifestyle statement.

So here's the chart to look at: Party ID plus the leaners. And the story it tells is fairly unremarkable. You can see spikes up and down as elections are held and the public gets tired of the party in power, but there's not much of a long-term trend. I eyeballed the average party ID for both Democrats and Republicans in the Gallup chart, and it shows very little movement over the past few years: Democrats are down slightly from their long-term average—probably not surprising in the sixth year of a presidency—and Republicans have gained slightly.

If there's a story to tell here, I don't really see it. Perhaps pundits with sharper eyes and more column inches to fill will find something.

The GOP's First Priority for 2015: Paying Off Wall Street

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 10:48 AM EST

So how did House Republicans kick things off when they came back into session this week? Answer: They quickly passed a few noncontroversial bills (the Hire More Heroes Act, etc.), but then came the real top priorities. Something about abortion? Or gun rights? Maybe an immigration bill? Some other tea party hot button?

Nope. First up was a new rule that would speed the bankruptcy of the Social Security disability fund. It passed. Next they tried to sneak through a massive omnibus bill full of goodies for Wall Street. David Dayen describes what happened now that Elizabeth Warren has wakened the populist strain of the Democratic Party:

Democrats rushed in to squash the Republican Frankenbill. H.R. 37 came up for a vote Wednesday under a suspension of the rules, meaning that it needed a two-thirds vote. So Democrats would have to supply several dozen votes for the bill to pass....“It has not yet been 24 hours since members of Congress have been sworn in,” said Democrat Dan Kildee (D-MI) on the House floor, “When Main Street had its needs we couldn’t get a hearing. When Wall Street asks, we suspend the rules without taking a breath.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi termed it a “brazen attempt” to “sneak through a New Year’s present to big banks.” Ultimately, enough Democrats shied away from the bill for it to fail by a vote of 276 to 146. Only 35 Democrats voted with all but 1 Republican in favor. The lack of two-thirds support means that the bill would not survive a Presidential veto either.

There you have it. All the tea-party stuff will come eventually, but the very first actions of the Republican House were ones to hurt disabled workers and give a huge gift to Wall Street. Actions speak louder than words, and these were their first actions. Welcome to 2015.