Blogs

How Is Robin Williams Like Hillary Clinton?

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 12:39 AM EDT

Tonight's Maureen Dowd column begins with an anecdote about an interview she once did with Robin Williams:

As our interview ended, I was telling him about my friend Michael Kelly’s idea for a 1-900 number, not one to call Asian beauties or Swedish babes, but where you’d have an amorous chat with a repressed Irish woman. Williams delightedly riffed on the caricature, playing the role of an older Irish woman answering the sex line in a brusque brogue, ordering a horny caller to go to the devil with his impure thoughts and disgusting desire.

I couldn’t wait to play the tape for Kelly, who doubled over in laughter.

So when I think of Williams, I think of Kelly. And when I think of Kelly, I think of Hillary, because Michael was the first American reporter to die in the Iraq invasion, and Hillary Clinton was one of the 29 Democratic senators who voted to authorize that baloney war.

That's, um, quite a segue. I wonder if there's anything left in the world that doesn't remind Dowd of Hillary Clinton?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Is It Time for Obama to Change Course on Iraqi Kurdistan?

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 5:59 PM EDT

Jonathan Dworkin, who has spent quite a bit of time in Iraqi Kurdistan, thinks the Obama administration is pursuing a failed strategy in Iraq:

In Kurdistan examples are everywhere of the failure of American diplomacy. Refugees have been a problem for months, but only in the last few days has our government gotten serious about providing large scale material support to the Kurds....On the economic front the State Department has gone out of its way to be unhelpful. The Kurdish government is in a desperate economic situation due to the refugee crisis, the security crisis, and the central government’s refusal to share oil revenue.

....The Obama team has adopted Maliki’s line, in essence arguing that Kurdish oil undermines Iraqi unity. That’s an idea that has become increasingly ridiculous with each setback in Baghdad....But the idea of Kurds breaking away from Iraq was anathema to the Obama team....The result is ongoing economic strangulation at precisely the moment the Kurds are being attacked by ISIS. Government salaries haven’t been paid in months. One physician friend in Sulaimania wrote to me that the doctors are working for free. There have also been acute fuel shortages.

Security is the most obvious area where American soft power has failed. For months now the Kurds have been lobbying for a more coordinated approach against ISIS, and they have gotten the cold shoulder over and over. The Obama team was content to arm a disloyal and unreliable Iraqi Army, and they were perplexed when those heavy weapons ended up under ISIS control. But they refused to coordinate significant weapons procurement for the Peshmerga, despite increasingly desperate appeals, until the ISIS rampage forced them to change tack this past week.

I think the highlighted sentence is key. From a diplomatic point of view, the United States either supports a unified Iraq controlled by a central government in Baghdad, or it supports a federal Iraq in which Kurdistan is largely independent. For better or worse, the US made the decision long ago to support a unified Iraq, and that's not a decision that can be reversed lightly. Everything else flows from this.

Is this incompetent? I don't think that's fair. Countries simply can't change tack on major issues like this when their allies are in trouble. And like it or not, Baghdad is our chosen ally. It may be that there's more we could do to quietly help the Kurds behind the scenes, but it's hard to imagine anything serious changing as long as we officially support the authority of the central government in Baghdad over all of Iraq.

In other words, all of the things Jonathan mentions are part of an entirely coherent strategy. Wrong, maybe, but coherent. Rather than commenting on them separately, then, we should be focusing on the bigger picture: Is it finally time for the US to end its opposition to an independent—or semi-independent—Kurdistan? Jonathan made the case for that a couple of months ago here, and I can't say that I forcefully disagree with him. Certainly we ought to be giving this a more public airing. "When we're dropping bombs on a place," Jonathan told me via email, "it should force some conversation about the broader strategy." It's hard to argue with that.

Burn Your Beatles Records!

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 5:42 PM EDT

Early August 1966, Christian groups, primarily in the Southern United States took to the streets to burn the sin out of their beloved Beatles records in response to John Lennon's remark that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus."

Birmingham disc jockeys Tommy Charles, left, and Doug Layton of Radio Station WAQY, rip and break materials representing the British pop group The Beatles, in Birmingham, Ala., Aug. 8, 1966. The broadcasters started a "Ban The Beatles" campaign. AP

Like all good moments of mass hysteria, getting a little context helps put things in perspective.

The quote originally appeared in March 1966, in part of an interview with Lennon published in the London Evening Standard. The interviewer, Maureen Cleave, commented that Lennon was at the time reading about religion. Here is the full, original quote from Lennon:

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first—rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.

In late July, five months after its original publication, a U.S. teen mag called Datebook republished the interview with Lennon. Turning to the tried and true method of generating scandal to gin up sales, Datebook put the "We're more popular than Jesus" part of the quote on the cover. Woo-boy. Two Birmingham DJs picked up on the quote, vowing to never play the Beatles and on August 8th, started a "Ban the Beatles" campaign. Christian groups across the South rose up to protest the Beatles who, as it happened, were just about embark on what would be their last U.S. tour. Beatles records were burned, crushed, broken. Never a group to miss out on a good bonfire, the Ku Klux Klan got involved.

South Carolina Grand Dragon, Bob Scoggin of the Klu Klux Klan tosses Beatle records into the flames of a burning cross, in Chester, South Carolina, Aug. 11, 1966. The "Beatle Bonfire" was staged to take exception to a statement attributed to John Lennon, when he was quoted as saying that his group was more popular than Jesus. AP

On August 12, 1966 the Beatles set out on tour, meeting protests and stupid questions about the quote all along the way. It would be the last tour the Beatles would ever do in the United States, ending on August 29 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

Young churchfolk from Sunnyvale on the San Francisco peninsula protest against the Beatles and John Lennon's remark that The Beatles are "more popular than Jesus" outside Candlestick Park where the Beatles are holding a concert in San Francisco, Ca., Aug. 29, 1966. The picketers were seen by many of the teenagers but missed by the entertainers, who arrived and departed from a different direction. Some 25,000 fans went through the gates for The Beatles' final U.S. performance on their tour. AP

 

Are Your Kids' Rainbow Bracelets Toxic?

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 1:35 PM EDT

Bracelets and other trinkets made on the wildly popular Rainbow Loom—a toy that allows kids to weave together brightly colored elastic bands—could contain cancer-causing chemicals, a British laboratory has found.

In a study commissioned by a British toy retailer, the Assay Laboratory in Birmingham, United Kingdom, tested charms meant to be attached to bracelets and necklaces woven on the looms. The researchers found that while Rainbow Loom's own name-brand products were safe, some charms made by knockoff brands contained high levels of phthalates, a class of carcinogenic chemicals. Some of the knockoff charms were composed of as much as 50 percent (by weight) phthalates, the Irish blog Mummy Pages reports. (It's currently illegal in the United States to sell a toy that contains more than 0.1 percent of six kinds of phthalates, though some products still slip through the cracks.)

Marion Wilson, a spokeswoman from the lab, told Mummy Pages that while only the charms were tested, it was likely that the bands themselves also contained phthalates. In an email to Mother Jones, Wilson declined to share the names of the brands that were found to have high phthalate levels. "We would never share our customer information as it is clearly commercially sensitive," she wrote. "However, please note that the customers that have received test results like this will have tested the product prior to it going on the market." It's unclear whether the brands tested at the lab are sold in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom.

Phthalates aren't the only dangerous thing about Rainbow Looms: BuzzFeed notes other horrors, including injuries to children. Animal advocates in the Philippines say that the bands can harm creatures that swallow them.

The Strange History of Tacos and the New York Times

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 1:08 PM EDT

Neil Irwin does a bit of interesting gastronomic sleuthing today using a New York Times tool that counts the number of mentions of a word in the archives of the Times. The question is, how fast do new food trends go mainstream? Take, for example, fried calamari:

Now, of course, every strip-mall pizza place and suburban Applebee’s serves fried calamari. But not all that long ago it was an exotic food. The term “fried calamari” did not appear in the pages of The New York Times until 1975, according to our nifty Times Chronicle tool, and didn’t show up frequently until the 1980s. Lest you think it is only a change in vocabulary, the term “fried squid” made only a couple of scattered appearances before that time.

Fried calamari made a voyage that dozens of foods have made over the years: They start out being served in forward-thinking, innovative restaurants in New York and other capitals of gastronomy. Over time, they become more and more mainstream....In the last decade alone, the list includes tuna tartare, braised short ribs, beet salad and pretty much any dish involving pork belly, brussels sprouts or kale. In an earlier era, the list might include sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and hummus.

Fascinating! But readers with long memories will recall that I was surprised at how recently tacos became mainstream. In 1952 they were apparently uncommon enough that the Times had to explain to its readers what a taco was. So how about if we use this nifty new search tool to get some hard data on taco references? Here it is:

Sure enough, there are virtually no mentions of tacos in the 40s and 50s. There's a blip here and there, but they don't really get commonly mentioned until the 70s.

But that's not what's interesting. Back in 1877, a full 3 percent of all Times articles mentioned tacos! In fact, tacomania was a feature of the Times during all of the 1870s and 1880s, before suddenly falling off a cliff in 1890. What's up with that? Why did tacos suddenly become verboten in 1890? Did a new editor take over who hated tacos? And what's the deal with the blip from about 1917 to 1922? Did World War I produce a sudden explosion of interest in tacos?

This is very weird. Does anyone have a clue what's going on here?

UPDATE: On Twitter, Christopher Ingraham suggests that this is an artifact of bad text recognition of ancient microfilm. I don't have access to the full version of Times Chronicle, but a look at some of the summaries of articles that allegedly mention tacos makes this seem like a pretty good guess. It's quite possible that there are no genuine mentions of tacos until the 40s or 50s.

This is a sadly boring explanation, but it seems pretty likely to be right. However, I'm still curious about the sudden dropoff in 1890 (did archive copies suddenly improve? did the Times start using a different font?) and the blip after World War I.

Childhood Lead Exposure Causes a Lot More Than Just a Rise in Violent Crime

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 12:16 PM EDT

Jessica Wolpaw Reyes has a new paper out that investigates the link between childhood lead exposure—mostly via tailpipe emissions of leaded gasoline—and violent crime. Unsurprisingly, since her previous research has shown a strong link, she finds a strong link again. But she also finds something else: a strong link between lead and teen pregnancy.

This is not a brand new finding. Rick Nevin's very first paper about lead and crime was actually about both crime and teen pregnancy, and he found strong correlations for both at the national level. Reyes, however, goes a step further. It turns out that different states adopted unleaded gasoline at different rates, which allows Reyes to conduct a natural experiment. If lead exposure really does cause higher rates of teen pregnancy, then you'd expect states with the lowest levels of leaded gasoline to also have the lowest levels of teen pregnancy 15 years later. And guess what? They do. The chart on the right shows the correlation between gasoline lead exposure and later rates of teen pregnancy, and it's very strong. Stronger even than the correlation with violent crime.

None of this should come as a surprise. The neurological basis for the lead-crime theory suggests that childhood lead exposure affects parts of the brain that have to do with judgment, impulse control, and executive functions. This means that lead exposure is likely to be associated not just with violent crime, but with juvenile misbehavior, drug use, teen pregnancy, and other risky behaviors. And that turns out to be the case. Reyes finds correlations with behavioral problems starting at a young age; teen pregnancy; and violent crime rates among older children.

It's a funny thing. For years conservatives bemoaned the problem of risky and violent behavior among children and teens of the post-60s era, mostly blaming it on the breakdown of the family and a general decline in discipline. Liberals tended to take this less seriously, and in any case mostly blamed it on societal problems. In the end, though, it turned out that conservatives were right. It wasn't just a bunch of oldsters complaining about the kids these days. Crime was up, drug use was up, and teen pregnancy was up. It was a genuine phenomenon and a genuine problem.

But liberals were right that it wasn't related to the disintegration of the family or lower rates of churchgoing or any of that. After all, families didn't suddenly start getting back together in the 90s and churchgoing didn't suddenly rise. But teenage crime, drug use, and pregnancy rates all went down. And down. And down.

Most likely, there was a real problem, but it was a problem no one had a clue about. We were poisoning our children with a well-known neurotoxin, and this toxin lowered their IQs, made them into fidgety kids, wrecked their educations, and then turned them into juvenile delinquents, teen mothers, and violent criminals. When we got rid of the toxin, all of these problems magically started to decline.

This doesn't mean that lead was 100 percent of the problem. There probably were other things going on too, and we can continue to argue about them. But the volume of the argument really ought to be lowered a lot. Maybe poverty makes a difference, maybe single parenting makes a difference, and maybe evolving societal attitudes toward child-rearing make a difference. But they probably don't make nearly as much difference as we all thought. In the end, we've learned a valuable lesson: don't poison your kids. That makes more difference than all the other stuff put together.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Bank Robber Adds New Dimension to Old Definition of Chutzpah

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 11:30 AM EDT

Woman helps rob bank in elaborate scheme, then files workers comp claim for PTSD. She's now facing charges of insurance fraud in addition to the nine years in a federal penitentiary she's already earned. Welcome to California.

Robin Williams Has Died at 63

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 7:33 PM EDT

Just awful. I'm speechless.

Rest in peace.

Obama Should Speak Now in Support of the War Powers Act

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 6:09 PM EDT

How long are we going to be conducting air strikes against the ISIS insurgents in Iraq? On Saturday, President Obama made it clear that this depends on how long it takes for Iraqis to form an "inclusive government" that commands enough support to mount its own military offensive. Iraq's problem, he said, is first and foremost a political one. Until that's addressed, American air strikes are just a stopgap.

Fair enough. Still, how about an answer to the question?

Q Mr. President, for how long a period of time do you see these airstrikes continuing for? And is your goal there to contain ISIS or to destroy it?

THE PRESIDENT: I’m not going to give a particular timetable, because as I’ve said from the start, wherever and whenever U.S. personnel and facilities are threatened, it’s my obligation, my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief, to make sure that they are protected. And we’re not moving our embassy anytime soon. We’re not moving our consulate anytime soon. And that means that, given the challenging security environment, we’re going to maintain vigilance and ensure that our people are safe.

....Q Is it possible that what you’ve described and your ambitions there could take years, not months?

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks, if that’s what you mean. I think this is going to take some time....I think part of what we’re able to do right now is to preserve a space for them to do the hard work that’s necessary. If they do that, the one thing that I also think has changed is that many of the Sunni countries in the region who have been generally suspicious or wary of the Iraqi government are more likely to join in, in the fight against ISIS, and that can be extremely helpful. But this is going to be a long-term project.

In other words, Obama is claiming that he's (a) protecting our consulate in Erbil, and (b) that protecting American embassies is a constitutional responsibility, which is what gives him the authority to continue the air offensive.

This is a problem because, let's face it, in practically every war zone in the world there's an American embassy or some American citizens who can be colorably said to be in danger. If that's all it takes to justify long-term military action, then the president really does have a free hand to mount military campaigns anywhere, anytime, and for any reason.

I believe that Obama has truly become more skeptical about the effectiveness of American military power since he first took office. But that's not enough. If he really wants to make a difference, he should use this opportunity to explicitly weigh in on the side of the War Powers Act. This wouldn't legally bind future presidents to do the same, but it would set a precedent that would make the WPA more difficult to ignore. And it shouldn't be hard for Obama, who specifically addressed the issue of air strikes in 2007 and did so in no uncertain terms: "The President," he said, "does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

Obama should use this opportunity to definitively acknowledge that the War Powers Act is binding on the president; that it applies to situations like this; and that therefore he needs congressional authorization to continue air strikes beyond 60 days. It's the right thing to do for both the executive branch, which should not have unconstrained warmaking powers, and for the legislative branch, which should be required to carry out its constitutional duties instead of merely whining about executive actions without ever having to commit itself to a course of action.

It's not too late to do this. But it will be soon.

Does the 6-Year Itch Spell Doom for Obama?

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 3:50 PM EDT

The theory of the six-year itch is well-known phenomenon: American presidents suffer all too often during their second terms from an onslaught of scandals that hobble their ability to act. Larry Summers thinks this is a good reason to ditch the limit of two four-year terms and instead switch to a single six-year term. Jonathan Bernstein isn't buying it:

He can point to all sorts of second-term miseries going back to Franklin Roosevelt. But the apparent pattern doesn't hold up that well. A classic example is Richard Nixon. Yes, Watergate dominated and ruined Nixon's second term, but the series of abuses of power that cost him the presidency—and the initial cover-up—occurred during his first term. Similarly, George W. Bush's second term was spoiled to a great extent by the Iraq war (which Summers bizarrely omits from his summary); Iraq, too, was a first-term decision.

Quite right. But I'm not sure this makes the point Bernstein wants it to make. Back in 2004 I predicted that if George Bush were reelected, he'd suffer through a bunch of scandals, and that turned out to be right. I suggested there were three reasons that second terms tended to be overrun by scandal, and this was No. 2:

Second, there's the problem that second terms are, well, second terms. It takes more than two or three years for a serious scandal to unfold, and problems that start to surface midway through a president's first term usually reach critical mass midway through his second term…George Bush is especially vulnerable to this since his first term already has several good candidates for scandals waiting to flower. Take your pick: Valerie Plame? The National Guard? Abu Ghraib? Intelligence failures? Or maybe something that hasn't really crossed anybody's radar screen yet, sort of like the "third-rate burglary" at the Watergate Hotel that no one took seriously in 1972.

I think Bernstein and I are saying similar things here. In Bush's case, there were indeed some new problems in his second term: Katrina in 2005 and several assorted scandals that revolved around Jack Abramoff in 2006. The same has happened to Obama. Regardless of whether you think that things like Fast & Furious or Solyndra were genuine scandals (I don't), they have the same effect. More recently, you can add the IRS and Benghazi. And again, regardless of whether these are real scandals or invented ones, they work the same way. Low-information voters don't always pay attention to whether a scandal is "real." They just keep hearing about one thing after another, and eventually conclude that where there's smoke there's fire.

As it happens, I'd say that Obama has done a remarkably good job of running a clean administration, and I suspect that scandalmania isn't actually hurting him much. Despite the best efforts of Republicans to pretend otherwise, there's just not much there. You can hate his policies or his personality or his competence or his leadership ability, but the truth is that he's run a pretty clean shop on the scandal front.

Still, if you accept the general proposition that scandals tend to pile up over time, that means you're likely to have a fairly impotent president by year six. And maybe that means a single six-year term would be for the best.

The problem with this is that there's not much evidence for it. If six years really is some kind of magic scandal number, then you'd expect to see it at work elsewhere. But do you? How about in Britain, which has indeterminate terms? Or Germany, where Angela Merkel is heading into her ninth year in office? Or in cities and states without term limits? More generally, in other jurisdictions with different terms, how much evidence is there that voters become highly sensitive to mounting scandals by year six?

Not much, I think, though I suspect that voters do just generally get tired of politicians and parties after about six years or so. After all, by then it's clear that all the stuff they promised won't happen, so why not give the other guys a shot? Hell, lots of people are complaining these days about Obama failing to bring postpartisan peace and harmony to Washington, DC, as if there were much he could ever have done about that in the face of unprecedentedly unanimous obstruction from Republicans starting on day one. But still: He did say that was one of his goals, and he sure hasn't delivered it. So let's throw him out. The next president will be able to do it for sure. Right?