2011 - %3, September

DOJ: Texas Redistricting Discriminatory

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 8:24 AM EDT

Court papers filed by the Department of Justice late Friday afternoon accuse the Texas redistricting plan signed by Governor Rick Perry of being drawn in a way that minimizes the impact of the minority vote. According to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, certain covered jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting—including Texas—must submit changes in election law to the Justice Department for "preclearance."

Referring to Texas' congressional redistricting plan, the filling states that while "The United States has not yet determined whether the proposed plan has any purpose or purposes that are prohibited by Section 5," that "it appears that the proposed plan may have a prohibited purpose in that it was adopted, at least in part, for the purpose of diminishing the ability of citizens of the United States, on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group, to elect their preferred candidates of choice to Congress." The crux of the Department of Justice's argument is that, deliberately or not, two districts in Texas, 23 and 27, have been altered so as to reduce the influence of Latino voters in those districts. Since the Voting Rights Act prohibits changes that would have the "purpose or effect" of discriminating against minorities, DoJ is saying the plan violates Section 5.

As for whether or not this impact was by design, DoJ says they aren't ruling it out, but that the "investigation is on-going."

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That Handsome Devil, Godforbid

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

When Esquire published its list of "50 Songs Every Man Should Listen To," one reader responded that the editors had left out one crucial band for the XY set. It was That Handsome Devil, a gonzo-punk outfit out of Boston, whose music sounds as if a jowling, snarling creature had crept down from the rafters to join Mr. Toad on his wanton hell ride. But on the band's second (or fourth, if you include EPs) album, The Heart Goes to Heaven, the Head Goes to Hell, the musicians are in full control of their Haunted House-macabre sound. "Charlie's Inferno" is an unintentional nod to the TV show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. "Adapt" sounds like a back alley fist fight about to bust out. "Inside You," finds lead singer Godforbid mastering that clinging-to-the-bottle drawl the band's become known for. When I caught up with Godforbid last Friday, he regaled me with talk about hustling beer at Coney Island, milking tall tales, and his struggle between pure intentions and royal douchebaggery. 

Mother Jones: One of my favorite tracks is "How to Get Money." Any tips for readers who are broke and pissed off? 

Godforbid: [Laughs.] If I had gobs of cash I'd have plenty of ideas. But I've given all my tips up on that track. Well, there's an insane hustle in New York. I've got three jobs to keep the wheels spinning. But you can get creative with it; there are always fun little hustles out there. You can take beers and sell 'em down at the Coney Island Beach. Just walk around with a cooler and have a buddy walk 20 feet in front of you to cop watch. You can sell them for whatever price you'd like because people are just too lazy to stand in line.

MJ: What sort of work are you doing?

GF: I don't have many commodities other than the fact that I can write and perform. I've got three jobs where I'm making the same amount of money I would if I were 16. I press records at Hit-Bound Records, but it's hard working in a hot factory like that. I've got to meditate for a bit, turn into a robot for eight hours, to be able to do that job. And I do janitorial work for a plastic surgeon—you'll find fat globules and blood spatters, but it makes for good song writing. And depending on the gig, I'll do construction here and there.

Bon Iver Takes It to the Greek

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

For a man whose path to musical success started with him alone, sick with pneumonia and a broken heart, in a hunting cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon has become quite the rockstar. Since 2008, when Jagjaguwar Records released his debut indie-folk album, For Emma, Forever Ago, he's been lauded by critics, adored by fans, and even sought out by Kanye West, who asked him to collaborate on West's latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

But even now, Vernon doesn't have many of the standard trappings of a music god. Tall and bearded, he looks more like a dude you'd find drinking PBR in a small-town bar more than a guy you'd expect to see touring big venues in support of his second album. Vernon seems to feel that way a little, too. Facing the sold-out crowd at Berkeley's Greek Theatre last Thursday, he kept on repeating how awed and lucky he was to be there.

"Three Famines" Presents an Anatomy of the F-Word

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

In foreign policy vocabulary, the word "famine" pretty much functions like an expletive. Two months ago, the UN brandished "the F-word" when it declared two parts of southern Somalia official famine zones. Soon, four more regions were bestowed with the dreaded title.

This curse word of sorts, though, can't be tossed around lightly. Before using it, the UN requires serious number-crunching to show that at least 20 percent of households in an area face extreme food shortages, that acute malnutrition exceeds 30 percent, and that the death rate is more than two people per 10,000, daily. Given its weight, a declaration of "famine" is a serious call for global awareness and aid. And yet, while reports of other natural disasters have jam-packed American news-pages, "famine"— this rare word, for what is supposedly a rare natural calamity—has barely flickered across the daily newscycle.

All this is why Thomas Keneally's latest book—Three Famines—couldn't have come out at a more appropriate time. In it, Keneally, the Booker Prize-winning author of the novel Schindler's List, has set out to prove that famines are borne of man-made disasters, not natural ones. Sure, natural flukes are the starting point, he writes, but it's politics that feed famine's terrifying momentum. If you follow the situation in Somalia—where tallies of the starving are going up, not down, and where Western aid stands blocked by militant group al-Shabaab—you'll get the sense that Keneally’s hypothesis is legitimate even before he's launched into the evidence.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 26, 2011

Mon Sep. 26, 2011 4:57 AM EDT

Tech. Sgt. Sam Pastor fires an Mk48 Sept. 10, 2011, at the off-base firing range near Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan. Pastor is a vehicle maintainer with the Laghman Provincial Reconstruction Team. (US Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane)

The New Deal

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 12:29 AM EDT

I just finished reading The New Deal: A Modern History, by Michael Hiltzik, and I can't recommend it highly enough. I'm a friend of Michael's, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt if you want, but it's really terrific, an energetically written and eminently readable history that makes all the right tradeoffs. At a little over 400 pages, you're not going to get every last detail of the New Deal, but you're going to get all the high points, narrated with vigorous prose, a clear-sighted appreciation of just what motivated FDR and his allies, and a modern understanding of what they actually accomplished. And unlike the doorstop histories, you'll finish it quickly enough to be left wishing for more.

And you'll meet some new friends. All the usual New Deal architects are there — Raymond Moley, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, and, always, the redoubtable Harold Ickes — but Hiltzik also spends more than the usual time on a few of its lesser known figures: Benjamin Cohen, the genius legislative drafter; General Hugh Johnson, the force of nature who ran the NRA for a year and probably destroyed it long before the Supreme Court did; George Warren, the eccentric Cornell economist responsible for FDR's peculiar decision to tinker with the price of gold in 1933; Martin Dies, the red-baiting foe of the WPA whose "Dies Committee" would become famous as HUAC during the McCarthy era; and a variegated cast of other misfits and less familiar faces. Because of this a few things get short shrift — the labor movement comes most to mind here — but for the most part the omissions are modest. The big ticket items are all here.

Hiltzik also devotes a full chapter to the almost complete inability — or unwillingness — of the New Deal to help black Americans, the "most forgotten man," in T. Arnold Hill's words. With only narrow and fleeting exceptions, nearly every New Deal program was transformed, either in law or in practice, to insure that only whites would benefit from them. "The Tennessee Valley Authority might have the ability to raise an entire region out of near-medieval poverty," Hiltzik writes, "but black Americans were not permitted to reside next to the white dam workers....Almost every federal settlement, work relief camp, and construction crew that accommodated blacks did so on a racially segregated 'Jim Crow' basis" — and this was nearly as true in the Northern states as in the Southern. This aspect of the New Deal has gotten more attention in recent years than it used to, but nonetheless deserves wider recognition. Hiltzik delivers that.

This is also a timely book. One of the most striking things that shines through Hiltzik's narrative is the political similarity of the 30s to our current era. There's the intense hatred of FDR among the affluent, with their insistence that unemployment remained high only because he was destroying business confidence and strangling corporations with excessive regulation. There's the emergence of a lunatic right convinced that FDR was subverting the constitution and establishing socialism, ironically combined with a progressive left that became increasingly disillusioned with his centrism and political accommodation. There's the modest size of the early New Deal stimulus, which was too small and too brief, animated as it was by a skepticism of Keynesian ideas even among much of the left. There are the racial underpinnings of much of the opposition to the New Deal, coming from Southern Democrats hypersensitive to anything that might undermine the authority and influence of white power. There's the overriding folk belief in balanced budgets, which seemingly affected everyone from the president to the lowliest janitor. Sound familiar?

The Great Recession of 2008 was milder than it could have been because we learned so many lessons from the Great Depression of the 30s. But its continuing hold, and the possibility that we might yet fall into a second recession, is largely due to the lessons we haven't learned. The New Deal teaches them to us all over again.

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Rick Perry's Sarah Palin Problem

| Sun Sep. 25, 2011 11:59 PM EDT

Dave Weigel explains why Rick Perry failed so miserably in this weekend's Florida straw poll:

Walking through the walls of the Orange County Convention Center, you hear these words and phrases over and over again.

Perry. Immigration. Illegals. Tuition. Illegals. He didn't do as well as he could have. Why?

Almost every conversation I walked into was on the question of why Rick Perry approved a law that let young non-citizens get in-state tuition rates at Texas schools, and why he had characterized the program's critics as heartless.

Obviously this is a huge deal with the Republican base. But I think Perry's real problem is that Thursday's debate badly shook up a GOP establishment that was pretty uneasy with him already. It's not so much that Perry spoke in platitudes — all candidates do that — or that he muffed a few lines — any candidate can do that too — or even that his policy positions were unacceptable. Hell, he'll figure out how to fight back on the tuition for illegal immigrants thing eventually, and he'll get his foreign policy act together too.

But there was a bigger problem: Perry looked like he didn't think he needed to even care about any of that stuff. He muffed his attack lines because he hadn't bothered to study them. He wasn't prepared for the tuition fight because he figured that he could just repeat the same old explanations and flash his thousand-watt smile at the audience. He didn't know what to say about Pakistan because he figured any sort of good ol' boy BS would do. It always has before, after all. So he's apparently spent the past month doing....nothing.

That's just way too Palinesque for the political pros. He looks like a guy who's had such an easy time in Texas that he doesn't really think he's going to have to work for the nomination — or the presidency. Gentleman's Cs have always been good enough, and he figures they'll be good enough again. So he's got nothing except a single set of sound bites for every occasion, and he's not prepared to put in the time and effort it takes to sound even minimally ready for prime time when he's taken out of his comfort zone.

That's a scary thought for Republicans. The economy is bad enough that Barack Obama is seriously vulnerable, but even with a bad economy he can beat somebody who's convinced that his winning personality is enough to see him through any troubles. When Perry first announced his candidacy, he had the aura of a political animal willing to do whatever it takes to win. Now he looks like he's willing to do anything except actually work hard. That's a sure way to lose in November, and that's why the GOP establishment is suddenly so nervous.

The Solyndra Story

| Sun Sep. 25, 2011 11:34 AM EDT

If you're interested in reading a bit of background on Solyndra now that it's become a political football, the LA Times has a pretty good piece in today's paper:

To grasp the saga of Solyndra's rapid rise and even faster fall, one has to understand the dazzling appeal of its product. The company's advancement in solar power was hailed as an invention so brilliant that it blinded everyone to the truth: Solyndra never had much of a chance in a fast-changing market.

"It was revolutionary," said Walter Bailey, a former Macquarie Capital investment banker who specialized in green technology and visited Solyndra in 2008. "You had some of the smartest money in the world getting behind it. It was a real company with a huge factory and an extremely unique product.

"The only problem," said Bailey, now a senior partner at boutique investment bank Focus Capital in New York, "was that it never penciled out."

There's nothing in this piece about the politics of Solyndra, just a straight-ahead explanation of who they were, why their technology was so dazzling, and why they failed. It's worth a read if you're not already up on all this.

Deadly Jobs: Working With Water

| Sat Sep. 24, 2011 2:00 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

When we are at work, doing the same thing day in day out, it is easy to grow complacent about the risks that are involved. But when the daily grind involves diving to the depths of the ocean with very basic equipment, complacency could prove fatal.

The Philippines ranks as the 11th highest of the world’s top seafood producers, with some coastal communities deriving up to 70 percent of their income from fishing. It is no wonder that with such high stakes risky practices are commonplace.

Pa’aling divers of Palawan, Philippines.Pa’aling divers of Palawan, Philippines.

Some of the most dangerous techniques are adopted by the Pa'aling divers who inhabit the Palawan province. Diving down to 40 meters, these 100 strong crews take their lives in their hands on every trip. Supplied only with thin makeshift tubes of compressed air fed from a rusty generator on the surface, there is the potential for air supplies to become tangled and to become trapped. Not only this, but also decompression sickness, commonly known as 'the bends', a serious condition caused by the men ascending to the surface too quickly is also a serious concern. Sadly the benefits do not outweigh the risks with each fisherman reportedly earning an average of $25 for a week's work.

Another occupation that risks life and limb is that of the goose barnacle collectors of northern Spain. Traditionally a female profession, today the job is mostly carried out by men. These fearless collectors of this strange looking shellfish, battle with ferocious crashing waves (also known as Atlantic Rollers) and jagged rocks to gather their prize. At up to 200 Euros per kilo it is easy to see what the attraction to this lifestyle is.

Collectors battle huge waves on the Galician cliffs, Northern Spain.Collectors battle huge waves on the Galician cliffs, Northern Spain.

Located on the cliffs and rugged boulders of the Atlantic coastline, these barnacles, known locally as percebes, are only accessible when the tide goes out. So cautiously, collectors navigate their way to the most inaccessible areas armed with only a modified crowbar and a few trusty ropes, if they choose to use them. With an average of five deaths every year, it is hardly a surprise that it is considered one of the most dangerous occupations in Spain. 

Finally, a job that many would agree can be as terrifying as it is rewarding: fatherhood. In some communities such as those from the Zanskar region of the Tibetan Plateau the terrors are more than emotional, they are physical too. Especially here, where the school run is an epic six-day trek along the semi-frozen river Zanskar.

Children and parents travel down a Himalayan ice river, Zankar, India.Children and parents travel down a Himalayan ice river, Zankar, India.

Each year after the winter holidays, fathers and their children begin their journey. They travel along what the locals call the Chadar, a frozen winter highway that provides a passageway through mountainous gorges when the roads are closed by snow. In the spring the smooth firm ice can start to give way, rapidly turning the trip from a habitual pilgrimage to a perilous expedition.

These three communities are testament to man's ability to adapt to and conquer even the most extreme environments. While they may be dangerous, let's hope these incredibly diverse cultures that have developed continue to thrive.

US Resumes Arms Sales to Bahrain

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 3:29 PM EDT
A man holds a Bahraini flag outside the White House.

Less than three months after including Bahrain on a list of human rights offenders requiring the United Nations' attention, the Obama administration seems to have changed its mind. The US now believes Bahrain is "an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East," according to a statement from the Defense Department, which intends to sell $53 million worth of military equipment and support to the Gulf state, including bunker buster missiles and armored vehicles.

"This is exactly the wrong move after Bahrain brutally suppressed protests and is carrying out a relentless campaign of retribution against its critics," said Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch, which flagged the sale yesterday. "By continuing its relationship as if nothing had happened, the US is furthering an unstable situation."

McFarland was referring, of course, to the Bahraini government's crackdown earlier this year against peaceful protesters, primarily Shiites, who momentarily captured the West's attention with their demands for greater political, social, and economic rights from the ruling Sunni monarchy. In response, state security forces killed over 30 people and arrested some 1,400 more. Many were reportedly tortured.

The heavy-handed tactics succeeded in crushing the initial wave of protests, but the situation remains volatile. Police continue to violently repress anti-government activists; on Friday, they fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters during a demonstration ahead of tomorrow's parliamentary by-elections.

With the exception of its statement at the UN and tepid condemnation from the White House, the US has refrained from publically criticizing its longtime ally, which hosts the Navy's Fifth Fleet. In 2010 alone, the US approved more than $200 million in arms sales to Bahrain. Although the proposed $53 million deal is the first since last November, it will almost certainly go through, a Defense Department spokesman told Mother Jones. That's because Congress would have to pass specific legislation to stop the sale—an unusual, if not unprecedented, action.

How exactly selling arms to this island kingdom of around a half-million citizens will "contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States," as the Defense Department announcement claims, is unclear. The State Department, to which DOD referred that question, has yet to respond.* But whatever the explanation, McFarland argues, the move casts a shadow on the US's professed support for the ideals of the Arab Spring. "It will be hard for people to take US statements about democracy and human rights in the Middle East seriously when, rather than hold its ally Bahrain to account, it appears to reward repression with new weapons," she said.

 

* Update: A State Department official did eventually respond via email to point out that the sale of such weapons improves Bahrain's capability to counter armored threats and that the State Department continues to closely monitor the human rights situation inside Bahrain.