2012 - %3, August

Bomb Scares and Fighter Escorts

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 12:36 PM EDT

As we all know, flight attendants found a camera on a United flight to Geneva yesterday, and after diverting the flight to Boston and offloading all the passengers, it turned out that the camera was....a camera. All of which suggests to me that if al-Qaeda were smart, they'd recruit lots of sympathizers who weren't really ready for the whole suicide bomber thing and just have them leave cameras on board airplanes. It would tie up international air travel nicely.

But I have one question about this incident that I haven't been able to find an answer to. It's this:

Procopio said the North American Aerospace Defense Command deployed fighter jets to escort the United plane, but the aircraft landed before the jets reached it.

What exactly are these kinds of fighter escorts for? There was no question about the pilot crash landing the plane, was there? Nor could a fighter escort do anything if the camera had turned out to be a bomb. They had radio contact with the cockpit the entire time, so what's the point of this?

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Is NBC's Olympics Broadcast a Little Too Live?

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 11:31 AM EDT

I mentioned the other day that I was tired of all the whining about NBC not broadcasting the Olympics live. After writing that, I discovered that, in fact, NBC is broadcasting the Olympics live, which made my puzzlement over the whining even greater. Every single event, it turns out, is being livestreamed at nbcolympics.com/liveextra/.

As it happens, my continuing YouTube problems have prevented this from working on my computer. But apparently I am a lonely exception. Over in the great city of Los Angeles, their IT department is worried about City Hall's servers melting down due to the high volume of Olympics-related malingering:

"We are experiencing a high volume of traffic due to people watching the Olympics online. I respectfully request that you discontinue this as it is impacting city operations," city tech guru Randi Levin wrote in an email sent to thousands of workers Tuesday morning.

....Some council members expressed alarm at the prospect that city employees were watching the Olympics instead of doing their jobs. "City employees aren't paid to watch the Olympics on their computers or TV. That is not what the taxpayers are paying them to do," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who saw the email. "The question is where are the supervisors when this is going on?"

Councilwoman Jan Perry said she's outraged and wants the city to block Olympic streaming from City Hall computers.

So I'm prompted to ask once again: apparently there is absolutely no problem watching the Olympics in real time if you want to. It's true that you have to be a cable subscriber. You don't just get it for free. But you don't get Game of Thrones for free either. So what's the problem?

In related news, check out Adam Weinstein's epic whine about the Olympics here. I'm sorely tempted to write an epic counter-whine, but it would just take too long. But I do have to ask what Adam has against table tennis. Seems like an OK sport to me.

Badminton Federation Screws Up, Players Pay the Price

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 10:46 AM EDT

Several women's badminton teams have been tossed out of the Olympics for deliberately trying to lose. Why? Because of a new tournament structure. They had already been guaranteed a spot in the quarterfinals, so their only goal was to get themselves into the bottom half of the draw, where they wouldn't have to meet the top-ranked team until the finals:

Even before the disqualifications, the matches Tuesday night triggered hand-wringing throughout the sport. This is the first Olympics to include preliminary rounds where four teams played one another once to determine who advanced to the knockout stage. All four pairs who played Tuesday night had won spots in the quarterfinals, so jockeying for an opponent —not winning or losing —was the imperative.

Because the Chinese so dominate the sport and are so numerous in the tournament, they have incentive not to play one another when possible. And because they are so good, teams from other countries do their best to avoid the Chinese until there is no choice.

Count me among those who blame the badminton federation at least as much as the players themselves. It's idiocy to set up a knockout system in which it pays off to lose, especially when it's pretty obvious that your system rewards strategic play. It's like complaining about cricket teams deliberately slowing down to produce an inconclusive result, or basketball players trying to run out the clock. It's all part of the game. If you don't like it, don't set up the rules to encourage it.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 1, 2012

Wed Aug. 1, 2012 10:41 AM EDT

Marine Corps Military Free Fall Instructors release the ashes of Sgt. Brett Jaffe (1971-2012), a Marine rigger, above Phillips Drop Zone at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz. "It was an honor and privilege to take this Marine on his last jump and give him a proper hail and farewell," said Staff Sgt. Marty Rhett. Marine Corps photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Johnny Gunn.

The Texas GOP Just Nominated a Gay-Hating Conspiracy Theorist for US Senate

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 10:07 AM EDT
US Senate candidate Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

On Tuesday, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz walloped the state's lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, to ice the GOP nomination to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. In a place where Democrats haven't won a statewide election since the 1990s, that all but guarantees Cruz will join the world's most deliberative body next January. The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan calls it "a victory for the tea party and national conservatives who lined up behind Cruz even when a surprise win appeared unlikely." This is mostly true, but there's something else that's worth noting about the GOP's fresh young face: For someone with a reputation as an "intellectual force," he holds some pretty out-there views.

He thinks George Soros wants to ban golf: Like many conservatives, Cruz believes that the United States' sovereignty is under assault from an obscure United Nations agreement called Agenda 21. Although Agenda 21 does not have the force of law, right-wingers believe the treaty's sustainable-development precepts will force Americans to live in "hobbit homes" and forcibly relocate residents from rural areas into densely populated urban cores. "Agenda 21 sounds like absolute crazy conspiracy theory nut stuff, but it's not," explains Glenn Beck. As Cruz puts it on his website:

The originator of this grand scheme is George Soros, who candidly supports socialism and believes that global development must progress through eliminating national sovereignty and private property. He has given millions to this project. But he is not the only one promoting this plan; in fact, the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) now consists of over 600 cities in the United States.

Agenda 21 attempts to abolish "unsustainable" environments, including golf courses, grazing pastures, and paved roads. It hopes to leave mother earth’s surface unscratched by mankind. Everyone wants clean water and clean air, but Agenda 21 dehumanizes individuals by removing the very thing that has defined Americans since the beginning—our freedom.

As Senator, he's pledged to confront the Agenda 21 menace head-on. Here's a video of Cruz discussing the treaty with Beck, in which Cruz concurs that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could become vessels for the mass eviction of rural Americans in the name of sustainable development:

He thinks Shariah is creeping: At a campaign forum in July, Cruz told a questioner that "Shariah law is an enormous problem" in the United States. Although plenty of Texas Republicans have voiced concerns about the slow creep of Islamic law into their state, there's no evidence that that's actually happening.

He believes in nullification: Before the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the Affordable Care Act once and for all, Cruz argued that Obamacare could simply be nullified by states if they disagreed with it. He believed that if two or more states formed an "interstate compact," they could ignore the law because the compact supersedes federal regulation. He also thinks Medicare is unconstitutional.

He's really, really proud of his executions: The Texas Observer's Anthony Zurcher, who has a very good profile of Cruz, breaks it down:

Cruz claims he's proudest of the 2008 case Medellín v. Texas. He cited the case by name during his closing statement at the January 12 GOP Senate candidates' debate in Austin. It's easy to understand why. The case featured a United Nations court, federal government intrusion on state power and a Texas favorite: the death penalty. The case involved Jose Medellín, a Mexican citizen on death row for the rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston, and 50 other similarly situated Mexican nationals who had not been informed of their right to seek legal assistance from the Mexican government following their arrests. Mexico had challenged the convictions before the International Court of Justice, which ruled that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and that the cases should be reopened.

The Bush administration attempted to force a recalcitrant Texas appeals court to reconsider Medellín's case in light of the international court’s decision and U.S. treaty obligations. Cruz countered that neither the international tribunal nor the federal government could tell Texas courts what to do.

Medellín was executed in 2011. Cruz was so excited he made it into a campaign ad:

He is afraid of teh gayz: During the primary, Cruz used his opposition to gay rights as a wedge against lesser opponents like former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert, noting that his opponent had marched in not one but two pride parades. "When the mayor of a city chooses twice to march in a parade celebrating gay pride, that's a statement. It's not a statement I believe in":

On his website, he brags about his work nullifying the divorce of two gay men who had gotten married in Vermont, noting that "When a Beaumont state court granted a divorce to two homosexual men who had gotten a civil union in Vermont, Cruz, under the leadership of Attorney General Greg Abbott, intervened in defense of the marriage laws of the State of Texas, which successfully led to the court judgment being vacated." As solicitor general, he fought to protect the Boy Scouts' ban on gay scout leaders. At the Values Voters summit last October, Cruz warned that American politics had been hijacked by the "gay rights agenda." If Cruz is really going to be a 21st-century political star, he'll have to work on the "21st century" part.

Happy 175th Birthday, Mother Jones!

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 8:08 AM EDT
Mother Jones died at the age of 93, but often exaggerated her age

It's safe to say that most people have never heard of this magazine's namesake, whom Teddy Roosevelt once called "the most dangerous woman in America." If you've worked at Mother Jones long enough, however, you've likely had a Mother Jones moment. Mine came two years ago inside a trailer home in the Appalachians of West Virginia, where I was interviewing an injured coal miner. "I remember that name from that video," the miner's son told me, referring to a class he'd taken to become a mining apprentice. "Mother Jones speaking before all the men." He went on to regale me with the tale of her involvement, at the age of 84, in the Battle of Blair Mountain, a pitched fight between unionists and strike breakers in 1921 that remains the nation's largest armed conflict since the Civil War.

A labor organizer about whom relatively little was known even at the height of her considerable fame, Mary Harris Jones is thought to have been born on roughly this day 175 years ago in Cork, Ireland. The town of Cork is honoring her this week with the first-ever Cork Mother Jones Festival, a three-day event featuring concerts, a mass at the cathedral where she was baptized, a commemorative plaque, and a day-long bus tour of her childhood stomping grounds. At the age of 10, Jones and her family of tenant farmers fled Ireland to escape the potato famine, relocating to Toronto, Canada and, in Jones' case, later the United States.

As Jones' biographer Elliott J. Gorn wrote in this magazine, her image as a badass grandma has roots in personal tragedy. An 1867 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee killed Jones' husband and her four children. A widow at 30, she moved to Chicago and built a successful dressmaking business—only to lose everything in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. She went on to toil in obscurity for two decades until suddenly inventing the persona of Mother Jones. "Or, to put it more precisely," Gorn writes, "she began to play a role that she and her followers made up as they went along. By 1900, no one called her Mary, but always Mother; she wore antique black dresses in public, and she began exaggerating her age.

The new role freed Mary Jones. Most American women of that era led quiet, homebound lives devoted to their families. Women, especially elderly ones, were not supposed to have opinions; if they had them, they were not to voice them publicly—and certainly not in the fiery tones of a street orator.

Yet by casting herself as the mother of downtrodden people everywhere, Mary Jones went where she pleased, spoke out on the great issues of her day, and did so with sharp irreverence (she referred to John D. Rockefeller as "Oily John" and Governor William Glasscock of West Virginia as "Crystal Peter"). Paradoxically, by embracing the very role of family matriarch that restricted most women, Mother Jones shattered the limits that confined her.

For a quarter of a century, she roamed America, the Johnny Appleseed of activists. She literally had no permanent residence. "My address is like my shoes," she told a congressional committee. "It travels with me wherever I go."

By today's standards, some of Jones' rhetoric would be considered over-the-top, such as her threat to West Virginia's governor that there could soon be "one hell of a lot of bloodletting." And neither was she uniformly progressive—even by the benchmarks of her time. She considered women's suffrage a distraction from labor organizing and thought most women should stay out of the workplace.

Yet Mother Jones' greatest weakness was also her strength: She saw the world's problems primarily through the lens of class. And in a weird way, maybe her myopia can bring some clarity to our own times. After quietly widening for decades, the economic chasm between the rich and everyone else has finally become an electoral issue, the grounds for a generation-defining political fight. Mother Jones would be busy right now—if she wasn't in jail. "I asked a man in prison once how he he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes," she once said. "I said if he had stolen a railroad, he would be a United States Senator."

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Maps: The Secrets Drillers Can Hide About the Fracking in Your Backyard

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Are frackers in your state allowed to keep secrets?

A new analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that most states where fracking occurs have no disclosure laws at all, and that those that do are woefully behind when it comes to revealing behind-the-scenes details of their operations. While the Obama administration has put some new rules in place, many decisions about what drillers are allowed to hide are left to the states; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar complained to Reuters that state-level regulation is "not good enough for me, because states are at very different levels, some have zero, some have decent rules."

That's a problem, study author Amy Mall said, because unlike coal plants and other large-scale energy operations, fracked natural gas wells are often in close proximity to houses, schools, or other high-traffic areas.

At stake is a trove of information: exact ingredients of the chemical cocktail used to frack a particular site, when and where drillers plan to frack, how toxic wastewater is to be dealt with, and many more basic details, all of which could be useful to local politicians and residents concerned about health impacts, groundwater and air pollution, and seismic activity associated with fracking.

"The state laws on the books aren't anywhere near where they need to be for the public to have information to protect their communities," Mall said.

The maps below highlight just a few areas covered by the report. Click on states for info on their laws, and for more detail check out the full version here.

Are drillers required to disclose chemical mixes before fracking?

Are drillers required to notify nearby stakeholders of their intent to frack?

Are drillers required to disclose details about their wastewater?

Are drillers required to disclose trade secrets to health care providers?

The FDA Is Spying on Its Own Scientists

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

After I spoke at a pesticide industry confab a few months ago, an executive with the agrichemical/GMO seed giant Syngenta approached to politely challenge my assessment of the US regulatory agencies. I had charged that these federal watchdog groups kowtow to Big Food and Big Ag, regularly approving dodgy products or practices with little regard for how they may affect public health or the environment.

Au contraire, the Syngenta guy assured me. He insisted that the US regulatory system was full of rigorous scientists who vetted the industry's products carefully and would never let something through that might harm the public. We began a tense conversation about Syngenta's highly toxic and widely used atrazine herbicide, green-lighted by the Environmental Protection Agency despite growing evidence of harm to people and wildlife. We decided after a few minutes to agree to disagree.

The fellow's gentle assurances of regulatory rigor have been echoing through my mind as I follow the spectacle of the Food and Drug Administration's unfolding surveillance scandal, triggered by excellent reporting from the New York Times and Washington Post. The subject is off my beat—it involves the FDA's medical-oversight arm, not its food wing. But it reveals just how completely large, powerful industries have gained ownership over their federal watchdogs and taught them to sit, heel, and perform other submissive tricks. And it also reveals that FDA-employed scientists are not always the bland, quiet characters I imagine them to be. A front-page article in Tuesday's Times presents the saga's chief whistleblower as a prickly, aggressive figure with a history of challenging employers with lawsuits.

Corn on MSNBC: Yet Another Gaffe on Romney's Foreign Tour

Wed Aug. 1, 2012 3:10 AM EDT

David Corn joined guest host Michael Eric Dyson on MSNBC's the Ed Show to discuss Mitt Romney's disastrous foreign tour—what Corn is calling Romney's "moonwalking tour" since he's had to spend so much time walking back gaffes and misunderstandings.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.