2012 - %3, January

"Movie & An Argument" Podcast: Judd Apatow's "This Is 40" & Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 10:39 PM EST

On this week's episode of A Movie & An Argument, With Alyssa Rosenberg & Asawin Suebsaeng, we discuss (scroll down for audio):

  • This Is 40, Judd Apatow's "sort-of sequel" to 2007's Knocked Up, starring Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.
  • Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti-western revenge flick, set in the pre-Civil War Deep South.

Listen:

Each week, I'll be sitting down to chat with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg (who also does killer work at The Atlantic and Slate's "Double X"). We'll talk, argue, and laugh about the latest movies, television shows, and pop-cultural nonsense—with some politics thrown in just for the hell of it.

Alyssa describes herself as being "equally devoted to the Star Wars expanded universe and Barbara Stanwyck, to Better Off Ted and Deadwood." I (everyone calls me Swin) am a devoted lover of low-brow dark humor, Yuengling, and movies with high body counts. I hope you enjoyed this episode, and tune in during the weeks to come.

We'll be featuring guests on the program, and also taking listeners' questions, so feel free to Tweet them at me here, and we'll see if we can get to them during a show.

Thank you for listening!

Click here for more movie and TV features from Mother Jones. To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To find more episodes of this podcast, click here.

To check out Alyssa's Bloggingheads show, click here.

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How to Deal With Sneaky American Editors

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 9:01 PM EST

Andrew Sullivan links today to a short piece by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books about the process of Americanizing a book that "explores the Italian national character through an account of thirty years’ commuting and traveling on the country’s rail network." He was frustrated by the extent of the copy editing, and after negotiating some changes he wondered what was really going on:

Looking at this re-edit one realizes that the notion of Americanizing a text actually opens the way for a copy editor to impose personal preferences, perhaps imagining that something that sounds odd to his ear is un-American rather than simply my way of writing or his way of reading. Does anybody in the end really know with absolute certainty, all the differences between American and English usages? Aren’t there a wide range of usages in both these countries? How can I know, when I see a particular edit, if it is an Americanism I have to accept, or a matter of individual taste I can take issue with?

Yep. Back in my marketing days I dealt frequently with European distributors, and I learned that whenever they disliked some policy of ours they'd insist that "cultural differences" were at issue. But this was often just an all-purpose excuse that they hoped I couldn't argue with. In reality, our differences were most often just the usual ones between a supplier and a distributor.

But of course, you had to be careful. Sometimes there really were cultural differences at work, and you had to be willing to dig deeply enough to figure which was which. Take this complaint, for example:

In my train book, for example, after a few pages discussing the fate of Italian railways under Nazi occupation, I begin a new paragraph “2,104 railwaymen died in the war” and find this changed to “A total of 2,104 railwaymen died in the Second World War.” What is the sense of “A total of”? Surely it’s not a requirement of Americanization. What does it add? The idea of my counting up the dead? To my ear the bare number has exactly the brutal eloquence that such statements demand. And how could the reader get his war wrong when we’d just been talking Mussolini and Hitler? When I cut “A total of” I find the sentence reappearing in the proofs thus: “In the Second World War, 2,104 railwaymen died…” One hardly needs to go to a creative writing class to appreciate that this formulation has less rhetorical force than “2,104 railwaymen died in the Second World War.”

Apparently nobody told Parks why they were doing this. It's simple: if you open a sentence with a number, you're supposed to spell it out. But long numbers are cumbersome to spell out, so normally editors try to recast the sentence instead. This isn't an Americanism at all.

Or is it? It's definitely not house style. I've never worked with an editor anywhere who wouldn't follow this rule. But I've never worked with a non-American editor. So I wonder: Is this really a rule that's common in America but unheard of anywhere else? Would any of my overseas readers care to chime in on this?

POSTSCRIPT: For the record, I've always thought this was a dumb rule. Sure, spell out small numbers at the start of a sentence. No problem. But big numbers? Just leave them in. What on earth is supposed to be so off-putting about it?

I once read a sentence that began like this: "Nineteen sixty-eight was a year of...." Dumb! Off-putting! Did the copy editor who did that really think that any readers would be confused by a sentence that started with 1968?

Man Fires Assistant For Being Too Hot and "Irresistible," Iowa Court Says He's Within Legal Rights

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 6:41 PM EST

A warning to women and girls everywhere, via the AP:

A dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant that he found attractive simply because he and his wife viewed the woman as a threat to their marriage, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an "irresistible attraction," even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.

An attorney for Fort Dodge dentist James Knight said the decision, the first of its kind in Iowa, is a victory for family values because Knight fired Melissa Nelson in the interest of saving his marriage, not because she was a woman.

[...]

Nelson, 32, worked for Knight for 10 years, and he considered her a stellar worker. But in the final months of her employment, he complained that her tight clothing was distracting, once telling her that if his pants were bulging that was a sign her clothes were too revealing, according to the opinion.

He also once allegedly remarked about her infrequent sex life by saying, "that's like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it."

[...]

Mansfield noted that Knight had an all-female workforce and Nelson was replaced by a woman...Knight is a very religious and moral individual, and he sincerely believed that firing Nelson would be best for all parties, [his attorney] said.

(Read the whole AP story, which is equal doses tragic and hysterical. Read the court's decision [PDF].)

Sadly, this nonsense isn't anything new. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals had previously upheld a business owner's right to fire an employee because the business owner's wife found her threatening. And a couple of years ago, a woman named Debrahlee Lorenzana sued a Citibank branch in Manhattan, alleging that her superiors canned her for looking too much like a supermodel.

Just to be clear, the lesson here is that if you are an accomplished, intelligent, diligent, and thoughtful female professional who's done absolutely nothing wrong, and you happen to look like this:

attractive woman
vgstudio/Shutterstock

...and you work for this:

...then this can legally happen to you:

fired woman
 Ljupco Smokovski/Shutterstock

This is the legal reality of fireable hotness in America today.

WATCH: Obama Asks Congress To Drink Egg Nog, Not Tank Economy

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 6:02 PM EST

President Barack Obama's message to Congress on Friday was straightforward. "Pour some egg nog, have some Christmas cookies, sing some Christmas carols, enjoy the company of loved ones," he said at a press conference at the White House—and don't mess up the economic recovery. In his first public statements on the ongoing fiscal cliff negotiations since the collapse of the Republican alternative "Plan B," Obama hinted at a more piecemeal package than had initially been discussed, with Congress working on a compromise plan on the Bush tax cuts next week.

On Thursday night, shortly before Congress adjourned for Christmas, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) canceled a scheduled vote on "Plan B" (which among other things extended the Bush tax cuts for everyone making less than $1 million a year while raising the top tax rate to Clinton-era levels) because he didn't have the votes for it within his own caucus. The demise of Plan B, which Boehner had personally lobbied for on the House floor, was a victory for the party's most conservative members, and almost immediately sparked speculation about whether Boehner's days as Speaker are numbered. (National Review's Robert Costa has the best play-by-play of the chaos at the Capitol I've seen.)

So what's next? Congress has until Dec. 31 to take some sort of action. Or it could just go off "the cliff"—in which case all the Bush tax cuts will expire and massive spending cuts scheduled as part of 2011's debt ceiling deal would go into effect.

In the meantime, enjoy your egg nog, I guess.

You can watch the president's statement right here:

Report: Your Charitable Donation Is Going to Telemarketers, Not Charity

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 4:27 PM EST

'Tis the season to give to charity. But a new report from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman finds that many of the donations New Yorkers are giving to charity are mostly going to line the pockets of telemarketing firms. The report found that more than 60 cents of every dollar raised by a professional telemarketing firm for charity goes to the firm itself. Out of 602 fundraising efforts examined, only 49 returned more than 65 percent of the money raised to the nonprofit. More than a third of the fundraising attempts returned less than 30 percent of the donor money to the charity, and in 76 of the campaigns, charities actually lost money hiring the telemarketers. Schneiderman has issued subpoenas to some of the entities in the report in an investigation into whether repeat offenders are breaking New York fundraising laws with their money-losing telemarketing schemes.

Consumer advocates have been saying for years that a lot of charitable fundraising doesn't go to the needy. But the New York AG's report comes at an interesting time, when Congress and the president have been discussing whether limiting the $50 billion in annual tax deductions Americans claim for charitable donations is a good way to shore up the nation's finances. Nonprofit groups have risen up en mass to oppose the idea, but the AG's report shows that despite claims by conservatives, the private sector is not especially efficient when it comes to serving the less fortunate. And since many of the beneficiaries of charitable donations (the telemarketers) are not even nonprofits, it's not clear why such donations are tax-deductible in the first place.

Among the worst offenders on the AG's list are some familiar organizations, many of which are politically involved. Among them is Tea Party Patriots, a group that has long had unusually high administrative and fundraising costs. Schneiderman found that in 2011, Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest grassroots tea party organizations to have come out of the movement, collected nearly $2 million in donations through telemarketers. Just $54,000 of that—less than 5 percent—went back to the organization. The telemarketers kept the rest. Also, it seems that tea partiers are good at promising telemarketers they'll donate, but not so good about actually paying up. The report shows that Tea Party Patriots had $850,000 in pledges that went uncollected. For an organization that promotes fiscal responsibility, it's not setting an especially good example.

(Note to conservative activists: If you're looking to give to a tea party group over the phone, you're probably best off giving to FreedomWorks, which was until recently run by a professional lobbyist and former member of Congress. FreedomWorks was one of the few groups examined by New York that got 65 percent of the money it raised through telemarketers. Of course, what it did with that money is another issue.)

The Family Research Council Action, Americans United for Life (an anti-abortion group), Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, and the Concerned Women of America Legislative Action Committee, which ended up nearly $175,000 in the hole from one of its fundraising efforts, all had pretty bad records. But more liberal groups weren't that much better. NARAL, the ACLU, and People for the American Way all ended up at the bottom of the report: their telemarketing efforts ended up costing them more than they made. It's all just one more reason to hang up on telemarketers and send your donations through the mail. 

End of the World Cat Blogging - 21 December 2012

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 3:01 PM EST

When Domino heard that the world would be ending today, she hopped into a shiny new shopping bag to ride out the storm. Unfortunately I didn't have the presence of mind to put my camera into video mode when she did it. It turned out that hopping in was pretty easy, but hopping out was a wee bit trickier. You'd all be charmed and amused if I could show you her multiple attempts to get out, but instead you'll just have to take my word for it. After several futile tries—and some nasty meowing at those scaremongering Mayans—she finally managed to scrunch the bag enough to regain her freedom.

On another note, are you still looking for some last-minute gift ideas? How about a gift subscription to Mother Jones? It's only $9.95 for six issues, our lowest price anywhere. Or perhaps you could send a small donation our way if you need an end-of-the-year tax deduction. Here are the links for both. It only takes a minute or two, and we accept both credit cards and PayPal.

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Pro-Gun Fanatics Cash in on Sandy Hook Shooting

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 2:56 PM EST

"Our Second Amendment rights are hanging by a thread. President Obama just announced he's on the warpath... [T]his is an all-out EMERGENCY." So reads a fundraising email blasted out Wednesday by the National Association for Gun Rights.

Since Adam Lanza massacred 20 children and 7 adults in Newtown a week ago, gun control is on the national mind more than any time since probably 1994. Several pro-gun lawmakers and public figures have had a change of heart in recent days. And on Wednesday, Obama came out in support of renewing a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and requiring background checks on all gun sales. That is bad news for gun rights groups all over the country. But it sure helps them raise money.

NRA Press Conference Riddled With Weirdly Outdated Cultural References

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 2:55 PM EST
"Natural Born Killers" (1994).

On Friday morning, National Rifle Association executive VP Wayne LaPierre—the guy who once accused the Clinton administration of tolerating gun violence in America so that Clinton could bolster the case for gun control legislation—held a press conference (finally) in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. LaPierre called on the government to pay for an armed police officer in every public school in America.

He also made a series of dated and often bizarre cultural references in large chunks of the speech. Here are some of the things he blamed for gun violence in our country:

Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse. And here's one: it’s called Kindergarten Killers. It's been online for 10 years. How come my research department could find it and all of yours either couldn't or didn't want anyone to know you had found it?

Then there's the blood-soaked slasher films like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers that are aired like propaganda loops on "Splatterdays" and every day, and a thousand music videos that portray life as a joke and murder as a way of life. And then they have the nerve to call it "entertainment." But is that what it really is? Isn't fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?

This all begs the question of what year LaPierre's speech was written.

Of all these specific references, Bulletstorm (2011) and Grand Theft Auto are the most recent—but the debate over the GTA video game series' content has been raging since 1997.

A rundown of why these references were so strange:

  • Bulletstorm was the center of an entirely Fox News-driven controversy. (The video game hasn't been the center of any other major controversy or crime, and the hysterical video-games-will-turn-you-into-a-rapist coverage by Fox probably helped sales.)
  • Mortal Kombat was first controversial when George H.W. Bush was president.
  • Splatterhouse—in which the gamer plays a dude named Terror Mask who fights demons in order to save his lover—was first released when Ronald Reagan was in office.
  • Kindergarten Killers is a pathetic and perverse internet cartoon game that virtually no one has ever heard of or played.
  • While there were widely publicized—and even academic—controversies surrounding both Bret Easton Ellis' novel (1991) and the film adaptation (2000), American Psycho isn't actually known for causing or inspiring murders.
  • The Oliver Stone hyper-violent satire Natural Born Killers is still fairly controversial, particularly for the copycat killings it has allegedly motivated. The film is somewhat of a relic of the mid-'90s.
  • "Splatterdays" refers to the Saturday night double-feature of horror movies that airs on The Movie Channel. Selected films often involve zombies and killers with large knives. "Splatterday" has been at the center of precisely zero controversies, in this country or any other.

So this is where the NRA is today—doing what they typically do when in damage-control mode: Painting arcade games, books, and "Splatterday" as the "filthiest form of pornography," and then blaming them for national tragedy. Click here for things the NRA didn't blame for mass murder in America today.

Let Us Now Bury Our Heads in the Sand

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 2:18 PM EST

In 1995, when Congress's Office of Technology Assessment insisted on preparing reports that were occasionally inconvenient for Republicans, Newt Gingrich knew what to do: he eliminated the office. In 2005, when an annual government report showed an increase in global terrorism, George Bush knew what to do: he stopped publishing the report. When the Congressional Research Service released a study earlier this year concluding that tax cuts had no impact on economic growth, the GOP caucus knew what to do: they insisted that CRS withdraw the study. For similar reasons, Republicans routinely attack the CBO, the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Government Accountability Office, and, most famously, the BLS when it reported a drop in the unemployment rate just before this year's election.

But hey—at least the federal government can still study gun violence. Right? In JAMA today, Arthur Kellermann and Frederick Rivara set us straight:

The nation might be in a better position to act if medical and public health researchers had continued to study these issues as diligently as some of us did between 1985 and 1997. But in 1996, pro-gun members of Congress mounted an all-out effort to eliminate the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although they failed to defund the center....the following language was added to the final appropriation: “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency's funding to find out....Even today, 17 years after this legislative action, the CDC's website lacks specific links to information about preventing firearm-related violence.

When other agencies funded high-quality research, similar action was taken. In 2009, Branas et al published the results of a case-control study that examined whether carrying a gun increases or decreases the risk of firearm assault. In contrast to earlier research, this particular study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Two years later, Congress extended the restrictive language it had previously applied to the CDC to all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the National Institutes of Health.

These are not the only efforts to keep important health information from the public and patients. For example, in 1997, Cummings et al used state-level data from Washington to study the association between purchase of a handgun and the subsequent risk of homicide or suicide. Similar studies could not be conducted today because Washington State's firearm registration files are no longer accessible.

The conservative war on reality continues apace. If you don't like what's happening in the real world, simply defund anyone who tries to report on it. Mission accomplished!

Via Austin Frakt.

John Kerry, Reporting for Duty

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 2:08 PM EST
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)

Sen. John Kerry got his wish. On Friday, one week after United Nations ambassador Susan Rice withdrew from consideration, President Barack Obama nominated the Massachusetts Democrat for secretary of state. If confirmed, he'll replace the retiring Hillary Clinton in January.

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former presidential nominee whose name has been floated as a candidate for the top Foggy Bottom job for years, has been a loyal soldier for the administration's international priorities as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He whipped Republican colleagues to support the New START Treaty during the 2010 lame duck session, and most recently led the fight—albeit unsuccessfully—for the ratification of the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons With Disabilities. In a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile, James Traub described Kerry as "a kind of ex-officio member of Obama’s national security team, which has dispatched him to face one crisis after another in danger zones like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan."

In brief remarks at the White House, Obama cited Kerry's work with Sen John McCain to restore relations with Vietnam in the 1990s—a notable shout-out given the Arizona Republican's role in squashing Rice's candidacy for secretary of state. "John has earned the respect and confidence of leaders around the world," Obama said. "He is not going to need a lot of on the job training."

But Kerry's nomination comes with a potential consequence for Democrats. Although Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick will choose an interim replacement, Kerry's seat will be filled by special election—and the most likely candidate to replace him is Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who was defeated at the polls in November. As Nate Silver points out at the New York Times, Brown, a moderate, leads his prospective Democratic challengers in head-to-head matchups. Brown, who has not ruled out another bid, has played his hand carefully since November, most recently coming out in support of an assault weapons ban post-Sandy Hook.