A Navigators chapter in Los Altos, California, helping restore a redwood grove.
The Boy Scouts of America, which discriminates against gay Scouts, atheists, and families who want to put their sons and daughters in the same scouting program, has seen its membership plummet in the last decade. Many former Scouts have left scouting altogether. But a number of families fed up with BSA policies have found Navigators USA—a small organization that "welcomes all people…no matter what gender, race, lifestyle, ability, religious or lack of religious belief" and has seen its chapters (comparable to Boy Scout troops) double in the last year.
"We knew the Boy Scouts excluded gays when we started, but we thought that was one of the old, outdated rules on its way off the books," says Bryan Freed, whose family switched from the Boy Scouts to a Navigators chapter in Los Altos, California, after the Boy Scouts publicly reaffirmed their ban on gay Scouts and Scoutmasters in July 2012. "We told our 8-year-old son, Nathan, what we thought of the official BSA rule on excluding gays, and we let him decide."
The Navigators originated from BSA Troop 103 in East Harlem, which was also the first troop in America that was started in a shelter serving homeless families. After the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Boy Scouts could bar gay troop leaders in June, 2000, Navigators founder Robin Bossert, who was leading the Harlem troop at the time, said he stayed in the organization for three more years, "while I tried to see if it was going to be possible to change their policy from within." When he realized this wasn't going to happen, he pulled out of BSA and Troop 103 became Navigator Chapter 1.
In March, 2012, the Navigators had 19 chapters, but today, there are about 45 chapters across 21 states, according to Tony Porterfield, a chapter leader in Los Altos. Bossert adds that they are growing at a rate of about two chapters per month, with each chapter having an average of 8-12 children, so he estimates that there are up to 600 boys and girls enrolled in the program. For the most part, Navigators participate in the same kinds of activities that Boy Scouts do: camping, organic farming, hiking, tie-dying, excursions to museums, and community service. Freed says the only event his son misses from the Boy Scouts is the Pinewood Derby, where scouts build and race model cars. (Freed points out that "as a parent doing much of the work on it, I do not miss it.")
But there is one big difference: the Navigators' Moral Compass (left), which expresses the group's philosophy that members shouldn't be discriminated against over gender, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation. Bossert says the organization has openly gay chapter leaders, as well as board leaders and co-members.
"We wanted our two sons to take part in scouting [and] we wanted to do that within an organization that reflects our family's values," says Porterfield. "Inclusiveness and respect for others is part of the Navigators program and something we discuss directly with our children."
Porterfield, who was a Cub Scout as a boy, notes that in the Navigators, LGBT issues are covered in age-appropriate language, with the conversation focusing on the importance of treating everyone with respect. When Freed asked his son which organization he wanted to join, he says he phrased the question like this: "Gay people are men who want to marry men, or women who want to marry women. Most families have one mommy and one daddy, but that is not always the case. And the Boy Scouts do not let gay people join their group."
There are other alternative organizations to the Boy Scouts, both faith-based and secular, but the Navigators are among the biggest. They nonetheless still have a long way to go before catching up with the Boy Scouts numbers: Deron Smith, spokesman for the Boy Scouts, tells Mother Jones that there are about 2.6 million members (there were 2.7 million members in 2012, and 2.8 million in 2011.)Since 1999, membership to the Boy Scouts has declined by about a third. In the last year, the Boy Scouts have also faced dropped funders, angry pop stars, and most recently, a California bill that would make the organization ineligible for tax breaks because of its discriminatory policy against gay members. The organization will vote on whether to overturn its ban on gay members in May, but even if the ban is overturned, individual troops will still be able to discriminate.
"We can't discuss other organizations," says Deron in response to a question about whether participants unhappy with the ban should choose the Navigators over the Boy Scouts. But he adds that BSA aims to "create an environment where people who may disagree on a variety of topics can still work together to achieve life-changing benefits to youth through its program."
"I'm skeptical that any other organization can replace the century of tradition and refinement that the BSA has enjoyed," adds Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout raised by two lesbian mothers, and founder of Scouts for Equality, which is advocating for the Boy Scouts to lift its gay ban. "We'd prefer that the BSA return to its core values of mutual respect and religious freedom, but fully understand that other folks don't want to wait."
When I arrive at the 9:30 club in Washington, DC, where the Scottish indie rock band Frightened Rabbit is setting up for a sold-out show, frontman Scott Hutchison and his brother, drummer Grant Hutchison, are Skyping with their mom. They have been on a cross-country tour since early March and they haven't shaved, but they're still managing to be cheerful, dutiful sons. "On my day off, though, I like to get a prostitute and have some coke," Grant jokes after they get off the call. "Actually we're very boring; we like to read and go the cinema," Scott adds. "We're on a bus so often, it's nice to just lie in a bed, spread out, androlllll" (which might explain their bed-head, not to be confused with the "we spent two hours making our hair look fashionably disheveled" kind.)
Frightened Rabbit—that's what Mrs. Hutchison used to call Scott, because he didn't like playing with other kids—is known for writing beautiful, aggressively bleak songs, often plotted around Scott's most-recent breakup. "Poke," from the 2008 record Midnight Organ Fight, includes such uplifting lyrics as "why won't our love keel over as it chokes on a bone?...Or should we kick its cunt in and watch as it dies from bleeding?" (The c-word is used pretty commonly in Scotland.) State Hospital, the band's 2012 EP, has a track that tells the story of a man sitting alone in his apartment on Boxing Day, clad in boxers, drinking like a fish, and staring at the phone: "I can't call you all mine anymore, I can't call you, full stop. But you know you can call me up anytime, call me whatever the fuck you want."
The Senate finally struck a deal Wednesday for expanding background checks for gun buyers. Although lawmakers say they don't want to force background checks on private transactions, a recent poll conducted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that an average of 86 percent of voters in 21 states support mandatory background checks for all gun sales, no matter where the gun is sold or who's selling it.
Background checks look at information like a buyer's criminal record, citizenship, some mental-health records, and whether or he or she has been dishonorably discharged from the military. Since 1998, about two percent of background checks have led to gun purchases being denied.
More MoJo coverage of the Senate's failed background check bill.
Also read our special report on gun laws and the rise of mass shootings.
Erika Soto Lamb, a spokesperson for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, says that the organization only polled voters in states that it considers to be key in next year's congressional elections (about 600 people in each state were polled). The group also polled 41 congressional districts and found that on average, 89 percent of voters in all of the districts support mandatory background checks. "We haven't ruled out any future [polling] that will help us make the case for background checks and other common sense gun law reforms that Americans overwhelmingly support," Lamb says.
Americans love the idea of the whistleblower: one brave person willing to stick their neck out for the greater good, even in the face of severe blowback. Many American high school students read On Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau's classic treatise that urges Americans to take a stand against government's ills. But more than 160 years later, legal protections for whistleblowers haven't caught up with Thoreau's ideals. Americans who disclose government misconduct risk losing their jobs and their homes—and some are prosecuted under the Espionage Act, a 1917 law originally intended for dealing with foreign spies. That's life for national-security whistleblowers under the Obama Administration, according to a new documentary premiering next week titledWar on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State.
The film, a project of the Brave New Foundation, focuses on four whistleblowers: Michael DeKort, a former project manager for Lockheed Martin; Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency; Franz Gayl, an adviser for the Marine Corps; and Thomas Tamm, a former attorney to the Department of Justice. Each exposed grave misconduct, and each faced severe reprisals from their employers and the government. The film also includes commentary from one of the most famous whistleblowers of all time: Daniel Ellsberg, a Vietnam War analyist for the military who released the "Pentagon Papers," which detailed US mistakes in Vietnam.
"It's extremely dangerous in America right now to be right as a whistleblower when the government is so wrong," says Drake, who was charged under the Espionage Act for disclosing secret warrantless surveillance of Americans by the National Security Agency (the major felony charges were eventually dropped after an outpouring of public support for Drake.) "Speaking truth to power is now a criminal act." Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker who won the George Polk Award for her coverage of the Drake case, explains the unusual measures she had to take during the course of reporting the story. She and Drake couldn't talk on the phone because he was being charged with leaking and there was concern of eavesdropping, so she had to meet sources in unmarked hotel rooms. "It does not feel like America, land of the free press," she says in the film.
Michael DeKort was a lead systems engineer at Lockheed Martin, in charge of the Deepwater program for the Coast Guard. He became aware of serious problems with Lockheed's execution of the contract. "The waterproof radios weren't waterproof, the communications equipment could compromise national security, the electronics equipment installed outside of the boats wouldn't survive harsh weather, and the camera surveillance system had major blind spots," he tells Mother Jones. After his supervisors refused to listen to his complaints, he made a YouTube video exposing the problems and was dismissed by Lockheed, a move that led to a congressional hearing, the boats being taken out of service, and quite possibly, a life-saving deterrent against disaster. DeKort says he is still assisting the Department of Justice with its case against the subcontractor that performed the hull design services, but the US government "has no apparent intention to compensate me for bringing the problem to attention."
The filmmakers take great care to emphasize the difference between leakers and whistleblowers, framing their subjects as the latter. As Jesselyn Radack, national security and human rights director at the Government Accountability Project, explains, whistleblowers are employees that disclose information they "reasonably believe evidences fraud, waste, abuse or a danger to public health or safety" while leakers simply make secret information public (in many cases, whistleblowers take extreme care not to divulge classified information).
It's a distinction the Obama Administration hasn't always made, mounting an aggressive campaign against Drake and spearheading a multiyear investigation against Thomas Tamm, who went to the New York Times with information about George W. Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.
In November 2012, Obama signed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), a law that improves protections for federal employees and makes it easier for the government to discipline employees who retaliate against whistleblowers—a crucial provision, given that many whistleblowers lose their jobs. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 also includes a section that strengthens protections for government contractors—a law that would have greatly helped DeKort's case.
"We've never had a president more supportive of federal workers who blow the whistle—except when it comes to national security," Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project On Government Oversight, where I used to work, tells Mother Jones. National security and intelligence employees were left out of the WPEA, and even though the president issued a policy directive extending protections to these employees, Canterbury says that the directive has inherent problems. For one thing, it protects only whistleblowers who report wrongdoing internally—which can be self-defeating when your employer is behind the wrongdoing. Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project, also notes that Obama is seeking new rules that would allow the government to fire thousands of employees without appeal if they work in the national-security arena. "We've warned the White House many times, if you put whistleblowers in jail your legacy will be defined for prosecuting them for exercising free speech rights," says Devine.
DeKort, who blew the whistle on Lockheed, adds that the government needs to understand that "if people did the right thing, whistleblowers wouldn't exist. When was the last time a whistleblower raised an issue that wasn't correct? Do you know how insane you'd have to be to go through all this crap if you were wrong?"
What is a Bitcoin? How did you pay for your coffee this morning, by cash? By credit card? If a growing number of bank-fearing techies have their way, you'll soon be able to pay for that mocha latte through an untraceable virtual currency called Bitcoin. As of this month, Bitcoins are worth over a billion dollars, and interest in the currency is skyrocketing. Here's everything you need to know about a currency that sounds like it belongs in a fantastical realm: You can't touch it, it's prized in the underworld, its creator disappeared in a cloud of mystery, and if you want to keep it safe, you should keep it hidden in a bunch of different places.
No, but really. What is it? A Bitcoin is a unit of currency, launched in 2009, that only exists online and isn't controlled by any kind of central authority, like the US Federal Reserve. You can send Bitcoins to anyone who has a web connection (or hand someone your hard drive containing the currency.) You hold on to Bitcoins by setting up a virtual wallet, either through a third-party website, or by storing it on software run on your computer—although storing your Bitcoin wallet only on your computer is about as secure as stuffing hundred-dollar bills under your mattress. As soon as you have your wallet, you're part of the big Bitcoin network. If you want to buy something from your neighbor, you simply need to obtain their anonymous identification number and send them some Bitcoins, which takes between 15 minutes and an hour to process. If you are confused, here is an awesome one-minute video from PandoDaily.
What is a Bitcoin wallet? A Bitcoin wallet is a service that holds your Bitcoins for you. Unlike banks, Bitcoin wallet firms don't generally invest the money you deposit with them. But there's a catch—Bitcoin wallets don't have the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation backing that insures Americans' bank deposits up to $100,000. "There's no such thing as FDIC insurance when it comes to Bitcoin," says Reuben Grinberg, an attorney at Davis Polk & Wardwell who specializes in financial matters and wrote an early legal analysis of Bitcoin. If your Bitcoin wallet gets robbed or collapses, you're out of luck. Here's what a Bitcoin phone wallet looks like:
Why do people use Bitcoin?
Bitcoin appeals to people who are suspicious of financial institutions and central banks like the US Federal Reserve. "There are types like me, libertarian gold-buggish folks," for whom "inflation is a constant worry" and who "see the cryptography in Bitcoin as insulation against inflation," explains Jim Harper, the director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute. People seeking privacy in their financial transactions—for legitimate or illegitimate reasons—might also use Bitcoin because it's more anonymous than financial transactions using credit or debit cards. "A lot of these people who have a deep distrust of government are really interested in anonymity and autonomy. They want to keep the government out of their business," Grinberg says. "In a lot of these people's minds, governments will come and go, financial instruments will disappear, you could have have anarchy, but Bitcoin will be here to stay." As with gold, the idea is that the value of Bitcoin could survive some sort of cataclysm. The value of Bitcoin isn't actually very stable however, so that may not be a good bet.
Where do Bitcoins come from? New Bitcoins are created in a process called "mining," which involves Bitcoin users attempting to figure out a complex mathematical solution related to the current number of Bitcoins. Grinberg compares it to finding the missing piece of a puzzle. Whomever finds the puzzle piece wins a certain number of Bitcoins, and the process starts all over again. Finding the Bitcoin solution involves an incredible amount of processing power, and so users often band together in "pools" in order to find the solution and to earn Bitcoins more regularly. However, there have been incidents where Bitcoin users have illicitly attempted to use other people's computers to mine Bitcoins. You can do this by hacking people's computers and telling them to mine Bitcoins. In one incident referenced by the FBI, a system administrator at a university in New York set its computers to mine Bitcoins for him.
Is Bitcoin legal? In the United States, the answer is probably yes, but it could depend on what state you're in. Doing something illegal with Bitcoins—like bribing someone or buying drugs—is still illegal.
How much is a Bitcoin worth?
Bitcoins now worth $211 a little over a week after breaking through $100.
In August 2012, the exchange rate for 1 Bitcoin was about $10. When Kevin Roose of New York magazine wrote about buying a Bitcoin on April 4, the price was at $140. And as of Tuesday night, April 10, it's up to $234. It's not clear why, but Harper says the rapid price rise could be attributed to anything from increased media attention to concern surrounding the financial crisis in Cyprus, where bank accounts were going to be taxed to finance a bailout of the island nation's financial sector.
You can buy anything from any company that accepts Bitcoins as currency. There aren't that many of them. However, privacy activists have lauded the ability of Bitcoins to preserve the anonymity of political dissidents to publish online in countries where Internet access is restricted. The Freedom of the Press Foundation says that Bitcoin "offers the potential for a censorship-resistant currency." One of the more popular uses for Bitcoin, however, seems to be the purchase of illegal drugs, because like cash the transactions are harder to trace, but unlike cash, they can take place over long distances. "When you're talking about normal American consumers, is there anything legal they can get with Bitcoins that they can't get with dollars or with their credit card?" Grinberg says. "I think the answer is no."
Why do people say Bitcoins are easier for criminals to use?
Bitcoins provide a certain amount of anonymity for users, because the accounts are just numbers and not necessarily linked to an individual identity. You can also create a new wallet for each new Bitcoin transaction, further hiding your identity. But it's not completely anonymous, says Grinberg. Bitcoin users who reveal information to third parties, either a Bitcoin wallet provider or even through joining pools to mine Bitcoins, are making it more likely their identities could be discovered. But because all Bitcoin transactions are public, it's theoretically possible that you could use the account numbers to discover someone's identity. "It’s possible that using statistical techniques and information that's publicly available you could find out a great deal about Bitcoin users," Grinberg says. Also if you're using a third-party Bitcoin wallet, the feds have a number of ways to compel corporations to reveal user information when it comes to matters of national security.
Can you use Bitcoin to avoid taxes? Yes, in the same way you could use cash to avoid taxes. The more that people use Bitcoin this way, however, the more likely that governments will get get better at finding people who do so. "Just like people who accept cash, it's generally easier to evade taxes," says Grinberg, "but as a large-scale tool to evade taxes," he's "not sure" it would work. If you earn income with your Bitcoins, you technically still have to pay taxes on them.
Can they be hacked?
Bitcoin wallets and exchanges can be hacked. "There's plenty of stories where Bitcoin exchanges have been hacked," says Cato's Harper. "One of the weaknesses of Bitcoin by far is that people don't know very well how to secure their Bitcoin." Of course, identities can be stolen and regular bank accounts hacked too.
Which famous people use Bitcoins?
Ashton Kutcher's venture capital firm, A-Grade Investments, invested in a Bitcoin pay network, according to Beta Beat. And BuzzFeed speculates that there has to be at least a few Bitcoin millionaires, although they only managed to track down a Reddit user claiming to be one. So if celebrities are using Bitcoins, they're not bragging about it. Who should be the next Bitcoin celebrity spokesperson? Users in this Bitcoin forum note that Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, President Obama, and the woman who "works for Fox Sports and also plays the character 'Chelsea' on TNA Wrestling on Spike TV" would all make good candidates.
What does Obama say? The Treasury Department released a statement in March saying that certain entities—but not the average Bitcoin user—may have to register with FinCEN, the wing of the Treasury Department that deals with financial crimes and money laundering. "Someone who mines some Bitcoins and then uses them to buy goods or services, and not as part of business—would likely not have to register," Grinberg says. "However, once you move beyond that minimal level of involvement in the Bitcoin world," like setting up a Bitcoin exchange, you might have to register. Grinberg says it's still not entirely clear what the rules are yet.
Will Bitcoins ever replace national currencies? That seems like a long shot right now. "There's enough to be cautious about with Bitcoin that I don't see whole countries abandoning their currency and using Bitcoin," Harper says, although he argues that Bitcoin could be useful to people in countries without a stable currency. "It doesn't bring us to libertarian Shangri-La or anarcho-capitalism or anything like that."
Is Bitcoin going to bring down the world financial system? Probably not. "It's still a drop in the bucket in terms of the world economy," Grinberg says. "It's not crazy to think it might go much higher and that its market cap might become so large to exert some influence on, if not the world economy, the local economies where it starts getting used more
Who invented Bitcoin? Bitcoin's founder is Satoshi Nakamoto, which is a pseudonym. Nakamoto "released Bitcoin to the world at the beginning of 2009, but said he had been working on it since 2007," explains Gavin Andresen, whom Nakamoto made coadministrator of the software when he left the project. The idea was mentioned before that, but Jon Holmquist, head of marketing at BitcoinStore.com, says Nakamoto was responsible for combining and solidifying the ideas into a practical paper. Both Andresen and his colleague say they have "no idea" of the founder's real identity. Nakamoto's alleged profile on P2P Foundation claims that he is a 38-year-old male living in Japan, although that has been met with skepticism, given his strong command of American English.
How do I convert dollars to Bitcoins?
There are a number of ways to convert dollars to Bitcoins, but as Grinberg notes, "it's not straightforward" for the average person, and "even the 'easy' version is hard." Also, if you live in a rural area, or have qualms about handing over all of your bank information to an anonymous internet stranger, then you might want to just give up now. The major Bitcoin exchanges don't accept credit cards—because of that whole anonymity problem–so instead, you're encouraged to purchase Bitcoins by adding your bank account information to a site like Coinbase, and transferring money that way. You can also get Bitcoins by using your phone, the virtual program Second Life, wire transfer, or at a cash deposit location like CVS. Bitcoin users caution against PayPal—because it might freeze your account—and say that "buying Bitcoins in person can be fun and safe!" If you want to meet a stranger in 7-11 and give them cash for Bitcoins, here is a website to find a trusted serial killer distributor.
In which other countries can you buy Bitcoins? Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, parts of the European Union, the United Kingdom, Russia and Malaysia, to start. Mother Jones asked Andresen whether you could buy Bitcoins with, say, the Indonesian rupiah, and he said that "I don't know if there is an exchange from Indonesian currency to Bitcoins yet."
Will Bitcoins ever be used by banks? Many users like Bitcoin precisely because they see it as an alternative to putting their money in banks. But it's possible that more traditional banking institutions using Bitcoin could pop up at some point.
This piece has been edited to clarify that how federal regulations apply to Bitcoin entities remains hazy.
UPDATE 1, 7:10 a.m. PST, Friday, April 12: Winklevoss Twins Revealed to Have Millions of Dollars in Bitcoins
The New York Timesreported Thursday that Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the Olympic rowers turned Internet entrepreneurs who sued Mark Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing the idea for Facebook, own almost $11 million in Bitcoins. They also appear entirely unfazed about the violent drop in the value of a Bitcoin over the last couple days (as of Friday morning, it had plummeted to $77 from the $234 it was valued when this article was published on April 10).
“People say it’s a Ponzi scheme, it’s a bubble,” Cameron Winklevoss told the paper. “People really don’t want to take it seriously. At some point that narrative will shift to ‘virtual currencies are here to stay.’ We’re in the early days.”