Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael has been a senior editor at MoJo for seven years, after spending nearly as long as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He edits (and occasionally writes) features, as well as being in charge of the magazine's Mixed Media section. His writing has appeared in a range of alt-weeklies, newspapers, and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, four chickens, striped cat, and way too many musical instruments to master.

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Michael has been a senior editor at MoJo for seven years, after spending nearly as long as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He edits (and occasionally writes) features, as well as being in charge of the magazine's Mixed Media section. His writing has appeared in a range of alt-weeklies, newspapers, and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He set out to be a scientist, and as an undergrad spent a year in an organic chemistry lab at UC-Berkeley, where he was a biochemistry major, trying to synthesize tropical frog poisons. He later earned a masters degree in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard University and a masters in journalism from Cal. In 2009, he was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for public service as one of five writers in MoJo's "Torture Hits Home" package. (His contribution, "Voluntary Confinement," involved a reality TV show that held contestants in isolation.) He also won a 2014 Society for Professional Journalists award for "It Was Something Like Slavery," a photoessay he wrote with photographer Nina Berman. The father of two preteens and caretaker of a surly cat named Phelps, Michael lives in Oakland, California, where, after years of classical piano and raucous punk-rock drumming (and releasing more than a dozen CDs on his former DIY label, Bad Monkey Records), he has retired to old-time fiddling. But you never know.

What Happens When You Mix Oath Keepers and AK-47s?

| Thu May 6, 2010 2:03 PM EDT

Never a dull moment with Oath Keepers, the self-styled patriot group we profiled in our March/April issue. The latest episode involved an interesting little standoff in Tennessee between state troopers and Darren Huff, a Navy vet and gung-ho member of the group. (Oath Keepers, consisting largely of current and former soldiers and police, urges members to disobey any orders they deem unconstitutional—such as orders to confiscate citizens' firearms, herd people into detention camps, or harbor foreign troops on American soil.)

In this instance, Huff wasn't exactly standing down. Talking Points Memo reports that he was pumped up over an earlier, April 1 standoff at the Monroe County courthouse in Madisonville, where Tennessean and former Navy officer Walter Fitzpatrick had tried to conduct a citizen's arrest of Grand Jury foreman Gary Pettway. Fitzpatrick is a leading member of the Birther group American Grand Jury, which seeks to have President Obama indicted for treason, arguing that he is not a US citizen and is thus serving illegally as commander in chief. (Obama was also once a CIA operative, AGJ claims.)

So anyway, Fitz showed up, more or less made a nuisance of himself, and got himself arrested—which was probably unnecessary on all parts. But to fellow AGJ leader Carl Swensson, the authorities had crossed the proverbial line in the sand. In the video below, he calls upon all who took an oath to uphold the Constitution to march on the courthouse. "This man put his life, his honor, his fortune on the line for us in very much the same fashion as our founding fathers did," Swensson implores. "And this is it. This is the moment in time that you who have been on the fence must get off of that fence. Please, go to the courthouse en masse.…I ask you right now to honor [[your oath]]. Get down there. Get him out of jail."

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Everybody Draw Mohammed...Oops!

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 4:00 AM EDT

Cartoonist Molly Norris took a principled, tongue-in-cheek stand, and now she's getting some rather cold feet.

The Seattle artist was irked by Comedy Central's recent refusal to air a South Park episode depicting the prophet Mohammed—a big no-no in Islamic circles. The censorship came in response to threats against South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone by the website Revolution Muslim, which according to the Internet rumor mill is run by an Israeli Jew named Joseph Cohen.

Actually, South Park has depicted the prophet in the past with little fanfare—see Boing Boing's interview with Parker and Stone—but that was before the European cartoon-contest uproar, and before Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh was murdered for his work on the short film Submission.

By Molly NorrisIn any case, to protest the censorship, Norris created the satirical poster at left (which needs some copyediting) and put it on her website. She then sent it to Dan Savage, the always-provocative editor of Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, who posted it without comment last Friday on the paper's Slog blog.

Somehow, Norris thought it would remain local.

Savage told me he agreed with the sentiment, so he posted the artwork. "Now it's all over the world," he said.By Molly Norris "She was trying to start something, but now she's running scared and freaked out."

That's in part because her work—yes—depicts the prophet. As a cup of tea, a domino, a box of pasta, and—hey, you have eyes, read it yourself! (UPDATE: Norris writes that these figures don't depict Mohammed; they just claim to.) This probably didn't win her many Muslim fans—Islam forbids any representations of Allah and Mohammed, especially as a dog-shaped purse. (Then again, some Muslims weren't too happy about the threats against Parker and Stone.)

Norris' poster went viral, even inspiring a Facebook group and counter-group. And Reason magazine promptly joined in, asking readers to submit drawings of the prophet, which it promised to publish on May 20.

All this attention left Morris feeling, well, pretty damn nervous. She joined the group "Ban Everyone Draw Mohammed Day," took the poster down from her website—a move akin to trying to put toothpaste back in its tube—and replaced it with an explanatory cartoon:

"I have hit some kind of gigantic nerve!...I have let people down!...I am so freaked out that I am not even drinking my regular 4 pots of coffee a day...Good think I'm married to a sumo wrestler!"

And so on.

She may find some solace in the fact that America is on her side. While I was writing this post, the results of a new Zogby poll appeared in my inbox. (Me just loves this Interweb thing!) And here's what Zogby found:

Generally speaking, do you agree or disagree with Comedy Central's decision to censor parts of a South Park episode deemed offensive to some Muslims?

Agree
Overall: 19%
Democrats: 27%
Republicans: 9%
Independents: 19%

Disagree
Overall: 71%
Dems: 60%
Republicans: 87%
Indies: 68%

Sorry, but I'm so with the the Republicans and the South Park guys on this one. Muslims and Christians and Jews—and, for that matter, unbelievers—have every right to be angry, to carry picket signs, to write letters to the editor, rant in the blog comments, or change the channel when somebody disrespects their object of reverence.

But free speech, when tested, is never pretty. It pays to remember that Supreme Court free-speech cases don't involve polite Midwesterners and the like, but rather people like Hustler's Larry Flynt or Westboro Baptist's Reverend Fred Phelps—people who say and do and print extremely offensive things. And if they offend you, well, don't buy their magazines—or try and sue them if you like. But nobody should be allowed to use religion to take away other peoples' right to self-expression. Least of all here. Because, you know, in addition to Yahweh and Jesus and Allah, we Americans also worship a 223-year-old document that strongly implies something to this effect.

UPDATE: Norris has added a quote to her home page that I couldn't agree with more, and that also applies perfectly to things like flag-burning: "Fight for the right to draw Mohammed, but then decline doing so."

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Wall Street Watchdogs Like Teen Sluts

| Fri Apr. 23, 2010 4:42 PM EDT

File under: Abysmal Timing. Just a week after the Securities and Exchange Commission filed an audacious lawsuit against Goldman Sachs—Wall Street's most-hated casino—comes a revelation that a few dozen SEC employees, including a few lame-ass higher-ups, have been downloading porn on their government computers for years. It's probably a tempest in a teapot, given that you would likely find such misbehavior at any large agency at any time if you bothered to look. But it's still a major embarassment for an agency trying to remake it's public image after blowing it so completely on Bernie Madoff. Mary Schapiro must be pissing her pants right about now.

The Inspector General's office conducted investigations of 33 SEC employees, nearly all since 2008, according to a case summary requested by Senator Charles Grassley and obtained by the Washington Post:

A senior attorney at SEC headquarters in Washington admitted he sometimes spent as much as eight hours viewing pornography from his office computer, according to the report. The attorney’s computer ran out of space for the downloaded images, so he started storing them on CDs and DVDs that he stored in his office.

Grassley's people claimed the timing was coincidental. Right. Meanwhile, Cali Congressman Darrell Issa, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was quick to score some points for his party, which has lost a few by opposing the administration's relatively feeble attempt to reform Wall Street. "This stunning report should make everyone question the wisdom of moving forward with plans to give regulators like the SEC even more widespread authority," Issa told the Post.

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Oath Keepers a COINTELPRO target?

| Mon Apr. 19, 2010 3:44 PM EDT

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the "patriot" group Oath Keepers, apparently thinks the United States government, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rachel Maddow, Mother Jones, AlterNet, and the rest of the liberal media are complicit in a COINTELPRO-style conspiracy to discredit his group.

AlterNet reporter Adele Stan attended a press conference this past weekend for the Second Amendment March, at which Rhodes groused about mistreatment by Maddow and Justine Sharrock, who wrote our cover story on the group—although he didn't complain, apparently, about being dismissed by Fox News' Bill O'Reilly.

Rhodes feels as though his group has been mischaracterized by the liberal (and mainstream) media. He's particularly rankled by people lumping his organization in with racists and militia groups—never mind that Rhodes has been a vocal supporter both of the militia movement and of individuals who advocate using force to fight government oppression. His group is walking a thin line, however, and its rhetoric clearly resonates with the locked-and-loaded crowd, among others.

Last week, in fact, when Oath Keepers backed out of an alternative (armed) Second Amendment rally, it wasn't because Rhodes didn't sympathize with its organizers. Here's what Rhodes said at the press conference, according to Stan:

"I'm not going to be speaking there, because I'm not going to make it easy for them to paint me as militia," he said. "I'm not going to stand next to a militia leader or a former militia leader and give a speech, because that would be used as something to...incorrectly paint Oath Keepers as something it's not."

Fair enough, but Rhodes also showcased some of the anti-government paranoia that Oath Keepers routinely disseminates by declaring, for instance, that the government will almost inevitably, at some point in the future, herd citizens into detention camps—or take away their guns:

"And the latest thing that they're going to do, I hear from an informant within federal law enforcement," [Rhodes] said, "is a CoInTelPro-style operation to make us look like militia—like the Hutaree, is what we're told—and that should really come as no surprise: That's exactly what the Southern Poverty Law Center's been trying to do, and people like Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, and on down the line. This has been a relentless program."

Perhaps the best part of Stan's report was the quasi-interview that took place when she approached Rhodes after the press conference. Although it was hard to say who was interviewing whom:

He put me off until his cameraman was free. He records everything now, he said, especially since the Mother Jones piece. "I call it the Justine Sharrock rule," he said.

Rhodes did finally get to his point, though, before cutting the interview short and implying that Stan was a shoddy journalist—or something like that.

"The Republicans want to go after Islamic terrorists because they're so afraid of them that they're willing to throw the Bill of Rights in the trash. And they did. And then the Democrats got in. The Democrats are so afraid of the next Timothy McVeigh that they're also willing to throw the Bill of Rights in the trash. They want me Gitmoed, and all this kind of stuff. Or they're like, I don't want the racist." He mimicked a frightened cry.

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Ethics Award for MoJo Scribe

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 2:00 PM EDT

Mother Jones contributor Scott Carney took top honors in this year's Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism, established in 1999 by the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication "to honor the journalist of integrity and character who reports with insight and clarity in the face of political or economic pressures and to reward performance that inspires public trust in the media."

In "Meet the Parents," which appeared in our March/April 2009 issue, Carney followed the paper trail of a child who was kidnapped from his parents in the slums of Chennai, India, and sold by the kidnappers to a corrupt orphanage—which then worked with an American agency to adopt the child to an unwitting Midwestern family.

Although more than a decade had passed since the kidnapping, the glacial pace of India's bureaucracy, along with a tangle of confidentiality laws, left the impoverished Indian parents with little hope of ever contacting their son. After months of research involving hundreds of such cases, Carney travelled to the United States, and was the first person to make contact with the adoptive family. According to the press release anouncing the award: 

The Payne Awards judges applauded not only Carney's exhaustive research but his willingness to engage in the story in a personal way and to reveal that in his writing. "He consciously recognized that he was part of the story—in fact, his participation was part of the story," the judges' statement reads. "The story included a number of ethical crossroads—and it is clear that these decisions were carefully considered."

The only other award went to Wall Street Journal bureau chief Farnaz Fassihi, for "thorough, fair, honest and courageous reporting in producing a body of work that puts a human face on the crisis in Iran." From the announcement:

"Although the stories are different, both of these journalists immersed themselves in complex, difficult situations in order to find the truth and serve the public interest," Tim Gleason, Edwin L. Artzt Dean and chair of the Payne Awards judging panel, said on behalf of the judges. "One of the core elements of great journalism is the reporter’s willingness to struggle with complex stories to make sense of them for their readers. Sometimes that includes putting oneself at risk—physically or emotionally. In either case, you do this because you know that is the right thing to do. That is the definition of an ethical journalist. In these particular cases, the work demonstrates care, not just about getting the story, but about the people in those stories."

Carney, a contributing editor at Wired, also has a pair of must-read features in our current issue: "Inside India's Rent-a Womb Business" brings the writer to Anand, Mumbai, and Delhi as he looks into the growing business—and moral ambiguities—of surrogacy tourism. For "The Temple of Do," Carney sacrifices his hair at a Hindu temple as part of his exploration into the humble origins of a lucrative beauty product. Clearly, for Carney, the story comes before his own personal comfort.

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