Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. 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 landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning feature editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. 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 natural poisons found in the skin of certain tropical frogs. He later earned a masters degree in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard University and a second masters in journalism from UC-Berkeley. 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. The father of two mostly charming kids and an only occasionally charming striped cat named Phelps, Michael lives in Oakland, California, where, after years of classical piano and raucous punk-rock drumming (and putting out more than a dozen CDs on his former DIY label, Bad Monkey Records), he has retired to old-time and traditional music, guitar finger-picking, and more recently fiddle and mandolin. He has four chickens—Lucia, Podge, Cat, and Weed Whacker—but what he really covets is a hedgehog.

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.

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

Buzzkill: Seven-Buck Chuck?

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 5:10 PM EDT

Seven-buck Chuck! Fourteen-buck six-packs! To the barricades!

I thought this was an April Fool's prank when I first saw it on LAist, but it's quite legit. People are always proposing nutty initiatives here in California—because they can. This round Josie and Kent Whitney, ostensibly a temperate San Diego couple, have introduced a state ballot initiative that reeks of Prohibition.

Citing alcohol's many ills—and there are plenty—they want to slap taxes on drinking that are high enough to render you stone cold sober. The current 6-cent excise tax on a sixer of beer? Make that $6.08! You'll likely be paying an extra $5.07 in taxes for a 750-milliliter bottle of wine. And the hard stuff? Hell, you won't be affording cocktails anymore. The Whitney proposal (title: Alcohol-Related Harm and Damage Services Act of 2010) would pump up the excise tax on a bottle of distilled spirits from 65 cents to $17.57. 

That's no typo. Okay, sure, the Whitneys have some perfectly valid points: Alcohol is indeed a drug. It can contribute to people being raped. And it adds significantly to crime and health care costs. Meanwhile, California is in the shitter, so a sin tax doesn't sound unreasonable. But $6.08 on a sixer—Christ almighty! The proposed initiative states that alcohol costs California taxpayers $38.4 billion a year, due to everything from crime to illness to lost productivity to increased welfare.

Let's assume that's accurate...But how much does alcohol net us? And with the state wine industry and high-end eateries hurting from the recession, how many waiters, bartenders, farmers, grape-pickers, vintners, brewers, distillers, scientists, shop owners, and restaurateurs would be devastated by such a draconian tax?

An analysis by the state Legislative Analyst's Office focuses on the direct impacts: The proposed law would likely raise $7 to $9 billion for the state, it says, with unknown state and local sales-tax losses (because you and I would be buying less hooch). But the analyst kind of buried the likely employment ripple effect:  

Indirect Economic Effects. If the measure were to result in declines in overall economic activity in California, it could produce indirect state and local revenue losses. Such effects could occur, for example, if businesses were to close because they could no longer remain profitable as the overall economy adjusted to a lower demand for alcohol in the long run. If these lost resources were not redirected back to California's economy into equal or more productive activities, then it would likely lead to a net loss in taxable income and spending for state and local governments. The magnitude of these potential revenue losses is unknown.

Here's my favorite part: Bootleggers! Smugglers! Hello, Al Capone.

Potential Costs and Savings for Law Enforcement. An increase in the tax rate on alcohol would increase the incentive for persons to illegally produce alcohol, smuggle alcoholic beverages into the state, or avoid the tax by other means. Law enforcement officials have some discretion as to how to allocate their resources. To the extent that illegal activities related to the production or procurement of alcoholic beverages increased, and law enforcement officials allocated additional resources to combat it, state and local law enforcement costs would increase.

Short answer: They need about 434,000 signatures by August to get this on the November ballot. I figure anyone who signs has got to be high! Then again, getting high could soon be legal in California.

Tee Purtiers Knead Spelchek

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 4:55 PM EDT

Our friends over at BoingBoing turned us on to this wonderful Flickr slideshow of misspelled Tea Party signs. (Catchy headline, too: Teabonics!)

As MoJo intern Tim Murphy learned in Searchlight, Nevada, recently, the Tea Partiers are folksy enough—and I'm sure that plenty of them can spell well enough, too. But if you truly care about your cause, and your cause is that Americans should speak English only, then get it right, for Chrissake!

 

 

Climate Hacking 101

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 1:05 PM EDT

Can the climate be hacked to keep the Earth's surface temperatures manageable? Can we get away with hijacking natural cycles (emulating volcanoes, pumping nutrients into the oceans, tinkering with the solar reflectivity of clouds) without radically screwing up weather patterns—or starting a war? Or is it a cop-out even to talk about this, rather than focus on kicking ass and taking names on the carbon emissions front?

Huh? Did he say "war"? Well, since climate heeds no human boundaries, any serious intervention by scientists could require a level of global cooperation that makes Copenhagen look like a cakewalk—and we all know how that turned out. If any country were to start testing this stuff unilaterally on a big scale, let's just say it would not be terribly popular.

But all the technical, cultural, and political roadblocks didn't dissuade leading geoengineering researchers from attending last week's big powwow at the Asilomar Conference Center—a longtime science haven and site of a similar meeting on genetic engineering back in 1975. Like that historic meeting, this one's ostensible purpose (activists envision something more nefarious) was for the scientists to discuss possible ground rules for future experimentation and for navigating, well, the technical, cultural, and political roadblocks. And like that meeting, this one has been criticized as an attempt to legitimize a potentially dangerous area of science.

Not to say the attendees were all gung-ho to put their ideas into practice. As climate scientists deeply concerned about human contributions to global warming, most were somewhat wary about the implications of climate hacking. That's one thing reporter Jim Rendon learned when we sent him to Asilomar to check out the scene. His dispatches below, and their links to our past geoengineering coverage, will give you a sort of Climate Hacking 101. Considering the world's inaction on addressing the most pressing problem of our time, you'll need it. We're all going to be hearing a lot more about human volcanoes and so on in the not too distant future.

Dispatch 1: Geoengineering Bad Fixes for Worse Problems
As climate-intervention scientists meet, fans see a Plan B where critics see a delay tactic.
Dispatch 2: Who Eats Geoengineering Risk?
Any large-scale test would require true international cooperation.
Dispatch 3: Do We Test Geoengineering?
Any meaningful field run would be a contentious, high-risk venture.
Dispatch 4: Geoengineering for Fun and Profit
Should scientists—or anyone—be allowed to cash in on high-risk climate fixes?

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