Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael has been a senior editor at MoJo for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. In addition to editing stories for print and web, he is 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 too many musical instruments to master.

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Michael has been a senior editor at MoJo for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. In addition to editing stories for print and web, he is 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 originally 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 named a finalist for a National Magazine Award for his contribution to 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 Kind of Like Slavery," a photoessay he wrote with photographer Nina Berman. Michael lives with his family in Oakland, California, where, after years of classical piano and punk-rock drumming, he now sits on his front porch and tries to play the fiddle.

Andrew Bacevich's Nonfiction Picks

| Tue May 18, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are The Limits of Power author Andrew Bacevich's answers:

Mother Jones: What nonfiction book do you foist on friends and relatives?

Andrew Bacevich: Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History. Published in 1952, it remains the most insightful book ever written about US foreign policy, as relevant today as it was when it first appeared. There's a new paperback edition available from University of Chicago Press.

MJ: What's the nonfiction you've reread the most—and what's the allure?

AB: There's probably no single title. But my colleague David Fromkin's book on the origins of the modern Middle East, A Peace to End All Peace, is a book that I've returned to time and again. It provides readers a rich understanding of exactly where and how our problems with this region began and offers a powerful reminder regarding the folly to which statesmen are prone.

MJ: Can you think of a nonfiction book someone handed you as a kid that left a lasting impression?

AB: I honestly can't. As a kid I was enamored with fiction, most of it utterly forgettable and long forgotten. 

MJ: What book would makes perfect companion reading to your own The Limits of Power?

AB: This will come across as completely shameless, but I have a book coming out in August that I hope will serve as a complement to Limits. The title is Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War.

MJ: Have you read anything recently that's made you more optimistic about America's future?

AB: Hope in a Scattering Time is a new biography of Christopher Lasch by Eric Miller. I don't know that it makes me optimistic exactly, but I can find some consolation in the fact that this society can from time to time produce people of Lasch's ruthless integrity. It's wonderfully well-written.

MJ: Any other great nonfiction books, particularly recent ones, that we shouldn't overlook?

AB: The Tragedy of American Diplomacy by William Appleman Williams first appeared in 1959, but W. W. Norton recently published a 50th anniversary edition. It remains a book well worth reading.
 

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Die Antwoord's Zef-Rap Mystery World

| Mon May 17, 2010 7:30 AM EDT

Update: On the brink of their US tour and debut CD release, I interviewed Die Antwoord about their risque new video, South African culture, and why they well self-destruct after five albums: Part 1 here, and Part 2 there.

Have you heard Die Antwoord? You will. I don't know what to make of this crew, exactly, but I’m definitely intrigued. They're a trio of white-trash Afrikaners from southern South Africa, pumping a homegrown rave-hip-hop sound they alternatively call zef-rap or simply "next-level shit."

Leading lady (“Rich Bitch” Yo-Landi Vi$$er) is ultra-twee, a severe, unconventional beauty. Lead man (Watkin Tudor Jones, aka Ninja) is practically a caricature and yet somehow original; angry, inked, completely bonkers—and undaunted by anyone else's idea of cool. DJ Hi-Tek: inscrutable, but the beats are right. Yo-Landi and Ninja are vocally skilled and profane. (Afrikaans, after all, is said to be the best language for swearing.) Catchy. Absurd. Weird with a capped dubya. 51-50. It's hard to look the other way.

Here's Ninja talking to Vice magazine about the group's first album, $0$, coming out soon in the States.

Here in South Africa the taxis play rave music fokken loud my bru. You can hear it from the next city when the taxi comes through, you hear DOOM DOOM DOOM—they gooi the rap-rave megamixes pumping like a nightclub. So my main inspiration is the taxis. The whole album is based on the sound it’s gonna make when it’s pumping through a taxi—It’s that high energy shit you can’t compare.

 

Walmart Pledges $2 Billion to Feed Its Own Image

| Thu May 13, 2010 3:40 PM EDT

So Walmart Stores announced yesterday that it would give $2 billion worth of food and grants to America's food banks. Great, huh? The needy get fed—and Walmart gets a ton of positive press. Two billion is no chump change. Okay, true, it's less than one-half of 1 percent of Wal-Mart's sales—a staggering $405 billion for fiscal 2010. But still.

Giving to help the hungry is a smart marketing strategy for Walmart. Low-income people are among the retail king's biggest customers, after all, and feeding people during hard times is a fantastic image-booster. But as with Walmart's embracing of compact fluorescent light bulbs—part of a major push to green its image (and sell a shitload of product)—there's something duplicitous in all of this. I use that word because even as Walmart burnishes its image by unloading food it doesn't want (see below), it is contributing to hunger on the other end—and leaving taxpayers to bail out its undercompensated employees.

Will Congress Crack Down on Sleazy Car Dealers?

| Wed May 12, 2010 5:08 PM EDT

Will Congress finally take action to rein in the car dealers who target American soldiers—among others—with dirty sales tricks? Gary Rivlin, whose upcoming book on the poverty industry is titled Broke, USA, reports in yesterday's New York Times that consumer advocates are angling for better oversight:

Even the Pentagon has weighed in, insisting that automobile purchases and dealer-assisted financing should be part of any new financial legislation because low-income military people are victimized in large numbers by shady car dealers that set up shop just outside many bases.

Officials say distractions caused by these bad auto deals could affect the readiness of the armed forces.

In February, Clifford L. Stanley, the under secretary of defense responsible for troop readiness, wrote in a letter addressed to a Treasury official that the Pentagon would “welcome and encourage” increased protections against “unscrupulous automobile sales and financing practices.”

But car dealers have formidable clout in the halls of Congress. MoJo staff reporter Stephanie Mencimer notes in "I Love a Mark in Uniform," that the dealers gave some $9 million to candidates during the 2008 election cycle alone. And Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), Rivlin reports, is sponsoring an amendment that would exempt further regulation of car dealers, who, in Brownback's words, "are already struggling to get cars to market."

The people most often targeted by dealers are struggling just to make ends meet. Last year, Mencimer spent some quality time around Norfolk, Virginia, where a high concentration of naive young recruits has attracted all manner of unscrupulous salespeople. Here's a snapshot:

Michael Chabon's Nonfiction Picks

| Tue May 11, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon's answers:

Mother Jones: What nonfiction book do you foist on friends and relatives? Explain.

Michael Chabon: I don't do a lot of foisting, because when it comes to books I don’t really like to be foisted upon. But I'm always happy to find somebody else who loves the work of Lewis Hyde (Trickster Makes This World, The Gift) as much as I do. And I think I've been talking about Slavoj Zizek a little too much lately.

MJ: The work of nonfiction you've reread the most?

MC: I guess it would be Walter Benjamin's Illuminations, particularly the essays "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," "The Storyteller," and especially the "Theses on the Philosophy of History," which every time I finish it feels as if it was made out of something more evanescent than words. Also a continual rereader of John Clute's Encyclopedia of Fantasy—actually a single, immense, thrilling work of literary theory disguised as a reference book.

MJ: Nonfiction book someone gave you as a kid that left a lasting impression?

MC: That would be The Miracle of Language (Fawcett World Library, 1953), an obscure paperback history of language to be found on the TV-room shelf at my grandparents' house in Silver Spring, Maryland; clear and well-written and fascinating. I used to read it so often when I visited that eventually he gave it to me, in 1985, with the penciled inscription: "To Mike—A budding writer should know the tools of his trade. Grandpa."

MJ: As an enthusiast of the comic form, which graphic novelists make you salivate as you await their next book?

MC: Big fan of the Brits: Eddie Campbell, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison. Open the door to include them along with Amis, McEwen, Rushdie, Moorcock, Byatt, Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, et al, and I think you could argue that over the past 20 years British literature has been going through one of the most vital and interesting periods in its history.

MJ: Whose nonfiction work do you find is more out there than your own fictional creations?

MC: Oh, no. Not going to get me to accept the premise of that one.

MJ: If I said, here's a million bucks, write me some long-form nonfiction, what would you first think to write about?

MC: The false history of baseball (Doubleday, Cooperstown), the real history of baseball (town ball, Cartwright), all the colorful characters and hucksters and autocrats and players of which they’re both composed, and how the interplay of the deliberate lie and the obscured truth is so emblematic of American historiography in general.

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