2009 - %3, July

Welcome to the Al Franken Decade

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 10:24 AM EDT

Al Franken, formerly of Saturday Night Live and the author of Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, will be sworn in as a US Senator from the state of Minnesota later this morning. It's been a long journey for Al from late night comedian to CSPAN celebrity, and Mother Jones has been watching all the way.

Franken sat down for an interview with us way back in 1996, right after Big Fat Idiot soared to the top of best-seller lists. In 2004, he wrote an article for us about his USO tours. We reviewed a movie about Franken in 2006. In 2007, as Franken was gearing up for the Senate campaign, Jonathan Stein profiled him for the magazine. And we've covered the election and the recount battle exhaustively: we covered the initial vote count, noted his Mick Jagger stylings after the results came out, and watched as public opinion turned against Norm Coleman's court fight. Later, I predicted (correctly) when Franken would be seated and reminded you what to call him when he won. And then Norm Coleman conceded, clearing the way for Al to get sworn in today.

You can safely assume that we'll keep you posted.

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Cute Endangered Animal: Slow Loris

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

This week's cute endangered animal is the aptly-named Slow Loris. The Slow Loris is a sympathetic little guy. He's got anime-huge eyes, and moves so slowly that he's an easy target for poachers in his native Southeast Asia. The nocturnal Slow Loris's only natural defenses are 1) holding onto a branch really tight; 2) a semi-toxic bite; 3) emitting an unpleasant smell; and 4) curling up into a protective ball-like shape. Pretty sad. One cool thing about the bite is that the Loris will nibble on his inner elbow to get toxins, then mixes the toxins in his mouth so that when he bites, it will sting more. Unfortunately, the toxin isn't fatal or debilitating for humans, though it will cause some pain, swelling, and redness.

The Slow Loris is a case of an animal being too cute for its own good. Besides having a babyish set of huge eyes, the Loris is furry, small, quiet, and apparently enjoys being tickled. The animal is prized as a pet, and shipments (often to Japan) of hundreds of Lorises have been intercepted. The fact that the Loris's instinct, upon stress, is to curl up into a ball makes it easy to transport, though often poachers will remove the Loris's teeth as a precaution. When not sold as pets, Lorises are hunted for use in traditional Asian medicines and like many other arboreal species, are threatened with habitat loss due to agriculture and logging. 

Currently, the Loris's endangered status varies by country but the 2007 CITES conference banned all international transport. The CITES conference also called for more research, as population data is often old or unreliable. To see one researcher's pics of his adorable subjects (don't worry, it's very humane research), click here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

 

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, July 7

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Your Tuesday dose of environment, health, and science stories from around our blogs:

Straight wonks on dope: Kevin Drum has never smoked weed. He's only seen a joint once. Here’s why he wants pot decriminalized. Plus: Government lies about pot revealed.

Palin's last hurrah: Possibly a requirement that Alaska girls under 18 to get parental consent for abortions, despite scientific evidence that such policies result in more late-term abortions.

Does not compute: Conservatives' bizarro healthcare arguments are sounding less and less convincing.

Cheese-Eating Healthcare

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 2:06 AM EDT

When I reviewed Jon Cohn's Sick a couple of years ago for CJR, I concluded with this:

The format of Sick almost begs for narratives about overseas health care systems. The book is basically a tour around America, with each of its eight chapters named after the place in which its story unfolds. So why not include chapters on Manchester, Malmö, and Marseilles, each of them highlighting in narrative form both the good and bad points of the British, Swedish, and French systems?

Naturally, then, I'm delighted that Jon found someone to fund exactly that:

Last year, I had the opportunity to spend time researching two [] countries: France and the Netherlands. Neither country gets the attention that Canada and England do. That might be because English isn’t their language. Or it might be because they don’t fit the negative stereotypes of life in countries where government is more directly involved in medical care.

....In the course of a few dozen lengthy interviews, not once did I encounter an interview subject who wanted to trade places with an American. And it was easy enough to see why. People in these countries were getting precisely what most Americans say they want: Timely, quality care. Physicians felt free to practice medicine the way they wanted; companies got to concentrate on their lines of business, rather than develop expertise in managing health benefits. But, in contrast with the US, everybody had insurance. The papers weren’t filled with stories of people going bankrupt or skipping medical care because they couldn’t afford to pay their bills. And they did all this while paying substantially less, overall, than we do.

Forget Canada and Britain.  Neither one is even remotely close to the kind of system we'd ever put in place in the U.S.  France's system, however, is surprisingly American in its basic underpinnings.  And while no system comes out tops in every single metric, French healthcare, as Jon says, is better than ours on almost all of them and does it for close to half the cost.

Now, the fact that the French spend about half what we do doesn't mean that we'd cut our costs in half if we adopted a French-style system.  We wouldn't.  There's too much path dependence and too many cultural differences for that.  But what it does mean is that if we adopted something close to their system, we could certainly achieve high-quality 100% basic coverage — with the ability to purchase extra coverage for anyone who wants it — for no more than we spend now and possibly a bit less.

We won't, of course, because too many people are still convinced that healthcare in the United States is better than it is in France — or anywhere else.  It's not.  It's worse and more expensive.  Somebody tell Max Baucus.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias says that Max already knows.  I figured as much.

Quote of the Day

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 1:26 AM EDT

From Jaci Woods, a real estate broker in Irvine, California, explaining the charm of our little planned community:

"The people that don't like following rules say they can't stand it. I saw a man on a ladder starting to paint the side of his house lavender," she said, noting the color was banned by the homeowners association. "It's the ones like that that we guard against."

True that.  You can't be too careful in these parts.  In fact, my neighbor's air conditioner has been on the fritz for the past few weeks and its racket has become really annoying.  I'm thinking about having him deported with extreme prejudice.

From the Annals of Bad Editors

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 12:30 AM EDT

I'm not quite sure why I looked this up — I think I was verifying the spelling of Daniel Keyes' name — but this afternoon I checked out the Wikipedia entry for "Flowers for Algernon" and learned this:

In 1958, Keyes was approached by Galaxy Science Fiction magazine to write a story, at which point the different elements of Flowers for Algernon fell into place. On submitting the finished story to Galaxy, however, the editor suggested changing the ending so that Charlie retained his intelligence, married Alice, and lived happily ever after. Keyes refused to make the change and sold the story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction instead.

Keyes worked on the expanded novel between 1962 and 1965 and first tried to sell it to Doubleday, but they also wanted to change the ending. Again, Keyes refused and gave Doubleday back their advance. Five different publishers rejected the story over the course of a year until it was taken on and published by Harcourt in 1966.

Seriously?  Did these guys also tell Shakespeare that Romeo and Juliet was kind of a bummer and he really ought to have Juliet wake up just as Romeo was about to take the poison — followed by a backslapping reconciliation between the Montague and Capulet clans and a joyous wedding between the star-bless'd lovers?

Jeebus.  What the hell kind of story is it if you give it a happy ending?  What was up with these guys?

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Regretfully Ours, Robert S. McNamara

| Mon Jul. 6, 2009 7:27 PM EDT

News of Robert McNamara’s death this morning sparked the old hatreds and passions of the Vietnam war, just as the man himself did in life.

A comment on Ben Smith’s blog at Politico today was full of the old venom.

“I hope some of the 50,000+ young men he was partially responsible for killing are waiting to escort him to hell.”

Writing in these pages, Kevin Drum has a more sympathetic point of view, based in part on the fact that Secretary of Defense McNamara a) resigned when he realized he couldn’t convince the Johnson administration to stop the slaughter in Vietnam, b) later admitted his fundamental mistakes in prosecuting the war, and c) felt anguish for his actions.

In January 1990, before McNamara had made his mea culpas public, I was beginning research for a book about the massacre by US Army troops of approximately 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians, mostly women, children and old men, in the village of My Lai, a horrific event that took place in 1968, but which the military covered up for a year.

It was the first shock of recognition for a generation of white, middle-class Americans that our soldiers -- our nation -- was capable of committing true evil on a massive scale.

Part of my research included sending letters to two dozen prominent Americans. Some of them had been directly involved in the Vietnam War. Others were public figures, journalists and social critics whose insights into the slaughter at My Lai would, I thought, be valuable.

I posed a simple question: “What lesson(s) should America have learned from My Lai?”

I was surprised that so many individuals responded, and their answers seem even more meaningful now, given the intervening events.

General William Westmoreland, commander of military forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, wrote that the United States needed to “continue to emphasis [stet] adherence to the letter and the spirit of the Geneva Conventions.”

Telford Taylor, who was the chief US prosecutor at the Nuremburg war-crimes trials, directed his comments to the legal response to the massacre: “The effort to punish violators of the Laws of War, when the defendants are our own soldiers, completely failed.” Taylor died in 1998, but it is easy to imagine him saying the same thing about the lack of accountability in another American war, forty years later.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Francis FitzGerald made an observation that I heard in slightly different forms, from many outside of government or the military: “I would like to remind you that My Lai was more of a symbol than anything else. Most of the civilian casualties in [Vietnam] were caused by bombing and artillery fire in populated areas. Nowadays it is generally the ‘bloodless’ techno-war that kills civilians”

Robert McNamara’s response has always been the most intriguing of the lot, for it seemed then to reveal more about his own anguish over Vietnam than he had, at that time, let on.

Hand-written in pencil in a cramped corner of my original letter were the words, "I regret I am unable to help you,” and McNamara’s signature.

Others had not answered my question, of course, but no one did it in this way. Most simply didn’t write back. Colin Powell had his secretary write that the General had forwarded my request to a military historian. Al Haig stated that he was working on a book of his own and didn’t want to scoop himself by answering the question. (His book, Inner Circles, was published in 1992 with no mention of My Lai.)

McNamara’s response was unique and significant. He could have ignored my letter, but he didn’t. He could have explained his reason for not answering the question, like Al Haig, but he didn’t go that route either.

McNamara confessed he was “unable to help,” and that his inability caused him “regret.”

Kevin Drum has it right, I think. McNamara muffled his anguish and regrets because that’s who he was. I don’t know what words they'll carve into his tombstone, but I can’t think of anything more appropriate -- or more instructive to future generations -- than the words he scribbled in the corner of that letter.

"I regret I am unable to help. Robert S. McNamara."

June 9, 1916 – July 6, 2009.

 

 

Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here.

Media Matters, Local Edition

| Mon Jul. 6, 2009 6:45 PM EDT

In the will-journalism-take-democracy-down-with-it files, Mike has a really interesting report on advertorial worming its way into local news here over at The Riff. To whit:

 

A few weeks ago, my friend Amy Shelf got a call from San Francisco’s KRON 4, a former NBC affiliate, now independent, that bills itself “the Bay Area’s News Station.” The caller, a polite young woman, wanted to set up a meeting with Amy to talk about opportunities for her to appear on the air and speak about legal issues—Amy is a lawyer.

Was the caller a news producer? Not exactly. She wanted Amy to pay $1,000, presumably per month, to star in a five-minute monthly segment. Amy consulted her moral compass. “I was like, ‘I think that’s totally unethical,’" she tells me later, recalling the conversation. "And she said, ‘Well, it looks like the news.’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly what makes it unethical!’”

KRON's sales rep quickly added that the paid segments were identified as such, but Amy still wasn’t buying. Proper disclosure, of course, would make the whole thing just a bit less slimy. So I went online and viewed some of the segments in question. There was plenty to be concerned about.

You have to read the rest of his report to find out how bad it is out there. And once you do, perhaps you'll consider supporting journalism that reports to you. Just sayin'.

The Latest Palin Ethics Complaint

| Mon Jul. 6, 2009 6:35 PM EDT

In explaining her decision to resign as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin on Friday said that she was partly motivated to pull out from public office by the flood of ethics complaints filed against her. She said that she has faced fifteen complaints. The Anchorage Daily News puts the count at 18. But whatever it is, her resignation hasn't stopped the flow. On Monday, Zane Henning, a Wasilla resident, filed a new complaint against Palin.

Henning is not a newbie at this. Last November, he filed a complaint accusing Palin of misusing state facilities when she talked to reporters about her 2008  campaign in her state office. In March, the state personnel board dismissed the matter.

Henning's most recent complaint is about an old matter: Palin collecting per diem payments from the state for living in her Wasilla home, rather than in the governor's residence in Juneau. The Washington Post broke this story in September, and Palin's spokespeople insisted she had done no wrong and that her actions had followed state rules. Not until now has it become the subject of an ethics complaint.

From a press release Henning issued:

"I am charging that the Governor has given herself a raise for personal gain by using the per diem process, which is in direct conflict with Section 39.52.120. (a) of the Alaska Executive Ethics Act," Henning said. "The State of Alaska provides housing in the state's capital of Juneau for our Governor, so there should be no extra expense if she desires to stay in her own home. More than a thousand state employees commute from the Mat-Su Valley daily and none of them get to pocket free money."

The reasons why I am filing this complaint are as follows:

* State travel regulations specify per diem can’t be claimed when travel is less than 50 miles from a state employee’s workplace. Palin works out of her Anchorage office in the Atwood Building which is a scant 45-mile commute from her Wasilla home.

* Palin is exempt from personnel and travel rules which means she does NOT HAVE to collect any per diem ever when working out of her Anchorage office.

* And most importantly, State Statute 39.20.010 distinctly stipulates that the governor’s salary is $125,000. Period. By pocketing this free money, Palin violates Alaska law by giving herself a raise that totals to thousands of dollars....

"The Governor is quitting her job and now more than ever the State of Alaska along with its residents need to be reimbursed for the per diem charges including interest and a fine. Governor Palin is setting precedent for future governors. My hope was that one of our lemming legislators would take a stand and hold Palin accountable for this act, but since that has not happened, it is up to private citizens, like myself, to hold our Governor accountable," stated Henning. 

As Palin noted, most of the complaints filed against her have been dismissed--though a handful have led to findings that she did violate state rules. There's no telling if Henning will have better luck with this complaint than his first one. But if Palin keeps her word about leaving office on July 26, ethics watchdogs in Alaska will have Sarah Palin to kick around for only three more weeks.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Toxic Foraged Fish for Dinner in NYC

| Mon Jul. 6, 2009 5:55 PM EDT

New York City's Daily News reports that people who eat the fish they catch in the city's polluted waterways could be ingesting a smorgasbord of toxins, including mercury and PCBs. According to the story, health officials haven't tested the city's fish in a decade, so the paper decided to do send samples to a lab in Long Island. The results:

The News found the highest levels of mercury and PCBs in a striped bass caught off Gantry Plaza. The fish are highly prized among local fishermen for their size and flavor.

Bluefish samples from the Gowanus Harbor off Red Hook, Brooklyn, also had unsafe levels, tests conducted by Long Island Analytical Laboratories in Suffolk County showed.

A winter flounder caught off Hunts Point in the Bronx was slightly cleaner, with elevated levels of mercury but lower amounts of PCBs.

Hard times mean that a free meal is hard to pass up—fishermen at one pier told the Daily News that subsistence fishing has doubled in the past year. All the more troubling, then, that the polluted waters usually aren't marked: Health advisories about local fish's toxicity are seldom posted, even in the city's most popular fishing spots.

Of course the city should post the advisories, but if it does, that won't necessarily solve the problem. Eating potentially toxic fish vs. going hungry? Talk about a tough choice.