2013 - %3, January

Filmmakers' Tortured Defense of "Zero Dark Thirty"

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 3:36 PM EST

As the criticism over the misleading torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty has intensified, the filmmakers and their defenders among the nation's film critics have fallen back on increasingly strained rationalizations for why the film unfolds in a manner that is at odds with the public record. 

Specifically, a lengthy Senate investigation and the CIA itself have determined that the agency alias of Osama bin Laden's courier was not identified via one of the agency's so-called enhanced interrogations. Yet that is exactly what the film portrays in this clip, originally posted by blogger Matt Cornell (H/T Greg Mitchell).

The detainee in the film isn't being tortured at the moment he gives up the courier's alias, the clue that led the CIA to OBL's secret compound. He already had been tortured, and he starts spilling names only after his interrogator threatens to hang him up by his arms again. Some defenders of the film, such as Mark Bowden, have said it is faithful to the facts, arguing that the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani had "focused" the CIA's attention on the courier

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Lead and Crime: How It Connects to Race

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 3:03 PM EST

Kieran Healy wrote this weekend about Becky Pettit's new book, Invisible Men, which deals with the mass incarceration of young black men over the past three decades:

Two features stand out: its sheer scale, and its disproportionate concentration amongst young, unskilled black men....Pettit and others have been arguing for a long time that incarceration is by now a modal event in the life-course for young black men. Black men are more likely to go prison than complete college or serve in the military, and black, male, high-school dropouts are more likely to spend a year in prison than to get married. These social-structural changes have consequences for measuring and counting those involved.

Kieran has more to say about this at the link, but I want to add something else: this is, in part, almost certainly due to lead poisoning via both gasoline lead and lead paint in substandard housing. Here are some excerpts from Rick Nevin's 2007 paper on international crime trends:

In 1960, blacks occupied 15% of central city households and 56% of substandard central city housing.... Average 1976–1980 blood lead for black children ages 6–36 months was 50% above the average for white children....Those children were juveniles when the 1990–1994 black juvenile burglary arrest rate was 60% higher than the white rate, but the black juvenile violent crime arrest rate was five times higher and the black juvenile murder rate was eight times higher.

....Social trends cannot explain why the 1990s homicide decline was so pronounced among juvenile offenders, and especially black juveniles, but blood lead trends can. Blood lead prevalence over 30 mg/dL among white USA children fell from 2% in 1976–1980 to less than 0.5% in 1988–1991, as prevalence over 30 mg/dL among black children plummeted from 12% to below 1%. The white juvenile murder arrest rate then fell from 6.4 to 2.1 from 1993–2003, as the black juvenile rate fell from 58.6 to 9.7. That 83% fall in the black juvenile murder arrest rate occurred with just 36% of black children living in two-parent families in 1993, and in 2003.

Both gasoline lead and lead paint were most prevalent in the postwar era in the inner core of big cities, the former because that's where cars were densest and the latter because slumlords had little incentive to clean up old buildings. Because African-Americans were disproportionately represented in inner-city populations during the high-lead era, they were disproportionately exposed to lead as children. The result was higher rates of violent crime when black kids grew up in the 70s and 80s.

The tragedy of all this is hard to overstate. In the 40s and 50s we exposed black children to enormous amounts of lead—far more than white children were exposed to. Because of this, many more of them became violent later in life, and thus became the primary targets of the great American prison-building binge of the 70s and 80s. To this day, they are paying the price for our unwitting lead poisoning epidemic of the postwar years.

In the same way that violent crime rates between big and small cities have converged as lead was removed from gasoline, crime rates between whites and blacks have converged as well. For a variety of reasons they haven't converged entirely, largely because gasoline lead isn't the only causal factor here. But it almost certainly played a significant role.

Quote of the Day: Naming Names in the Hostage Crisis

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 2:03 PM EST

President Obama, explaining who's threatening to wreck the economy unless their pet spending cuts are enacted:

uh, certain extremist groups in Congress....

Oh, come on. Just say it, Mr. President. Republicans. Re. Pub. Li. Cans. That's not so hard, is it?

Which is Worse: Pedophile Teachers or Insane Gunmen?

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 12:36 PM EST

From the LA Times today:

Behind a locked classroom door, a Los Angeles third-grade teacher purportedly committed lewd acts against students. The charges spurred demands for classrooms to remain open during the school day.

But after the shooting deaths of 20 first-graders in Connecticut last month, calls were made to keep classrooms locked.

The intent of both efforts is to keep students safe. But as school districts nationwide examine their security measures following the Newtown, Conn., massacre, the question of locked versus unlocked classroom doors is in debate. Should teachers and administrators use their secured doors as a shield from an outside danger? Or does a locked door conceal a potential danger inside?

I really hate living in the 21st century sometimes.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 14, 2013

Mon Jan. 14, 2013 12:25 PM EST
Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Reginald L. Cole, assigned to Police Advisory Team 5, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 7, conducts a dismounted patrol while leaving Afghan Uniformed Police station Kwaji Jamal in Now Zad district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 24, 2012. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alejandro Pena.

Gun Group: We're Giving Away a Free Assault Rifle for Freedom!

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 12:19 PM EST

Most dangerous thing in our inbox this morning: the above promo from the Second Amendment group Georgia Gun Owners, which is giving away a free AR-15 assault rifle to one lucky member on February 7. You get a carbine! You get a carbine! You get a carbine! The AR-15 was the weapon used by gunman Adam Lanza in last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. It was also among the firearms included in the 1994 assault weapons ban (and subsequently legalized when the ban expired nine years ago). Per a press release, the GGO "hopes to alert, activate and mobilize gun owners in every corner of the state to oppose the Feinstein Gun Ban and others being touted in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere across the country." (The entry form adds: "Void where prohibited.")

In compliance with federal law, the lucky winner will be subjected to a background check—although the federal background check database is woefully incomplete. But the larger context, as the New York Times reported on Friday, is that rumors of impending gun control legislation are really the best thing that's happened to the firearms industry in a long time. Dealers across the country are running out of arms and ammunition, and background checks for new gun purchases—which tracks closely to overall gun sales—increased 58.6 percent in December 2012 compared to December 2011. As a gun seller in Des Moines, Iowa, told the Times: "If I had 1,000 AR-15s I could sell them in a week."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

GOP to Press: Obama Must Help Save Us From Our Own Crazy People

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 12:15 PM EST

Politico reports that House Republicans are determined to shut down the government in order to force President Obama to "finally cut spending" by the end of March:

GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes. Many more members, including some party leaders, are prepared to shut down the government to make their point. House Speaker John Boehner “may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system,” said a top GOP leadership adviser. “We might need to do that for member-management purposes — so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting.”

Obama, of course, has already cut spending by nearly $2 trillion over the past couple of years, and the upcoming sequestration cuts would cut spending even more. So there's no "finally" about it. It's been happening all along, but Republicans have somehow mesmerized the press into never actually saying this.

Aside from that, I wouldn't take any of this too seriously. "GOP officials," in this story, are obviously just spinning to make it sound like they don't have any choice and Obama should just cave now in order to placate the crazy people. It's probably good negotiating strategy, but that's all it is.

And frankly, I'm not sure it's even that. I mean, is it really a good idea to suggest that the Republican Party intends to shut down the government for "member-management purposes"? If that starts to percolate upward into the kind of news coverage that ordinary people watch, it probably won't make the GOP look all that great, will it?

Bottom line: (1) Spending has already been cut substantially. (2) Short-term spending shouldn't be cut anymore because the economy is still fragile. (3) Long-term spending needs to be addressed, but it's nowhere near as apocalyptic as Republicans like to make it sound. I wonder when the press will start reporting that?

Half of Republicans in Congress Are Apparently Cool With America Defaulting

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 11:09 AM EST
House GOP Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Joe Barton (R-Texas), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.).

Fuming over a fiscal cliff deal devoid of big spending cuts, the Republican Party is cranking up the crazy talk by pledging anew to hold America hostage in the brewing fight over raising the nation's debt ceiling.

Politico quotes GOP leaders in Congress as saying that "more than half" of Republicans in Congress are willing to let America default "unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes." Still more Republicans are itching to shut down the federal government, a la Clinton and Gingrich in 1995-96, unless the president bows to their demands: Deep spending cuts to domestic programs, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, but none to military spending.

What's most jarring about the GOP's willingness to default or grind the government to a halt is how brazenly political the party's reasons are for doing it, per Politico:

House Speaker John Boehner "may need a shutdown just to get it out of [House Republicans'] system," said a top GOP leadership adviser. "We might need to do that for member-management purposes—so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting."

A default—or even a down-to-the-wire debt ceiling drama (see: 2011) that ends with a deal—has real economic consequences for working Americans. It could jack up interest rates on student loans, car loans, home loans, and credit card debt. It would increase borrowing costs for the government itself. And Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said that a default could torpedo the US economy's slow yet steady recovery

But in the minds of Congressional Republicans, those facts don't appear to outweigh the need to rebuke Obama. Nor does House Speaker John Boehner's desire to avoid a government default, according to Politico:

Boehner assumes he can ultimately talk members out of default, but he is so wounded and weakened from last month’s tax-hike battle that the speaker might very well be wrong. Obama assumes Republicans would never be so foolish as to put the economy at risk to win a spending fight. Conservatives say he’s definitely wrong on that score. They say he’s the foolish and reckless one for piling up $6 trillion in debt on his watch.

The coming spending fights make the Christmastime tax increase battle seem like child’s play. While everyone knew the tax drama would end with the rich paying more taxes, no one can telegraph how the coming spending fights will unfold. And the economic stakes are more dire.

"For too long, the pitch was, we'll deal with it next time," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). He said GOP lawmakers are prepared to shut things down or even default if Obama doesn’t bend on spending. "No one wants to default, but we are not going to continue to give the president a limitless credit card."

The administration, meanwhile, says it will not negotiate over raising the debt ceiling, and will not use gimmicks like a trillion-dollar coin to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government operating. So on one side Republicans stand ready to do real damage to the country to make a point and keep the voters back home happy; on the other side is the Obama White House, refusing to even negotiate a deal in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. Buckle up, folks: It's going to be a turbulent month or two here in Washington.

Does the NRA Really Have 4 Million Members?

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Whenever the National Rifle Association is accused of extremism, it trots out the claim that it represents a large chunk of America's gun owners. Last week, it said it has 4.2 million members and counting. Though the group doesn't publish its membership rolls and didn't respond to questions about its size, there's a lot of anecdotal evidence that it is making itself out to be bigger than it truly is.

Estimates of the size of the its membership have varied widely over the past 20 years. At different times in 2008, for example, it pegged its membership at 3 million and 4.3 million—a difference of more than 40 percent. A 2012 document for prospective sponsors of the NRA's annual meeting (PDF), found by Bloomberg News, said the group had 4 million members, of which 2 million were the "most active and interested." 

NRA membership estimates
 

During the early 1990s, the NRA's membership peaked at around 3.7 million before plunging to 2.6 million in 1998, according to newspaper stories at the time. The shrinkage coincided with criticism of the group's extremist rhetoric around the time of the Oklahoma City bombing. If the NRA is to be believed, it quickly began replacing those lost members. But did it? After the late '90s, reports of its size start to spread out like buckshot from a sawed-off bird gun.

In March 2001, the Denver Post pegged the NRA's membership at 2 million. A few months later, an NRA spokesman put the number at 4.5 million; the Columbus Dispatch and Colorado Springs Gazette put it at 3 million. What was going on here? One possible explanation comes from Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who wrote the 2007 book, Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist. After George W. Bush was elected, Feldman recently told Bloomberg, "there was no perceived national threat to gun ownership. The NRA's membership dropped to under two-and-a-half million, although they never admitted it."

Writing in 2000, when the NRA claimed to have 3.6 million members, journalist Osha Gray Davidson speculated on some of the group's strategies for fluffing itself up:

Two years ago, David Gross, then an NRA board member, confided to me that a substantial number of the group's 1 million Life Members are, well, dead. "There just isn't that much incentive to go find out when someone passes away," Gross explained. "Not when the cost of maintaining (a dead member) is minimal and when they add to your membership list."

Who else is included in that figure of 3.6 million? I may be—although I haven't been a member for years. Not long ago, I received an NRA form letter stating that in recognition of my previous commitment to the Second Amendment, the gun group had granted me an honorary membership. The mailing even included an NRA membership card embossed with my name.

It's all part of the NRA's campaign of smoke and mirrors to make itself appear more formidable in Washington, where appearance often trumps reality. The NRA leadership must offer a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of journalistic sloth and credulity every time a reporter repeats that figure of 3.6 million members and the words "record high."

NRA Taurus ad
An ad for a Taurus pistol in the NRA's American Rifleman
magazine offers free membership in the group.
American
Rifleman

The NRA has boosted its membership numbers in other ways. A 2008 issue of the NRA Recruiter, a newsletter aimed at the association's evangelists, proudly noted that weapons makers and outfitters such as Browning, Beretta, Taurus, Tactical Rifles, and Wilson Combat were offering free NRA memberships to anyone purchasing their products. The newsletter also talked up the benefits of "Join NRA, Get in Free" promotions at gun shows. "This is, by far, the most effective way to substantially increase your numbers," it said. "…[A]ll you have to do is 'sell the sizzle.' People are always looking for a bargain."

In 2008, Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center, came across more evidence of the NRA's fuzzy math. He pointed to a piece of junk mail that the NRA's treasurer had sent to members peddling a specialized insurance plan aimed at gun owners. The pitch stated that "with about 3 million NRA Members 'on our side of the table,' we negotiated a bargain price." Sugarmann has an intriguing theory why this number may be more credible than the one that the NRA routinely gives the press: The underwriter for the insurance plan was in California, where making "untrue, deceptive, or misleading" statements in insurance materials is outlawed.

Last week, the NRA claimed that it had added 100,000 new members in the weeks following he Sandy Hook massacre. "Our goal is to get to 5 million before this debate is over," a representative of the group told Politico. If all of the NRA's numbers are to be believed, it will hit its target by this fall.

UPDATE:  A source writes in with another strong indication that the NRA's true size is closer to 3 million. The NRA gives members a free subscription to one of four magazines: American Rifleman, American Hunter, America's 1st Freedom, or NRA InSights. The first three magazines are audited by the Alliance for Audited Media, which as of July gave them a combined paid circulation (including newsstand sales) of 3.1 million. NRA InSights is an online-only magazine for kids, with a circulation of 25,000. Though some NRA members may opt out of a free magazine, it's likely that others pay to subscribe to more than one of them. Add in the fact that non-NRA members can pick up the magazines on the newsstand, and the 3.1 million figure is almost certainly an upper-bound for the NRA's true size.

The Bad Plus Is One Step Ahead of You

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 7:06 AM EST

From left: David King, Ethan Iverson, and Reid Anderson of The Bad Plus.

Reid Anderson is at the bar of the Village Vanguard, sipping a Stella Artois and thinking about 2002. That's the year that an agent from Columbia Records sat in this same New York City club one night listening to a relatively unknown trio called The Bad Plus, who, despite their decidedly conventional jazz instrumentation, played with a swagger—and volume—more in line with Neil Young than Vince Guaraldi. It felt like a turning point, recalls Anderson, the trio's bassist, and he was right: By early 2003, The Bad Plus had released their first major-label record, These Are The Vistas, and launched into a decade-long (and counting) exploration of the outer edge of what three guys on acoustic instruments are capable of producing.

"We strive to make music that doesn't follow conventional forms," says Anderson, who looks like a distant American cousin of Christoph Waltz, as he adjusts his dark velvet blazer. "On paper, there's not much there. But we believe in group music, band music."

"We strive to make music that doesn't follow conventional forms."

Anderson, along with colleagues Ethan Iverson on piano and David King on drums, had just finished articulating this philosophy to a packed house at the Vanguard, at the end of their seventh week-long New Year's stint here. As always at the Vanguard, which has remained the crown prince of the world's jazz clubs since its opening in 1935, it's anyone's guess who is here for the band versus who is here for the venue. But if there were any tourists in this dark basement hoping to nod off over martinis to a recitation of inoffensive standards, they came on the wrong night.

The Bad Plus' music, which Rolling Stone describes as "as badass as highbrow gets," is characterized by angular, shifting rhythms that always seem one step ahead of your ability to lock into them, and a proliferation of interwoven melodic lines that somehow outnumber the number of musicians onstage. It's often impossible to tell whether the music you're hearing has been meticulously composed and rehearsed or is being improvised on the spot. In this sonic incubator, swathed in green paint and red velvet, under the watchful photographed eyes of John Coltrane, Monk, and the Vanguard's other historic tenants, the band spins from straight grooves to the brink of incoherence, the center barely able to hold. But it does, and the audience is rapt.