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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 17, 2014

Wed Sep. 17, 2014 9:43 AM EDT

US Army soldiers prepare to board a CH-47F Chinook with the Flying Dragons task force, which searches for illegal weapons in compounds in Afghanistan. (US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Whitney Houston)

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Book Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul

| Wed Sep. 17, 2014 5:30 AM EDT
underground gils of kabul

The Underground Girls of Kabul

By Jenny Nordberg

CROWN PUBLISHING

It sucks to be female in Afghanistan. No surprise there. Journalist Jenny Nordberg's revelation—to Western eyes, anyway—is that more than a few Afghan families raise their girls as boys. The practice, bacha posh, accepted when done discreetly, serves as a roundabout way for girls to attend school and earn money, and for couples who lack sons to avoid public humiliation. The real tension comes with puberty, when the bacha posh is expected to give up her ambitions, respectful treatment, male playmates, and even her freedom to leave the home. Nordberg's intimate exploration leaves us rooting for her brave subjects, if deeply pessimistic about the prospects of women in this maddeningly repressive culture.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

Poverty Keeps Getting Worse and Worse for Working-Age Adults

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 8:14 PM EDT

The Census Bureau released its annual poverty report today, and the headline number shows that the official poverty rate declined from 15.0 percent to 14.5 percent. This decline was driven entirely by a drop in the number of children living in poverty.

This gives me an excuse to make a point that doesn't get made often enough. You'll often see charts showing that the overall poverty rate has remained roughly the same since the late 60s, and that's true. But this is largely due to more generous Social Security benefits, which have reduced elderly poverty from over 30 percent to under 10 percent.

There's been no such reduction among working age adults. In fact, just the opposite. The low point for working-age poverty was about 9 percent, reached in 1968, and since then it's steadily increased. There are small variations from year to year, but basically it went up to about 10-11 percent in the 80s and then increased to 13.6 percent during the Great Recession. It's stayed there ever since.

The safety net has helped most of these folks tread water, but it doesn't change the fact that the market economy has gotten steadily bleaker for the poor over the past 40 years. It's great that we've made such significant inroads against elderly poverty, but aggregates can fool you about the rest of the country. Among everyone else, poverty has only gotten worse and worse.

The Endless Rabbit Hole of Secession, Shetland Islands Edition

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 6:02 PM EDT

NOTE: There's, um, a pretty important update at the bottom of this post.

Following a string of links from an Atrios post, I came across this paragraph from a piece a few months ago about the possibility of Scottish independence:

As for Mr Salmond’s fantasies about oil revenues: stocks are dwindling, fracking is driving down the price, when territorial waters are drawn up he may find some of what he thinks is his oil in the North Sea will actually be England’s, and the Shetland Islands — in whose waters much of his reserves lie — say that if Scotland goes independent, they will seek to re-join Norway.

Wait. What? Rejoin Norway? Hasn't it been quite a few centuries since they had anything to do with Norway? I clearly haven't been paying enough attention to this stuff. What's it all about? Here's a piece from earlier this year:

David Cameron today summoned Norwegian Ambassador Hårek Hardbalne to Downing Street to demand that Norway makes clear it has no territorial interest in the Shetland Islands. This follows yesterday’s extraordinary announcement by the leader of Shetland Islands’ Council, Leif Erikson, that Shetland planned to hold a separate referendum on independence from Scotland should Scots choose independence from the UK on September 18th.

....In an interview with the BBC, ambassador Hardbalne said that he did not wish to comment on the surprise move by Shetland but wished to stress that Norway has always upheld the democratic rights to self determination. The BBC reported that the threat of sanctions and exclusion from NATO already had the Norwegians running scared.

That's Dr. Leif Erikson, by the way. In any case, apparently the Shetland Islands really have been making noises about this. If Scotland secedes in order to grab a bigger share of North Sea oil wealth, then why shouldn't they secede from Scotland? They have the same gripe about unfair division of oil revenues, after all. This is from 2012:

The Orkney and Shetland islands could remain part of the UK if the rest of Scotland votes to separate, according to a report submitted by their MSPs to the Government. The islands could even declare independence themselves, it adds.

Alternatively, they could agree to join a separate Scotland only if they are granted a much bigger portion of North Sea oil and gas revenues, around a quarter of which lies in Shetland’s waters alone. Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland, agreed the threat was political “dynamite” but questioned why Mr Salmond was the only politician who could use oil wealth to argue for self-determination.

This bit of soap opera is obviously old news to anyone who's followed the Scottish independence movement closely, but that doesn't happen to include me. In any case, it's an amusing confirmation of my belief that no matter how small a political unit you have, there's always a piece of it that's richer than the rest and feels like it should no longer have to subsidize all the rest of the freeloaders. I wonder if the Shetland Islanders would be open to an invitation to join the state of California?

UPDATE: It appears that I've been taken in by an April Fools post regarding the whole Norway business. Leif Erikson is not the leader of the Shetland Islands council, and Hårek Hardbalne (aka Hagar the Horrible) is not the ambassador from Norway. So sorry. But in a way, being suckered into this joke somehow makes this whole post better, doesn't it?

As for the rest of it, there doesn't seem to be much to that either. There's been some talk here and there about secession and/or rejoining the UK if Scotland votes for independence, but nothing very serious. Basically, I was pretty thoroughly snookered by all this.

UPDATE 2: If you're interested, the Wall Street Journal has a more sober assessment of the Shetland Islands here. Bottom line for those too lazy to click: "People on this remote North Sea archipelago are following the Scottish independence campaign as intently as the rest of the U.K. Some even want another vote soon after—on their own independence from Scotland....To be sure, the breakaway campaign is a fringe one. 'I don't get a sense there is an appetite for full independence,' said Malcolm Bell, a member of Shetland Island council."

This Republican Tried To Stop North Carolina From Apologizing For A Racist Massacre. He’d Like Your Vote, Please.

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 4:37 PM EDT
North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis with state Rep. Ruth Samuelson.

In 1898, furious that a mixed-race coalition had swept the city's municipal elections, white supremacists burned down a black-owned newspaper in Wilmington, North Carolina; overthrew the local government; and killed at least 25 black residents in a week of rioting. It was one of the worst single incidents of racially motivated violence in American history. But in 2007, when a nonpartisan commission recommended that the state legislature pass a resolution formally apologizing for the massacre, Republican Senate nominee Thom Tillis, then a first-term state representative, rose to block it.

"It is time to move on," he wrote in a message to constituents. "In supporting the apology for slavery, most members felt it was an opportunity to recognize a past wrong and move on to pressing matters facing our State. HB 751 and others in the pipeline are redundant and they are consuming time and attention that should be dedicated to addressing education, transportation, and immigration problems plaguing this State."

But at the time, Tillis—who showed up in Wilmington on Tuesday with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in tow—offered another explanation for opposing the measure: Not all whites had participated in the riots. So Tillis pushed for an amendment introduced by a fellow state representative that would have added language to the bill commemorating the heroic white Republican lawmakers who had opposed the violence. "The proposed amendment would have acknowledged the historical fact that the white Republican government joined with black citizens to oppose the rioters," he argued. The amendment failed, and Tillis ended up voting no on the final version.

Although North Carolina has been targeted by the GOP as a top pickup opportunity, Tillis has struggled to gain traction—in part because of his leadership role in the unpopular state legislature. In the most recent poll, he trailed Kay Hagan, the Democratic incumbent, by nine points.

Book Review: My Life As a Foreign Country

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 4:33 PM EDT
my life as a foreign country

My Life As a Foreign Country

By Brian Turner

NORTON

In this moving account of his time as a sergeant in Iraq, Brian Turner, whose poem "The Hurt Locker" was the namesake for the Oscar-winning film, delivers a succession of oddly beautiful, appropriately devastating reflections that drive home the realities of war. Turner takes us from training camp to war zone and home again, where, in bed with his wife, he dreams he's a drone, flying over countries of wars past.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

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Even Liberia's Legislature Can't Escape the Ravages of Ebola

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 4:30 PM EDT
The chambers of the Liberian legislature

Of all the countries doing battle with Ebola, Liberia has been dealt the gravest blow. According to the World Health Organization, the impoverished West African nation now accounts for about half of all documented cases. And more than 1,200 residents are known or suspected to have died from the disease. In late August, the government quarantined an entire neighborhood for ten days to prevent the outbreak from spreading.

Now the virus is forcing Liberian lawmakers to put their own work on hold.

On Monday, Liberia's legislature announced that the House of Representatives had canceled an "extraordinary sitting" to discuss the outbreak because its own chamber had been tainted by "a probable case of Ebola" and was being sprayed down with chlorine. The statement didn't specify the source of the infection, but it noted that one of the chamber's doormen had recently died after a "short illness."

Liberia is ill-equipped to fight off the Ebola outbreak. Its entire national budget for 2013-2014 was $553 million, with only $11 million allotted for health care—about what Kanye West and Kim Kardashian are estimated to have spent on their Bel Air mansion in 2012.

Despite its meager resources, last month Liberia's legislature allocated $20 million to battle the virus. But the nation had already burned through a quarter of that money by the first week of September. On Tuesday, United Nations officials pleaded with the international community to step up assistance to Liberia and neighboring countries, saying it will take $1 billion in aid to keep the number of cases in the region confined to the "tens of thousands."

Rand Paul to Appear at Event Featuring Neo-Confederate Aide He Had to Fire

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 3:29 PM EDT
Sen. Rand Paul (left) and former Paul aide Jack Hunter.

This week, the Ron Paul-led Campaign for Liberty hosts its fourth annual Liberty Political Action Conference, and the speaking list features a roster of well-known Republican politicians and libertarian activists. The biggest draw of this year's LPAC will undoubtedly be Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who each day inches closer to a 2016 presidential run. Slated to speak at the same event, though, is Paul's ex-aide Jack Hunter, who the senator fired after his past as a neo-Confederate advocate was revealed.

Hunter used to be the social media director in Paul's Senate office, and he co-wrote Paul's 2010 book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington. But in 2013, the Washington Free Beacon revealed that Hunter, under a different identity, had long been involved with the neo-Confederate and southern secessionist movements. For 13 years, Hunter was a South Carolina talk radio host who called himself the "Southern Avenger." In public, he wore a luchador mask bearing a Confederate flag. As the Avenger, Hunter made many a provocative remark, including arguably racist comments. He said that John Wilkes Booth's heart was "in the right place" and that he celebrated Booth's birthday every year. He claimed that Abraham Lincoln would have been romantically drawn to Adolf Hitler. He called the NAACP a "malicious hate group" on par with the KKK. He contended that a "non-white majority America would simply cease to be America."

Hunter also chaired an organization called the League of the South, which advocated "the secession and subsequent independence of the Southern States from this forced union and the formation of a Southern republic." The Free Beacon reported,

"The League of the South is an implicitly racist group in that the idealized version of the South that they promote is one which, to use their ideology, is dominated by 'Anglo-Celtic' culture, which is their code word for 'white,'" said Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research at the [Anti-Defamation League]. The ADL said it does not necessarily classify it as a hate group.

The League of the South maintains that it is not racist and does not discriminate in terms of membership.

"When I was part of it, they were very explicit that's not what they were about," Hunter told the Free Beacon. "I was a young person, it was a fairly radical group—the same way a person on the left might be attracted in college to some left-wing radical groups."

After Hunter was unmasked, Paul said that his Southern Avenger commentaries were "stupid" and canned him. A few months later, Hunter wrote a story titled "Confessions of a Right-Wing Shock Jock" and distanced himself from his old comments. "I said many terrible things," he wrote. "I disavow them."

Now, Hunter is back in the fold and back on the speaker's list in the liberty movement presided over by Ron and Rand Paul. The Campaign for Liberty bills him as "the one and only Jack Hunter." Hard to argue with that.

No, Ronald Reagan Was Not Just a More Amiable Version of Barry Goldwater

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 3:09 PM EDT

Jacob Weisberg is critical of Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, the third volume in his history of movement conservatism from 1958 to 1980. The first two books covered Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon; the third spans the period from 1972 through 1976, which encompasses the end of Nixon and the rise of Reagan. Here's Weisberg:

Most historians view the Nixon-Reagan transition as a break in the ideological continuum, a shift from an era in which Republicans made peace with the growing welfare and regulatory state to one in which a newly energized conservative movement effectively challenged it. Perlstein, by contrast, sees the move from Nixon to Reagan as continuity: Both men tried to reverse what the 1960s were doing to the country.

....An alternative thesis is the one Perlstein seemed to be framing up with his first, shorter, and better book: that the crucial bridge in modern Republican politics was the one leading from Barry Goldwater to Reagan. Nixon was the last important President of the New Deal Era, in the same way that Bill Clinton is best subsumed under the rubric of the Reagan Era....In his attack on government, Reagan drew very little from Nixon, and a great deal from Goldwater....Reagan’s views were not simply Goldwater’s views; they were Goldwater’s views purged of their excesses and abstraction, grounded in the country’s lived experience, and given a hopeful cast. That’s the bridge Reagan walked across and the one I wish Perlstein had tried to sell us.

I think Weisberg has missed the bridge that Perlstein is trying to sell us. Reagan wasn't merely a better, more congenial version of Barry Goldwater. That's part of the story, but there's a second part as well: Reagan's exploitation of the politics of resentment that Nixon rode to victory in 1968 and 1972. Just as Reagan sanded off the scariest edges of Goldwaterism to make it more palatable to a national audience, he also sanded off—or perhaps just kept hidden—the scariest edges of right-wing populist resentment. But make no mistake: it was there, and it was a big part of Reagan's appeal. Intellectually, Reagan's politics may have been the child of Goldwater, but emotionally they were the child of Nixon.

That said, I think Weisberg also makes some sharp criticisms of The Invisible Bridge. I enjoyed it, but it rings true when he complains that "for long stretches, reading this book feels like leafing through a lot of old newspapers." It's a little more of a pastiche than either of his first two books, and too often this is to the detriment of the bigger story.

But there was another, more fundamental, disappointment. The genius of Before the Storm, the first book in the series, is that it explained the birth of movement conservatism to a liberal audience. This is harder than it sounds. A conservative history, simply because of the unspoken assumptions that would inevitably color it, would largely leave liberal readers cold. An overtly liberal history, by contrast, would almost certainly be unable to truly explain the appeal of Goldwater and his supporters. But Perlstein threads this needle brilliantly. Before the Storm explains the rise of Goldwater in a way that conservatives consider fair but that liberals find comprehensible.

For better or worse, Perlstein abandoned this approach in The Invisible Bridge. Maybe that was inevitable as the spotlight moved first from a principled loser like Goldwater to a destructive manipulator like Nixon and then to a man who set back the liberal project in a way that's still painful to this day. It's just plain easier to be dispassionately curious about Goldwater than about either Nixon or Reagan. Nonetheless, this failing also makes The Invisible Bridge less interesting. Even granting the hagiographic glow that conservatives tend to demand of Reagan biographers, this really isn't a book that very many conservatives would consider fair. And except for brief flashes of insight1 it doesn't truly explain to liberal sensibilities just what was so appealing about the man.

It's still a lovely book that I paged through hungrily. And let's face it: saying that it's not as good as Before the Storm is something you could say about nearly every book ever written. It's still pretty damn good. But I wish Perlstein had gone a little lighter on his obvious contempt for Reagan and spent a little more time owning up—perhaps uncomfortably—to just what it was about the liberalism of the 70s that finally drove so many voters crazy.

1For example, there's this brief bit about the White House consulting Reagan during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war:

Kissinger [] solicited him for advice on the extraordinarily delicate matter of how to frame an Israeli resupply operation that, if handled incorrectly, could lead to a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Reagan suggested: "Why don't you say you will replace all the aircraft the Arabs claim they have shot down?"

This was brilliant. Since the Arabs were wildly exaggerating their success, presenting them with a Hobson's choice—saying nothing or facing international humiliation—was perfect. Reagan's interpersonal intelligence was something to behold.

More like that, please.

World Leaders Have Failed to Seriously Confront Climate Change. Could That Change Next Week?

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 2:14 PM EDT
New York City will host history's biggest climate march this weekend.

Break out your protest sign materials and take your polar bear costume to the dry cleaner, boys and girls: This coming weekend marks the kickoff of Climate Week NYC 2014, a flurry of meetings and protests about climate action. It all starts with the People's Climate March in Columbus Circle on Sunday. Organizers are already calling it the biggest climate march in history, with over 100,000 folks expected to turn up.

But the week's main event is on Tuesday at the United Nations, where Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will preside over a confab of heads of state (including President Obama), diplomats, CEOs, and policy wonks who will all be talking about how to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic levels. 

The UN conference is meant as a preparation for the major international climate negotiations scheduled for next winter in Paris, a summit that is theoretically intended to produce an aggressive carbon-cutting treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. In other words, in classic UN fashion, it's a meeting about a meeting, or as Mashable's Andrew Freedman more eloquently put it, "the cocktail party ahead of a formal dinner." So it's probably safe to assume that next week we'll be served appetizers and amuse-bouches rather than a substantive meal, climate action-wise.

Still, New York is a city on the front lines of climate change: Just yesterday the last subway line damaged two years ago by Hurricane Sandy finally came back online. So the excitement is building. Here are a few things to look for: