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State Dept. to Renew Blackwater's Security Contract in Iraq

| Sat Apr. 5, 2008 12:15 PM EDT

After Blackwater operators opened fire on civilians in Baghdad last September, killing 17 and wounding more than 20 others, there was speculation that the controversial firm would be replaced by another security contractor when its five-year contract with the State Department expired in May. After all, initial investigations by the military and the FBI indicated that—contrary to Blackwater's version of events—its contractors were at fault in the shootings. "It was obviously excessive, it was obviously wrong," a military official told the Washington Post back in October. "The civilians that were fired upon, they didn't have any weapons to fire back at them. And none of the IP [Iraqi Police] or any of the local security forces fired back at them." For a company that has maintained that the actions of its contractors were justified, the steps it took immediately after the shootings certainly seemed suspicious. Initially, Blackwater said that damage to its vehicles would prove its side of the story—that its contractors were attacked and were simply defending themselves and their clients. Yet, after the incident, the company reportedly repainted and repaired its vehicles, destroying key evidence that could potentially exonerate the company.

While a cloud still hangs over Blackwater, and it remains the subject of multiple investigations, including one by Henry Waxman's House oversight committee, the State Department shocked some Blackwater watchers yesterday by announcing that it would renew the firm's contract for another year.

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The Internal Black Debate over Obama

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 9:16 PM EDT

Glenn Loury posted on TPM this week an amazing response to the challenge leveled in Obama's "Black, But More Than Black" speech. All I can say is—Wow.

Coming from someone like Glenn, who is a friend (I kept my list of wedding invitees brutally short. He and his lovely, accomplished wife were on it), this is utterly unexpected and a welcome relief! He completely disagrees with me on the import of the speech, but he does so in such a worthy, worldview-tilting way, I'm still rereading it, trying to make sense of a rebellion so cogently, unapologetically worded. Now, it's on! This, as opposed to the kneejerk "how dare white people tell us what to do?" reflexive response of the stick-it-the-man crowd, we can work with.

In short, Loury demands to know where Obama, who inherited but played no part in earning freedom, gets off telling him he's a neurotic, tragic figure for still being angry. More, he argues that elder-generation black anger is not a pathetic symptom of PTSD, but a legitimate reflection of how far blacks' limited freedom falls short of true equality. Just as young women refuse to accept that we old school feminists are right that they don't yet know how un-liberated they still are—that they're living in a post-feminist fool's paradise that will dissolve before their eyes when the boss suddenly demands sex in exchange for a promotion that will otherwise go to his mistress—older, Talented Tenth blacks furiously reject the notion that past racism has made them incapable of noticing that Jim Crow is dead and that being black is just a state of mind.

Loury argues that black anger, as funneled through the black prophetic tradition that runs from (at least) Frederick Douglass through MLK and onto Wright, is all that stands between America and kinder, gentler apartheid (I exaggerate, but see his post to get my drift). Its counterintuitiveness was bracing for those, like me, who want us to pragmatically stifle our anger in exchange for something like separate but truly equal (again with the oversimplifying exaggeration).

Finally, a real debate with unexpected twists and turns that can't be dismissed as mere defiance! I'm all tingly! Sometimes, not often when a dance floor remains uninvolved, it's a hoot to be black. Whatever else you think of Obama, he is engendering the kind of dialogue and debate which alone can move America forward on race. That an intracommunal fracas is raging among blacks is the surest sign of that; we have to gain ground in-house before we can gain ground with outsiders. Offerings like this will do exactly that.

You simply have to read the post in its entirety, but here's a slice of the frontal assault Loury flings right back in "his son's" face:

Pentagon Greenlights Same-Sex Partner for Military Flight

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 9:10 PM EDT

Last month, the House's only openly gay memberone of the House's two openly gay members, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, was granted permission to bring her partner Lauren Azar on a congressional military flight. In line with Pentagon policy, which only allows members to bring legally defined spouses on military flights when there is room and when it is "necessary for protocol purposes," Azar was initially barred from boarding the flight. Baldwin and Azar have exchanged vows, but their home state of Wisconsin does not recognize same-sex marriage. No matter, though: Clinton's 1996 Defense of Marriage Act would have made state recognition null and void to the Department of Defense.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped in and appealed to Defense Sec. Robert Gates. Gates requested a formal letter of authorization from Pelosi, which allowed him (and the Pentagon) to conveniently sidestep taking responsibility for setting precedent on the rights of same-sex couples in Congress. Azar was subsequently allowed on the flight, but the Pentagon made crystal clear that such an allowance does not reflect any change in policy.

Our Presidential Candidates on Talk Shows: Who Does Better?

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 8:24 PM EDT

Recently, our three major presidential candidates have made high-profile appearances on TV talk shows, with varying results. Does an ability to share easy jokes and gentle ribbing with our nation's nighttime sleep-inducers and afternoon time-wasters correlate to success in the polls? Let's take a look at some clips and see who's best at the gabfests.

Clintons Release Tax Returns - Here Are Most of the Details

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 6:21 PM EDT

clintons.jpg After weeks of pressure from the media and the Obama campaign, the Clintons have released their tax returns from 2000-2007. If you're a financial voyeur, you can read them all in pdf form here.

Over the last eight years, the Clintons have made roughly $109 million, have paid roughly $34 million in taxes, and have donated over $10 million to charity.

The Friday afternoon news dump is usually used to catch the media and its readership/viewership off-guard: nobody writes, reads, or watches much news going into a weekend. But these tax returns have been a hot topic in the presidential race for ages. Much scrutiny will be applied to the sources of the Clintons income over the next several days, primarily because of questions about whether Bill Clinton's worldwide business dealings allow nefarious interests to try and curry favor with the husband of a potential future president.

The Clintons asked for an extension on their 2007 taxes, meaning we don't know what the former President has been up to in the last year. The campaign did list some sources of income, including $150,200 from Senator Clinton's salary and $186,600 from President Clinton's pension. Less transparently, there is also $2,750,000 from unspecified "partnership income" and $400,000 from "advisor income" from a sketchy company called InfoUSA.

On this issue, the Clinton campaign does have a legitimate gripe with the media: reporters have not been good about presuming innocence. That said, the campaign fueled speculation about the tax returns' contents by not releasing them, despite endless calls for them to do so, and not providing a reason for why.

Note: Prior to this, the last time the Clintons released their tax returns (which has been the norm in presidential politics since the 1970s) was in 2000 when they made $416,039. They've certainly seen an income uptick.

Hillary's Prayer, Revisited

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 6:18 PM EDT

Hillary Clinton's campaign is doing its part to keep the Obama-Rev. Wright controversy alive. A few days ago one of Clinton's top advisers acknowledged that the campaign is aggressively pushing the Obama-Wright connection in its pursuit of uncommitted super-delegates. Hillary herself has repeatedly said that Wright "would not have been my pastor." And while there's no doubt the Wright issue will continue to be a headache for Obama, our prediction that Hillary's own untoward religious connections would become an issue has come true.

Last night NBC interviewed MoJo author Jeff Sharlet on Hillary's longtime participation in a secretive Capitol Hill group called the Fellowship.

Regular Mother Jones readers will be familiar with Hillary's involvement in the group from Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet's feature on the topic last September:

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Religious Conservatives Revolt Against... Mitt?

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 6:11 PM EDT

mccain_no_romney.jpg The movement conservatives that had long-standing problems with John McCain have begrudgingly come to accept him. Now some of them are threatening to leave McCain again... if he chooses Mitt Romney as his VP.

According to a newspaper ad taken out by the Government Is Not God PAC and signed by 26 conservative leaders, Mitt is a deal-breaker because "his recent 'conversion' to conservative and pro-life principles is not credible." Romney's "well-timed conversions," says the ad, are "mere political opportunism, and are offensive to those who demand 'straight talk' from their leaders."

The ad carries a threat, as well. After pointing out Romney's previously moderate positions on abortion and gay marriage, the writers tell McCain a Romney VP choice would "fatally harm your appeal to voters with deep constitutionalist and social conservative commitments." Decoded, that means "don't count on us turning our people out if you put Romney on the ticket."

GING-PAC, which also has a petition Romney-haters can sign, is explicit about this being push back against "Karl Rove, Sean Hannity and others in the economic wing of the Republican Party."

MoJo Staff Picks: April 4

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 6:06 PM EDT

mojo-staff-picks-250x250.jpgWelcome back to the "staff picks" shelf at The Riff. Six tracks got some love from our editors today. Don the headphones and join us for a listen:

1. "Blue Trane," John Coltrane.
Gary: I went to the Facebook pages for Obama, Clinton, and McCain this week, hoping that their musical "faves" might give me some keen insight into their platforms. Well, when he's not playing basketball, writing, or "loafing with kids," Barack Obama listens to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, and the Fugees. So in honor of Obamamania, I'm listening to Coltrane's "Blue Trane," a 50s jazz classic.

2. "Think," Aretha Franklin.
Gary: And to answer your burning question, Hillary's into U2, Carly Simon, Aretha Franklin, and the Rolling Stones. (McCain left the music queston blank. Booooring.) In honor of Hillary, I'm listening to "Think," the song Aretha belts out in The Blues Brothers.

3."Your Belgian Things," The Mountain Goats.
Kiera: MG front man John Darnielle is sick. Don't worry, he told his fans on his blog this week—it's nothing too serious, but it's gnarly enough that he's canceled some shows. In his honor, here's one of my favorite old MG songs.

4. "Loop Duplicate My Heart," Suburban Kids With Biblical Names.
Kiera: Named after a Silver Jews lyric, this duo is part of Sweden's booming indie-pop scene. The Silver Jews were named after slang for Jewish blonds.

5. "Blackbird," Sarah McLachlan's cover of Paul McCartney.
Laura: The first time I heard this beautiful song, I thought for sure Sir Paul had lifted the lyrics from an old gospel ditty. They have that same haunting, hymnal quality. I was wrong, but the tune does have a noble backstory: Paul McCartney wrote it in honor of Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement. This deserves a listen in honor of the anniversary of Dr. King's death.

6. "Free Man," The Ethiopians.
Laura: iTunes calls The Ethiopians one of Jamaica's best unsung classic Rocksteady bands—and then files it under Reggae, which could explain why. Rocksteady, if you don't already have the genre in heavy rotation, is a sliver of a music niche from the late 60s that bears the same relationship to reggae that Latin does to French. Leave me a comment if you need that explained. Either way, I dare you to listen to it at your desk without a goofy head bob or two slipping past the office filter.

Clinton and Obama: We (Heart) Gays, Especially in Pennsylvania

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 5:12 PM EDT

gay-obama-08.jpgHillary Clinton and Barack Obama want you to know they're not just tolerant, they really like gay people. And they want their votes, especially in Pennsylvania later this month.

In her effort to court the gay vote, Clinton gave an exclusive interview to the Philadelphia Gay News during which she talked about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," among other issues. The publisher of the paper says both Clinton's and Obama's campaigns have made noises about buying ad space, "but we haven't gotten an insertion order."

Though Barack Obama hasn't done a Pennsylvania-specific appeal to gay voters yet, he has in other parts of the country. According to Editor&Publisher, in March Obama bought full-page, full-color ads in four Ohio and Texas LGBT publications shortly before their state primaries. It was the first time (sez Obama's campaign rep) that any presidential candidate has placed ads in local gay/lesbian publications for the express purpose of "asking for the support and the vote of LGBT voters statewide."

YouTube Mania: Bjork in Nature

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 4:53 PM EDT

mojo-photo-bjorkvideo.jpgYou know, when Björk isn't decking journalists or inspiring revolutions, she actually makes music, and continues to hire ground-breaking artists for collaborative efforts. A recent NY Times feature looked into the making of the video for her new single, "Wanderlust," and while the song is (perhaps intentionally) a bit aimless, the video is a hypnotic combination of elaborate puppetry and eye-popping computer graphics. The best part of the Times feature is the interviewer's hysterics after the San Francisco-based director reveals matter-of-factly that he was inspired by a nature walk whilst under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms. I know, Times gal, it's sooo crazy! What's actually crazy is that a Björk video gets a 6-figure budget in this day and age. I'm assuming she made a loan to her campaign? Watch "Wanderlust," and some classic Björk videos in which glorious Nature plays a major role, after the jump.

[Update: a reliable source got in touch to say that the interviewer wasn't shocked at the mention of drugs as much as she was surprised that the apparently mild-mannered directors had indulged. Okay, fine. Also, I forgot to mention that the "Wanderlust" video was filmed in 3D, and a DVD version complete with 3D decoder glasses will be out April 14th.]