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Senate Passes Matthew Shepard Act

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 9:38 PM EDT

The U.S. Senate passed the Matthew Shepard Act today. The Act expands federal hate crime laws to include the commission of violent crimes based on the victim's sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, and disability, and provides new resources to help law enforcement prosecute such crimes.

The act passed by a voice vote. Its companion legislation in the House of Representatives is the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which passed the House with a vote of 237 to 180. The legislation is supported by a strong contingent of organizations, including the National Sheriffs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association, the Episcopal Church of the U.S., the League of Women Voters, and the United Methodist Church.

George W. Bush has called the legislation "unnecessary," and is threatening to veto it.

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Arctic Lands Slumping From Heat

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 8:04 PM EDT

Temperatures got so hot in the Arctic this summer that researchers are scrambling to revise their forecasts—fast-forwarding to a future they thought was decades away. On Melville Island, site of a Queen's University study, July air temperatures soared over 20ºC (68ºF). Average July temps run 5ºC (41ºF). The team watched in amazement as water from melting permafrost lubricated the topsoil, causing it to slide down slopes, clearing everything in its path and thrusting up ridges at the valley bottom that piled up like a rug. Scott Lamoureux, leader of the International Polar Year project, and an expert in hydro-climatic variability and landscape processes, described: "The landscape was being torn to pieces, literally before our eyes. A major river was dammed by a slide along a 200-metre length of the channel. River flow will be changed for years, if not decades to come. If this were to occur in more inhabited parts of Canada, it would be catastrophic in terms of land use and resources." Well, guess what? It is going to occur in inhabited parts of Canada. It's going to occur in your neighborhood, too, wherever you live, whatever your local variant of catastrophe: flood, drought, thaw, freeze, cyclone, or strange, mutant combinations thereof… On a personal note, I just got back from the high Sierra (Nevada), where the glaciers have dwindled to dirty icefields and the creeks run with dust and hungry bears are biting sleeping tourists, then getting killed for it. Makes you want to cry. JULIA WHITTY

Gray Whales Grow Thinner, Fewer

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 7:14 PM EDT

The Pacific gray whales' near-miraculous return from the edge of extinction (twice) may be more precarious than we thought. From the AP a couple of days ago, notice of a new DNA study out of Stanford estimating we've underestimated the whales' historic population by a factor of five. In other words, there weren't 20,000 or 30,000 whales pre-whaling, but 100,000. Worse, our current (supposedly recovered) population is starving. The National Marine Fisheries Service reports this year that at least 10 percent of gray whales are underweight and hungry. It seems our increasingly impoverished ocean can no longer support the whales it once did. Why not? Well, let's start with that ugly symbiosis between food shortages and climate change. Then factor in the more than one billion of us—that's right, one in six people on Earth—who are overweight, 300 million of whom are clinically obese, according to the World Health Organization. Add the fact that humanity gobbles more than a quarter of the planet's natural resources. Presto! The lardass equation: more of us equals less of them. JULIA WHITTY

When Justice Delayed Starts to Look Pretty Good

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 6:05 PM EDT

Big businesses have long argued that arbitration is cheaper and quicker than lawsuits for resolving disputes. That's why they now force customers to waive their constitutional right to sue every time they get a credit card or buy a computer and submit to private arbitration for any future conflict resolution. Now comes the consumer group Public Citizen with a new report on how consumers actually fare when they face off with credit card companies, the major purveyor of arbitration agreements.

As it turns out, arbitration is almost never used to "resolve" a dispute. Instead, credit card companies are using arbitration as a sneaky and unaccountable way to collect debts from overextended customers, even when those customers have been the victim of identity theft or billing errors. In 34,000 cases Public Citizen reviewed, arbitrators (all hired by the credit card companies, of course) ruled against consumers 90 percent of the time, to the tune of $185 million.

Public Citizen's most intriguing finding, though, was the case of arbitrator Joseph Nardulli, who, in a single day, resolved 68 cases—one every seven minutes— all in favor of the credit card companies who hired him. Now that's swift justice!

Dobson Slams Fred Thompson in Private Email

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 5:59 PM EDT

In a long article about how Fred Thompson has lost the evangelical endorsement many expected him to get (in part because Thompson won't sign on with a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage), Politico cites a private email from Focus on the Family honcho James Dobson. Dobson wrote:

Isn't Thompson the candidate who is opposed to a constitutional amendment to protect marriage, believes there should be 50 different definitions of marriage in the U.S., favors McCain-Feingold, won't talk at all about what he believes, and can't speak his way out of a paper bag on the campaign trail?
He has no passion, no zeal and no apparent 'want to.' And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!

Whoa, boy. Dobson sure is cranky. He's already said, "I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances" and already written, "I cannot, and will not, vote for Rudy Giuliani in 2008."

So that leaves Romney. Or a second-tier guy like Huckabee. Or nobody, I guess.

New Music: Baby Elephant - Turn My Teeth Up!

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 5:30 PM EDT

Baby ElephantIn light of the recent kerfuffle between myself and other Mother Jones staffers on whether offensive hip-hop can be good hip-hop, I thought I'd extend an olive branch with some progressive, jazzy grooves from Baby Elephant. Made up of De La Soul producer Prince Paul, vocalist Don Newkirk, and Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, their new album is understandably more in tune with classic funk than the current styles causing government entities (and supposedly liberal bloggers) to have fits. Lead single "Plainfield" features Digital Underground vocalist Shock G, but its mellow organ solo separates it from "Humpty Dance" by about a light year; track 6, "If You Don't Wanna Dance," with its wandering bass line and insistent chorus, could be straight out of the '70s.

Anybody who remembers (or, say, still gets out and dances around the room to) De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising will remember the goofy skits between the songs; Prince Paul kind of invented this concept, we get even more elaborate mini-sketches here. What's fun is that since iTunes gives you 30 second previews of songs, any track shorter than 30 seconds is, well, free; that means you can listen to most of the skits in their entirety without paying a dime, ladies and gentlemen! Check out how the "Funk Master," on track 5, mistakes our heroes for cable repairmen!

The trio team up with David Byrne for "How Does My Brain Wave," which sounds, understandably, like P-Funk meets Talking Heads, in the best possible sense. The album occasionally sinks into silliness: "Cool Runnins," a kind of jokey reggae number, sounds a little like something from a Disney movie; and ballad "Crack Addicts in Love" is funny, but not really worth multiple listens. But the updated psychedelia of "Skippin Stonze," with its filtered vocals and loping beat, has more in common with J Dilla than a comedy routine.

Grab an mp3 of "How Does the Brain Wave" at Spin.com or listen at their MySpace; Turn My Teeth Up! is out now on Godforsaken Music. Why didn't I think of that name for a label?

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Bangladeshis Take To Boats

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 5:08 PM EDT

While we weren't looking, the future got here. A story in today's Washington Post describes Bangladesh's brave new future as a Waterworld. In response to extreme flooding and sea level rise (yup, climate change, melting glaciers, monsoonal changes), schools and libraries are being relocated to boats, with plans to float villages, gardens and hospitals as well.

"For Bangladesh, boats are the future," said Abul Hasanat Mohammed Rezwan, an architect who started the boats project here and who now oversees it as executive director of the nonprofit Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a name that means self-reliance. "As Bangladeshi citizens, it's our responsibility to find solutions because the potential for human disaster is so huge. We have to be bold. Everyone loves land. But the question is: Will there be enough? Millions of people will have nowhere to go."

Do I smell the next tourist wave? Floating travels through quaint Third World Venices? Well, let's hope the Bangladeshis can capitalize on our noxious emissions—something that'll be a little harder for those flooded out of more northerly climes. Check out the photo essay in the current MoJo, Sea Change (first subscribe, swabbies), on sea level rise in Alaskan native villages. JULIA WHITTY

Burma: Saffron Flames Rage Against the Machine

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 5:08 PM EDT

Burma (or "Myanmar," as the military junta christened it) is in the throes of what some are calling the "Saffron Revolution." For the past two days, tens of thousands of Buddhist monks, nuns, students, activists, and civilians have been staging the largest demonstrations since the 1988 uprising, when thousands of unarmed, pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by the security forces.

Initially, fuel price hikes sparked the protests but they seem to now reflect decades of pent up anti-government sentiments and demands for democratic reform have been ringing through Rangoon for the past two days. On Tuesday, the military enacted a day long curfew prohibiting public gatherings of more than five people. Soldiers used tear gas, batons, and automatic weapons to disperse protesters and so far, nine people have died.

Anger about the military's treatment of monks has ignited even more protests. Soldiers launched several raids on Buddhist monasteries. At least 300 monks and other demonstrators have been hauled away in military vehicles.

China, Burma's principal trading partner, notified everyone that it would halt any UN sanctions, which isn't surprising. The US, for its part, tightened sanctions against Burma and has issued a joint statement with the European Union, stating that they are "deeply troubled" that the "security forces have fired on and attacked peaceful demonstrators and arrested many Buddhist monks and others." They "condemn all violence against peaceful demonstrators and remind the country's leaders of their personal responsibility for their actions." The statement then urges China, India, ASEAN, and surrounding countries "to use their influence in support of the people of Burma/Myanmar."

Too bad the US' foreign policies in Asia are not consistent. Some military regimes get scolded while others, namely Pakistan's, receive full US approval, weapons, and a blank check.

— Neha Inamdar

Rappers Find Common Ground With Lawmakers: Exploiting Homophobia is Fun!

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 4:13 PM EDT

David Banner in Congress

While the hip-hop community is understandably perturbed about the recent Congressional hearings on offensive lyrics, a few rappers are desperately trying to point the finger at an even greater moral outrage: the gays. Idolator points out that it's not only the admittedly loopy Ja Rule who's making these comments; mega-star Chamillionaire gave a rambling statement to BET's blog in which he compares bad words in hip-hop to, um, other "messed up" things:

 

The B word, the N word, the F word, it's all a moral thing inside of each person. If you look at TV, everything is messed up about TV. Gay people kissing each other on shows. The us is in general. Movies, they'll have guns everywhere, nobody pays attention to that.

 

Wait, gays kiss each other on shows? I thought there wasn't enough gay people on shows to even do that any more? Or maybe he means Broadway shows.

Ja Rule just gave an interview to Spinner where he tried to step back from his comments a little bit, but thankfully just today David Banner (above left) has taken the homophobia (and sexism) baton and run with it in an interview with Billboard:

 

Banner has butted heads with those trying to ban words like "bitch" and "hoe" from rap lyrics, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Master P. "Aren't there bitches out there?," he says. "Don't they exist? Those types of women exist, and if they didn't it'd be different. When someone yells in a room full of women the word 'dyke,' my mother isn't insulted because she isn't one." ... "Rap is an art, and I can say whatever the hell I want to," he continues.

 

Well, true, and I guess, true, but that also apparently doesn't prevent you from making a complete ass out of yourself. Anyway, it's nice to see society's pecking order reinforce itself: white government dudes pick on black rapper dudes pick on queer dudes. But wait, if us queers are upset, who do we get to pick on? The Irish? Okay... Damn you, uh, Bono! I'm sick of you kissing people on shows!

 

Gangster Rap, Going the Way of All Gangsters?

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 3:13 PM EDT

50 Cent, or whatever his street value is now, may want to start counting his pennies.

According to Courtland Milloy and a University of Chicago study, rap's decline continues. Post-Imus, its sales are still dropping and, even though young people of color still listen to it regularly, they simultaneously feel it's over-sexed and demeans both black men and black women. Ray-Ray 'nem want to keep listening to rap. But now that the shock value's worn off, they just want the quality improved; soon, we'll find out which gangster rappers are actual artists and which the posing, community-despoiling carpetbaggers who've ruined it for everyone.

Milloy veers slightly off track, though, when he frowns on the "Taliban-ing" of rap's critics: protests, boycott calls, picketing and this week's Congressional hearings. I'm fond of the First Amendment, but I think rap's opponents are exercising exactly that (though picketing someone's home does go too far) in forcing the rap community to respond to its critiques. If rappers get to say objectionable things, very loudly and designed for maximum outrage, why not Rev. Calvin Butts or C. Delores Tucker (very early leaders of the fight against rap's excesses). I choose to believe that all our "shame on you's" have something to do with what I choose to see as rap's audience having had its consciousness raised by all our sermons.

Somthing else Milloy didn't get around to is noting that, while nihilistic rap may be snuffing itself out, conscious rap may be on the resurgence. Others have noticed though, and cite the phenom known as Barack Obama for helping blacks with mixing tables and a yearning for attention notice something other than the butt sashaying past them at the bus stop. It seems that:

"Many of today's more socially conscious rappers are putting the spotlight back on political issues and candidates – and their go-to guy has become Democratic contender Barack Obama, or "B-Rock" as he was recently dubbed by Vibe magazine. Rap artist Common, whose latest CD debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts earlier this month, brags that he'll "ignite the people like Obama." Talib Kweli echoes that on his latest release when he says, "speak to the people like Barack Obama." Is there nothing the junior Senator from Illinois can't do?

Soon, I'll get to meet my new MoJo colleague and we can thrash out our differences over rap, but til then, I'll bet that we can at least agree that talented rapping about black empowerment is a good thing.