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DHS, Dysfunctional as Usual

| Wed Feb. 7, 2007 10:30 AM EST

With news that Dick Cheney's son-in-law is the primary culprit in a Department of Homeland Security effort to block any oversight, I thought I'd point you all to this chart we drew up last year. Follow the link and you'll find that many DHS workers are so unhappy with their jobs, they'd probably rather be working fast-food.

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I Hope the Articulate Bill O'Reilly Reads This

| Wed Feb. 7, 2007 9:59 AM EST

Bill O'Reilly and Glen Beck are still covering the Biden/Obama/"articulate" flap that I think a lot of people -- including me -- wish would just go away. O'Reilly and Beck are highlighting it because they feel the whole situation illustrates the plight of beleaguered white people who can't have black friends (honest, this is their argument) because they are afraid they might slip up and say something, maybe even a compliment, that unbeknownst to them is insulting to the black person in the room. The subtext here, of course, is this: "Well, gosh, us white people just try to say nice things about black people, and sometimes black people get all worked up, and we just don't know why, and man, white people just can't get a break."

Look. Just don't be stupid. Is that really so hard? Here's what the New York Times wrote about the issue: "When whites use the word [articulate] in reference to blacks, it often carries a subtext of amazement, even bewilderment." Okay, yes, exactly. Barack Obama is a man of many talents, who has accomplished more in his life than most Americans ever will: If the most you can say about the man is that he doesn't sound like some gang-banger, you're not giving him much of a chance. And you're damning by faint praise. Bill O'Reilly must understand this, and if he doesn't, he would if thought about it for a half-second. As a commenter on this blog wrote in response to one of our previous posts, "When was the last time someone said Chuck Schumer was "articulate"? Or Bill Clinton, or Chuck Hagel? They all are, but people have moved beyond how they talk and onto their other qualities."

The Times continued, "Such a subtext is inherently offensive because it suggests that the recipient of the 'compliment' is notably different from other black people." Again, this should be obvious. If you are amazed that one black man doesn't sounds like a gang-banger, you're letting your assumptions show: You assume that all black men speak Ebonics (or, as I suspect Glen Beck would call it, "jive"). Anyone who doesn't is the "exceptional Negro." (Link again goes to the NYT article, which is well worth reading.)

Allow me to requote a passage I quoted earlier from the Chicago Tribune:

Well-spoken black people hate it when white people call them "articulate." It's the modern-day version of what white people used to say back in the day when they thought that by saying "He's a credit to his race" they were saying something that a black person would welcome hearing.
Those dated words, like Biden's comments, were patronizing at the very least. And they also appeared to carry some pretty negative assumptions about the majority of the race.

The smart, accomplished, and successful Bill O'Reilly is bright enough to understand this, and I suspect he's just playing a dumb-like-a-fox routine. But if he keeps pretending like he's an idiot, I'm going to run out of adjectives to use when blogging about him. I guess the only thing that would left would be...

If Chris Rock Says It, It's Funny; If Sarah Silverman Says It, It's Tasteless

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 11:15 PM EST

A lot has been written about how women are perceived to be either "not funny" or "not as funny as men." Now that there are a number of respected women comics, that paradigm has changed somewhat in that women can be funny as long as their humor is not aggressive. Ellen DeGeneres, for example, is generally considered funny by anyone who is not a hopeless homophobe, partly because her humor is not at all aggressive (this is not a criticism, by the way--I think DeGeneres is hilarious). Margaret Cho is another story: She says bad words, and she talks about sex in great (and hysterically funny) detail. She not only makes people uncomfortable--she is a woman, she is Asian-American, and she is a member of the LGBT community, to boot.

Perhaps no one, though, has fueled the "women are funny as long as they are 'feminine'" fire as much as Sarah Silverman, whose television series debuted last Thursday night. Both men and women have walked out of her shows, and I have heard many supposedly liberal people call her humor "tasteless" and "disgusting." But the fact of the matter is that Silverman, and other female comics like her, do not push the envelope any farther than a Chris Rock or a Dave Chappelle, whom these same critics admire.

Silverman's humor is not everyone's cup of tea, to be sure. I am not making a case for whether she is a good comic; I am just pointing out that the "shocking" things that come out of her mouth would be considered "badass" if they came out of the mouth of a male comic. Drew Carey says it well: "Comedy is about aggression and confrontation and power. As a culture we just don't allow women to do all that stuff."

Christopher Hitchens, writing for Vanity Fair, recently acknowledged that there are some funny women comics around, but "Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three." One might just as well say that most of the really funny male comics are black or Jewish (forgive me, those who think Robin Williams is still funny).

Hitchens, to his credit, also says:

Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals. And there is a huge, brimming reservoir of male unease, which it would be too easy for women to exploit.

The Duke Cunningham of Iraq

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 9:01 PM EST

Well, maybe slightly worse than Duke Cunningham. He bombed a U.S. embassy, and a French embassy, and maybe killed a Kuwaiti police officer and is maybe spying for Iran. And yep, Jamal Jafaar Mohammed is an elected member of Iraq's parliment. Let's hear it for Iraqi Democracy. Makin' us proud!

Beware the Smelly Orange Snow Falling on Russia

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 8:49 PM EST

The BBC reports on the newest environmental plague to hit Siberia: smelly orange and (yes) yellow snow—but not the kind you're used to. Something way grosser.

Oily yellow and orange snowflakes fell over an area of more than 1,500sq km (570sq miles) in the Omsk region on Wednesday [31 Jan], Russian officials said. Chemical tests were under way to determine the cause, they said. Residents have been advised not to use the snow for household tasks or let animals graze on it.

"So far we cannot explain the snow, which is oily to the touch and has a pronounced rotten smell," said Omsk environmental prosecutor Anton German, quoted by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass on Thursday. "We are waiting for the results of a thorough test on samples."

But Vladimir Gurzhey, an official with the civil defence ministry in Omsk, told the Russia TV channel that the snow had four times the normal levels of iron in it. The TV also reported that coloured snow had fallen in the neighbouring regions of Tomsk and Tyumen. Omsk, in western Siberia, is a centre of Russia's oil industry. About 27,000 people live in the areas affected by the snow, Russian officials said.

Exxon Valdez Oil-Spill Toxins Undiminished 16 Years On

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 8:33 PM EST

1989. Seems like a long time ago. The other GW was the new guy in the White House. The first Gulf War was only a glimmer in his eye. The Soviet Union officially announced its troops had left Afghanistan. Pan Am flight 103 investigators announced the crash was caused by a bomb hidden inside a radio-cassette player (remember radio-cassette players?). The Exxon Valdez's drunken skipper contributed to running the tanker aground, dumping at least 11 million gallons into Alaska's once-pristine Prince William Sound.

Well, all these years later and Jeffrey W. Short of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and colleagues, find that oil from that spill persists in an only slightly weathered form below the surface at beaches along the Gulf of Alaska—and may persist for decades more, ScienceDaily reports.

Earlier research demonstrated that buried oil could retain toxic components for years if buried in anoxic (oxygen-depleted) sediments where little decomposition from weathering occurs. The new study identified a different mechanism in which oil can be preserved in sediments that do contain oxygen. The oil persists because it exists in a thick, emulsified form sometimes termed "oil mousse" that resists weathering.

"Such persistence can pose a contact hazard to inter-tidally foraging sea otters, sea ducks, and shorebirds, create a chronic source of low-level contamination, discourage subsistence in a region where use is heavy and degrade the wilderness character of protected lands," the researchers conclude.

Wikipedia notes the short- and medium-term effects of one the largest manmade environmental disasters ever to occur at sea:

Thousands of animals died immediately; the best estimates include 250,000 - 500,000 sea birds, 2,800 - 5,000 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 orcas, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. Due to a thorough cleanup, little visual evidence of the event remained in areas frequented by humans just one year later, but the effects of the spill continue to be felt today. In the long term, reductions in population have been seen in various ocean animals, including stunted growth in pink salmon populations. Sea otters and ducks also showed higher death rates in following years, partly because they ingested contaminated creatures. The animals also were exposed to oil when they dug up their prey in dirty soil. Researchers said some shoreline habitats, such as contaminated mussel beds, could take up to 30 years to recover.

Hasn't hurt Exxon, though. Profits are astronomical and durable, just like the oil mousse.

Remember the Exxon Valdez when you shop for your electric scooter.

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For the First Time Ever, a U.S. Court Halts a GMO Field Trial

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 8:26 PM EST

In a ruling that could make it more difficult for the USDA to speed through permits for the testing of genetically engineered crops, a federal judge halted field trials of several controversial GMOs yesterday pending a more detailed review of their potential environmental hazards. It was the first time a field trial of a GE crop has been stopped by a U.S. court. Judge Harold Kennedy found the USDA should have required environmental impact statements before approving field trials of pesticide-resistant creeping bentgrass and Kentucky bluegrass in Oregon. Last year, pollen from the grasses escaped from the test area and fertilized plants several miles away in a national grassland.

The ruling was a rebuke to a common practice at the USDA of approving GMO field trials under a "categorical exclusion"--basically, an argument that field trials are too environmentally insignificant to merit detailed oversight. Although the judicial pounding has by no means driven a nail in the coffin of GMOs, it's certainly a sign that the USDA is starting to face rebukes for years of lax policies on a very poorly understood area of science.


Dinesh D'Sell Out

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 8:23 PM EST

It happens to most academic stars. Eventually, they begin self-parodying. So it is no surprise that Dinesh D'Souza, the conservative academic who hit the big time with his 1991 critique of political correctness, Illiberal Education, has swung even farther right with his newest book, The Enemy at Home. To give a quick and dirty measure of how far right, I present its subtitle: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. What's odd about this is that D'Souza isn't parodying himself, but political sound-byte machines. The right is really on message, is it not? Especially for a message like this one, which contains no truth whatsoever.

I've always wondered, do the Joe Blows of the right-wing believe some of the more absurd bits of spin they repeat? (I have, after much thought, come to conclude that most of the higher-ups, with some grandiosely off-kilter exceptions, do not.) But I've never seen an academic doing the work of political rhetoric quite as explicitly as this.

Is a Deal with Dingell a Deal with the Devil?

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 7:56 PM EST

Over the past month, the biggest threat to climate change legislation seems not to come from Exxon Mobil-sponsored think-tanks nor Texas Republicans; rather, it has been infighting between Democrats. Since becoming Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has done everything but challenge John Dingell to a bout of mud-wrestling in order to take control of climate change legislation away from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce the Michigan Democrat chairs.

That's because Dingell is infamous for being in the pocket of the Auto Industry: He has long opposed tougher CAFE standards and his wife is currently a senior executive at GM. Many see him as an obstructionist to action on climate change. (See this interview with Grist, where Dingell expresses Inhofe-esque views on global warming.)

Dingell has been outspoken in his opposition to a new committee, telling the AP in January: "We're just empowering a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs to go around and make speeches and make commitments that will be very difficult to honor."

Bygones may not yet be bygones, but Pelosi and Dingell seem to have come to a compromise, clearing the way for the new committee--albeit a weaker one than Pelosi would probably have liked. In a letter sent to the Speaker yesterday, Dingell agreed not to challenge a new committee on climate change in exchange for Pelosi's concession that the new committee will not be granted legislative authority and will expire in October of 2008. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the Oversight and Government Reform committee, co-signed the letter, agreeing not to challenge the formation of the select committee. You're not alone if you're not sure whether to chalk this one up as a win or a defeat for the planet.

--Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Is a Deal with Dingell a Deal with the Devil?

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 7:55 PM EST

Over the past month, the biggest threat to climate change legislation seems not to come from Exxon Mobil-sponsored think-tanks nor Texas Republicans; rather, it has been infighting between Democrats. Since becoming Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has done everything but challenge John Dingell to a bout of mud-wrestling in order to take control of climate change legislation away from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce the Michigan Democrat chairs.

That's because Dingell is infamous for being in the pocket of the Auto Industry: He has long opposed tougher CAFE standards and his wife is currently a senior executive at GM. Many see him as an obstructionist to action on climate change. (See this interview with Grist, where Dingell expresses Inhofe-esque views on global warming.)

Dingell has been outspoken in his opposition to a new committee, telling the AP in January: "We're just empowering a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs to go around and make speeches and make commitments that will be very difficult to honor."

Bygones may not yet be bygones, but Pelosi and Dingell seem to have come to a compromise, clearing the way for the new committee--albeit a weaker one than Pelosi would probably have liked. In a letter sent to the Speaker yesterday, Dingell agreed not to challenge a new committee on climate change in exchange for Pelosi's concession that the new committee will not be granted legislative authority and will expire in October of 2008. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the Oversight and Government Reform committee, co-signed the letter, agreeing not to challenge the formation of the select committee. You're not alone if you're not sure whether to chalk this one up as a win or a defeat for the planet.

--Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell