2010 - %3, December

California Court Considers Salami, Festivus

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 9:00 AM EST

There are plenty of flaws with the California criminal justice system; actually, it can be pretty awful. But it's not all bad news. The OC Register reports that earlier this year, an Orange County inmate successfully persuaded a Superior Court judge to accomodate his special religious diet:

Festivus may only come around once a year...but longtime county inmate Malcolm Alarmo King was able to celebrate it three times a day while locked up at the Theo Lacy jail in Orange.

King's quest for a healthier eating option while behind bars ended with a county lawyer forced to research the origin of Festivus and its traditions and a Superior Court judge recognizing the holiday – which lodged its place in pop culture on an episode of "Seinfeld" – as a legitimate religion.

At issue was King's objection to eating salami, which Orange County feeds its inmates. Key quote:

The Sheriff's Department interviewed King about his religious leanings in May. When asked what his religion was, he answered "Healthism."

A couple of quick points here: 1) Salami is horrible. More importantly, 2) this kind of thing actually happens all the time.

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Catching Up With Holbrooke...Through Theatre

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 3:44 PM EST

Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was a man who understood the complexities of the region's religions, economy, and geopolitics. His reported last words have gone viral since his death: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan." They're sobering words from a man who traversed deep into the history and culture of a country that was once part of the Persian Empire—a region that contributed science, poetry, and Zoroastrianism to the world, but now fights for survival. What few Westerners realize is just how long superpowers have been meddling in Afghanistan's affairs. Fortunately, two British directors set out to fill that memory gap.

Ani DiFranco, Then and Now

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 7:30 AM EST

My first interview with Ani DiFranco was back in 1995 and ran in the debut issue of Monkey Magnet, a little music zine I'd started as a side project down in Santa Cruz, California—which says something about her. It wasn't like DiFranco needed small-time publicity. She was a fast-rising star, shaking up the folk circuit with her aggressive fingerpicking and smart, in-your-face feminism; this was during the Not a Pretty Girl period, and her press kit was overflowing with lengthy clips from the New York Times, Ms., Interview, Guitar Player, and more. She was selling hundreds of thousands of albums (her own) on an indie label called Righteous Babe (also her own) launched some five years earlier. Onstage, she was a hip badass—a funny, tough, sexy character with clever lyrics who completely owned the stage. Alternately assaulting and milking sweetness out of her acoustic guitar, she captivated her audiences—as far as I could tell, everyone in the halls, regardless of gender, was smitten.

By 1999, when I spoke with her again on behalf of Mother Jones, she'd graduated from playing 500-person halls to venues that held thousands—and was beginning to branch out, collaborating with the late labor organizer/storyteller Utah Phillips. She continued pumping out albums and touring relentlessly until a few years ago, when she slowed things down a bit—kind of necessary when you have a baby to raise. But DiFranco is getting back into it in earnest, working on material for a new CD. Besides her 20 albums to date, Righteous Babe now offers releases from more than a dozen other artists. Recently, I asked her to name a few of her own favorite things to listen to—and just for fun, I've included some vintage exchanges from that very first interview.

Mother Jones: What's your favorite new or upcoming release?

Ani DiFranco: Animal Prufock's new album Congratulations, Thank You + I'm Sorry on Righteous Babe. Animal is formerly one-half of the duo Bitch and Animal, and this is her first solo release since then. The album is just chock full of cool songs with a political backbone and an indie edge, and I had a blast working on it with her.

Crist Pardons Jim Morrison

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 4:44 PM EST

Florida Governor Charlie Crist's term expires in a month, and it seems the pro-gun, anti-big-government, is-he-or-isn't he conservative has decided it’s time to get down to the really important stuff: pardoning dead rock stars for indecent exposure.

As The Miami Herald and a slew of other sites have reported (with more than a hint of glee), yesterday Gov. Crist passionately lobbied a state panel to grant Doors frontman Jim Morrison a posthumous pardon for a March 1969 incident during which the singer—who was "far drunker than usual," according to bandmate Ray Manzarek—may have exposed himself to an audience at Miami's Dinner Key Auditorium.

According to the Herald

Crist said the pardon was an acknowledgement of Morrison's enduring "body of work" as an artist, and an effort to remove a "blot on his record for something he may or may not have done when he was essentially a kid.'' Whether Morrison actually exposed himself has long been a matter of speculation and debate. Although more than a hundred photos were placed into evidence at the trial, none showed Morrison exposed.

Morrison's pardon was unanimously confirmed by a four-person state clemency panel. It's not exactly clear what aroused Crist's sudden passion for the deceased rock star; the governor basically said he started thinking about it a few years ago, at the urging of a Doors fan. But Crist shouldn't expect any thank-yous from Morrison's family: Whether the singer exposed himself or not, Patricia Kennealy Morrison, Morrison's widow, told CNN Jim would have been pissed.

 

 





Book Review: Midnight on the Mavi Marmara

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 7:00 AM EST

After months of back and forth accusations between the Israeli government and survivors of May's deadly flotilla raid, Gaza flotilla passengers and their supporters have come together to make their case in print. This collection of 48 essays from activists, journalists, and prominent scholars exudes outrage, solidarity, and gritty hopefulness.

Midnight on the Mavi Marmara opens with a section featuring nine alarming eyewitness narratives.

"The floors were like a slaughterhouse," recalls Turkish journalist Sumeyye Ertekin. "I saw people whose internal organs were out….Gas and sound bombs were thrown. There were so many shots aimed at the ship, I started to think that they were aiming to sink the boat."

Some of the passengers report seeing bodies of civilians shot multiple times at point-blank range, but none describe the specific incidents in which these individuals were killed. Many dispute Israeli government allegations that passengers wielded kitchen knives as weapons. Others emphasize that passengers chose not to fire guns seized from Israeli soldiers and provided injured soldiers with protection and medical assistance—claims supported by photographs and video footage.

The subsequent four sections of the book contain passionate, fact-filled editorials on diverse topics, such as: the humanitarian impact of Israel's three-year blockade on Gaza, lessons from South Africa's anti-apartheid activists, and the potential impact of boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns against Israel.

Some readers may feel aghast at the book's scant discussion of suicide bombing and rocket attacks suffered by Israelis. In a handful of sentences, book editor Moustafa Bayoumi denounces anti-Semitism and concedes that Hamas and Hezbollah are "accordingly and correctly ostracized by much of the international community" for targeting civilians. Yet he—and all of the authors—devote far more attention to condemning Israel's "extraordinary impunity" in its allegedly unintentional and wildly disproportionate killing of Palestinian civilians.

Many of the book's contributors contend that the flotilla tragedy marked a Selma-reminiscent turning point in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If activists seize this momentum, they argue, Israeli "apartheid" and "collective punishment" can be thwarted.

Book contributor and Free Gaza Movement co-founder Paul Larudee, a 64-year-old who jumped into the Mediterranean Sea as Israeli commandos boarded his ship, echoed this forward-looking tone at a book promotion event this week in San Francisco. He also plugged an upcoming flotilla mission that he anticipates will include at least a dozen boats.

"We're planning to have a sizable contingent [of International Solidarity Movement activists] aboard the next flotilla," he said. "I don't want to be the only one to jump in the water. We want to have some serious non-violent resistance."

Are These Cupcakes Racist?

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 4:56 PM EST

*Update: After this was posted, Duncan Hines pulled their commercial from YouTube, according to The Vancouver Sun. You can still watch the video below. A Duncan Hines spokesperson told me via email that "Our intent was to entertain fans with a fun video about chocolate glazed cupcakes, and nothing more."

When Duncan Hines partnered with film studio Filmaka to release a new ad campaign on YouTube this week for their "Amazing Glazes" frosting line, their aim was to "inspire creativity during the height of baking season" and portray how their icing "makes dessert sing." The theme of the first video is "Hip Hop Cupcakes," (see below), but rather than striking a chord with urban bakers, the video just seems to be pissing them off. Readers and bloggers have criticized the film's director, Josh Binder, and the dessert company's PR department for failing to see how the cupcake characters might be mistaken for performers in blackface. Director Binder has a number of videos that might be considered "controversial," like one for Western gear in which a cowboy lassos two women to be his companions, and another that shows samurai bread loaves crying "hi-YA!" at one another.

Binder's Duncan Hines commercial shows vanilla cupcakes that—when covered in gooey chocolate frosting—begin to sing. An enraged commenter on the site Racialicious complained: "I am appalled that there seems to be not one single marketing staffer at Duncan Hines/Pinnacle Food Groups with any awareness of the legacy of US minstrelsy and racism that is inextricable from the dark brown, red-lipped, googly eyed characters" depicted in the video. Writes a Womanist Musing blogger: "Do I really need to break down why Blackface cupcakes are racist? I sincerely hope this commercial is fake, because if not, it represents a direct attack on Black people." 

Duncan Hines might have saved itself the outrage if they had searched for a different title for their bizarre cake characters other than "Hip Hop." Some viewers are perplexed at what makes the music from the video hip hop; there are no lyrics, for instance, and the music seems more focused on harmony than beat. "Black Eyed Peas sound more hip hop than that," writes an administrator on WooHa.com.

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Music Videos for History Nerds

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 1:42 PM EST

What do you get when you combine dedicated history teachers who were probably theater and choir nerds, a kick-ass costume wardrobe, friends willing to learn the violin to cover Dexy's Midnight Runners, and someone with a copy of After Effects? Awesomeness, that's what.

Two teachers in Hawaii have created a slew of videos to teach history lessons set to everything from Justin Timberlake to Depeche Mode. There are 48— FORTY EIGHT—of these suckers. According to them, they might be inspired by 80s songs but, "do desperation and exhaustion count as influences?"

Here are just some of my favorites. It is so hard to choose...

Julian Assange: Coming to a Nativity Scene Near You

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 9:00 AM EST

Looking for the perfect holiday decoration to one-up that neighbor who synced his Christmas lights to Slayer? How about a statuette of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for your nativity scene. Seriously. Inspired by the silver-haired Australian's online escapades, a Naples creche creator has crafted an Assange figurine (holding a laptop, naturally) to go along with the more traditional Mary, Joseph, and Jesus ensemble. It's a Christmas miracle.

Reuters:

"I included him to poke a little fun at the world and have a good time," said Di Virgilio, 29, whose family has been making nativity statuettes and ornate creches since 1830. "In a sense, Assange is the man of the year," said Di Virgilio

There is only one copy of the Assange statuette, which costs 130 euros. Di Virgilio says he will make others on request. There are, however, multiple copies of statuettes of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that Italians can place in the manger with the Holy Family, the wise men, the ox and the sheep.

MoJo's profile of Assange last June suggested that he brings only a rucksack when he travels, so perhaps the laptop is a little ambitious.

The prospect of Assange attending the Nativity did make us wonder, though: What would a leaked State Department cable of the big event look like? After all, if this is how they report on a wedding in Dagestan, one can only imagine how the Roman ambassador might react to the birth of the Lord and one true savior:

SUBJECT: A BABY SHOWER IN BETHLEHEM

ROME 00000241200 001 OUT OF 001

SUMMARY

---------

On December 24th, attended an impromptu summit in Bethlehem, a midsized city under the control of King Herod. Herod projects a public image as a family man, although there have been reports he murdered no fewer than two of his children, and at least one wife. Opposition members have argued that Herod may suffer from fits of acute paranoia, citing his controversial proposal to summarily kill every first-born son in his kingdom. Analysts say the measure, if enacted, could lead to economic contraction in the near future, as the kingdom reacts to a dwindling labor supply and a suddenly aging populace.

[redacted]

As the newborn lay in the traditional oaken manger, the welcoming commitee, which included a cow, two sheep, one camel, and a quartet of cherubs, were seen to be looking on with unusual interest bordering on reverence. The adoration of the cherubs, however, did little to dispel whispered rumors about the identity of the child's biological father [redacted]. Visiting dignitaries arrived conspicuously late, lavishing gifts such as [redacted], [redacted], and [redacted] that seemed more appropriate for a deity than a first-time mother.

And MoJo copy editor, and resident WikiLeak guru, Adam Weinstein takes his stab below the jump.

Six Tips for Holiday Giving

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Before you decide where to donate your hard-earned dollars this holiday season, make sure you're getting the best philanthropic bang for your buck with these six tips.

1.    Be scrupulous. Look for annual reports (often posted on the organization's website) to see how much money actually goes to the needy. You can also verify financials with online tools such as guidestar.org; charitynavigator.org; give.org, and charitywatch.org. Most analysts agree that an organization should be able to spend around 65 to 75% of their funds on the program.*
2.    Be wary of new organizations springing up in the wake of natural disasters. Haiti’s earthquake, Pakistan’s floods, Louisiana’s oil spill, and hurricanes all have us reaching for our checkbooks. But new groups may lack the resources, experience, and local roots to be as effective as others. Try to find a charity that's established in the region or has a history working in emergency situations.

Better Than Ikea: Junip

| Mon Dec. 6, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Junip, an astral-rock band from Gothenberg, Sweden, took a full decade to put together Fields, the debut album it released in September. The delay, suggests modest front man Jose Gonzalez—who initally became popular as a solo performer—was a matter of talent catching up with vision. "You could say we're not good enough musicians to make what we want to do," he told me.

Then there was the geographical factor. The band members have been preoccupied with projects that kept them scattered about—organist/moogist Tobias Winterkorn was teaching and building his personal studio, Gonzalez recording solo albums Veneer and In Our Nature; and drummer Elias Araya studying art in Finland and Norway. Practicing and recording were scheduled around periods of separation—and Fields was ultimately created out of samples spanning that decade—as Winterkorn puts it, "taking out the raisins from the cake to eat them."

In all that time, Junip played maybe a few dozen shows, but the band has already rocked more than 80 venues during its current whirlwind tour of the United States and Europe. I caught them recently at San Francisco's Independent, where singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten opened to the sold-out crowd. With her sensuous harmonium and sensitive lyrics, Van Etten made the venue seem small and intimate.