2011 - %3, January

Sam Cooke's Wild Side

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 12:36 PM EST

Sam Cooke
Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
RCA

Eighty years ago last Saturday, Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He started out as a gospel singer, and when he switched to recording secular music his smooth style made him an instant success. In the short 33 years before he was killed by a motel manager in Los Angeles, California, he wrote and recorded 29 Top 40 soul hits. In 2008, Rolling Stone ranked his voice as the fourth-greatest of all time, behind only Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley. But Cooke didn't always stick to the polished sound that made him famous. As his often-overlooked album Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 reveals, there were two very different sides to Mr. Soul.

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RJD2 is Not Guilty

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 7:30 AM EST

On stage, Ramble John Krohn (a.k.a. RJD2) has an ability to entrance his audience into a sea of synchronized hand-waves and head-bopping. The vinyl-scratching, mass-Tweeting, Ohio-raised DJ started spinning in 1993, when he decided to buy a pair of turntables from a friend. He's since produced 20 albums, 28 singles, and dozens of other collaborations, mix tapes, and remixed tracks.

We recently caught up with Krohn, who abides by the music-making philosophy of not giving "a s*** as long as it sounds hot." He fuses explosive elements from hip-hop, brass-band, and metal rock with soul-funk and electronica, churning bad-ass beats that make you want to jump into a 1970s high-speed car chase. He's even sampled sounds from KFC-commercials. His loyal following of hip-hopping/skateboarding/hoop-shooting/plaid-wearing crowds love him anyway, as do commercial heavyweights like the NBA, Levi's, Adidas, and the TV series CSI-NY, all of which have featured his songs. A preview of his latest EP, "The Glow" remixes, is available here.

Mother Jones: What’s your favorite recent release in your genre?

Ramble John Krohn: This is a bit slippery, as I'm not sure what genre I belong in, but I guess I'd say Big Boi's album [Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty] at the moment. It's somewhere between a weirdo funk record, a hip-hop record, and an electro record. I absolutely love it. 

The Onion News Network: Cable News Gone Rogue

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 6:39 PM EST

Does the world need another inane, dubiously sourced, and paranoid cable news channel? Yes, please! In what began as occasional fake news riffs online, the Onion News Network promises “9 billion viewers across 811 countries, and cameras watching over 80% of the world’s population.” The show premieres tonight on IFC as a half-hour weekly show, promising to be just as salacious as its cable companions. The show’s main vehicle is the “FactZone,” a fake real-news show that’s a mashup of Nancy Grace, Stephen Colbert, and Fox-News fearmongering all rolled up into a laser-packed collection of slick graphics and manufactured mayhem. In one episode pundits debate the merits of Kim Jong Il’s proposition to exchange nukes for a starring role in the next Batman (“risky…but we shouldn’t ignore the possibility that Kim Jong Il could be fantastic as Batman”), and a political analyst talks about presidential hopeful Sarah Palin’s newly released Choose Your Own Adventure book where “she could change the drinking age to 14, annex Mexico, or…”


When did cable news shows become a parody of themselves? The Onion's foray into makeup under the hot lights suggests that Fox, CNN, and friends jumped that shark long ago; The Onion's just taking the joke to a new satirical high. The show is sensational, insane to the point of hilarious, and totally full of malarkey, in other words, classic Onion. From its focus on dumb news (missing tire, found!), to entertainment plugs (Suri Cruise’s time-traveling kidnappers), to fear-based reporting (most everything else), ONN can break the news with the best of them. And viewers know what they're in for, nothing but untruths, no foolin'. How refreshing!

Pedro's Scars

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Click here to see all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow Kristina's writing on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

[Previous Mission High dispatch: "Yes, I made an aspiring astronaut cry. But then she returned the favor."]

I'm feeling drained after my conversation with Natalie, but I run into Pedro* on my way home and stop to say hi. "Do you want to see my scars?" he asks me suddenly. He puts his skateboard down on the ground before I can answer and lifts his shirt to show me two deep, long, purple scars—one near his shoulders, another near his lower back. "Gangbangers stabbed me three years ago at Dolores Park," he tells me matter-of-factly, the way I talk about my tiny knee scar. Except that my tiny scar is from falling off my bike once as a kid in a safe, Soviet neighborhood, where no one I knew ever got stabbed.

What do you say in a situation like that? What do you tell a sweet boy who knows you're a reporter, whose school you've hung around for a month, when one day he decides to pull up his shirt and show you where gangbangers stabbed him and he almost died?

When I got home, I couldn't write a word. I thought about how different the same Mission High kids look to me after a month immersed in their lives.

Natalie—with her actress looks, stylish clothes, and classroom confidence—seems like an "easy" student at first, someone on a smooth track to graduate on time and go to college. On the surface at least, there's nothing about her that signals psychological trauma to me, no reason to suspect she's been kicked out of two charter schools.

And Pedro? For a month, to me he was the guy who liked skateboarding and guitar, the one who knew the answers in class most of the time, and if he didn't know the answer, still had something witty and smart to say. Only after seeing him four times did I notice some bumps in his temperament. Some days, he just shuts down.

Or take Benton. In my first two weeks at the school, Benton was the classic "challenging" student—someone who texts in class, disrupts lessons, and doesn't listen to teachers' requests. Until I saw him last week—engaged, thoughtful, and even polite.

Later that night I had dinner with a visiting friend, an experienced investigative journalist from Latvia. I told her about Pedro's scars, Natalie's depression, Benton's favorite class. "Be careful," she warned me. "The first thing I learned in journalism school is that you're responsible for those who get attached to you. Don't get too close."

"I know," I told her, as I picked at my salad. I should be more distant, maintain neutrality. Care a little less about these students. Right? And then I lamented how much more traffic a short blog post about Jared Loughner or the latest tea-party news item gets, when other pieces like this one, this one, this one—or the one you're reading now—take days of immersive reporting to develop. As we waited for another drink, I checked my Twitter account in silence. But all I could think of was Natalie's trembling lip, as she sat alone in Ms. Bowman's class.

*Names changed.

[Next Mission High dispatch: Is Darrell going to flunk this test?]

Education Roundup: Armed Teachers?

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 7:00 AM EST

This week's roundup is brought to you by the buzzword "social capital." Click here to learn what it really means.

Guns in Los Angeles schools permeated education news this week. Why? Well, first two students were shot in an LA classroom after a gun discharged in a third student's backpack. Then, in a separate incident, several LA schools were put on lockdown after an unknown assailant shot a police officer near a local high school.

Would armed teachers help keep schools safe from shootings? One Nebraska senator thinks so, and introduced a bill this week to allow school administrators, teachers, and counselors to carry concealed handguns in schools. Click here for Huffington Post Education's take on the bill, or find out how teachers and parents responded in Education Week's forum.

Speaking of school shootings, MoJo education blogger Kristina Rizga reports this week on Natalie, a new "star" Mission High student who says she got kicked out of her previous school for botching a writing assignment related to a school shooting death. It's a gripping dispatch; don't miss it.

More news:

  1. A Florida state legislator filed a bill requiring teachers to grade parents on their school involvement Orlando Sentinel reports.
  2. Our failing educational system is botching national security, the San Diego Union-Tribune opines, citing The Education Trust's report that one in four high school graduates failed the military's basic exam for math, reading, and problem-solving skills. 
  3. US News & World Report and the National Council on Teacher Quality announced that they're grading the quality of teacher training programs that educate and produce more than 200,000 teachers every year. The first-ever review will be published in 2012.
  4. Why does it take more than 100 days to removing tenured teachers accused of crimes or malfeasance? It shouldn't, according to a proposal funded by the American Federation of Teachers (PDF). Education Week has more details.
  5. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg apologized for schools chancellor Cathie Black's "joke" that birth control would solve school overcrowding, reports HuffPo.

Click here to see all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow our education reporter on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

Does Islamophobia Increase Hate Crimes for Others?

| Thu Jan. 20, 2011 7:07 PM EST

In a new interview with Katie Couric as part of her 1-hour @KatieCouric show, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that incidents targeting Muslims on on the rise in the US. "I think Islamophobia is on the rise, and I think the best way to counter it is communication," said Abdul-Jabbar. "To let people know who we are and what we believe in."

Abdul-Jabbar, who has been a public face for American Muslims at events like the Rally to Restore Sanity, is right about the lack of education surrounding Islam. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center found that Americans were more confused about the faith: In July 2005, 23% of Americans said they didn't know what their opinion was of Islam, a figure which rose to 32% in 2010. The number of Americans who say they know nothing or very little about Islam (55%) remains about the same as it was in 2007. Perhaps one of the best examples of American misinformation is the increasing number (nearly 20%) of Americans who believe Obama is Muslim.

Despite these misconceptions, and the increase in blatantly anti-Muslim campaign ads, actual crimes targeting Muslims haven't gotten worse in the past few years: they've just gotten more press. The jump in anti-Muslim attacks is real, but it happened 9 years ago. According to the most recent FBI data, before 9/11 there was an average of 30 anti-Islam hate crimes a year. Right after 9/11, that number jumped 1600%, but now the yearly average is reliably 100 to 150 attacks per year. That's still more than three times the pre-9/11 average, but there are far more hate crimes against African-Americans (about 2,500/year) and Jews (around 950). The numbers of crimes against black people and Jews have also remained remarkably (some would say disappointingly) stable since 2003.

Though relatively stable, hate crimes against African-Americans rise and fall at very similar rates as crimes against Muslims, while crimes against Jews or Catholics do not. So it stands to reason, I think, that if this trend continues, increased anti-Muslim attacks would be reflected in a corresponding increase in crimes against black people, either by fostering a climate of hate or by people associating African-Americans with Islam. Who can forget this incident, when folks protesting the Park51 Islamic community center mistook an African-American WTC construction worker for a Muslim and quickly made him a focal point? Someone in the crowd tells him, "Run away, coward" and another yells "Muhammad's a pig! Muhammad's a pig!" The object of their attention, a union carpenter named Kenny, had some constructive advice for the anti-Muslim protesters. "Y'all [expletive] don't know my opinion about [expletive]," he said. "Someone want to know about me? Ask me about me."

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Education Quote of the Week: Arne Duncan on No Child Left Behind

| Thu Jan. 20, 2011 4:03 PM EST

Here's Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the widely expected overhaul of the nine-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, formally called the Education Elementary and Secondary Education Law, as quoted by AP:

"Everyone I talk to really shares my sense of urgency that we have to do better for our children. We're fighting for our country here."

What's he talking about? AP reports:

"Duncan has worked with lawmakers of both parties over the past two years to lay the groundwork for a rewrite." The new law "[W]ould ease many testing requirements, put a new focus on teacher performance and the lowest-performing schools, and replace proficiency requirements with loftier goals of boosting college graduation rates."

Now that Republicans control the House and have more power in the Senate, some observers are saying that education reform might be among the few areas where Obama can accomplish something this year. That's because unlike immigration, tax reform, or climate change legislation, most Republicans actually support Obama's education reform ideas (except for tea partiers, who want the Department of Education eliminated outright).

Obama is expected to outline his education reform plans in his State of the Union speech next week. Fasten your seat belts.

Education Buzzword Explainer: What the Heck Is Social Capital?

| Wed Jan. 19, 2011 3:00 PM EST

Let's face it: Jargon happens. And in education circles, it happens a lot. Curious what an education buzzword actually means? Or how a seemingly unrelated business concept migrated into discussions about kids and schools? Let MoJo's education team research it so you don't have to. We welcome buzzword suggestions in comments for our next primer: Help us decide what lingo to look at next.

This week's education buzzword: "SOCIAL CAPITAL."

What is social capital? It's not about money. At its core, social capital theory holds that "relationships matter" and that "social networks are a valuable asset." If human capital is about individual resources (i.e. the importance of skilled people), social capital is about social resources (i.e. the importance of skilled social networks). Some research also shows that increasing social capital (and trust among individuals) requires face-to-face encounters. In other words, it's not what you know...it's who you know and what they know, and possibly how often you see each other in person.

How does social capital relate to education? Simply put, schools with a lot of social capital often have an easier time getting what they need to educate students effectively, so even super teachers can't sustainably improve a school's academic outcomes without family, community, and state involvement. University of Pittsburgh professor, Carrie Leana explains:

"Why are some schools better than others?" A human capital answer would say that some schools are better because they have the best-trained teachers. A social capital answer would say there is something about the way those teachers are interacting that influences the school as a whole and results in a level of shared performance that you can't get from individuals alone.

Outside of school, social capital in the community can compensate for its absence in the family. In one case, researchers compared the drop out rates of high school sophomores. They found that kids who had one sibling, two parents, and a mother who expected them to attend college were much less likely to drop out than sophomores with four siblings, one parent, and a mother who didn't expect them to attend a university. (PDF) However, while studying social capital's relation to school drop out rates, sociologist James Coleman also found that a strong adult community could keep teens in school regardless of family situation. And even The World Bank recognizes that social capital alone can't substitute for financing education.

Where did the term "social capital" come from? The first known reference appeared in Lyda Judson Hanifan's 1916 article "The Rural School Community Center," in which he wrote that "the individual is helpless socially, if left entirely to himself." In 1988, James Coleman contributed the first solid evidence of a relationship between a school's social capital and academic drop out rates.

How can a school increase its social capital? More face-to-face interaction with parents and local community members is probably a good start. "The schools can't do it by themselves," as a South Carolina neighborhood outreach leader told The Beaufort Gazette. "That's the reality."

The Loughner Double Standard

| Wed Jan. 19, 2011 1:00 PM EST

Guest blogger Beth Winegarner writes about teens, culture, and music.

In one of a handful of videos Jared Lee Loughner posted on YouTube, a man cloaked in brown burns the American flag while Drowning Pool's "Bodies" blares in the background. As reporters pull together descriptions of the man who shot and killed six people and wounded 14 others, including Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, it's not surprising that many mention which band Loughner picked as his soundtrack. What is surprising is that most reporters aren't blaming Loughner's taste in music for the attack.

"Since Columbine, much has changed," Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers tweeted Saturday night. "Then, the focus may have been on Jared Lee Loughner's past as a rocker. Music no longer embodies menace. Other demons/scapegoats do."

Instead, the media's focus on 22-year-old Loughner's mental instability implies a painful double-standard in how such sprees are covered. When shooters are children, cultural interests—such as video games, goth, or heavy-metal music—are cited as causal factors, which distracts from any underlying mental illness. But when mass killers reach the age of adulthood, media focus frequently turns to untreated mental-health issues. As a nation, perhaps we're just not ready to admit that some teens are in serious mental trouble.

In the hours following the Columbine High School shootings, reporters around the world lit upon the notion that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's interest in angry music and violent video games must have prompted their killing spree. And after some classmates (and teens pretending to be classmates) claimed that the shooters were Marilyn Manson fans, the musician himself became a media target. Photos of Manson decorated a new National School Safety Center-issued checklist of "danger signs" that a teen might be about to bring a gun to class. (Some danger signs: mood swings, cursing, and antisocial behavior.) Kansas Sen. Samuel Brownback even wrote a letter to Seagram's—the owner of Manson's record label—requesting that the corporation "cease and desist profiteering from peddling violence to young people," and drop the band from its roster.

Years later, after painstakingly combing through Harris' and Klebold's journals, academic and personal histories, and behavior patterns, Columbine author Dave Cullen found more likely motivations for the massacre that the teens had spent months planning. Cullen concluded that Harris was a psychopath, while Klebold was a depressive who romanticized suicidal figures.

Despite Powers' comment, the age-based reporting double standard hasn't changed drastically since 1999.

In March 2005, when 16-year-old Jeffrey James "Jeff" Weise went on a killing spree in Red Lake, Minnesota, he took nine lives and wounded five other people before killing himself. He had a history of creating disturbing art pieces—and attempting suicide at least once—but media reports focused on his black trench coat and "obsessive" interest in Horrorcore rapper Mars.

Meanwhile, when Seung-Hi Cho, 23, killed 32 people at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in April 2007, there was nary a mention of his hobbies or personal interests. Not only were Cho's favorite songs not blamed for his killing spree, we don't even know what they were. Instead reporters dutifully detailed Cho's mental health history, including a 2005 evaluation in which he was found "mentally ill and in need of hospitalization." 

It's not as though the Virginia Tech story changed how journalists report on mass shootings. In October of that same year, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, 18, shot and killed eight people at Jokela High School in Jokela, Finland before ending his own life. He was prescribed antidepressants in the year before the murder-suicide, but reporters still made plenty of the fact that he used KMFDM's "Stray Bullet" as background music for a YouTube video announcing his plans to attack the school. After all, it was a song Eric Harris apparently also liked. (Despite the title, the song is about ideas that cause sudden, radical shifts in belief.)

Media coverage improved slightly in 2009 after Tim Kretschmer, 17, shot and killed 15 people in southwestern Germany. While reports noted that Kretschmer was an avid player of the first-person shooter Counter Strike, one commentator also noted that "game addiction is a symptom of something wrong, and not a cause." And there was something wrong with Kretschmer—in the year before his spree he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, undergoing treatment for depression, anger, and violent urges.

Journalists include these details because readers are often hungry to know more about these boys who commit unthinkable acts of violence. But these same points can create the dangerous impression that shooters' media interests somehow led them to pull the trigger. Worse, they distract readers from the very real problems these young men faced: extreme rage, suicide attempts, and untreated mental illness.

Why, as a culture, do we insist on ignoring the mental-health issues at work in our teen population? Are we unable to admit that teens are capable of suffering the same yawning mental abysses (or, worse, the chilling sociopathy) that often fuels adult rampages?

When we hold teen and adult shooting sprees side-by-side, we can see a pattern of instability in both populations. Perhaps society could learn to intervene before troubled boys become gun-toting, politically charged conspiracy theorists.

Gov. Bentley's Christian Brotherhood

| Tue Jan. 18, 2011 9:08 PM EST

All Alabamans are apparently not equal, at least not in the eyes of new governor Robert Bentley. Bentley told an audience at a Baptist church where Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor that he was "color-blind" but also that non-Christians were not his "brother and sister." According to the Birmingham News, Bentley told the congregation: 

''There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit... But if you have been adopted in God's family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if you're saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister. Now I will have to say that, if we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."

The Anti-Defamation League is the first to jump on the indignation wagon, issuing a statement reading that "It is shocking that Governor Bentley would suggest that non-Christians are not worthy of the same love and respect he professes to have for the Christian community... His comments are not only offensive, but also raise serious questions as to whether non-Christians can expect to receive equal treatment during his tenure as governor." Bentley said that he wasn't trying to offend, and his communications official said he governs all Alabamans.

I'd have to agree with the ADL that Bentley is walking a tight line between professing his faith and protelyzation. Bentley has been up front about his love of Christianity: he's known to be devout and once said that he felt he had been put in the position of Governor by divine will. He told the Birmingham News that "I don't feel obligated to anyone except the people who voted for me." So, far, though, Bentley has seemed more preoccupied with Alabama's economic condition than that of its heathen souls, something the 9% of the state's workforce that's unemployed, regardless of faith, will surely appreciate.