2011 - %3, February

Was Friday Night Lights Xenophobic?

| Wed Feb. 16, 2011 2:00 PM EST

Flickr/Evoo73Flickr/Evoo73Friday Night Lights ended its fifth and final season last week. Needless to say, we're devastated. But as a small consolation, the show's ending means that lots of people on the Internet are now posting long-winded scribblings about what it all meant.

Over at Time, James Poniewozik makes a bunch of interesting points in his eulogy for the show, but I have to take issue with his grand takeaway:

The underlying theme is, we need each other. Everyone, even a teenager, is part of a web of dependence. You could see the show, from the right, as an example of how the best social programs are a job, a family and self-discipline; you could see it, from the left, as an argument for the crucial importance of an under-funded government institution, the public school. You would be right both ways.

I suppose I agree with this in a micro-sense—the show is about relationships, not football—but I think the larger point is that FNL didn't so much bridge the red state-blue state divide as sidestep it. Given how overtly political the original book was, that took some work. The real-life inspiration for Tim Riggins took Buzz Bissinger hunting and complained that Americans don't make things anymore, while lamenting the fact that we didn't finish off the Japanese when we had a chance. Bissinger described a town gripped by a tea party-like fervor twenty years before the tea party, but the Dillon, Texas of FNL is exceptionally apolitical.

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Questions for Arne Duncan?

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 8:07 PM EST

Got a question for US Education Sec. Arne Duncan? Know a student who might? SparkAction!—a national youth news site—created an online contest where young people can post questions and vote for their favorites through February 18. Sec. Duncan will answer top questions on February 26 at the National Youth Summit in Washington, DC.

The Youth Summit is the closing event of the Department of Education's  National Youth Listening Tour.

To check out some short videos from the listening tour, including initial student responses on how to fix the US public education system, click here and here.

Is This the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse?

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 2:04 PM EST

Fox Nation raises the question:

Note the remarkable composure of the Egyptian protestors, who seem totally unfazed by the fact that the Fourth Horseman ("Death") had literally just ridden through their bodies on a horse. Also, if that's Death, whither Famine, Pestilence, and Destruction? Time to get the band back together, guys.

WATCH: Indie Lovers' Valentine's Video Mixtape

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 7:45 AM EST

 Ten songs, old and new, to swoon to with your hipster lover.... 

1. "You Really Got a Hold On Me," She and Him

2. "Rambling Man," Laura Marling

3. "Awake My Soul," Mumford and Sons

4. "Like U Crazy," Mates of State

5. "When I'm With You," Best Coast

6. "Maps," Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs

7. "VCR," The xx

8. "You Got the Love," Florence and the Machine

9. "Heartbeats," The Knife

10. "First Day of My Life," Bright Eyes

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [2]

| Sat Feb. 12, 2011 12:26 PM EST

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

1. The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology | Lawrence Wright | The New Yorker | Feb. 7, 2011 | 100 minutes (24,922 words)

Most shared story of the week. Writer-director Paul Haggis's decision to leave the Church of Scientology sets up an exhaustively reported piece (complete with five New Yorker fact-checkers) on the origins of the church, the cultivation of its celebrity following, abuse allegations involving Scientology leader David Miscavige, church defections and the war record of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. As Wright notes, "Hubbard wrote that he had been injured in battle and had healed himself, using techniques that became the foundation of Scientology." The story (spoiler alert) culminates in Wright's questioning of Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis about documents showing that Hubbard was never injured:

"His voice filling with emotion, he said that, if it was true that Hubbard had not been injured, then 'the injuries that he handled by the use of Dianetics procedures were never handled, because they were injuries that never existed; therefore, Dianetics is based on a lie; therefore, Scientology is based on a lie.' He concluded, 'The fact of the matter is that Mr. Hubbard was a war hero.'"

See also: NPR's Fresh Air interview (transcript) with Lawrence Wright, who reveals more about the in-person showdown between representatives of the Church of Scientology and The New Yorker. In the words of many Longreaders this week, it's "movie material."

2. How the Fridge Lost His Way | Tom Friend | ESPN | Feb. 6, 2011 | 25 minutes (6,324 words)

One of two stories this week examining the lives of retired NFL stars. For those who remember the 1985 Chicago Bears and the Super Bowl Shuffle, this one's heartbreaking: William "the Refrigerator" Perry continues to battle alcoholism and health problems after leaving the game. He stunned former teammates when he arrived at a 2009 autograph session being pushed in a wheelchair, frail and nearly unable to sign his name:

"By November 2010, all the bad habits, all the excuses and all of William's old demons were back.

"He was drinking beer again; not an excessive amount, but enough to manage his cravings.

"'Yeah, I admit to myself, yeah, I'm an alcoholic,' he says. 'It just keeps going, keeps going, keeps going and keeps going.'

"In November, the Bears organization staged its 25th anniversary reunion of the '85 team, and planned a raucous weekend in Chicago. The Fridge didn't attend, and when asked why, he says, 'I didn't even know of the anniversary.'"

See also: What Was He Thinking? Why Jake Plummer Left the NFL (Chris Ballard, new Sports Illustrated)

3. Consumed | Grayson Schaffer | Outside Magazine | Feb. 10, 2011 | 29 minutes (7,360 words)

South African kayaker Hendrik Coetzee, who led a historic source-to-sea expedition on the Nile in 2004, had planned one last adventure before calling it a career: a trip along the tributaries of the upper Congo River with two American kayakers, Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic. The trio misjudged the dangers:

The general rule in Africa is that alpha predators are still no match for men with guns, meaning that crocodiles and other monsters are at their most menacing in protected areas, where they can't be shot. For this reason, the team took particular care in Murchison Falls National Park, which is notorious for its aggressive animals. But on the Lukuga River, which is sporadically settled, 'wildlife was never really one of our primary concerns,' says Stookesberry.

"What the team didn't realize was that years of bloody skirmishes in the region had likely boosted the Lukuga's crocodile population. Many of the bodies of the estimated 5.4 million killed during 15 years of fighting have been dumped into rivers, where the reptiles developed a taste for human flesh and grew to enormous sizes relative to the waterways." 

More from Outside: In a House by the River (Megan Michelson, January 2011)

4. The Complete Oral History of 'Party Down' | Whitney Pastorek | Details | Feb. 10, 2011 | 46 minutes (11,396 words)

Second most-shared story of the week: A worthwhile recap—even if you've never watched the show—of the making (and cancellation) of the short-lived Starz TV comedy "Party Down." Reflections from the stars (Adam Scott, Jane Lynch, Lizzy Caplan), creators Rob Thomas, Paul Rudd and Dan Etheridge, and director Fred Savage, about the origins of the series, the actors' favorite moments, and what the Starz network execs wanted from them:

"By all accounts from the cast and crew, Starz was a supportive, hands-off partner and allowed the show to operate without being noted to death. The network pushed for only one thing: adult content.

DAN ETHERIDGE: Let's put it this way: We were asked by the network, and not in an offensive way, to explore premium content, and part of that was some nudity if it was possible. It made us all flinch a little bit. Porn awards ['Sin Say Shun Awards Afterparty'] was born from trying to take that request and figure out a way to do it that will enhance the show. Failed orgy ['Nick DiCintio's Orgy Night'], similar thing."

See also: Getting Made The Scorsese Way: The Oral History of "GoodFellas" (GQ, October 2010)

5. The Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, Haldol, Risperdal, Seroquel, Ambien, Lunesta, Elavil, Trazodone War | Jennifer Senior | New York Magazine | Feb. 7, 2011 | 19 minutes (4,800 words)

The state of our troops' mental health: "Our soldiers are falling apart." Repeated trips back into battle, followed by difficult adjustments back home—divorce, cultural disconnect—are leading to higher suicide rates. Notes Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli: "Don't ever underestimate what three, four, five deployments does to you." In New York, Senior meets 39-year-old former Army Reserve medic David Booth:

"I ask if being in New York is any better, since New Yorkers tend to be more open about their psychological pain than most people, discussing their drug dosages at dinner parties.

"He gives me a pained, strained look that makes me realize how foolish—how cavalier and beside the point—this question is. 'Yeah,' he finally says. 'But it's getting into the dinner party that’s hard. That's not going to happen. I was very outgoing before. Now I keep to myself.'"

More from Jennifer Senior: The Junior Meritocracy. Why kindergarten admissions tests are worthless, at best (New York Magazine, Jan. 2010)

Got a favorite Longread? Share it on Twitter (#longreads) or email it: mark@longreads.com

Atlas Shrugged: The Movie Trailer! (VIDEO)

| Fri Feb. 11, 2011 8:17 PM EST

You've waited patiently—oh, well, probably not. If you're excited about the filmic adaptation of Ayn Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, you're probably a tea partyin', Obama-hatin' "individualist" whose many interesting qualities don't include coolness, composure, or constancy. AS tells (in thousands of plodding pages) the epic story of a post-depression, collectivized USA in which the main movers of society—e.g., steel magnates, playboys, and pirates—drop off the grid to form a rural libertarian paradise, then storm the Oval Office to impose their benevolent, preachy coup on a commie president. Rand's novel is simultaneously a revolutionary rethinking of symbolic logic and a timeless meditation on the unbearable lightness of being a solipsistic prick.

This thing's been about to happen for a long time. At one point, Brangelina were rumored to star in a blockbuster, big-budget production worthy of Rand's cultish literary helots. But sadly, it wasn't meant to be: The trailer for Atlas Shrugged: Part I (of three) dropped today—see below—and judging from the cast and the production values, this thing is more Left Behind than Lord of the Rings. Still, you may recognize some cheery faces, like the guy from Ugly Betty and this dude, who played an Al Bundy-like patriarch in a short-lived '90s Fox sitcom that starred Bobcat Goldthwait as "Mr. Floppy."

Excited yet? How long do you have to wait for this hot mess of anti-tax art, you ask? ANARCHO-CAPITALISM IS DROPPING ON TAX DAY, 2011! April 15: Coming straight to a Netflix account near you! Formulate your drinking-game rules now: Take a shot every time a character says "self-sacrificer" or "bromide"! Just don't use "Who is John Galt?" as your drinking phrase; you'll be dead by the start of the second act.

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Why Hershey's Chocolate Isn't My Valentine

| Fri Feb. 11, 2011 7:03 AM EST

As far as sweet confections go, chocolate tops my list. But the sourcing reality of some mass-produced chocolate's main ingredient, cocoa, is a bitter pill to swallow.

Six years ago, children who had been trafficked from Mali to Cote d'Ivoire to work on cocoa plantations filed a lawsuit in US courts against Archer Daniels MidlandCargill, and Nestle. The children described being beaten and forced to work for 12 to 14 hours a day without pay, given little food and sleep. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Even though chocolate manufacturers like Cadbury, Ben & Jerry's, and Green & Black's (owned by Cadbury/Kraft) have agreed to increase their purchases of Fair Trade Certified cocoa, Hershey's has kept mum on its cocoa sources, according to a report released last year by four labor rights groups:

While Hershey's CEO received an $8 million compensation package in 2009, many of the farmers who grow cocoa in Cote D'Ivoire and Ghana that ends up in Hershey products are barely able to cover their costs, and as a result, use unpaid child labor and even forced labor on farms.

Global Exchange, the International Labor Rights Forum, and other fair trade groups are pressuring Hershey's to raise the bar on the company's international child labor policies. Mother Jones called the company to get its statement concerning the accusations, but didn't receive a response by press time. Break me off a piece of my heart.

What Was the President Smoking?

| Thu Feb. 10, 2011 7:00 AM EST

On Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that her husband has been cigarette-free for a year. This is great news for President Obama's life expectancy. But is it good for his legacy?

Obama was hardly the first occupant of the Oval Office to light one up every now and then. The overwhelming majority of American presidents have consumed tobacco in some form or another, and a few of them have even dabbled in other, more ilicit substances. So is there a correlation between, say, walking around with a wad of chewing tobacco in your cheeks and totally tanking as president? What about swearing off substances all together? Here's a crude comparison of our 10 greatest presidents and our 10 worst, based on C-Span's 2009 survey of historians. Erudite analysis and methodology below the jump:

"Waiting for Superman" at Mission High (Part 1)

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 3:00 PM EST

It's lunchtime at Mission High, and over homemade lamb dumplings a student has given him, teacher Amadis Velez and I are discussing the damning education documentary Waiting for Superman. Velez has never seen it. (Like most teachers I've talked to, he thinks WFS is an attack on teachers and refuses to pay to see it.) I've managed to talk Velez into watching a free press screener DVD of the film with his students and me as a classroom exercise, since the whole country seems embroiled in a bitter debate over how to "save" students from low-performing public schools without actually asking said students what they think about the achievement gap, charter schools, and teacher unions. The bell goes off, and Velez moves to the front of the class to begin a week of "Education and You" discussions in preparation for watching the movie.

"Today, we will be learning a new language," Velez starts out. "It's a language that I use, teachers use, media uses, Fox and CNN use. All of these adults are talking about you!" Velez says. Most of Velez's students are immigrants, who went to very different schools in China, El Salvador, Russia, and Panama before they landed at Mission High. Some are undocumented, living under constant threat of deportation in exchange for the highly coveted US college diploma. Some want to become teachers.

"How many of you know what a charter school is?" Velez asks. I look around the class of 23 students, and Josue is the only one with his hand up. "OK, let's back up, and talk about public and private schools for a minute," Velez says.

"How many of you know what a charter school is?" Velez asks. I look around the class of 23 students, and Jakob* is the only one with his hand up. "OK, let's back up, and talk about public and private schools for a minute," Velez says.

"Did we always have public schools?" he asks. "Nooo!" the class responds in unison. Why is that? Velez asks. "Before only rich kids could go to schools," a student at the front responds. "Why did they come up with public schools?" Velez asks. "So, everyone can have an education!" a student next to me responds, while many hands go up. "Could everyone get in right away?" Velez asks. "Noooo!" the class responds in unison, again. "Raise your hands, please," Velez reminds students. "Who got in first, Eman?" Velez asks a student at the front. "Men," she responds. "That's right, and did every race got in right away?" "Noooo!" the class says in unison, again. "White people got in first," a student next to me says.

"What do you think is a 'charter school?'" Velez asks Jakob. "Something like a half-public, half-private school," he responds. "Sort of," Velez responds, and discusses the rise of the charter school movement in the US.

"What do you think is an 'achievement gap?'" Velez probes next. Long silence. "Let's break it apart: What do they mean by the word 'achievement?" he asks. "Jobs, money, good college, dreams," students shout out. "That's right," Velez says. "And what do they mean by a 'gap?'" he asks. One hand goes up, "It means there is a difference," a student next to me responds. "Exactly," Velez says. "And what's the connection?" he probes further. "It means we are not reaching our goals," a student next to me says.

"Why do you think there is an achievement gap?" Velez asks. "Inequality!" one student responds, and Velez starts writing a list on the white dry-erase board. What else? he asks. The noise level rises as students throw out words: "Parents, giving up too soon, students not putting in enough effort, too much technology, too much entertainment, rules that create too many obstacles for immigrants, personality, too much work, Bush, culture, lack of counseling, my color."

"What do you think is an 'achievement gap?'" Velez probes next. Long silence.

"Something is missing here!" Velez asks. "What's missing?" No hands go up. "The box you are born into?" Jakob adds after a moment of silence. "What about teachers? What about your school? Shouldn't we add Mr. Velez and Mr. Guthertz to this list?" Velez wonders. After a brief silence, one student raises her hand and responds with a slight accent, "Our school doesn't give us that many problems."

*All student names changed.

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. Previous dispatch: Meet the undocumented student who got a Harvard interview—but doesn't want to go. Next dispatch: Mission High students react to "Waiting for Superman." Plus: Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get all of the latest Mission High dispatches.

Family Feud Goes to Pot

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 2:17 PM EST

This Family Feud segment has been spreading across the internet faster than wild weed on Kentucky highway median:

The laughs, of course, come from acknowledging the pervasiveness of pot in the kind of mainstream "family friendly" environment that dares not speak its name. As far as pothead culture goes, it's a major breakthrough. It kind of reminds me of what happened when I was visiting my conservative extended family in Texas over the Christmas holidays, having just published a few marijuana-related stories in Mother Jones. An aunt of mine who'd read them not only confessed that she was a pot smoker; she pulled out a giant bag of weed and asked if I wanted some. Go figure. Sometimes the battle lines of the culture wars are only in our heads.