2011 - %3, November

My Accidental Thanksgiving With the Tran Family

| Thu Nov. 24, 2011 4:00 AM PST

To share a meal is to know a nation. That's what I think. A year ago this Thanksgiving (before I worked for Mother Jones), a long-running mixup led me on a remarkable and memorable adventure. It all started with spam. 

Four years ago, I'd started receiving group emails from the Tran Family, Somewhere USA, detailing Thanksgiving preparations. Surely these emails were intended for some other James West, I thought, and I deleted or ignored them. But they kept coming. By Thanksgiving 2010, curiosity got the better of me. I decided to investigate this enduring case of mistaken identity—who were these folks? And was the real James West upset he’d never received their holiday emails?

I tracked them down, culminating in a YouTube video clip that went viral and sparked a journey around the world, from Sydney to West Palm Beach Florida in time for the Tran Family Thanksgiving. What were the odds? America’s slowest news week, cravings around identity and tradition, and social media all combined to land me in the center of this extraordinary family's hospitality.

The story took on a life of its own, and among the thousands of online comments on the video, something else surprising and heart-warming materialized: a long list of invites to share meals around America. Arizona, Austin, Chicago, Seattle, New York, Rhode Island, San Francisco.

So I made this trailer. And maybe one day, when I have the time (wink, nudge MJ editors!), I'll discover more Thanksgiving tables across America as welcoming as the Tran's.

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Rocky Balboa Heads to Broadway

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 2:40 PM PST
Sly should seriously think about getting those veins checked out.

In 2011, the American people witnessed all kinds of previously unfathomable weirdness: For starters, we found out that small albino cyclops sharks really do exist. We saw the ex-CEO of Godfather's Pizza actually become the front-runner in the 2012 Republican presidential field. The White House told us that an alien invasion was not imminent. And just this week MoJo senior editor Dave Gilson gave us a disturbing, childhood-ravaging mash-up of The Adventures of Tintin and Newt Gingrich.

After being through so much, we're almost at the end of the year. 2011 can't possibly get any weirder now, can it?

Oh, yes. Yes it can. The Los Angeles Times' "Culture Monster" reported on Tuesday:

Sylvester Stallone is getting back in the ring with Rocky Balboa one more time -- but not as a star. The actor is co-producing "Rocky: The Musical," based on the Oscar-winning 1976 movie that launched his career.

The star appeared alongside his co-producers, the Ukranian boxing stars (and siblings) Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, at a press event in Hamburg, Germany, where the musical is set to open in November 2012.

Inspired by the box office success of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," and surely not intimidated by the troubles that musical encountered along the way, Stallone and company are reframing the underdog boxing tale as a love story between Rocky and Adrian..."Rocky" purists shouldn't fear -- hits from the films, including "Gonna Fly Now" and "Eye of the Tiger," will be included in the show...The world champion Klitschko brothers will help train the performers in boxing maneuvers.

Let me get this straight: They are turning Rocky into a musical.

And this man...

...is producing the show in Germany. I'm sure it'll end up being the manliest, most steroid-cocktail-drenched musical play ever to grace the stage, but...a musical?

Is this real life? This isn't an Onion headline? Does this mean we should expect The Expendables: The Musical to make its Broadway debut soon, too?

Stallone, famous for insane bodybuilding, his endorsement of fun, cancerous products in his films, and a popular action franchise that completely misses the point of its first movie, announced in March that he is also kicking off a new men's brand clothing line inspired by the fashion sense of (you guessed it) Rocky Balboa. Perhaps the musical is just more of the same cross-promo.

Thanksgiving Music Top 12

Wed Nov. 23, 2011 12:10 PM PST

We asked Mother Jones staffers to take a break from the hard news for a minute to reflect on what artists, songs, albums, videos, etc. they feel thankful for in 2011. Here, in no particular order, are an even dozen things they came up with.

1. I’m thankful for the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra for bringing Fela Anikulapo Kuti back to the people. (Few artists fought more ferociously for the 99%.)

2. Still reeling from Tyler the Creator and Hodgy Beats' apeshit performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. (And yeah, we get it, Mos Def: swag.)

3. Lisa Hannigan's Tiny Desk Concert in October ("Knots", "Little Bird", "Passenger"), because even if you're not really a folkie, her transcendent vocals will totally light you up.

4. Johnny Flynn live at the Independent with the Sussex Wit was a night I never wanted to end.

5. The Current, Minnesota Public Radio's 24-hour music station, because at least one node on the FM dial has to play something other than Pitbull and Kei$ha all day. 

6. Portishead, "It Could Be Sweet," Because when they finally toured North America in 2011 after 13 years, it totally was.

7. Robyn's "Call Your Girlfriend" video, because the world needs more moonwalking, gyrating Swedes.

8. Rebecca Black's "Friday," because we desperately needed her soulful explication of social problems—like the front-seat-back-seat convertible dilemma.

9. The tUnE-yArDs' "Gangsta," a much-needed antidote to wannabe rappers and thugs—but points deducted for annoying punctuation.

10. Oh Land's "Wolf and I," because you can never have enough love triangles between the sun, the moon, and a wolf, howled with silky harmonies and a sexy Danish accent.

11. SuperHeavy's "Miracle Worker," because Mick Jagger's Mick Jagger. (And he somehow pulls off this pink suit splendidly.)

12. Frank Turner's England Keep My Bones, because who'd have thought, that after all, something as simple as rock and roll would save us all.


 

Click here for more music features from Mother Jones.

Newt Gingrich Goes to the Congo

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 4:00 AM PST

Newt Gingrich isn't ashamed to tout his background as a historian, but few Americans probably know that he received his history PhD for a dissertation about the Belgian Congo. Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating has read Gingrich's 1971 dissertation, "Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960," and reports that he found the young Gingrich's attitude toward colonialism to be "remarkably benign, often drifting into 'White Man's Burden' territory." Morehouse poli-sci professor and Congo expert Laura Seay drew a similar conclusion after she read the thesis, which Gingrich appears to have written without setting foot in the former Belgian colony (then Zaire).

Hearing of Gingrich's paper reminded me of another apology for colonial Congo: Tintin au Congo (Tintin in the Congo), a notoriously racist comic book starring the beloved Belgian boy reporter. First published in the early '30s, it was later mildly revised but went unpublished in English for decades. It remains a stain on the career of its creator, Hergé, as well as that of his soon to be even more famous protagonist. (A Belgian court recently rejected an attempt to have it banned for being racist.)

Anyway, that got me thinking, what would happen if boy historian Newt "Gingin" Gingrich ventured into Tintin's world? (All substantial quotes in the mashup below are from Gingrich's dissertation.)     

Donald Trump's $3 Billion Name

| Tue Nov. 22, 2011 2:42 PM PST
That's my name, don't wear it out!

Fox News has obtained a copy of Donald Trump's upcoming book, in which he addresses a touchy subject: His net worth. The real estate magnate turned reality TV star turned Birther presidential wanna-be has never been keen on disclosing his true wealth—probably because it's not as impressive as he'd like us to believe. In 2006, Trump sued a journalist who'd reported that he was only worth between $150 and $250 million; Trump claimed he was worth at least $2.7 billion.

Now, according to Trump's book, he's worth more than $7 billion. Of that, $3 billion is the value of the Trump brand, i.e., his name.

How do you get your name to be worth a purported $3 billion? First, you slap it onto every kind of product imaginable, from hotels to perfume to a vanity beer label. Here's a selection from the more than 200 trademark applications The Donald™ has filed in his own name:

The Donald

Trump Style

Trump Class

Trump Touch

Donald J. Trump, the Fragrance

Trumpnet

Purely Trump

Trump Steaks

Oysters Trump

Trump's Golden Lager

Trump's American Pale Ale

Trump Vodka

Trump Ice

Trumptini

Trump Card

Trump Furntiture

Trump Home

Trump Office

Trump World

Trump Money

Trump Mortgage

The Donald J. Trump Credit Card

The Donald J. Trump Signature Collection

The Trump Art Collection

Trump Concierge Service

Trump D'Elegance

Trump Attaché

Trump Versailles

Trump Royale

Tour de Trump

Trump Super Speedway

Trump's World's Fair

The Trump World Open

Trump University

Trump Institute

Trump Airlines

Trump Air

Trump the Game

Trumped

Trump Tycoon

Trump Fire

Trump Power

Trump Icon

The Trump Follies

Source: US Patent and Trademark Office

The Music Video The Church of Scientology Doesn't Want You To See

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 9:35 AM PST
After much searching, this turned out to be really the only suitable metaphor for any of this.

Nothing is off limits in rap music these days. The violence of American gangsta rap? American mainstream. Pervasive misogyny? Sure, why not? Cheerleading for ironfisted Islamist rule in Tunisia? Ain't no thing.

But a rap song praising the transcendent, pharma-bashing power of Scientology?

That may be a new one.

Behold: the music video that officially makes all concept of satire irrelevant

This song—which sounds like a cross between "Empire State of Mind" and Vanilla Ice's Wisdom, Tenacity and Focus, with a melodic dash of the seminal "Smell Yo Dick—stands as the single most gangsta thing the Church of Scientology has ever accomplished (not counting their, you know, deep infiltration of the US federal government in the 1970s aimed at eliminating reports critical of the Church). The music video, originally circulated exclusively within church membership, was uncovered by Tony Ortega of the Village Voice, who writes:

We believe that the track is by "Chill EB," a hip hop artist who credits Scientology with extending his career, such as it is. The name of the song is "Dauntless, Defiant, and Resolute," the title track of Chill's latest CD. (Chill himself doesn't actually appear in the video.) The IAS [an acronym repeated five times in the song] is the International Association of Scientologists, a happenin' organization for which Scientologists are constantly hit up for expensive memberships.

Baffling lyrical gems include (click here for the complete lyrics):

Giving solutions to the world and the whole human race/We ain't never gonna back down, leave town, play the clown/Psychiatry and SPs you know we take 'em down!

Brings the calm and the peace/Helping all reduce crime - even the police/Psychotropic drugs - we'll make a thing of the past/Expose the fraud of the psychs and watch them dwindle real fast.

And my personal favorite:

Yo, it's truly fantastic/Cuz there ain't no limit to what we can do/So I wanna see you up your status/Yeah, you and you and you and you too!

By all means, [insert cheap Tom Cruise joke here].

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From Rock Musician to Anti-Slavery Activist

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 4:00 AM PST
Justin Dillon with Tremolo in 2007.

You've probably never heard of Justin Dillon or his band, Tremolo. After all, until fairly recently, his career was pretty unremarkable: By 2003, Tremolo had developed a following playing the usual tour circuits. They'd even landed tracks on a few films and television shows, including How to Deal, a romantic comedy starring Mandy Moore, and were awaiting an offer from Capitol Records to cut their first album.

"It was a weird phase where Capitol had a hold on us and we were all excited," Dillon recalls earlier this month as we sit in his sun-basked office in Oakland, California's iconic Tribune Tower. Wispy haired with hazel eyes, Dillon sports a militaristic look: khaki-green Mao cap, dark-washed jeans, black boots, 10 o'clock shadow.

Not wanting to sit around stressing about the record deal—which never materialized—the band accepted an invitation from a nonprofit to spend a week performing in a remote corner of Eastern Europe. Soon, Tremolo was in a town in Kalmykia, a Russian territory bordering the Black Sea. "Like, way the hell out there," Dillon says. "It wasn't hard to impress people because there was nothing to compare us to."

2-Stepping With the Blind Boys of Alabama

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 4:00 AM PST

After seven decades, you wouldn't expect the Blind Boys of Alabama to be dabbling in reinvention. After all, with five Grammys, more than 60 albums, and a spot in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame under its belt, this legendary group has quite clearly cracked the elusive code to stardom.

And yet, the Blind Boys are always shaking something up: Their classic songs of praise have backed everything from cuddly Disney movies to gritty TV dramas like The Wire and Lost. Bucking partisanship, they've performed at both the Bush and Obama White Houses. These seven men—four blind, three sighted—have taken their sound far beyond religious settings, sharing a stage with Prince, sampling styles from rock to reggae, and even treading the late-night circuitLeno, Conan, Letterman—with unflappable poise. Now on tour for Take the High Road, their first ever country-gospel record, their quiet rebelliousness is alive and well.

But if you ask what drives their medley of achievements, the answer is streamlined and unequivocal: "It all has to be centered around gospel," says vocalist Jimmy Carter. "We don’t deviate from that."

Video: Occupy Oakland in Spoken Word

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 5:24 PM PST

Here's a powerful look back at Occupy Oakland's general strike (feels like forever ago, doesn't it?) by spoken-word artist Drew Dellinger and filmmaker Velcrow Ripper. And if you want to relive that intensely crazy night, here's our liveblog from November 2nd.

The Arizona Cactus-Cat Crisis and the Media Frenzy

| Mon Nov. 14, 2011 7:45 AM PST
"Cross me, and I'll mess you up."

Behold, the greatest use of AP column space that has ever been:

SAGUARO LAKE, Ariz. (AP) — A lot of cats get stuck in trees, but an Arizona kitty was perched atop a giant saguaro cactus for at least three days before finally coming down on its own.

Residents living in a desert area northeast of Phoenix noticed the black cat with white patches at the very top of the 30- to 40-foot cactus.

At times, the feline would stand up and survey the area, possibly trying to figure out how to get down — or how it got up there.

Helicopter video from ABC15.com...shows the cat eventually climbing down the cactus Friday. It started making its way down head-first before turning around and scooting backward. It finally took a big leap and landed on its feet before wandering into the desert.

The story was picked up by folks at the Washington Post, the UK's Daily Mail, the Chicago Tribune, UPI, Indiana's the News-Sentinel, Salon.com, and the Huffington Post, all of whom likely thought that the cat made for more compelling weekend news than yet another Republican debate.

Here is the ABC affiliate's helicopter footage (take a minute to absorb that: helicopter footage...) of the gripping climax of the great 72-Hour Saguaro Lake Cactus-Cat Crisis of November 2011: