2012 - %3, May

Your Weekend Longreads List on Bullying

| Sat May 12, 2012 3:05 AM EDT

longreadsWith bullying in the news this week after the Washington Post's investigation into Mitt Romney's private school years (more on this here, here, and here), I polled the Mother Jones newsroom for their favorite long-form journalism on bullying. For more long-form picks from the MoJo staff check out our shiny new page on longreads.com. For more long stories from the pages of Mother Jones, check out our longreads archive. And, of course, if you're not following @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter yet, get on that. Have a great weekend, readers!



"What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince?" | Emily Bazelon |  Slate | July 2010

Bazelon has owned the bully beat over at Slate the last few years and this deeply reported and brave series pushed back on the initial narrative of the Phoebe Prince suicide. 

"I'm upset and angry that bullying wasn't taken more seriously here before this," says Nina, almost 16, who was taunted for being a "poseur" by a group of girls in middle school. (I have changed the names of kids who talked to me but have not already been identified in the press.) But Phoebe's death "has been turned into this Lifetime movie plot. It's so unlike what actually happened."

Recommended by Mother Jones co-editor Monika Bauerlein.
 

Queer and Loathing: Does the Foster Care System Bully Gay Kids? | Jason Cherkis | Mother Jones | November 2010

The crisis facing gay foster kids told through the story of Kenneth Jones.

As a gay foster child in Washington, DC, Kenneth spent most of his weekends alone. By the summer of 2009, the isolation had gotten so bad that he'd started calling his cell-phone carrier's help line with imaginary complaints, just so he could vent to somebody about something. He would even text himself encouraging messages, like "Good job," or "Damn you so strong."

Recommended by senior editor Michael Mechanic.

"How to Bully Children" | Sarah Miller | The Awl | March 2012

A hilarious and moving account of the writer's experience sitting in on an anti-bullying class for 5th graders.

In an attempt to convey that I have literally nothing to do with the world of punishment and rewards that they currently inhabit, I add, out of laziness more than anything else, "I'm totally cool." This is a mistake.

Recommended by creative director Tim J Luddy and social media intern Nicole Pasulka.
 

"A Boy's Life: For Matthew Shepard's Killers, What Does it Take to Pass as a Man?" | JoAnn Wypijewski | Harper's | September 1999

Recommended by co-editor Clara Jeffery.
 

"The Teen Suicide Epidemic in Michele Bachmann's District" | Stephanie Mencimer | Mother Jones | July 2011

Two years. Nine suicides. Why critics blame the congresswoman's anti-gay allies for contributing to a mental health crisis.

The first was TJ. Then came Samantha, Aaron, Nick, and Kevin. Over the past two years, a total of nine teenagers have committed suicide in a Minnesota school district represented by Rep. Michele Bachmann—the latest in May—and many more students have attempted to take their lives. State public health officials have labeled the area a "suicide contagion area" because of the unusually high death rate.

Some of the victims were gay, or perceived to be by their classmates, and many were reportedly bullied. And the anti-gay activists who are some of the congresswoman's closest allies stand accused of blocking an effective response to the crisis and fostering a climate of intolerance that allowed bullying to flourish. Bachmann, meanwhile, has been uncharacteristically silent on the tragic deaths that have roiled her district—including the high school that she attended.

Recommended by online editor Sam Baldwin.

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What If You Could Write Just One Thing a Year?

| Fri May 11, 2012 5:21 AM EDT

In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 20 percent of the peas in his back garden produced 80 percent of the peas he later consumed. The Pareto principle is now a common business idiom, the so-called "80/20 rule" that predicts 80 percent of sales will come from 20 percent of one's clients. Dan Shapiro, a tech entrepreneur in Seattle, says the Pareto principle is at play in the news media, too, with a handful of each day's stories containing valuable information and context, but hard to fish out from a river of noise. Taking a page from the 140-character Twitter playbook and the artificial constraints imposed by sites like Path, which lets you add only 50 friends to your network, Shapiro reasoned that rationing breeds good decision making. "Arbitrary limits can be powerful creative forces. I thought, 'What if you could just say one thing, but you got to shout it from the rooftops for everyone to hear?'"

The idea behind Shapiro's new side project—he's a product manager at Google and former CEO of Ontela—plays with creative constraints: anyone who signs up at his site, The Best Thing This Year, gets to post one item every 364 days to an email distribution list. Anyone can sign up, and only members can post to the list. You can't post again for a whole year, so you'd better make it count. 

Shapiro expects that a lot of list members will be hawking their own projects and companies, and he's fine with that. If you can only post once a year, he figures, you'll probably write about your absolute very best work and put your best foot forward, making for some fascinating reads. Shapiro plans to post to the list himself, but has no clue what topic to take. "I'm terrified of the pressure to figure it out!" he says. "But that's part of the fun. As someone said on Twitter, "Now I have to stress for 364 days figuring out what to write."

TBTTY's first post went out last night, a nice writeup from the founder of a digital entertainment studio about his new "alternate reality gaming" site Rides.tv, where you watch web sitcoms in which the characters call your cell phone (you supply your number when you sign up for the site) and send emails to your inbox. Sign up for TBTTY here, but if you want to contribute sometime this decade, you'll need to move fast: 1,200 have tossed their names into the hat so far, and the waiting list to contribute is equally long. Shapiro says he's not looking to make money off of the site, though. "This is just a tiny experiment," he says. "Someone told me it was just a mailing list with a gimmick, and I don't dispute that for a minute. I like gimmicks, and I'm excited to see what comes of this one."

The Avengers As "9/11 Revenge Fantasy"

| Wed May 9, 2012 12:10 PM EDT

Even as popular culture becomes increasingly geekified, it's still fairly easy to find examples of mainstream cultural criticism that curls its lip in disgust at anything vaguely associated with fantasy or science fiction.

New Yorker film critic Richard Brody's latest effort, however, represents a welcome exception to that snobbish trend. Brody largely grasps the real politics behind the latest geek triumph The Avengers, and behind much of the post-9/11 appropriation of geek culture in blockbuster films:

"The Avengers" is an impressive feat of cinematic engineering, a work of prodigious skill and efficiency that carries out its cartoonish mission while addressing graver concerns—the construction of a post-9/11 revenge fantasy that takes place against the backdrop of unpopular foreign wars.

The war of the worlds is ignited by the rebellion of Loki against Thor— the wrathful perverter of a distantly alien religion that preaches peace with Earth. The story builds to an attack by the upstart and his myrmidons that lays waste to a swath of streets in a heavily trafficked Manhattan business district. The preface to the attack is a midair hijacking. The supergroup’s climactic, heroic last stand takes the form of legitimate defense, harking back to Second World War movies (earlier on, Captain America even has an interlude in Stuttgart, accompanied by the water-lapping rhythms of Schubert's great "Rosamunde" quartet, that alludes to the war against Hitler); and a commando mission against the enemy's mother ship resembles nothing so much as the daring assault on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad complex.

Brody is probably reaching with that Abbotabad comparison, but his observation about The Avengers as a kind of post-9/11 "revenge fantasy" could be applied to the superhero film genre writ large. Conservatives embraced Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy as the invasion of Iraq went south because imagining that the war in Iraq was an existential battle between the forces of light and darkness helped them avoid the reality that it wasn't. Superhero films provide a similar reassurance for a nation that, more than a decade after 9/11, still seems willing to forfeit just about any freedom in exchange for the feeling of safety. Superhero flicks often tell us that matters of good and evil are relatively simple to discern, and that in the end, someone is always going to save us. The closest we get to moral ambiguity in The Avengers is the Hulk, whose uncontrollable, monstrous instincts nudge the audience ever so slightly into considering the danger of an angry, omnipotent child.  

As Chris Hayes wrote shortly after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, "In the wake of 9/11, the phrase 'bad guys' infiltrated our national conversation, and its continued prevalence serves as a testament to the ways the trauma has warped our national character."

The phrase is self-consciously playful but also insidious. An adult who invokes it is expressing a layered set of propositions. What "bad guys" says, roughly, is this: "I'm an adult who has considered the nature of the moral universe we live in and concluded that it really is black and white. I've decided that my earliest, most childlike conception of heroes and villains is indeed the accurate one, which only later came to be occluded by nuance and wishy-washy, bleeding-heart self-doubt. I reject that more complicated, mature conception as false. I embrace the child's vision of the world."

With films like The Avengers, we get all the unambiguously evil "bad guys" we want, and we get to see them lose, over and over again. That attitude would be fine if we were able to leave it in the movie theater along with our 3-D glasses. But most of us don't. We take it with us whenever we think about our wars, whether literal,  cultural, or metaphorical. We frequently "embrace the child's vision of the world," because it's easier to want to keep fighting wars that way. There's only one thing to do with "bad guys," after all: beat them.

Book Review: Lizz Free or Die

| Wed May 9, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Lizz Free or Die

By Lizz Winstead

RIVERHEAD BOOKS

In 1991, while watching CNN's coverage of the first night of Desert Storm on a bad blind date at a sports bar, political satirist Lizz Winstead had an epiphany: "Are they reporting on a war, or are they trying to sell me a war?" Thus began her obsession with "breaking down the media breakdown" that led her to cocreate The Daily Show in 1996. In this charming essay collection, Winstead traces her evolution from the "unladylike" baby daughter of a large Catholic family in Minnesota to a comedian who found "a way to use humor to speak truth to power." She tells of getting an abortion after being knocked up by her hockey player boyfriend in high school, spending a fortune on her dogs' waste problems, and saying goodbye to her dying father—all with insight and understated humor.

An Expat Dad's Cartoon Adventures in the Holy Land

| Tue May 8, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Guy Delisle makes comic books. But not that kind. A "graphic memoirist," he creates thoughtful autobiographical travelogues about off-the-beaten-path locales. His latest, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, follows French-Canadian househusband on a yearlong stay in the the fragmented, violent, often absurd world that is Israel and the Palestinian territories.

His earlier travel books have covered sojourns in China and North Korea, where he worked as an animator, and Burma, where he tagged along with his wife, Nadège, who worked for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders). He says he didn't sell a huge number of his first book, Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, "but things have changed a lot." Jerusalem, the English language version of which just came out in April, hit the top of the New York Times Graphic Novel bestseller list and just won the prestigious Fauve d'Or prize for best comic album at this year's International Comics Festival in Angoulême, France. The 46-year-old Delisle says the political subject matter appeals to people who usually regard comics as frivolous: "People go for these works—for more mature subjects."

But even though Jerusalem is a meditation on politics and religion, it seems inadvertent. Delisle says he knew nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian situation when he landed at Ben Gurion airport in August 2008, accompanying Nadège on another MSF assignment: "I was a blank slate. I didn't even know what a settlement was. I imagined it as a couple of little houses on a hill."

Book Review: Home

| Mon May 7, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Home

By Toni Morrison

ALFRED A. KNOPF

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is known for novels in which female protagonists struggle to wrest control of their lives from an establishment bent on their destruction. Home, by contrast, tells the story of Korean War vet Frank Money, who returns from the battlefield plagued by visions of his friends' deaths and a disturbing episode that cuts at the roots of his sexual and moral identity. While his demons are mostly internal, Money still struggles to find a place in a society where "there was no goal other than breathing, nothing to win...nothing to survive or worth surviving for." Salvation awaits, however, in his tiny Georgia hometown.

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M83 Takes Synthpop Back to the Future

| Mon May 7, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

M83 performs at The Fillmore in San Francisco, April 22, 2012.: Photo: Katrina PagaduanM83 at the Fillmore on April 22. Photo: Katrina Pagaduan

Anthony Gonzalez's music has been called "celestial, epic, and astral," and it's no wonder. The charming 31-year-old behind synthpop group du jour M83 is quite the science-fiction nerd. He grins sheepishly as he recalls the late-'70s and early-'80s sci-fi flicks whose soundtracks helped inspire M83's lush, grand sonic persona. He even uses space analogies, and speaks of music as a portal. "The only way I found to reconnect with my past was to write songs about my childhood and my teenage years," Gonzalez says.

Growing up in on the French Riviera in the '80s, he fell in love with music and began playing guitar and later keyboards—he studied piano as a lad—but his career would take a while to germinate. Over more than a decade, Gonzalez made five M83 albums, and scored tours with the Killers and Depeche Mode. But his big break came just late last year, when his latest, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 and hit No. 1 in the US Dance/Electronic category. His single, "Midnight City," topped Pitchfork's list of the year's top 100 tracks, beating out Adele, tUnE-yArDs, and Kanye West. This momentum landed M83 a major slot at Coachella this year, and the current tour has sold out in advance. Luckily, I scored a pass for one of the very first shows, at The Fillmore in San Francisco. In his backstage dressing room, clad in dark jeans and a fitted white T-shirt showing off his muscular physique, Gonzalez told me about his sci-fi fandom, his need to overproduce, and the scary part about making music in an era when anyone with a laptop can do it.

Mother Jones: Are you happy with people's response to the new album?

Review: Julia Holter's Irresistible Ekstasis

| Mon May 7, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Julia Holter
Ekstasis
RVNG

The first time I heard "In the Same Room," off Julia Holter's heady new album Ekstasis, it was buried in a playlist of new releases; I had no idea who or what it was, but I knew I had to hear it again—and again, and again, and again. Opening with a drum-machine beat and a melodic synth riff, it's the poppiest song on the album by far—albeit pop that takes Monteverdi as a muse—and if you're anything like me you won't want to listen to anything else for days. The rest of the album hooks you less immediately, but give it a fair chance and it'll get there.

It's hard to describe Holter's music without using the word "ethereal," but that generic term, conjuring Enya and other New Age-y types, doesn't really do it justice. It's in the general vein of experimental indie-pop (though Holter rejects that categorization), but with profoundly classical and ambient elements; it'll come as no surprise to learn Holter was trained in avant-garde classical composition and keyboard at CalArts. Choral and organ elements in songs like "Marienbad," another standout, at times border on the gothic or even occult, while "Goddess Eyes II" and "Goddess Eyes I" repeat the vocoder-processed lyric "I can see you/but my eyes are not allowed to cry," a line taken from the Euripides play that inspired all of Holter's first album, Tragedy. If that all sounds too solemn and portentous, it's not, at least not always: on "Für Felix," for example, Holter is light and chirpy, sing-songing Alice in Wonderland-esque lyrics: "think you're two feet tall/in the morning time will follow."

RIP Adam "MCA" Yauch, 1964-2012

| Fri May 4, 2012 5:08 PM EDT

Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, known to most as MCA, died on Friday at the age of 47. The news was met with an outpouring of grief and respect from fans, writers, and musicians. The group began as Jewish white boys from New York City who rapped about girls and parties. Over the next 30 years the Beastie Boys grew up, made the seminal record "Paul's Boutique" with the Dust Brothers, embraced politics—in particular the movement to free Tibet—and earned a place as one of the most influential acts in hip hop. 

In 2009, Yauch announced that he'd been diagnosed with cancer. He played Bonnaroo with the Beastie Boys that year, in what would be his last concert. 

Alan Light was a senior editor at Rolling Stone, founding music editor and editor-in-chief of Vibe, and editor-in-chief of Spin magazine. In 2006 he published a book about the Beastie Boys, Skills to Pay the Bills. He talked with us about Yauch's legacy and his transformation from a talented-yet-obnoxious New York City rapper to the conscience of the Beastie Boys.

Mother Jones: Do you have a favorite memory of MCA?

Alan Light: They did only a couple of shows when "Paul's Boutique" came out, and I remember they did a show at the really crappy club in Chelsea called The Building. It was packed and sweaty and people were hanging from the pipes. They did an incredible show. They were still recovering from "Licensed to Ill," trying to figure out life after, and "Paul's Boutique" was so unappreciated. There was a clear purpose they had, even if the world hadn't figured it out. That was the best show I saw them do—though I never saw them do a bad show.

The Bonnaroo show was their last performance, I guess. Which is strange to think about. And how great that was. They canceled Lollapalooza after that and other festivals.

When I used to live downtown in New York, we lived near each other and I remember running into him on the sidewalk sometimes. With all of those guys, obviously, they changed and they evolved in so many ways. But who they really were and what they were about? That didn't change. You'd still see them on the subway, on a bike, or skateboard, on the block. They could just move around freely themselves and still be those guys.

If you look at the way the band evolved and transformed and think about the unbelievably surprising ways they were able to transform from what they started as, nobody really embodied that more than Yauch. In the beginning, he was the most obnoxious, and then he became the conscience of the band and was one of the leading political activists of his musical generation. He changed more than any of them.

MJ: What was that about? Was it because he'd converted to Buddhism?

You never know what's the cause and what's the effect. I think that he went through a very concrete and step by step transformation. He got deep into his snowboarding and that side of his life, which took him to Nepal, which then led him to awareness of the Tibetan cause, which led him to the Buddhist way of thinking. And each of those happened a step at a time. It wasn't a sudden enlightenment; he was very thrown by the "Licensed to Ill" experience and they were trying to find a way to live their lives after that. It wasn't a weird phase, it genuinely was an evolution.

MJ: I've been sort of amazed at how touched so many people are. I feel surprised, even though I knew he had cancer. 

AL: You get used to early deaths from rock stars—overdoses or plane crashes, sudden results of this crazy lifestyle. You don't really think of them getting sick like other people do and not making it. It's a different thing to respond to than Tupac or Michael Jackson.

We probably all should have paid more attention to him not going to the Hall of Fame. Obviously in retrospect that was a more significant sign that more was going on than most of us took it for. The last things that were reported were that he was improving, and he was able to finish the record.

MJ: When you think of MCA, as a musician, a rapper, what comes to mind now?

AL: The thing I keep thinking of  is "A Year and a Day" on "Paul's Boutique." In the middle of the medley there's that solo that he does with the Isley Brothers sample.

That's where it feels like he started to put out his spiritual thing, where he seeded where he was going. He actually was the best rhymer. He was the music bass line, but also the base of the group.

I always really liked him. He wasn't the biggest talker of the three, but he was always the best interview. It was hard to get [Adam] Horowitz not to do schtick, but in the end the most interesting thing from when you would sit and talk to them came from Yauch. Whenever I wrote about them it would always surprise me it was quotes from him I was leaning on the hardest.

The Tyranny of Dumb Book Titles

| Wed May 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Hey, is that a cli-CHÉ Guevara t-shirt?  In his newly released book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, Jonah Goldberg argues that liberals craftily use innocuous-sounding yet hackneyed phrases such as "social justice" and "diversity" to obscure their nefarious intentions. Never mind that issue-framing is nothing new in American politics and that conservatives are pretty darn good at it. And never mind that Goldberg's last book, Liberal Fascism, indulged in the very argument-by-sloganeering that he now decries.

Let's focus on the book's title, a call to arms against trite reductionism—which just happens to echo the title of no fewer than 52 previously published books, including:

The Tyranny of the Majority

The Tyranny of the Minority

The Tyranny of the Two-Party System

The Tyranny of The Status Quo

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

The Tyranny of Liberalism

The Tyranny of Socialism

The Tyranny of Corporations

The Tyranny of The Market

The Tyranny of The Bottom Line

The Tyranny of Poverty

The Tyranny of Work

The Tyranny of Words

The Tyranny of Numbers

The Tyranny of Mathematics

The Tyranny of Data

The Tyranny of Values

The Tyranny of Elegance

The Tyranny of History

The Tyranny of Choice

The Tyranny of Ambiguity

The Tyranny of Health

The Tyranny of Slenderness

The Tyranny of Food

The Tyranny of Taste

The Tyranny of Pleasure

The Tyranny of Sex

The Tyranny of Guilt

The Tyranny of Noise

The Tyranny of Change

The Tyranny of The Urgent

The Tyranny of Unintended Consequences

The Tyranny of Magical Thinking

The Tyranny of Kindness

The Tyranny of Nice

The Tyranny of Malice

The Tyranny of Science

The Tyranny of Experts

The Tyranny of Shams

The Tyranny of Judges

The Tyranny of Reason

The Tyranny of Relativism

The Tyranny of Opinion

The Tyranny of Tolerance

The Tyranny of E-Mail

The Tyranny of Gun Control

The Tyranny of Time

The Tyranny of Heaven

The Tyranny of God

The Tyranny of Love

The Tyranny of Hate

The Tyranny of Irony 

Book titles via Library of Congress

Front page image by Tom Newby Photography/Flickr