Mojo - July 2008

MoJo Prison Issue Banned From Prisons

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 11:38 AM PDT

We must be more street-smart than we thought here at Mother Jones. Apparently, our list of cellblock slang in the current issue was too realistic for actual prison censors. One would-be reader wrote us from Pickaway Correctional Institution in central Ohio after his copy of Mother Jones was confiscated because—according to the prison's Notice of Withholding Printed Material—the article "appears to be written in cipher or code, or that instructs in the use of cipher or code."

The magazine-less 73-year-old prisoner who wrote us reported "evidently, you are doing something right. Alas, I shall never know what it is, since the state of Ohio won't deliver your July issue." But he's not going to just let it slide: "I intend to ask if they will deliver the magazine, after excising p. 59." On the envelope he wrote: "First Amendment! First Amendment! First Amendment!"

Hopefully the censors will reconsider their definition of the First Amendment for our wanna-be reader, especially since they already allow books like The Hitler We Loved And Why in prison libraries.

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Will John McCain Make Exorcism (Literally) a Campaign Issue?

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 10:49 AM PDT

As John McCain moves to select a running mate, it seems--at least for the moment--that the star of potential veep nominee Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor, is rising. This is good news for Democrats.

On one level, Jindal is impressive. The son of Indian immigrants, he's only 37 years old, and he has already been elected a member of the U.S. House and a governor. (Talk about a Junior Achiever!) Yet can McCain, who claims Obama is not sufficiently experienced to become president, say with a straight face that Jindal is prepared to take the helm? And Jindal's record in Louisiana--including his stint in charge of the state health department--has its spotty moments. Then there's that exorcism.

Blogs and news outfits have already picked over a 1994 essay that Jindal, a convert to Catholicism, wrote for a Catholic magazine, describing an exorcism of a friend in which he was an observer/participant. Not only did Jindal and his pals manage to drive the Satanic demon out of their friend; the exercise, Jindal suggested, also cured her skin cancer. The article was entitled, "Physical Dimensions of Spiritual Warfare."

Americans tend to be quite religious. Most tell pollsters they believe in heaven and hell (and assume they are heading upward, not downward, once they expire). Many tend to believe literally in the devil. But how will an amateur exorcism--that violated Catholic law (which allows only certified exorcists to perform the ritual in very limited circumstances)--play with, say, swing voters? No doubt, Jindal will have to discuss the episode. With Oprah perhaps? That would indeed be Must See TV.

Here's one excerpt of his article that an interviewer might want to ask about:

While Alice and Louise held Susan, her sister continued holding the Bible to her face. Almost taunting the evil spirit that had almost beaten us minutes before, the students dared Susan to read biblical passages. She choked on certain passages and could not finish the sentence "Jesus is Lord." Over and over, she repeated "Jesus is L..L..LL," often ending in profanities. In between her futile attempts, Susan pleaded with us to continue trying and often smiled between the grimaces that accompanied her readings of Scripture. Just as suddenly as she went into the trance, Susan suddenly reappeared and claimed "Jesus is Lord."
With an almost comical smile, Susan then looked up as if awakening from a deep sleep and asked, "Has something happened?" She did not remember any of the past few hours and was startled to find her friends breaking out in cheers and laughter, overwhelmed by sudden joy and relief.

As a vice presidential candidate, Jindal would be under great pressure--and ought to be--to make other participants in the event available for interview. In the article, he used fake names. But he insisted every single detail was true. Given that such an event must have had a profound impact on him--he came face to face with a real demon!-- this possible president-in-waiting would be obligated to prove that he got the story right, that he was not exaggerating. (Remember how the press and the GOPers went after Al Gore's claims in 2000 with a vengeance?) And the media, of course, would be on the hunt to find "Susan" to get her side of the tale. (Enquiring minds might want to know if her skin cancer is still gone.)

Is Jindal prepared to disclose more about this exorcism? Is the McCain campaign prepared to see more disclosed? The event is a legitimate target for voter interest and media scrutiny. After all, Representative Dennis Kucinich had to explain his UFO sighting. And Jindal should not be allowed to hide behind the cloaks of faith and personal privacy. Barack Obama had no choice but to explain his relationship to a particular minister. He didn't duck the issue by claiming it was a private relationship based on faith. So if Jindal is anointed by McCain, the exorcism will be fair game.

America may or may not be ready for a national political debate about exorcism and Satanic demons. By picking Jindal as a running mate, McCain would give the country a chance to find out.

High Gas Prices Save Lives

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 10:31 AM PDT

One happy upside to the $4 gallon of gas: traffic deaths have plummeted. The National Safety Council finds that in some states, deaths from traffic accidents have declined by as much as 20 percent this year compared with the same period last year. Indiana, which has seen a 26 percent decline, may hit the lowest number of traffic deaths in 18 years. The country hasn't seen such a precipitous fall in traffic deaths since the Arab oil embargo in 1973. The AP reports on speculation that people are simply driving less, thus fewer accidents, but also that high gas prices and a sour economy might be keeping drunks at home rather out on the roads.

One possible contributor they don't mention is Americans' mass abandonment of the SUV, which has been responsible for a disproportionate number of highway deaths both from rollovers and also from squashing other smaller cars that might survive an accident with a sedan. Now, if Congress would follow Sen. John Warner's advice and lower the speed limit, the nation might see a massive reduction in highway carnage that would even make Ralph Nader proud!

The World's Five Worst Policy Advisors

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 9:50 AM PDT

Foreign Policy helpfully compiles a top five list of the world's worst policy advisors. Making the cut is the former vice premier of Taiwan, Chiou I-Jen, who "in an effort get Papua New Guinea to recognize Taiwan...recommended the allocation of $30 million to two men whom he believed had influence over officials in Papua New Guinea." Cash in hand, the men and the money promptly disappeared; Chiou promptly resigned in disgrace. Also singled out is South Africa's health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who in 2006 told an international AIDS conference that the disease could be treated using lemon, beet root, and garlic.

Last but not least on the list is a former US official, Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's onetime undersecretary of defense policy, whose foreign policy intellect General Tommy Franks once had some choice words for. (His opinion was apparently seconded by Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson.)

Recession Be Damned: Rich Still Getting Richer

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 7:34 AM PDT

The Wall Street Journal reports today on new IRS data showing that in 2006, the richest 1 percent of Americans claimed the largest share of the nation's adjusted gross income in 20 years. The level is so high that the IRS suspects it might be the highest it's been since the onset of the Depression. Naturally, as their income goes up, rich people's taxes are also going down. The tax rate for the richest 1 percent in 2006 fell to its lowest level in 18 years, in large part because of the Bush tax cuts that John McCain wants to extend.

Canadian Corporal Killed by "Roommate's Rifle" in Afghanistan, Case Goes to Court Martial

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 11:17 AM PDT

The Canadian military announced yesterday that it will press ahead with its court martial of the 22-year-old Canadian reservist who shot a fellow soldier in March 2007 at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. Corporal Matthew Wilcox has been charged with manslaughter, criminal negligence causing death, and negligently performing a military duty.

This news comes as particularly striking to Mother Jones and its readers as this incident was first widely-publicized in an article we ran last summer. Canadian doctor Kevin Patterson, also a Mother Jones contributing writer, was in Afghanistan at the time helping to triage the understaffed and overwhelmed Canadian-run surgical hospital at Kandahar Airfield. During his few months on the ground Patterson treated civilians and soldiers alike (roughly 2/3rds of the hospital's patients were Afghan civilians and Army personnel, the rest coalition soldiers) and he chronicled his experiences in a frontline diary for the magazine.

Dr. Patterson was on call the evening that Corporal Kevin Megeney, a 25-year-old reservist, was rushed to the ICU after being shot in the chest. It turned out that the the gun was "a roommate's rifle," and at press time the incident was under investigation by the Canadian military. Prior to the article's release Mother Jones sent letters to Megeney's family, informing them of the pending story and the medical detail including regarding Patterson's efforts to save the soldier.

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Is Blackwater Leaving the Security Biz?

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 10:38 AM PDT

If his controversial company exits the private security business, Blackwater president Gary Jackson wants you to know exactly who's to blame: "If you could get it right," he told the AP, referring to the journalists covering Blackwater, "we might stay in the business." According to the AP, which recently visited the company's Moyock, North Carolina headquarters, Blackwater is planning to refocus its operations on aviation, logistics, and training, moving away from the security work that has earned the firm hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts since 9/11. "The experience we've had would certainly be a disincentive to any other companies that want to step in and put their entire business at risk," Erik Prince, the company's founder and CEO, told the wire service.

The company has been a magnet for controversy, the subject of negative news coverage, sustained congressional scrutiny, and activist outcry. Its shoot-first-ask-questions-later rep has at times obscured the company's better deeds, such as when Blackwater operators swooped in to Kenya to rescue three young American women who'd gotten stranded in a part of the country that had descended into violence. But while Blackwater has at times served, unfairly, as a stand-in for all the security contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan—some of them fly by night operations that you probably wouldn't want protecting your local Target—and as the Left's favorite punching bag, its bitter experience in the protection field has more often than not been of its own making.

Some Inconvenient Truths About The Olympics

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 9:06 AM PDT

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The hype machine is now in high gear. You would have to live on the moon not to know: The Olympics are almost here. Prepare yourself to see world leaders dancing in the aisles at the opening ceremony—those who will be there, anyway (Am I the only one who remembers Al Gore's hypnotic gyrations in Sydney?); to listen to countless hours of platitudes about world peace; to see hours of melodramatic footage documenting the life challenges faced by individual athletes; and, of course, to enjoy some world-class sport. Also in the mix, as seems unavoidable, will be mini-documentaries about China's place in the world, the advances it's made, where it's going, etc. We'll see images of picturesque rural landscapes and cities the size of Chicago that none of us have ever heard of.

I must admit, part of me looks forward to all of this, the spectacle even more than the sports. But lost in the pageantry will be the reality that the Olympics—not just those to be held in Beijing next month, but the entire Olympic system—is not always the rosy celebration of international peace and cooperation it purports to be. A piece by Olympic scholar John Hoberman in the current issue of Foreign Policy argues that the Games "often mask human rights abuses, do little to spur political development, and lend legitimacy to unsavory governments." The article itself is available only to the magazine's subscribers, but the following press release outlines Hoberman's attempts to debunk some prevailing myths about the Olympics:

Liberal Lawyer Helping Louisiana Kill That Guy

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 7:28 AM PDT

In one of the more dramatic decisions of the last Supreme Court term, justices voted 5 to 4 to ban the death penalty in a Louisiana child rape case, Kennedy v. Louisiana. The court based its decision in part on the notion that there was a national consensus against executing people for rape, as suggested by the complete absence of any federal statute making child rape a capital crime. As it turns out, though, the court was wrong. There is such a statute under military law, an error pointed out by Linda Greenhouse on her way out the door from the New York Times.

Based on that omission, Louisiana yesterday petitioned the high court to rehear the case. It's still a longshot, but given the nature of the error, not impossible that the court might reconsider. Besides, the state has a good lawyer. Fighting to execute Patrick Kennedy is Georgetown law professor Neal Katyal. Katyal became a darling of the liberal establishment in 2005 after successfully arguing the Hamdan case, in which the Supreme Court found the Bush administration's military tribunals for trying Guantanamo detainees unconstitutional. (Katyal is currently defending Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former driver, in his military trial, which started this week.) The case rocketed the young, telegenic Katyal into the public eye—he was profiled in Vanity Fair, no less--and his name is one of those constantly floating in the ether as a potential democratic Supreme Court nominee.

His role in the Kennedy case suggests that Katyal is not quite the liberal he's been made out to be by the media. Or, he's got tremendous political savvy. His choice to defend the death penalty in a case that even some court conservatives can't stomach brings back faint memories of a young presidential candidate flying home to Arkansas to oversee the execution of a retarded man. If you aspire to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, what better way for a liberal to prove political independence (and confirmability) than to get someone executed?

Fifty Years Without Running Water

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 3:10 PM PDT

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2004 was a big year in Coal Run. After half a century of discrimination, neglect, and bureaucratic runaround, the residents of the mostly-black neighborhood outside Zanesville, Ohio finally got running water. 2008 will be a landmark year too: earlier this month, a jury in the US District Court in Columbus found that racial discrimination lay behind the lack of services, and awarded the affected residents $15,000-$300,000 each.

You can read the details in the original lawsuit (.pdf), and I highly recommend doing so—it's a case study in institutional racism. (During the trial, the town and county argued that they weren't aware that residents didn't have water, and that if they were aware, they weren't sure who had jurisdiction over the neighborhood. That may have been true, but they were happy to charge black citizens up to ten times as much as their white peers to purchase water and haul it home in trucks.)

But as much as this is a story about race, it's also a story about poverty, and how bureaucracy and greed work together to prevent poor people from accessing services that most of us take for granted. 22 percent of Zanesville's residents live below the federal poverty level, including nearly a third of children under 18. Unemployment in Muskingum County, where Zanesville is located, runs at 7.4 percent—significantly higher than the national average. Only 11 percent of city residents have completed college. But just as it took Hurricane Katrina to alert America to the poverty of the Gulf Coast, Zanesville didn't make national news until we heard of something so egregious that we couldn't help but take notice.

Just a week before the District Court decision, Barack Obama spoke in Zanesville about his plan for faith-based organizations to help the country's neediest people. That's a start. But will his administration, or John McCain's, undertake the task of reshaping this society into one that meets the basic needs of all its citizens, no matter how poor or out of the way?

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Andrew|W.