Mojo - May 2010

On Memorial Day in Normandy, Reminders of What We Won--and Lost

| Mon May 31, 2010 10:21 AM EDT

On June 5, 1944, the eve of the largest invasion in history, General Dwight Eisenhower visited the English airfield where U.S. paratroopers were preparing to take off for their drop into France. “Quit worrying, General,” one of the soldiers told him. “We’ll take care of this thing for you.’’ The following day, 175,000 men landed on the beaches and fields of Normandy.

For children growing up in Washington, D.C., shushed into silence behind the blackout curtains while our parents bent over radios bringing the long-awaited announcement of the attack, it was all beyond  comprehension--save that every little boy was climbing into a tree to pretend he was flying his Spitfire over the Channel, or parachuting into the French countryside.

At age seven, I was one of those boys. Last week I had the good fortune to meet another member of my generation, whose experience of D-Day was something quite different. His name is Pierre Bernard, and he is retired to his family’s farm in the village of Maisons, a stone’s throw from the beaches that became the site of what the French call the Débarquement. In the spring of 1944, Pierre was 12; with his parents and siblings, he worked the farm and waited for the Allied troops to arrive and free them from Nazi occupation. When that day finally came, Pierre recalls, the Germans simply vanished. British and then American troops soon passed through the village, moving quickly inland. His family was luckier than many others: Some 12,000 French civilians were killed during the battle for Normandy, along with more than 75,000 troops on both sides.

Today, long retired from his job as a cook in Paris, Pierre oversees a bed and breakfast in his old stone farmhouse. He’s never learned to use a computer, so his daughters help arrange who is to come, while Pierre, along with his two dogs, goes out each morning to bring back fresh baguettes and croissants. He serves them along with the jams and pates he makes himself, and sits quietly at the head of the family table, contentedly watching his guests eat breakfast.  And he’ll gladly trades war stories with a visitor who, like himself, is too young to have fought, but old enough to remember.

Normandy today still inspires awe at the courage of the men who stormed Fortress Europe: Omaha Beach, so wide and unprotected; the cliffs of Point du Hoc, higher and steeper than I could have imagined. But by now, the genuine remnants of the war--half-buried German bunkers, wrecked ships, and thousands of well-tended graves--are far outnumbered by nostalgic renderings of the real thing: Army surplus stores are filled with Eisenhower jackets, berets, and rucksacks (many of them supplied by German companies). Towns compete for tourists--and a place in history--with tanks on their village squares and little museums dedicated to every aspect of “Jour J.” In Sainte-Mère-Église, where an American paratrooper famously got caught on the church steeple, a dummy is suspended from a parachute to commemmorate  the event. Then there are the British and American visitors tearing around in rented World War II jeeps, windshields down, and even a half-ton olive drab truck.  They look far too young to be veterans; too young even to have been alive at the time. The men and women who fought that war are fast disappearing (some 850 U.S. WW II vets die every day, according to the VA), and those who lived through it as children are now well into our old age.  

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Is a "Gringo Mask" Racist?

| Fri May 28, 2010 5:58 PM EDT

Earlier in the week, MoJo introduced readers to the Gringo Mask, a tongue-in-cheek, free online downloadable mask designed to help minorities blend in with the white folks in Arizona—thus theoretically avoiding police harassment under SB 1070, as well as cultural racism under the well-settled rules of social hegemony. The his and hers masks were devised by Florida-based Zubi Advertising "to protect, support, and dignify our Hispanic community, with the firm idea of getting out and standing up to the SB1070 law."

Hopefully you got a mask early, because if you waited 'til now, you're out of luck. According to blogger Laura Martinez:

Apparently, yielding to criticisms by some gringos who didn’t like Zubi using the word gringo to describe gringos, the agency this week pulled it off the Web, replacing it with an explanation of what the mask intended—and didn’t intended to do.

Sure enough, local TV news published a statement from Zubi essentially saying it was sorry it ever tried to engage with American culture. And it's not hard to find outraged, grammatically challenged white right-wing bloggers decrying the mask's reverse racism—another term that, contrary to popular belief, didn't die a natural death in the mid-'90s, as one might have suspected.

Folks, I'm from Florida, where old whites still claim the term "cracker" as an honorific. And I'm finding it hard to believe that whites, Caucasians, Anglo-Americans, or whatever you want to call this fairly artificial subclass of Homo sapiens (of which I'm apparently a member), could really be grousing about being called a silly name. A name that has cultural, national, and perhaps racial connotations—but that's not the same as being a racist term. Is it?

But hell, what do I know? I'm a dumb pinko socialist fascist Nazi unpatriotic racist cracker honky. Which makes me about as worthless as a Kenyan Muslim anchor baby.

Meg Whitman Snagged on Her Own Border Fence

| Fri May 28, 2010 3:13 PM EDT

Meg Whitman, the GOP gubernatorial front-runner in California, apparently doesn't watch her own exteremly expensive political ads. The former EBay CEO and billioniare insisted to Politico this week that her ads don't contain shots of a border fence, then had to be corrected by her press secretary. The embarassing exchange has been the joke of the day on California's political blogs. San Francisco Chronicle's Joe Garofili offered Whitman his first anual Rene Magritte award, named after the creator of the "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" painting. "Perhaps Meg was merely channeling Magritte in saying that there wasn't a border fence in her ad," he wrote. "It was an IMAGE of a border fence in her ad."

Image of border fence in Whitman adImage of border fence in Whitman adOn the serious side, the exchange points to several potential liabilities for Whitman as she vies to lead the tarnished Golden State. She has a strong incentive to appeal to the anti-immigration sentiments of her GOP primary voters, who support Arizona's draconian immigration crackdown. In this sense the border fence is a powerful code, but it also alienates Latinos, who make up 37 percent of the state's population. To win in the general election, she'll need to convince some 30 percent of the state's Latinos to vote for her.

The gaffe also adds fuel to the sense that Whitman, who is worth $1.4 billion, is out of touch with the state and her own campaign. The $80 million that she's already shelled out during the primary is a record for California, yet her more conservative primary opponent, Steve Poizner, has drastically closed on her in recent days (UPDATE: She's widened the lead again). Given how many political ads Whitman has been running, it's possible that she hasn't been able to keep track of what they're saying. That can't be good for a candidate with a campaign theme of governmental accountability.

Democrats Looking to Increase "Fan" Base

| Fri May 28, 2010 2:46 PM EDT

Democrats may have had a techie edge during the 2008 elections, but Republicans have recently eclipsed them in Congress by pushing members to embrace social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to engage with voters. As we reported yesterday, 64 percent of GOP House members are on Twitter, while only 20 percent of Dems are (and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not among them). Suddenly realizing the tweet-gap, Democrats are trying to catch up. The Hill reported Friday that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is planning to launch a "Member Online All-Star Competition" to get more Democrats into the social media world.

The Democratic contest comes on the heels of a six-week Republican "social media challenge," during which House Republicans recruited thousands of new Twitter followers and Facebook fans. According to The Hill, to kick off the new contest, Hoyer's office held a seminar Friday inviting Democrats to "Learn why your office needs to create official accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Learn how to create accounts and basic strategies for using these sites. Learn specific strategies for becoming an All-Star in the upcoming competition."

The Hill also notes that Hoyer's office circulated an email citing this "timely" Mother Jones piece to highlight "the urgency in this area." Of course, Hoyer might not be the greatest advocate for new media use himself. I thought I'd send him some Twitter love as thanks for the plug, but as it turns out, Hoyer doesn't tweet.* No word yet on whether he attended his own seminar.

*Oops! Turns out that Hoyer has been tweeting since February and somehow I missed him in my search. You can read his tweets here. And, he's got 2,114 Facebook friends to boot.

The Josh Wolf Saga, Take 2

| Fri May 28, 2010 12:57 PM EDT

In 2007, the young video blogger Josh Wolf earned the unfortunate distinction of being incarcerated longer than any journalist in modern times for refusing to release his sources. His 226-day stint in prison ignited questions about whether all bloggers deserve to be treated as journalists and who has the authority to draw the line. Wolf's refusal to give federal authorities a video of an anarchist street protest earned him the respect of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which in 2007 named him Journalist of the Year. He's currently a first-year student at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, where, true to form, he was recently arrested in an incident that raises similarly prickly questions about press freedoms.

The New York Times' Bay Area blog reports that Wolf was arrested late last year inside Wheeler Hall, which had been occupied and barricaded by students protesting tuition hikes. The university plans to give him much more than a slap on the wrist:

Mr. Wolf now faces a seven-month academic suspension (and a 10-page essay assignment), a punishment similar to that of many other students arrested inside Wheeler. He argues that he was in the building as a member of the press. His footage, indeed, was later used in a report by Democracy Now!, for whom he had contributed previously.

Wolf, who might as well declare himself a press freedom superhero at this point, says that he was simply putting his duty as a journalist ahead of his student's duty to obey administrators. He claims to have the support of Berkeley's journalism faculty. But Robert Gunnison, the director of school affairs for the journalism school, told the Times that a journalist's status may be irrelevant in this instance:

Shield laws do not protect reporters when police issue dispersal orders, which is effectively the threat of a trespassing charge. "We don’t have special access to property; none of us do," Mr. Gunnison said. "In general, it’s what we teach. If someone says you're trespassing, there's nothing you can do."

Wolf has certainly happened upon another interesting grey area of press freedom, and I think there are compelling arguments on both sides. While the university probably has the legal right to suspend and punish Wolf, I'm personally inclined to side with his claim that Berkeley is being unduly punitive. Wolf was inside the building to document what was happening, not to participate in the student takeover. I'd draw the analogy with reporters covering illegal street protests or trying to document a battle between opposing armies. There comes a point when the university would be justified in punishing him for being there, and that point would probably be when cops barge inside and start handcuffing people. But by then there's nothing left to see, and he's presumably going leave on his own accord.

Perhaps I'm being too idealistic, but can't idealism catch a break at UC Berkeley?

 

 

The Military's Problem Isn't Gays

| Fri May 28, 2010 12:23 PM EDT

As we enter Memorial Day weekend, with its parades and programs honoring service to country, it's worth asking: What, precisely, do the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force still have to work out before deciding whether gays and lesbians can serve in their ranks? As a vet and ex-contractor, I know firsthand that the implementation of any new defense policy, from rules of engagement to Facebook usage guidelines, is hard and takes time. But implementation is different from deliberation—and where "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is concerned, the service chiefs seem intent on doing the latter, not the former. "We must make logical and pragmatic decisions about the long-term policies of our armed forces," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway wrote in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an ex-sailor who opposes repailing DADT. Each service's top uniformed officer gave McCain a similar letter, advocating what Conway called an "organized and systematic approach" to studying the issue.

While he's at it, perhaps Conway could study what's wrong with the Corps' new crop of officer trainees. Thirteen newly minted lieutenants are being discharged from the service after instructors at The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, learned they'd cheated to pass a land navigation exam. There are a few things all Marines need to be good at: physical training, shooting, and not getting lost. Yet at least one of the cheaters told investigators he didn't see the point of the land-nav exercise in the age of GPS. "While proficiency with a Lensatic compass is important, their moral compass is of utmost importance to our Corps," Col. George W. Smith JR., the school's skipper, told Navy Times. "Their moral compass must unerringly point to do the right thing at all times. Without that, in my strongest opinion, they don't have the foundation to continue to serve as Marine leaders."

Col. Smith is right: The moral compass matters. And if the service chiefs are really serious about spending the next half a year deliberating whether homosexuals pose a threat to military reputations and readiness, their moral compasses are demagnetized. The armed services are facing a crisis of honor, courage, and commitment: a wartime record of graft, sexual assault, and dishonesty in the ranks, committed by (presumably) straight service members. A daily scan of Stars & Stripes or Military Times proves gays can't commit an offense that a dysfunctional military bureaucracy isn't already doing to itself. Here are but a few stories of note this week:

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As BP Attempts to Stop the Well, PR Disaster Continues

| Fri May 28, 2010 10:40 AM EDT

You can find the latest on environmental politics over on Blue Marble. Here are the most recent headlines:

Environment Makes a Comeback (Except Among Republicans)

In the wake of the BP disaster, Americans now say that the environmental considerations should take precedent over energy development. Well, at least Americans who aren't Republicans.

BP Wants Cases Heard by Judge with Oil Ties

The oil giant has asked for a judge in Houston with significant ties to the oil industry to handle all the lawsuits against the company.

BP Spill Officially Worst In US History

The Gulf spill, now two to five times larger than previously estimated, has surpassed the Exxon Valdez as the worst in the United States. It may even make it on the list of worst oil disasters in world history.

Congressmen Press BP for More Answers

Henry Waxman wants to know why BP is hiding crucial information from House investigators. Trust me, you really don't want to make Waxman mad.

Obama Faces Tough Questions on BP Spill

Five weeks into the Gulf disaster, Obama meets the press.

As BP Stops the Well, Other Problems Mount

The latest effort to stop the well seem to be working. But can BP stop the PR disaster still unfolding?

MMS Head Canned

Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of the beleaguered Minerals Management Service at the Department of Interior, takes the fall in the wake of the Gulf spill.

"Weekend Chasing Aliens" Contest in AZ

| Fri May 28, 2010 9:52 AM EDT

Consider this a new nadir in the nation's feverish immigration debate, sparked by Arizona's controversial law. A Columbus, Ohio radio station thought it smart—or clever, or whatever—to run a contest offering listeners the chance to visit Phoenix, where "Americans are proud and illegals are scared," as the station put it, to "spend a weekend chasing aliens and spending cash in the desert, just make sure you have your green card!"

The station, 610 WTVN, launched the contest in reaction to Columbus mayor Michael Coleman's decision to ban city employees from visiting Arizona on official business in protest of that state's immigration law. Apparently, the contest has already expired, but here's the full description of the contest and an ad touting it, via Think Progress:

The text from the ad says:

610 WTVN would like to send you where Americans are proud and illegals are scared, sunny Phoenix, Arizona! You'll spend a weekend chasing aliens and spending cash in the desert, just make sure you've got your green card! Win round trip airfare to Phoenix, hotel accomodations, and a few pesos in spending cash - just register below!

Needless to say, local community groups have railed on the radio station for the "chase an alien" contest. Said Leonardo Ramos, president of Colombianos in Ohio. "This is clearly the chilling effect of what is happening in Arizona with SB 1070. We believe that our community must respect and protect all people." (You can read the full press release bashing the station here.) Members of community groups said they'll also send letters to the general manager of Clear Channel in Columbus.

Ron Paul's DADT Reversal

| Fri May 28, 2010 9:25 AM EDT

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) was one of only five House Republicans to support the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy on gay servicemembers, which passed the House on a 234-194 vote last night. But Paul's vote came as a bit of a surprise. An unabashed foe of gay marriage, Paul had a decidedly squeamish stance on gay rights—even prompting actor Sacha Baron Cohen to ambush the Texas Republican for his film "Bruno." And Paul stated throughout his 2008 presidential campaign that he thought the military's policy should stand, though he had some concerns about its enforcement.

When asked about DADT repeal in June 2007, Paul told CNN:

I think the current policy is a decent policy. And the problem that we have with dealing with this subject is we see people as groups, as they belong to certain groups and that they derive their rights as belonging to groups. We don't get our rights because we're gays or women or minorities. We get our rights from our creator as individuals. So every individual should be treated the same way.

So if there is homosexual behavior in the military that is disruptive, it should be dealt with. But if there's heterosexual sexual behavior that is disruptive, it should be dealt with.

A month later, in an interview with Google, Paul responded similarly: "'Don't ask, don't tell' doesn't sound all that bad to me because as an employer, I've never asked them [employees] anything and I don't want them to tell me anything."

But while Paul said that he supported DADT in theory, he began to express some of his concerns about the policy. "I think the way it's enforced is bad. Because, literally, if somebody is a very, very good individual working for our military—and I met one just the other day in my office, who was a translator—and he was kicked out for really no good reason at all. I would want to change that, I don't support that interpretation."

It's encouraging that Paul has finally managed to fit DADT repeal into his ideological universe. (Former Republican—now independent—Florida Senate candidate Charlie Crist also flipped his stance to support the repeal, just days before the House vote.) And Paul's reversal on the issue begs the questions as to whether his son—Kentucky GOP Senate candidate and Civil Rights Act skeptic Rand Paul—feels the same way. 

Can the Tea Party Steal Nevada?

| Fri May 28, 2010 8:35 AM EDT

Will the Tea Party score another early victory, this time in Nevada's June 8th GOP primary? The latest Mason-Dixon/Las Vega Review-Journal poll suggests as much. GOP frontrunner Sue Lowden, with 30 percent support, has seen her once-formidable lead shrink to a meager one-point margin over Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-endorsed, more conservative candidate eyeing incumbent Harry Reid's Senate seat this fall. Danny Tarkanian, the third major candidate in Nevada's GOP primary, has 23 percent support. Angle's 29 percent support signals a major surge for the former Nevada assemblywoman, given she only had 13 percent support a month ago, polls show.

Angle's rise can be attributed to a number of sources. The Tea Party darling's campaign has been outright bashing Sue Lowden's conservative cred, running ads that say she supported state spending increases, raised taxes, and even, god forbid, backed Harry Reid. (Lowden refutes these claims.) Lowden herself hasn't been helping her cause, either: There was Chickengate; then Tarkanian accused her of breaking campaign finance law by accepting an RV from a donor; and more recently she pulled a Rand Paul by stumbling when asked about her views on the Civil Rights Act. (She failed to answer the question, then released a statement afterward saying, yes, she supports it.) Not that Angle has been without controversy herself—she's taken heat for alleged ties to the Church of Scientology.

One of the biggest causes for Lowden's plummet, though, has been Harry Reid. As Reid's campaign sees it, they'd much rather face Sharron Angle, a more controversial and less established figure, then Lowden, a creature of the GOP establishment. Reid's team has unleashed a barrage of attacks on Lowden, doing everything they can to sink her run for the GOP candidacy this fall and open the door to Angle. "[Angle is] the most polarizing," said Mason-Dixon polling director Brad Coker. "She's clearly the most conservative. But that 20 percent of independent voters are the ones who are going to decide this election. And it's easier for them to pick a Lowden or even a Tarkanian."

Which is to say, out in Nevada, the Tea Party might win the primary battle, but if they do, odds are Harry Reid will win the war.