Mojo - February 2011

Reagan's Toll on the Middle Class

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 8:12 AM EST

In the lead-up to what would have been Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday on Sunday, conservatives have been trotting out all manner of panegyrics to their patron saint and his creed of trickle-down economics. For 90 percent of the people in this country, here's what should matter:

Source: Economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez as cited by PolitifactSource: Economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez as cited by Politifact

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 4, 2011

Fri Feb. 4, 2011 5:30 AM EST

A Chinook helicopter passes over an International Security Assistance Forces convoy in order to drop soldiers off outside Combat Outpost Johnston Jan. 31, in the Arghandab District. Soldiers are frequently transported by air throughout the battle space in order to fill the slots of other soldiers going on leave. Photo via US Army

Hey Look, It's a New Homepage!

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 4:00 AM EST

Well, hello. If you’ve been here before, you've probably noticed that things look different. That’s right, we’ve redesigned the homepage—part of an incremental makeover of the site. 

We did this for a couple of reasons. First, change is good. Second, there were some parts of the old design that didn’t suit the rapid-fire pace at which our content rolls out these days.

Traffic has doubled over the last year. Our reporters in D.C. and on the West Coast are cranking out more stories than ever. Our new commenting system has pulled many more of you into the conversation, as has the vibrant community of our Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr friends.

This design is less blocky, more open, and brings more of our freshest content to the top of the page. It also showcases the voices (and mugs) of the team of amazing staff writers and editors we've built over the past few years. If you click on any of their pictures, you’ll get to our new author pages. Bookmark your favorites.

Great photojournalism is one of MoJo’s hallmarks. Now, instead of burying our photo essays at the bottom of the page, we prominently feature two of them each day. Go to our photojournalism page to see lots more.

Love yourself some David Corn? Our DC bureau chief now has his own corner of the home page, complete with his latest TV appearances.

We have one of the best journalism internship programs in the country, so why not show off what these guys can do? Ditto for our far-flung network of famous and talented alumni. We point you to some of their best work.

And finally, there’s you. We've created a "Feedback" block to feature your tweets and comments. Don’t forget to send your scoops to our tipline. And it’s now even easier to subscribe to our magazine and our free newsletters—and become part of the community of supporters that keeps us going.

Pulling this off took a lot of work from everyone at this nonprofit shop. We're so proud of what they've accomplished. Which doesn't mean we're not open to constructive criticism; tell us what you think, because making a good website is a two-way street. Consider yourself consulted

 

Feds vs Oakland on Pot Farms, Round 2

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 4:43 PM EST

In the most strongly worded warning to date, a federal attorney has threatened to crack down on industrial-scale pot farms should Oakland move ahead with a plan to permit and tax them.

The Justice Department "is carefully considering civil and criminal legal remedies regarding those who seek to set up industrial marijuana growing warehouses in Oakland pursuant to licenses issued by the city," US Attorney Melinda Haag of the Northern District of California warned in a letter sent to Oakland's city attorney on Tuesday. 

Since last year, when Oakland garnered national attention for its scheme to become the first city in the country to tax and regulate medical marijuana growers, it has repeatedly delayed the proposed law over legal concerns.

It's still too early to say that the pot farm plan has completely gone to pot. Oakland City Council Member Desley Brooks, who makes a cameo in my recent feature on "hempreneurs," has written a new draft of the Oakland ordinance that she thinks will pass muster. From today's Oakland Tribune

The new draft has specific language establishing a "closed-loop" relationship between cultivators and distributors—which would keep the marijuana only in the hands of patients—as well as making the patient relationships more explicit, which Brooks said address some concerns under state law.

The Super Bowl's Homeless Problem

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 3:23 PM EST

On Sunday, James Jones, who spent much of the first 14 years of his life living in homeless shelters, will play in the Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers' wide receiver has done a lot to raise the profile of homelessness through public appearances and his Love Jones 4 Kids Foundation, which helps homeless kids stay in school. But if you're expecting his made-for-Hollywood saga to provoke any national soul searching amidst all of the halftime hoopla this weekend, you're probably going to be disappointed. If anything, the big game at Cowboys Stadium in the Dallas-Forth Worth area is shaping up to be a textbook example of how the poor get the shaft.

In December, the Dallas City Council outlawed panhandling in the city's most prominent tourist areas, including several zones where big Super Bowl events are planned. For several weeks, the the city has been removing homeless people from the areas as it spruces them up for football fans. Anyone who sticks around to ask for handouts from all the high rollers and corporate junketers who'll be passing through could be fined up to $500.

"There's a certain sense of irony that you displace your own poor to welcome those who grew up in poverty"

"There's a certain sense of irony that you displace your own poor to welcome those who grew up in poverty," says Neil Donovan, the Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "It would be nice if we could make the city as welcome and accommodating to the persistently poor as we do for the wealthy."

As far as the wisdom of giving to panhandlers goes, Donovan says he's "probably one of the most conflicted people you will ever meet." But he staunchly opposes the criminalization of panhandling, calling the decision to give someone else money "something very sacred and personal." He sees panhandling bans as symptomatic of "a movement towards compassion fatigue."

Donovan hasn't asked Jones to speak out against the panhandling ban; he doesn't think that NFL pros are obliged to make the game stand for anything more than football. (An email that I sent to Jones' foundation hadn't been returned as of Thursday morning). But, Donovan added, "it would be highly helpful and very symbolic if something like that were to happen."

Tahrir Square Witness: The Final Crush Is Coming

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 3:22 PM EST

This post also appears as Update 134 in our Egypt explainer:

I just spoke with Khaled Abou El Naga, an Egyptian filmmaker who lives in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. Khaled has participated in the protests since they began on January 25 in Tahrir Square. Just back from the square, a feverish Khaled fears the worst is yet to come. "This regime is trying to hijack the country by spreading chaos, and terror, and lies," he says. And he thinks that Mubarak and his army of thugs are preparing "for a total crush" of the protestors still in the square. "The plot is very clear. They will have messages that things will be under control, we will investigate who started the violence—they know who started the violence!"

Pro-Mubarak thugs have been streaming into Tahrir Square since yesterday, attacking protestors from its main entrances. They've also been targeting the press, taking out video cameras and chasing away reporters. Some even climbed to the tops of buildings overlooking the square, armed with sniper rifles. "With snipers, you just find people dead," Khaled says. "You don’t hear anything. That's what happened."

Khaled believes that the police have been given orders to sow chaos by driving into neighborhoods, firing guns in the air, and looting stores. "The police have become a tool to terrorize Egyptians," he says. He says that he has seen ambulances, which are controlled by the Interior Ministry, bringing tear gas into the square. Doctors haven't been able to get into the square; one of Khaled's own friends, a doctor, was accused by thugs of being a CIA agent when he tried to approach Tahrir Square.

Egyptian state television, meanwhile, has continued to maintain that the anti-government protestors were responsible for the violence. "State television has agitated people more and more," Khaled says. "They kept saying these are looters who went into Tahrir Square, they're trying to break stability in Egypt, and they said that they started the violence. All of these are lies that agitated people."

But Khaled fears that many Egyptians are buying the spin of Mubarak, Vice President Omar Suleiman, and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq: that order and calm will soon be restored by the government. "People think, 'oh see the government finally is trying to do something about it and take control.'" he says. "Well at the same time, the violence is still there, the circling of Tahrir Square [by pro-Mubarak forces] is still there—the plot is right there….Unfortunately, a lot of Egyptians are confused now. They think maybe we should just wait until he leaves in September. He will never leave."

The regime's plan, as Khaled sees it: disseminate misinformation, violently disrupt the protests, and then purge. "I'm telling you," he says, "with all the singals I'm reading from the state's people, they are preparing for a complete crush of Tahrir Square."

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Egypt: Exchanging a Dictator for a Torturer

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 11:30 AM EST

As it now stands, the United States appears content to contemplate exchanging Hosni Mubarak for Egypt's new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian spy master--that is, one dictator for another-- to maintain the status quo. Of course, Israel must sign off on this deal, assuring the U.S. that Egypt can remain as its main base in the region, straddling as it does North Africa and the Middle East. Without it, the U.S. would most definitely have to rethink its entire neo-colonial policies  in the region.

As for Suleiman, he looks to be a  nasty piece of work.  Agence France Press has pulled together the basics:

For US intelligence officials, he has been a trusted partner willing to go after Islamist militants without hesitation, targeting homegrown radical groups Gamaa Islamiya and Jihad after they carried out a string of attacks on foreigners.A product of the US-Egyptian relationship, Suleiman underwent training in the 1980s at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina....

After taking over as spy director, Suleiman oversaw an agreement with the United States in 1995 that allowed for suspected militants to be secretly transferred to Egypt for questioning, according to the book "Ghost Plane" by journalist Stephen Grey...

In the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the CIA relied on Suleiman to accept the transfer of a detainee known as Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, who US officials hoped could prove a link between Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda.The suspect was bound and blindfolded and flown to Cairo, where the CIA believed their longtime ally Suleiman would ensure a successful interrogation, according to "The One Percent Doctrine" by author Ron Suskind. A US Senate report in 2006 describes how the detainee was locked in a cage for hours and beaten, with Egyptian authorities pushing him to confirm alleged connections between Al-Qaeda and Saddam.Libi eventually told his interrogators that the then Iraqi regime was moving to provide Al-Qaeda with biological and chemical weapons.When the then US secretary of state Colin Powell made the case for war before the United Nations, he referred to details of Libi's confession.The detainee eventually recanted his account.

Thus our loyal ally Egypt provided the fake information used by the United States to go to war in Iraq.

House GOP Caves On Redefining Rape Bill

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 9:55 AM EST

Last week, Mother Jones' Nick Baumann broke the story on Chris Smith's "No Taxpayer for Abortion" Act, which would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape. For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. But Smith's bill contained a provision that would limit the rape exemption to "forcible rape," ruling out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases—such as statutory rape—in which force was not involved or could not be proved. "It is absolutely outrageous," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). "I consider the proposal of this bill a violent act against women."

Now, Smith has retreated, excising the "forcible" rape language from the bill, reports Politico. "The word forcible will be replaced with the original language from the Hyde Amendment," Smith spokesman Jeff Sagnip says, referring to the ban on the federal government paying for abortions that's been in place since 1976.

The GOP effort to rewrite the meaning of rape incited a Twitter campaign of protest (using the hashtag #dearjohn). Editorial pages and columnists protested. Progressive groups initiated a crusade to kill the bill. And The Daily Show, of course, got in the act (around 9:15) too. MoveOn.org launched a petition against the bill, saying Smith's legislation would "set women's rights back by decades…As far too many women know, bruises and broken bones do not define rape—a lack of consent does." EMILY's List, issued its own petition, declaring war on the bill and one of its most prominent proponents: Speaker of the House John Boehner. Its website, BoehnersAmerica.org, urged "Boehner and his cronies to stop using rape victims as political pawns." The group said, "it was known from the beginning that Boehner and his boys would fight to take away women's freedoms whenever possible."

Smith's bill did unsettle some GOPers. Differentiating between types of rape, Politico reports, befuddled Republican aides. "Such a removal would be a good idea, since last I checked, rape by definition is non-consensual," one GOP aide says.

Meet Egypt's Power Brokers

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Protesters rage on in Egypt, but who's negotiating its political future behind the scenes? On Sunday, Egypt's political opposition groups formed a 10-person Negotiation Steering Committee that is strategizing to pressure President Hosni Mubarak's regime to step down. Since the protests broke out a week ago, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has stated he has the political backing necessary to form a "unity government" and that the committee is capable of "running a smooth transitional period." But there is disagreement over ElBaradei’s leadership among the committee, which represents a wide range of political interests and ideologies. Here's a run-down of the committee members:

1. Mohamed ElBaradei: ElBaradei, the most internationally prominent figure in the Egyptian opposition movement, heads the National Association for Change (NAC), a broad opposition coalition (which includes the Muslim Brotherhood) that emphasizes democratic constitutional reforms. When he was heading the International Atomic Energy Agency, ElBaradei won the Nobel Peace Prize (2005) for his efforts to curb nuclear proliferation. In the 2011 protests ElBaradei, a secular liberal, has emerged as the widely supported choice for Egypt's next president. But his support isn't unanimous: his time abroad has earned him criticisms that he lacks an understanding of Egypt's daily political life.

2. Ayman Nour: As chair of the Ghad ("Tomorrow") Party, Nour leads the liberal-secular faction in Egypt. Nour, a politician and lawyer, has used his platform to call for constitutional reform, limiting presidential powers, and opening up the presidential elections to multiple candidates. He garnered international attention in 2005 when the Mubarak regime sentenced him to prison on charges that he forged documents when setting up the party. His absence left a power vacuum and a subsequent series of internal struggles plagued the party. Nour, released from prison in January 2009 on health grounds, was re-elected as chair last August.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 3, 2011

Thu Feb. 3, 2011 5:30 AM EST

U.S. Army soldiers conducted squad training after unloading from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Jan. 26, 2011. The soldiers, assigned to 164th Military Police Company, 793rd Military Police Battalion, 3rd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, are preparing for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Epperson