Mojo - October 2011

Rick Perry on Birtherism: Just Kidding!

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 1:04 PM EDT

Rick Perry's brief moment as a birther has ended. The Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate has officially backtracked from earlier controversial comments suggesting that he thought it was possible that President Obama might not have been born in Hawaii. At a fundraiser in Florida Wednesday morning, Perry claimed that when he said that stuff about Obama, he was "only kidding around." Perry's quick end to his flirtation with "birtherism," the movement of kooky activists who've spent the past three years challenging Obama's citizenship, came just in time, it seems, to put some distance between Perry and guys like Darren Huff.

Huff is a Georgia birther and Oathkeepers member who was arrested last year for trying to carry out a "citizens arrest" of some court officials in Monroe County, Tennessee. Their offense? Refusing to indict Obama for not being a citizen. On Tuesday, Huff was convicted of a federal firearms offense in connection with the episode and is awaiting sentencing.

The case got its start when, last year, birthers issued a nationwide call to support Tennessee birther Walter Fitzpatrick III, who had appeared before a Monroe County grand jury in December 2009 and asked them to indict "Barry Sotero," as the birthers call Obama. After failing to win the indictment, he began waging a small war on courthouse officials, as well as the grand jury foreman, whom Fitzpatrick tried to arrest. Court officials pressed charges against Fitzpatrick for the harassment and he was eventually charged with assault and resisting arrest. In April 2010, Fitzpatrick had an arraignment hearing, and his supporters called for birthers everywhere to storm the courthouse to conduct more citizens' arrests. Huff showed up to support the cause, but he was intercepted by the FBI, which apparently had been keeping tabs on him. In his possession were a loaded Colt .45 in a hip holster, and an assault rifle with more than 200 rounds of ammo in his truck. Not only did Huff get arrested, but Fitzpatrick lost his trial and last month ended up being sentenced to six months in jail for his crimes.

Folks like Fitzpatrick and Huff have been on the Secret Service's radar for quite a while, as I reported last year. And they are just one example of why the GOP establishment desperately doesn't want to the party associated with the birthers, as evidenced this week when everyone from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to Karl Rove to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour clamored to decry Perry's birther comments. Apparently, even Republican nuttiness has its limits.

 

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Then They Came for Your Birth Control

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 12:07 PM EDT

The "personhood" amendment on the Mississippi ballot on November 8 doesn't just ban all abortions—an issue that my colleague Tim Murphy has covered quite well. It would also likely outlaw several types of birth control and possibly make all forms of hormonal contraception illegal in the state.

Mississippi anti-abortion activists want to define personhood as starting when a sperm fertilizes an egg. In that case, it would likely make intrauterine devices (IUDs), which can prevent pregnancy by blocking the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, illegal. (IUDs can also prevent sperm from fertilizing the egg in the first place, and IUDs with hormones also operate much like regular old birth control pills, but that doesn't seem to matter to anti-abortion activists.)

The measure would also almost certainly make Plan B, also known as emergency contraception or the "morning after" pill, illegal. This high dose of hormones is used to prevent a woman from ovulating, but anti-abortion groups also insist that it can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting (despite the fact that scientists say there's no evidence that's the case). Needless to say, anti-abortion groups don't like Plan B very much, either.

But the law could also introduce the possibility of banning any form of hormonal birth control. Generally, "the pill" (as well as the shot, the patch, and the ring) work by stopping ovulation. But some anti-abortion groups argue that there can be failures on that front, and the doses of hormone could possibly also work by stopping implantation should an egg and sperm still manage to meet up.

Mississippi Dem Unsure What Personhood Does, Still Supports It

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 7:24 AM EDT
Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Johnny DuPree (D).

The New York Times has a story on something we've written about a bit before—the push to pass state-level constitutional "personhood" amendments to ban abortion (among other things) by defining life as beginning at conception. Previous initiatives have fallen short, but Mississippi's personhood movement, which was initiated by a one-time Christian secessionist who backed a plan to create an independent theocracy in upstate South Carolina, has a decent chance of passing this November—at least if its high-profile endorsers are any indication:

Mississippi will also elect a new governor on Nov. 8. The Republican candidate, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, is co-chairman of Yes on 26 and his campaign distributes bumper stickers for the initiative. The Democratic candidate, Johnny DuPree, the mayor of Hattiesburg and the state’s first black major-party candidate for governor in modern times, says he will vote for it though he is worried about its impact on medical care and contraception.

Yes, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee supports the measure, which would ban abortion even in cases of rape. DuPree fleshed out his views a bit at a debate at the Mississippi College School of Law:

Virtual Classes, Real Cheating

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 5:23 AM EDT

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been crisscrossing the country over the past year touting the benefits of virtual education for elementary and secondary students—and for cash-strapped state budgets. (I wrote a lengthy story about that enterprise here.) Earlier this month at a summit he convened in San Francisco, his new advocacy group, Digital Learning Now, outlined the steps he thinks states should take to expand digital learning in public schools. Among the requirements are such controversial things as repealing teacher-student ratio requirements or teacher credentialing mandates, as well as letting more for-profit providers have a crack at public school money. He also recommends that states mandate that proficiency tests be taken online or digitally. Bush will be checking up on the states over the next year and "grading" them on how well they follow his recommendations. One thing Bush's education summit and state report cards don't address, though, is what states ought to do to prevent cheating in online classes, which has become a chronic problem.

Even as states rush to embrace Bush's vision of "21st-century learning," the National Education Policy Center this week released a new policy paper on virtual K-12 education. Researcher Gene Glass and colleagues noted that one of the biggest issues dogging virtual K-12 education is "authenticity of student work." That cheating would be a problem in classes where there are only computers and no teachers seems sort of obvious. Anyone could be doing the work and taking the tests in those classes, after all. And there's little to prevent kids from simply Googling their way to an A.

Glass cites a school in Ohio run by K12 Inc., a large for-profit online provider, in which about half the students were discovered not to even own a computer, raising serious questions about how they were completing all the work they'd supposedly done. They also highlight the case of North High School in Denver, which earlier this year was profiled by the alt-weekly Westword in a story that suggested the school was allowing students to cheat on online classes for "credit recovery" that allowed them to graduate and boost the school's dismal profile.

In 2010, the school's graduation rate, previously among the worst in the state at 48 percent, soared to 64 percent after the online credit recovery classes had been implemented. But Westword didn't find that the online classes were just so fabulous that kids embraced them and suddenly succeeded where they'd failed in a regular classroom. Instead, they found multiple instances where the students weren't doing any of the coursework in the classes at all but were passing their final exams with flying colors.

Former school staffers reported that students were using their iPhones to find the answers to the multiple-choice questions. Others simply took the tests over and over again (which they could do online) until they figured out the right answers through the process of elimination, and then passed the answers on to friends. The company providing the online classes at North High? Apex Learning, one of the major donors to Jeb Bush's digital-ed lobbying campaign. Is it any wonder Bush doesn't want to talk about cheating?

Charts: How the One Percent Doubled Their Income

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

If you're looking for stats on the growing gap between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, the Congressional Budget Office is a good place to start. The staid bipartisan number-crunching agency is the source of some of Mother Jones' ever-popular (and poster-izable!) income inequality charts. Now the CBO has a new report full of data whose takeaway, Kevin Drum notes, is pretty simple: "The rich are getting richer, the rest of us are just kind of drifting along."

Here are a couple charts that illustrate the trend. First off, a look at how wealth has been steadily redistributed upward over the past 30 years (hover over a column to see more data):

Hover over a column to see more data.

The richest Americans have seen a nearly 120 percent increase in their income since the late '70s. Meanwhile, the middle quintile of earners have seen their incomes grow 30 percent (hover over a column to see more data):

 Hover over a column to see more data.

Want more charts like these? See our charts on the secrets of the jobless recovery, the richest 1 percent of Americans, and how the superwealthy beat the IRS.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 26, 2011

Wed Oct. 26, 2011 4:57 AM EDT

US Army Spc. Phillips, 2nd Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment talks with a young boy in the Matekzi Village, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, Sept. 30, 2011. (Photo by Spc. Kristina Truluck, 55th Signal Company - The US Army)

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Big Crowd Gathers at Occupy Oakland, Mayor Promises "Light" Police Presence

| Tue Oct. 25, 2011 11:37 PM EDT

Occupy Oakland the night of Wednesday, October 26th.: jsight/yfrongOccupy Oakland the night of Wednesday, October 26th. j_sight/yfrogThe Occupy Oakland protests turned violent Tuesday evening when police officers cracked down with rubber bullets [OPD denies but said it could not speak from 15 other agencies on scene, see more on this below], tear gas, and flash-bang grenades on protesters marching through downtown Oakland. Around 75 people were arrested Tuesday morning when police dismantled the Occupy Oakland encampment in Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. A crowd is gathered there again tonight. What follows is a Storify roundup of news and eyewitness accounts, including from our own Gavin Aronsen (@garonsen), Tim McDonnell (@TimMcDonnell), and James West (@jameswest2010), who are on the scene. 

NOTE: Because of some code updates at Storify, we haven't been able to update the live blog below. So here's the latest:

10:55 p.m. It was a peaceful night in Oakland. At a press conference, Mayor Jean Quan promised a "light police presence" for the next few days, to allow an opportunity for "dialogue" with the protesters. Shortly afterward, the Occupy Oakland General Assembly passed a proposal to organize a general strike November 2. (Historically, a general strike has meant that everyone participates—not just people in a particular union or industry, not even just workers. Students might stay home, cab drivers might park their vehicles, and so on. What this would look like in 2011 America has yet to be determined; as Gavin notes below, our last general strike came just after WWII. In Oakland.

As we write this, what's left of the protest crowd, still several hundred strong, is march-dancing down Broadway to the strains of classic pop. Meanwhile our reporters (whom you can follow on Twitter for live updates: @garonsen, @jameswest2010, and @timmcdonnell, having found the downtown Oakland BART station closed, are headed over to San Francisco in our editorial web producer's (@DireWolf11) car. Josh Harkinson, who covered Occupy Wall Street for us for the past few weeks, is there as well. So are several San Francisco supervisors, trailing conspicuous entourages.

Earlier tonight, James filmed protesters pulling down the fence around their former encampment. Says one: "You know, I gotta be honest, I think there's got to be some cooler heads in this conversation somewhere, and I welcome protesters saying that. But I'm not one of those people. I'm upset. I'm upset enough that I'm going to pull down some fences in city park that I helped pay for. You know what I'm not gonna do? I'm not gonna spit on anybody, I'm not gonna curse, I'm not gonna denigrate anybody."

James also interviewed the "Notorious Irish Guy," who shows off what he says is an injury from a rubber bullet (plus the bullet itself).

Now back to our roundup of events up to about 7:45 p.m., via Storify:

 

A woman in a wheelchair is tear-gassed as police disperse protesters at Occupy Oakland.: @Adreadonymous/TwitterA woman in a wheelchair is teargassed as police disperse protesters at Occupy Oakland. @Adreadonymous/Twitter

AUDIO: Elizabeth Warren Clarifies Her Occupy Wall Street Comments

| Tue Oct. 25, 2011 9:03 PM EDT
Elizabeth Warren (right) is the front-runner to take on Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in 2012.

Elizabeth Warren isn't backing down from her support for the Occupy Wall Street movement, even as conservatives look to turn the nationwide protests movement into an electoral wedge issue. Speaking to reporters after an event in Framingham, Massachusetts on Tuesday, the Senate candidate downplayed her comments to the Daily Beast, suggesting that she had created the movement—but pointedly embraced their anti-Wall Street message and cast them as kindred spirits against a "rigged" economic system.

The controversy began when the Daily Beast's Samuel Jacobs published a profile of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau architect, in which  Warren was quoted saying of Occupy Wall Street: "I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do." Conservatives pounced—the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a statement noting that "the Boston Police Department was recently forced to arrest at least 141 of her Occupy acolytes in Boston the other day after they threatened to tie up traffic downtown and refused to abide by their protest permit limits." The Boston Globe moved Warren's comments closer to Al Gore-and-the-Internet territory, headlining its piece, "Warren claims credit for Occupy Wall St. protests."

So after an event in Framingham on Tuesday, Warren tried to clear things up a bit. She stood by her suggestion that her anti-Wall Street work had influenced the movement, while emphasizing that she believed Occupy Wall Street was a separate grassroots movement. Here's what she said when informed by a local reporter that her comments had not gone over well at Occupy Boston:

The GOP Hates Bikes

| Tue Oct. 25, 2011 11:24 AM EDT

Over the past few months, as Republicans have focused their attention on cutting what they see as wasteful government spending, they've zeroed in on a surprising new target: bicyclists, and the programs that serve them.

The federal government spends about $40 billion a year on transportation projects. Of that, about $928 million has been devoted to what's known as a "transportation enhancement" program, which provides funding for projects—including rails-to-trails conversions, bike lanes, and bridges—that make cycling safer, and thus more viable as a commuting option. But as Congress gears up to reauthorize the massive transportation funding bill this year, Republicans are arguing that states shouldn't be forced to use scarce transportation funds to encourage bike commuting when bridges for cars are falling down.

"We’re doing all these things that, if we had extra money, if we were running a surplus, sure, nobody would really be complaining about it," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told the Washington Post. But, Coburn added, "We can no longer have silly priorities get in the way of real needs."

States spend only about 1 percent of all transportation funds on projects devoted to cycling or pedestrian improvements. Yet Republicans see this as an area ripe for cutting. Over the summer, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) targeted DC's nascent Capitol Bikeshare program, which provides cheap rental bikes at subway stations and other strategic locations in the Washington Metro area (including northern Virginia) to encourage bike commuting.

The program has been wildly successful and has inspired other cities to replicate it as a good way of reducing traffic congestion and air pollution (not to mention obesity). But Cantor sees only waste. As TBD reported in August, Cantor used the GOP's "YouCut" website to highlight Capitol Bikeshare as a foolish venture ripe for elimination. Cantor also complained that bike-sharing programs were one reason that federal transportation spending was vastly exceeding the revenues brought in by the gas tax. He writes: 

The Federal government distributed more than $53 billion in funding for highways and transit projects in FY 2011 from the federal highway and transit trust funds. Federal excise taxes on gasoline sales are supposed to support these programs, however spending has significantly exceeded gas tax revenues in recent years. One reason for the excess has been federal spending on projects that don’t involve highways or transit systems at all, including federally funded bike sharing programs. Bike sharing programs were part of the more than $1 billion the federal government spent on programs to promote biking and walking in 2010. Federal bike and walking programs received hundreds of millions of stimulus dollars in addition to an annually recurring funding base that now exceeds $600 million. Bike sharing programs involve installation of bike storage facilities throughout a metropolitan area, together with the purchase of publicly-owned bicycles that riders can use for free or a nominal fee as a method of transportation. Federally-funded bike sharing programs are currently operating in cities such as Washington DC, New York City, and Minneapolis.

The actual reason that gas tax revenues aren't meeting demand for infrastructure improvements is that Congress hasn't raised the tax since 1993, so its value has been eaten up by inflation. But no matter. Targeting bike programs to try to tame the federal budget seems to fall in line with the GOP's belief that the whole deficit problem could be solved if we just got rid of NPR and Planned Parenthood. It's an ideological battle rather than a viable budget solution. Bike programs are associated with liberal Democrats who believe in climate change and care about the environment, so Republicans like Cantor would like to get rid of them, even if those programs make it much easier for some of his constituents to get to work every day.

The Great Libya-Shariah Freakout of 2011

| Tue Oct. 25, 2011 11:24 AM EDT

Between the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Moammar Qaddafi, it's hard out there for conservatives trying to portray President Barack Obama as weak on foreign policy. But with Libya Transitional National Council Chairman Mustafa Abdel-Jalil's announcement over the weekend that Libya would have "Islamic Shariah law [as] the basis of legislation," the right is settling on a narrative: Obama is making the world safe for Shariah!

There are a few problems with this line of argument, but the most obvious is that President George W. Bush invaded two mostly Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, and both of them adopted constitutions that identify Islam as the state religion and decree that laws have to be consistent with the precepts of Islam. Despite this, both constitutions contain provisions respecting the rights of religious minorities—as does Libya's draft constitution.

That's not to say that there's nothing to worry about—any country that identifies one particular religion as its "state religion" will, by definition, end up treating religious minorities as second-class citizens in some fashion. Indeed, Iraq and Afghanistan's religious minorities continue to face persecution. But it's not like the Libyan TNC writing Islam into its constitution is an Obama-sponsored departure from the Bush policy of midwifing fully formed Madisonian democracies from the ashes of despotic regimes. You can have American-backed dictators forcing nominal secularism onto Muslim countries at gunpoint or you can have popularly elected governments reflecting the will of the mostly-Muslim populations of these countries, but you can't have both.

Conservative blogger Scott Johnson mocks Obama for saying shortly after Qaddafi was killed that "We’re under no illusions—Libya will travel a long and winding road to full democracy." Now you'd think that people from a country that wrote the right of white people to own black people as property into its Constitution and then fought a brutal civil war over it that killed a full two percent of its population might have some understanding of the fact that the road to "full democracy" isn't exactly a smooth one, but, you know, Orientalism.

As the process of building democratic societies in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia goes forward, the rights of women and minorities should remain a priority for the US and the world at large. But wringing one's hands over the idea that Islam will likely play a prominent role in the Middle East's fledgling democracies is pointless. The US can't force its preferred outcomes in those countries any more than the fallen dictators who used to be in charge. It's hard to teach pluralism and tolerance at gunpoint. Those are values societies have to learn on their own.