Mojo - February 2014

Liam Neeson is "Pissed Off" at Bill de Blasio Over Horses

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 4:24 PM EST

On Wednesday night's episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Liam Neeson (star of the Taken movies, Schindler's List, and Battleship) revealed why he was a little "pissed off" at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The 61-year-old actor and New York resident wasn't mad at the new mayor for his socialist past or his leadership during winter storms. Neeson was upset over horses.

"He wants to close this horse and carriage industry in New York," Neeson said, referring to the mayor's goal to replace "inhumane" carriage horses with "vintage tourist-friendly vehicles in parks." Neeson also accused animal rights groups for spreading "false information" about the treatment of the horses in the city. (Neeson, whose close friend is a New York horse and carriage owner, previously wrote an intensely punctuated open letter to de Blasio on how he was "appalled to learn of [de Blasio's] intent to obliterate one of the most deep rooted icons of our city!")

Horse-drawn carriages have attracted controversy due to accusations of excessive harm to the animals. Carriage drivers of course vowed to fight a ban. Here is a clip of Stewart and Neeson's mini-debate, via TMZ:

This isn't the only cause Neeson is passionate about. The actor—recently famous for playing a good-natured CIA torturer who massacres ethnic stereotypes who kidnap his daughter—has a long history of working with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), including his work as a Goodwill Ambassador and his participation in a campaign to combat violence against children. And he once stripped almost completely naked to raise money for breast cancer research.

But of all his causes, this one might be getting him the most press. For years, Neeson has been vocal on the issue of New York's horse-drawn carriages, to the point that the Daily Caller asked in January, "Will Liam Neeson stand in the way of Bill de Blasio's horse carriage ban?" PETA has slammed Neeson over this. "Liam Neeson...has PETA wondering if one of his horses might have kicked him in the head," the organization wrote. In 2009, he issued a letter to city officials to rage against the "coordinated attempt by animal activists and a certain Queens council member to ban the industry from the city." Here's part of the letter, which you can read while keeping Neeson's voice in mind:

As a horse lover and rider, I am deeply disturbed by the unnecessary and misguided political and extreme rhetoric against the horse-drawn carriage industry and feel obliged to counter this action.

The horse-drawn carriage business is an iconic part of this city, employing hundreds of dedicated, hard-working men and women, caring for well-bred, well-trained horses and attracting tourists to New York City for over 100 years.

As a proud New York resident, I have personally enjoyed the beauty of Central Park on a daily basis for many years, and these horses are an undeniable integral part of that experience. The notion that a well-nourished horse pulling a carriage through Central Park is considered cruelty may fit in with animal activists' extremist view, but not with the rest of us. Surely we have a responsibility to protect commerce, especially one with such history, and one I truly feel helps define this city. May pragmatism prevail.

In 2009, Neeson made another appearance on The Daily Show—and discussed horses and carriages:

Neeson was also the star of the 2012 film The Grey, which was criticized by animal rights activists for smearing wolves as brutal and ravenous human-killers.

Mayor de Blasio's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, perhaps out of fear of Liam Neeson.

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University of Chicago Hires Notorious Goldman Sachs Fraudster to Teach Economics to Undergrads (Updated)

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 4:18 PM EST
Fabulous Fab appears at a Senate hearing in 2010.

Update, March 3, 8:30 p.m. EST: Fabulous Fab won't be teaching a course at the University of Chicago after all. "As preparations continue for the Spring Quarter, Fabrice Tourre will no longer be assigned as an instructor for Honors Elements of Economic Analysis in the College," the college said in a statement. "Instead he will be able to fulfill the teaching requirements for his Ph.D. program through opportunities in his department’s graduate-level curriculum.” The news was first reported Monday night by The Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper at the school.

The lone individual found liable for committing fraud during the lead up to the financial crisis will soon be teaching undergrads the basics of economics at one of America's most prestigious universities. Former Goldman Sachs banker Fabrice Tourre—better known by his self-assigned nickname, "Fabulous Fab"—is studying to get his Ph.D. in economics from University of Chicago. Per the Chicago Maroon, the school's student newspaper, Tourre will teach a class this quarter, offering honors students the opportunity to learn "Elements of Economics Analysis 3" from a man who owes over $1 million in fines to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Tourre is a poster child for Wall Street malfeasance. While working at Goldman in 2007, he designed a financial product called Abacus 2007-AC1. This collection of mortgage-backed securities was designed to fail—hedge funder John Paulson had asked Goldman to sell a package of bad mortgages that he could then bet against. Thanks to Tourre and the foreclosure crisis, Paulson made a cool $1 billion. Fab and Paulson knew Abacus was a bum product from the get-go, but Tourre hid that information from investors. Goldman rewarded Tourre handsomely for the scheme: He was promoted and earned a reported $2 million.

After the crash, though, the deal came under scrutiny. Congress summoned Tourre and other Goldmanites for hearings to examine the causes of the crisis, and Fab drew widespread media attention when emails he sent to his girlfriend became public. The emails showed Tourre boasting about how he had hoodwinked investors. Here's an excerpt:

When I think that I had some input into the creation of this product (which by the way is a product of pure intellectual masturbation, the type of thing which you invent telling yourself: "Well, what if we created a "thing", which has no purpose, which is absolutely conceptual and highly theoretical and which nobody knows how to price?") it sickens the heart to see it shot down in mid-flight.

The emails raised the ire of the SEC, which sued Goldman and Tourre for fraud. The agency settled with Goldman for $550 million in the summer of 2010, but the deal didn't include protection for Tourre. (Goldman has been covering his legal fees, though). Last year, a federal court found Tourre liable for six counts of civil securities fraud. The fines totaled $1 million, an amount he's currently contesting. Although the ruling was a victory for people who wanted to see Wall Street pay for the financial crisis, it was a minor win—Tourre, who was 28 when he helped create Abacus, was only a midtier employee at Goldman.

Tourre did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon. But last April he granted the Wall Street Journal a glimpse into his life as an average grad student. He was captain of an undefeated intramural soccer team, cheering his teammates on from crutches after an injury. He tutored fellow classmates. But the remnants of his former life of decadence linger. He lives in a high-rise apartment with a scenic view of Lake Michigan and a uniformed guard at the entrance.

The course guide for the class Tourre will be teaching describes it as "an introduction to macroeconomic theory and policy." There's no word on whether dreaming up crappy new financial products to sell to unwitting investors will be on the syllabus, too.

Did American Taxpayers Help Push Through Uganda's Anti-Gay Law?

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 3:22 PM EST
Gay Ugandans celebrate gay pride in Kampala, despite homosexuality being illegal in the East African country.

Earlier this week, when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni approved a harsh new bill making "aggravated homosexuality" a crime punishable by life in prison, he cited a recent report from the Ugandan Ministry of Health's Committee on Homosexuality, which concluded that same-sex attraction is mostly a learned impulse. "Since nurture is the main cause of homosexuality, then society can do something about it to discourage the trends," Museveni said. "That is why I have agreed to sign the bill."

This pronouncement creates a quandary for the United States. American officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have vehemently condemned Museveni's decision. Yet millions of US taxpayer dollars are flowing to the agency that the Ugandan leader used to justify the legislation, according to records from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gay rights activist argue that the Committee on Homosexuality report was engineered to ensure the bill's passage, and at least one committee member—a physician named Eugene Kinyanda—refused to sign his name to it because the process had "taken a very political" direction. "I will not be used to justify the passing of a bill which as a doctor I do not fully understand," he wrote in an email to a fellow committee member, which was reprinted on the blog Patheos.

Why Politicians Shouldn't Pack Heat, a Continuing Series

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 11:16 AM EST

On Tuesday, we published a piece from the current issue of the print magazine about lawmakers who were caught mishandling their firearms at work. But after the story came out, I was flooded with submissions from readers who remembered other instances of lawmakers getting in gun trouble—at home, at the airport, and at Dunkin Donuts. Here's an addendum:

2013: An AR-15 rifle is stolen from the unlocked garage of Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.). "Her family is very big on gun safety and she wants to get to the bottom of this herself," a spokesman tells Politico.

Illinois Democratic state Sen. Donne Trotter is sentenced to a year of court supervision and 60 hours of community service after attempting to bring a gun onto a plane at Chicago's O'Hare airport. Trotter says he forgot to remove the .25-caliber gun and ammunition from his bag after leaving his second job as a security guard.

2012: Colorado state Sen. Randy Baumgardner (R) calls police to report that a revolver had been stolen from his home, where it had stored it "in plain view" on a shelf in his closet.

2011: Tennessee state Rep. Curry Todd (R) is arrested for driving and possessing a gun while under the influence after a traffic stop in Nashville. He serves 48 hours in jail but will get his .38-caliber pistol back after his one-year probation period ends.

Maine state Rep. Frederick Wintle, a Republican, is banned from the state capitol after allegedly waving a loaded .22-caliber at a local newspaper photographer in a Dunkin Donuts parking lot. "I didn't know if he was going to shoot me or if it would accidentally go off," the photographer says.

2010: After being stopped outside of an abortion clinic with a loaded gun, Minnesota state Rep. Tom Hackbarth (R) is stripped of his leadership position. Hackbarth tells authorities that he did not realize he was outside an abortion clinic at the time, and was merely doing recon on a woman he had met on an internet dating site.

2001: Rep. Scott Desjarlais (R-Tenn.) is accused of dry-firing a handgun outside of his wife's bedroom during the couple's divorce proceedings.

h/t @litzz11

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 27, 2014

Thu Feb. 27, 2014 10:08 AM EST

A U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank, Company C, 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division stares off a camel during a bilateral exercise in the US Central Command area of responsibility, Feb. 19, 2014. The week-long military-to-military exercise fostered partnership and interoperability. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Marcus Fichtl, 2nd ABCT PAO, 4th Inf. Div.)

Is This the Beginning of the End for Solitary Confinement?

| Wed Feb. 26, 2014 7:10 PM EST

Minors, pregnant women, and the developmentally disabled can no longer be placed in solitary confinement in New York State prisons (barring exceptional circumstances) thanks to an agreement between the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the New York State Department of Community Corrections (DOCCS) on February 19. The agreement will require the state to develop sentencing guidelines and maximum isolation sentences for the first time, and will make it the largest US prison system to ban the use of disciplinary solitary confinement for minors.

The agreement came just days before Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called for the end of the use of solitary for certain vulnerable individuals at a high-profile congressional hearing on Tuesday. The hearing featured testimony from activists, corrections officials, and former inmates, including Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman, who stated: "Solitary confinement impedes access to important pre-natal and women's health care services. In fact, pregnant women in solitary confinement often receive no medical care. And yet, pregnant prisoners in America are still sent to the SHU [Special Housing Unit]."

New York is not the only state taking steps toward solitary confinement reform. Last week, Colorado Department of Corrections executive director Rick Raemisch, who has committed to lowering Colorado's solitary confinement rate to less than 3 percent of the state's prison population, penned a New York Times Op-Ed about his own experience in willing isolation for a night. At an early February meeting of corrections professionals, Mike Dempsey, who runs the Indiana Department of Corrections' Division of Youth Services, discussed his state's reduction of juveniles in solitary confinement from 48 beds—with some minors serving 24-month sentences—to 5-10 with a maximum sentence of 24 hours. Earlier this month, California, home to last year's massive prisoner hunger strike, held a hearing on the use of solitary confinement—though ultimately prison advocates were unsatisfied with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's proposed regulations.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 26, 2014

Wed Feb. 26, 2014 10:18 AM EST

Recruits of India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, crawl through a simulated battlefield Jan. 24, 2014, as part of a combat training course on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. This course is part of Basic Warrior Training and develops recruits’ newly learned combat skills such as tactical communication and movement. While on Parris Island, recruits receive basic combat training skills that will be built upon throughout their Marine Corps careers. India Company is scheduled to graduate Feb. 14, 2014. Parris Island has been the site of Marine Corps recruit training since Nov. 1, 1915. Today, approximately 20,000 recruits come to Parris Island annually for the chance to become United States Marines by enduring 13 weeks of rigorous, transformative training. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Caitlin Brink/Released)

Corn on "Hardball": Why Is the Right Still Talking About Benghazi?

Tue Feb. 25, 2014 5:30 PM EST

Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Alex Wagner about the Right's persistence on the issue of Benghazi, even after the Senate Intelligence Committee released a review of the attack that occurred more than a year ago. Could it be their silver bullet to keep Hillary Clinton from the White House?

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Kal Penn Set to Appear at the White House's First Student Film Festival

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 5:05 PM EST

On Friday, the White House East Room is set to host its inaugural Student Film Festival. The winning entries, which include stop-motion animation and special-effects-peppered fare, were selected from over 2,000 submissions. The White House announced the contest for American students, grades K-12, last November, and put out a call for short films (three-minute max.) that demonstrate how technology is used in schools today and how it might change education in the future.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to make an appearance at the White House Student Film Festival—as are the following celebrities:

  • Bill Nye (the Science Guy), who has been on a pro-science, anti-creationism/denialism warpath lately. "I fight this fight out of patriotism," Nye told me last year. "[Nye has] been instrumental in helping advance some of the president's key initiatives to make sure we can out-educate, out-innovate, and out-compete the world," an Obama administration official said.
  • Kal Penn, the 36-year-old actor who served stints as associate director for the Office of Public Engagement in the Obama administration and delivered this speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He was at the White House Science Fair last year. He also wants to help sell you on Obamacare.
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson, another friend of the Obama White House and science luminary.
  • Conan O'Brien, though unlike the previous three, he is not set to appear in person. He'll be sending a video address.

The film fest will also include a sneak peek at the Fox series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (the successor to the show that made Carl Sagan famous), which will be hosted by deGrasse Tyson and executive-produced by Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow.

Click here to check out some of the White House honorable mentions in the festival. Here's one, titled "A Day In The Life of a Tech Nerd":

UPDATE, February 28, 2014, 7:04 p.m. EST: On Friday, Bill Nye posted the following photo of him, President Obama, and Neil deGrasse Tyson—a "Presidential Selfie" in Nye's words:

"So, an astrophysicist, an engineer, and the President of the United States walk into The Blue Room...." reads the caption on Nye's Facebook page.

Could the NFL Yank Arizona's Super Bowl Because of an Anti-Gay Law?

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 4:24 PM EST

A "religious freedom" bill that would allow discrimination against LGBT residents passed the Arizona Legislature and is currently sitting on Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's desk. Both of Arizona senators, the state's chamber of commerce, Apple, and American Airlines have all asked Brewer to veto the bill. Another critic, though, might have the biggest bargaining chip—and has shown the state before that it's not afraid to use it.

Arizona is set to host next year's Super Bowl, and the big game's host committee is not happy:

We share the NFL's core values which embrace tolerance, diversity, inclusiveness and prohibit discrimination. In addition, a key part of the mission for the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee is to promote the economic vitality of Arizona. On that matter we have heard loud and clear from our various stakeholders that adoption of this legislation would not only run contrary to that goal but deal a significant blow to the state's economic growth potential. We do not support this legislation.

An NFL spokesman noted the league's anti-discrimination policy and said the league was "following the issue in Arizona and will continue to do so should the bill be signed into law." Would the NFL go so far as to move the country's biggest sporting event due to a social issue? History suggests that yes, it would.

The 1993 Super Bowl was supposed to be held in Tempe, but the league backpedaled in the midst of a controversy over celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Then-Gov. Evan Mecham had abolished the state's MLK holiday, arguing it had been illegally created through executive order. A public vote on the holiday was scheduled for 1990, and players and NFL officials began to express their displeasure over playing the Super Bowl in a state that wouldn't honor King. "If there is a smear on the Martin Luther King holiday of any kind, I would personally lead the effort to rescind the Super Bowl," said then-Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, who was head of the Super Bowl site selection committee. "We wouldn't go there. How could anybody in his right mind go to play there?"

NFL officials made it clear that the state would not keep the Super Bowl if voters turned down the holiday, a move that infuriated Mecham, who called it "a shameful and disgusting attempt to blackmail this entire state." (Mecham, it should be noted, had earlier been impeached and removed from office on charges of obstruction of justice and misuse of government funds.) Arizona voters turned down MLK Day, and then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue took the Super Bowl away less than 12 hours later.

"I don't believe playing Super Bowl XXVII in Arizona is in the best interest of the NFL," Tagliabue said at the time. "I will recommend to NFL clubs that this Super Bowl be played elsewhere. I am confident they will follow the recommendation. Arizona can continue its political debate without the Super Bowl as a factor."

League officials said Arizona could host the big game in 1996 if the state approved the holiday by then. Voters complied, approving it in 1992.

Given that the NFL is expecting its first openly gay player next season, and considering anonymous team officials' comments on the matter, league administrators are likely hyperaware of the kind of publicity an Arizona-based championship would get if the state's anti-gay bill is signed into law. Perhaps most importantly, the state would lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars if the big game is moved elsewhere—just as it did in 1993. Multiple outlets reported Tuesday that Brewer was likely to veto the bill. As one source told NBC News, "She doesn't want to take any actions that could jeopardize the economic momentum we've seen here in Arizona."