Mojo - February 2014

Meet 18 Sochi Athletes Whose Struggles (and Style) Will Make You Stand Up and Cheer

| Sat Feb. 8, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Yesterday, during slopestyle qualifiers at the Winter Olympics, Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas became the first Olympian to act in direct opposition of Russia's bigoted anti-gay law when she stared into a television camera and shoved a rainbow-colored unicorn glove at the lens. In doing so, the defiant winter veteran—one of only six openly gay competitors in Sochi—carried on a long tradition of athletes injecting a little character and dissent into the Games, reminding us just why we love sports to begin with.

Considering the staggering tales of mismanagement, corruption, and regional terrorist threats, here are 17 more Olympians we're hoping do the same:

THE FIVE OTHER OPENLY GAY ATHLETES

SSA TV/Youtube

Partly because of boycotts, and partly because of Russia's anti-LGBT law, just five other gay athletes—all women—are joining Maas in openly competing in this year's Games. Four of them—Ireen Wüst (a gold-medal-winning Dutch speed skater), Sanne van Kerkhof (a Dutch short-track speedskater), Barbara Jezeršek (a Slovenian cross-country skier), and Anatasia Bucsis (a Canadian speed skater) are also previous Olympians. For Belle Brockhoff, an Australian snowboarder who came out as gay specifically to protest the Russian law, Sochi is her first Olympic competition. In an interview with the BBC, she explained: "I want to go there because I'm not afraid of these laws and I want others that live in Russia, who are homosexuals, to see that."

SHIVA KESHAVAN

Shiva Keshavan Indian Luger
Imago/Zuma

Last year, the Indian Olympic Association was suspended on allegations of corruption. As a result, none of India's three Olympic athletes will be allowed to compete under the Indian flag in Sochi. But luger Shiva Keshavan is sliding anyway—and he's doing so in a multicolored, patterned cap intended to represented his home village. Keshavan is no stranger to fighting the odds: At 16, became the youngest luger in history, and now competes without a coach or winter sports infrastructure. Despite Keshavan winning gold in the 2011 and 2012 Asia cups, acting IOA president Vijay Kumar Malhotra insists that the Indian winter athletes don't stand a chance of winning. Still, this will be Keshavan's fifth Olympiad—with or without his country's official backing.

LANNY BARNES

Lanny Barnes
WBUR/Flickr

Perhaps this year's quintessential Olympic tale of selflessness, Lanny and Tracy Barnes' story will melt the icy cockles of your cynical heart. The twin sisters were both expected to qualify for Sochi, but during the final round of US biathlon qualifiers, Lanny fell too ill to compete and was forced to stay home. Tracy, though, made the cut. A week later, Tracy sacrificed her spot so Lanny could race instead. "Love is selfless dedication," she explained in an interview. "Love means giving up your dream so somebody else can realize theirs." Though they're both Olympic veterans, Tracy's withdrawal comes only four years after barely missing the 2010 Olympics.

NORWEGIAN CURLING TEAM

Norwegian Curling Team

In recent years, curling has seen an unexpected and surging growth in popularity. If you tuned in to the 2010 Vancouver Games, you might recall Norway's amazing patterned pants during its silver-medal-winning performance. In Sochi, the team will don even more outrageous outfits: 1970s-inspired red, blue, and white zig-zag suits referencing the nation's flag. Appreciation for the team's loud sense of style even spawned a Facebook page with more than 540,000 fans—nearly as many people as live in Oslo.

YOHAN GOUTT GONCALVES

Yohan Goutt Goncalves
Yohan Goutt Goncalves/Wikimedia Commons

Goncalves is the first athlete to ever compete in the Winter Olympics for East Timor, a country that's never seen snow. In fact, the country's annual temperature stays around 85 degrees. Competing in the ski slalom, Goncalves wants to go to Sochi as a "diplomat" to show that there is "more to East Timor than war." That's more than we can say about his mariachi-suited slalom competitor.

JAMAICAN BOBSLED TEAM

Olympics/Youtube

Heading to the Winter Olympics for the first time in more than a decade, the Jamaican bobsled team has fans hoping for Cool Runnings 2.0. Jamaica's inaugural bobsled run, in the 1988 Calgary Olympics, ended in a disastrous crash. Upon arriving in Sochi, the team was further hindered as a result of the airport temporarily losing the competitors' clothes and equipment. Still, 12 years since their last appearance, and crowd-funded by more than $184,000, the two-man team is looking for redemption.

US WOMEN'S SKI JUMPING TEAM

Jessica Jerome Ski Jumping
Mht54321/Wikimedia Commons

2014 marks the first year women's ski jumping will be an Olympic event, with advocacy by American Lindsay Van largely responsible for bringing it there. In an interview on Rock Center With Brian Williams, Van explained how sexism kept the event out of the Olympics for years. (In 2006, International Ski Federation President Gian Franco Kasper said, "It's like jumping down from, let's say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.") Now, along with teammates Jessica Jerome and Sarah Hendrickson—a medal favorite who's recovering from an ACL injury—Van finally will see her hard work come to fruition at the Olympics.
 

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Google Doodle Goes Gay For Sochi Olympics

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 1:22 PM EST

On Thursday, Google publicly addressed Russia's anti-gay policies. To coincide with the Sochi Winter Games, the Google homepage was updated to depict a rainbow flag (an image associated with LGBT movements) on its Olympics-themed doodle. Check it out:

Google doodle gay rights
Google.com

 

And if Vladimir Putin goes to Google's homepage in Russia, this is what he'll see:

Google doodle Russia gay rights

 

And when you're not on the homepage, here's the search bar:

Google gay rights Sochi
Google.com

 

"Google has made a clear and unequivocal statement that Russia's anti-LGBT discrimination is indefensible," Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. "Now it's time for each and every remaining Olympic sponsor to follow their lead. The clock is ticking, and the world is watching."

For those keeping count, the Guardian is another "G" that recently modified its logo to resemble a rainbow flag to mark the start of the Sochi Olympics this week.

The Google doodle has been used to deliver political messages before. For example, the company once censored its logo to protest controversial anti-piracy bills.

Google did not respond to Mother Jones' requests for comment.

January Jobs Report: Hard to Read

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 1:05 PM EST

The US economy added 113,000 jobs in January, according to numbers released Friday by the Labor Department. The jobs gains were lower than expected, but the unemployment rate still dropped a tenth of a percentage point to 6.6 percent—the lowest level in five years. In contrast with with previous months, the labor force participation rate—the percentage of people working or looking for a job—increased slightly to 63 percent.

Several factors make it especially hard to make much sense of this month's job numbers. Unusually cold weather last month meant that more people stayed home, dampening retail sales and hiring. Annual data revisions released Friday show that job growth was slightly stronger last year than initially reported—suggesting that January's numbers could be low, too. Extended federal unemployment benefits, which expired in December, further complicate the picture: Since individuals are required to search for jobs in order to receive unemployment benefits, the end of those benefits could cause some people to stop their job searches and drop out of the labor force.

The disconnect between the two surveys the Labor Department uses to take the temperature of the economy also make January's numbers hard to interpret. The survey of employers, which is used to calculate the unemployment rate, found that 113,000 jobs were created last month. That number was much lower than the 616,000 new jobs reported in the survey of households. "Given the statistical mess," economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin noted Thursday, "the only real message is that the economy is not accelerating significantly."

The unemployment rate for blacks and Hispanics remained high in January, at 12.1 percent and 8.4 percent respectively. Last month, the jobless rate was 5.7 percent for white people, and 4.8 percent for Asians.

Employment gains came mainly in construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, and mining.

Here's what the January employment situation looks like in chart form, via Quartz:

The number of people employed in part-time work because they could not find full-time work fell to 7.3 million in January. Over the past year, full-time employment has risen by 1.8 million jobs, while part-time work has increased by only 8,000, despite fears that part-time work would jump due to Obamacare. (The Affordable Care Act says that employers have to provide health insurance for employees who work more than 29 hours a week.) The Congressional Budget Office just released a report saying that the Affordable Care Act will reduce employment by about 2 million jobs, but that will be mostly due to people leaving jobs they held onto for the health insurance.

The number of people actively engaged in the workforce edged up slightly in January, but economists warn that the labor force participation rate could drop in the coming months because Republicans are blocking an extension of federal unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. Americans must be actively looking for work in order to qualify for federal unemployment insurance. Without out that incentive, some of those looking for work may give up on their search.

Congressional GOPers Try to Stymie IRS Regulation of Dark Money

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 7:00 AM EST

In December, the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department issued a set of much-needed guidelines that spell out how the IRS should assess the applications of political organizations seeking non-profit status. Groups that receive a 501(c)(4) designation are allowed to raise tax-exempt funds without revealing their donors, all the while spending those donations on campaign ads and other election-related activities. Political spending isn't supposed to be the primary activity of those organizations, but where that line is drawn has been murky. That lack of clarity has allowed groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS to hide its donors and still devote most of its resources to influencing elections in one form or another.

These new rules explicitly define what constitutes "political activity." However, as my colleague Andy Kroll explained when these rules were released, they are only half measures, a minor improvement on the status quo but not a landscape-altering shift that will prevent millionaires who want to hide their contributions from donating to dark-money groups.

But even this half-hearted attempt at reform is enough to rile up the Republican politicians who have profited from the current lack of enforcement. Eleven GOP leaders from both chambers of Congress—including Sens. Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn along with Reps. John Boehner and Eric Cantor—have penned a letter to IRS head John Koskinen, urging him to block the new guidelines. "This rule would redefine political activity so broadly that grass-roots groups all across the country will likely be forced to shut down simply for engaging in the kind of non-partisan educational activities the 501(c)(4) designation was designed to support," the letter says.

The Republicans questioned the motivation and timing of the new rule, claiming that issuing these regulations right before the 2014 midterm election represented ill will on the agency's part. "This proposed rule is an affront to free speech itself," the letter continues. "It poses a serious and undeniable threat to the ability of ordinary Americans to freely participate in the democratic process."

That language is especially loaded in light of a measure slipped into the spending bill that Congress passed last month. That omnibus funding bill forbade the IRS from using any funds to "target citizens of the United States for exercising any right guaranteed under the first Amendment." The vagueness of that statue left tax experts concerned about its implications, and it looks like Republicans are ready to jump to conclusions that the IRS is harming the right to free speech.

The GOP letter is littered with references to the scandal that enveloped the IRS last year, when conservatives claimed that the agency maliciously targeted groups based on ideology. "As you know, the reputation of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is at an all-time low in the eyes of the public it exists to serve," the letter ominously opens. Those allegations of politically-biased misbehavior have proved unfounded, but Republicans are intent on exploiting the public perception of corruption they've manufactured. And that drummed-up-controversy just might prevent the IRS from fulfilling its responsibility to rein in political non-profits.

Read the full letter:

 

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 7, 2014

Fri Feb. 7, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Paratroopers assigned to Destined Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) out of Vicenza, Italy, fire a TOW 2B missile during a live-fire exercise at the Joint Multinational Training Command in Grafenwoehr, Germany, Feb. 1, 2014. (Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Pablo N. Piedra)

Elizabeth Warren: We Need to Stop Packing the Courts With Corporate Judges

| Thu Feb. 6, 2014 2:25 PM EST

On Thursday morning, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on President Barack Obama to nominate more judges to the federal bench who have backgrounds serving the public interest instead of corporate America.

Of Obama's judicial nominations so far, just ten—fewer than four percent—have worked as lawyers at public interest organizations, according to a report released Thursday by the Alliance for Justice, a network of civil rights organizations. Only 10 nominees have had experience representing workers in labor disputes. Eighty-five percent have been either corporate attorneys or prosecutors. At an event Thursday sponsored by several civil rights organizations, including the Brennan Center for Justice and the Alliance for Justice, Warren called for more balance in the system.

"Power is becoming more and more concentrated on one side," she said. "Well-financed corporate interests line up to fight for their own privileges and resist any change that would limit corporate excess… We have an opportunity to…fight for something that balances the playing field in the other direction."

Warren noted that now is the perfect time to take up that fight. Obstruction by Senate Republicans has stalled the confirmation of many of the president's judicial nominees over the years. More federal judgeships remained vacant during Obama's first term than during President George W. Bush's, and there are still more than 50 vacancies on the federal bench that need to be filled. "So it's unsurprising that the president and a majority of the Senate gravitated to nominating corporate lawyers…that most conservative senators could not object to," Warren said. In November, however, the Senate voted to put an end to GOP obstruction by ending the filibuster for judicial nominations. Now it only takes a simple majority of the Senate to confirm nominees to the federal bench. Theoretically, that means that Obama can nominate progressive candidates with experience representing the average American, and Democrats will be able to confirm those nominees without any Republican votes.

On Jan 16, the president nominated four lawyers with public interest backgrounds to fill district court vacancies in Illinois, Washington, Nevada, and Missouri. Two of those nominees have significant trial experience representing plaintiffs in corporate wrongdoing cases, one is a former public defender, and one comes from criminal defense.

But there are still roadblocks that may prevent the president from nominating progressive candidates. The GOP can still use something called the "blue-slip process" as a de facto filibuster on nominations. Here's how: When the president is considering a potential judicial nomination, the senators from the state where the judge would serve are given a blue slip of paper. If both senators do not return their blue slips, the nominee is not allowed to move on to a vote in the Senate judiciary committee.

It is because of the blue-slip process, for example, that Obama recently nominated two candidates to serve on the federal bench in Georgia who raised the hackles of liberals: Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs and Atlanta attorney Mark Howard Cohen. Boggs voted to keep the Confederate battle emblem as a prominent part of Georgia's state flag when he was a Georgia legislator in the early 2000s. Cohen helped defend Georgia's voter ID law, which voting rights advocates say makes it harder for poor people and minorities to vote.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 6, 2014

Thu Feb. 6, 2014 11:16 AM EST

U.S. Army Rangers, assigned to 2nd Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment, prepare for extraction from their objective during Task Force Training on Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., Jan. 30, 2014. Rangers constantly train to maintain their tactical proficiency. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Steven Hitchcock)

Elizabeth Warren: Let's Stop Scamming Our Vets

| Thu Feb. 6, 2014 7:00 AM EST

This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation along with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that would protect elderly veterans from financial scams and sketchy financial advisers.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) funds an assisted living program for certain low-income veterans, and for years scammers and faux investment consultants have preyed on elderly vets enrolled in it. Warren and Rubio's bill, introduced Tuesday, would require the VA to crack down on these shady dealers.

"For thousands of our oldest veterans who need help with basic daily activities, the…program is a critical lifeline," Warren said. "Unfortunately, scams are turning the program into something that can actually undermine the financial security of our older veterans and waste federal funds."

Swindlers calling themselves "veteran's advisers" often charge vets fees to help them obtain assisted living benefits, even though the application is free, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). "Investment advisers" also profit off the assisted living program. These advisers will counsel veterans who have too many assets to qualify for the program to stow some of their money in a trust or account that cannot be accessed for years, so that it appears the vets are poor enough to qualify. The result is that vets cannot access their savings, and investment advisers earn a healthy commission for their "advice."

Warren and Rubio initially proposed the legislation in November as an amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The amendment did not make it into the final annual defense bill, prompting Warren and her Republican colleague to introduce a stand-alone bill.

"This bipartisan proposal will help put an end to these financial scams and ensure that we honor our veterans' commitment, sacrifice, and service to the nation," Warren said.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 5, 2014

Wed Feb. 5, 2014 11:21 AM EST

HOHENFELS, Germany – A wave of fire crashes against the riot shields of Soldiers from Company C., 2nd Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, during a fire phobia training exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, Jan 22. Fire phobia training tested U.S. and multinational forces on their ability to face their fears of being set on fire. (Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Cody Barber, 11th Public Affairs Detachment)

"How Often We're Blind to Our Own Talent": RIP Joan Mondale, Arts Champion

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 2:33 PM EST

Joan Mondale, author and former Second Lady, died on Monday in Minneapolis at the age of 83. During the late 1970s, when her husband Walter Mondale was vice-president, she became famous for being one of the fiercest advocates of the arts on the national political scene. She was an avid potter and patron, earning herself the nickname "Joan of Art." For instance, she worked with the Department of Transportation to transform railroad stations into art galleries and raised money for Democratic candidates by auctioning works of art. As honorary chairwoman of the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, she was President Carter's de facto arts adviser.

"Not since Jacqueline Kennedy has fine arts had an ally so close to the White House," the Sarasota Herald-Tribune wrote in 1977.

Here's Mondale (via the Christian Science Monitor in 1977) discussing the importance of art in American life, often in the frame of politics both local and national:

What I feel that I can do is help people become aware of how pervasive and extensive the arts are, how they affect each one of us in our daily lives—what kind of builds we live in, what kind of clothes we wear, what we see with our eyes. We are often blind to the beautiful things around us.

What I'm mostly concerned about is how often we're blind to our own talent. I think that within each human being there is a creative spirit, and some of us have been fortunate enough to have good teachers and parents who've brought this out and encouraged it, but others haven't.

"Both [politics and art] seek to tell us about the good and the bad around us," Mondale stressed. "The artist often dramatizes the same mood for change and improvement for which the politician is seeking answers."

Here's a photo of Mondale playing drums after a press conference at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, in 1978:

Joan Mondale playing drums
Richard K. Hofmeister/Smithsonian Institution (via Wikimedia Commons)