Political MoJo

Polar Bear Penises Shrink - Are Humans Next?

| Fri Sep. 1, 2006 3:33 PM EDT

Bristly, 1000-pound brutes willing to claw it out for females and whisk them off for a week of spirited shagging, male polar bears might hook up with several mates in a season. They are not the stripe of male to suffer from any image problems when it comes to, well, having the right equipment—not, at least, until today, when the Nunatsiaq News of the Nunavik region of Arctic Quebec—surely an authority on polar bears--reported that their penises are shrinking.

A photograph accompanying the article shows a woman holding 20-odd polar bear penis bones, which were found by a recent study to be significantly shorter in bears exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals. The findings, published last month in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, adds fuel to concerns that a massive buildup of pesticides in the bodies of Arctic animals and hunters is causing environmental and health problems (see the story in Mother Jones). The issue may compound troubles caused by the bears' loss of Arctic habitat. "Added to the stress of climate change," the Nunatsiaq News points out, "this could be bad news for their survival."

The same toxic buildup taking place in polar bears is happening to a lesser but increasing degree in the fatty tissues of humans--even in some places outside the Arctic. For the sake of our own mating rituals, let's hope the global masculinity index isn't going bearish.

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Predatory Payday Lenders Ground Thousands of Troops

| Fri Sep. 1, 2006 1:45 PM EDT

This summer, Mother Jones reported on the ways the poor get taken by lenders who prey on the cash-strapped, including payday loans with average annual interest rates of 400%. It seems the government is finally paying attention. But it's not the pound-of-your-flesh interest rates that have the government concerned. Rather, it's the fact that soldiers whose debts amount to a third of their income cannot be sent overseas.

This policy exists because major financial problems are thought to make soldiers more vulnerable to bribes that would force them to reveal sensitive information. If that's the case, it's another example of the Bush administration hurting rather than helping national security. Since Bush took office, the number of sailors and Marines who could not be deployed as a result of financial problems has increased 150-fold.

Payday lending outlets cluster by the dozen around military bases, where soldiers are paid poorly. Currently, just 12 states have laws capping interest rates at 99%. Congress is now considering a law that would cap rates at 36%, and the Pentagon is on board. It's about time.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Jailed by Sudan's Government for Darfur Reporting

| Fri Sep. 1, 2006 1:18 PM EDT

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Salopek sits in a Sudanese jail, charged with espionage and reporting "false news." Basically his crime was sneaking across the border to report on Darfur. (Reporters need to sneak in, because the Sudanese government doesn't want the press to expose how it supports the militias behind the atrocities.)

That he's won the Pulitzer twice speaks to his skill as a reporter and writer. He's also a great guy, as anyone who's ever had even a passing acquaintance with him will tell you. A dozen or so years ago, my dad, then an editor at the National Geographic, hired Paul into a staff writing job, a hire that still makes dad feel like a genius, as he likes to joke. The position in question was mostly a desk job and Paul quickly outgrew it. He went to the Chicago Tribune in 1996 and got into the field. Over the last decade he won his Pulitzers for his Tribune reporting, and has written lyrical, probing features for the Geographic, for whom he was on assignment when arrested by the Sudanese thugs. As his former Tribune colleague Ken Armstrong points out in this moving piece, Paul's known for chasing the tough story, the dangerous story, the story on the downtrodden and ignored:


He's told stories from Africa, Afghanistan, Asia and the Balkans, stories about refugees, rebels and victims of war, about pirates, poachers, gunrunners and killers, about a child in Ethiopia forced to marry at age 7 and a 13-year-old schoolgirl in Angola tortured for being a witch. He's told stories through hardship and will, with datelines like: THE MOUNTAINS OF WESTERN KOSOVO; THE SHOMALI PLAIN, Afghanistan; THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS OF ETHIOPIA.

The State Department has intervened on Paul's behalf, and I'm sure the Tribune, the Geographic, and the CPJ are doing whatever they can to ensure his release.

Paul didn't let his success go to his head. So I'm sure he'd be the first to point out that his fate is inexorably linked to other journalists doing dangerous work, often without such large, powerful institutions behind them. In reporting on Paul's situation yesterday, NPR noted that while he's been moved to a relatively decent jail, a Slovenian filmmaker who faced the same charges has been sentenced to two years, and is being held in what sounds like an absolute hell hole. Paul's driver and interpreter, both Chadians, have also been arrested. The trial for the three of them is scheduled for September 10th.

Block the Vote: Eleven of America's Worst Places to Cast a Ballot

| Thu Aug. 31, 2006 7:29 PM EDT

Two months ahead of major elections, and four years after the passage of the Help America Vote Act -- which was designed in part to eliminate, nationally, the kind incompetence and outright criminality that marred the 2000 election -- the machinery of US democracy still leaves much to be desired. As Sasha Abramsky notes in the current issue of Mother Jones, the chances that your vote will count, the ease with which you can cast your ballot, even your odds of getting on a voter roll, greatly vary according to where you live.

As it turns out, except for a rudimentary federal framework (which determines the voting age, channels money to states and counties, and enforces protections for minorities and the disabled), U.S. elections are shaped by a dizzying mélange of inconsistently enforced laws, conflicting court rulings, local traditions, various technology choices, and partisan trickery.

Among the more striking regional discrepancies:

  • In some places voters fill in paper ballots; in others they vote with ancient machines; in still others they use state-of-the-art touch-screen technology
  • Some states encourage voter registration, others make it a hassle
  • Some states allow prisoners to cast a ballot, others don't allow even ex-felons tovote

The piece offers a partial--but sadly emblematic-- list of "American democracy's more glaring weak spots."

Read it here...and weep.

Tucker Carlson Defends One of America's 10 Most Wanted

| Thu Aug. 31, 2006 5:13 PM EDT

Yesterday Tucker Carlson got into a tiff with Utah's Attorney General Mark Shurtleff over the justification for putting Warren Jeffs on the FBI's 10 most wanted list. That the polygamist has been charged with first-degree felony rape and has victimized countless women and children doesn't stop Tucker from defending him.

"A lot of these things are not illegal...to teach animals to kill animals with your bare hands," for example. He goes on to argue that Jeffs is accused of doing things that are merely "titilating," adding: "There are 10 spaces on the list, but is this guy one of the 10 most threatening people to America?" Shurtloff points out that he doesn't have to be a threat to America but a threat to society and to individuals, thousands of them in this case.

Tucker counters: "He's more threatening than, say, the Islamic radicals huddling in a basement right now figuring ways to blow up airliners? Or people who are working to overthrow the government?" Shurtloff tells him that Osama is on the list, as are child abusers, rapists and the like.

If only Tucker had bothered to vist the FBI's site he would have seen, too, that there's a separate list of Most Wanted Terrorists. This list features not 10, but 26 mug shots, making Carlson's "either/or" argument all the more absurd.

Yet Another Frightening Story Out of Colorado

| Thu Aug. 31, 2006 3:32 PM EDT

Eric Hamlin, a middle school geography teacher in Jefferson County, Colorado, received a letter of reprimand his very first week of class. The reason? He displayed the flags of Mexico, China and the United Nations in his classroom as teaching aids, as he has always done throughout his geography-teaching career.

Hamlin was told to take the flags down by the assistant principal. She said it was Jefferson County School District policy that he could not display the flags. Hamlin said he took issue with that, and an hour later, she returned, saying it was actually state law, and she handed him the statute:

Any person who displays any flag other than the flag of the United States of America or the state of Colorado or any of its subdivisions, agencies, or institutions upon any state, county, municipal, or other public building or adjacent grounds within this state commits a class 1 petty offense.

However, the statute does include an exception for "a temporary display of any instructional or historical materials not permanently affixed or attached to any part of the buildings." Apparently, the word "instructional" is a new one to the administration at Hamlin's school. When he pointed it out, he was told that the flags "seemed permanent."

The principal then told Hamlin to take the flags down, which he refused to do. He was then given the letter of reprimand, and told that he could regain his good standing if her would agree not to display flags of foreign nations, and always obtain administrative approval for any classroom displays he put up. Hamlin refused, and was placed on administrative leave.

Once the news media learned about the incident, things changed. School and county officials agreed to "allow" Hamlin to rotate the flags on a temporary basis, which is what he has done for his entire career. Hamlin resigned from his job, but said that he feels bad for the principal, who is getting "unfair" emails, calling him "Nazi and things like that."

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New Orleans Since Katrina: A Carnival of Ineptitude!

| Thu Aug. 31, 2006 2:13 PM EDT

How's this for a blistering editorial, from the Beaver County Times?

One year after Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi, huge swaths of that area look as bleak as they did in the days immediately following the storm.

Debris is piled in massive mounds everywhere; block after block of homes are boarded up; signs of rebuilding are few and far between; thousands of residents are still displaced.

In a way, that's to be expected. Katrina was a storm of such immense proportions and the geographic area it hit was so widespread and populated, especially in regard to New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., that the resulting damage was on a scale that is and was unimaginable.

And yet, and yet...

[E]ven given the depth and breadth of the destruction, the response of government at the local, state and federal levels has been pathetically inadequate.

This isn't just about the rip-offs and scams, the squabbling over how to proceed, the blame-gaming and the power plays. These things are going to happen when dealing with an unprecedented event like Katrina.

However, it's the paralysis that continues to grip government that is long-term scary. For a nation and a people who pride themselves on problem solving, post-Katrina muddling stands as a rebuke to that can-do attitude. ...

...the failure of government post-Katrina to do what it is supposed to do - look out for the common good - is a bad sign.

Mark Fiore makes much the same point in his own inimitable way. (Click on the image below.)

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Stop Global Warming and Get Rich Too? Only in California

| Thu Aug. 31, 2006 4:55 AM EDT

California legislators really do seem to be poised to pass the modestly named Global Warming Solutions Act, which would require the state to bring greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels (and how sad that that's an ambitious idea). The Assembly has signed off and the Senate is expected to by midnight today; Arnold is on board. No doubt there's a downside to this somewhere, but until we find it, it looks a lot like saving our species from extinction comes with an economic bonus: A new University of California-Berkeley study finds that going back to 1990 emission levels would boost the annual Gross State Product (GSP) by $74 billion and create 89,000 new jobs by 2020.

Robots Gone Wild! (ABC Uses Science to Scare)

| Thu Aug. 31, 2006 3:37 AM EDT

Ok, anything that gets the American public more interested in science is good. And yet, I really have to question the judgment of Neil de Grasse Tyson—the man who first demoted Pluto!; but on that front, people, deal—and other notable scientists for appearing on ABC's pseudo-scientific offering, "Last Days on Earth!"

Now, given that a huge chuck of TV programming on any given night is devoted to the grossly overstated threat from serial killers and pedophiles (more on that in a later post), people are probably relieved to confront threats they cannot hope to protect against. ABC has obliged with a Top Ten list of scary, scary threats to the planet, such as:

No. 8: Gamma radiation from nearby astral implosion. Anyone got the odds on that one?

No. 7: Black hole swallowing earth. What, does it just appear astern, like on the season premiere of "Deep Space Nine"?

No. 6: AI Gone Wild! Yes, indeedy, many Disney-owned film clips were pressed into service.

Number 5: Killer asteroid. Yawn.

Number 4: Still not entirely sure. "Many of our threats come from above. Only one comes from below…" i.e. some kind of geophysical meltdown that, according to ABC, "might" happen under Yellowstone. (You know, it is one thing to rope in media-sophisticated scientists interviewed in some kind of Truthiness studio setting to do your bidding. It is another thing to interview every law-enforcement official and EMT guy in Rapid City, SD, and ask: What could you hope to do if a giant cloud of ash swallowed your city?)

Number 3: Nuclear war. Wait, that's a real threat. Yet, while experts sanely noted the biggest risk still from U.S./U.S.S.R, most of the file footage was about Iran.

Number 2: Plague/Flu. Oddly, since 10 minutes earlier, ABC had made the point that only one threat "comes from below," plague is now shouted out to be the only threat "not sent from above." And wait, plague or flu could be weaponized! One biologist notes: "some people say, thank god that Ted Kaczynski was a mathematician, not a biologist." Snap!

Number 1: Wait for it…yes, it is global warming. And, though sensationalized and overly reliant on Al Gore (yet another indicator he's running, btw.), the segment was relatively smart.

Smart enough that it made me wonder if this whole show wasn't the product of some producers concerned about global warming asking themselves: How do we sell this to network brass/ advertisers? Wait! I know! A Top Ten list!

GM Petrified? Automaker Drops Survivor Sponsorship

| Thu Aug. 31, 2006 1:43 AM EDT

Earlier today, General Motors announced that's it's ending its 6-year sponsorship of the CBS reality show, Survivor, saying it needs to shift its media dollars from prime-time to live sports and award shows. Officials insist the announcment has nothing to do with the show's controversial new format that divides contestants by race.That struggling GM needs to rethink its strategy on all fronts is understandable. That the announcement comes today, in the midst of protests over the show? Their denial has a familiar ring.


Remember last year when that other ailing car company, Ford, pulled its ads for Jaguar and Land Rovers from gay publications, right around the time when anti-gay-rights groups were threatening a boycott of the company? Ford insisted their decision was strictly about numbers, advertising, the bottom line.


Then a week later the company reversed its decision, making its earlier denials sound downright absurd. In this case GM could, even if its decision is totally unrelated, use this opportunity to highlight the importance of diversity in the workplace, to say something in acknowledgment of the controversy, however reality show-esque, that is unfolding. This was a sliver of a chance for GM to stand for something other than a tanking business, I mean, could it kill them to mention their diversity program?

The American public is tired of denials in such announcements, and there was potential for nobility in this one (as opposed to Ford's cowardice) that might have even distracted folks from a company that is creeping further afield, and that is becoming less and less of a survivor.