We got a really important press release this morning from SeekingArrangement.com, a website where old rich guys who want to pay for sex can find young women who want to sell it to them. Because GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney gave a poor lady some money over the weekend, the site says he "has shown all other politicians that being a good Sugar Daddy is about helping others," and has therefore bestowed him with its endorsement for the 2012 GOP nomination.

This is a ridiculous publicity stunt, of course (and here I am writing about it!). I think "Due to Economy, More Women Than Ever Considering High-Class Whoring" probably would have been a better press release title. But any reason is a good reason to revisit my story about SugarDaddy.com, in which I name-check SeekingArrangement, and go on some "dates" with dudes shopping for carnal treasure online. Read it!


Karen rebels in 2007

Crazy news coming out of Burma yesterday: The Karen National Union, an ethnic organization that's been waging an armed insurrection against the Burmese government since nearly the moment the country became independent in 1948, has signed a ceasefire.

This wasn't some wee little skirmish. When the rebellion started more than 60 years ago, the Karen, an ethnic minority that had been favored as police officers and soldiers by the colonizers, used their British training and British guns to nearly take over the country. They've been fairly steadily beat back to the eastern jungles since then. Lately, this fight has been a few thousand soldiers from one of the poorest populations on the planet versus an army of hundreds of thousands that spends billions procuring weapons.

But however small the KNU's army, the ramifications of this ongoing battle have been huge: More than 500,000 internally displaced people living without villages, infrastructure, or any kind of security whatsoever. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to neighboring countries or been resettled by the UN as far away as the United States. Countless civilians have been raped and murdered at the hands of the Burmese army.

So it is a great big deal if this ceasefire sticks. Truces between the Karen and the Burmese armies have been reached before and then broken down. If the Burmese army is really going to stop killing people and setting villages on fire, this ceasefire is going to make a real difference to a lot of people. If only the agreement had included sending a group of experts in to clear out all the land mines both sides have been laying for decades.

This war has been a huge part of the Karen’s culture, as is their refusal to stop fighting it. “For us surrender is out of the question” is the first tenet of the KNU revolution.

This war has been a huge part of the Karen's culture, as is their refusal to stop fighting it. "For us surrender is out of the question" is the first tenet of the KNU revolution, and it's printed everywhere, from T-shirts to tattoos. I imagined the Karen refugees I lived with in Thailand a few years back would have mixed feelings about this news. I tried to call every one in my phone this morning, but they all work long hours or two jobs in places like meat-packing factories to survive in their new homes. (Many have moved to America, Australia, England, or Norway.) The only thing on any of their Facebook pages about the matter was other refugees asking them what they thought about it.

The comments beneath the article about the ceasefire on the website of the Irrawaddy, the exile newspaper read religiously by refugees and revolutionaries, are indeed mixed. One commenter accuses the KNU of wanting to profit from joining with the Burmese government in plundering Karen State's resources, and warns that only the enemy will benefit from this agreement. But another says, huzzah, it's about time for peace. And now the Kachin Independence Army should sign a ceasefire, too.

Right—the KIA. This group also has been fighting for the autonomy and protection of their people for years. Reports (PDF) about atrocities have recently been pouring out of Kachin State on the Chinese border. (The Kachin News group's top story today, for example, is "Burma army kills two unarmed Kachin women.")

Hopefully peace will come to that region, too. And hopefully this tentative peace with the Karen—Peace in Karen State! Something that hardly any Karen person living has experienced or can remember!—will hold. Not to mention the Burmese government's recent ceasefires with the Shan State Army-South, the United Wa State Army, and various other ethnic factions. "We have been fighting for 60 years," one of the Karen delegates at the ceasefire said, "and one meeting alone will not end it." It's a start, at least.

It's been kind of a banner week as far as making offensive and stupid comments about gays goes. In case you missed them, let's run down the top slurs:

Coming in at No. 3, Pat Buchanan, on why he appears to be suspended from MSNBC: "Look, for a long period of time the hard left, the militant gay rights groups, militant—they call themselves civil rights groups, but I'm not sure they're concerned about civil rights—people of color, Van Jones, these folks and other have been out to get Pat Buchanan off TV." That's right. It's hard to be Pat Buchanan, what with all those blacks and homos you're always belittling out to get you. It turns you into the sort of paranoid freak that refers to himself in the third person.

At No. 2, we've got ABC president Paul Lee explaining why he doesn't get concerns that the network's new superweird series Work It, about two men who cross-dress poorly to get sales jobs, is pretty insensitive to actual transgender issues: "I loved Tootsie." Oh. Alright then.

For the No. 1 most heartbreaking comment, there's Troy, Michigan's mayor Janice Daniels. Last year, she provoked some outrage for writing, "I think I am going to throw away my I Love New York carrying bag now that queers can get married there" on her Facebook page. This year, she's told students of a high school Gay-Straight Alliance that she would like to invite to a forum on bullying and suicide "a panel of psychologists who would testify that homosexuality is a mental disease." At least the students claim she said that; Daniels denies it. Though she says she taped the meeting, she refuses to let anyone hear the tapes. Maybe the kids misheard her. That, after all, totally doesn't sound like something she would say. 

It's not every marriage in which one partner implores the other to justify why, why they still love them. But then, it's not every marriage in which one partner went to war, killed or saw friends/enemies/innocent civilians get killed or witnessed/experienced Christ knows what kind of stress and trauma, and then came home to find the war still happening in their minds and nervous systems, making them agitated, suicidal, maybe violent.

Brannan Vines, founder of the nonprofit Family of a Vet, has a marriage like that, though. Her husband Caleb did two yearlong tours in Iraq, suffered a traumatic brain injury and struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, so at the ripe old age of 34 he's dramatically different than the guy Brannan married. He sometimes has no control over being restless, or paranoid, or unbearably pissed off. In moments of lucidity, he asks his wife why the hell she still loves him. In response, she wrote him a love letter. And knowing that an estimated one in five vets has PTSD, she's invited other veterans' families to do the same.

And the results: holy shit. Family of a Vet's "Love Letter Campaign," which kicked off on Veteran's Day and runs until Valentine's Day, has published dozens of letters to soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are insanely moving. They're from wives (and even a mother-in-law) and they're the most unimaginably intimate window into the battles for psychological well-being and readjustment that assail many veterans' families. Or destroy them—not all the relationships in the letters have happy endings.


As you left yet again to return to the VA hospital, leaving me alone with our children, I came to understand many things, you will never again be the man that I fell in love with, the father you once were, but you will survive this battle inside yourself.

For this first time in a long time I saw glipses of the man I fell in love with, while it is hard on the kids to see you leave yet again they also have pride in you for facing your demons head on. I pray everyday that this time the VA is able to help you, that this time will bring about a change in you that you will never again try and hurt yourself, that you will remember that we will always love you. I can not walk beside you down this path any longer, it has proven to hard for me and for our children. I want you to remember that although we are not by your side everyday we are your biggest fans chearing you every step of the way, we are not turning our backs on you as so many have done we are instead chosing to walk a differant path. The hypervigalance, anxiety, fighting, sleepless nights, and addictions have worn us all down, and changed us all but thru it all we have always loved you.[...]

Anyone who ever proposes sending soldiers to war should be forced to sit down and read these. You should read them, too. And if you're a family member of a vet, you can submit your own.

Why yes, according to a new report by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, most of them did. Since the earthquake that devastated the country nearly two years ago, two-thirds of the $2.1 billion aid organizations have collected has gone to rebuilding or otherwise helping Haiti. That's a significant improvement over what the Chronicle found six months after the quake, when less than half the money had been utilized.

Not that two-thirds of the work is finished, however. "There are still 500,000 people in camps, there's still a very broken health system, and there's still endemic cholera and very little access to water and sanitation," says one NGO director interviewed for the survey. Though there are substantial millions remaining, it's not enough to get everything on aid groups' wishlists done—or to handle something like a full-blown cholera crisis. Since donations have tapered way off after the initial postquake fundraising bonanza, some groups are still offering encouragement to would-be donors. "It's not hopeless," Food for the Poor executive director Angel Aloma tells the Chronicle, "it's just slow."

If you missed Wired's recent cover interview with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, you should check it out. Reading it on a plane recently, I was interested in a) knowing how thoroughly he controls important internet things (and possibly soon space travel) and will eventually be low-paying abusive overlord of us all, and b) being reminded why people do not assign me things like interviews with Jeff Bezos. Interviewer Stephen Levy is an old pro, and handled Bezos' comments with a good deal more class than I would have mustered. Below, some of Bezos' quotes to Wired and the responses I was hollering in my head while reading them:

Bezos: For your typical consumer book—I'm not talking about textbooks or anything specialized—$9.99 is really the highest price that's reasonable for customers to pay.

McClelland: A good sandwich costs $7.99. Don't you think my deli puts considerably less skill, time, and resources into making egg salad and prosciutto than an author puts into a decent book?

Bezos: We like [Zappos'] unique culture [of "happiness and customer service"], but we don't want that culture at Amazon. We like our culture, too. Our version of a perfect customer experience is one in which our customer doesn't want to talk to us. Every time a customer contacts us, we see it as a defect.

McClelland: That makes you sound like a total sociopath.

Bezos, on why he aggressively opposes state sales tax: There are five states where we collect sales tax. We do great in those states. That's not what this is about. We want federal legislation. That's what we've been working on. And I think we can get that done this year.

McClelland: Oh good. We definitely need more CEOs posting billions in profits and not contributing to the societies that help them make it in any way, except donating $42 million to a foundation building a clock that will last for 10,000 years.

Rick Perry has no problem executing lots of people, so it wasn't really that shocking when he announced last week that Obama's initiative to "ensure that US diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, and transgender persons" is a "war on traditional American values." Perry—who isn't going to be president anyway, so who the hell asked him—says that human rights for homos aren't "in America's interests." Well, Perry wasn't the only one who was pissed. Some African leaders, too, have now responded that the US is overstepping its boundaries by trying to push a gay agenda on their sovereign nations. Perhaps the sassiest of the complaints came from a senior advisor to Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, who said of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech that it's unacceptable to kill gay people, "I don't like her tone, at all."

He wouldn't, considering that Ugandan parliament was recently batting around a bill to do just that, the subject of my feature from our January issue that you can read now online. In writing it, I spent a lot of time with activists who go to gay bars or gay nights out, whatever the risks:

When I return to our table, Dennis hollers at me. "Where were you?" He's got a bag full of lube packets in front of him, waiting for the friend who needed it to arrive. "I thought you were kidnapped for corrective rape."

My face turns horrified.

"Just kidding!" he says, grabbing my arm. Ha ha!

"Do you know a lot of women that has happened to?" I ask.

"Nooooo, not a lot. Like five."

These are the kinds of traditional values Museveni's adviser thinks are worth protecting. But you can't really ask the Western hemisphere for billions of dollars of assistance while simultaneously telling it to mind its own business. If we're not going to leverage our massive amounts of foreign aid to impose our moral agenda in a way that saves lives and fights oppression, what's the point? For an illustrated argument of how imperative Obama's new policy is, check out this excellent map showing the staggering portion of Africa in which killing or imprisoning gays is legal. And for a narrative account of how much gay Ugandans are willing to risk for the right to cuddle publicly and go to karaoke like everybody else, read our story

A poster of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi

This past month, I was on a sort of sneaky assignment and then out of the country, and in my absence there have been some huge developments in US-Burma relations. For the first time in 50 years, an American secretary of state dropped in on the nation that generally receives little more high-level American acknowledgment beyond passing negs about tyranny in presidential speeches. As Mother Jones' resident Burmaphile, I got an email from one of the editors last week asking the all-important question about Hillary Clinton's making nice and supposedly making headway with the intractable regime: "Is this for real?"

If Washington is assuming that Burma's recent (bullshit) elections and the release of its most famous political prisoner means that we can lead the country into a future awash in democracy and rainbows, that would be a little too lovely to be believed. But that the Obama administration is cautiously optimistic, or that it senses wee little steps toward progress, and that there's an opportunity for the United States to get involved and nudge it along? Yeah. Maybe.

For decades, our policy has been to sanction Burma and wag our finger at it. I've long been a proponent of more engagement with the country. Though nobody wants to look like they're befriending bad guys, and there's no proof that getting more involved with Burma will work, there is proof of one thing: That the policy we've been pursuing so far does not work. Our sanctions are meaningless, because a) lots of other countries are happy to buy the Burmese resources we won't; b) the goods we sanction can still make it to us via roads like smuggling; and c) there are loopholes in our sanctions that still allow Chevron to operate there and make the regime big money.

We're not lifting the sanctions yet—and, for the aforementioned reasons, I kind of doubt Burma really cares—but we are starting assistance to programs that deliver health care, microlending, English instruction, and help for land mine victims. Regardless of whether you're of the school of thought that aid to corrupt/underdeveloped nations is enabling/infantilizing, this aid at least has the possibility of creating leverage, like the kind the United States and Germany wielded against Uganda when it proposed killing gay people. It's a long, long road to reconciling of Burma's problems, like, say, the systematic government-perpetrated rape and torture and ethnic cleansing going on its borderlands, issues Clinton says she "raised directly with the government" on her trip. That mention over lunch is unlikely to save lives. But what past administrations have said to Burma is, "Hey, not that there's any reason for you to listen, because we give you/cooperate with you on absolutely nothing, and you're dead to us. But: In our opinion, you should stop slaughtering people." Moving forward, the conversation might be a little more compelling when it sounds like, "Hey, stop slaughtering people. We give you money."

Burma has long been run by assholes. It remains to be seen whether the president and parliamentarians put in power by the elections are as big of assholes as the assholes who led before them. And at the very least, the Burmese people will be getting the chance for more medicine and education and microloans. It can't hurt for trying to befriend Burma and empower the population. The former has a shot, and let's definitely hear it for the latter. I'm not necessarily given to bouts of optimism, even the cautious kind, but if there's anything we were reminded of this year, it's that an empowered population is the the best tool of all against repressive regimes.

It's time for my next assignment! Unfortunately, we can't tell you what it is. Nor can I blog about it, nor explain why I can't blog about it at just this moment. So I'll be virtually disappearing, to return in a few weeks when we drop the pieces of the reportage serialized-style, if all goes according to plan.

The last time I didn't post anything for such a long time, it was because for security purposes I couldn't talk about this story about a Congolese warlord until it was finished. Check it out while I'm gone. And don't worry, the subject I'm reporting this time isn't so dangerous (I think!).

Some crucial updates from my home state of Ohio, which is proving to be ground zero in the war on organized labor and the middle class:

  • First up: Those lazy, selfish public workers Gov. Kasich and state Republicans have been trying to stop from greedily taking all the money in the state coffers with their wild benefits and compensation demands? They've made $1 billion in concessions in the last three years.
  • On top of that, what kind of monster would want them to give up their right to collective bargaining, too? MoJo's very own Andy Kroll has a roundup of who's pumping cash into the effort to destroy Ohio unions—and how hard and dirty they intend to fight.
  • But, guess what, guys? It's probably a waste of money. Yesterday's polls show that 57 percent of Ohioans support the defeat of the state's anti-union bill when it comes up on the ballot next month.