2010 - %3, May

Map of the Day: Bestiality-Friendly States

| Wed May 19, 2010 10:21 PM EDT

This week, the president of wicked-Catholic Portugal announced that he's ratifying a law that legalizes gay marriage, even though he doesn't want to, because liberal lawmakers would just overturn his veto. Oh, to have that problem in your government!

I was excited to hear the news, of course, but how quickly a little reflection turned into embarrassed head-shaking about how far behind this country is. I don't know about you, but as you may know, when I get moody about the ridiculous discriminatory laws against homos here, I make maps of weird stuff I can legally bone or marry. The longer the US holds out on this equality thing, the more wrong these are going to have to get. Today's: There are, you'll probably not be surprised to learn, three times as many states with no direct prohibitions against the sexual assault of an animal (according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund) as there are states that allow gay marriage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* In New Jersey, I DEFINITELY could.

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Thailand on the Brink

| Tue May 18, 2010 11:54 PM EDT

The situation has been bad enough in Bangkok for two months. But today, the Thai army started firing into protester encampments. There's also a lot of criticism from Thais that the protesters, who've been far from cooperative and nonviolent, are totally out of hand. The army of a democratic nation is fighting to maintain the democratically elected government that the pro-democracy protesters (who are drawing Hitler mustaches and swastikas on pictures of government officials) are hellbent on overthrowing.

The situation, unfortunately, is poised only to get much worse. One Thai politician is speculating that at least 100 deaths and 1,000 injuries will occur, since the government has decided it's time to restore order and the Red Shirts are patently refusing to compromise. To wit, check out a piece of this report from a couple of Southeast Asian journalist who embedded with the Red Shirts. It does not bode well for Thailand's near future.

"This may be central Bangkok, but as soon as we were inside the barricade, we were in a different world. Hundreds of red-shirted people sat around—women, children, the elderly, monks—some chatting, some sleeping, some watching the news on TV.

"We approached a woman who was lying on a bamboo mat with her infant and asked her for an interview. She agreed. She said she had been inside the Redshirt encampment since March 12.

"'We don’t want to get killed,' she said. 'But if the army shoots at us, we are prepared to die here for democracy.'"

New Orleans Notebook: Disaster Tourism

| Tue May 18, 2010 12:50 PM EDT

People wanna know what New Orleans looks like now, after all that drama back in 2005. People who aren't here have been asking me; people who are here pay anywhere from $35 to $65 for a Katrina tour. It's a good question, an important question, obviously, but I have a hard time answering it because I've looked at it for so long.

Last weekend, though, one of my friends who'd never been here before came through town, and my host offered to take her on a personal disaster drive. So I asked her. And her response, with its surprise and sadness and ambivalence about Brad Pitt, is a good one. And this verbal tour is free!

I imagined things would be rebuilt a bit more since it's been five years. I imagined we'd drive through some of the harder-hit hoods and that that's where the aftermath would be the most intense. I imagined I'd notice that those were the poorer neighborhoods and that that'd be it. Well, it wasn't what I expected at all.

I was completely blown away. I knew the 9th Ward would look pretty rough, as that's all anyone ever talked about, but I wasn't anticipating a war zone. And no exaggeration—that's what it looks like. I remember after the storm people saying that the area mirrored Hiroshima. With the darkness, torn-up roads, and majority overgrown, empty plots, it still really does. As we drove around, it was so hard to imagine that at one point there had been so much life there. The only sign of life has been imported—Brad Pitt's "Make It Right"  green, storm-resistant homes. The Lower 9th Ward lost 4,000 houses. Pitt promises to build 150 of these energy-efficient ones by December of this year. Around these few houses—there are 50 or so so far—the roads are paved and the lights in the houses are on. But you move a block away from Pitt's project and it's a ghost town.

But everywhere you drive—save a few of the areas, like Uptown—has Katrina's footprint all over it; throughout the city, you see flood lines and abandoned houses with National Guard and SPCA graffiti about who checked the house and how many dead cats were inside. Lots of houses that families have moved back into still have that big graffitied X on them. And the dichotomy in the middle-class neighborhoods like Northwest Carrollton and Hollygrove was outstanding. If three house plots sit in a row, one is abandoned and empty (you can see right through it to the backyard); one is just grass (maybe with partially built concrete stilts hastily abandoned after a family started rebuilding and realized that they couldn't go through it again); and the third is brand new—a home refreshed with FEMA money. I was stunned by how quickly I became numb to the ubiquity of the flood lines and graffiti and caved-in homes.

Toward the end of our two-hour survey, my host told us that for a long time, he took long and winding routes around the city to avoid as much of the damage as possible, and that this was the first time he'd driven through some of these neighborhoods without crying. It took him two years to finish restoring his own house, which took water to the ceiling on the first floor, where I'm staying.

His resilience inspires in me extreme awe and unease. I, for example, don't have any real furniture in my apartment in San Francisco, where I've lived for years. I have only junk furniture, furniture people were getting rid of, because the United States Geological Survey says the Bay Area's next great big quake will happen by 2020, and the only way I can weather the panic of having again established a life perched on the edge of certain geographical doom is by accepting that everything I own will soon be destroyed and therefore not owning anything. I almost bought a dress recently because it was so pretty, but then I didn't buy it because it was so pretty, because I didn't want the responsibility of a nice thing that will be buried in the rubble.

I disclosed this coping mechanism to David Corn once at a MoJo function, over garlic fries and cocktails. He'd asked me if I planned to buy a house in San Francisco, and I was explaining why even if I ever had the money, I could never support the purchase emotionally. He listened leaning back in his chair, with his arms crossed over his chest. When I finished, his eyes developed a fascinated but alarmed sparkle and he leaned forward a little to exclaim, "You're completely nuts!"

Or a pussy. I have a friend here who bought a house a couple of years ago. He told me the news over the phone one day, describing the street, the floor plan, the patio he plans for the back. "Congratulations!" I said. "So...You said it's near City Park?"

He knew exactly what I was asking him. "It's below the flood line," he said. "If New Orleans floods, the house will flood." But, he added, "If another hurricane comes soon, the city will be ruined, and our life here will be ruined anyway. If the hurricane doesn't come for years, that'll be the drag." By which he meant that if the house floods now, when it's new enough, they'll get over it and move on. The real bummer would be if the house flooded later, once they'd had time to get attached to it and settle into it and would have less time to rebuild their lives elsewhere. That probably sounds nuts, too. I admit I can get annoyingly earnest and sentimental when it comes to this city, so I'm biased, but to me it seems defiantly brave.

Rights Stuff to Read

| Fri May 14, 2010 9:57 PM EDT

Ding, dong, it appears as though Uganda's anti-gay bill is dead (via @amnesty). There is no emoticon ecstatic enough to express the joy.

But in less happy happenings this week, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) apparently lost its damn mind and decided to honor Equitorial Guinea's notorious dictator by naming an award after him.

In other gaffes, New Zealand's prime minister made a tasteless (!) cannibalism joke about a native group that's already mad at him for refusing to give back sacred tribal land. 

And just when you thought things couldn't get any uglier in Arizona, the state is turning its nasty attention to immigrant kids.

Seriously, though: Uganda. That bit, at least, is really good news.  

Who Shot the Dissident Thai General?

| Fri May 14, 2010 9:20 AM EDT

I'm hardly an unconditional supporter of the Thai government, but I admit I've been harboring some respect for the restraint its army has shown during the massive protests that have crippled Bangkok since March. After two dozen people were killed in clashes with troops that were trying to disperse the protesters, the army backed off, even though gunfire was coming from both sides. The protesters, members of the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship known as Red Shirts, have largely had the run of the town since, and say they aren't going anywhere until Thailand's prime minister dismantles parliament and calls new elections. I mean, would the US Army let thousands of protesters who were demanding the dissolution of Congress and sometimes shooting at soldiers shut down a square mile of Washington, DC, barricading themselves behind buses and flaming tires for two months?

But yesterday, Khattiya Sawatdiphol, a Thai general who had joined the protesters, was shot in the head by a sniper while talking to reporters. No one knows who did it. Thai newspapers are reporting the Red Shirts' assertion that the government is responsible. They're biased, obviously, but Thai authorities are indeed acting awfully suspicious. A government spokesman told the Bangkok Post that the government didn't plan to kill Gen. Khattiya, but would have trouble determining who did. (Whoever it was will probably be successful: Khattiya is currently in critical condition; doctors say he's unlikely to survive.) "It will be hard to arrest the 'invisible hand,'" the spokesman said, "but authorities will try their best to find the shooter." When does a government ever not say, "We've got all our resources behind solving this case and won't rest until we have some answers" or whatever? When does an assassination attempt of a high-level figure, a military figure no less, happen in public, in the capital, on videotape, and the government response is, "Jeez, we'll look into what happened, but that's gonna be really hard"?

When asked directly by the AP if troops were involved in the shooting, another government spokesman gave this alarmingly shady answer: "The operation by authorities was according to international standards and law. So far, we have not found any actions by the authorities that went beyond that." If the Thai government did not in fact try to kill this dissident, why wouldn't its spokesman just answer that question by saying, "No"?

New Orleans Notebook: Bug Blight

| Thu May 13, 2010 3:22 PM EDT

The first thing I did when I got to New Orleans a week and a half ago, obviously, was walk barefoot onto a porch and have a cocktail. Which is to say that the second thing I did was incur a rash of insect bites that completely covered my feet, ran up my legs, didn't start itching and burning for about 30 hours, and then caught fire in a manner ferocious enough to keep me awake at night for five days.

I started looking for ways to blame my Louisianan misfortune on Bobby Jindal. A little research did help me cast my accusations in the direction of anti-climate-change-policy haters/global warming deniers/irritating politicians in general. My attackers, it turns out, were the nearly invisible and initially unfeelable Leptoconops torrens, nasty little biting midges that thrive in wet soils. And people who impede progress to combat climate change = exacerbated climate change = the wettest weather on record in New Orleans recently = my very immediate plight. You may also remember climate change from such disasters as Hurricane Katrina. Post-Katrina, the still-abandoned swimming pools are causing an increase in mosquito populations, says an entomologist at the Audubon Insectarium. He also says that reconstruction materials rushed in without inspection from states like Florida brought poisonous brown widow spiders, which have since thrived in deserted houses.

There are more significant points to be made about the human cost of global warming, like sea-rise refugees and we're all going to get dengue fever  and malaria, etc—even right here and now, farmers are suffering as the decline in fire-ant populations after Katrina's storm surge begat more sugarcane borers, which caused a loss to the state sugarcane industry of up to $3 million in 2006 alone. But for the moment, and with the inspiration of another cocktail, I've focused the ways in which global warming is personally complicating my life, and the life of everyone in New Orleans who's trying to drink on their porch in peace, into a flow chart. Click here to behold.


 

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Britain's New PM Supports Gay Refugees

| Wed May 12, 2010 6:28 PM EDT

Britain's got a new prime minister, and today I learned one cool thing about him: In February, David Cameron said that the UK should grant gay African refugees asylum.

Indeed. Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi; some Kenyans have recently formed lynch mobs; Uganda's got a bill proposing to punish gays with life imprisonment or the death penalty. Obviously, people who become refugees because they're gay are dangerously disenfranchised in their home country. (And then there are refugees who are already refugees and are also gay, who, between their geographical/political exile and their sexual exile within their own exile communities, are possibly the most disenfranchised population on the planet. The Karen refugees from Burma I lived with were so homophobic that they claimed homosexuality didn't even exist in their culture, though gay Karen activists would certainly take issue with that claim. See also this great 2002 New Republic article about gay Palestinian refugees.)

In the United States, sexual orientation has been grounds for asylum since 1994 (though plenty of applicants encounter obstacles in the granting process). Hopefully Cameron will use his position to actually follow through on his rhetoric. After he broadens the scope of it—Africa is certainly not the only continent on which gays are persecuted.

Stat of the Day: The Waiting (in Jail) Game

| Wed May 12, 2010 2:28 PM EDT

From a conversation with the chief of the Orleans Public Defenders office: In New York, the district attorney has 144 hours after your arrest to decide whether to bring a case against you, or else you're released. In Louisiana, the time you could wait in jail, just on suspicion, possibly without representation, if you were arrested for a capital or life-sentence crime is 120 days.

What Will Happen to Louisiana's Wetlands?

| Tue May 11, 2010 4:54 PM EDT

Yesterday, my very esteemed colleague Kate Sheppard explained how cleanup methods could cause more damage than the Deepwater Horizon leak itself. Here in New Orleans, I chatted with rock-star wetlands researcher Denise J. Reed, who you heard on NPR and at congressional hearings when everyone was talking about post-Katrina coast restoration, and who says there could be more stories in this meme.

Take the Louisiana wetlands, that critical hurricane defense that was already incredibly beleaguered and is now further threatened by millions of gallons of oil. "The cleanup damage could be worse than the oil damage," Reed says. "These areas are incredibly hard to get to. And incredibly delicate. You can't just bring in heavy equipment and pressure-wash boulders like you did after Valdez."

Reed will be working on the plan to remediate the wetlands after this new disaster, but designing, much less implementing, that plan is a ways away. First, researchers will have to figure out the impact of the spill, by painstakingly collecting new data in the wetlands and then comparing it to the pre-Deepwater research Reed and other scientists have been meticulously amassing for years. And of course, before any of that can begin, the leak has to stop. "It's a difficult time now, because for a good while, we'll be helpless," Reed says. "We don't know how long, how much, what way the wind will go. It's like a hurricane coming at you, but really, really slowly, and with endless potential for damage."

15-Year-Old Gitmo Detainee Threatened With Rape

| Tue May 11, 2010 10:21 AM EDT

Last week, there was a pre-trial military commission hearing for Omar Khadr, a Guantanamo detainee who's been in custody since his early teens. An observer for Amnesty International was there to report this crazy bit:

The most damning testimony at today’s hearing came when the defense asked Interrogator #1 directly if he had ever threatened the 15-year-old with rape if he did not cooperate. In his affidavit, Omar Khadr had alleged that

"On several occasions at Bagram, interrogators threatened to have me raped, or sent to other countries like Egypt, Syria, Jordan or Israel to be raped".

Interrogator #1 responded that he had told the teenager a "fictitious story" about a young Afghan who had lied and been sent to a US prison where "big black guys and big Nazis" noticed "this little Muslim" and, in their patriotic rage over the 9/11 attacks, the "poor little kid" was raped in the shower and died.

I should start a subcategory of posts called "Things I read on the Internet that make me involuntarily take the Lord's name in vain out loud." Seems like there are so many levels of laws being broken here, habeas corpus aside: Holding a minor as an adult prisoner, threatening a prisoner with rape, threatening a minor prisoner with rape. Indeed, doesn't that excerpt read like a transcript from the prosecution of an interrogator? Oh yeah, right. We don't really do that.