Thursday, January 31, 2013

White Power to the Rescue

 by Chris Hedges

On a windy afternoon a few days ago I went to a depressed section of North Memphis to visit an old clapboard house that was once owned by a German immigrant named Jacob Burkle. Oral history—and oral history is all anyone has in this case since no written documents survive—holds that Burkle used his house as a stop on the underground railroad for escaped slaves in the decade before the Civil War. The house is now a small museum called Slave Haven. It has artifacts such as leg irons, iron collars and broadsheets advertising the sale of men, women and children. In the gray floor of the porch there is a trapdoor that leads to a long crawl space and a jagged hole in a brick cellar wall where fugitives could have pushed themselves down into the basement. Escaped slaves were purportedly guided by Burkle at night down a tunnel or trench toward the nearby Mississippi River and turned over to sympathetic river traders who took them north to Cairo, Ill., and on to freedom in Canada.

Burkle and his descendants had good reason to avoid written records and to keep their activities secret. Memphis, on the eve of the Civil War, was one of the biggest slave markets in the South. After the war the city was an epicenter for Ku Klux Klan terror that included lynching, the nighttime burning of black churches and schools and the killing of black leaders and their white supporters, atrocities that continued into the 20th century. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. If word had gotten out that Burkle used his home to help slaves escape, the structure would almost certainly have been burned and Burkle or his descendants, at the very least, driven out of the city. The story of Burkle’s aid to slaves fleeing bondage became public knowledge only a couple of decades ago.

The modest public profile of the Burkle house stands in stunning contrast with the monument in the center of Memphis to native son Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest, who is buried in Forrest Park under a statue of himself in his Confederate general’s uniform and mounted on a horse, is one of the most odious figures in American history. A moody, barely literate, violent man—he was not averse to shooting his own troops if he deemed them to be cowards—he became a millionaire before the war as a slave trader. As a Confederate general he was noted for moronic aphorisms such as “War means fighting and fighting means killing.” He was, even by the accounts of those who served under him, a butcher. He led a massacre at Fort Pillow in Henning, Tenn., of some 300 black Union troops—who had surrendered and put down their weapons—as well as women and children who had sheltered in the fort. Forrest was, after the war, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He used his skills as a former cavalry commander to lead armed night raids to terrorize blacks.

Forrest, like many other white racists of the antebellum South, is enjoying a disquieting renaissance. The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the West Tennessee Historical Commission last summer put up a 1,000-pound granite marker at the entrance to the park that read “Forrest Park.” The city, saying the groups had not obtained a permit, removed it with a crane. A dispute over the park name, now raging in the Memphis City Council, exposes the deep divide in Memphis and throughout much of the South between those who laud the Confederacy and those who detest it, a split that runs like a wide fault down racial lines.

A call last week by Memphis City Councilwoman Janis Fullilove, who is African-American, to strip Forrest’s name from the park and rename it after the crusading black journalist Ida B. Wells set off such an acrimonious debate between her and some white council members that Fullilove left a meeting in tears.

Wells was one of the nation’s most courageous and important journalists. She moved to Memphis as a young woman to live with her aunt. Her investigations revealed that lynching was fundamentally a mechanism to rid white businessmen of black competitors. When Thomas Moss of Memphis, a black man who ran the People’s Grocery Co., was murdered with his partners by a mob of whites and his store was looted and destroyed, Wells was incensed. “This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was,” she wrote. She noted “that the Southerner had never gotten over this resentment that the Negro was no longer his plaything, his servant, and his source of income” and was using charges of rape against black business owners to mask this resentment. The lynching of Moss, she wrote, was “[a]n excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down.’ ”

Her newspaper, Free Speech, which railed against white mob violence, the inadequate black schools, segregation, discrimination and a corrupt legal system that denied justice to blacks, was destroyed by whites. Wells was forced to flee the city, becoming, as she wrote, “an exile from home for hinting at the truth.”

The split between those in Memphis who hold up authentic heroes—those who fought to protect, defend and preserve life, such as Wells and Burkle—and those who memorialize slave traders and bigots such as Forrest points up a disturbing rise of a neo-Confederate ideology in the South. Honoring figures like Forrest in Memphis while ignoring Wells would be like erecting a statue to the Nazi death camp commander Amon Goeth in the Czech Republic town of Svitavy, the birthplace of Oskar Schindler, who rescued 1,200 Jews.

The rewriting of history in the South is a retreat by beleaguered whites into a mythical self-glorification. I witnessed a similar retreat during the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. As Yugoslavia’s economy deteriorated, ethnic groups built fantasies of a glorious past that became a substitute for history. They sought to remove, through exclusion and finally violence, competing ethnicities to restore this mythological past. The embrace by nationalist groups of a nonreality-based belief system made communication with other ethnic groups impossible. They no longer spoke the same cultural language. There was no common historical narrative built around verifiable truth. A similar disconnect was illustrated last week in Memphis when the chairman of the city’s parks committee, William Boyd, informed the council that Forrest “promoted progress for black people in this country after the war.” Boyd argued that the KKK was “more of a social club” at its inception and didn’t begin carrying out “bad and horrific things” until it reconstituted itself with the rise of the modern civil rights movement.

“Lord, have mercy,” Fullilove muttered as she listened.

But Forrest is only one of numerous flashpoints. Fliers reading “Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Wants You to Join” appeared in the mailboxes of white families in Memphis in early January. The Ku Klux Klan also distributed pamphlets a few days ago in an Atlanta suburb. The Tennessee Legislature last year officially declared July 13 as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day to honor his birthday. There are 32 historical markers honoring Forrest in Tennessee alone and several in other Southern states. Montgomery, Ala., which I visited last fall, has a gigantic Confederate flag on the outskirts of the city, planted there by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Confederate monuments dot Montgomery’s city center. There are three Confederate state holidays in Alabama, including Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day. Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi also honor Lee’s birthday. Jefferson Davis’ birthday is a state holiday in Alabama and Florida. And re-enactments of Confederate victories in the Civil War crowd Southern calendars.

The steady rise of ethnic nationalism over the past decade, the replacing of history with mendacious and sanitized versions of lost glory, is part of the moral decay that infects a dying culture. It is a frightening attempt, by those who are desperate and trapped, to escape through invented history their despair, impoverishment and hopelessness. It breeds intolerance and eventually violence. Violence becomes in this perverted belief system a cleansing agent, a way to restore a lost world. There are ample historical records that disprove the myths espoused by the neo-Confederates, who insist the Civil War was not about slavery but states’ rights and the protection of traditional Christianity. But these records are useless in puncturing their self-delusion, just as documentary evidence does nothing to blunt the self-delusion of Holocaust deniers. Those who retreat into fantasy cannot be engaged in rational discussion, for fantasy is all that is left of their tattered self-esteem. When their myths are attacked as untrue it triggers not a discussion of facts and evidence but a ferocious emotional backlash. The challenge of the myth threatens what is left of hope. And as the economy unravels, as the future looks bleaker and bleaker, this terrifying myth gains potency. 

Achilles V. Clark, a soldier with the 20th Tennessee Cavalry under Forrest during the 1864 massacre at Fort Pillow, wrote to his sister after the attack: “The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. … I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tennessee 'Don't Say Gay' Bill Now Requires Teachers to Inform Parents tf their Child is Gay

 Tennessee’s so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay‘ bill died with the adjournment of the state assembly last year. But now the measure is back — with new, harsher requirements.
The bill, SB 234, still bars Tennessee teachers from discussing any facet of “non-heterosexual” sexuality with children in grades K-8. But the newest iteration also includes a provision requiring teachers or counselors to inform the parents of some students who identify themselves as LGBT. State Sen. Stacey Campfield (R), who authored the bill the first time around and again introduced it this time, calls out students who might be “at risk,” but leaves the interpretation of that behavior to the teacher:
The general assembly recognizes that certain subjects are particularly sensitive and are, therefore, best explained and discussed within the home. Because of its complex societal, scientific, psychological, and historical implications, human sexuality is one such subject. Human sexuality is best understood by children with sufficient maturity to grasp its complexity and implications [...]
A school counselor, nurse, principal or assistant principal from counseling a student who is engaging in, or who may be at risk of engaging in, behavior injurious to the physical or mental health and well-being of the student or another person; provided, that wherever possible such counseling shall be done in consultation with the student’s parents or legal guardians. Parents or legal guardians of students who receive such counseling shall be notified as soon as practicable that such counseling has occurred
Family rejection is a serious risk for LGBT youth. Kids who are LGBT often face alienation, if not outright abandonment, because they come out. Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT, and many of them report that the reason they left home was to escape an environment hostile to their sexual orientation. LGBT youth who experience family rejection are at high risk for depression and suicide.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hannity: Fox is "Only Media Organization on this Planet that has Delivered Fair and Balanced Coverage" of Obama

Occupy Protesters: Professional and Well-Educated

While onlookers shouted at OWS marches to "Get a job!" a new study reaffirms the absurdity of such taunts

When Occupy Wall Street protests were their most buoyant, from fall 2011 to May 2012, rarely would a street march go by in New York without some suited onlooker shouting “Get a job!” to the careening crowds. As participants were well aware at the time — and as a brand-new study affirms — most participants had jobs. “I have three!” I recall one public school teacher retorting as a march snaked through Lower Manhattan.

A new study from CUNY’s Joseph A. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, based largely on a sample of protesters interviewed during a mass May Day rally last year, found that the majority of participants were white and well-educated (76 percent of respondents had a four-year degree). Two-thirds of Occupy protesters had professional jobs, the sociology study found, with nearly a third living in households with incomes of $100,000 or more. Meanwhile, nearly a third of the protesters had been laid off or lost a job and a similar number said they had more than $1,000 in credit card or student loan debt. A significant number of respondents were precariously or underemployed and 10 percent of respondents were unemployed and seeking work.

That Occupy Wall Street was disproportionately constituted by white, young, highly educated individuals in New York will come as no surprise to anyone marginally involved. Indeed, significant energy during assemblies and action planning meetings went into challenging white, male privilege and assumptions of expertise based on elite educations. Leftisit economist and journalist Doug Henwood commented via Facebook on the study that while “some will spin this as the complaints of the privileged,” he sees it as, “you know, solidarity.” Admirably, thousands of young, middle-class and affluent students and graduates sought to challenge the conditions for their own privilege.

Predictably, the New York Post, which regularly delivered the print equivalent of a “Get a job!” slur during Zuccotti Park’s heyday, has jumped on the study. “It seems those Occupy Wall Streeters were a lot closer to the 1 percent than they would like to admit,” noted the Post Tuesday. The message underpinning such criticism is glaring: Whether you’re jobless, underemployed, professional, middle-class, poor, under- or over-educated, if you dissent and fight the current conditions for yourself and those around you, you’ll be told to stop. No one, according to such New York Post logic, is the right subject to revolt.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Boy Scouts May Soon Welcome Gay Scouts, Leaders

Local troops could decide for themselves whether to change their membership policy or continue to exclude gays

As early as next week, the Boy Scouts of America's may announce it will allow gay Scouts and troop leaders, a spokesman for the group has told USA TODAY.

If this policy shift is approved by the national board meeting at their scheduled meeting next week, it will be a sharp reversal of the Scouts' decade's old national policy banning homosexuals.

"The policy change under discussion would allow the religious, civic or educational organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting to determine how to address this issue," BSA spokesman Deron Smith said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Only seven months ago, the Boy Scouts affirmed its ban on gays after a nearly two-year examination of the issue by a committee of volunteers convened by national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America, known as the BSA. However, local chapters and some members of the national board -- corporate CEO Randall Stephenson of AT&T and James Turley of Ernst & Young -- called for a reconsideration.

The proposed new policy would leave decisions on membership and leadership up to the BSA' s 290 local governing councils and 116,000 sponsoring religious and civic groups.

"Scouting has always been in an ongoing dialogue with the Scouting family to determine what is in the best interest of the organization and the young people we serve," Smith told USA TODAY.

"The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents. Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization's mission, principles or religious beliefs," he said.

The potential policy shift raises a question about another group shut out of scouting -- atheists.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said Monday, "If they are considering lifting the ban on gays, that's a good thing, that's progress. Now, if they lift that bigotry from their requirements, I would hope they remove the rest of the bigotry and admit atheists as well.

"The prohibition against atheists, like the prohibition against gays, tells boys that atheists are immoral." Silverman said."If local groups want to behave in an ethical way, I'm confident they will make Boy Scouts about scouting, not about bigotry."

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Friday, January 25, 2013

How the 'Kochtopus' stifled Green Debate - Climate Change

Behind the climate 'countermovement' are two billionaire brothers

Even by the standards of the super-rich, Charles and David Koch are extraordinarily wealthy. Together they own most of Koch Industries, one of the largest private conglomerates in America with annual revenues of around $100bn (£62.5bn), and interests as diverse as energy, petrochemicals, pulp and paper.

The two brothers share a similar political outlook. They are right-wing libertarians who believe in minimal regulation of industry, smaller government, lower corporate taxes and less generous social services. They are also closet "sceptics" when it comes to climate science.

Charles, 77 and the elder of the two, has effectively run the family business since the death of their father, Fred, in 1967. He is described as a hands-on executive, whereas David has played a more junior role. Nevertheless, the spectacular growth of the family firm has put them both among the richest men in America – and the world.

Each of the Koch brothers has his own charitable foundation and they have given generously to organisations that share their free-market outlook. They have both funded opposition campaigns to many of the policies of the Obama administration – so many, in fact, that their opponents have dubbed their ideological network "The Kochtopus".

Together, the two brothers have given millions of dollars to non-profit organisations that criticise environmental legislation and support lower taxes for industry.

The Kochs have also contributed vast sums to promote scepticism towards climate change, more even than the oil industry according to some estimates. Greenpeace, for instance, has calculated that ExxonMobil spent $8.9m on climate-sceptic groups between 2005 and 2008; over the same period the Koch brothers backed such groups to the tune of nearly $25m.

Americans for Prosperity, a group established by David Koch, did much to foment public outrage over the "climategate" emails stolen from the computers of the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 2009. The organisation claimed the emails proved that global warming was the "biggest hoax the world has ever seen".

Meanwhile, Charles and his wife Liz have established a little-known organisation called the Knowledge and Progress Fund, which appears to have been set up to channel Koch money into a third-party organisation called the Donors Trust.

The Donors Trust is a "donor advised" fund, which means it has special status under the US tax system. One of the benefits of donor-advised funds for billionaires such as Charles is that their names are not linked to funds given out by the Donors Trust to other organisations.

Among the beneficiaries of Donor Trust money is the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is being sued for defamation by Professor Michael Mann of Pennsylvania University, an eminent climatologist, whose affidavit claims that he was accused of scientific fraud and compared to a convicted child molester.

Professor Mann was one of the scientists named in the stolen emails from the UEA and has been a target of climate sceptics keen to rubbish his work on temperature records, which produced the now famous "hockey stick" graph showing a rapid temperature rise in the 20th century.

According to Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, the Donors Trust and its sister organisation Donors Capital Fund have become key players in the climate "countermovement", which he says is dedicated to maintaining the status quo on energy policy.

For instance, in 2003 Donors received just 3 per cent of the funding that eventually went to climate sceptic groups such as the ultra-conservative Heartland Foundation, which has led the attack on climate scientists. Professor Brulle said this had risen by 2009 to about a quarter of the total funding of the climate countermovement dedicated to denying the link between greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and global warming.

The link between the Koch family and Donors was discovered by Professor Brulle and John Mashey, a retired software engineer living in California, who has trawled through hundreds of official tax records, including the US Inland Revenue Service's "990" forms of the Knowledge and Progress Fund, which mention that it had given Donors millions of dollars for "general support".

"The Kochs decided it was better to go underground and foster all these think-tanks. Charles Koch has often said publicly that anyone should be able to give money to anyone without having to make it public," Dr Mashey said. "The point of all this is that Koch wants to anonymise his giving as much as possible."

Whitney Ball, the chief executive of Donors Trust, said the fund has given more than $400m to about 1,600 beneficiaries since it began in 1999 but that only a few of them are involved in promoting climate scepticism.

"We don't disclose our list of donors, any more than other donor-advised funds… We are not legally required to do so. We have been referred to as a black box but this is a misleading and unfair characterisation. We are no different from any other donor-advised fund," she said.

"There are all kinds of reasons why people want to be anonymous. Imagine you lived a fairly modest lifestyle and you wanted to give charitably. You could do it through a donors-advised fund and no one would treat you differently," she said.

Asked whether the Donors Trust or Donors Capital Fund have any connection with the Koch family, Ms Ball said: "I wouldn't say we have a relationship. We are knowledgeable about some of the groups that they fund and we are ideologically sympathetic."

Asked if she could explain how the money from the Knowledge and Progress Fund was spent, she said: "There's been a lot of hyperventilating about this… Like other donor-advised funds, we don't disclose that information."

The Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries declined to comment.

Lawson's sceptics double secret donations in a year

Anonymous donations to Britain's leading climate-change sceptic organisation have more than doubled over the past year – but the registered charity has consistently refused to comment on the identity of its backers.

The Global Warming Policy Foundation, which was set up in 2009 by Lord Lawson, pictured, the former Conservative Chancellor, received £408,641 from anonymous donations in 2012, compared with £158,008 in 2011.

The foundation has repeatedly refused to name its financial supporters, although a leaked email last year suggested that Michael Hintze, a wealthy Tory donor and philanthropist, was one of its main backers.

Benny Peiser, a founder member of the foundation, said the charity does not receive any corporate money from the fossil-fuel industry, but denied it is being secretive about its backers.

"Our concern is about transparency of the science, not the funding. We don't take funding from vested interests and we make sure there is no conflict of interest before accepting donations," Dr Peiser said. "The main reason why they want to remain anonymous is so that people like you [the media] don't harass them," Dr Peiser explained.

From freeze to flood weekend forecast

One last blast of snow is expected over much of Britain today before the present week-long freeze gives way to a thaw and wet weather, which may combine to produce flooding.

Up to a foot of snow may fall over the Scottish Highlands, with up to six inches possible in northern England, four inches in the Midlands and up to two inches in the South.

"A combination of rain and snowmelt over the weekend will increase the risk of flooding, especially in South West England, Wales, the West Midlands and northern England," said the Environment Agency's Phil Rothwell. "We are closely monitoring the situation and have teams ready to respond to any potential flooding."

The recent severe weather has been blamed for at least nine deaths and has caused widespread disruption to travel and schooling.

Michael McCarthy

Missouri Republican Proposes Bill to Require Teaching of ‘Intelligent Design’

Legislation proposed in the Missouri House of Representatives on Wednesday would require schools to treat the theory of evolution and intelligent design equally.

The Missouri Standard Science Act states the theory of evolution must be taught side-by-side with intelligent design in public elementary and secondary schools. The bill also requires any textbook that discusses evolution to “give equal treatment to biological evolution and biological intelligent design.”

Proponents of intelligent design, a variant of creationism, believe the complexity of life cannot be adequately explained by natural processes such as biological evolution.

The bill was introduced by State Rep. Rick Brattin, and cosponsored by State Reps. Andrew Koenig and Kurt Bahr. All three lawmakers are Republicans.

Brattin introduced a nearly identical bill last year. He told local media outlets the bill was “just good science” and promoted “objectivity in the science room.”

Brattin, Koenig, Bahr and other Missouri lawmakers also introduced legislation this month that would encourage teachers to discuss the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of the theory of evolution. Critics said the law was intended to undermine scientific teaching by presenting evolution to students as if it was a controversial topic among biologists.

“It’s ironic that creationist strategies continue to evolve,” Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Scientific Education said. “At first, creationists tried to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools altogether. When they were no longer able to do so, they tried to ‘balance’ it with the teaching of Biblical creationism, or scientific creationism, or intelligent design. After the Kitzmiller trial in 2005, in which teaching intelligent design was found by a federal court to be unconstitutional, there’s been a shift toward belittling evolution — as just a theory, or as in need of critical analysis, or as the subject of scientific controversy.”

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Don't Buy South African Wines: Striking Workers' Plea to Foreign Consumers

Outside the tiny public library, a dozen striking grape pickers wait for a meeting called by their employer. "He wants to force us back to work,'' says one woman. "We are hungry but we will wait for a better wage,'' says another employee of Keurboschkloof farm.

After trouble in South African labour relations last year led to a two-month violent standoff in the mining sector, the country's economy is now under pressure from a stop-start farm labourers' strike in the £850m-a-year fruit and wine sector. Since November, low-skilled workers demanding a pay increase to 150 rand a day (£10.65) have clashed with police and been arrested in their hundreds. Amid allegations of excessive police force, three have died.

Unions and charities supporting the Western Cape's 500,000 farm workers say pay and working conditions are so bad that South African wines, table grapes and granny smith apples should be as unacceptable to responsible British consumers as they were under apartheid. "The government should be forcing the farmers to the table but it is not,'' said Nosey Pieterse, secretary general of the black agricultural sector union, Bawusa. "Our only weapon left is for the foreign buyers to pledge that unless the conditions are addressed, they will no longer import South African products.''

Whereas striking miners are typically up against faceless London-listed corporations, farm workers face a different battle. Most are not unionised, and many are illiterate and face the danger of eviction because they live on their employers' properties. Poorly enforced labour rights and tenancy legislation, as well as the pitifully low statutory daily minimum wage in the sector – 69.39 rand (£4.92) – perpetuate paternalism.

When farmer Anton De Vries arrives, slightly late, at De Doorns library, he hugs each of the female strikers. They laugh and, if anything, seem pleased to see him. "You see, there is no problem,'' says De Vries, whose company, South African Fruit Exporters, manages Keurboschkloof farm and its 300 employees. "They want to work. They are being intimidated into striking. We do lots of empowerment things in our company.''

At the meeting, De Vries offers a range of pay rises to get workers back under vines which, all around the Hex valley, are drooping with ripe table grapes. "He offered increases of 10-12 rand (71-85p) per employee,'' said Sandile Keni, provincial organiser for the Food and Allied Workers' Union, who was in the meeting. "Those earning 90 rand [a day] were offered 100 rand, those on 127 rand would go up to 137 rand (£9.72). The workers are considering the offer.''

De Vries is the second employer in a week to offer a settlement – a move welcomed by unions, though they would prefer a centralised form of negotiation. But with only 3%-6% of the workforce in a union, the employers have the upper hand. Many appear, with the tacit blessing of the government, to be waiting for the outcome next month of annual talks expected to lead to a modest increase in the statutory minimum wage.

But those fighting for farm workers' rights say much more needs to be done. A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch found widespread exposure to pesticides, lack of access to drinking water or sanitation, and a failure to pay sick leave. While the system of payment in alcohol has largely been abolished, the Western Cape still has the highest rates in the world of foetal alcohol syndrome.

Pieterse said the farm owners, not workers, had benefited from the ending of apartheid. "In the first 10 years of democracy, the wine industry grew tenfold, from 20m litres' output before 1994 to 220m litres. The farm workers' conditions went the other way. Tenure rights laws were not accepted by the farmers. More than 1 million farm workers were evicted. They remain slaves on the land of their birth.''

He denied unions had intimidated workers into prolonging the strike, saying they were facing huge pressure to return to work while fearing punitive dismissals if and when they did.

Of Western Cape's fruit production, 58% is exported. In Britain one of the main importers is Tesco. Its director of ethical trading, Giles Bolton, said Tesco put an "ethical buying hub'' into South Africa three years ago to keep tabs on suppliers' treatment of staff.

He said: "The whole South African agriculture sector is very little unionised and it would help if there was a more mature industrial relations atmosphere. However, it is not for us as a company to dictate to a foreign country that 'you must pay X'. I think the African National Congress government would query us for saying such a thing.''

Conservatives Have Their Worst Week Ever

Have Republicans, and the right wing in general, ever been more disjointed? More confused? More incapable of getting out of their own way?

Watching America's political conservatives try to counter-maneuver opposite Barack Obama's re-inauguration over the course of the last week has been an incredible comedy – like watching the Three Stooges try to perform a liver transplant on roller skates.

Let's review the basic timeline. First, Political Media, a conservative action group, decided to try to make an appeal to win the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere by declaring January 19th – previously known as Martin Luther King Day, to the rest of us – to be "Gun Appreciation Day."

They solicited hundreds of sponsors and sought to get 50 million people to sign a goofball petition (written in the style of the Declaration of Independence, with a plethora of "Whereas…"-es... Why do gun people insist on trying to use 18th-century syntax?) against the "tyrannical governments" that were out to take their guns. "Gun Appreciation Day" would also involve gun shows and other local events all over the country, meant as a counter-balance to the candle-toting gun control protests that were springing up over last weekend in anticipation of Obama's inauguration and the rumored plans for new gun legislation.

But even before their excellent idea gets out of the gate, it stalls out, as obnoxious reporters check the list of "Gun Appreciation Day" sponsors and find that the "American Third Position," a group that purports to represent the "unique political interests of White Americans," is one of the event's sponsors.

So now, Political Media has not only decided to hold its Gun Appreciation Event on a holiday meant to celebrate the life of a black leader who was a symbol of nonviolent protest and who was killed by a white man with a gun, it's done so with the financial help of some yahoo white supremacist group. But this doesn't derail the whole thing, as it's of course just an innocent mistake. Political Media kicks "Third Position" out and appropriately issues a statement, saying, "We have removed the group and reiterate this event is not about racial politics, it is about gun politics."

So far, so good, right? Well, then they go and actually hold their "Gun Appreciation Day" rallies all over the country, on Martin Luther King Day. And what happens? Five people get accidentally shot!

You can't make this stuff up. In three separate incidents – one in North Carolina, one in Ohio and one in Indiana – gun-loving real Americans did their darndest to worsen the demographics in the favor of the gun control lobby by blowing themselves away with accidental discharges. They failed, fortunately – all five victims in the three incidents survived – but you literally can't script a worse outcome for a political sideshow meant to highlight Americans' love of the wholesome, safe exercise of gun rights.

In North Carolina, three people – a 50-year-old man, a 54-year-old woman, and a 50-year-old retired sheriff's deputy – were injured when someone pulled a shotgun out of a display case and the 12-gauge accidentally went off, spraying the three people with birdshot.

In Ohio, a gun dealer was "checking out" a semi-automatic handgun he'd brought to a show at the Medina County Fairgrounds when he "accidentally" pulled the trigger, forgetting that, while he'd removed the magazine, he'd left a round in the chamber. According to the local police chief, the bullet "struck the floor, then a longtime friend of the gun dealer. The man was wounded in the arm and leg."

The man was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Cleveland. I sure hope that dude has private health insurance that he paid for. If it turns out that taxpayers had to foot the bill for a freaking helicopter flight to rescue the friend of some gun-toting conservative who decided to protest the socialist Obama administration by accidentally shooting a pal on Martin Luther King Day, that would be some kind of embarrassing, wouldn't it?

Of course, that would fit right in with the kind of week gun advocates had. In a show at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, one Emory Cozee was loading his .45 while walking back to his car when he accidentally shot himself in the wrist. Once again, the taxpayer had to step in to the man's aid, as state troopers rushed to the scene and transported Cozee to a nearby hospital. No charges were filed, stupidity not yet being against the law in Indiana, or anywhere else.

Beyond those five people getting shot, the other "Gun Appreciation" events went on without incident. Then we had Obama's inauguration, where the president took more than one opportunity to goad the gun lobby in advance of an upcoming heated fight over his proposed gun restrictions, saying among other things, "Being true to our founding documents . . . does not mean we will all define liberty in the same way," and, "We cannot substitute absolutism for principle."

Without even taking a position on Obama or his proposed gun law, let me say this: The president, when he makes his case, does not come across like a drooling maniac, like he's pissed off to the point of reaching back, grabbing a frying pan, and belting you across the forehead if you even think about disagreeing with him. He comes across like what he is – a calm, experienced attorney making a rhetorical argument to adults. That, plus a lot of video of little kids' bodies being hauled out of school rooms in suburban Connecticut, can win you a lot of votes with people on the fence on the gun issue.

Then there's Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA. He came out after Obama's speech and gave one of his own at the Weatherby International Hunting and Conservation Awards in Reno, Nevada. In it, LaPierre weaved back and forth like a maniac, his blond forelock heaving, as he blurted out semi-coherent, quasi-grammatical defenses of "absolutism," saying things like "absolutes do exist, it's [sic] the basis of all civilization," and "without those absolutes, democracy decays into nothing more than two wolves and one lamb voting on who to eat for lunch."

He then proceeded to double down on his organization's lunatic decision to inject Obama's daughters into the national gun debate, saying, "If neither criminals nor the political class, with their bodyguards and security people, are limited by magazine capacity, we shouldn't be limited in our capacity, either."

This was clearly a reference to the controversy about the NRA's recent TV buy, in which they blasted Obama for being an "elitist hypocrite" for allowing his daughters to have Secret Service protection while Joe Sixpack has to send his kids to school without paramilitary security experts. "Protection for their kids, and gun-free zones for ours," was the ad's nutty tagline.

The NRA was rightfully blasted for that crazy-ass commercial, which made no sense on any level and mainly painted the NRA as a bunch of disturbed rage-addicts who are completely out of touch with national sentiment after Sandy Hook. (Yes, the president's kids have Secret Service protection – to protect them from your members, you idiots!)

Overall, people like LaPierre have fallen into every single political trap that's been laid for them in the last month, allowing Democrats to paint them as humorless, frustrated and probably dangerous political radicals whose response to Sandy Hook has been to publicly attack the president's minor children and to propose more guns in schools. Even the surge in NRA membership numbers since Sandy Hook is a net minus for the NRA, politically, because it scares the hell out of normal people and will result in increased pressure on pro-NRA congressional members to distance themselves from people whose response to piles of mowed-down children is to buy more guns.

So to recap: The gun lobby's response to Obama's inauguration was to organize a "Gun Appreciation Day" on Martin Luther King Day that left five of their own gun-loving members accidentally shot. Then they responded to Obama's inaugural speech by doubling down on the "elitist hypocrite" ad that earned them near-universal condemnation previously. So how could things get worse?

Well, you could have a spokesman for Political Media, which organized "Gun Appreciation Day," tell the Hollywood Reporter that Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is the perfect argument in support of gun rights. Political Media's Larry Ward said he's considering a "What Would Django Do?" campaign as part of this new rhetorical line they're thinking of trying to sell, particularly to the black community. The idea is, get this, that there wouldn't have been slavery if slaves had had gun rights.

"Django is perfect for what we're trying to do," said Ward, "which is to promote gun rights to minorities."

Hey, dipshit: Before anyone allowed slaves to have guns, they would have had to have other rights, like for instance being considered human beings. Are you people completely stupid? You'd have to have hoovered more coke than even Quentin Tarantino to imagine a world where white slave owners denied black people freedom of movement, denied them education and freedom of speech and dominion over their own bodies, but then for some reason also allowed them to buy guns. Jesus Christ! The whole point of slavery is that slaves didn't have any rights, much less the right to bear arms.

Now, Django Unchained is a movie that uses the N-word 109 times (breaking the all-time record set by Finding Nemo, as Kamau Bell wittily noted) and was so historically jumbled that it featured scenes of both the Ku Klux Klan and sunglasses before either existed. Can you imagine any white guy going into Bedford-Stuyvestant or Compton or any other place where so many young black people have been killed by guns, and trying to connect with them by telling them you're down with Django Unchained? That's how out-to-lunch these NRA dudes are, that they genuinely think this is their entrée into minority communities.

I'm not naïve enough to think that just being publicly stupid is going to result in political problems for American conservatives. That's never been the case before – hell, there are still people out there who think Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. There's enough popular anger out there toward Barack Obama that someone like Wayne LaPierre could probably shoot skeet on Martin Luther King's grave and public support for the NRA still won't drop below 40 percent.

But the behavior of the gun lobby in the last month will, for sure, have an impact on people who are on the fence about gun control. Moreover, there's bigger game in play here. The Republicans post-2012 have been staring down the barrel of an increasingly desperate demographic problem that will require the party to find some way to market itself to blacks, Hispanics, women, gays and other minorities or else be relegated to permanent minority status.

But after Sandy Hook, the Democrats have skillfully painted the Republicans as the party of scary-looking and scary-sounding white maniacs like Tennessee security-company CEO James Yeager, a shaven-headed, soul-patched anger-sick white loony who posted a video promising to go ape if gun laws are enacted. "If this goes one inch further, I'm going to start killing people," Yeager said.

Conservatives could have dealt with this post-Sandy Hook political curveball in a number of ways, from simply shutting up and working quietly behind the scenes to scuttle gun control efforts (that always worked before) to announcing willingness to engage in some extremely mild compromise (like maybe prohibiting schizophrenics from carrying machine guns near kindergartens).

Instead, they decided to piss all over Martin Luther King Day and then shoot themselves by the half-dozen in the process.

Well done, fellas! You're well on your way to solving your demographic problems.

Boy Scouts Losing Big Funders Over Anti-Gay Policy

The Boy Scouts of America teach young men how to build fires, pitch tents, weave camping chairs, and "be prepared"—unless your son happens to be gay. But the Boy Scouts long-standing policy of banning "open or avowed homosexuals" is starting to cost it some major financial backers: In the last six months, companies including UPS, United Way, the Merck Company Foundation and the Intel Foundation have announced they will drop or postpone funding for the Boy Scouts. Verizon Communications could be next: Over 70,000 people have signed a petition asking the corporation to stop funding the Scouts over their discriminatory policies.

"We more than understand how much value the Scouting program offers to our Nation and its youth," Brad Hankins, a campaign director for Scouts for Equality, the organization behind the Verizon petition and others, tells Mother Jones. "However, we feel that over the long term the damage the ban has caused to Scouting's perception in our changing cultural climate is much greater than a temporary loss of funds."

Since at least the late 1970s, the Boy Scouts executive leadership has discriminated against gay members. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that forcing the organization to accept gay members would violate its rights under the First Amendment, and the Boy Scouts reaffirmed their ban on gay scouts and scoutmasters in 2012. Since then, hundreds of Scouts have returned their pins in protest, and the Boy Scouts anti-gay stance has even outlasted the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy.

Hankins says it's hard to say how much money the Boy Scouts have lost from donors since the petitions began, because the "information isn't immediately disclosed." However, according to The American Independent, in the 2009 tax year, the biggest donor to the Boy Scouts was the Intel Foundation, who donated nearly $700,000. Intel announced in September it will stop funding Scout troops that adhere to the ban, and UPS followed suit (Scouts for Equality ran petitions against both companies.

Verizon gave at least $300,000 to the Boy Scouts in 2009, according to The American Independent, and Scouts for Equality claims that Verizon's donations conflict with its policy of not funding organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Harry J. Mitchell, a spokesman for Verizon, told Mother Jones that the company "does not discriminate on the basis of [sexual orientation]" and they expect "all of its grant recipients to comply with all applicable laws."

But that won't stop customers from boycotting the company. "Our family uses Verizon: each of our three sons included, one of which is gay. Two of them are Eagle Scouts and one is 13 and is a Life Scout. We fully support a full financial boycott," writes Christie Draper, from Aliso Viejo, California. "Give the money to the Girl Scouts instead."

The Boy Scouts did not respond to request for comment.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

New West Point Study Highlights Threat Posed by Far Right-Wing Groups In U.S.

The study is already coming under attack by Republicans for not properly defining what constitutes a member of the “far right.”

new study from a think tank connected to the West Point Military Academy highlights the threat of violent far-right movements in the United States, leading to the conclusion that, while diverse in in their causes, they are similar in their use of violence to achieve their aims. 

West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center was founded in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and has primarily focused its research on international terrorist threats. Titled “ Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right,” this new report instead looks as the risk that domestic groups pose to the U.S. Breaking down these groups into three categories — the Racist/White Supremacy Movement, the Anti-Federalist Movement, and the Christian Fundamentalist Movement — allows the study to examine the background ideologies and methods of each subset thoroughly, opposed to lumping them all together as most studies have.

Each of the groupings in the study represent competing ideological views, with none of them likely to cooperate in achieving their aims. The chances that each of these groups will use violence also varies. What they share, however, is a use of violence against their chosen targets — be it minority races or abortion clinics — to draw attention to and emphasize their given ideology. After charting out the various instances of violence carried out by each of the categories, the paper offers up several policy recommendations on responding to their actions:

From a theoretical perspective, this constitutes a further indication of the perception among some parts of the academic community that terrorism is an instrument of symbolic discourse which is shared by violent groups and their adversaries. Target selection is thus not based just on operational considerations, but is one component, among others, which allows violent groups to shape their message using violent practices—timing, weapons used and target locations, are only a small measure of the other components which contribute to the shape of the symbolic message conveyed via the attack.

In this context, policy implications are clear. If the numerous far right groups are driven by different ideological sentiments, and are thus also engaged in distinguishing tactics, then the response in terms of counterterrorism policies must be flexible and group/movement oriented.

The study is already  coming under attack by Republicans for not properly defining what constitutes a member of the “far right.”

A Republican congressional staffer who served in the military told The Washington Times: “If [the Defense Department] is looking for places to cut spending, this junk study is ground zero.

“Shouldn’t the Combating Terrorism Center be combating radical Islam around the globe instead of perpetuating the left’s myth that right-wingers are terrorists?” the staffer said. “The $64,000 dollar question is when will the Combating Terrorism Center publish their study on real left-wing terrorists like the Animal Liberation Front, Earth Liberation Front, and the Weather Underground?”

This pushback is unsurprising, given the  unwelcome response a 2009 report on the same topic received. Titled “ Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” the Department of Homeland Security-commissioned report drew attention to the fact that right-wing groups have proved  more of a threat than Islamic extremists during a similar period. Secretary Janet Napolitano withdrew that report under harsh criticism from conservatives at the time, but there is no sign that the CTC will pull this study any time soon.

Ayn Rand is for Children

George Saunders understands what Rand fans won't: Objectivism is more young adult fantasy than political philosophy

With this week’s news that Glenn Beck and others are preparing to take build libertarian communes and “Going Galt,” I figure now is the time to finally refine my theory about those who claim to be Ayn Rand acolytes or who brag that their favorite book is “Fountainhead Shrugged” (they are the same book written twice in order to double Rand’s profit, so for brevity, let’s just use one name).

Since I first met Objectivists (read: libertarians) in college, my Unified Theory of Rand Groupies posited that they all probably fit into at least one of three groups: those who 1) never grew out of the usual “the world is persecuting me and doesn’t see my true genius” phase that momentarily afflicts the typical high schooler 2) think saying “Ayn Rand” in any context makes them sound intelligent, even though they’ve never actually read her work or 3) have read Rand’s work, don’t genuinely believe in her ideology as evidenced by their lifestyle/politics, but still say they love her because it serves to make them feel good about their own avarice.

Out of these three groups, the third is probably the most prominent in this, the era defined by the politics of “makers versus takers.” After all, these folks purport to adore the free-market triumphalism of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” haughtily imagine themselves as rugged up-from-the-bootstraps individualists like Howard Roark and John Galt, tell themselves that their greed is patriotic, and thus demonize government and taxation. Yet, most of these same people tend to live their lives in ways that belie their personal mythology.

Typically, they are more than happy to (among other things) drive on taxpayer funded roads; to have their assets defended by government agents (aka police and firefighters); to have their property rights protected by a law enforcement collective known as the judiciary; and to pocket their share of handouts. Some alleged Randian individualists are even willing to decry the social safety net for others but not for themselves, and still others are happy to to vote in Congress for the epitome of what Randianism stands against.

That said, after reading the following nugget from this terrific New York Times writeup of literary giant George Saunders, I discovered a critical hole in my theory (emphasis added):

After he graduated from the School of Mines, Saunders went to work for an oil-exploration company in the jungles of Sumatra…They worked four weeks on and two weeks off and in the down time would be shuttled in helicopters to the nearest city, 40 minutes away, and then from there fly to Singapore.

“I’d been kind of an Ayn Rand guy before that,” he said. “And then you go to Asia and you see people who are genuinely poor and genuinely suffering and hadn’t gotten there by whining.” While on a break in Singapore, walking back to his hotel in the middle of the night, he stopped by an excavation site and “saw these shadows scuttling around in the hole. And then I realized the shadows were old women, working the night shift. Oh, I thought, Ayn Rand doesn’t quite account for this.”

As Saunders’ personal story suggests, my theory about Randists fails in not accounting for the fourth and arguably biggest subgroup of all: those who have never visited the developing world. And when I say “developing world” I’m not talking Tom Friedman-ese by referring to walled off resorts in banana republics or big, wealthy cosmopolitan cities isolated from their otherwise dirt poor nations. I’m referring to the actual dirt poor places outside those resorts and cities where the Tom Friedmans and Rand groupies probably never visit.

Now its true: I’ve never been much of a Rand fan myself (beyond, of course, the normal momentary dalliance with “Fountainhead Shrugged” during my obligatory 11th grade descent into immature self-pity). Nonetheless, after my three-week voyage to the poorest province in China in 2009 (which you can read about here), I can say with confidence that if you have been to the non-Tom-Friedman developing world – aka the actual developing world – you don’t need Saunders’ MacArthur Genius-worthy intellect to arrive at his very same conclusion.

My particular trip felt like a journey to a place much like what I imagine 19th century America had been – a place that at once confirmed the worst consequences of a real-world Galt’s Gulch (no obvious environmental, public health or workplace safety laws) and proved the idiocy of Rand’s overarching ideology (the preternaturally industrious poor in China hardly seemed like blameworthy “takers”).

I’m guessing it was the same for Saunders in Singapore, just as I’m guessing it is for Americans who deign to visit the developing world. Simply put, once you actually see laissez faire capitalism and greed-is-good extremism at work, it doesn’t look as nice as it sounds in Rand’s works. On the contrary, as Saunders implies, it makes “Fountainhead Shrugged” look less like serious treatise than bad young adult fiction, with all the corresponding misguided parables and oversimplified conclusions.

The problem is, for various reasons – some having to do with economics, some having to do with cultural arrogance – relatively few Americans make the kind of trip Saunders made. According to government data, only 30 percent of Americans even possess a passport (which is a very low rate compared to citizens in other industrialized English-speaking countries). Additionally, of those who do, only a fraction use their travel papers to visit parts of the developing world that perfectly spotlight the failures of the Rand vision.

To be sure, a strict Objectivist would probably argue that many developing-world nations don’t represent Rand’s vision because they are ruled by corrupt governments. But that’s not really relevant because many of those places are now defined by Authoritarian Capitalism whereby political freedoms are limited, but Randian free-market extremism most certainly is not. Indeed, as some American CEOs will openly admit, if you want to see a more purely Randian version of a socially darwinist free market than exists in America, head straight across the Pacific Ocean to China.

Put all this together, and I’m officially amending my theory. To be a Rand groupie is to flaunt your immaturity, your ignorance, your desperation to justify greed or your lack of international travel. It is, in other words, to admit your blindness to how so much of the world already lives, and to ignore what America would look like if “Fountainhead Shrugged” was seen as a public policy manual rather than what it really is: a dangerous farce.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Maddow: NRA Ad Attacking Obama is Latest Example of Right-Wing Media ‘Trolling’

America’s Most Embarrassing Question: Why Do They Hate Us?


It is a known fact that Innocent Princess country America has never harmed anyone ever. But would you believe that an increasing number of non-American people want to bomb our brains out anyway? It is true. (If you see something, say something.)

Al Qaeda’s Iraq cell has doubled the number of fighters within its ranks and the number of increasingly violent attacks against military and police targets in the year since U.S. forces left the country, according to the Pentagon.

Doubled! Scary, right?

The terror cell’s roughly 2,400-man force dwarfs the 1,000 extremist fighters that had populated al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2011, according to DOD data complied by The Associated Press.

Srsly, America? 2,400? Anyway, moving on. The point is that this war on “terror” has produced more actual terrorists. I know this is not breaking news, but let that sink in for a minute. The war on terror has increased the number of people who want to do terror to us. How can this be?

Since 2001 there was an often-asked question that has since become the implied question behind basically any discussion on American foreign policy: Why do they hate us? I’m so sad to say that the answers that I have heard to this inane question were and still are actually kind of a tragedy. Today I heard this one from Guy at Work: “Because Hollywood.”

Dude from the “American Thinker” (italicized because it is the title of a publication; in quotes because “Thinker”) addressed this Important Question in September 2012, when everyone was shitting their pants about some Muslimy movie in Benghazi or something. Let’s walk through it, together!

[W]hy do they hate us?  Why do they hate America?  Why do they hate Israel?  What have we done, except to exist and be happy, to offend them?

It is vital in asking this question to know just who “they” are.  An easy and incomplete answer is “radical Islam” or just “Islam.”  But in fact, we are hated not just by radical Muslims, but by profoundly secular forces in the Arab World.

Okay, we’ve defined the questions and the players, that’s good…But do any Americans hate us too? (Do we hate ourselves?) Yes.

We are, of course, hated by Americans like Obama, who was nursed on malice towards his homeland and who grew up in the shadowy alternative universe in which anti-Americanism is dogma. Those who hate us and live within our midst include radical feminists incoherent with rage when speaking of the loving God of Christians and Jews and who consider his followers their worst foe, but who are docile as doves in dealing with the true misogyny of Marxist realms, radical Islam, or most old-world social systems like foot-binding, the Suttee, and the near-slavery of women in Imperial Japan.

Oh. Angry, radical feminists who consider Christians their main enemy? (OMG do I hate America?)

Those who hate us hate Israel too Colonialism is often cited as the reason, but that is profoundly silly. Israel was founded by immigrants who granted full citizenship to anyone, regardless of race or creed, who wished to become a citizen.

You know what is profoundly silly? The notion of a place where people were already living being “founded by immigrants”.

Part of the reason why they hate us is because we, America and Israel, are lands of poor immigrants who have made good.  America in particular demonstrates that the “huddled massed yearning to breathe free” could not only become rich in America, but also live together in peace.

Right. Again, it is easy to “live together in peace” after you genocide all the people who had lived there for thousands of years. But whatever, details. What else?

There is another divide, however, and that is based upon fidelity to the traditions of Judeo-Christianity and contempt for that moral system.

[...] There is a vast divide of faith which separates conservative Americans and Israelis on one side and the rest of mankind, which hates them, on the other.

Broad brush time, people. This American Thinker thinkpiece sure does make you think! He then goes into a GlennBeckian explanation of the Secular/Marxist/Muslim jihadist connection, which of course we all know about from our Monday night Freedom Haters meetings. But he wraps it up with:

They hate us for simply being who are and nothing else.

[...] As the grim day draws near when Iran can kill millions of Israelis for the “crime” of being Jews and when an American political party can “forget” God in its platform and investigates Christian filmmakers for crimes committed by Libyans, we need to know just why they hate us: not for our wickedness – Israel is much kinder to Muslims than Islamic nations and American Christians raise private funds for missionary hospitals in Muslim lands – but because our way is good.

Oh. Our way is good. And they hate that, because they hate our freedom. And also, Benghazi!!!1!

Look, I’m not saying that your government lies to you on a daily basis, but, well, your government lies to you on a daily basis. They are really just a massively successful PR campaign that occasionally gets around to doing some governing or legislating or whatever.

Now go read this and make love to Noam Chomsky, in your mind. Learn things! If you start out seeking an honest answer to the question “why do they hate us?” you will end up realizing that the question itself is flawed (which is kind of another reason that they hate us).

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Religion may Not Survive the Internet

There's a reason churches are struggling to maintain membership, and it has nothing to do with Neil deGrasse Tyson

As we head into a new year, the guardians of traditional religion are ramping up efforts to keep their flocks—or, in crass economic terms, to retain market share.  Some Christians have turned to soul searching while others have turned to marketing. Last fall, the LDS church spent millions on billboards, bus banners, and Facebook ads touting “I’m a Mormon.”  In Canada, the Catholic Church has launched a “Come Home” marketing campaign.  The Southern Baptists Convention voted to rebrand themselves. A hipster mega-church in Seattle combines smart advertising with sales force training for members and a strategy the Catholics have emphasized for centuries: competitive breeding.

In October of 2012 the Pew Research Center announced that for the first time ever Protestant Christians had fallen below 50 percent of the American population. Atheists cheered and evangelicals beat their breasts and lamented the end of the world as we know it. Historian of religion, Molly Worthen, has since offered big picture insights that may dampen the most extreme hopes and fears.  Anthropologist Jennifer James, on the other hand, has called fundamentalism the “death rattle” of the Abrahamic traditions.

In all of the frenzy, few seem to give any recognition to the player that I see as the primary hero, or, if you prefer, culprit—and I’m not talking about science populizer and atheist superstar Neil deGrasse Tyson. Then again, maybe Iam talking about Tyson in a sense, because in his various viral guises—as a talk show host and tweeter and as the face on scores of smartass Facebook memes—Tyson is an incarnation of the biggest threat that organized religion has ever faced: the internet.

A traditional religion, one built on “right belief,” requires a closed information system. That is why the Catholic Church put an official seal of approval on some ancient texts and banned or burned others. It is why some Bible-believing Christians are forbidden to marry nonbelievers. It is why Quiverfull moms home school their kids from carefully screened text books. It is why, when you get sucked into conversations with your fundamentalist uncle George from Florida, you sometimes wonder if he has some superpower that allows him to magically close down all avenues into his mind. (He does!)

Religions have spent eons honing defenses that keep outside information away from insiders. The innermost ring wall is a set of certainties and associated emotions like anxiety and disgust and righteous indignation that block curiosity. The outer wall is a set of behaviors aimed at insulating believers from contradictory evidence and from heretics who are potential transmitters of dangerous ideas. These behaviors range from memorizing sacred texts to wearing distinctive undergarments to killing infidels. Such defenses worked beautifully during humanity’s infancy. But they weren’t really designed for the current information age.

Tech-savvy mega-churches may have twitter missionaries, and Calvinist cuties may make viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, but that doesn’t change the facts: the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product they are selling. Here are five kinds of web content that are like, well, like electrolysis on religion’s hairy toes.

Radically cool science videos and articles. Religion evokes some of our most deeply satisfying emotions:  joy, for example, and transcendence, and wonder. This is what Einstein was talking about when he said that “science without religion is lame.” If scientific inquiry doesn’t fill us at times with delight and even speechless awe at new discoveries or the mysteries that remain, then we are missing out on the richest part of the experience. Fortunately, science can provide all of the above, and certain masters of the trade and sectors of the internet are remarkably effective at evoking the wonder—the spirituality if you will—of the natural world unveiled.  Some of my own favorites include Symphony of scienceNOVATEDRSA Animate, and Birdnote.

It should be no surprise that so many fundamentalists are determined to take down the whole scientific endeavor. They see in science not only a critic of their outdated theories but a competitor for their very best product, a sense of transcendent exuberance.  For millennia, each religion has made an exclusive claim, that it alone had the power to draw people into a grand vision worth a lifetime of devotion. Each offered the assurance that our brief lives matter and that, in some small way, we might live on. Now we are getting glimpses of a reality so beautiful and so intricate that it offers some of the same promise. Where will the old tribal religions be if, in words of Tracy Chapman, we all decide that Heaven’s here on earth?

Curated Collections of Ridiculous Beliefs. Religious beliefs that aren’t yours often sound silly, and the later in life you encounter them the more laughable they are likely to sound. Web writers are after eyeballs, which means that if there’s something ridiculous to showcase then one is guaranteed to write about it. It may  be a nuanced exposé or a snarky list or a flaming meme, but the point, invariably, is to call attention to the stuff that makes you roll your eyes, shake your head in disbelief, laugh, and then hit Share.

The Kinky, Exploitative, Oppressive, Opportunistic and Violent Sides of Religion. Of course, the case against religion doesn’t stop at weird and wacky. It gets nasty, sometimes in ways that are titillating and sometimes in ways that are simply dark. The Bible is full of sex slavery, polygamy and incest, and these are catalogued at places like  Alternately, a student writing about holidays can find a proclamation in which Puritans give thanks to God for the burning of Indian villages or an interview on the mythic origins of the Christmas story.  And if the Catholic come home plea sounds a little desperate, it may well be because the sins of the bishops are getting hard to cover up.  On the net, whatever the story may be, someone will be more than willing to expose it.

Supportive communities for people coming out of religion. With or without the net (but especially with it) believers sometimes find their worldview in pieces. Before the internet existed most people who lost their faith kept their doubts to themselves. There was no way to figure out who else might be thinking forbidden thoughts. In some sects, a doubting member may be shunned, excommunicated, or “disfellowshipped” to ensure that doubts don’t spread. So, doubters used keep silent and then disappear into the surrounding culture. Now they can create websites, and today there are as many communities of former believers as there are kinds of belief. These communities range from therapeutic to political, and they cover the range of sects:  EvangelicalMormonJehovah’s Witness, and Muslim. There’s even a web home for recovering clergy.  Heaven help the unsuspecting believer who wanders into one of these sites and tries to tell members in recovery that they’re all bound for hell.

Lifestyles of the fine and faithless. When they emerge from the recovery process former Christians and Muslims and whatnot find that there’s a whole secular world waiting for them on the web. This can be a lifesaver, literally, for folks who are trapped in closed religious communities on the outside.  On the web, they can explore lifestyles in which people stay surprisingly decent and kind without a sacred text or authority figures telling them what to do. In actuality, since so much of religion is about social support (and social control) lots of people skip the intellectual arguments and exposes, and go straight to building a new identity based in a new social network. Some web resources are specifically aimed creating alternatives to theism, for example, Good without GodParenting Beyond Belief, or The Foundation Beyond Belief.

Interspiritual Okayness. This might sound odd, but one of the threats to traditional religion is interfaith communities that focus on shared spiritual values. Many religions make exclusive truth claims and see other religions as competitors. Without such claims, there is no need for evangelism, missionaries or a set of doctrines that I call donkey motivators (ie. carrots and sticks) like heaven and hell. The web showcases the fact that humanity’s bad and good qualities are universal, spread across cultures and regions, across both secular and religious wisdom traditions.  It offers reassurance that we won’t lose the moral or spiritual dimension of life if we outgrow religion, while at the same time providing the means to glean what is truly timeless and wise from old traditions. In doing so, it inevitably reveals that the limitations of any single tradition alone.  The  Dalai Lama, who has lead interspiritual dialogue for many years made waves recently by saying as much: “All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”

The power of interspiritual dialogue is analogous to the broader power of the web in that, at the very heart it is about people finding common ground, exchanging information, and breaking through walls to find a bigger community waiting outside. Last year, Jim Gilliam, founder of Nationbuilder, gave a talk titled, “The Internet is My Religion.” Gilliam is a former fundamentalist who has survived two bouts of cancer thanks to the power of science and the internet. His existence today has required a bone marrow transplant and a double lung transplant organized in part through social media. Looking back on the experience, he speaks with the same passion that drove him when he was on fire for Jesus:

I owed every moment of my life to countless people I would never meet. Tomorrow, that interconnectedness would be represented in my own physical body. Three different DNAs. Individually they were useless, but together they would equal one functioning human. What an incredible debt to repay. I didn’t even know where to start. And that’s when I truly found God. God is just what happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God.

The Vatican, and the Mormon Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Southern Baptist Convention should be very worried.

Daily Kos: Michele Bachmann Still Won't Pay Staff, so Staff Rats Her Out to the Feds

The juicy tale of how batshit crazy Rep. Michele Bachmann screwed over her presidential campaign staff is fast becoming the greatest soap opera EVER!

First, we learned that Bachmann is refusing to pay five staffers unless they sign a nondisclosure agreement that prohibits them them from talking to any reporters or police about any "unethical, immoral, or criminal activity" they may have witnessed during the campaign. And it seems they did witness some, um, questionable activities—including stealing an email list from a home-schooling group.

Then, because leaking that story did not motivate Bachmann to open the checkbook and just pay her damn staff, her especially bitter former field coordinator, Peter Waldron, started dishing the dirt about how Bachmann was basically mind-controlled by her debate coach, whose "Rasputin-like" relationship was so powerful, he even forbade her own husband from sleeping in the same room with her on the trail. Which, as we all know, must have been just devastating for poor Marcus.

In today's episode of why you should probably not refuse to pay staffers who know an awful lot of juicy things about you and your potentially illegal campaign activities:

A top adviser in Michele Bachmann's 2012 White House bid has filed a complaint with federal election officials alleging campaign finance violations involving her presidential campaign and the independent political action committee she leads. [...]

Waldron, formerly Bachmann's national field coordinator, is accusing the campaign of improperly dipping into money from MichelePAC to pay longtime fundraising consultant Guy Short for presidential campaign work he performed in the critical final weeks ahead of Iowa's caucuses last year.

Waldron also alleges that the campaign concealed payments to Iowa state campaign chairman Kent Sorenson, a state senator who abruptly left the Bachmann camp to join then-U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's insurgent campaign.

Call me Bachmann-crazy, but I don't think Waldron is going to shut up until he gets a check in his hands. Here's hoping, anyway. Tune in tomorrow ...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Death of a Prisoner: The Tragic Return Home of a Guantánamo Bay Detainee

The Tea Party Reconvenes, Ugly Sentiments and All


Members of various tea party groups took over two floors of the Springmaid Beach Resort hotel in Myrtle Beach, a South Carolina tourist trap in the offseason, for a weekend dedicated to recharging a movement that's sputtering nationwide.

“We need God to get through this,” the event's organizer, a jowled Tea Party Patriots coordinator named Joe Dugan, told a crowd of several hundred. Homemade signs leaned against the chair legs of an audience that was mostly elderly and almost 100 percent white. “What will get America out of its dilemma is resurrect McCarthy’s hearings,” read one of the signs.

In opening remarks, Dugan said speakers would take the gloves off, and he promised to “take political correctness and put it in a ditch and bury it.”

That was evident downstairs as an older man in sunglasses perused vendor tables wearing an air-brushed anti-Obamacare t-shirt with an image that depicted the president as a witchdoctor with a bone through his nose. (When a blogger snapped a photo and interviewed the man, organizers took umbrage at the publicity.)

The tea party convention came at a time when polls show a hemorrhaging of support for the modern backlash movement. It also comes amid a civil war at FreedomWorks – a sponsor of the convention – and after the GOP's conservative conference smashed to splinters on the rocks of reality during negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff.

But Jim DeMint told the crowd in a video address in a hotel convention room that his was not a time to despair but “a time to get to work.”

DeMint was the most right-wing member of the U.S Senate until he abruptly resigned earlier this month to run the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Themes at the 2013 tea party convention centered on the same dark prophecies fringe conservatives pushed in the run-up to Obama's re-election: warnings about encroaching Sharia Law, , the United Nations, and Obama’s health care reform act.

Betty Blanton, a small grey-haired woman in glasses, walked up to see what such a young man was doing at a tea party convention – and if he'd learning anything from it. She worried that young people aren't as alarmed as they should be about Sharia Law and said to remember this conversation in 20 years when Islam has infiltrated much of American life. She worried about how many mosques have been built after Obama's election. Because mosques, she says, “are where the terrorists start.”

If the tea party has learned anything, perhaps it's about the movement's relationship with the media. Fringe extremism makes for bad headlines and fuels narratives unproductive to the movement's goals.

When conservative author Ron McNeil hit a fever pitch during his speech and started calling for a revolt -- he mentioned secession, and perhaps turning over Fort Sumter to a patriot militia -- organizer Dugan cut him off, taking the mic and assuring the crowd such talk was out of bounds.

What isn't?

Referring to the Democratic administration as tyrannical, calling progressive ideology “insane,” as one speaker did, and maligning the news media.

Dugan complained that the tea party didn’t “have the money to get our message out when the whole press is working as part of the Obama Administration.

One issue tea party groups are pushing in 2013 that hasn't been on their front burner in recent years are Second Amendment rights in the wake of progressive responses to mass shootings. In a convention speech, conservative columnist John Fund called gun issues the third-rail of American politics, and welcomed Democrats to touch it.

DeMint’s replacement in the U.S. Senate also threw down the gauntlet.

“Anyone who believes an executive order somehow someway is available to tackle the Second Amendment,” said Tim Scott, “you’ve got a fight coming.”