Archive | News

Here’s Where The GOP Is Depriving Americans Of Health Care

Many of the Americans who need access to affordable health care the most live in areas where they won’t get it under Obamacare, thanks to their Republican governors and legislators.

A new map from the Urban Institute, a social and economic policy research organization, shows that a large swath of those being denied the health care they need live in places where governors decided not to expand Medicaid.

map 1

The map highlights where the greatest percentage of people would benefit from Medicaid expansion, with darker colors representing higher concentrations of poor Americans who are currently ineligible for Medicaid but who would be eligible if their state expanded the program.

For reference, the map below highlights states that didn’t choose to expand Medicaid in lighter gray. As you can see, many overlap with the areas that have the highest levels of uninsured adults in poverty who would qualify for Medicaid under the expansion.

map 2

One of the major goals of the Affordable Care Act was to give poor Americans increased access to affordable health coverage, but a 2012 Supreme Court decision threw a wrench in that plan. The high court ruled that state lawmakers could decide whether they wanted to take federal dollars to expand Medicaid to those making less than 133 percent of the poverty level under the law, or about $15,300 for a singleperson.

Since that decision, Republican governors and legislators in 25 states have refused to adopt the Medicaid expansion, leaving some of their poorest residents in limbo. For the record, Medicaid expansion is fully funded by the federal government from 2014 through 2016, then at no less than 90 percent in future years.

Subsides in the form of tax credits are available for Americans who make poverty-level wages and up to four times that amount to buy insurance on the government-run exchanges. But for Americans who earn less than the poverty rate and live in a state that didn’t expand Medicaid, it’s nearly impossible to get access to affordable coverage.

“You end up with what seems to be this counterintuitive notion that you have poor adults in the 25 states that are not expanding Medicaid where their incomes are not high enough to qualify for subsidized coverage,” said Stephen Zuckerman, a senior health policy fellow at the Urban Institute.

Continue Reading

Virginia Ban is Unconstitutional

A federal judge ruled Virginia’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional late Thursday.

From the ruling:

The Court finds Va. Const. Art. I, § 15-A, Va. Code §§ 20-45.2, 20-45.3, and any other Virginia law that bars same-sex marriage or prohibits Virginia’s recognition of lawful same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions unconstitutional. These laws deny Plaintiffs their rights to due process and equal protection guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen wrote that the constitutional right to equality should apply to all, including same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses.

“Our Constitution declares that ‘all men’ are created equal. Surely this means all of us,” wrote Wright Allen, an Eastern District of Virginia judge in Norfolk. ”While ever vigilant for the wisdom that can come from the voices of our voting public, our courts have never long tolerated the perpetuation of laws rooted in unlawful prejudice. One of the judiciary’s noblest endeavors is to scrutinize law that emerge from such roots.”

Wright Allen stayed her order to allow an appeal, meaning nothing immediately changes for same-sex couples in the state.

The suit was filed by two Virginia couples: Tim Bostic and Tony London, and Carol Schall and Mary Townley, a couple whose California marriage license did them no good in Virginia. The couples were represented by Theodore Olson and David Boies, the bipartisan attorney pair known for winning the June 2013 case that restored gay marriage rights in California.

Wright Allen began her opinion with an excerpt from Mildred Loving’s “Loving for All.” Loving, a black woman, was banished from Virginia for marrying a white man.She brought her case to the Supreme Court, leading to the end of state miscegenation laws. The judge concluded with a salute to President Abraham Lincoln:

Almost one hundred and fifty four years ago, as Abraham Lincoln approached the cataclysmic rending of our nation over a struggle for other freedoms, a rending that would take his own life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others, he wrote these words: “It can not have failed to strike you that these men ask for just… the same thing — fairness, and fairness only. This so far as in my power, they, and all others, shall have.”The men and women, and the children too, whose voices join in noble harmony with plaintiffs today, also ask for fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as it is in this Court’s power, they and all others shall have.

Mark Herring, Virginia’s Democratic attorney general, recently announced his support for gay couples seeking marriage licenses.

“After thorough legal review, I have now concluded that Virginia’s ban on marriage between same sex couples violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution on two grounds: marriage is a fundamental right being denied to some Virginians, and the ban unlawfully discriminates on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender,” Herring said in January.

More from the Associated Press:

A federal judge ruled Thursday that Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, making it the first state in the South to have its voter-approved prohibition overturned.

Wright Allen’s ruling makes Virginia the second state in the South to issue a ruling recognizing the legality of gay marriages.

A judge in Kentucky ruled Wednesday that the state must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. It did not rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriages inside the state, however. The Virginia judge’s ruling also follows similar decisions in Utah and Oklahoma federal courts.

Wright Allen’s stay was requested by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office in order to avoid a situation similar to what happened in Utah after a federal judge declared that state’s ban on gay marriages unconstitutional.

More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples were married in the days after the ruling before the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state an emergency stay, halting the weddings and creating a cloud of uncertainty for the status of the married couples. Soon after, a federal judge also declared Oklahoma’s ban unconstitutional. That ruling is also on hold while it is appealed.

In a movement that began with Massachusetts in 2004, 17 states and the District of Columbia now allow gay marriage, most of them clustered in the Northeast. None of them is in the old Confederacy.

 

Continue Reading

Boston mayor refuses to march with anti-gay St Patrick’s Day Parade

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh has vowed to boycott the South Boston St Patrick’s Day Parade if organizers do not reconsider allowing members of the LGBT community to march.

Speaking to the Boston Herald he said, “If the gay community is not allowed to march, I’m not marching in the parade.”

The Mayor, who is the son of Irish immigrants, said he is trying to persuade the parade’s organizers to allow members of Boston’s gay, lesbian, and transgender communities to publicly march under their own banner.

“I’m working on it…I hope (to reach a deal),” he said.

“It’s 2014, it’s time for the parade to be an inclusive parade and it’s something that I’m working with. I’ve had some conversations early on and they have been very good conversations, we will see what happens in the next couple of weeks.”

In 1995 the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the parade was a private event and, thus, the parade organizers had the right to exclude groups that proclaimed messages they reject.

One of the parade’s longtime organizers, John “Whacko” Hurley, told the Boston Herald that he is unaware of any deals being worked out to allow gay and lesbian marchers.

Hurley added that he will harbor no ill will towards Mayor Walsh if he chooses to skip the March 16 parade.

“That’s his prerogative whether he wants to walk or not. He’s a great guy. I sat down with him last week,  I think he’s got a tough job there. He don’t make the rules for the parade,” Hurley said, adding, “it takes a lot more to make me upset.”

Parade organizers have always pointed to the 1995 ruling as the mainstay of their decision to invite only those they want. While South Boston has changed incredibly, it is still a hard knocking Irish neighborhood, fiercely independent and ornery when it comes to who marches in their parades.

The Boston mayor’s decision is just the latest controversy to hit plans for parades this year.

New York mayor Bill De Blasio has announced that he will not to march in this year’s parade in New York.

A senior Irish government minister has followed his lead and is also boycotting New York’s St Patrick’s Day Parade in protest at the organizers’ attitude to gay and lesbian marchers.

Minister for Social Protection and Labour Party deputy leader Joan Burton told a Dublin radio station that she will not be attending the parade when she is in the city for the annual festivities. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, however, is expected to march in the parade despite mounting pressure on him follow the mayor’s lead.

“It is my intention to be there in New York,” Kenny said.

Mr Kenny did not express a view on Mr de Blasio’s reservations about the parade.

“You should ask the Mayor that question. I don’t speak for the Mayor,” he said.

 

Continue Reading

Kent State Wrestler Suspended For Anti-Gay Tweets About Michael Sam

Following the historic coming out of Division I college football player Michael Sam, the social media backlash was both predictable and horrifying. However, one college athlete is now experiencing the repercussions of what can happen when you choose to be homophobic on Twitter.

Kent State wrestler Sam Wheeler has reportedly been suspended from the university’s team after taking to Twitter to voice his feelings about Sam’s decision to publicly come out.

Following outrage over Wheeler’s anti-gay tweets and subsequent suspension, the university issued a statement from KSU Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen.

“We are aware of the insensitive tweets by one of our student athletes,” Nielsen stated. “On behalf of Kent State University, we consider these comments to be ignorant and not indicative of the beliefs held by our university community as a whole. This is an educational opportunity for all of our student-athletes.”

University officials also released an accompanying statement from Wheeler’s wrestling coach, Jim Andrassy.

“As an alum of Kent State University and as Sam’s head coach, I was surprised and offended by what I read on Twitter,” said Andrassy. “I have spoken to Sam personally, and while he is remorseful, he will be suspended indefinitely while we determine the best course of action moving forward.”

An end date has reportedly not set for Wheeler’s suspension.

Continue Reading

Most corrupt Olympics ever: Why Sochi’s “above and beyond” what we’ve seen before

Protesters against the 2014 Winter Olympics being held in Sochi, Russia (Credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The 2014 Winter Olympics will have their official kickoff Friday, with an opening ceremony marked in part by the absence of politicians from several high-profile countries. Knocking the “ostentatious gesture” of non-attendance, International Olympic Committee head Thomas Bach declared the organization “grateful to those who respect the fact that sport can only contribute to the development of peace if it’s not used as a stage for political dissent, or for trying to score points in internal or external contexts.” But the prospect of protest – by politicians, by activistsor by Olympic athletes – looms large over the games.

To parse Olympic politics, this week Salon called up the Nation sports correspondent Dave Zirin, who wrote the book “Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down,” and co-authored the memoir of John Wesley Carlos, the bronze medalist whose defiant raised fist defined the 1968 Olympics. Faced with extreme anti-gay laws in Russia, Zirin predicted, “I think that there are going to be athletes from a lot of different countries, and maybe from Russia itself, that are either going to speak out or do something.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.

You say that this appears to be the most corrupt Olympics in history. How so?

Well, you’ve never had an Olympics where there is $30 billion plus that seems to be just unaccounted for … There is corruption in every Olympics, but it seems like Sochi is just above and beyond anything that we’ve seen before. And frankly there are very tangible reasons why that’s the case … I think the level of graft is a surprise, but the actuality is not a surprise. Because from the very beginning — forget about the corruption, forget about the kleptocracy – from the very beginning, Vladimir Putin approached the international Olympic committee and said: My goal is not only the Olympics, staging the Olympics, I want to remake this entire region of Russia. And I’m going to do it by holding the Winter Olympics in a subtropical climate in the middle of what has been for the last two decades a veritable war zone.

So all of these factors together, everybody knew that this would be very expensive for the Winter Games, which are usually much less expensive than the Summer Games. But I don’t think anyone expected it to be the most expensive Olympics in history, and more expensive than every single Winter Olympics combined.

What do you hope to see at the Olympics?

I hope to see a break from the very homogenous, monochromatic sporting environment that we have currently. That’s one of the things about the Olympics, which is why it remains so attractive to so many people, is that there’s an interesting break from the usual sports that are forced down our throats. So I am excited to see things like the first women’s ski jumping competition …

I am also excited at the prospect of activism on the question of LGBT liberation. And I’m excited about it because I think it’s going to happen on a scale that’s international, and won’t look like the United States trying to stick a thumb in Putin’s eye and all the rest of that, like using LGBT rights as a diplomatic shell game. But I think that there are going to be athletes from a lot of different countries, and maybe from Russia itself, that are either going to speak out or do something.

And I think we can expect political action to take place at the Olympics, because of this movement — and because we are living in a time, Josh, of unprecedented confidence of LGBT athletes. And that being said, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a long ways to go, but relative to where we’ve been, I mean the steps have been seismic in recent years.

What are some of the forms that activism could take?

Because of Russia’s laws, a lot of what’s being planned is under lock and key. I’ve certainly heard some rumors of what could happen … I don’t even want to repeat them, one, because I’m not entirely sure about the veracity. Two, I’m not entirely sure if I wouldn’t be exposing people to either persecution, or if there would be preemptive steps that would prevent any kind of activism …

I do know that there are people who are very committed, and very serious. And they feel they’ve laid the kind of groundwork that has put Putin in the position that if they do something, they’re not going to get arrested. Even though there are people in the Russian parliament, the Russian Duma, who believe that according to the letter of the law they should be arrested, because they would be propagating homosexuality, and that is against the law in Russia … I think enough groundwork and enough attention has been put down that if they do choose to use that platform, that they’re going to have the requisite amount of cover to make it home in one piece. And obviously I hope that they’re correct.

Given that you coauthored “The John Carlos Story,” what is the lesson of that act of protest? How does that inform how you look at this?

I would want to give all the credit in the world to Dr. John Carlos, and all the respect in the world for standing so strongly with the LGBT community on this issue. It demonstrates his commitment to universal human rights, and his active presence on every front in the fight for human liberation. He’s a tremendous person.

The second thing is the lesson that John projects — the lesson that John has said explicitly — is that athletes have minds, not only bodies. And expecting athletes to just be instruments of physical excellence, yet not have an opinion in their heads about the ways in which their physical excellence has been used politically, is to deny them their humanity.

And therefore, John doesn’t think athletes need to speak out. John doesn’t think athletes don’t need to speak out. John thinks athletes need to be free to follow their conscience. And John always says that the lesson of his life is that it’s much worse to regret not doing something than to regret doing something.

The president in his State of the Union said that “we believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation. And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” Do you agree with that framing of those questions?

No. I think a step back needs to be taken, and the first question is: Why is the president talking about symbolic LGBT resistance at the Olympics, and not actual[ly] speaking out in the State of the Union about [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] or … taking on the fact that there are 29 states in the United States where it’s still legal to fire someone on the basis of their sexuality?

For two reasons, I have a problem with the president sending the Billie Jean King delegation with Caitlin Cahow, Brian Boitano, openly LGBT Olympians. I have a problem with it on two counts. One, I think doing that in the absence of taking on homophobia, trans-phobia in the United States is a shell game.

And the other … Barack Obama in the past has, like particularly during the Arab Spring, made mention of the fact that if the U.S. went in too aggressively to, say, topple Mubarak, for example, then that would be used as an excuse to further oppress the protesters, if they were being seen as U.S. puppets. And he said that explicitly. He understands that dynamic exists: that the U.S. is not always seen as this magnanimous force for good, and often if it comes into this internal political situation, that can be used as an excuse to crack down on dissent, and propagandize against protestors — as saying, “Wait a minute, there are foreign agents” or what have you.

And I think we have to be extremely mindful of the fact that after the confetti has been cleared, after all the cameras go home, there is still an LGBT community in Russia that’s going to have to deal with these laws. And the question then becomes — the only question that matters, Josh, is — are the actions taken by the Olympians going to make the situation on the ground better or worse for the people who are there after the games are over?

And I have very real concerns that by President Obama using this issue to stick a thumb in Putin’s eye — and everybody knows that Russia and the United States have issues that go well beyond this, from Syria, to trade, to the Middle East — that it comes across as using the protests to further the United States’ other aims. I have to say, when you consider that the U.S. hasn’t said anything about its ally India, you know, a country of over a billion people, recently passing homophobic laws — you don’t want to be in a position of selectively being against oppression.

How would you reform the Olympics, in terms of the economics, in terms of the structure, in terms of the content, in terms of how decisions get made?

I think that there are two ways to go about it. Everywhere the Olympics go, they bring budget-busting economic projects, displacing people from their homes, and the utter militarization of a region. Those are true of every Olympics, whether we’re talking about Sochi, whether we’re talking about Vancouver, whether we’re talking about Atlanta, whether we’re talking about Beijing, whether we’re talking about Mexico City, whether we’re talking about Hitler’s Berlin.

I mean, it exists to greater or lesser degrees, but it’s there all the same. And so if we’re going to remedy, very concretely, those problems, then I think the thing that makes the most sense is having one stable Olympics set. Where the infrastructure can be built and rebuilt — where you don’t have to remove people from their homes. I mean, you stick it somewhere in the world, so you don’t get extraordinary acts of hubris like Vladimir Putin saying I’m going to put the Olympics in a subtropical climate …

The other way: Well, there’s just a lot of people who say that in a sane world, the Olympics should be abolished, because it’s just about promoting nationalism. And I don’t go down that road entirely, because I think that there’s clearly, I mean, an appetite for these kind of sports to be highlighted, and there is art and beauty in these kinds of sports.

I mean, I would love it if it was organized in a way that was less nationalistic, of course. But at the same time … there’s a way in which I think, when we celebrate these global sports that places in other parts of the world are able to excel at, that it’s actually good for people in the United States to be able to witness that. Often that coverage is skewered toward U.S. athletes. But I think in and of itself, it’s good; I like the concept of a global athletic festival. It’s something worth celebrating.

But the way it currently operates, it operates too often … like a neoliberal trojan horse. Where people are excited about the Olympics, and then all of these economic, neoliberal sporting shock doctrine measures are pushed through.

How do you see the moral or political responsibility of fans? Whether we’re talking about the economic policies or the security policies of the Olympics, or the clinging to the name “Redskins,” or the alleged abuses in the NCAA, what kind of politics or responsibility goes with being a fan and watching a sport?

Well, I think the first thing is people got to stop — I mean, you have seen recently this ferocious pushback from the right wing on this, that is trying to frame this as a left-wing, right-wing issue … These are pretty clearly right or wrong issues. Like, either we are going to have racist team names for a sport, or we’re not. So it’s not left or right; it’s racism versus anti-racism …

With stadium funding, it’s are you for corporate welfare and taxpayers getting soaked, or are you against it? Are you for NCAA athletes getting exploited within an inch of their lives, or do you support them fighting back? I mean, this needs to be the way these discussions are framed. Because there’s a lot of injustice in sports, for the simple reason that sports are insanely profitable, and they are controlled by a small minority of people, and in that way it’s not that different from any other big business.

But the main difference is that I think we have some sort of collective sense of ownership of sports … Who the hell roots for Exxon Mobile over British Petroleum? … You say ,“This is my team.” You don’t say, “This is my gas station.” And I think that because people have that sense of ownership, they need to exercise it in ways that are more psychological, and demand what they don’t like about sports to change.

How do you decide whom to root for?

I mean, I decide who to root for on the basis of what I feel in my gut. There are teams I love from my youth …

But sometimes you don’t have a team to root for. And then I think it’s always fun to root for a team who, if they win, it kind of provokes an interesting discussion about sports and politics. Maybe that’s just me personally. That’s just like, for example, I just wrote this piece … If you’re not a Broncos fan and you’re not a Seahawks fan, root for the Seahawks, because if Russell Wilson, the quarterback for the Seahawks, leads his team to victory, then it really chops away at a lot of very tired tropes that surround the quarterback position: from his height, to his ability to scramble, to the fact that he’s a person of color, to the fact that he was a later-round draft pick. And that’s kind of cool, that he’s able to take some of these tired sports radio tropes and just turn them on their heads.

So, who do you root for in the Olympics?

Well, I try to not root for anybody in the Olympics, honestly. I like rooting for individual stories in the Olympics. And I like just really taking in how interesting I think so many of the events are that are usually denied in mainstream sports coverage…

I think speed skating is amazing, figure skating is amazing … I mean, shoot, I can even get into curling if I’ve had a couple of beers.

Continue Reading

How Far Will the Right Go to Defeat a Democrat?

Florida’s 13th congressional district will host a special election next month and by all appearances, it should be a close contest. Democrats have nominated former state CFO Alex Sink, who very nearly won the 2010 gubernatorial race, and have high hopes about her chances.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is also taking the race very seriously – so seriously, in fact, that the NRCC has come up with an unusual fundraising gambit.
Folks can go to a website that looks legitimate – contribute.sinkforcongress2014.com – and find a nice photo of the Democratic candidate alongside a graphic that reads, “Alex Sink – Congress.” If you’re not reading carefully, you might assume this is a page for Sink supporters to make a campaign contribution to their preferred candidate. But it’s not – this is a page set up by Republicans. The Tampa Bay Times reportedyesterday:
Ray Bellamy said he wanted to make a political contribution to Alex Sink a Google search landed him at “http://contribute.sinkforcongress2014.com.”
“It looked legitimate and had a smiling face of Sink and all the trappings of a legitimate site,” Bellamy, a doctor from Tallahassee who follows Florida politics, wrote in an email to the [Times].
What Bellamy overlooked was that the site is designed to raise money against Sink. “I failed to notice the smaller print: Under “Alex Sink Congress” was the sentence ‘Make a contribution today to help defeat Alex Sink and candidates like her,’ ” he said.
Once Democratic supporters make their contribution, they’re directed to a new page on the NRCC’s website thanking them for donating to defeat Democrats.
In other words, the Republican campaign committee seems to be trying to trick people – and in at least some instances, it’s having the desired effect.
What’s more, this isn’t limited to Florida.
National Journal reported this has become a national effort launched by the NRCC in advance of the 2014 midterms.
The National Republican Congressional Committee proudly launched a faux campaign website for Democratic candidate Domenic Recchia this week, mocking him as a “career politician … asking for your vote.” They even bought Google ads to direct New Yorkers to www.domenic-recchia.com, designed at first glance to look like it could be Recchia’s own, down to the same yellow star replacing the dot in the ‘i’ of his last name.
The problem is such a look-alike site, with a banner blaring “Domenic Recchia for Congress,” may violate Federal Election Commission regulations for confusing the public, election lawyers say.
There’s no firm count yet on the exact number of districts in which the NRCC is trying this stunt, though Rebecca Leber found six similar instances, all following the same model.
For their part, officials at the Republicans’ campaign committee insist the trick is technically legal and the NRCC is willing to return contributions to those who believe they were deceived.
Continue Reading

Some on the Right Find Superbowl Inclusion is Anti American

Oh, who could ever predicted that conservatives would be up in arms over a Super Bowl commercial that was just too damn inclusive. No, not the Cheerios one. This one had people singing in languages other than English!

No, many conservatives didn’t much care for Coca-Cola’s one-minute spot, which showcased a rendition of “America The Beautiful” in languages such as English, Arabic and Spanish.Former tea party congressman Allen West even took time to write a blog post during the game to voice his displeasure. For West, the ad started out strong enough.

“Then the words went from English to languages I didn’t recognize,” a troubled West wrote, calling it “a truly disturbing commercial.”

Fox News’ Todd Starnes tweeted “Coca Cola is the official soft drink of illegals crossing the border” and that perhaps Coca Cola was “saying America is beautiful because new immigrant don’t learn to speak English?” And yes, there’s talk of boycotting the company fer insufficient patriotism, although whether the feeling will outlast yesterday’s leftover bean dip remains to be seen.MSNBC bending over themselves to apologize for someone in the network thinking the American right wing was made up of people who pore over the nation’s television commercials to find companies acting Not Bigoted Enough is, and there’s no other word for it, pathetic. As are, of course, the predictable reactions from the right wing themselves. You would think that people who get so very, very, very mad whenever someone suggests that they might be bigoted simpletons would be able to go at least one weekend without proving to be exactly that, but no. Never quite works out that way.

 

ORIGINALLY POSTED TO HUNTER ON MON FEB 03, 2014 AT 11:13 AM PST.

ALSO REPUBLISHED BY DAILY KOS.

Continue Reading

France’s politics of hatred: Move towards traditional family values risks being hijacked by anti-Semites and homophobic nationalists

Hundreds of thousands of pro-family and anti-government demonstrators marched through Paris yesterday amid claims from a minister that France faced a return of the “sombre” and “disturbing” political divisions of the 1930s.

The stark warning by the interior minister, Manuel Valls, jarred with the prosperous, well-behaved ranks of most of yesterday’s marchers, including thousands of elderly people and families with children in push-chairs.

However, two groups of hard-right thugs were arrested as they attempted to join the protest. Scuffles broke out on the Avenue Raspail last night between riot police and about  200 hard-right youths giving Hitler salutes. They threw beer bottles at the police, who responded with tear gas.

Yesterday’s warning by Mr Valls of “sombre forces” at work in France followed a similar but smaller demonstration last week which dissolved into running battles with riot police. Several large sections of protesters on that march carried anti-Semitic banners and chanted “Jews out of France”.

There was no sign of such banners at yesterday’s demonstration – nominally the 15th protest against the law passed last summer which made gay marriage legal in France. Yesterday’s march, which attracted about 200,000 people (the organisers claimed 500,000 attended), turned instead into a much wider protest against the alleged “familyphobe” policies of the left-wing government of President François Hollande.

Many marchers said they were protesting against the “conspiracy” of the government, and the “gay” and “feminist” lobbies, to brainwash primary school pupils into forgetting that they were boys and girls. In recent months an apparently baseless conviction that something called “gender theory” is to be imposed in France has been created by a de facto alliance of fundamentalist Catholics and ultra-right wing, anti-Semitic and anti-gay nationalists.

One banner on yesterday’s march read, bizarrely: “Gender. Never, never, never.” Another read: “The school should instruct. Only the family should educate.”

Mr Valls said in a newspaper interview yesterday: “We are witnessing a union of extremes, never before seen in France… [Last week] was the first time for a long time that people have screamed their hatred of Jews in the street.

“A block of protest is forming, a rebellion which is anti-elite, anti-state, anti-tax, anti-parliament, anti-press … but also, and above all, anti-Semitic, racist and homophobe.”

Mr Valls is playing with fire. Most of the people on yesterday’s march – and many of the protesters at last week’s “day of anger” – were radical Catholics or conservatives: anti-gay, perhaps, but not  anti-Semite or anti-Republican.

One protester, Alain, 67, a businessman, said: “Valls thinks that he can contain these protests by painting us all as dangerous extremists. When I was young, every left-winger was accused of being a communist. Now, to this government and the mainstream media, every right-winger is a fascist.”

And yet Mr Valls also has a point. France’s economic sufferings are fusing with contempt for President Hollande to dissolve barriers between radical, but respectable, conservatism and violent, new extremes (even more extreme than the National Front). This, in itself, is reminiscent of the poisonous politics of France in the 1930s.

 

Protesters at the rally oppose the fertilisation help that is being offered to lesbians

Protesters at the rally oppose the fertilisation help that is being offered to lesbians

Centre-right and even far-right politicians, such as the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, are torn between condemning and trying to channel the new radicalism. One name connects a number of recent events or phenomena, including the rise of the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’Bala and the anti-Jewish banners and chanting on last week’s march. It also arises in connection with a recent obscene internet and text campaign which persuaded hundreds of French parents that the government wanted primary school children to masturbate in class.

The common factor is Alain Soral, a 55-year-old Franco-Swiss ex-communist who preaches a new and virulent form of French nationalism. His declared aim is to unite poor people – white, brown and black – in a revolt against the “dictatorship” of capitalists, progressives, Jews and gays. Mr Soral, an avowed anti-Semite and “national socialist”, is Dieudonné’s political guru. He was long regarded as a marginal figure. No more.

Mr Valls accused him yesterday of creating a new “abscess of rampant hatred” in France. “Alain Soral, through his use of the net, the networks he has created, is uniting and federating an unprecedented front of extremes,” Mr Valls said.

Mr Soral had no connection with yesterday’s march. It was mischievous of Mr Valls to imply that he did. But many of yesterday’s marchers nevertheless swallow wholesale the distortions pedalled by Mr Soral and by Catholic extremists in recent months on “la théorie du genre” – or gender theory. They demanded the withdrawal of a pilot programme in four areas of France which seeks to steer primary school boys and girls away from gender stereotypes.

This apparently modest programme consists of trying to persuade girls that they can perfectly well drive tractors and boys that they can be ballet dancers if they want to. Harmless? Not as far as the marchers were concerned.

Adèle, 42, demonstrating with her three small children yesterday, said: “What they are really trying to do is to destroy the family. It is all part of the same plan as the gay marriage law, to impose a completely new set of values on French society.”

It was this programme which was the subject of the obscene rumour spread by text and online a few days ago by Mr Soral’s lieutenant, Farida Belghoul. Texts, tweets and emails persuaded hundreds of mostly black and Muslim parents that there would be masturbation and cross-dressing in primary schools.

More moderate protesters against gender theory have been slow to repudiate the nonsense disseminated by Mr Soral and his friends.

Béatrice Bourges is the spokeswoman for Printemps Français (“French Spring”) one of the more radical groups behind yesterday’s march – and last week’s. She is currently on hunger strike demanding the impeachment of Mr Hollande by the national assembly.

She accuses the President of “bringing France to its knees” morally as well as economically – not because of his alleged affair with an actress but by “perverting the school system” to “destroy our families”.

One of France’s most popular conservative columnists, Ivan Rioufol, of Le Figaro, accused Ms Bourges and other radical Catholics this week of “undermining their own credibility” and “playing into the hands” of the government by failing to erect firewalls between their movement and racist, “plot-obsessed” extremists.

Ms Bourges told The Independent that she tried to stop the anti-Semitic outbreaks last week. She said she had “never met this man Soral”. But she refused to repudiate the campaign which persuaded hundreds of parents to take their children out of school.

“It performed a useful function in drawing attention to the dangers of gender theory and what the government is trying to do to the family in this country,” she said.

Continue Reading

DOESN’T ANYONE READ THE NEWS?

The State of the Union address is one of the few times each year when a large percentage of Americans reliably pay attention to politics. Once upon a time, as legend has it, things were different: most Americans tuned into Walter Cronkite in the evening or picked up the morning newspaper, which covered matters of national and international importance, like politics, foreign affairs, and business developments.

If analysts at Microsoft Research are correct, a startling number of American Web users are no longer paying attention to the news as it is traditionally defined. In a recent study of “filter bubbles,” Sharad Goel, Seth Flaxman, and Justin Rao asked how many Web users actually read the news online. Out of a sample of 1.2 million American users, just over fifty thousand, or four per cent, were “active news customers” of “front section” news. The other ninety-six per cent found other things to read.

The authors defined an active news customer as someone who read at least ten substantive news articles and two opinion pieces in a three-month period—if you remove the requirement of reading opinion pieces, the number of news readers climbs to fourteen per cent. The authors studied U.S.-based Web users who, between March and May of 2013, accumulated a total of 2.3 billion page views.

News can be a vague category; the authors defined by collecting news sites with appreciable traffic (the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and Fox News), blogs (Daily Kos and Breitbart), and regional dailies (the Seattle Times and the Denver Post). Using “machine learning” algorithms, the authors separated what, based on word usage, they considered front-section news from the other content on news sites, like sports, weather, life style, and entertainment. What’s left is the narrow, classical news article, about, say, the State of the Union, as opposed to one about the latest adventures of Justin Bieber or Farrah Abraham.

Various influences shaped the study. The data was collected only from Internet Explorer users (who, the authors say, tend to be slightly older), and it represents only those who agreed to make their Web-browsing history available. Additionally, just because people don’t surf news Web sites doesn’t mean that they don’t get news from other sources, like physical newspapers, talk radio, Twitter, “The Colbert Report,” or the evening news.

That said, the sample size, 1.2 million, is impressive—far greater than that of a typical survey. And the number of people whom the study shows to be paying attention to the news online is consistent with the low ratings of cable news during the same period. Also, as opposed to relying on what people said they did, the Microsoft researchers drew on a record of what they actually did, which is significantly different. In a 2012 Pew survey, for example, thirty-nine per cent of people said that they had read news online the day before. The difference between the two numbers—fourteen and thirty-nine—may, in part, reflect different definitions of “news.” (The Pew survey did not define the term.) And, of course, what people like to think they do is often different from what they do.

Assuming that Microsoft’s numbers show a real phenomenon, though, they do introduce some perspective. Journalists and political junkies often presume that everyone cares about politics all of the time. But the fourteen-per-cent number makes it seem more like a hobby or a subculture, something like the N.H.L. or Nascar—a deep obsession for some of members of the population but of limited interest to anyone else, unless something extreme happens.

To be sure, twelve to forty-two million potential readers is a respectable audience; it’s more than that of mixed martial arts, say, even if it’s not at the level of N.F.L. football. But, mainly, it suggests that attention to politics, once a basic mandate of citizenship, is now an entertainment option, in fierce competition with other forms of entertainment. Politicians’ awareness that they don’t have a guaranteed audience may also account for the increased use of reality-TV strategies in politics. We can see the congressional shutdown, in part, as an effort to move the numbers.

The figure is also important to the concept of filter bubbles, the main subject of the Microsoft paper. Commentators and journalists (and, of course, Barack Obama) have long bemoaned the division of America into highly polarized ideological camps, said to bereinforced by online filtering. But it seems that the most important filter bubble is the one that could be labelled, simply, “ignore everything.” It’s the bubble filled with people who, so long as the country remains basically stable, pay no attention to partisan politics.

The number may also help us understand why a relatively small number of motivated people can have such a significant effect on American politics and policy. For better or worse, the number of people in this game is pretty small. Bottom line: if you can get one per cent of the population vaguely interested in something nowadays, that’s huge.

By Tim Wu, The New Yorker

Continue Reading

Map: Publicly Funded Schools That Are Allowed to Teach Creationism.

A large, publicly funded charter school system in Texas is teaching creationism to its students, Zack Kopplin recently reported in Slate. Creationist teachers don’t even need to be sneaky about it—the Texas state science education standards, as well as recent laws in Louisiana and Tennessee, permit public school teachers to teach “alternatives” to evolution. Meanwhile, in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, taxpayer money is funding creationist private schools through state tuition voucher or scholarship programs. Creationism in schools isn’t restricted to schoolhouses in remote villages where the separation of church and state is considered less sacred. If you live in any of these states, there’s a good chance your tax money is helping to convince some hapless students that evolution (the basis of all modern biological science, supported by everything we know about geology, genetics, paleontology, and other fields) is some sort of highly contested scientific hypothesis as credible as “God did it.”

State-by-state breakdown

Arizona: As many as 15 schools that teach creationism may be participating in the state’s tax credit scholarship program for disabled children or children attending underperforming schools. (Arizona has not released a list of private schools that have received students on this scholarship.)

Arkansas: Responsive Education Solutions operates two campuses in Arkansas that use creationist curricula. (See Texas.)

Colorado: At least eight schools in Douglas County teach creationism while participating in the Douglas County Scholarship Program.

Florida: At least 164 schools teach creationism while participating in the state’s tax credit scholarship programs for disabled children and children from low-income families.

Georgia: At least 34 schools teach creationism while participating in the state’s tax credit scholarship program for disabled children.

Indiana: At least 37 schools teach creationism while participating in the state’s voucher program for children from low-income families.

Louisiana: The Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008 allows teachers to use “supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner,” specifically theories regarding “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning”—in effect, allowing creationist material inside classroom. It’s no coincidence that the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank that provides such “supplemental textbooks,” helped write the bill, which the American Association for the Advancement of Science described as an “assault against scientific integrity.”

Ohio: At least 20 schools teach creationism while participating in a tax credit scholarship program for children in underperforming public schools.

OklahomaAt least five schools teach creationism while participating in a tax credit scholarship program for disabled children.

Tennessee: A 2012 state law, like Louisiana’s, permits public school teachers to teach the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of theories that can “cause controversy,” specifically citing evolution, global warming, and cloning, therebyproviding legal cover for teachers who want to forward creationist pseudoscience.

Texas: The state’s largest charter program, Responsive Ed, receives $82 million in taxpayer money each year, but that hasn’t stopped its schools from adopting acreationist curriculum that seriously misrepresents the science of evolution. These materials wrongly portray the fossil record and the age of Earth as scientifically controversial, assert that there is a lack of “transitional fossils,” and claim evolution is untestable.

Utah: At least five schools teach creationism while participating in a tax-credit scholarship program for disabled children.

Washington, D.C.: At least three schools teach creationism while participating in a tax-credit scholarship program for children from low-income families.

Wisconsin: At least 15 schools teach creationism while participating in a Milwaukee or Racine voucher programs.

 

Continue Reading

Paul Ryan is wrong: Wealthiest Americans are not “makers,” they’re mercenary takers

The top individuals on the 2013 Forbes 400 list are generally believed to be makers of great companies or concepts. They are the role models of Paul Ryan, who laments, “We’re going to a majority of takers versus makers in America.” They are defended by Cato Institute CEO John A. Allison IV, who once protested: “Instead of an attack on the 1 percent, let’s call it an attack on the very productive.”

But many of the richest Americans are takers. The top twenty, with a total net worth of almost two-thirds of a trillion dollars, have all taken from the public or from employees, or through taxes or untaxed inheritances.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates may be a knowledgeable and hard-working man, but he was also lucky and opportunistic. He was a taker. In 1975, at the age of 20, he founded Microsoft with high school buddy Paul Allen. This was the era of the first desktop computers, and numerous small companies were trying to program them, most notably Digital Research, headed by brilliant software designer Gary Kildall. His CP/M operating system (OS) was the industry standard. Even Gates’ company used it.

But Kildall was an innovator, not a businessman, and when IBM came calling for an OS for the new IBM PC, his delays drove the big mainframe company to Gates. Even though the newly established Microsoft company couldn’t fill IBM’s needs, Gates and Allen saw an opportunity, and so they hurriedly bought the rights to another local company’s OS — which was based on Kildall’s CP/M system. Kildall wanted to sue, but intellectual property law for software had not yet been established. Kildall was a maker who got taken.

Warren Buffett

At first glance, Warren Buffett seems to be a different breed of multi-billionaire, advocating for higher taxes on the rich and a reasonable estate tax. But his company, Berkshire Hathaway, hasn’t been paying its taxes. According to the New York Post, “the company openly admits that it owes back taxes since as long ago as 2002.”

A review of Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report confirms that despite profits of over $22 billion in 2012, a $255 million refund was claimed, while $44 billion in federal taxes remain deferred on the company’s balance sheet.

Berkshire Hathaway has another little surprise hidden in the small print of its income statement. It shows an income tax expense of almost $7 billion, all of it hypothetical.

Larry Ellison

Ellison was #1 on Sam Pizzigati’s Greediest of 2013 list. A well-deserved ranking. Since 2008 the Oracle CEO has awarded himself tens of millions of dollars in stock options and performance pay, most of it either tax-deferred or tax deductible. The money taken from the taxpayers served as a nice down-payment on Ellison’s purchase of the sixth-largest Hawaiian island.

Koch Brothers

This is an easy one, sad to say. Koch Industries is taking away our clean air and water, taking its waste to Detroit and Chicago, trying to take away the minimum wage, seeking to take down renewable energy initiatives, and taking away jobs

And trying to take us for fools, with statements like this from Charles Koch: “I want my legacy to be…a better way of life for…all Americans.”

The Walmart Family

Where to begin? Walmart takes from employees, takes from the taxpayers, takes from competitors and suppliers, takes from foreign workers, takes from the environment.

Walmart sales associates make about $9.00 per hour, which comes to $18,000 per year for a full-time worker, well below the poverty threshold for a family of four (and even below the threshold for a family of three).

Walmart makes more than that from profits and subsidies. In the U.S., the company makes over $18,000 per employee, including $13,000in pre-tax profits (after paying salaries) and a taxpayer subsidy of $5,815 per worker.

On top of all the business profits, the four members of the Walmart family made a combined $28.9 billion from their investments last year. Less than a third of that would have given every U.S. Walmart worker a $3.00 raise, enough to end the public subsidy.

Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg has taken from workers, vetoing the Prevailing Wage Bill while likening the higher wage campaign to communism. He has taken from children through cutbacks to child care and after-school programs. He has taken funding from the homeless, and he has taken away the dignity and civil rights of minorities through his “stop and frisk” policy. A long-term pattern of taking from the poor and redistributing to the rich has caused New York City to become the most unequal city in the United States.

Sheldon Adelson

Casino magnate Adelson is a taker. He had his Sands Corporation in Las Vegas declare a special dividend that will pay him $1.2 billion, at the capital gains tax rate. Meanwhile, The Sands took bribe money, admitting that it likely violated the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in its dealings with China.

Jeff Bezos

The Bezos way of taking is by using the extraordinary advantage of tax-free sales on Amazon to offer discounts while undercutting competitors. While this might seem like a failure of government rather than an appropriation by business, it’s a little of both, since Bezos, according to Slate, has “spent millions of dollars per year on lobbyists, deployed an army of lawyers, and cultivated political allies with large campaign contributions.”

The Amazon CEO also takes from his employees, who are considered underpaid and overworked, making less for warehouse work than Walmart workers, fearful about joining unions, and at risk for physical breakdowns on the hottest working days.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Google’s business, like that of Facebook, is based on the Internet, which started as ARPANET, the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency computer network from the 1960s. The National Science Foundation funded the Digital Library Initiativeresearch at Stanford University that was adopted as the Google model. (The late Steve Jobs spoke for the industry: “We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”)

Google has gained recognition as one of the world’s biggest tax avoiders, a master at the “Double Irish” revenue shift to Bermuda tax havens, and employing tax loopholes to bring money back to the U.S. without paying taxes on it.

The Mars Family

Jacqueline, John, and Forrest, Jr. are trying, along with the Kochs and the Waltons, to take more money out of their inherited and untaxed estates by conducting a coordinated campaign to repeal the estate tax. For all three families, the ‘makers’ were their parents or grandparents.

Lobbying for lower taxes by ill-informed or self-centered estate tax opponents is understandable. But according to a report by Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy, “The families also have helped finance outside groups that have spent millions on fear-mongering ad campaigns intended to sway public opinion against the estate tax.”

Carl Icahn

Icahn is involved in an indirect but lucrative form of taking, asking Apple CEO Tim Cook to buy back $150 billion of its own stock. Stock buybacks are a means by which major corporations seek to put upward pressure on the market prices of their own shares. Icahn owns $2.5 billion of Apple stock.

George Soros

Soros went overseas to do his taking, betting heavily against the British Pound after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the point that overwhelming pressure was exerted on the Bank of England, leading to a collapse of the national currency.

In effect, Soros contributed to the destabilization of a major country’s financial position by manipulating the markets and choosing, as he put it, to “go for the jugular.”

Mark Zuckerberg

To a large extent Mark Zuckerberg took his Facebook idea from others, in both a long-term and immediate sense. As Gar Alperovitz noted, “Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s the National Science Foundation spent $200 million to build and operate a network of regional supercomputing hubs called the NSFNET. Connected to the ARPANET, this network established Internet access for nearly all U.S. universities, making it a civilian network in all but name.”

Zuckerberg developed his version of social networking while he was at Harvard. Before he made his contribution, Columbia University students Adam Goldberg and Wayne Ting built a system called Campus Network, which was much more sophisticated than the early versions of Facebook. But Zuckerberg eventually prevailed for at least three reasons: (1) the Harvard name; (2) better financial support; and (3) the simplicity of Facebook, which ironically boosted the system’s popularity among students engaging in social networking for the first time. A possible fourth reason: it was alleged that Zuckerberg hacked into competitors’ computers to compromise user data.

One More Take…

Bloomberg and Ellison and Zuckerberg and Page & Brin have one more cunning strategy for remaining on the take: $1 a year salaries.

It sounds noble, and generates a lot of good will. But as MSN Money puts it, “Dollar pay is typically a myth, since the CEOs getting $1 in salary often get huge stock-and-option grants.” Stock options, dividends, and performance pay are all either tax-deferred or untaxed, or taxed at the capital gains rate. If cash is needed, CEOs like Zuckerberg can borrow against their billions in stock holdings and real estate, at an interest rate much smaller than the income tax rate.

The richest Americans keep making money. And they’re taking the rest of us for all they can get.

 

FROM ALTERNET

Continue Reading

Drakes Bay Oyster Will Remain Open Pending Supreme Court Petition

Ninth Circuit Grants Motion Based on Significant Possibility of Oyster Farm Win in High Court

The Ninth Circuit has granted Drakes Bay Oyster’s motion to allow the historic oyster farm to remain open while its legal team petitions for the case to be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court.  The small, family-owned farm has been in a heated legal battle with federal regulators for its survival.

In granting the stay, the court had to find that there is a “reasonable probability” that the Supreme Court will take this case and a “significant possibility” that the oyster farm will win.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to continue to serve our community while the high court considers our case,” said Kevin Lunny, owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Farm.

Observers of the closely watched case have expected the Supreme Court might want to hear the case in order to resolve three circuit splits—that is, issues on which two or more circuits in the U.S. court of appeals system have given different interpretations of federal law. The splits in this case are on important issues:  jurisdiction over agency actions, applicability of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and prejudicial error under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

The Ninth Circuit majority’s decision also presents a conflict with several decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court itself. In addition, Drakes Bay Oyster will suffer irreparable harm if the mandate is not stayed.

About Drakes Bay Oyster Company

The historic oyster farm in Drakes Estero, located in Point Reyes, Marin County, has been part of the community for nearly 100 years. The Lunnys, a fourth-generation Point Reyes ranching family, purchased the oyster farm in 2004. Modern environmentalists and proponents of sustainable agriculture praise Drakes Bay Oyster as a superb example of how people can produce high-quality food in harmony with the environment. The farm produces approximately one third of all oysters grown in California, and employs 30 members of the community. The Lunnys also contribute the oyster shells that make possible the restoration of native oysters in San Francisco Bay and the oyster shells used to create habitat for the endangered Snowy Plover and Least Tern. As the last oyster cannery in California, Drakes Bay is the only local (and thus the only safe and affordable) source of these shells. The Lunny family is proud of its contributions to a sustainable food model that conserves and maintains the productivity of the local landscapes and the health of its inhabitants. For more information, please visit www.drakesbayoyster.com.

Continue Reading

The Stealth War on Abortion

By Janet Reitman, Rolling Stone

On the morning of December 11th, Gretchen Whitmer, the charismatic 42-year-old minority leader of the Michigan Senate, stood before her colleagues in the Statehouse in Lansing, and told them something she’d told almost no one before. “Over 20 years ago, I was a victim of rape,” she said. “And thank God it didn’t result in a pregnancy, because I can’t imagine going through what I went through and then having to consider what to do about an unwanted pregnancy from an attacker.”

No one in the gallery said a word. Instead, with just hours to go before it broke for Christmas recess, Michigan’s overwhelmingly male, Republican-dominated Legislature, having held no hearings nor even a substantive debate, voted to pass one of the most punishing pieces of anti-abortion legislation anywhere in the country: the Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act, which would ban abortion coverage, even in cases of rape or incest, from virtually every health-insurance policy issued in the state. Women and their employers wanting this coverage will instead have to purchase a separate rider – often described as “rape insurance.” Whitmer, a Democrat known as a fierce advocate for women’s issues, described the new law as “by far one of the most misogynistic proposals I’ve seen in the Michigan Legislature.”

And it’s not just Michigan. Eight other states now have laws preventing abortion coverage under comprehensive private insurance plans – only one of them, Utah, makes an exception for rape. And 24 states, including such traditionally blue states as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, ban some forms of abortion coverage from policies purchased through the new health exchanges. While cutting insurance coverage of abortion in disparate states might seem to be a separate issue from the larger assault on reproductive rights, it is in fact part of a highly coordinated and so far chillingly successful nationwide campaign, often funded by the same people who fund the Tea Party, to make it harder and harder for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies, and also to limit their access to many forms of contraception.

All this legislative activity comes at a time when overall support for abortion rights in the United States has never been higher – in 2013, seven in 10 Americans said they supported upholding Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. But polls also show that more than half the country is open to placing some restrictions on abortion: Instead of trying to overturn Roe, which both sides see as politically unviable, they have been working instead to chip away at reproductive rights in a way that will render Roe’s protections virtually irrelevant.

Since 2010, when the Tea Party-fueled GOP seized control of 11 state legislatures – bringing the total number of Republican-controlled states to 26 – conservative lawmakers in 30 states have passed 205 anti-abortion restrictions, more than in the previous decade. “What you’re seeing is an underhanded strategy to essentially do by the back door what they can’t do through the front,” says Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is currently litigating against some of the new anti-choice laws. “The politicians and organizations advancing these policies know they can’t come right out and say they’re trying to effectively outlaw abortion, so instead, they come up with laws that are unnecessary, technical and hard to follow, which too often force clinics to close. Things have reached a very dangerous place.”

Last June, the right’s stealth attack on abortion rights became front-page news, when, in an attempt to block a vote on a sweeping omnibus bill that included 20 pages of anti-abortion legislation, Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis embarked on an 11-hour-plus filibuster in the Texas Statehouse. Wearing rouge-red Mizuno running shoes and an elegant string of pearls, the blond, blue-eyed Davis, a onetime single mother and a graduate of Harvard Law School, became an overnight symbol of what, in many states, is a growing popular resistance to the conservative anti-choice agenda. But Davis’ filibuster failed to prevent the Texas Legislature from holding a special session in July to pass the bill, despite widespread public opposition.

This was the latest failed battle to protect reproductive rights in a state that in the past few years has passed some of the harshest abortion restrictions in the country. Thanks to the cumulative impact of Texas law, a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy must receive pre-abortion counseling to advise her of the supposed physical and emotional health risks, undergo an ultrasound and view an image of her fetus as well as hear it described by her doctor, and then, in most cases, wait another 24 hours before having the procedure. This assumes she can even find a clinic to go to. Women’s-health centers have been shutting their doors all over the Lone Star State since 2011, when, in a specific attempt to defund Planned Parenthood – which operated only a portion of the state’s women’s-health clinics – the Texas Legislature cut the funding to family-planning clinics by two-thirds, eliminating access to low-price contraception and other health services like breast exams and cancer screenings for more than 155,000 women. With the passage of the new restrictions last summer, a third of Texas’ remaining clinics announced they’d have to close or offer fewer services. If additional measures go into effect this September, it could mean potentially leaving just six clinics offering abortions in a state of 26 million people, all of them in urban areas, and none in the entire western half of the state.

Much of the public outrage in recent years has revolved around extreme measures, like proposed “personhood amendments” that would have outlawed abortion outright, and banned many common forms of birth control, stem-cell research and in-vitro fertilization. But the anti-abortion movement’s real success has been in passing seemingly innocuous regulations known as TRAP laws (“Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers”), which are designed to punish abortion providers by burying them in mountains of red tape, and, ultimately, driving them out of business.

Twenty-six states, including Texas, have laws on their books requiring that abortion clinics become mini surgical centers, a costly proposition that would require clinics to widen hallways, expand parking lots, modify janitorial closets or install surgical sinks and pipelines for general anesthesia – regulations most providers say are unnecessary. Four states currently (and four more may soon) require that the doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at local hospitals, which applies even in places where the nearest hospitals oppose abortion or are simply too far away to meet the state’s distance requirement. Sixteen states restrict medication-induced abortion; in 39 states, only licensed physicians – not their physician’s assistants or nurse practitioners – are permitted to hand out the drug. Fourteen states ban its use via telemedicine, which is often the only way a woman in a rural part of the country can consult with her doctor.

“It’s a brilliant strategy to package these laws as just making sure abortion is ‘safe,’ [and] in many states, they’ve been able to sell it that way,” says Eric Ferrero, VP of communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. But abortion is already safe. The mortality rate for abortions is less than .67 per 100,000 procedures. By comparison, the mortality rate for colonoscopies, also commonly performed in outpatient clinics but not subject to similar restrictions, is about 20 out of 100,000.

This incremental approach to eviscerating abortion rights grew out of the recognition at the highest levels of the pro-life movement that their previous message – equating abortion with murder – and the accompanying extremist tactics weren’t working. “Twenty years ago, we’d storm a clinic and close it down for a day – and then I’d get thrown in jail,” says Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, the infamous Kansas-based anti-abortion group that made its name during the 1980s and early 1990s by blocking the entrances to clinics and holding noisy sit-ins – a practice Congress outlawed in 1994. Other tactics, which ranged from handing out pamphlets emblazoned with the image of aborted fetuses, to “naming and shaming” the friends and associates of abortion providers, proved equally unfruitful. “All of that just made the community angry – at me, at the clinic,” says Newman. “And I hated that. I don’t want to wave pictures on the street just to piss people off. I want to win.” So Newman stopped the overt harassment, and settled on a new plan to push for TRAP laws and document alleged abuses at abortion clinics and report them to the authorities. Today, there are only four clinics offering abortions in all of Kansas, which, like Michigan, has its own version of the “rape insurance” law, and has also imposed myriad other restrictions, including the criminalization of abortion after the fifth month of pregnancy. The so-called “20-week ban” violates one of Roe’s central provisions, that a woman has the right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside of the womb – roughly 24 weeks by today’s medical standards. Nonetheless, nine states currently impose the ban, basing it on a theory that is widely disputed by medical groups, that a fetus is able to feel pain at five months.

Polls have consistently shown that support for abortion after the first trimester drops precipitously – 64 percent of the country opposes it during the second trimester, and 80 percent opposes it during the third trimester. This has allowed pro-life groups to strike a note that might on the surface seem reasonable, and as Newman points out, “once you start enforcing a second-trimester ban, the camel’s nose is in the tent.” Arkansas has banned abortion after 12 weeks. North Dakota recently passed a law to criminalize abortion after six weeks, a point when many women don’t even realize they’re pregnant.

Two Washington-based advocacy groups, the National Right to Life Committee and Americans United for Life, are responsible for much of the model legislation restricting abortion, as well as for the grassroots organizing that’s been needed to pass it. Of the two, AUL, which describes itself as both the legal arm and “intellectual architect” of the movement, is chiefly responsible for the most recent and highly successful under-the-radar strategy.

“We don’t make frontal attacks,” AUL president and CEO Charmaine Yoest told the National Catholic Register in 2011. “Never attack where the enemy is strongest.” Some abortion-rights advocates have compared AUL to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the secretive corporate-funded organization responsible for many of the country’s voter-suppression and “Stand Your Ground” laws. Each year, AUL sends state and federal lawmakers across the country a 700-page-plus “pro-life playbook,” Defending Life, which it describes as “the definitive plan for countering a profit-centered and aggressive abortion industry, while laying the groundwork for the ultimate reversal of Roe.” Among its annual features is a 50-state “report card” on the state of anti-abortion legislation, as well as a step-by-step guide, Yoest says, to help lawmakers “understand that Roe v. Wade doesn’t preclude them from passing common-sense legislation.”

While “each state has a different scenario,” says Yoest, AUL’s central strategy is to make women – not the “unborn” – the focal point of its efforts. In the past few years, AUL has drafted numerous bills that claim to protect women, recently including them in a new package it has dubbed the “Women’s Protection Project.” Based on misleading facts and dubious medical information, the package is full of model legislation with names like the “Parental Involvement Enhancement Act” (which requires parental notification or consent for underage abortions), the “Abortion Patients’ Enhanced Safety Act” (imposes draconian regulations on abortion providers), the “Women’s Health Defense Act” (designed to protect women from the supposed physical and emotional health risks posed by later-term abortion) and the “Women’s Right to Know Act,” perhaps the most punishing measure in the package. To make it possible for a woman to give her “informed consent” before terminating a pregnancy, it requires that she view the fetus she is about to abort, justifying a mandatory ultrasound. “Forced ultrasounds tell a woman exactly what she already knows – that she’s pregnant,” says Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “These laws aren’t intended to provide new or useful information; they are intended to force more burden and shame on women who are simply exercising a constitutional right.”

In 2012, Arizona became the first state to pass a version of the Women’s Health Defense Act, one of 65 “life-affirming” laws that AUL claims credit for in the past three years. According to the ACLU, during the 2013 legislative session AUL worked in at least 27 states to, among other things, ban later-term abortion in North Dakota, further limit access to abortion care in Kansas, tighten regulations on parental-consent laws in Arkansas and Montana, and restrict access to medication abortion in Mississippi, a state where unnecessary regulation has already shut down all but one abortion clinic.

While all of this speaks to the clever tactics of anti-abortion groups, it also speaks to the new culture of the Republican Party. Nowhere has this been more apparent than Michigan, where gerrymandering combined with term limits have handed the GOP a hammerlock on the state Legislature, at least one-third of whose members are freshmen during any given term. Because of this, abortion opponents like the National Right to Life Committee’s Michigan affiliate now have the kind of broad political influence they might have only dreamed of a few years earlier. “Right to Life of Michigan is looked upon by most Republican legislators – and probably some Democratic legislators – as one of the most coercive, if not the most coercive lobbying group in the state,” says former U.S. congressman Joe Schwarz, a self-described pro-choice Republican who served 16 years in the Michigan Statehouse, from 1987 to 2002. “The amount of pressure Right to Life both directly and indirectly puts on legislators in Michigan is considerable. And some legislators aren’t exactly profiles in courage when it comes to standing up to these guys.”

Right to Life of Michigan’s president, Barbara Listing, who also sits on the board of the national organization, is known as a savvy operator who has wielded power in the Michigan Statehouse for more than 20 years. As far back as the early 1990s, recalls former Republican legislator Shirley Johnson, Listing would show up in the gallery and tell pro-life legislators how to vote. “We’d be voting on an amendment, something that those members who vote Right to Life did not have the opportunity to read, and they would look right up there and she’d give them a thumbs up or thumbs down,” says Johnson. “Most of us were shocked, but we got used to it.”

Michigan’s “rape insurance” law was written by Right to Life, which had proposed it twice before – most recently in 2012. Two governors, including Republican Rick Snyder, vetoed the bill – Snyder, who opposes abortion, nonetheless said he felt the bill “went too far.” So Right to Life employed a rarely used provision in the state constitution that allows for a citizens’ initiative to bring a bill to the Legislature, provided a certain percentage of the electorate supports it. Michigan abortion opponents spent four months gathering the requisite 258,088 signatures to reintroduce the insurance ban, skirting the veto entirely. “We used the democratic process and we won,” says Right to Life of Michigan spokeswoman Rebecca Kiessling.

After the vote, says Gretchen Whitmer, a number of her Republican colleagues approached her to say they wished they’d had the courage to vote against the bill. “That was a tough thing to hear,” she says. “Not one Republican stood up and defended what they were doing – not one. Every one of them will get up and defend a business tax cut. Not one of them defended this action.”

Of the 30 states that have been actively pursuing the anti-abortion agenda, most, like Michigan, are also anti-union right-to-work states, where the alliance of powerful donors and corporate interests has been steadily working to change the political game. Thanks to the 2010 Citizens United decision, conservative dark-money groups have spent millions on political campaigns, much of it impossible to trace. “There’s a lot of money behind this effort, and you have to ask, ‘Why is that?’” says the Center for Reproductive Rights’ Nancy Northup. “It’s been apparent to me for a long time that this is part of a huge, larger agenda, and we’re just the canary in the coal mine. What this is really about is democracy.”

In Michigan, Amway scion Richard “Dick” DeVos, the 58-year-old former Republican candidate for governor, is a force behind what he refers to as the state’s “freedom to work” legislation, which passed in 2012 despite a 12,000-person protest that locked opponents out of the state Capitol. DeVos has also funded a variety of religious-right groups, including Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan Family Forum, which supported the state’s “rape insurance” bill.

A similar scenario has played out in North Carolina, where millionaire Art Pope has single-handedly changed the face of state politics by pouring millions into state races since 2010, which gave Republicans control of the Legislature and also delivered the governor’s mansion to the GOP in 2012. Since then, North Carolina has enacted some of the nation’s harshest voter-suppression laws, as well as a sweeping package of TRAP laws that drew national attention last year, when lawmakers attempted to sneak it past the public’s scrutiny by first attaching it to a bill ostensibly banning Shariah law, and then attaching it to a bill regulating motorcycle safety. Despite weekly protests, the “motorcycle-vagina bill,” as abortion-rights advocates dubbed it, was passed and signed into law in July, threatening the state’s 16 abortion clinics.

Unlike DeVos, a longtime Christian conservative, Pope calls himself a libertarian and has served as a national director of the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. Koch money, through various “social welfare” organizations it supports, has helped fund a significant part of the pro-life agenda, even though the Koch brothers, like Pope, have never taken a personal interest in reproductive politics, and David Koch has even stated his support for marriage equality. “They know the policies they want wouldn’t be attractive to enough people unless they also included the social-conservative policies, so what’s happened is they’ve merged the social and economic agenda into a single product,” says Rachel Tabachnick, an associate fellow at the progressive think tank Political Research Associates. “This is not new, it’s a project that goes back decades,” she says, “and it’s one in which the war on reproductive rights is a non-negotiable part of the deal.”

Connecting the fiscal and social agendas into a single, conservative “worldview” has been the goal of conservatives since the Reagan era. To outsiders, the Tea Party, with its focus on cutting taxes and spending, might seem to rule the party. But looks can be deceiving. Evangelicals, long outsiders in the GOP power structure, now hold large sway in the party through organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council. “I’d say it’s kind of baked into the cake,” Ralph Reed, the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said recently on MSNBC.

“This is what progressives don’t understand,” says Tabachnick. “The public is so obsessed with the big battle between Democrats and Republicans that they miss the larger philosophical and legal underpinnings developed by this permanent think-tank structure that has been working behind the scenes for years. And now they’re in a place where regardless of what’s happening with the Supreme Court, they are ready to maximize every opportunity because of the extremely well-funded partnership between the free-marketeers and the religious right that’s helping to overhaul the country from the bottom up.”

This union has been the key to not just the success of pro-life legislation, but also the avalanche of other model legislation to defeat the federal government promoted by groups like ALEC, which receives heavy backing from the State Policy Network, the free-market coalition of “mini-Heritage Foundations,” with branches in every state. Though they maintain their focus is strictly economic, many lawmakers who serve as state ALEC chairs also happen to be the leading proponents of anti-abortion legislation. At an ALEC conference last August in Chicago, Wisconsin Democrat Chris Taylor, a state senator, recalls that AUL had a prominent booth in the exhibition hall. “The relationship isn’t formal,” she says, “but they are clearly working in conjunction to help change the face of the legislatures.”

The good news is that in states where some of the most extreme anti-abortion legislation has been proposed, the public is fighting back. On Monday, January 6th, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals began hearing arguments from pro-choice organizations on why the Texas laws requiring physicians to have admitting privileges and regulating how they can prescribe abortion-induced drugs were unconstitutional. And Wendy Davis, whose filibuster catapulted her to national prominence, is now running for Texas governor, hoping to reverse two decades of Republican control. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, voters rejected a 20-week ban that would have amounted to the first municipal abortion restriction in the country. But the victory, decided by 55 percent of Albuquerque voters, only came after abortion-rights groups poured close to $700,000 into defeating the measure, outspending anti-abortion organizations by more than three to one.

“Republicans are alienating women voters with these policies, and the number of women who are running and winning at the state and federal levels proves that women reject this regressive agenda,” says Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to state and federal offices. But while some on the left think the right may have overplayed its hand, others see these defeats as simply incidental. “This type of thinking is how progressives delude themselves,” says Tabachnick. “The problem with the left is that it pretty much fights every battle from scratch. But the right is playing chess: They are willing to lose a pawn here or there to achieve the larger goal.”

This story is from the January 30th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

Continue Reading

Legal experts: Alleged Sandy extortion could be more serious than Bridgegate

Legal experts in New Jersey aren’t surprised at how quickly area U. S. Attorney Paul Fishman responded to Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer’s claim that the Chris Christie administration tried to extort her into supporting a development project if she wanted more Sandy relief funding.  They not only think there’s enough evidence to open a preliminary investigation (a BFD in and of itself)–but that in the long run, Christie may have more to fear from this than Bridgegate.
Interest in the mayor claims comes at the same time the U.S. Attorney’s Office is reviewing the September lane closures on to the George Washington Bridge, which are also the subject of an ongoing investigation by the state Legislature.But James Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University, said the Hoboken case is more serious.

“Closing the George Washington Bridge, that is very serious. It takes a lot of balls,” Cohen said. “But this deals with dollars — the misuse of federal tax dollars. The feds will treat that very, very serious.”

Aidan O’Connor, an attorney with PashmanStein and a former federal prosecutor, said he was not surprised by the quick response of the U.S. Attorney’s Office considering the gravity of Zimmer’s charges and the enormous public interest.

“You’re going to need corroboration or proof of something that happened as a result of something the mayor did or did not do,” O’Connor said. “The prosecutor’s office is going to need some corroboration that there was this threat of economic retaliation.”

He said the mayor’s journal typically would not be admissible in court unless prosecutors need to use it to prove Zimmer did not just make up the claims because of the Christie administration’s struggles, or if someone challenges Zimmer’s memory of the encounters.

“At the end of the day, it’s still her word against the lieutenant governor’s word at this stage,” O’Connor said.

But Cohen said the diary would be “a very important piece of evidence.”

“It adds credibility to the statement,” the Fordham professor said. “She took the trouble to write something down.”

Cohen went on to say that this case will almost certainly go to court, since it’s a slam dunk that there’s probably more evidence.  He also thinks that if there is something to these charges, other local officials will likely speak up.  And if this ends up going to trial, anyone involved in this could face some serious jail time–with some of the potential offenses carrying a minimum of five years in prison.

Zimmer outlined some of that potential evidence last night on Anderson Cooper 360.  She produced two letters that document how she claims the Christie administration was turning the screws on her.  She also revealed why she waited so long to come forward–she was afraid if she spoke up any sooner, it would cripple her city’s chances of getting more funding.  Watch part 1 of that interview here and part 2 here.

The first letter, dated April 23, says that given the damage to Hoboken’s infrastructure, the proposed development project would be a waste.  She told Christie in no uncertain terms, “Just as shore towns are not being asked for development in exchange for protecting them from future storms, the solution to Hoboken’s flooding challenges cannot be dependent on future development.”  The second letter, dated May 8, was penned less than 24 hours after the already battered city was slammed by a rainstorm; much of the western half of the city was flooded.  Zimmer was aghast that Christie refused to greenlight any additional funding for pump infrastructure beyond a low-interest loan.  The implication–that funding was dependent on the development project.  According to the Jersey (City) Journal the Hoboken planning board effectively deep-sixed the project on the same day Zimmer sent her second letter.

I have to admit, I was surprised that this could potentially be more serious than Bridgegate.  After all, it doesn’t seem that you could get more serious than an act that not only willfully interferes with interstate commerce, but also puts people’s lives in danger.  But after reading those letters Zimmer provided, I have to agree that this mess is at least as egregious as Bridgegate.  If Zimmer is telling the truth, Christie and his people knew that an entire city was finding it hard to survive–and yet were still willing to play games with their livelihood.  That makes Christie look even more depraved than Bush 43 partying while the levees blew during Katrina–and I didn’t think that was possible.

Continue Reading

Federal judge sent hundreds of racist messages

Last year, U.S. District Chief Judge Richard Cebull, an appointee of George W. Bush, was caught sending a racist email about President Obama from his courthouse chambers. At the time, Cebull, Montana’s chief federal judge for nearly five years, defended himself by saying the message “was not intended by me in any way to become public.”

It wasn’t long before the Judicial Council of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals opened a misconduct review, and on Friday, we learned that Cebull kept awfully busy disseminating offensive messages to his personal and professional contacts. The Associated Press reported over the weekend:
A former Montana judge who was investigated for forwarding a racist email involving President Barack Obama sent hundreds of other inappropriate messages from his federal email account, according to the findings of a judicial review panel released Friday.

Former U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull sent emails to personal and professional contacts that showed disdain for blacks, Indians, Hispanics, women, certain religious faiths, liberal political leaders, and some emails contained inappropriate jokes about sexual orientation, the Judicial Council of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found.

Many of the emails also related to pending issues that could have come before Cebull’s court, such as immigration, gun control, civil rights, health care and environmental issues, the council found in its March 15, 2013, order.
In case it’s not obvious, it’s critically important for federal judges to maintain a sense of credibility and impartiality. Once a jurist is exposed as a bigot, he or she can no longer expect to rule from the bench.

In Cebull’s case, the 9th Circuit was not lenient.

The panel issued a public reprimand, instructed that the judge receive no new cases for 180 days, ordered him to complete new round of judicial training, and told the judge he must issue an apology that acknowledged “the breadth of his behavior.”

Judicial impeachment was ruled out because he was not found to have violated any state or federal laws.

All of this, however, happened 10 months ago. Why didn’t we hear anything until now? Because Cebull resigned the same month as he received the judicial council’s report, making the sanctions moot.

That said, Judge Theodore McKee, the chief judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit, petitioned the panel, arguing that the judicial council’s work should be made public. The committee agreed.

“The imperative of transparency of the complaint process compels publication of orders finding judicial misconduct,” the national judicial panel wrote in its decision.

Continue Reading

PG&E Attempt to Improperly Influence California PUC Should Result in Penalty, City of San Bruno Demands in Legal Filing

Jack Hagan, CPUC Safety HeadElizaveta Malashenko

Jack Hagan and Elizaveta Malashenko of the CPUC Safety Enforcement Division made allegedly illegal deal with PG&E

San Bruno, Calif. – An attempt by Pacific Gas & Electric Company to broker what appears to be a secret deal with a California Public Utilities Commission staffer should result in significant penalties and fines for the utility company and the creation of an independent monitor to ensure transparency and accountability of the CPUC, San Bruno demanded in a legal filing with the CPUC today.

The apparent backroom deal, revealed in a report by Jaxon Van Derbecken San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, detailed how PG&E hoped to quietly pay  a $375,000 fine to avoid paying a proposed $2.5 billion in penalties and fines for the 2010 San Bruno explosion and fire that killed eight, injured 66, destroyed 38 homes and left a giant hole in the center of the city.

In a legal motion filed with the CPUC on Friday, San Bruno officials demanded that PG&E face a significant fine for violating CPUC rules when, in December, it paid a $375,000 fine imposed by the CPUC’s safety enforcement division – and then quietly asked that the fine count against the multi-billion-dollar penalty it faces for violations stemming from the San Bruno pipeline disaster.

It was revealed that no parties involved in the more than three-year San Bruno penalty proceeding were made aware of PG&E’s secret payment. Instead, the CPUC withdrew the fine and refunded the $375,000 payment amid concerns that PG&E had attempted to broker a backroom deal that could have triggered a form of regulatory double jeopardy, preventing the CPUC’s administrative law judges from levying a sufficient future penalty.

“Instead of being transparent and forthcoming, PG&E appears to have consciously elected to conceal an ill-fated attempt to quietly settle for the fatal and tragic pipeline disaster in San Bruno,” said San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane. “We believe PG&E should be fined and reprimanded for trying to undermine the ongoing penalty investigation and possibly jeopardizing more than three years of work to ensure that what happened in San Bruno never happens again, anywhere.”

“This attempt to circumvent the legal and public process also raises troubling questions about the CPUC safety division and its staffer who attempted to conceal this backroom deal,” representatives for the city added. “This action is just the latest attempt by the PG&E and some members of the CPUC safety division to hide from public view the unholy alliance and power PG&E has with our State’s regulatory agency.  That is why San Bruno demands an independent monitor to ensure the CPUC is operating properly and transparently.”

The $375,000 fine was originally levied in December by the CPUC’s safety enforcement division in response to a 2012 audit, which concluded that for more than four decades PG&E lacked the proper procedures to monitor its gas-transmission pipelines. Reliable reports indicate that CPUC safety division deputy director Elizaveta Malashenko, who made this deal with PG&E, has a longstanding personal relationship with PG&E outside of her CPUC job.

Because the infraction related directly to the ongoing San Bruno-related penalty proceeding, it should have been handled as part of that process. Instead, it was handled and paid separately, without notification to any parties and in violation of CPUC’s own procedures.

San Bruno officials say they suspect that a backroom deal, involving illegal ex-parte communications between PG&E and the CPUC, played a role in this mishap. Attorneys for San Bruno have filed a public records request to determine whether PG&E officials spoke directly with CPUC leadership to arrange for the fine that PG&E paid – and later tried using to reduce their overall penalty.

In December, the CPUC fined PG&E $14 million for failing to disclose faulty pipeline records in San Carlos to both the CPUC, the public and the City of San Carlos for nearly a year, creating a possibly dangerous public safety issue that one of its own engineers likened to possibly “another San Bruno situation” in an internal email to PG&E executives.

San Bruno officials say this latest attempt to undercut its obligation to the public further underscores the need for an Independent Pipeline Safety Monitor to serve as a vigilant third-party watchdog over both PG&E and its regulator, the CPUC.

“The Commission lacks the resources to effectively comprehend and oversee PG&E’s compliance,” said the city’s filling. “An Independent Monitor would partner with and provide additional resources to the Commission in order to have more robust regulatory oversight necessary to protect the safety of the public.”

The San Bruno filing came on the same day as the announcement that CPUC Commissioner Mark Farron will be resigning from the Commission to concentrate on beating prostate cancer.

Continue Reading

Olympic Official Says U.S. Delegation is Too Gay

Whoops, someone at the Olympics seems to have gone a little off-message this week.

“It’s absurd that a country like that sends four lesbians to Russia just to demonstrate that in their country gay rights have (been established),” Mario Pescante told a committee. “The games should not be an occasion and a stage to promote rights that sports supports daily.”

Later, he added, “I just wanted to make the point not to let politics interfere with the Olympics.”

This is a common refrain from Olympic apologists: the event should be about sports, sports, and sports, never about anything else.

This is, of course, a bizarre fantasy. The idea that they have somehow created an event that is immune to politics — well, no such event has ever existed and never will. Saying “it’s not political” doesn’t make it true.

Besides which, as “political” stunts go, arranging for three highly-qualified LGBT athletes to appear together in public is a pretty mild demonstration.

Pescante, by the way, has in the past arranged talks between Israeli and Palestinian Olympic officials. Nothing political about that.

 

Continue Reading

Keystone contractor gives us 5 more reasons it has a conflict of interest

Politico just broke a big story. Environmental Resources Management, the firm hired by the State Department to do the environmental review of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, is a member of five oil industry booster groups that have advocated for the approval of the pipeline and spent millions to lobby for its approval.

The groups include the American Petroleum Institute, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the Western Energy Alliance, all of whom signed a letter to Congress calling for approval of the pipeline. API has spent upwards of $16 million lobbying for the pipeline since 2011, not a small sum by any standard.

These latest revelations should be the final nail in the coffin for the State Department’s flawed review which had already come under fire from the EPA and environmental groups for downplaying the climate impacts of the pipeline. Add the ongoing inspector general inquiry into ERM’s conflicts of interest which was launched in August, and it’s clear that  Secretary Kerry and President Obama should scrap ERM’s environmental review and start anew.

It’s not just me questioning the validity of the environmental review of Keystone XL.

Last week, led by Congressman Raul Grijalva, 25 members of the House of Representatives wrote to President Obama asking him to delay the release of the State Department’s environmental review of the pipeline until its inspector general completes its inquiry into the conflict of interest at the heart of the report.  “If the allegations that ERM lied…about its conflicts of interest turn out to be true” they wrote, then the State Department “must conduct a new EIS that is not tainted by conflicts of interest.”

For the uninitiated, here’s the backstory: TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, was asked in 2012 to submit a list of possible contractors to the State Department to conduct the Environmental Impact Statement for the pipeline. Unfortunately, this cozy practice of approving contractors is standard practice. Every contractor on TransCanada’s list had conflicts of interest. So State hired ERM, a London-based firm with offices in 36 states plus the District of Columbia.

What followed is isn’t quite Watergate, so we don’t need a Deepthroat to know what happened next. In fact all of the incriminating evidence that ERM lied on its application to get the Keystone contract is available on the internet, something not available to Watergate investigators.  On the official conflict of interest disclosure form it was required to submit ERM claimed that it had “no direct or indirect relationship … with any business entity that could be affected in any way by the proposed work.” In truth, ERM worked with TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, on the Alaska Pipeline Project in 2011. We also know that ERM has worked for over a dozen oil companies with a direct stake in whether Keystone XL gets built, despite stating on its conflict of interest disclosure form that it had no such ties.

All of this amounts to a big problem, a problem State Department officials should have avoided by denying ERM’s application. Congress now wants to find out why. We all should.

Changing market forces

While the State Department finishes its faulty environmental assessment of Keystone XL, new information keeps coming to light which undercuts the oil industry’s (and the State Department’s) argument that tar sands crude is coming out of the ground with or without Keystone XL. Chevron, for instance, recently estimated that bottlenecks in the supply chain for tar sands have cost the industry more than $16 billion per year. Two of the largest tar sands shippers, the ironically named Canadian Natural and Suncor, are waiting for Keystone XL to increase their production and losing money everyday that they can’t expand.

We also have learned from internal government documents that the Canadian government seems to have no intention of putting a cap on global warming emissions from the tar sands. NRDC’s Danielle Droitsch explains:

The newly released documents reveal industry and the Canadian and Alberta governments have been negotiating behind closed doors to identify possible new climate regulations for the tar sands sector.  Promises for new regulations on the oil and gas – including tar sands – sector have been sold to U.S. audiences as part of an aggressive lobbying campaign to promote the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  What the documents show is that under any of the proposals tar sands emissions will grow.  Industry’s proposal would enable a 70 percent growth in tar sands carbon pollution levels by 2020 from today’s level. Even the “toughest” proposal under consideration would lead to an increase of 60 percent of tar sands emissions.  And none of proposals under consideration will enable Canada to meet its international climate target.

Whatever happens with the inspector general’s report and the State Department’s review is anyone’s guess and is made more complicated by the fact that TransCanada and the Province of Alberta have hired, in the words of the Financial Times, a “who’s who of lobbyists and communications professionals with links to the Obama administration – and to John Kerry in particular.”

What we do know for sure is that eventually this will all land on President Obama’s desk. The president was swept into office, in part, by people who believed that he would tackle the climate crisis. Now is his chance to make good on his promises. He can show Big Oil that they can’t game the system by cleaning up the State Department’s flawed review and ultimately saying no to Keystone XL.

 

- See more at: http://www.foe.org/news/blog/2013-12-keystone-contractor-gives-us-5-more-reasons-they-hav#sthash.n99SvFRZ.dpuf

Continue Reading

Dozens arrested for being gay in north Nigeria

First the police targeted the gay men, then tortured them into naming dozens of others who now are being hunted down, human rights activists said Tuesday, warning that such persecution will rise under a new Nigerian law.

The men’s alleged crime? Belonging to a gay organization. The punishment? Up to 10 years in jail under the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act that is getting international condemnation.

Dubbed the “Jail the Gays” bill, it further criminalizes homosexuality and will endanger programs fighting HIV-AIDS in the gay community, Dorothy Aken’Ova, executive director of Nigeria’s International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

On Monday, President Goodluck Jonathan’s office confirmed that the Nigerian leader signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act that criminalizes gay marriage, gay organizations and anyone working with or promoting them.

The witch hunt in Bauchi state all began with a wild rumor that the United States had paid gay activists $20 million to promote same-sex marriage in this highly religious and conservative nation, according to an AIDS counselor.
He said he helped get bail for some 38 men arrested since Christmas. The man spoke on condition of anonymity for fear he too would be arrested.

He and Aken’Ova said dozens of homosexuals have fled Bauchi in recent days.

Aken’Ova, whose organization is helping with legal services for the arrested men, said a law enforcement officer pretending to be a gay man joined a group being counseled on AIDS. Police detained four gay men and then tortured them until they named others allegedly belonging to a gay organization, she said, adding that police now have a list of 168 wanted gay men.

She said the arrests began during the Christmas holidays and blamed “all the noise that was going on surrounding the (same sex marriage prohibition) bill.”

Chairman Mustapha Baba Ilela of Bauchi state Shariah Commission, which oversees regulation of Islamic law, told the Associated Press that 11 gay men have been arrested in the past two weeks. He said community members helped “fish out” the suspects.

“We are on the hunt for others,” he said, refusing to specify how many.

Bauchi state has both Shariah law and a Western-style penal code. Shariah is Islamic law, which is implemented to different degrees in nine of Nigeria’s 36 states.

Ilela said all 11 arrested — 10 Muslims and a non-Muslim — signed confessions that they belonged to a gay organization, but that some of them retracted the statements in court.

He denied there was any force involved: “They have never been tortured, they have never been beaten, they have never been intimidated.”

Nigerian law enforcers are notorious for torturing suspects to extract confessions. They also are known for extorting money from victims to allow them to get out of jail cells.

Olumide Makanjuola said lawyers for his Initiative For Equality in Nigeria are backing lawsuits of several homosexuals arrested by police without cause. He said police regularly and illegally go through the cell phone of a gay suspect, then send text messages to lure in others.

Then the men or women are told they will be charged and their sexuality exposed unless they pay bribes. “Some pay 5,000, some 10,000 naira ($30 to $60). Even though they have done nothing wrong, people are scared, people are afraid that even worse things will happen,” Makanjuola said in a recent Associated Press interview.

The United States, Britain and Canada condemned the new law in Africa’s most populous nation, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying Monday that it “dangerously restricts freedom” of expression and association of all Nigerians.

While harsh, Nigeria’s law is not as draconian as a bill passed last month by legislators in Uganda that is awaiting President Yoweri Museveni’s signature. It provides penalties including life imprisonment for “aggravated” homosexual sex. Initially, legislators had been demanding the death sentence for gays.

The Nigeria law provides penalties of up to 14 years in jail for a gay marriage and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for membership or encouragement of gay clubs, societies and organizations. That could include even groups formed to combat AIDS among gays, activists said.

The U.N. agency fighting AIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria expressed “deep concern that access to HIV services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will be severely affected by a new law in Nigeria — further criminalizing LGBT people, organizations and activities, as well as people who support them.”
UNAIDS said the law could harm Jonathan’s own presidential initiative to fight AIDS, started a year ago.

It said Nigeria has the second-largest HIV epidemic globally with an estimated 3.4 million people living with the virus. The disease affects many more gay men per capita than heterosexuals.

Jonathan has not publicly expressed his views on homosexuality.

But his spokesman, Reuben Abati, told The Associated Press on Monday night, “This is a law that is in line with the people’s cultural and religious inclination. So it is a law that is a reflection of the beliefs and orientation of Nigerian people. … Nigerians are pleased with it.”

Many have asked why such a law is needed in a country where sodomy already was outlawed, and could get you killed under Shariah. Ilela said sodomy carries the death sentence in Bauchi state, with a judge deciding whether it should be done by a public stoning or by lethal injection. No gay person has been subjected to such punishment.

Continue Reading

“Like a Book Burning” The Canadian government is closing scientific libraries and destroying docs

“Paranoid ideologues have burned books and records throughout human history to try to squelch dissenting visions that they view as heretical, and to anyone who worships the great God Economy monotheistically, environmental science is heresy.”

Post Media News has  obtained a document stamped “SECRET” which exposes the closure or destruction of more than half a dozen world famous science libraries and countless scientific documents that they contain. The destruction and burning of documents has little if anything to do with digitizing the books and documents for cost savings as claimed by the Harper government.

As reported by The Tyee earlier this month and again here, scientists are sounding alarms about libraries dismantled by the government, including Maurice-Lamontagne Institute, which housed 61,000 French language documents on Quebec’s waterways, as well as the newly renovated $62-million library serving the historic St Andrews Biological Station (SABS) in St Andrews, New Brunswick. (Famed environmental scientist Rachel Carson corresponded with researchers at SABS for her groundbreaking book on toxins, Silent Spring. The station’s contaminant research program has been axed by the Harper government.) Also shut down are the famous Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg and one of the world’s finest ocean collections at the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland.Scientists who use the libraries say priceless information — essential for the legal and political security of Canada’s waterways as well as the defence of the longest coastline in the world — was thrown into dustbins, burned or scavenged by private consultants. In Winnipeg, a consultant’s group operating for Manitoba Hydro backed up a truck to collect materials from the dismantled library.
A DFO scientist anonymously told The Tyee, “The cuts were carried out in great haste apparently in order to meet some unknown agenda. No records have been provided with regard to what material has been dumped or the value of this public property. No formal attempt was made to transfer material to libraries of existing academic institutions.”

In addition, the Harper government has forced hundreds of researchers and Coast Guard workers  to be laid off. Harper has dismantled a marine contaminants program, closed the Kitsilano (Vancouver) Coast Guard station which is reportedly the first line of defense against oil spills.

The document lists 26 “tracks” or changes within the Department of Fisheries being carried out to help reduce Canada’s federal budget deficit. Very few of those tracks’ descriptions make claims for bolstering or improving marine safety, contaminant research, protection of fish habitat or the efficacy of the Coast Guard.Instead, the document details numerous actions which create reductions or total elimination of these environmental services.They include:

•The shrinkage of 20 Marine Communications and Traffic Service centres down to 11;
•The reduction of Inshore Rescue Boats;
•The reduction of Marine Search and Rescue services;
•The defunding of species at risk recovery oriented programs in the Maritimes;
•The closure of 21 Conservation and Protection offices, as “part of a broader departmental footprint reduction plan.” Comox, Pender Harbour, Quesnel, Hazelton and Clearwater all lost offices;
•The closure of the Kitsilano Lifeboat Station in Vancouver;
•Closure of the Experimental Lakes Area;
•The killing of all biological effects contaminant research within the department.

The document explains that ending the capacity to do public research on freshwater and ocean pollutants such as bitumen spills “involves eliminating the in-house research program aimed at biological effects of contaminants, pesticide and oil and gas, and establishing a small advisory group to oversee the outsourcing of priority research needs.”

Sounds like “quiet little rooms” if you ask me.

Environmental activists through out the world celebrated when George W. Bush was finally out of office. Since the election of Harper’s regime,  the world now has Canada with a leader, who like Bush, prides himself in the part that he plays in the destruction of the planet. Maurice Strong, the Canadian diplomat who was secretary-general of the famous 1992 Earth Summit, calls Harper’s government, “the most anti-environmental government that we’ve ever had, and one of the most anti-environmental governments in the world.”

Canada holds more than 20 per cent of the surface freshwater in the world, and its rivers and streams annually transport almost 10 per cent of the world flow of freshwater. Canada is also one of the world’s largest seafood-exporting nations. All of which is now at risk of damage or destruction along with scientific evidence documenting the pollution and the damage to marine and freshwater systems.

The below corporations along with Charles and David Koch are pushing a libertarian brand of political activism that presses a large footprint on energy and climate issues. They have created and supported non-profit organizations, think tanks and political groups that work to undermine climate science, environmental regulation and clean energy. They are also top donors to politicians, who support the oil industry and deny any human role in global warming.

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
Canadian Energy Pipeline Association
Petroleum Services Association of Canada
Propane Gas Association of Canada
Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors
Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association
Alberta Chamber of Resources
Alberta Chambers of Commerce
The Cement Association of Canada
Canadian Council of Chief Executives

Continue Reading

Penis Size and Gay Men’s Stereotyping

Recent studies have shown that actual penis size is smaller than men are claiming. According to the Journal of Sexual Medicine, the average male penis measures 5.6 inches when erect; the Journal of Urology puts it at a slightly smaller 5.08 inches. This is considerably smaller than previous numbers from Alfred Kinsey, Durex and the Definitive Penis study, which averaged 6.25 inches in their estimates. The difference between the two estimates: surveys like Durex’s rely on self-reporting, and men are likely to overestimate. As Tom Hickman wrote in “God’s Doodle”: “What is incontrovertible is that where men and their penises are concerned there are lies, damned lies, and self measurements.”

Just ask any gay man looking for a hook-up on Grindr. “If a guy tells you his size and you meet up, you realize he must have a different ruler,” said Noah Michelson, editor of The Huffington Post’s Gay Voices section. Michelson believes that the reason men are likely to overreport their penis size is because of the “cultural currency” the gay community places on having a large penis. “I think there’s something to do with internalized homophobia or insecurities about being a man,” Michelson said. “You want to have a big dick and you want to be with a big dick. You want to be with a ‘man.’”

Michelson argued it’s not just about having a large penis; it’s what that penis signifies. “Having a big dick means that you’re ‘masculine’ and you wield a lot of power, because we assign so much power to the phallus itself,” he told me. “You’re a dominator and a conqueror.” Michelson said that this idea is largely informed by pornography, a strong force in shaping desire in the gay community; but for those who don’t fit into that “porn culture,” it leads to a feeling of being left out. “It’s totally a lottery,” Michelson explained. “And you either win it or you don’t.”

According to Jaime Woo, author of the book “Meet Grindr,” which explores how men interact on mobile hookup applications, that game can have very negative consequences for queer men who find themselves on the losing side. That’s why the size issue can seem even more fraught in the gay community than among heterosexuals. “In gay male culture, your sexual worth is very tied to your worth in the community overall,” Woo said. “We don’t have a lot of structure in place for men who aren’t sexually valuable, and they disappear into the background. Gay men have enough issues already, and this is just another way for them to feel bad about themselves, if they’re not packing eight inches under their pants.”

Woo told me that looking for sex on Grindr “makes the expectations much more heightened.” “Grindr has really distorted peoples’ understanding of what average or normal is, and the fact that people can ask if six or seven inches are too small — it’s jaw dropping,” Woo said. “You can be very picky because there is something better around the corner, someone bigger or hotter and someone more your type. It creates a very narrow band of desire.”

Huffington Post writer Zach Stafford argued that in order to hook up, we’re commodifying ourselves for sexual consumption. “On Grindr, you’re literally putting someone in a box,” Stafford explained. “The app’s layout is an actual shelf, like you would see in a grocery store.” In order to participate on the site, Stafford said that you have to learn how to market yourself by those confines. “It’s like being a book on Amazon,” Stafford told me. “You give yourself a little cover and write your summary. You make yourself a product, and when you’re selling yourself, you always go bigger.”

Stafford said our fascination with penis size is inherently tied to capitalism. “Studies have shown that people with larger penises make more money,” Stafford explained. “It’s power in our pants.” Stafford also explained that the correlation between sex and power leads to a skewed power dynamic between tops and bottoms. Research shows that bottoms have smaller penises on average, and are more likely to have penis anxiety and low self-esteem.  In an essay for the Huffington Post, Stafford called it “Top Privilege.” Stafford wrote, “In this line of thought, bottoms are seen ‘less than,’ ‘feminine’ or ‘the woman’ because they are the taker of the phallus.”

But it’s not just an issue of money and gender. Race also plays a large part in how gay men read each others’ bodies, especially for black and Asian men, stereotyped at the ends of the size spectrum. Stafford, who is multiracial, said that men will often approach him in bars to ask about his penis, expecting him to conform to the stereotype. “It creates an enormous amount of pressure for black men,” Stafford stated. “Black men are only seen as a tool — a tool of building and a tool of fucking. They’re reduced to a big penis.” In his case, Stafford said men often fall into two camps: “Either white people look at me as a black man with a big dick, or they see me and fetishize me — they want to dominate me.”

Jay Borchert has had the exact opposite experience. A doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, Borchert (who is white) has frequently dated men of color, causing his romantic experiences to be reduced to a fetish. “People make remarks that I must be in it for the dick,” Borchert told me. “Why can’t I be looking for ass? Why can’t I be looking for mouth? Why can’t I be looking for a person?” People sometimes assume that Borchert adopts the “bottom” role in his sexual relationships, which isn’t the case. Borchert sighed, “It was really frustrating because there’s more to dating and relationships than penis.”

Due to his ethnicity, Thought Catalog writer John Tao has also found himself being put in a box in the bedroom. “Because I’m Asian, I’m automatically categorized as being a bottom,” Tao said. “There’s a perception that I wouldn’t want to top.” Because of this, Tao said that’s the role he’s most often performed in sexual relationships. “All of these people think I’m a bottom, so I’ll just be a bottom,” Mr. Tao explained, “You have to be careful because we internalize these stereotypes about ourselves. Your gay Asian friend might identify as a total bottom, but that could be years of societal expectations.”

Justin Huang, who blogs about his experiences being gay and Chinese at I Am Yellow Peril, agreed that the baggage around penis size can be particularly harmful for Asian-American men. In school, Huang’s friends would often tease him about what they assumed was the size of his penis, which was difficult when coming to terms with his sexual identity. “For a long time, I thought I had a small penis,” Huang explained. “It’s amazing what your brain can train you to see. I didn’t have a lot of respect for my penis. Gay men are emasculated already, so when you’re gay and Asian, you feel doubly emasculated.”

Huang told me that when you’re Asian, you’re expected to perform the stereotype, meaning that guys are very curious to see what’s inside your pants. “I’ve been in straight bars using the bathroom where a guy will lean over and look at my dick, just to see if what they say is true,” Huang said. But Jaime Woo argued that the same isn’t true for white men, whose penis size isn’t policed in the same way. “White men are considered the sexual default, so you’re allowed to have some variability,” Woo said. “White men get to be anything and everything, and there’s no presumption there. So for white men, a big dick is a bonus.”

Huang also argued that these stereotypes are a symptom of our lack of sex education and lack of knowledge about our bodies. “We’re told to hide our penises,” Huang said. “It’s a form of sexual oppression we don’t talk about. You see boobs everywhere. You don’t see penises anywhere, not even HBO. It’s something that’s scandalous and cloaked.” Because of the shame surrounding invisibility, men often place too much emphasis on something so small. “When I think about the guys I’ve been with, I don’t remember the penises,” Huang said. “I remember the boy. A penis doesn’t smile. A penis doesn’t look into your eyes. A penis can’t wrap its arms around you.”

Instead of holding out for an unrealistic fantasy, Justin Huang believes gay men should start embracing each other for exactly who they are. “Gay men need to stop expecting each other to be porn stars,” Huang said. “If you dump a guy just because of his penis size, you are an asshole. So if you love your man, tell him that you like his penis. After all, when you’re dating a guy, you’re dating two people: You’re dating him and you’re dating his penis. We need to start valuing and appreciating both of them.”

Nico Lang is a contributor at the L.A. Times, Huffington Post and Thought Catalog as well as the co-editor of BOYS, an anthology series featuring the stories of gay, queer and trans* men. Lang’s debut novel, “The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions While Wearing Sunglasses,” was released earlier this year.

Continue Reading

U.S. to Recognize Utah Gay Marriages Despite State Stance

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday said that it would recognize as lawful the marriages of 1,300 same-sex couples in Utah, even though the state government is refusing to do so.

Wading into the fast-moving legal battle over same-sex marriage rights in one of America’s most socially conservative states, the administration posted a video on the Justice Department’s website making the announcement. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that the federal government would grant federal marriage benefits to the same-sex couples who rushed to obtain marriage licenses after a federal judge last month unexpectedly struck down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“I am confirming today that, for purposes of federal law, these marriages will be recognized as lawful and considered eligible for all relevant federal benefits on the same terms as other same-sex marriages,” Mr. Holder said in the video. “These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds.”

The Justice Department’s intervention added a further sense of whiplash to the highly charged dispute, which began on Dec. 20 when a Federal District Court judge, Robert J. Shelby, ruled that Utah’s constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman violated the federal Constitution.

As same-sex couples flooded county clerk’s offices in Utah, the state government asked a higher court to block the order while it appealed the ruling, but a federal appeals court declined to do so, and the marriages continued. On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a stay, bringing a halt to further same-sex marriages while the litigation continues. That decision effectively left those same-sex couples in legal limbo.

Then, on Wednesday, the office of the governor of Utah, Gary R. Herbert, said that the state would not recognize as lawful the same-sex marriages already licensed while it pressed forward with its appeal of the ruling.

“The original laws governing marriage in Utah return to effect pending final resolution by the courts,” Derek Miller, the chief of staff to Mr. Herbert, wrote in a memo to state officials. “It is important to understand that those laws include not only a prohibition of performing same-sex marriages but also recognizing same-sex marriages.”

But Mr. Holder said the federal government would not do likewise. He invoked as a historic call for equality a June ruling by the Supreme Court that struck down a ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriages that are legal under state law, saying the Justice Department was “working tirelessly to implement it in both letter and spirit.”

“In the days ahead, we will continue to coordinate across the federal government to ensure the timely provision of every federal benefit to which Utah couples and couples throughout the country are entitled — regardless of whether they are in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages,” Mr. Holder said. “And we will continue to provide additional information as soon as it becomes available.”

A variety of federal benefits are accorded to legally married couples, including being able to file jointly for federal income taxes; exemption from estate taxes and eligibility for some Social Security claims if one spouse dies; eligibility for health and life insurance for spouses of federal employees; the ability to sponsor a spouse who is not a United States citizen for a family-based immigration visa; and eligibility for survivor benefits for spouses of soldiers and diplomats.

Continue Reading

Former Gov. Has Best Quote of the Year on GOP’s ‘Family Values’

Former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer had strong words about the hypocrisy of the “family values” touted by members of his state’s Republican Party.

During an interview with Slate magazine, Schweitzer, who is considered a likely challenger to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries, made the remarks when asked about the Republicans who attempted to set “‘family values’ traps” regarding marijuana and same-sex marriage during his successful campaign for governor of Montana in 2004.

“Oh, yeah, name these Republicans,” the 58-year-old politician prompted. “The ones cheating on their third wives while they’re talking about traditional family values? Those ones?”

“Each society has to make choices about what’s against the law,” Schweitzer had remarked beforehand on the legalization of marijuana. “You have a large percentage of the population that’s already using this. The war on drugs is another war that appears to have been lost. This experiment with prohibition of marijuana doesn’t seem have to been working. Colorado might have it more right than the rest of us.”

Schweitzer, who bested Republican opponent Roy Brown by 33 percentage points in the state’s 2008 gubernatorial election and enjoyed one of the highest approval ratings of governors in the United States, ended his second term as governor of Montana in January 2013.

Continue Reading

Sexual Harrassment in the Vatican?

A former member of the Swiss Guard, the pope’s security force, has alleged that during his tenure he was solicited for sex by many Roman Catholic clergy members, including bishops and cardinals.

The guard, whose name was not published, told Swiss newspaperSchweiz am Sonntag that he had received as many as 20 “unambiguous requests” from clergy for sexual liaisons, according to The Local, an English-language Swiss news publication. One of them, he said, came from “a dignitary close to Pope John Paul II,” The Local reports.

The man told of being invited to a Vatican official’s room in the middle of the night, receiving gifts of liquor, and being told he would be “dessert” after dinner with a priest. He said he reported the sexual advances as harassment, but his superiors took no action. He accused the church of “hypocrisy” because of the contrast between its stand against sex outside marriage, including gay sex, and what he alleges he experienced. Also, Catholic clergy take a vow of celibacy.

Spokesmen for the Vatican and the Swiss Guard said they gave no credence to the former guard’s report.

Continue Reading

Far From Russia’s Biggest Cities, Being Gay Means Being Always Under Threat

The last two years have been brutal for Konstantin Golava, a 22-year-old environmental activist and the only publicly out gay person in this gritty industrial city known for car factories, chemical plants, and nothing else.

In early 2012, as soon as Golava started disseminating news items related to LGBT issues through his social media accounts, rumors about his sexual orientation began to spread. Since then, he’s been beaten up by unidentified thugs, dismissed from his job at a community center working with teenagers, and vilified by national and local media as having desecrated the memory of Soviet victims of WWII by deliberately placing condoms near the city’s eternal flame.

One evening in November 2012, while Golava was attending a conference in another city, he agreed to meet on a street corner with a young man who had contacted him. When Golava arrived, several men grabbed him, pushed him into a car with tinted windows, and drove him to a dark, quiet courtyard. They punched him, grabbed his phone, found his mother’s number, called, and informed her that her son was a “pedophile” and a “pervert.” Then they asked her if they should kill him.

“They threw me out of the car, made me get down on my knees, and pointed the gun at my head,” Golava recalled over a recent cup of coffee at a brightly lit café in downtown Tolyatti, a city still crisscrossed by multiple streets named after Vladimir Lenin. “They said, ‘A disgusting pig like you, it’s not even worth killing you.’ And they got in the car and took off.” Although he filed a complaint, the police refused to take up the case.

The Russian government’s decision last June to ban “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors startled the world and sparked aninternational uproar, especially as it came in the run-up to February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. But for members of the LGBT community living in Tolyatti and elsewhere in “the provinces” — which in Russia means anywhere that isn’t Moscow or St. Petersburg — the federal move was almost anticlimactic.

In the years leading up to the federal law, at least 10 regional governments passed similar anti-LGBT propaganda laws, starting with the regions of Ryazan, Arkhangelsk, and Kostroma. St. Petersburg, seen as Russia’s cultural capital, began debating its own law in late 2011 and passed it in March 2012, followed by the Samara region and several others.

Tolyatti is in the Samara region, 500 miles southeast of Moscow, and named after Palmiro Togliatti, a longtime leader of the Italian Communist Party. Life in Tolyatti is stifling and repressive, said Vyacheslav, another gay man who, like Golava, grew up here. If people suspect you’re gay, he said, it can be dangerous.

“It’s like a small village,” he said. “People will point their fingers, call youpederast, they could set your apartment on fire out of hate. Here it’s better to be quiet and a bit underground.”

Vyacheslav, 30, is wiry and energetic, a former firefighter who is currently unemployed. He wasn’t surprised when the Russian government finally passed the federal anti-propaganda law in June. “Once the law passed in St. Petersburg, it was evident,” he said. “I figured it would end up being all over Russia. It felt like the country was closing up.”

Like many young adults here, Vyacheslav has lived in the same small apartment with his parents most of his life; comings and goings are observed by longtime neighbors as well as family members. Because he would often return home late after being at a gay club or gathering, his parents worried that his nocturnal schedule meant he was dealing drugs. They once surreptitiously checked his phone messages, discovered a love note from a man, and confronted him. Vyacheslav dismissed it as a joke, but since then, he has known that they knew.

Even so, they regularly berate him for his lack of interest in getting married. “It torments them,” he said. “And then they constantly torment me, ‘Where’s the wife and children?’” He fantasizes about making an announcement at a large family gathering, in front of his parents and his many aunts, uncles and cousins. “I would just like to say it to all of them, but I’m afraid,” he said. “Because people don’t know anything about this issue, and the information they have is bad.”

The imposition of anti-propaganda legislation, first in the regions and then nationally, clearly exacerbates the problem of “bad information” by hampering efforts to promote positive LGBT-related images and attitudes. In early December, the new federal law was cited in fining Russian LGBT activists Nikolai Alekseyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko 4,000 rubles (about $120) each for holding a banner reading “Gay propaganda doesn’t exist. People don’t become gay, people are born gay” near a library in the far northern city of Arkhangelsk. Weeks later, a court in Kazan found another activist guilty of propaganda for participating in a demonstration last June.

Beyond the legal minefield, however, the anti-gay campaign appears to have provided sanction for unfettered expressions of anger and hatred toward the LGBT community, without fear of consequences. There are frequent reports from around the country about people being fired for their sexual orientation, being beaten up by anti-gay gangs, or otherwise suffering mistreatment and discrimination.

“I’m afraid in Tolyatti — every fifth person knows my face,” said Golava, who hopes to move to St. Petersburg soon. “Here, if you do something, you become a star. But I don’t need to be a star, I just want to live within my rights.”

Golava, a tall, slender man, smiled nervously when talking about the recent events that had made him into the kind of star he doesn’t need to be. Before and after the physical assault last fall, he experienced increased bullying and harassment at work, he said. In December, his supervisor called him in and requested him to remove all references to LGBT issues from his social media accounts.

“She closed the door, and I understood what the conversation was about,” he recalled. “She started with that phrase all homophobes use, ‘I am of course a very tolerant person myself, but…’ She said, ‘Of course, we like you, but we will have problems because of the laws.’”

Last January, when the federal propaganda law came up for discussion in the parliament, Golava attended a local protest and for the first time publicly declared his sexual orientation to journalists and others who were there. After that, his problems at work intensified, and he was let go in early May.

Two weeks later, his participation at an HIV-prevention event led to the explosive charge that he had defiled the memory of those who perished in the war. The event was organized by Project April, a group that dispenses HIV information; it was held near an eternal flame honoring the war dead in Tolyatti’s central plaza, a common site for all sorts of political and nonpolitical events and gatherings. The activists placed more than a dozen candles in red jars on the ground, in the form of a big ribbon. Next to that, they spread out a large piece of red fabric and laid out blue brochures with information about HIV/AIDS and a yellow bowl with condoms meant for distribution to bystanders.

Several days after the event, Komsomolskaya Pravda, a leading Moscow tabloid, published an article headlined: “In Tolyatti, LGBT Activists Laid Condoms at the Eternal Flame.” Taking umbrage at the purported disrespect shown by the participants, the journalist wrote that “the tongue can’t even twist itself to call them ‘citizens.’” The article, which specifically named and ridiculed Golava, triggered an uproar, fanned by further coverage in the news and discussion on social media.

In an effort to quell the furor, Golava and other activists called a news conference to explain their actions. At the event, several men rushed at Golava, handcuffed him to a 70-pound weight, and dumped a bucket of red paint over his head; he still has damage to the vision in one eye from chemicals in the paint, he said. No one has been punished for the assault, but local officials have fined Golava 10,000 rubles (about $300) for having held an unauthorized gathering. His appeal of the fine has been rejected; he is now in the process of appealing to the European Court of Human Rights.

Konstantin Golava after unknown men attacked him with paint last year. Photo courtesy of Konstantin Golava

Golava has received moral and legal support from gays and lesbians in nearby Samara, a historic Volga River port and the regional capital that counts more than 1 million residents. A key ally has been Mikhail Tumasov, a longtime Samara resident who two years ago organized an advocacy group to push back against the anti-gay momentum.

Tumasov, 38, moved to Samara from Astrakhan, about 500 miles farther south, when he was in his mid-twenties. Until a couple of years ago, he lived quietly with his partner, socialized with friends, and worked as a sales and distribution manager for local media companies. He never publicly declared his sexual orientation. In fact, Samara had already gained a reputation as a bastion of hostility to LGBT people. In 2011, the magazine Spletnik, which translates as “The Gossip,” citing such incidents as a recent effort by a local right-wing party to strip LGBT people of work rights, declared that “the Samara region is among the most homophobic in the country.”

By late 2011, the ripple of anti-propaganda legislation spreading across Russia had alarmed Tumasov. “I was afraid for my family, because this was a threat to my partner and me being able to be together,” he said. He decided he needed to speak out, and sought support from other Samara gays and lesbians through VKontakte, a Russian social network. They called their organization Avers, which translates as the “obverse” or “heads” side of a coin. The group has about 600 members through its online network, although Tusamov said that only a few dozen participate in Avers activities and only about 10 are “very active” in the group.

After Samara passed its anti-propaganda law in June 2012, Tumasov and several others sued to overturn it; not surprisingly, they lost. Despite the regional and federal laws, Avers has continued to organize events, such as an educational presentation on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day; public gatherings during an annual “week against homophobia,” which LGBT groups across the country have organized each spring for several years; and surveys of people in public venues that have revealed an increase in negative attitudes toward LGBT people as the regional and federal government campaigns have progressed.

At the end of December, Avers released an open letter offering profuse thanks to three anti-gay public figures: a politician and two journalists. The letter noted, ironically, how much their actions helped in motivating local LGBT people to organize and find one another as well as in informing the general public about their very existence.

“Two years ago in Samara, there was no civil LGBT-activism,” read the letter. “No one living in Samara even knew what gays and lesbians were, and only thanks to the fight for morality…the Samara region has learned that there are in fact gays, and lesbians, and bisexuals, and even transgender people here.”

 

From Buzzfeed

Continue Reading