There’s a very reliable way to begin a story: with a body. It’s young. It’s dead. And it almost certainly belongs to a pretty girl. Of course, murder mysteries don’t all hinge on virgin sacrifice. But ever since (at least) Twin Peaks, television series—from Veronica Mars to The Killing to this year’s offerings, Hemlock Grove and Hannibal—have used dead female flesh to drive the engines.
It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, the dead-girl plot. Twin Peaks and Veronica Mars are among my all-time favorite shows. Stories need to play on co llective assumptions in order to appeal to more than one person, and as archetypes go—archetypes being, essentially, congealed messes of cultural prejudice that have tremendous power in context and are almost always offensive when you take them back out—the dead girl is a handy one. She’s young, almost a child, and that means the death was wrong. (You’ll rarely see a horror film in which the monster goes around slaughtering 70-year-old retired insurance agents.) She’s female, which means vulnerability. She’s both young and female, and that, unfortunately, means innocence. Of course, this is tremendously condescending to non-fictional young women—whose experience is complicated, and varied, and human, and almost always less safe or virtuous than we’d like to think—but in a culture with flattened, distorted ideas of femininity, it works.
So, sure. If you want to tell a story about the world being out of joint, about the vulnerability of innocence being overpowered by the strength of corruption, you start with the dead teenage girl. She’s a potent, if unrealistic, symbol. But the masterpieces of the dead-girl genre— Twin Peaks , Veronica Mars—all have something in common. And this key ingredient also explains why NBC’s Hannibal is a promising show and Netflix’s Hemlock Grove is a bad one. The dead-girl shows that succeed care about who she was before she died. And they allow her to be more complicated than she appears. Twin Peak s’ Laura Palmer, Veronica Mars’ Lilly Kane: Each of them, at some point, started talking back. And the first thing they did was to call bullshit on the symbolic meaning that had been hitched to them and start creating their own.
Of the new crop, Hemlock Grove wan ts most badly to remind us of Twin Peaks . Shots in its first episode a re cribbed directly from the pilot. To be fair, Hemlock Grove wants to remind us of lots of things: Twilight , True Blood, the CW, that one time we conked out on coug h syrup and had the weirdest dream. It’s a Netflix original series, made to be chugged down over one spectacularly unproductive weekend, and its ethos is marvelously of a piece with its purpose: It looks, and feels, really cheap. It’s the sort of show where characters have intense, meaningful conversations in a “convertible” while a just-out-of-shot box fan blows their hair limply against a more or less static green screen. And let me be clear here: If this were all there was to Hemlock Grove, I would love it. There are bared breasts by the first scene and bared intestines by the fourth, and when a cast of coke-snorting werewolf teenagers who fight crime arrived, I was more than ready to ascend to sweet high-camp heaven.
But Hemlock Grove quickly turns thin and sour and unsatisfying. And it has more than a little to do with that dead teenage girl. Like Twin Peaks, Hemlock Grove starts with a small town, a dead female body, and a few shots of spooky flashing traffic lights, true. But on Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer mattered. She crept into every scene, every character’s backstory, continually unfolding. (When series creator David Lynch eventually tried to resurrect Laura, in the film Fire Walk With Me, the problem wasn’t that he had too little character to work with, it was that he had too much; all the backstory didn’t fit into one teenage girl.) Brooke Bluebell, on the other hand, has precisely three pieces of backstory: She slept with her teacher. She was a cheerleader. And she was eaten by a werewolf, as the show thoughtfully informs us, “snatch first.”
And that’s it for poor Brooke Bluebell. She died as she lived: defined largely by what other people did to her snatch. We do eventually manage to get some personality from the dead female characters, but only because, by the time the show has run through its first order of 13 episodes, Hemlock Grove has killed off almost every female character. And that’s only when other traumatic things aren’t happening to them. This is a show in which the male hero brutally rapes a classmate, erases her memory, and then uses the moment as an opportunity for some reflection on his life goal s. It’s a show in which the other male hero bre aks things to intimidate his girlfriend, screams at her to “do as I say,” then snuggles up with her and tells her how wonderful true love is for them both.
In other words, this is a show that doesn’t give half a damn for young women. The dead female flesh is just that: Flesh. Breasts, snatches, a handful of rubber and corn syrup every now and then to keep viewers awake. Which means, unfortunately, that Hemlock Grove never really frightens. It’s not that misogyny and sexual violence can’t work in horror movies—for a good-taste example, take Alien ; for a deliriously bad-taste example, take the second season of American Horror Story, in which a skin-wearing serial killer chains a lesbian career woman in his basement and calls her “Mommy,” which I think is the pr ecise screenplay you’d get if you ever dosed someone with acid and told them to adapt Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse. But a violent story isn’t a horror story unless we empathize with the victims. If all you want is to be nauseated by a bunch of meat, read about the manufacturing processes at McDonald’s.
Hemlock Grove’s flaws might not have stood out so much had I not just watched NBC’s Hannibal. True, that show starts off with a bland procedural set-up: A serial killer is killing young women because he’s got a thing for his daughter, then he tries to kill his daughter, but the heroes save her. Any other show would consider the story done, and move on to next week’s monster.
But then the daughter comes back in the second episode. And the third. She just keeps showing up; making us wonder what she feels, who she is, what she’s capable of. How she came to be on the other end of that knife. She’s unsettlingly permanent, this almost-dead girl, a reminder that all those other dead girls existed and can’t be erased by hitting the reset button at the beginning of each episode. By the third episode, she’s one of the most complex and unreadable characters on a show that stars Hannibal effing Lecter. She’s human; she’s a mystery; we don’t know how deep she goes or whether we’ll like what we find at the bottom. Like any actual teenage girl, she refuses to stay within the bounds of her symbolic meaning. If it weren’t for the fact that she’s still breathing, she’d look almost exactly like Laura Palmer.
This is part 2 of a series on how the U.S. can apply lessons from Libya to interventions in Syria. Read the first part here.
As the death toll of Syria's two-year-old civil war reaches the 80,000 mark, the U.S. has upped the ante by announcing that it will provide $123 million in “non-lethal” assistance to the Free Syrian Army, including body armor, night-vision goggles and communications equipment. In addition, partly in response to new, non-definitive reports of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against small numbers of insurgents, administration officials are reportedly thinking of dispatching heavy weapons to the rebels and establishing “no fly” safe zones, as in Libya.
Yet, as I argued in my critique of U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya, the West’s increasing fixation on military solutions can be counterproductive. A U.S.-driven military “success” in Syria, defined as the fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime, is likely to have even worse dangerous local, regional and international consequences than it did in Libya. If, as I maintain in my analysis, the violent overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was to a large extent a Pyrrhic victory for NATO, then a Western-aided overthrow of Syria’s al-Assad threatens to be even more costly. Syrian insurgents are even more fractured by geography and sectarianism (including Islamic extremism) than their Libyan counterparts were, multiplying the chances of renewed fighting in a post-Assad power vacuum. Moreover, the significant Alawite minority that has benefited from the long rule of the Assad family has such fears of annihilation that it is likely to fight to the death even if the regime is driven out of Damascus. Sectarian conflict is already spreading to such fragile neighboring countries as Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. And another case of Western-sponsored regime change will no doubt exacerbate the insecurities of Russia, North Korea and Iran.
A military solution isn’t the only way forward. A glimmer of hope for an eventual political solution has just appeared in the form of a U.S.-Russia plan for an international conference in early June that would bring together the Syrian parties to the conflict. This is an attempt to revive a dormant, year-old initiative by a United Nations-sponsored “Action Group for Syria” made up of key Western and Arab countries, Russia and Turkey. As in the African Union’s proposed “Framework Agreement” for Libya, the Action Group’s plan centered on the creation of an inclusive transitional government and a timetable for democratic change.
Yet even as they endorse a peace conference, both the United States and Russia are simultaneously ignoring the plan’s warning against “further militarization of the conflict” by stepping up military aid to the rebels and Al-Assad, respectively. Their inconsistent behavior jeopardizes a major objective of the conference: to begin to persuade the combatants that they are locked in a military stalemate where–despite the ebbs and flows of battle–neither side can prevail, and that a political solution is therefore their best option. One insight of the African Union mediators in Libya was that a “humanitarian pause” in outside military assistance before the conference would help prompt both sides to reconsider their dreams of total victory.
Few details are available at this writing regarding the planned conference. But several other lessons from the Libyan mediation experience could serve the U.S. well as it attempts to advance peace:
- If you want a dictator to agree to give up power via a democratic transition, you should avoid humiliating him by demanding his immediate resignation as a precondition for negotiations. In Libya, this rebel and Western condition delayed Gaddafi’s acceptance of negotiations. Keeping the former leader in the picture at the beginning can also help bring along his constituency and army. (Recent public statements by Secretary of State John Kerry suggest that he, at least, has come to understand these points.)
- A neutral mediator–in the case of Syria, a U.N. special envoy, currently Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi–is best positioned to lead the parties toward a negotiated settlement. In doing so, the envoy will need to work closely with the foreign powers possessing military or political clout with Syria’s regime: both Russia and Iran, both of whom should attend the conference.
- In working to enlist the insurgents in a political solution, the mediator must be able to summon pressure from their Western and Arab supporters. In Libya, the lack of such pressure permitted the rebels to avoid negotiations.
- Forging a political solution cannot be accomplished in a day or even a few weeks; it can take months of patient negotiations. It took two months to persuade the Libyan government to agree to direct talks with the rebels and another month to get Colonel Gaddafi to recuse himself from the negotiations.
- In the aftermath of such a violent and fragmented conflict, peacemakers must be prepared to provide a neutral international force that will both keep and build the peace.
We have arrived at a dangerous moment in Syria. The Obama administration’s trajectory towards military intervention has begun to frame the public’s view of the crisis and helps legitimize hawkish senators’ and pundits’ calls for “more effective assistance.” In this context, reports of possible Syrian government use of chemical weapons and of Israeli air strikes against Syrian missile shipments (said to be headed to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon) are adding to the momentum for the U.S. to “do more,” ignoring the possibility of severe consequences for U.S. interests in reducing violence in the region and addressing larger issues in relations with Iran, North Korea and Russia.
Given Syria’s critical position in the Middle East, the stakes for the U.S. are much higher than they were in Libya. Once again, there is a plausible path, however rocky, towards a less violent and less costly solution consistent with American values and interests. But will the Obama administration take it and have the patience to see it through?
Last night, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a sweeping immigration reform bill in a bipartisan vote of 13 to 5. The bill, drafted by the so-called “Gang of Eight,” includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million people currently in the United States who do not have legal status. It also includes measures to strengthen boarder security, and new programs for highly skilled workers.
President Obama issued a statement supporting the advancement, saying the bill was “largely consistent with the principles of commonsense reform I have proposed and meets the challenge of fixing our broken immigration system.” He continued, “None of the committee members got everything they wanted, and neither did I, but in the end, we all owe it to the American people to get the best possible result over the finish line. I encourage the full Senate to bring this bipartisan bill to the floor at the at the earliest possible opportunity and remain hopeful that the amendment process will lead to further improvements.”
Despite wide support, many LGBT advocacy groups are outraged after an amendment to extend protections to same-sex couples was dropped by Democrats. The amendment would give same-sex partners the ability to sponsor their significant other for citizenship, however conservative members of the Committee and the Gang of Eight threatened to pull their support for the bill if the amendment was included. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told the committee “So, with a heavy heart, and as a result of my conclusion that Republicans will kill this vital legislation if this anti-discrimination amendment is added, I will withhold calling for a vote on it at this time. But I will continue to fight for equality.”
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement “It is deplorable that a small number of Senators have been able to stand in the way of progress for lesbian and gay couples torn apart by discriminatory laws. We are extremely disappointed that our allies did not put their anti-LGBT colleagues on the spot and force a vote on the measure that remains popular with the American people.”
Media Resources: New York Daily News 5/22/2013; Washington Post 5/22/2013; ABC News 5/21/2013; Associated Press 5/21/2013
The word ‘immigration’ on a U.S. flag from Shutterstock
A new report by the Human Rights Watch shows that in the past 18 months the number of women in Afghanistanincarcerated for ‘moral crimes’ has increased from 400 to 600, a 50% growth.
Many of the women imprisoned for moral crimes were arrested running away from forced or abusive marriages and families, even though there is no law against leaving. Others are imprisoned for rape, as it is considered “forced adultery.” Many of the women imprisoned were also forced to have “virginity tests,” an invasive and medically inaccurate exam. Of the female prison population in Afghanistan, 95% of girls and 50% of women are in jail for moral crimes.
In a statement by the Human Rights Watch, the organization stated, “While several high-level Afghan government officials, including from the police and Justice Ministry, have in the past year publicly confirmed that ‘running away’ is not a crime under Afghan law, such statements have yet to translate into policy, [the report found]. Some legal experts have suggested that a growing view that women and girls should not be charged with ‘running away’ has merely resulted in a shift toward charging them with attempted zina. A charge of attemptedzina unjustifiably assumes that women outside of the supervision of their male relatives must have attempted to have sex.”
Heather Barr, the Afghanistan researcher for the Human Rights Watch, told reporters “I think it’s possible that as everyone anticipates the departure of foreigners [foreign soldiers], there is a feeling that in a sense things can go back to normal, and… people will be free to ignore [women's rights] in the future. If that’s true, that’s really is a tragedy, because these ideas didn’t come from foreigners. These ideas came from Afghan women’s rights activists.”
The report comes days after the Afghan parliament failed to ratify a law that would help strengthen anti-violence measures in the country. On Saturday, the Speaker of the Lower House of Afghan Parliament delayed a vote on the Elimination of Violence against Women law after two hours of vociferous debate between conservative religious and more liberal members of Parliament. The Speaker did not specify when the measure would be placed on the floor for a vote again.
Media Resources: BBC News 5/21/2013; Guardian 5/21/2013; Human Rights Watch 5/21/2013; Feminist Newswire 5/20/2013
On Tuesday, Brigadier General Bryan T Roberts was suspended from his position as commander of the Fort Jackson, South Carolina training camp which trains approximately 60% of incoming female recruits pending an investigation into allegations of adultery.
Roberts was suspended following allegations of “adultery and a physical altercation.” Colonel Christian Kubik, an Army spokesperson for the Training and Doctrine Command, told reporters “We don’t have any evidence of any sexual assault. The allegations we have indicate a breach of order and discipline.” Adultery is punishable under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice when a member of the Army who is married has sexual intercourse with another person, and the circumstances are determined to potentially discredit the military. Though the case does not involve sexual assault, Roberts’ suspension is the latest scandal of sexual misconduct in the military.
Last week an Army Sergeant 1st Class Sexual Harassment/Assault Result Prevention (SHARP) Coordinator and Equal Opportunity Advisor at Fort Hood in Texas who is being investigated for sexual assault. According to a statement released by the Department of Defense (DoD) the service member in question is being investigated for allegations of “pandering, abusive sexual contact, assault and maltreatment of subordinates.” Two weeks earlier, an Air Force chief of sexual assault prevention and response was arrested on charges of sexual battery. Lieutenant Colonel Jeffery Krusinski groped a woman in a parking lot. She fought him off when he attempted to grab her again and immediately alerted the police. An anonymous spokesperson for the Air Force confirmed that Krusinski had been dismissed from his post in response to the allegations.
In addition, the Department of Defense issued an annual report in the beginning of May that showed that sexual assault in the military rose by 35% from 2010 to 2012. The report found that 26,000 members of the military experienced “unwanted sexual contact” in 2012 when answering an anonymous survey – a rate of approximately 70 assaults a day. The report also found only 3,374 reports of sexual assault were filed, according to the Pentagon. Of those cases filed, fewer than one in 10 ended with a court-martial conviction of sexual assault. In the majority of cases, the alleged attacker faced small administrative punishments or the case was dismissed.
Media Resources: Los Angeles Times 5/21/2013; USA Today 5/21/2013; Washington Post 5/21/2013; Feminist Newswire 5/16/2013, 5/8/2013
Background of green camo pattern from Shutterstock
So far in the Keystone XL conflict, unions have largely ended up on the other side of the line in the tar sand. The Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) and others have backed the pipeline as a way to create jobs. And as environmental groups flooded the State Department with comments opposing the pipeline, members of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD) rallied to send President Obama a different message: “We can’t wait,” said BCTD president Sean McGarvey during an April 24 demonstration calling for the State Department to approve the project.
In other words, the Keystone pipeline fight has turned into an XL-sized problem for an already tenuous labor-environmental alliance.
Four years ago, the future looked more promising. In 2009, amid heady talk of an Obama-backed “Green New Deal,” the BlueGreen Alliance—a partnership between four major unions and two environmental organizations—hoped not only to push for cap-and-trade climate legislation, but to catalyze the creation of millions of green jobs. Today, the legislation lies in disarray, federal funding for a green recovery has never fully materialized, and the alliance is hamstrung over the question of the Keystone pipeline. In 2012, LIUNA left the group altogether, and President Terry O’Sullivan fired a parting shot at unions who continued to collaborate with “job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.”
Faced with such rhetoric, environmentalists have sought to convince workers of their common cause by refuting the rosy job-creation claims made by industry groups. TransCanada says that its pipeline would create nearly 120,000 jobs, but a report produced by the Cornell Global Labor Institute and circulated by environmental activists asserts that this claim is wildly unsubstantiated. The pipeline’s opponents also emphasize that according to TransCanada’s own data, most of the jobs the pipeline does create will be temporary.
Many unions say that this critique ignores the nature of their working conditions now. “Tell me a job today that’s not temporary,” a member of Pipeliners Local 798 said during an April rally for the pipeline in Tulsa, Okla. “We’ve made a living all our lives off temporary jobs.”
This isn’t the first time that greens have been painted as latte liberals removed from the issues facing ordinary people. But the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline has actually helped “redraw the cultural map” of participation in the environmental movement, according to Kim Huynh, a spokesperson with the group Tar Sands Blockade. She notes that Tar Sands Blockade, the more radical edge of the broader movement, has drawn participation from conservative landowners, Texas grandmothers and indigenous communities in staging tree-sits, lockdowns and other dramatic demonstrations to halt the ongoing construction of the pipeline’s southern leg. She believes that this has succeeded in “legitimizing direct action” in the broader environmental movement and building, for the first time, a climate change movement “with real teeth.” But do environmental activists have any hope of successfully fighting global warming without labor’s support?
Joe Uehlein, former secretary-treasurer of the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO and director of the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), doesn’t think so. And while rhetoric like LIUNA’s may be bruising, he believes what’s crucial is that the labor movement is having a debate over the pipeline at all.
“Change comes from tension and friction,” he notes. “If we avoid all conflict, then we preserve the status quo.” The fact that the AFL-CIO initially refrained from taking a position on the pipeline, acknowledging publicly that there was disagreement within the federation on the issue, is “historic,” he says. (In February, the AFL-CIO issued an apparent endorsement of the pipeline proposal, saying in a statement from its executive council that it backed expansion of the pipeline system, though stopping short of mentioning the Keystone XL by name).
While such conflict may be uncomfortable for big institutional players in both movements, Uehlein notes that it can help catalyze change in the base of unions. That, he believes, is where the evolution of labor’s stance “from a regressive to a progressive one” has begun on every major social issue from civil rights to immigration. LNS’ goal, therefore, is to engage union membership directly and help reframe their interests around environmental sustainability.
It’s possible to imagine this kind of organizing trickling up. The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) has opposed both the Keystone XL pipeline and the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, even though CEP represents oil, gas extraction and refining workers, including some who would mine the tar sands. The union's continued member engagement on environmental issues—including sending a delegation to Fukushima, Japan to learn about the nuclear disaster and its impact on workers—have helped it stake out forward-looking stances on questions such as nuclear power and tar sands exploration.
There’s a major hurdle to this kind of change, however: labor’s partnerships with the fossil fuel industry. In 2009, LIUNA and 14 other unions signed onto the “Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee” with the American Petroleum Institute, billed as “the first time that the oil and natural gas industry and its labor unions have agreed to work together formally.” Among the key functions of the partnership is to push for approval of projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline and natural-gas “fracking” in the Marcellus Shale. In 2012, the BCTD and four other unions belonging to the new partnership spent more than $1.5 million in lobbying for the pipeline.
While there may be short-term benefits to such partnerships, critics argue that in the long-term, unions are sabotaging themselves by allying with industry. Bob Wages, former president of the now-disbanded Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW), notes that the American Petroleum Institute is not merely the bete noir of liberal environmentalists but also has a staunchly anti-worker record. “The API has fought every step of the way on every initiative to protect worker safety and health,” Wages says. “For a labor union to sign on with API is beyond astonishing.”
The picture isn’t altogether bleak. Four labor groups—the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Transport Workers Union, National Nurses United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance—have formally opposed the pipeline, although unions who support it are quick to point out that these groups have no stake in the project. Members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and other unions marched alongside the Sierra Club and 350.org during a massive climate rally in February. And outside of the Keystone XL fight, “there’s a lot happening where unions and environmental groups are working together for common purpose—you just don’t hear about it,” says Kenneth Peres, the CWA’s chief economist, citing the successful push last year by unions and environmental groups to increase fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, during which the United Auto Workers reversed a long-held position against such regulations.
And while divisions over the pipeline may look like the coup de grace for ailing blue-green alliances, Uehlein believes that there’s still room for evolution on both sides. LIUNA, for example, is one of a handful of unions that have endorsed timelines for carbon reduction, and he emphasizes that it would be foolish for environmentalists to discount unions currently on the other side of the pipeline fight as allies in the long-term.
“When you’re working on a big campaign like this, you polarize the issue—that’s just what you do,” Uehlein says. “But it’s important for the environmental movement to remember that there are no permanent enemies. We aren’t going to win the fight against climate change without working people.”
Note: CWA and the UAW are website sponsors of In These Times.
Targeting Tea Party groups for scrutiny, even if through incompetence, not intention, turned the IRS into a nasty carbuncle on the governing body.
Carbuncles are never good. Strength-sapping, painful, ugly, they’re to be avoided. Here’s the thing, though: while every politician in Washington is cursing the carbuncle, hardly one has complained of the cancer killing the patient. Allowing unlimited, unaccounted-for corporate spending in elections is a malignancy threatening the life of the republic. Permitting Tea Party, left-wing, libertarian, middle-of-the-road—whatever—groups to define themselves as untaxed social welfare organizations that may accept unlimited, untaxed, secret corporate gifts and sponsor political ads is a sarcoma on democracy.
Nobody wants the IRS singling out applicants based on politics. The American people do, however, want someone, if not the IRS, someone else, somewhere to do something about the perversion of election finance. The IRS is hardly a good candidate for that job. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) could help. A constitutional amendment would be better.
The IRS has some regulatory power. In the Tea Party case, the IRS was examining applications for “social welfare” or 501(c)(4) status, which is commonly used to circumvent campaign finance laws.
The tax code defines 501(c)(4) groups like this: “Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” These are different from charity organizations, called 501(c)(3), such as food banks and homeless shelters. And they are different from political outfits, which have their very own place—Section 527—in the tax code.
Over the past decade, an increasing number of political groups sought “social welfare” status instead. That’s because of a 2001 law requiring political outfits to disclose their donors. “Social welfare” organizations don’t have to do that. Politicized “social welfare” groups sprouted even faster after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the Citizens United case in 2010 that corporations are people free to spend unlimited cash in elections.
“Social welfare” groups provided corporations with the ability to spend untold millions on candidates while keeping that a secret from customers and shareholders.
But here’s the problem: The tax code requires these groups to work “exclusively” to promote social welfare. Regulations permit some political activity but forbid these groups from functioning primarily for politics.
Despite that, many of these groups, from the right-wing Crossroads GPS to the lefty Priorities USA, clearly operate primarily for politics. They spent hundreds of millions in the last Presidential election. Watchdog groups have filed a dozen complaints in the past two years objecting to this apparent violation. The IRS never responded.
Not much enforcement there.
The IRS made a little effort in 2011, but backed off when GOP leaders complained.
Gifts to charities are tax exempt, but those to “social welfare” groups are not. Well, they’re not supposed to be. The IRS sent letters to a group of big donors two years ago informing them that gifts to “social welfare” groups may be subject to tax. Immediately, Republican senators Orrin G. Hatch and Jon Kyl accused the IRS of partisanship. After which the IRS “folded like wet cardboard,” said Sheila Krumholz and Robert Weinberger of the Center for Responsive Politics in a New York Times article.
No enforcement there.
Another government entity that could help cure the dark money disease is the SEC.
No enforcement there either, though.
Languishing at the SEC is a proposal to require publicly traded companies to disclose the money they pour into these “social welfare” groups—funds described as “dark money” because the source is concealed. The idea is that shareholders have a right to know how their investment is used. And it’s a popular concept, with more comments filed on this proposal than on any other suggested rule in SEC history—half a million—the vast majority in favor.
Citing the IRS scandal, Republicans demanded last week that the SEC kill the proposal to require corporations to unveil their attempts to influence elections. New SEC Chair Mary Jo White refused.
Good sign. But still no actual enforcement.
One method of enforcement is on the move. It is a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would reverse the Citizens United decision that corporations are people with First Amendment rights to free speech, which includes spending unlimited money on politics. Already, 13 states and more than 300 municipalities have called for approval of the Democracy is For People Amendment. It was introduced in Congress by Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch.
It says natural persons who are citizens of the United States may make campaign contributions. Corporations do not fit that definition of human beings, and as a result would be prohibited from making political gifts.
It would allow contributions from Political Action Committees, which are comprised of human beings who get together and donate under the IRS’ political committee rules—section 527. So groups of union members or wealthy CEOs could continue donating.
Move to Amend activists were heartened by a Pennsylvania judge’s recent decision that corporations are not people and thus do not have a constitutional right to privacy. Washington County President Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca is no Supreme Court justice. But she understands that there’s an important distinction in the fact that people can be heartened while corporations can’t be. Her decision included this analysis:
It is axiomatic that corporations, companies and partnership have no “spiritual nature,” “feelings,” “intellect,” “beliefs,” “thoughts,” “emotions,” or “sensations,” because they do not exist in the manner that humankind exists. . .They cannot be ‘let alone’ by government, because businesses are but grapes, ripe upon the vine of the law, that the people of this Commonwealth raise, tend, and prune at their pleasure and need.
Corporations can’t “suffer” illness. They can, however, kill democracy.
To stop toxic corporate interference in elections, the American people could demand that the IRS, which is supposed to be non-partisan, decide exactly what constitutes political activity. They could hope the SEC will do the right thing. What they should do, however, is pass a constitutional amendment clarifying once and for all that corporations are not human and can’t usurp the rights of human beings.
Kaitlin Hunt was arrested in February and charged with “lewd and lascivious battery on a child 12 to 16″ after the parents of her partner filed charges against Hunt. According to Hunt’s mother, Kelley Hunt-Smith, “These people never came to us as parents, never tried to speak to us… and tell us they had a problem with the girls dating…They were out to destroy my daughter. [They] feel like my daughter ‘made’ their daughter gay.”
Hunt and her partner were both on the Sebastian River High School basketball team and in some classes together. Hunt-Smith maintains that the two had completely consensual relationship. According to the Free KateFacebook page, “Kaitlyn’s girlfriend denies that Kaitlyn ever pressured her and is adamant that their relationship is entirely consensual, but her parents are out to destroy Kaitlyn’s life.” When the basketball coach found out the two were dating, Hunt was kicked off the basketball team and the coach notified the other girl’s parents, who pressed charges. Hunt was able to remain at Sebastian despite repeated efforts by her partner’s parents to have her expelled. When they petitioned the school board, Hunt was expelled from school despite two judges and the school’s administration denying their previous requests.
The State Attorney, Brian Workman, has offered Hunt a plea deal. If she accepts, she will face two years house arrest and one year probation. If she does not accept, she could go trial and if found guilty become a registered sex offender. She must decide whether or not to accept the offer by Friday. Her family has also created a petition on change.org that received so much traffic it crashed the site.
Media Resources: CBS News 5/20/2013; Huffington Post 5/19/2013; WPTV 5/19/2013; ThinkProgress 5/18/2013
Woman hands with handcuffs on the white background from Shutterstock
On Friday, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced legislation that would allow the government to investigate crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that falsely advertise abortion services. The “Stop Deceptive Advertising For Women’s Services Act,” introduced in both the House and the Senate, would allow the Federal Trade Commission to investigate reports of CPCs advertising as providing abortion care without offering any such services just as any other consumer complaint. The bill would not affect CPCs that accurately advertise as not providing abortion services.
Maloney and Menendez were joined by cosponsors Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) in announcing the bill. In a released statement, Maloney said, “Deception has no place when a woman is seeking information about her health or a pregnancy. Women shouldn’t be deliberately misled or coerced when they seek legitimate medical services… While I will defend crisis centers’ First Amendment rights even though I disagree with their view of abortion, those that practice bait-and-switch should be held accountable so that pregnant women are not deceived at an extremely vulnerable time in their lives.” Menendez echoed her sentiments, “We have worked too hard to expand the availability of women’s health care services to have any confusion created by those who would deliberately deceive a woman to suit their own purposes. I am proud to be an original sponsor of this legislation that is aimed at reducing the risk of women encountering unnecessary worry, anxiety and interference with getting the health care they need.”
Crisis Pregnancy Centers, or CPCs, are often owned and operated by churches or anti-abortion groups that pose as legitimate health centers in an attempt to trick pregnant women seeking abortion care. CPCs will provide medically inaccurate information and convey religious beliefs in an attempt to convince women to carry their pregnancies to term. To learn more about CPCs visit the Choices Campus Leadership Program’s Campaign to Expose Fake Clinics.
Media Resources: The Hill 5/20/2013; ThinkProgress 5/20/2013; Statement of Frank Lautenberg 5/17/2013
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U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright of Little Rock granted the request of two doctors involved in the case to block the enforcement of the bill. In her decision she said, “I believe that there is a threat of irreparable harm, because these doctors… could face loss of their license… They also have established that their patients could suffer irreparable harm by not being able to have abortions post 12-weeks but during that pre-viability period.” The injunction will prevent the bill from going into effect until after Wright has heard closing arguments in the case and issued her decision. Currently, no date has been set to hear arguments in the case.
The “Human Heartbeat Protection Act,” or Act 301, bans abortion once a human heartbeat is detected using a standard abdominal ultrasound, usually at 12 weeks gestation. The bill was passed into law when the state legislature voted to override the governor’s veto. The ACLU and Center for Reproductive Rights have filed a lawsuit on behalf of two doctors in the state who are challenging the constitutionality of the pre-viability ban.
Media Resources: Associated Press 5/17/2013; Los Angeles Times 5/17/2013; New York Times 5/17/2013; Feminist Newswire 5/17/2013
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Freedom of conscience is one of the most fundamental human freedoms. This freedom is not merely about one’s ability to choose to believe or not believe in religion or a particular philosophy. In a democracy, freedom of conscience is about the ability to be critical of government and corporations, and to be free from the chilling fear that being critical will subject you to government surveillance.
Freedom of conscience is not fully realized in isolation. Without the ability to share one’s thoughts, to speak out about injustice, or to join with others in peaceably assembling to petition for redress of grievances, this core freedom is not truly free. Americans should be able to exercise these most sacred rights in free society without worry of being monitored by the government.
In our new report, "Dissent or Terror: How the Nation's Counter Terrorism Apparatus, in Partnership with Corporate America, Turned on Occupy Wall Street," written by Center for Media and Democracy contributor and DBA Press publisher Beau Hodai, we detail several ways in which our tax dollars are being squandered on law enforcement—or so-called "homeland security"personnel monitoring Americans who dare to voice dissent against the extraordinary influence that some of the world's most powerful corporations have on on our elected officials.
Through this investigation we have documented:
- How U.S. Department of Homeland Security-funded "fusion center" personnel have spent endless hours gleefully monitoring their fellow Americans though Facebook and other social media, and how fusion centers nationwide have expended countless hours and tax dollars in the monitoring of Occupy Wall Street, bank activists and civil libertarians concerned about national security powers.
- How some of these "counter terrorism" government employees applied facial recognition technology, drawing from a state database of driver's license photos, to photographs found on Facebook in the effort to profile citizens believed to be associated with activist groups.
- How corporations have become part of the “information sharing environment” with law enforcement/intelligence agencies through various public-private intelligence sharing partnerships—and how, through these partnerships, the homeland security apparatus has been focused on citizens protesting these corporations.
- How private groups and individuals, such as Charles Koch, Chase Koch (Charles' son and a Koch Industries executive), Koch Industries, and the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have hired off-duty cops—sometimes still armed and in police uniforms—to perform the private security functions of keeping undesirable people (reporters and activists) away from them. As was the case in an incident involving protests of ALEC, off-duty officers working on behalf of ALEC and the resort in which an ALEC conference was being held, led riot-gear-clad officers in the pepper spraying and arrests of several peaceful, law abiding protestors.
- How law enforcement agencies in Phoenix, Arizona dispatched an undercover officer to infiltrate activist groups organizing both ALEC demonstrations and the launch of Occupy Phoenix—and how the work of this undercover infiltrator officer benefited ALEC and the private corporations that were the subjects of these activist demonstrations.
- How "counter terrorism" personnel monitored the protest activities of citizens opposed to the "indefinite detention" language contained in National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (which CMD has filed an amicus brief against).
- How the FBI applied "Operation Tripwire," an initiative originally intended to apprehend domestic terrorists through the use of private sector informants, in their monitoring of Occupy Wall Street groups.
Even if the amount of money being wasted were small—and it’s not, we're talking millions of dollars heaped into the coffers of local law enforcement agencies annually—the notion that we the people should tolerate the deployment of police, ostensibly hired to protect us, to spy on us without any criminal predicate is an outrage. The money spent spying on Americans could be spent strengthening our public schools, providing access to life-saving medicine for our neighbors or helping to achieve the Constitution’s promise of forming “a more perfect union.”
Little evidence has emerged, in the years since the horrific violence of 9/11, of any widespread threat from al-Qaeda within the United States. Nevertheless, politicians have used that potent memory to fund an enormous domestic surveillance infrastructure. The result of this trough of money and excess capacity—the turning of "counterterrorism" resources against law-abiding American citizens—was utterly predictable.
It has been more than 30 years since Congress acted with deep skepticism regarding government agents deployed to spy on Americans. The last thorough and truly independent investigation was after Watergate, when the Church and Pike Committees spent months intensively investigating the ways in which prior administrations had violated Americans' privacy and trampled civil liberties under the guise of national security.
In 1976, then-Attorney General Edward Levi promulgated the “Levi Guidelines," investigative guidelines developed in response to domestic surveillance abuses, such as COINTELPRO, perpetrated by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Since the Carter administration, however, there has been an accelerating erosion of protections from domestic surveillance. The "Levi Guidelines" were later largely countermanded through changes by John Ashcroft and his successors at the Justice Department.
With the post-9/11 shift from enforcing the law to “intelligence gathering,” numerous public rules as well as secret guidelines were altered to maximize the gathering of information about Americans without requiring any criminal predicate. The new rule appears to be that almost everything is fair game without probable cause, except for home searches and phone taps (but even the rules for electronic surveillance and the acquisition of intelligence information are now subject to enormous loopholes due to changes pushed into law in 2008 by Director of National Intelligence-turned-Booz Allen Hamilton Vice Chairman Mike McConnell, with help from AT&T, Verizon, and others).
It was a stroke of misfortune that, on 9/11, then-Vice President Dick Cheney served as the de facto head of the national security hierarchy. Cheney's “dark side” approach created a climate in which longstanding rules intended to protect basic rights were replaced with array of questionable, if not absurd, interpretations of domestic and international law.
As President Ford’s chief of staff, Cheney, with the aid of then-Deputy Attorney General Laurence H. Silberman, tried to thwart essential reforms of surveillance agencies. Silberman was later appointed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and, at the urging of his former law clerk, then-Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, helped facilitate legal opinions instrumental to the George W. Bush administration's expansion of domestic surveillance activities by redefining Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights.
Unfortunately, much of this backsliding has been embraced and further entrenched by the Obama administration.
The federal government, in general, claims to abide by a long-standing rule that a person will not be investigated based "solely" on protected First Amendment activity. But what does that amount to in reality? In Arizona, it appears fusion center personnel used the prospect of anarchist involvement in protests of banks, other corporations, and/or ALEC as a hook for dispatching at least one undercover officer to infiltrate groups of Americans organizing peaceful protests. Fusion center personnel even cited past instances of "violent tactics" perpetrated against ALEC in other states, when, in reality, there had only been one prior incident of graffiti (spray paint) at an ALEC event.
Quite frankly, there is no way to know if groups of American anarchists have been infiltrated by law enforcement or intelligence agents acting as agent provocateurs, urging more aggressive action. It is worth noting that, in the case of the Phoenix infiltration, the undercover officer apparently claimed to be affiliated with an alleged Mexican anarchist group that claimed to have committed acts of arson.
The idea that the prospect of graffiti can trigger months of infiltration and surreptitious surveillance of citizens exercising their freedom of conscience exposes that the idea our government will not monitor citizens based solely their exercise of First Amendment rights is little more than a joke. And that joke is on us.
Read the full report on SourceWatch.
Read the full report and view document archive on DBA Press.
On Saturday, the Speaker of the Lower House of Afghan Parliament delayed a vote on the Elimination of Violence against Women law after two hours of vociferous debate between conservative religious and more liberal members of Parliament. The Speaker did not specify when the measure would be placed on the floor for a vote again.
A number of conservative members of Parliament (MPs) raised their voices against the measure, deeming it un-Islamic. Although the EVAW law was issued by the executive decree of President Hamid Karzai in 2009, women’s rights activist Fawzia Kofi, who also heads the women’s committee of the Lower House, decided to introduce the EVAW in Parliament. Kofi was concerned that without the EVAW being approved by Parliament, the decree might be reversed by a newly elected President in 2014. Karzai is term limited and cannot run again in 2014. Some Afghan women’s rights leaders opposed introducing the EFAW in Parliament for fear of having it defeated or repealed by conservative members.
According to the TOLO News “The parliamentarians who opposed the law call 6 of its articles to be against Islamic values.” These articles include criminalizing child marriage and forced marriage, banning the traditional “BAAD” practice of exchanging girls and girls and women to settle disputes between families, making domestic violence punishable up to three years in prison, protecting rape victims from prosecution for adultery or fornication, limiting the number of wives a man can have to two, and established shelters for battered women.
One of the conservative MPS suggested that the article to eliminate prosecution of raped women for adultery would lead to more extramarital sex, with women claiming they had been raped just to escape punishment. Others claimed that a husband has the right to discipline his wife.
“There’s a real risk this has opened a Pandora’s box, that this may have galvanized opposition to this decree by people who in principle oppose greater rights for women,” stated Heather Barr, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Media Resources: Associated Press 5/18/2013; TOLO News 5/18/2013
Walmart, along with 13 other major North American companies, refused to sign a legally binding agreement to improve working conditions for overseas factory workers that manufacture their clothes after a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh killing an estimated 1300 workers, the New York Times reports.
The agreement requires retailers pay $500,000 to improve worker safety measures over a five year period. The 13 other companies are The Foot Locker, Macy’s, Sears, JcPenny’s, North Place, The Gap, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, Carters/Osh Kosh, North Place, Cato, The Children’s Place, American Eagle and Target.
According to the Daily Kos, Walmart stated that it was “not financially feasible …to make such investments.”
Walmart refused to invest in worker conditions back in 2011 as well when a group of Bangladeshi and international unions put together a proposal.
The Swedish retailer H&M, Spanish Inditex (Zara), British Primark and Tesco, Dutch C&A, and others all announced their commitment to pay for fire safety and building improvements as part of an agreement with the global labor union IndustriALL. The agreement, called “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh,” also requires independent safety inspections with public reports. Companies also agree to terminate business with any factory that does not complete required upgrades.
H&M is the largest clothing retailer that manufactures their products in Bangladesh and is the second largest worldwide. The largest worldwide retailer is Walmart. Walmart, along with other major US retailers, have announced that they will not participate in the accord. Instead Walmart has decided to perform its own review of factory safety standards, arguing that it will produce results more quickly. The Gap has announced that it would be willing to sign the agreement if a change could be made to its arbitration clause. U.S. retailer PVH which makes Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin
Klein, and Izod, announced that they will sign the accord.
The decision to improve standards is the result of an eight story building collapse that killed over 1,100 workers at the end of April, and a small factory fire that killed eight last week. Last week, rescue efforts for the building collapse ended making the official death toll 1,127.
Media Resources: Daily Kos 5/18/2013; New York Times 5/15/2013; Feminist Newswire 5/15/2013, 5/10/2013
Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) has introduced a bill that will ban abortion after the 20th week of a pregnancy in the United States.
The bill, also called the D.C. Pain Capable Unborn Protection Act, originally would have banned abortion at 20 weeks gestation only in the District of Columbia. However, Franks decided to expand the bill nationwide following the murder conviction of Kermit Gosnell, a rogue doctor who performed illegal abortions in Pennsylvania. Franks has introduced the bill in previous sessions of Congress, but it was defeated.
Senator Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was scheduled to testify on the bill before it was expanded nationwide, issued the following statement,
“As we have always argued, the intent of my anti-choice colleagues in pursuing a D.C.-only abortion ban bill was to use the District of Columbia to get a federal imprimatur in their effort to overturn Roe v. Wade, and they thought they could do so in a stealth way by using the District. However, our efforts, together with our pro-choice allies nationwide, to highlight the nationwide intent and implications of the D.C. bill brought my anti-choice colleagues unwanted national attention, leaving them unable to hide behind the D.C. bill. Senator Mike Lee, the Senate sponsor of the D.C. abortion ban bill said he could not support a nationwide abortion ban bill because, ironically, it would violate ‘states’ rights,’ so there could still be a unique threat to the District. With the help of women nationwide, we defeated the D.C. abortion ban bill on the House floor last Congress. Now that the Franks bill will expressly target all U.S. women, we can expect an even stronger national response to this attack on women’s health.”
Though Franks cites the case of Gosnell as the reason behind the ban, pro-choice activists argue that this type of law would lead to more cases like Gosnell. President of NARAL Pro-choice America, Ilyse Hogue said in a statement “Gosnell was a criminal whose activities were made possible by the very kind of anti-choice policies Franks is advancing. By cutting funding, reducing access and imposing unnecessary restrictions on safe and legal abortion, anti-choice politicians have forced women – especially low-income women – into the waiting hands of unscrupulous operators like Kermit Gosnell. We will fight this senseless attack and protect the rights of all women.”
The bill will be read before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice on Thursday. The subcommittee is chaired by Representative Franks.
Media Resources: Huffington Post 5/17/2013; NARAL 5/17/2013; Statement of Eleanor Holmes Norton 5/17/2013
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When I set out to investigate the appeal of Transition, a sustainability movement that has spread to 1,105 towns in 43 countries over the past eight years, I started with what I thought was a basic question: What are "Transition Towns" transitioning to?
"Resilience," I was told. "What does that mean?” I asked, thinking vaguely of steel. “The ability to absorb shocks to a system!” was the reply. Well, yes, but …? Pressed for details, Nina Winn, who runs a Transition initiative at the Institute of Cultural Affairs in Chicago, said, “I don’t think there’s a conclusion. Like when a person’s trying to self-improve, it’s a constant growth. Our communities would grow to be a lot more intimate. We wouldn’t be hesitant to ask for that cup of sugar or tomato. The streets would be narrower instead of expanding; there would be fresh produce on every corner that was grown just down the street. You would see people on the street because of that—because where there’s food, there’s people.”
Such bucolic but fuzzy visions are typical of Transition, which is more about shifting paradigms than prescribing solutions. With an it’ll-take-shape-as-we-go ethos, most Transition Town websites sport a “cheerful disclaimer”: “Just in case you were under the impression that Transition is a process defined by people who have all the answers, you need to be aware of a key fact. ... Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale.”
On a basic level, however, the experiment seeks to address what founder Rob Hopkins sees as a source of frustration in the environmental movement: Personal action feels like a drop in the bucket, while governments often move at a glacial pace.
“Until now, there’s been the things you can do at home on your own—changing your lightbulbs and sharing your lofts and things—and then there’s everything else that someone else is meant to do: the sort of mythical ‘they,’” says Hopkins. “Transition is what’s in the middle, what you can do with the people on your street.”
The seed for Transition came in 2004 when Hopkins, a young teacher with a degree in environmental quality and resource management, encountered the concept of peak oil: the theory that easy-to-reach oil will run out at a specific date—some say 2020—precipitating a rapid decline in oil availability followed by the collapse of civilization as we know it. At the time, Hopkins was teaching a permaculture course at the Kinsale College of Further Education, an alternative school on Ireland’s southern coast. Permaculture is another one of these concepts that, as Hopkins notes, is “notoriously difficult to explain in two minutes in the pub,” but it’s most commonly described as an ecological design movement that sees nature in terms of interlocking systems. Alarmed by peak oil, Hopkins assigned his students to apply the principles of permaculture to the problem.
The result was a concrete plan to make Kinsale dramatically less fossil-fuel dependent, with recommendations such as a green buildings officer and a horse-and-cart taxi. The Kinsale Town Council enthusiastically adopted the plan, and the principles underlying it became the precepts of Transition, as outlined in Hopkins’ 2008 Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience and as adopted by Transition Towns worldwide.
But it would be a mistake to think that becoming a Transition Town means setting off on a clear-cut path to energy independence. From permaculture, the movement has inherited a non-linear, bottom-up approach—even the original 12 “steps” outlined in Hopkins’ handbook have been renamed “ingredients.” If the Transition movement has a sine qua non, however, it is the belief that communities must become more resilient in the face of three catastrophic threats: peak oil, global warming and economic instability. Whether the movement means to avert or adapt to future disasters is ambiguous; when I ask, Transition members tend to respond, “Both!” as though I have just recited their favorite koan.
Practically, this means preparing towns to better survive sudden shortfalls of such necessities as food, oil, water or money. These preparations take many forms, some infrastructural—such as solar energy programs and local economic initiatives—others interpersonal, like the “heart and soul” groups that encourage people to help each other in times of need and open their minds to new solutions.
Totnes, England, declared the first official Transition Town in 2006, offers perhaps the most fully realized example. The town, with a population of 7,400, boasts nearly 30 Transition projects and sub-projects. Some are small-scale, like nut-tree planting and a free “bike doctor,” while others are more ambitious, like an incubator for sustainable businesses and a 305-page Energy Descent Action Plan to cut the town’s energy usage in half by 2030. The movement is enthusiastically backed by the city mayor and the town councilors, one of whom attests that “the [Energy Descent Action Plan] has filtered into everyone’s plans for everything, so that’s had a major impact.” A much-heralded neighborhood-level project has been Transition Streets, which brought residents together, block by block, to support each other in decreasing their home energy use through improvements like insulation and solar panels. On average, each of the 550 participating households cut its annual carbon use by 1.3 tons and its annual energy bill by £570 (about $883).
Hopkins stresses, however, that the Transition movement is not in the business of stamping out cookie-cutter copies of Totnes. Transition spreads primarily through serendipity. One member likens it to a mycelium network, a fungus with underground roots that can sprout new shoots miles away. In effect, this means that someone—often with a background in sustainability—stumbles across Transition online or in print and decides to start a local chapter.
While guidance is available from umbrella support groups such as Transition U.S. and the U.K.-based Transition Network, the movement is intended to mutate as it grows. “We designed it with a simple set of principles and tools and sort of set it off, and it keeps popping up in the most incredible, surprising places, in the most incredible, surprising ways,” says Hopkins. “When there’s Transition happening in Brazil, it feels like a Brazilian thing, it doesn’t feel like an English imported thing.”
Indeed, the organizers of Brazil’s Transition movement say that two of the three core principles—peak oil and climate change—don’t resonate strongly with the Brazilian public, so Transition trainings focus more on “assuring education and health for all, protecting biodiversity and enhancing autonomy of traditional (indigenous or not) local communities.” In Brasilândia, one of the slums of São Paulo, Transition primarily fosters social enterprise projects; it has given birth to a community bakery and a business turning old advertising banners into bags.
In parts of Europe, Transition has had to respond to the pressing needs of communities decimated by the ongoing Eurozone crisis. When the city of Coin, Spain, went bankrupt and decided to privatize the water, Coin En Transicion gathered 3,000 signatures to convince the city to squash the plan. Now the movement is working with the city government to design a regional water plan grounded in principles of sustainability and resilience.
In Portugal, where unemployment is at 16.9 percent and climbing, the Transition Town of Portalegre has drawn inspiration from ajujeda, an ancient rural practice of trading chores in the fields. This month, Portalegre em Transição will meet to figure out how to translate the principle of ajujeda into a functioning gift economy, allowing those whose skills are not being used (for instance, the unemployed) to share them with those whose needs are not being met.
Across the pond
In making the leap across the Atlantic to the United States, where more than 139 Transition Towns and 200 unofficial “mullers” have sprouted, Transition has also taken its own, distinct path.
Most of the Transition towns in the United States have popped up in places one might expect: relatively moneyed, green, hippie enclaves like Boulder, Colo. (the first official U.S. Transition Town); Sebastopol, Calif.; Northampton, Mass.; and Woodstock, N.Y. None have taken root so far in any conservative strongholds, although there are a number of urban initiatives, in Boston, Houston, Los Angeles and Cleveland, to name a few.
As in the United Kingdom, members of the U.S. Transition movement tend to split up into working groups around specific projects. A common one is an “emergency preparedness” group, which devises things like phone trees and alternative heating sources for use in the event of disaster. “Yard share” working groups match would-be gardeners to landowners willing to lend a patch of fertile ground. “Heart and soul” or “inner transition” working groups stress psychological and spiritual transformation, drawing on the teachings of thinkers such as Buddhist deep ecologist Joanna Macy. “Reskilling” working groups offer trainings in all manner of practical pre-industrial skills, from cheesemaking to animal husbandry to knot-tying to knitting.
Of course, Transition is not the only sustainability game in town. Wherever it goes, and especially in cities, it enters a terrain thick with environmental non-profits and local government initiatives. More than 1,060 mayors have signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a pledge to meet the goal of the Kyoto Protocol (the United States was one of only four countries not to join) to reduce carbon emissions below 1990 levels. Some cities have gone beyond that: Last year, Chicago drafted a sustainability plan for the year 2015 that reads something like Totnes’s Energy Descent Action Plan—a laundry list of goals such as improving citywide energy efficiency by 5 percent and decreasing water use by 2 percent (14 million gallons a day). To get there, the city has launched numerous projects, such as eco-friendly overhauls of city buses, a “rails-to-trails conversion” of a disused train line into a park (modeled on New York City’s High Line), and a Sustainable Backyards Program that urges residents to install compost bins and rainwater collectors.
Given this abundance of initiatives, many Transition movements, especially in cities, take on a networking role to connect existing sustainability projects. Transition Pittsburgh’s mission is to offer “resources—such as educators, movie screenings and licenses, and a library of shared knowledge—to various local initiatives, as well as a city-wide community and some of our own projects.” Chicago’s Transition chapter—called Accelerate 77 after the division of the city into 77 unofficial communities by social scientists at the University of Chicago—set out by creating a dense map of the more than 800 sustainability projects underway in Chicago, which are remarkably evenly spaced throughout the areas of poverty and wealth that stratify the city. It hosted a “Share Fair” in September for the various groups to connect with each other, followed by three neighborhood gatherings on Chicago’s South, West and North Sides to connect with residents.
I asked Ryan Wilson of the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), a sustainability “think-and-do tank” that participated in the Share Fair, whether he thinks Transition has anything to add to Chicago’s wealth of sustainability initiatives. “It was helpful to learn what other projects are out there—maybe more helpful for some of the smaller groups,” he says. “The Transition folks—I like the people. I like their energy.”
This jives with Hopkins’ thinking on Transition, which has progressed from seeing “resilience” as a strictly environmental process to a more social one: “We have all the technologies to [achieve sustainability],” he says, “but we don’t have the social technologies to make it happen.”
The art of hosting
Transition’s freewheeling structure, however, does mean that certain problems—or “challenges”—seem to crop up frequently. As with any volunteer-driven movement, members describe burnout and lack of accountability. After a stage of initial enthusiasm, projects can fall dormant. More successful Transition Towns often have paid staff. After observing that most initiatives “were struggling with an all-volunteer leadership team,” Transition Sarasota founder Don Hall decided to raise the money to pay himself as a full-time organizer, cobbling together his salary from “a mix of event and workshop fees, donations, local business sponsorships and grants.” In many cities, Transition has been adopted by non-profits that provide paid staff, like Chicago’s Institute of Cultural Affairs, a 50-yearold organization dedicated to sustainability and social change, and Jamaica Plain’s Institute for Policy Studies, the Boston branch of a progressive, multi-issue D.C. think tank.
The Transition movement also grapples with the challenges of non-hierarchical, collective leadership. When I contacted Transition Sebastopol, in California, a longstanding, apparently thriving Transition town with a busy events calendar, I was surprised to learn that all was not well. A dispute in September had put the central Working Group Council on hold, although several working groups—an elders salon, the “heart and soul” group—are chugging along independently. Former working group member Julia Bystrova ascribes the blow-up to a lack of conflict-resolution mechanisms. She hopes that a fresh team will take over and resuscitate the group.
Hopkins is quick to cop to these pitfalls, and Transition is good at tapping into existing knowledge bases to fix problems. Transition U.S. has partnered with an organization called The Art of Hosting to offer facilitation trainings and will begin hosting regional courses on “effective groups” starting in September. Transition U.K. offers Thrive workshops for the same purpose, and ecofeminist and spiritual activist Starhawk gave a workshop in Totnes last month about clear communication and constructive critique in collective decision-making.
Another common concern about Transition, levied from both within and without, is that it is a movement of “white hippies.” While the definition of “hippie” is open to debate, each of the half dozen Transition towns I surveyed in the U.S. indeed lamented a lack of diversity. In addition to being predominantly white, participants in several towns mentioned that their initiative was made up primarily of older women.While many in the Transition movement said they were working to increase diversity, by far the most impressive effort I encountered is being staged by the Boston branch of IPS’ Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JP NET), which has hired an organizer to help meet this challenge. Carlos Espinoza-Toro, a Peruvian immigrant with a master’s in city planning from MIT, aims to identify spaces where different demographics intersect—farmers’ markets, festivals—as well as to find people like himself who enjoy serving as cross-cultural bridges. But he’s going beyond mixed-race spaces to foster Transition in the heart of Jamaica Plain’s Latino community. A series of IPA-hosted meetings in Spanish (with simultaneous English translation) encourages residents to talk about how they are weathering environmental and economic crises. Espinoza-Toro’s bilingual fliers for the first meeting read: Us Latinos have adapted to economic crises in our countries and in the US for many years. And we have always prevailed! We are creative, resourceful and entrepreneurial. Currently in the US, MA and JP we are experiencing a crisis that challenges our capacity of adaptation. Work opportunities are scarce, rent keeps going up, it becomes more difficult to afford a healthy diet and take the T, the quality of education in our public schools diminishes. …We invite you to share how you are adapting to this crisis or how you have adapted to previous crises. Tell us your stories of adaptation. We could transform your effort into a neighborhood effort with great impact in JP. Espinoza-Toro anticipates that the needs of Jamaica Plain’s Latino immigrant community may be very different from the white, middle-class needs that have prompted JP NET’s existing programs, such as garden shares and urban orchards. “Folks in the Latino community may say, ‘Well, we cannot do our own gardening if we are getting evicted from our homes,’ ” he says. JP NET has one program underway to address housing issues, a community land trust called Pueblo, but Espinoza-Toro estimates that it is years from fruition thanks to high property costs in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. He hopes other ideas will emerge from the meetings. Outside of urban areas, the barriers that limit the reach of Transition can be subtler than ethnicity. In New York state’s Hudson Valley and other agricultural areas around the United States, Transition is one of many sustainability initiatives to run up against a cultural divide between traditional farmers and those who practice newer, more sustainable methods like organic, permacultural and biodynamic farming. “You have organic farmers who are pretty disdainful and smug, and traditional farmers who are kind of threatened,” says Maria Reidelbach, an artist and member of Transition Marbletown, N.Y., who found herself spanning both sides when she partnered with a 177-year-old local farm to create a mini-golf course featuring entirely edible plants (along with the world’s third-largest garden gnome, “Gnome Chomsky”). “When the traditional farmers adopted machinery and pesticides in the 20th century, the yield increased incredibly, and all of a sudden they were able to feed so many more people with the same amount of land and less help,” says Reidelbach. “To them, that’s great. And then we come along 30 years later and start telling them that they are feeding people poison.” Reidelbach thinks Transition Marbletown has gone some way toward bridging this divide. The movement, she says, managed to “rope in” the local growers’ association to cosponsor a “Common Ground Celebration” last fall. At a farmers’ market, growers mingled and tasted each other’s crops, and farmers of all stripes were recognized with “Signs of Sustainability Awards.”
“There’s a value to the farmers listening to each other, humanizing each other,” says Reidelbach. “Then they are much less likely to dis each others’ methods, modus operandi and motives. I think everybody’s got to get down off their high horses. That’s one of the things that Transition enables.”
Modest expectations, high spirits
Asked if he eventually envisions Transition scaling up and being adopted by regional or national governments, Hopkins assents cautiously, explaining that the goal would be for government to better enable local projects (for instance, by making laws more friendly to small-scale farming). He also hopes that Transition will hit a tipping point at which new solutions seem possible—where, for instance, local governments don’t feel that the only solution to economic hardship is to try to attract large corporations in a deregulatory race to the bottom.
Espinoza-Toro says that he chooses Transition over other forms of organizing because he is inspired by the movement’s tangibility. “What I find most fruitful and rewarding about my work here is that I’m dealing with folks face-to-face in order to tackle some of these issues,” he says.
Again and again, for Transitioners, it seems to come back to that social aspect. “Between you and me, I don’t know if we’re going to solve the world’s problems,” says Reidelbach. “[But] the underlying ethos is that the process needs to be fun enough to be worth doing anyway. I love that about it. There’s a bit of anarchy, which is wonderful. People who are attracted to it tend to be upbeat, optimistic, joyous people.
“I don’t see anything meaningful happening at the top, with governments and multinational corporations,” Reidelbach continues. “Whether or not we win, Transition is the only group offering a model where I can deal with fossil fuel depletion and climate change myself.”
I was away from home on Aug. 29, 2011, when Hurricane Irene cut a devastating path inland through New York state and into Vermont, leaving a deep, impassable ditch across my road, south of Woodstock, N.Y. When I returned, I learned that men who had never before said more than a passing “hello” to each other had labored for hours piling rocks into the ditch, finally enabling the traffic to flow. They remarked on how unusual and pleasurable the experience was. All over the Hudson Valley, people came forward and did what they could for the victims of the storm, donating food and clothing to people whose homes had been washed away.
It was pure coincidence—or synchronicity—that Hurricane Irene came along just as the Transition Town movement was taking root in Woodstock. But Irene gave the nascent movement a push by providing both evidence that environmental crises are escalating and a template for neighborly cooperation. Such cooperation lies at the heart of the Transition movement, which is guided by the philosophy, “If we wait for the government, it’ll be too late. If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.”
I first joined the movement in June 2011, when I participated in a two-day Training for Transition in the mid-Hudson Valley. Seven participants from the Woodstock area and I went on to form the Woodstock Transition Initiating Group, a body that was planned from the outset to dissolve, so that people would not become attached to leadership positions. Transition rests on a very serious commitment to growing through a non-hierarchical, leaderless—or to put it another way, leader-full—process.
This does not mean deciding everything by consensus (we have instituted a supermajority 2/3 vote for contentious matters), but it does mean being supremely mindful of how we treat one another. For example, when one of our members wrote a somewhat “scolding” email to the group about people not following through on commitments, he followed up with a heartfelt apology for his tone. This sort of sensitivity is palpable in the face-to-face meetings as well. Coming out of the sometimes brutally argumentative and un-self-conscious anti-war and women’s movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s, this process has given me hope that we have learned something as a culture—or at least as a counter-culture—about how to function healthily in groups.
Following the guidelines of founder Rob Hopkins’ Transition Handbook, we held “public awareness” meetings for a year to build interest in the movement. Woodstock’s meeting topics included water, food sustainability, winterization, waste management, tool exchange, permaculture, seed swap and the new economy. We publicized these meetings through email and ads in local papers and magazines. In the spring of 2012, Woodstock became the 115th official Transition Town in the United States.
The meetings culminated in the Woodstock Transition Festival on Sept. 22, 2012, underwritten by local businesses and attended by more than 200 people. In the Big Tent, we honored the town’s elders and those who had made sustainability central to their missions. Two Woodstock residents, Jill Olesker and Jo Schwartz, have been interviewing elders in the town to document what Woodstock has lost as it has turned from farming community to tourist destination. They both spoke at the Festival, and Jo recalled former farmer Macky Carnwright, a man in his 80s, telling her that farmers used to go over to one another’s farms to help each other butcher hogs and cattle. It’s this spirit of community that the Transition movement is helping to revive.
Our September gathering served as what they call in the U.K. the “great unleashing,” when the initiating group dissolves and the broader community is engaged and enlisted. Approximately 50 people signed up to be in working groups to bring the Woodstock Transition into fruition.
A few of us from the initiating group, as well as several others, started meeting weekly as an administrative group, calling ourselves simply the Wednesday Night Group so as to dispel any notion that we aimed to stay in charge of things in the future, and proceeded to develop structures to support the Woodstock Transition and its working groups going forward. Anyone can attend these meetings. Attendees self-select one of three levels of involvement—core, supporter or observer—but these roles are mutable. A few people over the past six months began attending our meetings as observers, then as supporters, and then realized they were deeply enough involved to switch to identifying as core members.
So far, Woodstock has 12 working groups in addition to the Wednesday Night Group: garden share, green energy, backyard chicken coop, transportation, greenware to go, total wellness, potluck, local investment, community outreach, website, communication and finance.
The working groups are in various stages of formation. We have been very deliberate in setting up all these structures, not rushing, because we know we are in this for the long haul. Ultimately, the Transition movement is not about changing the world so much as changing oneself and one’s community to prepare for inevitable catastrophic shifts. A major precept of the movement is that the escalating crises of peak oil, climate change and economic instability will eventually topple our capitalist-industrialist society. The goal is neither to stop this nor to accelerate it, but to learn resilience. As Pamela Boyce Simms, Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub coordinator, explains, “We’re not Davids, shooting arrows at Goliath. Instead, we’re standing aside and lighting little tiny flickering flames of alternative economies, so when Goliath falls, we’ll be more ready, and perhaps our flames will comingle.”
This is the bare outline. What it does not convey is the almost magical enthusiasm the movement evokes in its participants. Katryna Barber, a member of the Woodstock Initiating Group, said in the build-up to the festival, “Transition is like when you’re a kid with your friends and you decide to make a circus. The energy level is so exciting and inviting that more kids want to join you!”
The American idiom “Don’t take any wooden nickels!” predates the 1930s, but that era’s bank crises did lead to the actual use of wooden currency. When local banks failed or were inaccessible in the Pacific Northwest, some merchants and towns issued wooden money as a stopgap. The wooden nickels circulated as IOUs until the banks became accessible.
The principles behind the wooden nickel are still at work in today’s alternative currency movement. Bernard Lietaer and Jacqui Dunne, authors of Rethinking Money: How New Currencies Turn Scarcity into Prosperity, argue that the more than 4,000 alternative and complementary currencies in circulation worldwide have the power to help communities solve their monetary woes. The currencies—minted as a complement to (rather than a replacement for) money backed by national governments and usually administered by an independent local agency—not only provide local liquidity in the event of a cash shortage, but can also boost local economies.
Only a fraction of the money spent in big-box stores or fast-food franchises stays local, the bulk is siphoned off to corporate coffers or family fortunes. (For example, the members of the Walton family, owners of Wal-Mart, have enriched themselves to the tune of $115 billion.) Meanwhile, numerous case studies—in New Orleans, West Michigan and Portland, Maine, to name a few—confirm that money spent at local retailers, rather than big chains, is twice as likely to recirculate locally. And since locally issued money can only be spent locally, it encourages this recirculation.
Enter the Ithaca Hour, the first local currency created in the U.S. after World War II and the oldest currently in circulation. It was minted in the mini-recession of 1990-1991. Talking about why he created the Hour system, its founder, Paul Glover, says that “Everyone had more time than money. People had plenty of skills that Wall Street wouldn’t hire.” So he decided to write a book on the subject, Hometown Money: How to Enrich Your Community with Local Currency, which became the blueprint for the Hour.
Here’s how it works: Hours are administered by the Circulation Committee of Ithaca Hours, governed by a board of directors. The group claims $120,000 of Hours in circulation, with more than thousands of participants including 500 businesses and a credit union that accepts them for mortgage payments. While anyone can spend or accept Hours, those who sign up for an Hours membership can vote for or run for board seats, and apply for interest-free loans (in Hours, of course). The Hour resembles the U.S. dollar in size and shape, but is colorfully printed and features symbols rather than statesmen, ranging from local heroes to a spotted salamander. The unit “Hour” is meant as a reminder that money represents time and labor. One Hour is equal to $10, the average hourly wage in Tompkins County when the currency was created. Newcomers to the Hours system can go to special banks to trade U.S. dollars for Hours (but not vice versa), while member merchants can deposit Hours as cash or use them in turn to pay wages, buy products or give change to customers. Since Hours are real currency, the transactions are still subject to local, state and federal taxes, but the exchange boosts local productivity.
The Hour has inspired imitators across the nation: Anacostia Hours in eastern Maryland and Washington, D.C., BNotes in Baltimore, Trade Dollars in Arkansas. The Hour itself, however, has faded from use since its heyday in the ’90s. Ithaca Times writer Dana Khromov attributes the decline to the rise of electronic banking and Glover’s move from Ithaca to Philadelphia. With cash transactions growing less common, and without Glover to troubleshoot, some businesses had more Hours than they could spend, freezing the currency. Ithaca’s Greenstar Co-op ended up taking a loss for its surplus Hours, offering them to its customers at a discounted rate just to help revive circulation.
The BerkShares, a currency launched in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts in 2006, learned from the travails of the Hours, according to BerkShares co-founder Susan Witt. BerkShares Inc., the central BerkShares authority, recognized a freeze-up as a potential pitfall to its local currency, and decided to make banking one of its primary features. All 13 branches of the five local banks have signed on as exchanges between dollars and BerkShares, andvice versa. If merchants find they have excess BerkShares, they can simply go to the bank and exchange them for dollars. BerkShares trade at a 5 percent exchange rate, meaning that $95 can be exchanged for 100 BerkShares, backed by dollars that remain on deposit. Those BerkShares then circulate within the community at full value, with the built-in incentive to keep the money local and circulating (since trading them back to dollars results in a 5 percent loss). More than 400 businesses accept BerkShares, and more than 2.7 million have circulated through the region.
The prospect that local money may help protect against the oscillations of the global economy has led some Transition Towns to enthusiastically embrace local currency efforts. The Bristol Pound, launched Bristol, England, in September 2012 with the help of Transition Network, offers one of the most cutting-edge models. Backed by the Bristol City Council and the Bristol Credit Union, participants can take advantage of online banking and a mobile app to help navigate where to spend their Pounds. And not only can businesses pay their city taxes in Bristol Pounds, but the mayor has opted to take his full salary in the currency.
If alternative currencies still sound strange, Lietaer and Dunne quote Edgar Kampers, the director of a non-profit organization that supports a currency called Qoin, to drive home the point of what money actually is: “[F]or me, currency is information between a buyer and a seller. … I buy a sweater. We agree that it’s worth 20 units of whatever. The sweater is the thing with the value. … Money is not valuable at all, but money allows you to buy things, which are valuable.” In other words, local currencies recognize that money is an invention, which can change and be reconstructed to meet the needs of the community it serves.
When word broke in 2008 that the latest cinematic version of The Great Gatsby would be directed by Baz Luhrmann—the guy who gave us Mercutio as an Ecstasy-slinging drag act in Romeo + Juliet and whose career retrospective will probably be titled SEQUINS! The Motion Picture Experience—there was much wailing in the streets. And when word broke out that the new, be-sequined Gatsby would be presented in 3-D, that wailing turned into the rending of flesh. What, faithful readers demanded to know, what could a vulgarian like Luhrmann—that impresario of gaudy, full-bore, bad-taste excess—possibly know about The Great Gatsby?
Well, for one thing, Gatsby is a novel about an impresario of gaudy, full-bore, bad-taste excess. And so, unlike the (mostly unimpressed) reviewers who seemed to never get past their shock that Luhrmann had the nerve to make the film at all, I found the film’s take on Jay Gatsby to be an inspired one. Only a director capable of genuine vulgarity could present the character in all his original, pre-canonized glory. Fitzgerald's novel has been largely killed by our respect for it: We're so entranced by the knife-sharp social distinctions and glittering descriptions of parties that we miss the fact that the parties themselves were stuffed with weirdos, proscribed substances, vomit and pop music you could hump your partner to, as offensive to genuinely sophisticated tastes as ... well, as The Great Gatsby in 3-D. Jay Gatsby has been cited as an inspiration for the dashing, astute Don Draper, but with his joyous vulgarity, his tasteless emulation of the “celebrated people” he crams into his mansion and his endless pursuit of swag, the contemporary character Gatsby actually most closely resembles is Parks and Recreation’s Tom Haverford. Leonardo DiCaprio seems to get the essential comedy of Gatsby, playing him as a teenager who’s been assigned the role of “super-cool rich guy” in a school play—earnest, stilted, over-the-top, and completely incapable of saying the phrase “old sport” without seeming like both an insecure weirdo and a lovable little boy.
The Great Gatsby has never been about elegance. It's about the emptiness of elegance, and about a point in history when the gilded fortress of money and tradition and power cracked, and the teeming hordes began to pour through. It's about the summer when a man with a bright pink suit and a bright yellow car and a ridiculously garish Rent-A-Mansion became one of the most important people in New York. It's about a decade in which new money and people of color and women began to become dangerously visible and self-determined—determining the look and sound of youth culture, forming literary movements in Harlem, and, in the case of women, voting.
But getting the excess and glitter of Gatsby right is only the first part of the problem. It’s also the easiest one; all you have to do is sprinkle on a lot of glitter, something which Baz “Could We Do It With Fireworks?” Luhrmann may actually list as a skill on his current resume. What’s harder is staying true to Fitzgerald’s weird clairvoyance—the way he managed to nail the tense undercurrents of race and class and gender inherent in the decade’s culture, while actually being on the wrong side of every single issue. And this is something that Luhrmann, who’s even less conscious of these issues than F. Scott, mostly fails.
Fitzgerald's treatment of people of color, and non-WASPs in general, is muddled and pathetic—we're supposed to hate the old-money brute Tom Buchanan for fulminating about “colored empires,” but we’re also supposed to join in on the anti-Semitic joke that is the character of Gatsby's boss. All while excessively white people who have probably never learned a black person's name in their lives celebrate the “Jazz Age.”
The female characters of the novel, meanwhile, are a record of Fitzgerald’s ambivalence toward the “new woman” of the 1920s. The women in Gatsby—the icy, athletic Jordan; the gorgeous, sparkling, self-involved Daisy—are indelibly charismatic and appealing characters, and they're both essentially villains. Jordan is a famous athlete who cheats to win, and Daisy kills a woman and lets the man who loves her take the fall.But while The Great Gatsby may be confused about the sudden influx of people of color and women, it is dead-on about how the people in power reacted, which is to say: They panicked.
It’s a shame that Luhrmann’s so intermittently perceptive on these issues, because when he’s on point, he actually outdoes Fitzgerald. He confronts the problem of the novel’s thundering whiteness by having people of color always there, always visible on the screen, having their own parties and conversations; they're also frequently audible on the soundtrack. (In a touch of something like genius, the soundtrack to Luhrmann’s Gatsby was executive-produced by Jay-Z.) The way the white characters maneuver blithely around them, as if behind some portable soundproof glass that prevents them from engaging, is strikingly—and, I think, intentionally—uncomfortable. The only person of color that anyone does talk to is Gatsby's Jewish boss, played this time around by veteran Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan. Making Meyer Wolfsheim the only person of color in the movie with a speaking part restores the full ugliness of the characters’ instinctive loathing of him—his funny accent! his vulgarity! his Otherness!—and Bachchan's restrained, menacing portrayal does the rest of the work, portraying Wolfsheim as a dangerous man in a society that has given him no opportunity to advance through more genteel means. The film also makes clear that people don't just distrust and dislike Gatsby because of his weird linguistic affectations and tacky suits; they distrust him because his job involves talking to, and respecting, non-white people. One of the many things Gatsby does to worry Nick Carraway, in this version of the story, is walk up to a black man and shake his hand.
But because Luhrmann’s treatment of race is startlingly smart, it’s all the more frustrating when he stumbles over class and gender. Class is knocked out of the picture in the opening voice-over: Whereas the novel's Nick Carraway was told, growing up, to “remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” the film's Nick Carraway is told to “try to see the best in people.” Which is a very different task, and a completely apolitical one to boot. Gatsby’s indelible line about the appeal of Daisy Buchanan, “her voice is full of money,” is similarly cut. Omissions like this are what keeps Luhrmann's Gatsby from ever gaining the traction it ought to have.
Which brings me to the tragedy of what Luhrmann has done with Jordan and Daisy, two of literature's most compelling exemplars of emerging 20th-century femininity—smart and witty and complicated and alarmingly autonomous; driven, to the male characters' frustration, by agendas that have little or nothing to do with men and which they never condescend to explain. Baz Luhrmann, flappers were not spangly femme glamourpusses in funny hats: They were loud, proud, frightening gender deviants—cutting their hair off, binding their breasts, smoking and drinking in public, and having the kind of sex (premarital and frequent) that women are still shamed for having today. The Daisy and Jordan of the novel are hard, cruel, reckless women whose very recklessness had something heroic about it. If they have to be women born in this particular part of the 20th century, by God, they'll make the 20th century pay.
In Luhrmann’s world, they’re mush, existing largely to wear Prada gowns and be mooned at by men. Daisy, in particular, is more or less reduced to The Girl In The Picture: She swans around, fluttery-voiced and teary-eyed, with none of the chilly opacity and remove that make her a sinister figure in the novel. And poor Jordan is simply not there at all. She's a clotheshorse who pops up at odd moments to deliver exposition in a newer and sillier hat. Her entire personality and back story have been torn out to make room for more sequins.
To hell with a tasteful Gatsby, I say. Give us trash. Give us the shock of the real thing: a bunch of self-involved wealthy white people arguing about who's the richest and whitest while they all listen to Jay-Z. But for the love of God, make it clear what’s causing all the noise. Fitzgerald, though he lacked the smarts to understand his novel’s political subtext in full, had the talent to deliver it nonetheless; his book outlined the flaws of 1920s boom mentality before anyone, even he, had reason to understand the flaws would be fatal. Show us what’s making Tom Buchanan so paranoid—the revolution that's providing the soundtrack to his parties and sleeping with his wife, represented in no small part by the wife herself.
There's one moment in Luhrmann’s Gatsby that I honestly loved: The moment when the doomed Myrtle's trashy girlfriends burst into a room, loud and cackling and with broader-than-broad working-class Queens accents, high on nerve pills and sloshing illegal booze. They look very recognizably like flappers. And at the moment they show up, the soundtrack bursts into stereophonic sleaze, and everything goes straight to pill-popping hallucinogenic Party Hell. As far as feminist victories go, it's not a big one. But the shock and horror of those girls and those sounds entering Nick's fragile world is a five-minute lesson on what the 20th century must have felt like to the lofty and elegant white men watching everyone else claw their way up.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Darin Haas was arrested around 6:30 pm Wednesday night when his ex-wife called the authorities after receiving threatening text messages that violated her order of protection against Haas. Later that night Haas turned himself in and was charged with stalking and violating an order of protection. Haas was responsible for Fort Campbell’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention and Equal Opportunity programs and has since been removed from his position. Haas was set to retire from the army and his replacement will take over his role immediately.
According to the Leaf Chronicle, Army officials are waiting to see the result of the civilian case before determining if any further action is needed.
Haas’ arrest comes a few days after the Department of Defense announced an investigation of an Army Sergeant 1st class who served as the Sexual Harassment/Assault Result Prevention (SHARP) Coordinator and Equal Opportunity Advisor at Fort Hood in Texas on charges of “pandering, abusive sexual contact, assault and maltreatment of subordinates.” Last week, an Air Force official responsible for sexual assault prevention and response was arrested for sexual battery. According to the Arlington Police Department, Lieutenant Colonel Jeffery Krusinski groped a woman in a parking. She fought him off when he attempted to grab her again and immediately alerted the police. An anonymous spokesperson for the Air Force confirmed that Krusinski had been dismissed from his post in response to the allegations.
Media Resources: Leaf Chronicle 5/16/2013; Stars and Stripes 5/16/2013; Feminist Newswire 5/15/2013, 5/7/2013
138/365 Frustrated from Flickr
The “Human Heartbeat Protection Act,” or Act 301, bans abortion once a human heartbeat is detected using a standard abdominal ultrasound, usually at 12 weeks gestation. The bill was passed into law when the state legislature voted to override the governor’s veto. The ACLU and Center for Reproductive Rights have filed a lawsuit on behalf of two doctors in the state who are challenging the constitutionality of the pre-viability ban. They have also filed a request to block the enforcement of the ban while their lawsuit is pending. If no injunction is granted, the bill will take affect after August 16, 2013.
Earlier this month, the Attorney General for the state of Arkansas filed a motion to dismiss the case. However, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright rejected their motion, stating that the doctors had provided a strong enough case to proceed with the lawsuit. In her ruling on the dismissal, she wrote, “The court finds at this pleading stage, plaintiffs have demonstrated a realistic danger of sustaining a direct injury as a result of Act 301′s operation or enforcement, and they have presented a justiciable controversy that is ripe for review.”
If a doctor terminates a pregnancy after 12 weeks that is not a result of rape, incest, or is to save the life of the mother, they could potentially lose their license. Opponents of the ban continued in her ruling, “Accepting these allegations as true, as the court must do at this juncture, the court finds that plaintiffs have alleged facts sufficient to state a claim that the provision of Act 301 that prohibits abortions at 12 weeks gestation when a fetal heartbeat is detected impermissibly infringes a woman’s Fourteenth Amendment right to choose to terminate a pregnancy before viability.”
A hearing is scheduled for today to determine whether or not to grant the plaintiffs’ request to block enforcement. The case is Edwards v. Beck, 13-cv-00224, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Arkansas.
Media Resources: Bloomberg 5/17/2013; Log Cabin Democrat 5/16/2013; Associated Press 5/15/2013; Feminist Newswire 5/8/2013
Arkansas graphic from Shutterstock