12.31.2013

My Favorite Writing - 2013

I don't think I've listened to enough music this year to put together a credible "Best of" list for 2013 as I've done in years past (my favorite record of the moment remains Five Iron Frenzy's comeback album The Engine of a Million Plots if you're looking for idiosyncratic recommendations). So, instead I'm naming my favorite pieces of writing I read this year. Because I do a LOT of reading.

Best Introduction To Cleveland Sports 


The plight of the Cleveland fan has been beaten into us so much that anyone who watches sports could probably list the numerous horrible things that have happened here over the years (the Browns against Elway, Jordan over Ehlo, the '90s Indians never winning a title, LeBron's failures, LeBron ditching the entire city on national TV ... ). Besides the supernatural levels of sports pain, what's crazy is that everyone in this city is still obsessed with all these teams.

Because You'd Never Believe I'd Pick Two Sports Stories

"Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking and Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax" - Timothy Burke & Jack Dickey, Deadspin.com

Upon receiving the news of the two deaths, Te'o went out and led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 upset of Michigan State, racking up 12 tackles. It was heartbreaking and inspirational. Te'o would appear on ESPN's College GameDay to talk about the letters Kekua had written him during her illness. He would send a heartfelt letter to the parents of a sick child, discussing his experience with disease and grief. The South Bend Tribune wrote an article describing the young couple's fairytale meeting—she, a Stanford student; he, a Notre Dame star—after a football game outside Palo Alto.
Did you enjoy the uplifiting story, the tale of a man who responded to adversity by becoming one of the top players of the game? If so, stop reading.

My Parents Would Be Disappointed To Learn I Read This On The Flight To Florida

"Original Sin: Why the GOP is and will continue to be the party of white people" - Sam Tanenhaus, NewRepublic.com

"Who needs Manhattan when we can get the electoral votes of eleven Southern states?" Kevin Phillips, the prophet of "the emerging Republican majority," asked in 1968, when he was piecing together Richard Nixon's electoral map. The eleven states, he meant, of the Old Confederacy. "Put those together with the Farm Belt and the Rocky Mountains, and we don't need the big cities. We don't even want them. Sure, Hubert [Humphrey] will carry Riverside Drive in November. La-de-dah. What will he do in Oklahoma?"

How Prosecutorial Overreach Killed One Of The Brightest Minds Of My Generation

"The Idealist" - Justin Peters, Slate.com

At the beginning of every year, Aaron Swartz would post an annotated list of everything he’d read in the last 12 months. His list for 2011 included 70 books, 12 of which he identified as “so great my heart leaps at the chance to tell you about them even now.” One of these was Franz Kafka’s The Trial, about a man caught in the cogs of a vast bureaucracy, facing charges and a system that defy logical explanation. “I read it and found it was precisely accurate—every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience,” Swartz wrote. “This isn’t fiction, but documentary.”
At the time of his death, the 26-year-old Swartz had been pursued by the Department of Justice for two years. He was charged in July 2011 with accessing MIT’s computer network without authorization and using it to download 4.8 million documents from the online database JSTOR. His actions, the government alleged, violated Title 18 of the U.S. Code, and carried a maximum penalty of up to 50 years in jail and $1 million in fines. 

Factory Farmers Are Tiring of Being Caught Breaking Laws

"Gagged By Big Ag" - Ted Genoways, MotherJones.com

"If you think this is an animal welfare issue, you have missed the mark," said Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project's Food Integrity Campaign, who served as a representative for the whistleblowers who tipped off ABC in the Food Lion case. "This is a bigger, broader issue." She likened activist videos to airplane black-box recorders—evidence for investigators to deconstruct and find wrongdoing. Ag gag laws, she said, don't just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. "You are also stopping environmental whistleblowing; you are also stopping workers' rights whistleblowing." In short, "you have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate." That should "scare the pants off" consumers concerned about where their food comes from. "It's the consumer's right to know, but also the employee's right to tell. You gotta have both."

The Argument For Austerity In The Face Of Rising National Debt Is A Lie

"Researchers Finally Replicate Reinhart-Rogoff, and There Are Serious Problems" - Mike Konczal, NextNewDeal.net

This has been one of the most cited stats in the public debate during the Great Recession. Paul Ryan's Path to Prosperity budget states their study "found conclusive empirical evidence that [debt] exceeding 90 percent of the economy has a significant negative effect on economic growth." The Washington Post editorial board takes it as an economic consensus view, stating that "debt-to-GDP could keep rising — and stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth." 
Is it conclusive? One response has been to argue that the causation is backwards, or that slower growth leads to higher debt-to-GDP ratios. Josh Bivens and John Irons made this case at the Economic Policy Institute. But this assumes that the data is correct. From the beginning there have been complaints that Reinhart and Rogoff weren't releasing the data for their results (e.g. Dean Baker). I knew of several people trying to replicate the results who were bumping into walls left and right - it couldn't be done.

New York Times Op-Ed By A Hunger Striking, 11-Year Prisoner At Guantanamo Bay

"Gitmo Is Killing Me" - Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, NYTimes.com

I’ve been on a hunger strike since Feb. 10 and have lost well over 30 pounds. I will not eat until they restore my dignity.
I’ve been detained at Guantánamo for 11 years and three months. I have never been charged with any crime. I have never received a trial.

Times Op-Ed By A Man Who Lost His Son And Grandson To Drone Strikes

"The Drone That Killed My Grandson" - Nasser al-Awlaki, NYTimes.com

Nearly two years later, I still have no answers. The United States government has refused to explain why Abdulrahman was killed. It was not until May of this year that the Obama administration, in a supposed effort to be more transparent, publicly acknowledged what the world already knew — that it was responsible for his death. 
The attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., said only that Abdulrahman was not “specifically targeted,” raising more questions than he answered. 

An Adapted Article From One of 2013's Most Important Books 


"Inside America's Dirty Wars" - Jeremy Scahill, TheNation.com

At the White House, President Obama was faced with a decision—not of morality or legality, but of timing. He had already sentenced Anwar al-Awlaki to death without trial. A secret legal authorization had been prepared and internal administration critics sidelined or brought on board. All that remained to be sorted out was the day Awlaki would die. Obama, one of his advisers recalled, had “no qualms” about this kill. When the president was briefed on Awlaki’s location in Jawf and also told that children were in the house, he was explicit that he did not want to rule any options out. Awlaki was not to escape again. “Bring it to me and let me decide in the reality of the moment rather than in the abstract,” Obama told his advisers, according to author Daniel Klaidman. Although scores of US drone strikes had killed civilians in various countries around the globe, it was official policy to avoid such deaths if at all possible. “In this one instance,” an Obama confidant told Klaidman, “the president considered relaxing some of his collateral requirements.”

The Tip Of The NSA Iceberg, The First Article Published Based On The Snowden Leak

"NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily" - Glenn Greenwald, TheGuardian.com

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.

My Favorite Books of 2013

This is a short list because they had to a) be released this year and b) I had to read them this year.

Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill
Abaddon's Gate by James S. A. Corey
Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
Panic 2012 by Michael Hastings


My Favorite Things I Wrote In 2013

My Conversion. Ten Years Later
Some Thoughts On Trayvon Martin
Drones For Dummies
My Review of Consider The Lobster by David Foster Wallace (written in my best attempt at Wallace's writing style)


Happy New Year! See you in 2014!

12.18.2013

A Quick Plea To Those About To Buy Duck Calls

Hey Fellow Christians,
Let's chat real quick. It's early in this mess and I feel like we've still got some time.
HOW ABOUT- Instead of circling the wagons and rallying the troops. Instead of organizing mass purchases of duck calls. Instead of saying to the watching world that "YES!" we stand with a man now widely seen as a racist, homophobic bigot. Instead of showing our gay and brown friends that their worst inclinations about our motives are right on. Instead of reinforcing all the stereotypes. Instead of confirming in people's minds that they were right about us and our backwards ways all along.
Let's choose to walk away from this one.
Let's choose NOT to stand in solidarity with hatred.
Let's choose a better, nobler hill to die on than this one. Than defending hate speech.
Is Phil Robertson a Christian? Certainly. Should we forgive him for this? Absolutely.
But for once.
For ONCE
Let's show the unreached, unloved, disrespected, marginalized, oppressed, and hated that we can be better.
That we can try harder.
That our lives are lives that are supposed to resemble love more than anything else.
Let's try something different.
Let's try something Christlike.
Thanks.

10.30.2013

My review of Insurrection

Insurrection: To Believe Is Human; To Doubt, Divine, the spectacular 2011 release by pyro-theologian Peter Rollins is a book that’s difficult to summarize or explain in brief. All the more difficult because I’d like to explain to EVERYONE, not just those that self-identify as Christian, why it’s so great.

In short, Rollins’ work hinges on the idea of dismantling what he sees as a wrongheaded understanding of God. He calls it the deus ex machina God, but we all know it as the bearded guy in the clouds calling the shots. Rollins asks his readers to look at the simple idea that “God is love” and from there begin to zoom out to the idea that God is manifest in the act of love, and is not some sort of celestial entity.

He gets to this through various means: Jesus’ words on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which Rollins posits is the moment when God becomes an atheist, the writings of Mother Theresa in which she describes living her entire life with a core-deep sense that there was no God out there watching over her, but that she experienced God in her work with the poorest of Calcutta, and through various parables that he uses to introduce each chapter.

Rollins asks his readers to strip away what he’s previously referred to as the idolatry of God, until all that is left is a person willing to live a life of love, kindness, peace, and humility. Understanding that in living that life we are producing the place where God dwells. He goes on, then, to extrapolate the idea that God’s will for our lives becomes our own will for a life based in love, charity, mercy, and respect.

I would struggle to recommend Insurrection to those not familiar with the basics of the Christian faith, though I’d struggle equally to recommend it to anyone who holds to those tenets with too much fundamentalism as Rollins’ work towards an a/theistic form of an understanding of God is all but heretical by comparison to what most think of as Christianity. But to those open-minded enough, or to those unable to fully embrace or fully leave the faith, it’s something of a revelation.

10.25.2013

My Review of Abaddon's Gate


Abaddon's Gate is the third (and most recently released, though not final) book in James S. A. Corey's The Expanse series. I could easily write at length about how Corey (the pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) writes in a style that reads like a Blockbuster (as you'd also know from the io9.com blurb on the novel's cover) and how much of a fantastic page turner it is, and about what a great balance of action and humor and dread these books strike, but I feel I've done a lot of that in my reviews of its predecessors Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War. I want to, instead, talk about what sets this book apart.

Something I've not touched on in my past reviews is that Corey utilizes a George R. R. Martin-esque style of using "point of view characters" to tell his stories. Each chapter begins with a name, and that chapter is told from that character's limited perspective. The result is impressive amounts of dramatic tension, and thankfully dramatic tension that does not wear down the reader's patience waiting for characters to catch up. In Leviathan Wakes, there were only two POV characters, Holden and his shaky ally Miller. In Caliban's War that number expanded to four, Miller and three new allies. In Abaddon's Gate we read from the POV of Holden and two allies, and in an extremely effective twist, also the POV of an antagonist.

I mentioned in my review of Caliban's War that the events set in motion in Leviathan Wakes are tangentially related to the events of that second book, but that the direct effects of Leviathan Wakes are hanging in the background and creating a general sense of unease. Between an antagonistic POV character and those effects coming to the fore, Abaddon's Gate's first third is choked in a sense of dread. Alien machinations are at work, dangerous foes are gunning for our heroes, and the reader gets the sense that Holden & Co. could not be less prepared for what the reader knows is coming. It's fabulous.

The book continues to do what its predecessors started: terrifying us by showing us that the unfathomably big emptiness of space leaves the possibility of unimaginable threats and unthinkable horrors. And it continues to pound home the theme that humanity's pettiness just might make those horrors obsolete anyway, and perhaps that should be scarier.

Abaddon's Gate, and Corey's entire series, just works. I recommend it to any fan of science fiction, action, adventure, and/or swashbuckling. Or to nearly anyone else.

10.17.2013

My Review of Caliban's War

As I've fallen further and further behind in my Half-Cannonball this year I've been saved from absolute embarrassment time and time again by books that leapt out at me not from my "TO READ" pile, but from somewhere else.

Caliban's War by James S. A. Corey, the second book in "The Expanse" series is a book that simply demanded I read it, and it was right. Well-paced, occasionally funny, often terrifying, and action packed, the book is a worthy follow-up to Corey's Leviathan Wakes. This series is so much fun, in fact, that I had to make the Cannonball-conscious decision to put down it's successor and write this review.

Caliban's War picks up a year or so after the events of Leviathan Wake's, as our swashbuckling heroes are working a contract for the half-government half-terrorist organization of the Outer Planets Alliance. Jim Holden, Captain of the stolen Martian missile corvette Rocinante, is a changed man--and not for the better.

A strange event on Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, precipitates a shooting war between Earth and Mars. Soon the solar system's best chance at ending the violence is the clear head of foul-mouthed Chrisjen Avasarala, Assistant to to the Undersecretary of Executive Administration at the Earth UN, and her new bodyguard and assistant Gunnery Sargeant Bobbie Draper of the Martian Marine Corps.  That is, if Holden doesn't fuck things up first.

Meanwhile the human face of the Ganymede incident is Dr. Praxidike Meng, whose quest to find his missing daughter will bring all these characters together, and who may hold the key to what happened on Ganymede, and whether it spells the end of humanity.

I don't know that I would recommend this book without reading its predecessor first, and Leviathan Wakes is fantastic, but as a part of The Expanse series Caliban's War is a really fun read. The two writers who together are James S. A. Corey have found an insanely entertaining formula for sci-fi fun.

7.17.2013

Some Thoughts On Trayvon Martin

This week I've done a good deal of reading and quite a bit of thinking about the George Zimmerman trial and the various issues that it brings up. Let's work through a few:


The Difference Between Legal and Just
It seems that in this case the prosecution was unable to provide evidence, or a narrative, that George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin was not an act of self defense. The burden of proof in a criminal case is rightfully very high, and we want prosecutors to be forced to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed. In this case, the prosecution was unable to convince the jury that Zimmerman's act was not one of self defense, and so they made a decision that we will call the "correct" one.

But that does not make it the just decision.

The facts of this case have been repeated over and over ad nauseum and I won't repeat them again here, but the basics of self-defense law in Florida (and across a wide swath of the rest of the country, thanks to the corporate model legislation composing front known as ALEC) are such that one can conceivably INITIATE an altercation and then act with lethal force if one should begin to lose.

It's worth pointing out that many in the political establishment have attempted to defend the NSA's egregious Orwellian spying regime by pointing out that "no laws have been broken."

Quite simply, there is a vast gulf between what is "legal" and what is "just." It is certainly unfortunate that this is the case, and perhaps in an ideal country it would not be, but America is simply not that country.  It is legal for George Zimmerman to prevent himself from losing a scuffle with a lanky, unarmed 16-year-old boy by shooting that boy through the chest. It is.

But it is also an unconscionable injustice.

W.W.J.C.C.W.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the strange phenomenon of conservative Christians who were rooting for George Zimmerman's acquittal. They saw, as many gun rights advocates saw, nothing wrong with his action. He was protecting his neighborhood from a threat. He was protecting himself from a threat. He was legally allowed to have that gun. From his cold dead hands, and all that.

I find this to be a fairly straightforward and logical line of thinking for a gun rights activist. I disagree, but I get it.

I find it so completely out of line with the teachings of Christ as to be entirely irreconcilable with His teaching. 

Christ teaches us to turn the other cheek when struck--a seemingly clear cut argument against acting in violent self defense, but certainly a clear cut argument against lethal self defense.

Christ teaches us to offer our tunic to one who would take our cloak--a seemingly clear cut argument against the belief that the Christian has the right to violent, or lethal, defense of his own "property." And, for the uninitiated, property is in scare quotes because everything a Christian has, belongs to the Lord (which is why we don't put up that big a fight when he tells us to give him 10%, it's really more that he's letting us keep 90%).

The Bible also teaches us that vengeance belongs to the Lord--a seemingly clear cut argument against seeking vengeance, or revenge, or vigilantism.

I find arguments that Christians are entitled to firearms to be extremely problematic, even for so-called sporting reasons.

As for concealed carry, as for self or home defense, as for standing one's ground, I find Christian arguments for the ownership of firearms to be simply unChristian.

Colorblindness
I've seen a lot of talk in the days since the trial about the ways in which it was either "not about race" or "should not have been about race" or the ways in which various participants in these conversations "don't like to make it about race."

This is absurd.

My favorite recurring phrase regarding the desire for colorblindess was "I just want to see people as people." Unfortunately, this faux-righteous claim for a progressive outlook is actually a tool for the very repression you claim to be above. Colorblind language is part of racism.  Let's unpack why that is.

It's very common to hear someone claim that the criminal justice system is not explicitly racist. Police are not allowed to profile, after all! (Ignoring for a second the fact that's only half-true,) the fact that it's mostly blacks who are arrested for crimes is simply a result of the fact that they commit more crimes, the argument goes. 

The idea that any race commits more or fewer crimes than any other has been proven untrue again and again. Selective policing and the decision to "fight crime" by targeting black neighborhoods over white neighborhoods is the true reason for this discrepancy.

As far as that rhetorical argument, though, is it not easy to see how it breaks down upon inspection? The sincere hope of the colorblind is that by refusing to "see race" or at least to "make it about race," we will bring about equality. But the drug war has been color-blindly raging for decades, and black incarceration rates absolutely dwarf white incarceration rates. So how is colorblindness working out for you so far?

Now, let's take a look at prisons with colorblind eyes. What do we see? People. Criminals. Not 10-to1 disparities between minorities and whites, just people.

So what has colorblindness accomplished? It has simply taught us to turn a blind eye to actual injustice as it actually takes place, and taught us to ignore the plain, visible evidence of that injustice as it sits in the prison system.

Yes, let's pat ourselves on the back for how very progressive colorblindness is.

7.15.2013

My Review of The New Jim Crow


It wouldn’t be an understatement to consider Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness a paradigm shifting book. Many Americans are cognizant of the fact that the criminal justice system in America today is less than fair, but Alexander demonstrates that the racial disparity in incarceration is precisely the point. The system isn’t locking up African Americans at rates absurdly higher than those of whites because it is broken, it is doing so because that is precisely what it was designed to do.
The New Jim Crow is one of the most powerful, shocking, and infuriating books I have ever read. While I recommended Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars to anyone with an interest in national security affairs, I recommend The New Jim Crow to absolutely everyone who lives in the United States of America. It’s that important, and Alexander makes her point that impactfully.
The book argues that within a few decades of the racial caste system of “Jim Crow” ending, a new racial caste system was built in its place. Mass Incarceration began in the 1980s with the Reagan Administration’s war on drugs–a war declared at a time when drug use nationwide was actually declining. But according to the book, “Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses rose 1100%, from some 41K to over half a million, while drug use has remained relatively flat. 90% of those incarcerated are black or latino, despite whites making up a slight majority of drug users.”
Though what makes Mass Incarceration a true caste system is the fact that it extends far beyond simply jails and prisons. “Unfairness in criminal justice doesn’t end with prison. Legal discrimination exists in employment, civic involvement, housing, and welfare for those permanently labeled felons. Extensive use of probation and parole exacerbate the problem as more people were imprisoned for simple parole violations in 2000 than for ALL REASONS in 1980.”
Alexander writes that though the war on drugs is supposedly a war on a thing, the numbers belie that it is actually a war on people–specifically brown people: “Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” By 2000, the incarceration rate of African Americans had increased more than twenty-six times the rates of 1983.
Of course the idea that the criminal justice system is INTENTIONALLY racist begs for skepticism, but Alexander speaks to exactly this fact. As the increase in drug arrests was due, not to an increase in drug crime, but to an increase in seeking out such arrests by law enforcement. Between the “crack epidemic” rhetoric of the Reagan Administration and other “us” vs. “them” media portrayals of drug criminals, the pump was primed for bias, intentional or otherwise. Then, when a check on majoritarian overreach was most needed, the US Supreme Court instead raised the bar necessary to prove discrimination and then effectively closed its doors to future challenges of racial bias in policing. Indeed, the Court let law enforcement off its leash, effectively carving a “War on Drugs” exemption into the Fourth Amendment.
Alexander writes:
The risk that prosecutorial discretion will be racially biased is especially acute in the drug enforcement context, where virtually identical behavior is susceptible to a wide variety of interpretations and responses and the media imagery and political discourse has been so thoroughly racialized. Whether a kid is perceived as a dangerous drug-dealing thug or instead viewed as a good kid who was merely experimenting with drugs and selling to a few friends has to do with the ways in which information about illegal drug activity is processed and interpreted, in a social climate in which drug dealing is racially defined. As a former U.S. Attorney explained:
I had an [assistant U.S. attorney who] wanted to drop the gun charge against the defendant [in a case in which] there were no extenuating circumstances. I asked “Why do you want to drop the gun offense?” And he said, “He’s a rural guy and grew up on a farm. The gun he had with him was a rifle. He’s a good ol’ boy, and all good ol’ boys have rifles, and it’s not like he was a gun-toting drug dealer.” But he was a gun-toting drug dealer, exactly.
Alexander shows that the US Supreme Court has immunized police from complaints in bias in policing, prosecutors from complaints of bias in charging and jury selection, and the system as a whole from complaints of bias in sentencing. It simply refuses to hear cases arguing for racial bias unless that bias is demonstrated overtly: explicitly race based, or racist language. Mere racist results are insufficient proof.
Another reason the war on drugs is waged against communities of color is that they simply lack the political might to raise a fuss. Where paramilitary tactics to break up perception drug abuse by soccer moms, ecstasy use by teens, or pot use by frats would silly in severe backlash. These tactics in the ghetto, by contrast, go largely unnoticed by most of society.
Yet the injustice doesn’t end with incarceration, the shame and stigma of a felony on ones record, paired with the legal discrimination against felons in employment, housing, welfare, healthcare, education, professional licensing, voting, serving on juries, custody make reintegration an almost unbearable hardship. Additionally, many ground face extremely high debts as a result of their incarceration, debts they struggle to pay in the face of bleak employment options, and which can paradoxically lead them back to prison if left unpaid.
Overcoming this system is daunting. First because it requires overcoming or own denial. It sounds exaggerated, even fanciful, to believe that in our colorblind age Mass Incarceration is a thinly veiled racial caste system, but an examination of the facts and myths surrounding Mass Incarceration can lead to no other conclusion.
But we must overcome this denial, end the legal discrimination, the ghetto to prison pipelines, end the dug war, and dismantle Mass Incarceration. More importantly, however, Americans must learn to care across racial lines: the reflexively conjured image of the face of a drug criminal must cease to be a brown one. Real economic opportunity must be extended to the ghetto.
There is no moral alternative.

7.09.2013

My Review of Dirty Wars

While reading Jeremy Scahill's new book Dirty Wars: The World is A Battlefield, I described it to a friend as a "direct sequel" to Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower. Now that I've finished it, I'll gladly double-down on that assertion--and not only because it's a spiritual successor to that book, but also because it too deserves a Pulitzer.

Where Wright led us through the story of the rise of radical Islam to its climax on September 11, Scahill takes us through the following decade. As Wright told the story of both the FBI team following bin Laden and the man himself, Scahill follows JSOC, the CIA, various privateers and warlords, and their fight against the likes of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Shabab, the Taliban, and others.

The book tells the story of the rise of the Joint Special Operations Command, and the quiet deployment of special and covert ops forces in countries around the world, and away from the places where official wars have been declared. These so-called small wars are taking place off the books and out of most headlines in places like Somalia, Yemen, Mali, and Pakistan. The new military doctrine that "The world is a battlefield" has allowed both the Bush and the Obama administration to bend the letter of the law to mean that war can be waged anywhere, any time, as long as it is in the interest of the United States of America.

Dirty Wars finds its humanity, and it's most personal story, in the life and death of Anwar al-Awlaki. The American born cleric who transformed from a pro-US defender of democracy and non-violence in the wake of 9/11 to a radicalized firebrand who preached on jihad and praised the deaths of Americans. Awlaki's story echoes the themes of the rest of the book: the best anti-terrorism efforts of the United States inexorably inflame radical Islam rather than suppress it, and rather than learn from these failures, our country simply walks further down a darkened path from which return is unlikely.

The book is incredibly well reported, it touches on nearly every major story of the post-9/11 national security beat. The breadth and depth of the interviews that support its stories make it clear that Scahill is not alone in his concern about the path American militarism has taken. Current and former officials, analysts, fighters, tribesman, warlords, and victims' families come together to tell a story of unchecked power, imprecise violence, and global war.

Dirty Wars' darkest chapters are easily its 34th and 35th. The former is comprised largely of a letter from American-educated Nasser A. Al-Aulaqi to President Barack Obama, pleading with the President to reconsider his apparent desire to kill--without charge or trial--Nasser's son Anwar. The latter tells in gruesome detail the story of a botched raid on a homestead in Gardez, Afghanistan, where JSOC forces descended on the household of anti-Taliban Afghani police officer killing several members of the family--some of them women--and then callously attempting to cover up the mistake.

Scahill's book is easily one of the most important of the year, and I am greatly looking forward to seeing the book's companion film, also titled Dirty Wars. I recommend it highly and almost without qualification.  It will leave you with pressing questions that you'll be immediately wanting to ask of your politicians.

When can, or can't, the President decide to kill an American abroad?
Why is the Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye still in prison?
and perhaps most upsettingly,
Why was Anwar al-Awlaki's American-born 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, an innocent boy, killed by a drone strike while eating with his cousins?

Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield will make you want the answers.

6.22.2013

My Review of Leviathan Wakes



The first book of “The Expanse” Series,  Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey is a scifi/space opera story set in the period after mankind takes to the solar system but before it spreads out to the stars beyond our own. The book’s two protagonists, Holden and Miller, come from this in-between version of mankind: spectacularly advanced but also wholly recognizable.

In the solar system of Leviathan Wakes has been colonized by billions, political power is spread unevenly between Earth, Mars, and the far-flung colonies of the Asteroid Belt and outer planetary moons. Though each party has their own needs and wants, they remain more or less interdependent and antagonistic. When Holden’s motley crew of ice miners stumble into a mysterious derelict ship, the chain reaction threatens the entire balance of the system.

Meanwhile, on Ceres Station, one of the most populated dots in the Asteroid Belt, Detective Miller is assigned a kidnap job–track down the missing daughter of some Luna-based bigwigs. Miller’s search leads him to where his bosses would rather he didn’t go, and eventually across Holden’s path. Together they try to avert a war, or something much, much worse.

Leviathan Wakes reads like a summer blockbuster. It’s quick-witted and perfectly paced, and the scifi elements strike the perfect balance between fantastical as hell, and hard enough to make sense and stay out of the way. The book is also occasionally terrifying. Not just thematically, but in specifically describing scenes and events that you’ll have trouble shaking.

Pick it up for the thrills, stay for the incredible world building, the humor, and the insanely fun (and just plain insane) rabbit hole mystery. Pretty much from the time this book came into my possession until the time that I finished it I could. not. put. it. down. Definitely check it out.

6.20.2013

Cleveland Parish Stares Down Austerity, Excommunication


As forced austerity continues to result in deeper cost cutting, as only the voiceless and vulnerable feel the pain of these cuts, and as protests against this injustice rise up from Greece to Chicago, one quiet community in Cleveland made front page news again today. The group raising their fist in the air against one of the the world's largest bureaucracies: The Community of St. Peter.

First, let's rewind a bit.

In March of 2009, Bishop Richard Gerard Lennon, spiritual and administrative leader of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese announced his plan to shrink the diocese by 52 churches. Twenty-nine churches were closed outright, the remainder merged with other parishes nearby. To Cleveland's 750,000 Catholics, the cuts were shocking. Eighteen of the shuttered churches were in Cleveland proper, and many more were in poor and ethnic communities.

Church communities who had grown up together over several generations were being scattered. Vibrant ethnic communities proudly living out the traditions of their varied homelands were told, essentially, it was finally time to assimilate. The region was rocked by the news.

The process of appealing this decision, an appeal that would need to be made to the Vatican, was incredibly daunting. More incredibly, several of the closed communities made such appeals and won.

One other parish, described in the Plain Dealer article first detailing the cuts as a "liberal-leaning downtown parish" that was "historical, financially solvent, growing and a provider of social services in a neighborhood of homeless people" was St. Peter Church.

The congregants of St. Peter took a third path. Rather than leave, rather than appeal, they simply decided to go on. They were told to close, they didn't. They were evicted, and so they scraped together enough money to move to an empty warehouse space on Cleveland's near east side. Known now as "The Community of St. Peter," they're still meeting today.

St. Peter's Church--and that's St. Peter, Jesus' headstrong disciple who would come to be known as the first pope--still practices a completely orthodox Catholic mass, but the Catholic Church and the Diocese of Cleveland don't see that way, and have deemed them an illegitimate breakaway.

The priest in charge at St. Peter, Rev. Robert J. Marrone, has been excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Members of the church have been warned that continuing to attend St. Peter would place their salvation in jeopardy. And this week, Sister Susan Clark, music director at St. Peter, was pressured by her superior Sister Margaret Gorman of the Sisters of Notre Dame (an order whose stated mission is to educate and care for the poor) to leave the parish. Likely facing excommunication from the greater church she has devoted her life to serving, Clark complied.

Remarkably, The Community of St. Peter soldiers on. They are committed to keeping up their humanitarian mission, and are active in the Greater Cleveland Congregations, an interfaith group dedicated to improving lives through advocacy in health care, food accessibility and criminal justice.

The tension between the parish and the diocese continues, recent talks between the two parties were fruitless, but the congregants' courage is remarkable. By continuing to live out their faith in this community, and with this mission of social justice, the parishioners at St. Peter are choosing to believe that Lennon is incorrect about their eternal damnation.

Christ commanded those who would follow him that they should feed the hungry and care for the poor. It would seem that The Community of St. Peter values those commands over the commands of a cost-cutting bureaucracy.

6.18.2013

Remembering Michael Hastings

This evening news broke that journalist Michael Hastings has died in a car accident in Los Angeles. I'm crushed by this news, and I never knew him. His death is a loss for journalism and for the truth. He told stories others missed, or were too timid to report, and he did it with a brashness and a compelling pace that left no mistake that what he was saying was the truth, raw and uncomfortable.
Hastings fearlessly cared more about the important story than about ensuring his continued access. His account of the second Obama campaign, Panic 2012, was unique in that its coverage was shaped by the fact that he was granted some access, but not much. It was consistently obvious that there was little love lost between the Obama press flacks and the man who brought low their celebrity general.
That general, Stanley McChristal, was cut low by his assumption that Hastings' desire to continue covering him trumped his interest in accurately portraying his team's roguish behaviors and disdain for civilian leadership. "The Runaway General" for Rolling Stone, and its book-length follow up The Operators peer under the carefully crafted media narrative to show a war far more grotesque, more cynical, and less winnable than the one on cable news.
I never knew Michael Hastings, I'm just a guy from Ohio who loves good journalism, but he took the time to reach out to me on several occasions. He thanked me for reading and reviewing both of the aforementioned books, and engaged with me on a couple of other occasions. Trivial as it sounds, I was flattered that he actually followed me back. My heart goes out to his friends, colleagues, and especially to his wife. His voice was important, and it will be missed by everyone who heard it.

5.10.2013

My Review of A Storm of Swords


It's difficult to know how best to review an 1100+ page novel that is just one part of many (seven? is it seven now?), and that took me months and months and months to read. I kept putting A Storm of Swords down to read other books, and then returning to it. I think that's a comment on its length, but not on its quality. It might be my favorite ASOIAF novel yet.

As this is a series that's very much in the zeitgeist right now, and one that a lot of people are progressing through at different speeds (and across different media) I'll stay away from spoilers, but believe me when I say that there are a LOT of twists and turns and surprises in this book.

To restate a thousand other reviews, though:
Martin's world-building is second to none. It's not the least bit difficult to believe that this is a civilization with thousands of years of history, some of it laid out explicitly, much more of it only hinted at.

To put into words just how great this series is:
It took me months and months to read this book, I have two more to go in the series as it stands, and I'm already aching about the fact that I'm going to have to wait for (surely) years for its completion.

Look, this is the GAME OF THRONES series, people. I don't have to spell it out for you. It's great, and you'll love it.
Unless that kind of thing isn't your cup of tea, but even then you still might.

5.09.2013

A Panel Discussion on she++ at Hathaway Brown



On Thursday, May 9th, Hathaway Brown School hosted the Ohio premiere of She++ The Documentary, and computer teacher James Allen emceed a panel discussion on women in computer science.

The documentary, directed by Stanford University computer science students Ayna Agarwal and Ellora Israni, is one tool being utilized by a new organization of the same name to encourage young women to seek education and careers in computer science. While women make up 52% of math and science degrees, they only make up 18% of computer science graduates; the she++ organization seeks to change this by providing role models in the field of computer science.

Judy Auping, Sue Kenney, Liz Novak & Melissa Heffelfinger
Thursday's panelists at Hathaway Brown were Liz Novak, VP of Information, Technology & Solutions at University Hospitals (HB Class of 1977); Dr. Judith V. Auping, a software engineer for over thirty years at the NASA Glenn Research Center; Melissa Heffelfinger, a Networking &; Telecom Operations Analyst at Progressive Insurance; Susan Kenney, a VP in IT at the Federal Reserve, and Laney Kuenzel (HB Class of 2008), an engineer at Facebook; and Caroline Aronoff, a student at MIT (HB Class of 2011) via Google Hangout.

The lively discussion focused on what can be done to encourage women to find an interest in computer science and then stay in the field. The panelists shared their own stories of getting into CS, and how they each became comfortable and successful in male dominated classes and workplaces. A recurring theme in the conversation was the need for confidence in the face of cocky or overachieving male peers, and strong belief in one's own ability to catch up to those who have been coding since childhood. Both recent HB grads pointed to their preparatory foundation from Hathaway Brown as a source of such confidence.
James Allen, CS teacher at HB

The need for women in the field was stressed repeatedly, as male audience members shared difficulty finding female candidates for open job opportunities  These audience members also shared relief at working with female engineers who were often better at communicating and seeing "bigger picture" problems than their male peers.

The discussion also touched on the family-friendly nature of flexible scheduling in many computer-related fields, and dismissed the idea that time away from the field spent with children would disqualify women from returning to it later--especially in a field growing faster rate than graduates are entering the workforce.

More info at sheplusplus.stanford.edu
Mr. Allen stressed that Hathaway Brown was doing everything possible to promote computer science, touching on growing computer science and programming classes and HB's robotics team, FIRST Team 2399, The Fighting Unicorns. The evening concluded with Mr. Allen reasserting that the keys to getting women involved in computer sciences came down to exposure and opportunity, and then maintaining confidence, to which he was able to point back to Hathaway Brown and the she++ e-mentorship program at sheplusplus.stanford.edu.

4.22.2013

My Response to an Islamophobic Chain Letter

It's best to simply delete chain letters. Once in awhile I don't. This week I read one SO offensive, I felt I had no choice but to reply to the sender (and to everyone else who I could find who'd received it). Here's my reply to "What is an infidel?"



Hi everyone,
As you might imagine, for somebody as active on the internet as I am, I get a lot of email. Some of it is chain letters, and so most of them I don't read.
But I got one this past week that was so offensive, so entirely untrue, that I thought I'd shoot a quick message back to everyone who I saw copied on it to refute it. Because it was, frankly, despicable.

The letter in question was an explanation of the Muslim faith as presented by Rick Mathes, Executive Director of Mission Gate Prison ministry. As near as I could tell, it's really an editorial that Rick actually wrote. There's scarcely another word of it that I believe is actually true.

According to Mathes, while attending religious tolerance training as part of his prison security clearance curriculum, he questioned a Muslim Imam and got to the "truth" of Muslim beliefs. The only problem is that almost nothing he says about those beliefs is accurate.

For one, Islam is quite a bit like Christianity in that there are a huge variety of beliefs on a wide variety of topics. Some Christians do not gamble and do not touch alcohol, other Christians do both... in a tent... on the church's lawn... to raise money for the church. Likewise, some Muslims believe that only Muslims should enter the holiest sites in their religion, while many others would have no problem with allowing non-believers, and even westerners access to places like Mecca & Madea.

As for the specifics of this letter, though, let me just hit a few highlights. While the terribly twisted and evil followers of the clerics behind groups like al-Qaeda speak of "jihad" as a holy war against non-believers, the word "jihad" actually means "struggle." The vast majority of Muslims are upset the word has been co-opted in this way, and regardless do NOT see themselves as engaged in any sort of war with non-believers. What's more, almost NO Muslim imam would claim to have issued commands to his flock to go to war with non-believers, Islam is every bit as much a religion of peace as Christianity. But maybe that's the problem.

Many in the United States are under the false impression that the majority of Christians believe that "God Hates Fags." Ours is the religion that has historically preached from pulpits in defense of african slavery, of banning miscegenation (inter-racial marriages), and used Biblical texts to do so without irony. Christians have burned crosses on front lawns, have burned other churches, and have warred with each other in ways both subtle, and in the case of Northern Ireland, not so subtle.

If you are offended at the idea that someone might tell you that you believe that "God Hates Fags." If you are offended at the idea that Christians are racist. Know that the average Muslim is every bit as offended to hear their faith painted that way.

Last year, a man burst into a Sikh Temple and shot 13 people, killing six. He did it because he was led to believe that Muslims hate America and want to kill non-believers (and he was too stupid to understand that Sikhs aren't Muslims). Imagine the fallout if someone broke into a church and started shooting because he'd heard that Christians hated gay people. Spreading around the beliefs of a fringe few as though they are the beliefs of the whole could cause just that.

So next time, think twice before forwarding on trash like this message.

And if you sent this message on yourself, feel free to also send on this rebuttal.

Thanks,
Adam Heffelfinger

4.20.2013

My Letter To The Plain Dealer


Today I wrote a brief letter to The Plain Dealer (at the behest of Mayors Against Illegal Guns over at DemandAction.org, and using their site's tool to do so). I'm re-printing it here:

Earlier this year it was exciting to see Senator Rob Portman stand up for the right thing. In embracing marriage equality he set an important precedent, and likely led many Ohioans to hope that he intended to stand up for their values and not simply the ideologies of his party.
Unfortunately, with his shameful vote in favor of the gun-purchasing rights of criminals, Mr. Portman shattered that hope. Despite the recent horrors in Newtown, Aurora, Tuscon, and other cities across the country, and despite the desires of some 83% of Ohioans, the senator chose to protect is NRA rating, instead of his fellow citizens.
Mr. Portman should know that this vote will not go unnoticed in Ohio. We are cognizant of the fact that his vote was not only to defeat common sense legislation and massacre prevention, but it was a vote to do so using craven procedural means. He knew the overwhelming majority of Americans, and Ohioans, supported these measures. He knew it was very likely that a majority of the US Senate supported these measures. Senator Portman chose to cast his lot with those who filibustered life-saving legislation.
And for what?
To protect the profits of firearms manufacturers? To stay in the good graces of their feckless lobbyists in the NRA? I can't say why Mr. Portman voted the way he did, but I can certainly hazard a guess as to part of his argument: Rob Portman doesn't care what Ohioans want, and if that's the case then Ohio can choose to do better than Rob Portman next time.

4.18.2013

My Review of Fall Out Boy's "Save Rock And Roll"


Fall Out Boy used to be one of my favorite bands, then they started releasing music that drove me crazy. Now they have a new record out that I did not expect to like. All-in-all, I would say I enjoyed about 60% of it. I live-tweeted my first listen, here it is:


3.27.2013

From the Archives: BuzzFeed: Politics, Memes, and the Ethics of Traffic Generation

Note: The following is a piece I put together during the 2012 campaign for a website I was working on that would feature media criticism from a non-journalist's perspective. The site was to be called The Journalist Citizen, and alas I've yet to bring it to fruition. I was proud of this piece, though, so I thought I'd pull it out of the archives.
It's a (now slightly dated) look at my concerns with the journalism model employed by BuzzFeed.com. BuzzFeed was then a Politico-like start-up, but has in the short time since matured into a staple of the online media landscape.I made a few small edits to bring this piece to my blogger (it was originally formatted for wordpress), but the content remains largely the same. This is its first time being published.
--Adam


BuzzFeed: Politics, Memes, and the Ethics of Traffic Generation
Adam Heffelfinger - TheJournalistCitizen.org - September 2012


This year, BuzzFeed has gained significant attention for their political reporting, and for what New York Magazine calls their "hobbyist oppo research..."
Once upon a time, opposition research was designed to score political hits. Now it can just be about scoring page views.
We at The Journalist Citizen have a problem with this idea. Page views equal advertising dollars in essentially the same way that television ratings do, but the people in charge of caring about the ratings in a newscast are not supposed to be the same people as the ones who care about journalistic credibility. The reason is that it's possible to juice the ratings by fudging it a bit with the facts, and so by keeping these two aspects of the business separate, there's no chance for an intentional or unintentional conflict of interest.

Using real life news material to intentionally manufacture viral content, though, basically requires a very firm grasp of both sides of this divide. The potential for conflict of interest is enormous, and in working in something that's simultaneously a) important and b) intended for consumption by huge numbers of people, the possibility of doing real harm is extremely high.

Let's back up a bit.

If you've spent much time hanging out on the internet this year, and especially if you like memes, countdowns, or even hard-hitting campaign journalism, you've heard of BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is mostly a site that turns memes into impressions and does so very successfully. They have boiled down the "25 Things That'll Keep You Clicking On Our Site While Filled With Nostalgia" model to an absolute science. But it's also a news organization with reporters embedded, it would seem, just about everywhere in this campaign. First, here's what BuzzFeed says that they are:
BuzzFeed is the leading social news organization, intensely focused on delivering high-quality original reporting, insight, and viral content across a rapidly expanding array of subject areas. Our technology powers the social distribution of content, detects what is trending on the web, and connects people in realtime with the hottest content of the moment. Our site is rapidly growing and reaches more than 25 million monthly unique visitors. Jonah Peretti, founder & CEO of BuzzFeed, previously co-founded the Huffington Post. Ben Smith is its Editor-in-chief.
What BuzzFeed is doing, aside from some serious on the ground reporting, creative Googling, archive searching, and CTRL+F-ing, is creating content. A lot of content.

And that content is having a real impact on the way the campaign is being covered. BuzzFeed's coverage is increasingly being cited by major news outlets, cable news networks and on the pages of The New York Times, with whom they had a video content partnership for the Republican and Democratic Conventions. Here they are being cited by Mother Jones reporter Kevin Drum in a story about Mitt Romney's stance on health care
UPDATE: BuzzFeed passes along yet another clarification. According to an aide, "Gov. Romney will ensure that discrimination against individuals with preexisting conditions who maintain continuous coverage is prohibited."
And here they get a citation from The Los Angeles Times for Zeke Miller's look into the "former Republicans" that spoke at the DNC:
Ciano also stars in an Obama campaign video, “Republican Women for Obama.” A BuzzFeed reporter found that Ciano has been a registered Democrat since 2006.
I could bring you easily a dozen more mentions of these guys from major outlets, but you get the idea, they're becoming quite a big deal. And with reporters on the payroll at BuzzFeed Politics it's probably no wonder. The site boasts a staff including Zeke Miller of Business Insider, Rolling Stone contributor and New York Times bestselling author Michael Hastings, Washington Bureau Chief John Stanton of Roll Call, McKay Coppins of Newsweek, Chris Geidner of MetroWeekly, Rosie Gray of The Village Voice, master of the archive CTRL+F Andrew Kaczynski, and of course Politico reporter and Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith.

Again, what BuzzFeed is doing is creating reams of content with the intention of generating a millions of clicks. At least that’s my understanding of their buzzword heavy blurb's use of words like “viral” “hottest content” and its impressive boast that BuzzFeed “reaches more than 25 million monthly unique visitors." The Journalist Citizen's concerns involve whether or not BuzzFeed is creating this content with the standards we expect from our journalists.

Bear in mind it was BuzzFeed that identified itself as a news organization. If they proclaimed to be a meme factory that occasionally cited facts, then they could hide behind that claim in much the same way that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart does--by refusing to claim to be anything other than comedy. However BuzzFeed does not cater in fake news, but in real news. The Journalist Citizen wants to see them consistently act like it.

My discontentment with them began when Ron Paul spoke at a rally on the eve of the Republican National Convention. Paul took the stage and proclaimed that had he been President the 3000 who perished on 9/11 would still be alive. This was picked up by several outlets but it was at BuzzFeed that I first saw video.

The BuzzFeed video was a :39 clip showing exactly what I've already described. Ron Paul said a thing. What Andrew Kaczynski's post fails to do, though, is offer any context at all. Ron Paul's next sentence may have elaborated and provided his reasoning, it may have been a statement about Paul's ability to resuscitate the dead, or he may have simply moved to a new topic. I felt that his explanation, or his lack of explanation was an important aspect of this story.

Had Ron Paul gone crazy? You couldn't find out at BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, to their credit had already gotten your click, and perhaps that's their only goal. I would have no problem with such behavior from a meme-generating, content-generating machine. From a news organization, though, I would have liked some context.

I reached out to Andrew on twitter to try to get some of that context, but didn't get a response.

I was growing concerned that it seemed that in BuzzFeed's desire to post as much clicky content as possible, they were using the window dressing of a news organization without some of the important behind-the-scenes bits. I wondered if BuzzFeed even had a policy in place regarding bias, comment, context, or anything other than clickiness.

So I decided to reach out to Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith via twitter to find out. Here's that conversation:



You'll notice I did most of the talking. And that I didn't really get an answer. So I reached out to Smith again via email. I asked him again about BuzzFeed's policies and got a pretty similar answer at first:
We don't have a published policy. We try to be accurate, neutral, and fair in the tradition of much of modern American journalism, and as transparent and responsive as possible in the tradition of much of the best online journalism. I don't fully understand what you're asking beyond that.
What I began to wonder is if the policy I was asking about was something that wasn't as common as I thought it was. I'd experienced them in my time doing journalism at the high school and college level, but were they only there because we were not journalism school grads? (Though a Google search would alleviate my concerns). I followed up again with Ben to try to alleviate the confusion, and he responded by asking me if I thought that such policies served a purpose, which seemed to me like a bit of a dodge.
Did you think that the written guidelines helped? I'm honestly not sure if there ever was one at a publication I worked at, and that beyond the basic rules of fairness and accuracy, I'm not sure this is a profession that can be captured in a detailed set of rules and guidelines.
I explained my stance: that having the rules were important, because they provided something to hold reporters accountable to. And it shows that the newsroom has a standard they're aiming for. I added that "any workplace has that rule that everybody thinks is too obvious to be worth the paper it's printed on, but that one time it's broken you don't have to worry about the culprit claiming ignorance." Ben's response troubled me:
I'm quite suspicious of the professionalization of journalism and of the idea of "journalistic ethics" as something separate from "ethics." People, journalists or not, should tell the truth, be fair and responsible.
I replied with an elaboration of my "obvious workplace rule" hypothesis and how I think it relates to journalism:
I don't know if I see it that way. I mean, I agree that telling the truth, being fair, and being responsible are ethics that we ought to expect of everyone, but I think there's an importance to journalists committing in writing to those things. People are constantly dishonest and we can choose to disregard them based on their level of honesty. If a news organization claims that it is honest, and it isn't, the audience can choose to disregard its reporting the way they disregard lying peers. (As many do with regards to Fox News). Additionally a news organization can take action against a reporter it doesn't believe is truthful, as happened with Blair, Glass, Lehrer etc. On the other hand, if a news organization makes no explicit claims to honesty, or doesn't have that obvious rule in its handbook that it can still be held accountable to, then it becomes a little like that workplace that DOESN'T have the obvious rule. There's a technicality they could theoretically point to, "I didn't SAY I'd be honest, did I?" Or to put it more mildly, The Daily Show consistently ducks questions of fairness and balance and accuracy by saying "we're just a comedy show." By not putting in writing that they'll tell the truth, couldn't any news organization essentially do the a version of the same? "We're just generating content, we didn't make any promises about it's veracity."
At this point, I felt Ben's answer got a bit dismissive:
Have you spent a lot of time working in journalism? That's not my experience of it, but I'm sure different people experience things differently.
...so I thanked him for his time.

I think it important to reiterate that BuzzFeed is engaging in plenty of real journalism. They do good work.

But they are also quite obviously aiming for clickability as much as for credibility, and the concern of The Journalist Citizen is where one ends and the other begins.

For every scoop there's a cheap shot at a politician that they know will generate twice the traffic. For every great archive find that shows us a party's willingness to be on both sides of an issue, there's a lazy post that's fails to be timely, newsworthy, or really relevant to much of anything (but I clicked it because, out of context, Putin is HILARIOUS).

BuzzFeed has, in no uncertain terms, claimed for itself the title of "news organization." What it needs to do now is decide to what extent it is, or is not, willing to act like one. BuzzFeed's Editor-In-Chief doesn't think that the site needs a code of ethics, while we at The Journalist Citizen respectfully disagree. Such codes are important to handling situations where the rules of journalism are broken.

If we can use a trick of BuzzFeed's and mix my pop culture with my journalism for a moment, we believe that with great power comes great responsibility. If BuzzFeed wants to be news, and not simply politics-related content generation, they should commit publicly to being truthful, fair, and responsible. The Journalist Citizen feels that without a firm code of journalistic ethics there is a real danger in generating tons of memetic, clicky content made out of real issues instead of cute animals. While we absolutely believe Ben Smith when he says they all aspire to that, The Journalist Citizen would prefer to have the really obvious workplace rule in the handbook.

We are not of the opinion that lolcats, autocorrect fails and highly detailed foreign policy coverage cannot coexist, but we believe strongly that these traffic generators should follow different rules.

These guys have proven again and again that they're capable of great work, The Journalist Citizen challenges them to show they also have a commitment to impartiality and fairness.

3.21.2013

A letter I sent to Rep. Marcia Fudge & Sen. Sherrod Brown


Representative Fudge,

As you are undoubtedly aware, it is a growing concern among those of us on the left that the President's appetite for "making a deal" with Republicans is overriding his good sense with regards to true protection of Social Security and Medicare.

Gene Sperling recently referred to the idea of moving to Chained CPI as "correcting the CPI," which is a troubling way to soften the rhetoric around what would absolutely result in a benefit CUT to Social Security recipients over time. He also has recently implied that such "corrections" or "changes" to social programs will likely be product of whatever deal is made to end the sequester. As putting sufficient pressure on Democrats to make them consider such cuts was the whole point of sequestration.

Indeed, the growing bipartisan consensus in the Beltway appears to be a frightening mirror image of the consensus outside of it. Washington wants to make cuts to these programs, while the overwhelming majority of Americans from both sides of the aisle do NOT want Congress to do so.

I urge you to sign onto the letter committing to not merely "oppose" such cuts, but to VOTE AGAINST them, as authored by Representatives Alan Grayson and Mark Takano. Our fellow Ohioan Marcy Kaptur has already signed. I would also implore you to recommend that your fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus do the same.*

These cuts cannot occur without the active support of Democrats crossing the aisle to slash at programs that are the very essence of our party platform. Please commit to NOT being one of those Democrats.

Thank you for your time,
Adam Heffelfinger


======
*The version of this letter sent to Senator Brown obviously omitted the bit about the Congressional Black Caucus.
======

I'd urge anyone else (R or D) to pressure these two, or any other Dems of whom you're a constituent, to sign onto the letter if you don't want to see Social Security benefits cut.

65% of those on Social Security depend on it for at least half of their retirement income.
These benefits typically average around $15,144 per year.

65% of SS recipients equals 37.7 million people. Imagining that all of them receive the "average" $15K/year, that means that nearly 38 million households are living on $30,288 per year. That's not exactly "high on the hog" when your medical expenses are increasing as you age.

More information on the Grayson-Takano letter available here: http://act.boldprogressives.org/survey/survey_ss_grayson/#fullletter

3.16.2013

My Conversion. Ten Years Later.


Many people, especially relatives of mine, are curious as to why I'm a liberal. I've explained (ad nauseum) why I continue to be one, but what was the catalyst that quite literally changed me into one? I was a conservative through high school. I mean, I read Bill O'Reilly's original "Factor" book for goodness sakes! So WHAT HAPPENED?

We're approaching the 10 year anniversary.

For starters, 10 years ago today Dick Cheney went on Meet The Press and said, "My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." (actually, he said that twice in the conversation).

Pay attention to the next few months. You'll see a number of stories about Iraq "Ten Years On."

Ten years after Colin Powell's decisive (and, shamefully, almost entirely untrue) presentation to the UN.
Ten years after 'Shock & Awe.'
Ten years after we brought down that Saddam statue.
Ten years after investigators really, definitively didn't find any WMD.
Ten years after we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and lost track of America's Most Wanted #1.
Ten years after we punted on providing security to the conquered city of Baghdad, allowing that nation to devolve into a civil war.
No! An Insurgency! No! The Insurgency is in its last throes! No! The violence is subsiding!

and on...
and on...
and on...

Ten years ago the Republican Party perpetrated an unprecedented act of fraud on the American People. Despite serious dissent within the intelligence establishment, the Bush Administration (with the complicity of the media) presented only often shaky, often misleading, often disproven, often demonstrably false "evidence" to the American people. Evidence that they knew would provide them with the public opinion opening to march this nation's young men and women in uniform into a poorly planned, poorly executed illegal occupation of a country that posed no immediate threat to the United States.

Ten years later we have spent nearly $812 Billion (yes, that's billion, with a 'B') Dollars in Iraq.

Ten years later and 4488 Americans have been killed and official tallies report over 32,000 have been injured. Unofficial tallies put that latter number in the range of six digits, and neither of those figures adequately enumerate the damage to families, to lives, to psyches, to communities, or to individuals.

I simply see absolutely no way to reconcile this atrocity, and it is an atrocity, with the rest of the Republican Party platform. They support fiscal responsibility unless it's spending over three quarters of a trillion dollars on a war...on credit? They support families, except for the families of those being shipped off to this Middle East meat grinder? They are pro-life unless that life was born in a region of the U.S. where the best viable career option is the military, or unless that life was born in the Middle East anywhere at all? They are strong on national security, unless it's winning us countless new enemies while destabilizing a region while simultaneously ceasing to strategize properly for one war and failing to begin to strategize properly for a second?

This is a party of absolutely no credibility.

Ten years later, and the fact that those responsible for selling this sham to us are not in shackles is unconscionable. That many of them continue to have influence in government, politics, and national security policy is intolerable. That some of these same people are now telling us that Iran is actively seeking to build a nuclear weapon to attach Israel or the United States and so we must act, and act soon against that nation is beyond outrageous.

In fact, there is no evidence that Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapon.
**Note: Every single word in the above sentence links to a DIFFERENT article or report asserting this fact.**

So why am I a liberal? Simply: because conservatives lied to us and sent us into a completely unnecessary and (ten years later) unending war, and if you're paying attention, you might notice that they're right now doing it again.




Think I'm kidding?

3.01.2013

Wayward and Blustering


It has, sadly, been a long time since I had much respect for Bob Woodward as a reporter, but any lingering positive feelings are certainly dead now. Woodward has proven himself yet again to be untrustworthy and vindictive. He's no longer the kind of journalist who holds people accountable--only in maintaining his access. His multi-part George W. Bush hagiography, praising that failed Presidency's warmongering despite the facts, only became criticism long after the tide had turned. But his complicity in hyping the lies of Iraq are by no means the latest examples of his uselessness.

Just look at this last week:

Woodward is famous for being the man to end Nixon's career by holding that the President is accountable to the rule of law, and yet he went on television this week and denounced this President for not being hawkish enough to literally ignore law passed by Congress and signed by this President. Woodward, straight-faced, argued that other Presidents have seen themselves as above the law and it's WEAKNESS that this President does not*:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/28/bob-woodward-obama-military-sequester

He recently got into an argument with a White House official. After their conversation, that official emailed him to apologize for raising his voice. He also, with some measure of concern, offered that he was worried Woodward might regret staking out the claim that the WH had "moved the goalposts" on Sequester negotiations by asking for a deal to avoid it to contain revenues. Bob replied, in part, "Gene, you'll never have to apologize to me."
Then he went on CNN to hype the horror. THE HORROR! of the chilling effect the White House was attempting to create. He was threatened. THREATENED! by a senior White House official. The President would be ashamed. ASHAMED! if he knew how his underlings were talking to reporters.
http://gawker.com/5987586/goodbye-bob

Congratulations Bob Woodward. You have succeeded in being the center of attention again. All it cost you was your last shred of dignity.


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*It's worth mentioning that, despite the idea that Obama considers himself to be accountable to the law in the instance of the Sequester (for political reasons), he absolutely has proven himself as a President who believes he is above the law.

2.26.2013

My Review of The Looming Tower

On September 11, 2001 I was a high schooler living safe and sound in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. Fate would determine that my second period would be with the American Studies teacher who was also the school's A/V supervisor. So a group of us juniors watched slack-jawed as the second plane struck and as both towers fell. All the while our teacher bellowed at us about how these events would change everything, and the world we thought we knew would be different now.

For the nearly ten years between that day and his death, Osama bin Laden to me was just the thin, silent figure on grainy VHS tapes, shooting range targets, and occasional photographs. The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road To 9/11, Lawrence Wright's riveting history of bin Laden, his al-Qaeda organization, and Islamic extremism seeks to flesh out that vague image.

The winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, The Looming Tower traces back the origins of the militant, and virulent strain of Islamism that would eventually visit such devestation on the world. Wright shows us that much of the Crusades-like rhetoric and anti-western sentiments espoused by bin Laden can be traced back to a frustrated college student, scandalized by the immorality of 1950s America. From there these seeds fueled unrest in Egypt and dissent in Saudi Arabia before becoming a sort of extremist pilgramige of "Arab Afghans" intent on joining up with the mujahideen of Afghanistan and fighting the secularist Soviet Union.

As the Soviets withdrew and collapsed, bin Laden and his followers began to believe in the myth they were selling. Then despite the following years of wavering in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, and eventually returning to Afghanistan in poorly funded disarray, bin Laden's true believers began to organize and to plot a war against an enemy they saw as weak.

Simultaneously, Wright leads us through the infinitely more frustrating tale of the FBI and CIA officials who were fighting Islamic terrorism throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The book gives us countless examples of Cassandras, near misses, and other disappointments, but it hits hardest on the unfathomable obstinance of the Central Intelligence Agency with regards to sharing information with the FBI. It is nearly impossible to come away from this book without believing with near certainty that the CIA is almost entirely responsible for the nation's failure to prevent the September 11th attacks.

The various officials profiled provide a remarkable look at the idiosyncratic nature of law enforcement and intelligence officials, and the stories of these players is at least as compelling as that of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The book is not entirely without its flaws, however. Wright's attempt to use a novelistic approach, weaving the stories of the American intelligence officials with the stories of their quarries, occasionally makes the exact series of events described difficult to follow. Wright will occasionally tell us several years' worth of one party's tale and then backtrack to tell the other party's side, resulting in confusion over when exactly we are. Wright also tends to play fast and loose with basic sentence structure. His penchant for treating stray clauses as sentences will drive those more fastidious about grammar to drink.

The Looming Tower is action packed, filled with intrigue and espionage and mystery, and would give any similarly themed fictional novel a run for its money. I recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the complex, but not unknowable "why" behind al-Qaeda. Wright does a masterful job of bringing the reader into the training camps, and knowing how the story ends in May of 2011 does nothing to lessen the tension.