Wade Davis played in the NFL from 2000–03. In 2012 he chose to go public and become the fourth openly gay former NFL player. Davis is now executive director of the You Can Play Project. He has written for numerous publications and just wrote a piece in Sports Illustrated about spending six hours with Michael Sam prior to Sam’s announcement that he would seek to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
Dave Zirin: Is Michael Sam ready for all of this?
Wade Davis: One hundred percent. And I say that because he was not overwhelmed at all by this. He understood the gravity of it, but he was like, “Look, I’m ready to get this media hoopla over with and to get back to playing ball.” He gets the magnitude of it from a social perspective, but from a football perspective, he says, “Look, I’m a football guy. I’ve been playing it my whole life and I’m better at it than most.” And he’s going to prove it.
Put yourself in the shoes of Wade Davis, circa 2000. If you had come out as an active player, what do you think happens?
First of all, I think people would say, “Well, who is this kid? He’s a scrub. He’s barely making a roster… How many times has he been cut?” But I think the conversation’s different. We weren’t having conversations around athletes and homophobia and sports, or who’s the first athlete that’s going to come out. I think it would be a very different reception not because the sports community is more or less homophobic, but from a national discourse, we weren’t having the same discussions then. There were no marriage equality conversations happening. I just think the entire world was different. I think people would have been like, “Wow, this kid here is crazy. This is suicide.” Whereas with Michael Sam, people are like, “Ok, he can play… so let him play”
How common was it, when you played, as part of the general culture of a locker room, was being “soft” equated with anti-gay slurs, or not being a good player being equated with anti-gay slurs?
In high school, very common. In college, a little less. And in the pros, it’s largely nonexistent. I think there’s always been an unfortunate association with being a gay man as being weaker or soft. The real issue there being that gay men are equated with women, which again says a lot about the problems that our country has with sexism. It should be okay to equate a man to a woman and not to think that means someone’s inferior. It’s unfortunate that this happens so frequently because, I think it is the main reason that guys don’t come out that they’re gay. Because they don’t want to be perceived as weak. It’s not like athletes don’t want to tell their story, or live in their truth. Often our athletic identity and our masculinity are attached. So if you say “I’m gay,” someone will say, “Oh, he’s not man enough.” Or, “He’s not as strong as this other guy.” I think that’s one of the bigger issues.
[This next question was asked just before the release of the Ted Wells report detailing the extent of the bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room.]
One of the first NFL players to tweet support for Michael Sam was a gentleman by the name of Richie Incognito. And I raise that, because in all of the text messages released between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin you saw a lot of anti-gay slurs. When you saw that Richie Incognito sent that out, did your head go towards “this is part of his image rehabilitation” or did it go toward, “wow, maybe Richie has changed.” What was your reaction to that?
Now, this is the first time I’ve been asked this question. So, to be honest my initial thought was that, “oh, this is just his rehabilitation thing.” But then I stood back and I said, “Why am I judging this man?” I only have half of the information. All that I have is the texts, half of the conversation. But I think what we have to not do is vilify athletes as easily as we do. Jonathan Vilma made his comment that he felt uncomfortable showering with a gay teammate. Good. Let’s bring these things out to the forefront. If you have a problem with a gay teammate.
And isn’t it better than an anonymous general manager saying things to Sports Illustrated?
It’s so much better, because a lot of us have a lot of growing to do as individuals, and that doesn’t make Jonathan Vilma homophobic. If I’m at a gay club, and I’m taking a leak, and a man comes and stands too close to me, I get uncomfortable. It’s just a natural thing, how often are you in close proximity with someone else [naked]. Now what makes a difference is that Jonathan Vilma would be OK with it if the person was straight. But now that he knows that Michael Sam is gay… it speaks to the fact that men aren’t used to the prospect of being objectified.
You’re absolutely right. That’s a huge part of it. Men not knowing what women go through on a daily basis.
You know, it all comes down to having experiences. I guarantee that if Jonathan Vilma has a chance to sit down with myself or any other gay person, he’d be like, “You know what? These old ideas that I had about gay people… they really aren’t true.” It’s not all Jonathan Vilma’s fault. Our country has a very monolithic way that they show gay men—the Modern Familys and what not. The exposure’s great, but let’s have some nuance to show that there are different types of gay people, so Jonathan Vilma’s mind can expand and he can say, “Oh, every gay man doesn’t want me.” Most guys look terrible naked, and I should know. And, straight guys look too… there’s a perception that straight guys don’t check out other guys’ penises, and that’s a lie. The one difference is that some straight guys get uncomfortable and think that every gay man wants them. Wrong. Every man does not look like Brad Pitt.
Football is a violent sport. Do you think that it’s possible that players, whether in practice or in games—at the bottom of a pile—could go out of their way to hurt Michael Sam to make some kind of a statement?
I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t think so. Let’s take [hard-hitting safety] Dashon Goldson, right? I don’t think if there was a gay receiver out there, Dashon Goldson could hit a wide receiver any harder. It’s not like they’re going, “Oh, this guy’s straight so I’m going to take a little off of this hit.” Or, “This guy’s gay so I’m going to hit him harder.” Football players play to the max of their abilities because they love it, or because they want to get better contracts or better deals. In the bottom of piles, I’ve been hit or I’ve had my genitalia grabbed or punched. I don’t think it’s going to happen any more or less just because Michael Sam is gay. And, I think that you’re going to find that his teammates are going to protect him more than anyone else because they want the rest of the NFL to know that this is one of their guys. There is a family and a friend dynamic that happens, especially now because people might assume that he will be a target, so his teammates are going to rally around him. And the bond that’s going to be formed is going to be stronger than anything you could have imagined.
The NFLPA, DeMaurice Smith, he called the anonymous executives who talked about Michael Sam’s dropping draft status “gutless.” Do you agree with that?
I think it’s interesting that these execs don’t see the brilliance of what Michael Sam is. How many players, or people in general, have stood up in front of the whole world and said, “This is me.” It shows the type of vulnerability that is a strength. It shows courage that any coach, teammate, exec should want to have. So I think they’re looking at it from the wrong angle, and they’re living in the 1940s. And that’s why I’m so grateful for people like Robert Kraft, and the Giants’ owner John Mara and John Elway who said, “Wait a minute. This is the type of guy that I want on my team, because they represent what a majority of the NFL is about.”
Last question for you, sir. There is an aristocracy of NFL players. Everybody knows them: Peyton, Tom—you only have to use first names—hell, Aaron, Drew, we might even be able to put Russell in there after this last Super Bowl, honestly. Last question for you, does it matter to you at all that the aristocracy has not put out some support or love for Michael Sam’s announcement?
No, it doesn’t matter because those guys aren’t typically the ones who do a lot of talking about stuff anyway. I can’t remember the last time Tom Brady spoke out on any issue…
Well, Uggs are very important to him, I hear.
Exactly. And I would say that probably 90 percent of those guys are probably—well, Peyton’s in the film room—somewhere in Jamaica, or somewhere in Paris. So they’re like, “Great, but it doesn’t bother me.” Deion Sanders of the world, who’s my favorite player of all time, spoke up early in support of Michael Sam. So I was very pleased.
Read Next: the Miami Dolphins, Richie Incognito and the rot in the NFL
Surprisingly—no, actually, shockingly is the right word—Chris Christie got through an entire town hall meeting with several hundred New Jersey residents on Thursday morning without once being asked to say a single word about Bridgegate, the allegations that he withheld Superstorm Sandy aid from Hoboken, or other scandals swirling around the governor. At a VFW hall in the Port Monmouth section of Middletown, in the middle of areas devastated by Sandy in 2012 and still not rebuilt, Christie put on a masterful display, taking question after question from residents who came to beseech the governor and his cabinet about a wide range of problems, from Sandy aid to family law to treatment of disabilities. But no one—not a single questioner—even mentioned the ongoing investigations.
Meanwhile, the governor used part of his performance in Port Monmouth to blame New Jersey’s troubles after Sandy on President Obama, Congress, the Federal Emergency Management Agency—Christie referred to the agency as “the new F-word, FEMA”—and, most surprisingly, the National Flood Insurance Program. He blamed, in short, everyone but himself.
How is it even possible that the lane closing scandal at the George Washington Bridge and the allegations that Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno threatened to cut off Sandy aid to Hoboken unless the mayor of that city backed a development project that Christie wanted weren’t even mentioned? And all this in front of perhaps two dozen cameras from national and local television stations and reporters from throughout New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia, plus quite a few national outlets?
First, as usual in Christie’s town hall events—and this one, he said, was his 110th—reporters don’t get to ask questions.
Second, Christie held the event, his first town hall meeting since last spring and his first public appearance in weeks, on friendly territory, in precincts known to support Christie and the Republican party. And as evidenced by interviews conducted by two Christie Watch reporters with participants, there was indeed a strong reservoir of support for Christie in the room.
Third, according to several participants in the event—which was, to be sure, open to any and all comers—Christie aides and staff both outside and inside the hall told attendees that no signs, posters or placards would be allowed. Gert Sofman of Highlands, New Jersey, whose home and business were both flooded by up to six feet of ocean water and who still hasn’t recovered damages, said that the event’s organizers strictly disallowed any sign of activism inside the building. “They’re shutting down any kind of demonstration,” said Sofman. “I’m so absolutely angry at this point.” And Isabel Newson of Keansburg, a lone activist who pulled out a small sign reading “Christie Resign” toward the end of the event, said that two other, similar signs had been confiscated by the staff.
Fourth, Christie himself, in laying out the ground rules for the event at its start, warned that he wouldn’t be passive if anyone challenged him. If anyone, he said, had it mind, with all the cameras present, to “take the governor out for a walk,” well, he said, “We’re all from New Jersey...If you give it, you’re going to get it back.” Anyone familiar with Christie’s bullying, hectoring YouTube videos in which he lays into critics with abandon knew exactly what they were in for.
And finally—and this is most puzzling—there was no sign at the event of any presence by teachers and trade unions who’ve clashed with Christie, of activist groups such as Citizen Action who’ve opposed him, or from groups such as the Fair Share Housing Center, which has emerged as a key critic of how Christie’s administration has handled the distribution of Sandy-related aid.
In a bit, we’ll get to how Christie unleashed a barrage of anti-government, anti-Washington and pro-privatization rhetoric in response to questions about Sandy assistance. But for most of the attendees at the town hall, it was a chance to listen and ask questions of a very personal nature, hoping against hope that the governor and his aides would promise to help. Before the event got underway, your Christie Watch reporters talked to quite a few audience members, and all had tales of woe, of heartbreak and discouragement, even desperation. Joe Wernock, an out-of-work construction and demolition man from Keansburg, lost nearly everything and recovered only $20,000 from insurance. “I want to find out what’s going on,” he said. “The insurance company said that they can’t insure me now unless I lift the house, and I can’t afford to lift the house. They’re fighting with everybody, the people across the street, the guy down the street.” Ron and Jessica Sickler, of Fort Monmouth, said that their house is gutted. “We pay the mortgage in Fort Monmouth and we pay rent in Tinton Falls,” said Jessica. “I think the funds could have been handled better.”
Richard Isaksen, representing the Belford Seafood Cooperative, said the several hundred fishermen in his coop were “barely working” because the creek they have to get through to reach the ocean hasn’t been dredged since the hurricane and is barely passable. And although there was supposed to be several million dollars set aside for the fishing industry, he said, “We haven’t seen a nickel” of the money his group needs to repair the ice machines and other machinery they use for the fish. “We just need some help.”
But none of these people, nor most of the other folks lined up outside to enter the event knew exactly whom to blame, they said. “We’re here to get information,” said Ron Sickler.
And, at the event, Christie did his best to shift the blame for post-Sandy problems away from his office, and his administration, and onto the federal government. Perhaps most outrageously, Christie went ballistic about the National Flood Insurance Program. “The entire flood insurance business in this country has been taken over by the federal government,” said Christie, just getting warmed up. “There’s not much I can do. We’re stuck in dealing with the federal government.… Why they think they’re the best people to deal with flood insurance is beyond me. They don’t have the first idea of what they’re doing.”
There’s so much wrong with Christie’s attack on FEMA and the NFIP that’s it’s hard to know where to start. For decades it’s been obvious that private insurers don’t have the wherewithal to be able to cover flood damage at prices that would be affordable, and so the federal government has come to the rescue. The truth is that the federal government is the only place people can buy flood insurance, because private insurers don’t want to touch it. “Because of the catastrophic nature of flooding, the difficulty of adequately predicting flood risks and uncertainty surrounding the possibility of charging actuarially sound premium rates, private insurance companies have historically been largely unwilling to underwrite flood insurance,” concluded a recent study by the Government Accountability Office.
Responding to Christie, Representative Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) said:
When Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Northeast, I fought alongside my colleagues to ensure the federal government delivered the resources New Jersey families desperately needed to rebuild their lives. Instead of playing partisan politics and passing the buck, the Governor should focus on correcting the botched rollout of the state-run RREM [Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation] program that has left scores of New Jersey families out in the cold.
The federal government cannot be blamed for the state’s lack of transparency, lost applications and the mysterious firings of Sandy contractors. More than a year after the storm, there are still folks not back in their homes that deserve answers. It’s time for Governor Christie to take responsibility for his administration’s mismanagement and do what’s right by the people of New Jersey.
And the Fair Share Housing Center, which has studied the issue in depth, issued a series of reports and statements indicating that Governor Christie’s private contractor, HGI, which was assigned to manage the distribution of Sandy aid, bears most of the responsibility for recent problems.
One member of the audience did indeed try to raise the issue of the problems with HGI with the governor. “All I hear from you is privatize, privatize, privatize,” he said. “Why was HGI fired?” And, indeed, so far the Christie administration has refused to disclose the problem with HGI, hired in 2013 and then dismissed in December without explanation. At today’s town hall event, Christie once again refused to say why HGI was fired, but he had to speak over loud protests from some in the audience, including one man who shouted, “Answer the question!” Still, Christie provided no answers.
Steve Sweeney, the Democrat who is president of the state Senate—a sometimes collaborator, sometimes rival of the governor—issued a statement following the town hall meeting, saying in part:
The administration has twice fired a contractor handling aid in secret and given no reason. They’ve denied people aid, nearly 80 percent according to Fair Share Housing, who should have received it. They’ve failed to properly inform people what documentation they need to receive aid. They provided the wrong information on deadlines and appeals on the Spanish language website, and shut out the people who were misinformed from applying. They rejected African-Americans at rates 2.5 times higher than Caucasians. Millions of dollars that should have been going to homeowners and businesses have been withheld.
These problems were not caused by the federal government. They were caused by his administration’s failed policies.
Christie, who is well known to be a Bruce Springsteen fanatic, brought the Boss into the town hall event, at least indirectly. At the start of the event, as people were filtering in—and again at the close, as the governor made his exit through a curtain at the back of the room—the hall echoed to the strains of “We Take Care of Our Own,” from Bruce’s 2012 album Wrecking Ball. It’s hard to imagine a less appropriate song to be played at a Chris Christie event. Its lyrics are a strong denunciation of Republican go-it-alone policies and a bitter denunciation of the fact that in today’s America many people cant make it on their own. Bruce sings:
I’ve been knockin’ on the door that holds the throne.
I’ve been lookin’ for the map that leads me home.
I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone.
The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone.
Recently, Springsteen and Jimmy Fallon rocked a hilarious parody of “Born to Run” criticizing the governor’s lane-closing fiasco that went viral on YouTube. And at the Port Monmouth event, one audience member, who identified himself as with the VFW, said he and some friends had discussed what to ask the governor. Here’s what they came up with: “When you go home, will you please destroy all your Bruce Springsteen CDs?” The governor said, in response, that he hopes that the Boss will come around as he gets older.
Read Next: Christie, the GOP's fundraiser-in-chief.
—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration, literature and film.
“The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail: The White People Meeting,” by Barrett Brown. D Magazine, February 17, 2014.
Since January 14, imprisoned journalist and activist Barrett Brown has been contributing a bi-monthly column for D Magazine’s FrontBurner blog focused on (in his words) “the literary life of North Texas jail inmates.” The columns, delivered in a relentlessly sardonic tone, teeter on a cringe-inducing edge between blasé political incorrectness (here, he pokes fun at a Latino gang called “Tango Blast”) and genuine sympathy for his fellow inmates. Readers seeking revolutionary polemic will be disappointed to find mostly historical esoterica and cartoony accounts of prison life in these pages. (Brown is forbidden, by court mandate, from discussing his case.) But the passing reference in this piece to Antonio Gramsci, who wrote a highly influential Marxist treatise while in prison, may give them some hope.
—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.
“Los negocios en el Ejército.” by Semana, February 16, 2014.
Weekly magazine Semana has been at the center of attention in Colombia after publishing two reports this month exposing massive military scandals. The first, titled "Did Someone Spy on the Havana Negotiators?," revealed that Colombian military intelligence illegally spied on leftists, NGOs and Colombian politicians involved in peace talks with FARC rebels. The second report, "Business in the Army," is Semana's newest divulgement: a report alleging, among other things, that military leaders stole money from defense contracts. In some cases, they gave this money to soldiers jailed in the "false positives" scandal, in which poor civilians, lured to war zones by promises of jobs, were killed and dressed in rebel uniforms to boost military body counts (and thus claims of success). The stolen money allegedly went to the soldiers' families in exchange for their silence about high-ranking officer involvement in the scandal. These allegations reveal the kind of corruption, brutality and secrecy at the heart of the American-trained, funded and equipped Colombian military. For almost fifteen years, Colombia has been America's largest recipient of military aid in the western hemisphere. Maybe it's finally time to consider scaling back.
—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.
“The Public Voice of Women,” by Mary Beard. London Review of Books, February 14, 2014.
Mary Beard discusses the ways in which women are (still) systematically excluded from "public" discourse. Not only do men have disproportionate access to and control of public fora, she emphasizes: the public speech women do air is consistently dismissed as inappropriate in style. Beard's use of the metaphor of "pollution" (women being accused of "polluting" the male public sphere) recalls Suey Park and David J. Leonard's recent "In Defense of Twitter Feminism," which uses the same metaphor to remind us that not just women but people of color of all genders, as well as other marginalized groups, routinely have their speech undermined by the claim that they are not using the style of speech appropriate for public discourse, a rhetorical move that can do more to delegitimize it than any criticism of its content. The key point of Beard's essay comes at the end: that we should "try to bring to the surface the kinds of question we tend to shelve about how we speak in public, why and whose voice fits."
—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.
“Doctors Train to Spot Signs of A.D.H.D. in Children,” by Alan Schwarz. The New York Times, February 19, 2014.
Bouncing idly at his school desk and cartooning around his math homework, your typical scatterbrained 10-year-old's short attention span has become something of great concern to helicopter parents. Almost 20 percent of all boys are diagnosed with ADHD by the time they're 18—the same children who, just a few years ago, would have been considered "energetic" or "dreamy." In this article, Schwarz highlights both parents' and, worse, doctors' ignorance on the matter of ADHD, which can lead to a dependence on stimulants like Adderall or Concerta. Educating pediatricians and bringing more child psychologists to the table will result in fewer false positives and allow experts to understand more subtle reasons behind a child's nervous energy, such as unaddressed trauma or lack of parental attention.
—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.
“Shock in Detroit: Workers Lose in Bankruptcy Court,” by Lou Dubose. The Washington Spectator, February 1, 2014.
That Detroit’s city council has been dissolved has not received the continuous media attention I would expect. See some of The Nation’s coverage here. In his Klein-inspired piece, Dubose does well in exposing the “vice-regal powers” enjoyed by Detroit’s emergency manager, the racial similarities of the Michigan cities being run by emergency managers, the ramifications of converting retirees into creditors, the financial predation of Detroit and the questionable associations among state-appointed managers and the Jones Day law firm. What is missing from the piece is some mention of US legal doctrines, like Dillon’s Rule, which legalize the removal of municipal power.
—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.
“‘I Don't Want to Create a Paper Trail’: Inside the Secret Apple-Google Pact,” by Josh Harkinson. Mother Jones, February 19, 2014.
As Harkinson points out, tech employees' antitrust lawsuit over their companies' secret agreements not to recruit from each other may not draw sympathy from most Bay Area residents, who make nowhere near the wages the plaintiffs say these policies suppressed. "And yet," Harkinson writes, the case, with a trial slated for May, actually relates to the problem of growing inequality highlighted by the recent anger over tech buses. It shows that "the widening gap between the rich and poor isn't some accident of free-market capitalism, but the product of a system that puts corporate leaders and their shareholders ahead of everyone else." Given that "Silicon Valley execs love to talk about how a free market breeds innovation," it's significant that the innovators they employ say they've been hurt by not-so-free market agreements.
—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.
“Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine,” by Timothy Snyder. The New York Review of Books, February 19, 2014.
What to make of Ukraine? Opinions seem easier to come by than they should. A choice between two readily conjured, overused symbols becomes almost a requisite—an allegiance to one side or the other, without nuance or real understanding. It's harder to have an opinion when personal connections are involved. The American-born, American-raised part of me wants to side, without reservation, with the opposition groups fighting for democracy, and for their lives. The part of me that is the child of Soviet-Jewish immigrants—immigrants who left Ukraine in part because of anti-semitism—worries about the nationalist factions taking over the message, the protests, and whatever comes after. But Timothy Snyder makes the case that anti-Jewish sentiment isn't the domain of one side only. He perhaps underestimates the strength of ultra-nationalists within the opposition movement, but his point is important to consider, especially if you're not yet prepared to judge.
—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.
“When a University Hospital Backs a Surgical Robot, Controversy Ensues,” by Charles Ornstein. ProPublica, February 14, 2014.
Dozens of members from the surgery team at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System have appeared in an ad for da Vinci, a robot used in surgery. Nothing wrong with that, right? Paul Levy, a former hospital chief executive who now manages the blog Not Running a Hospital, thinks there is: he says it violates the university's own regulations, and potentially state law. Perhaps more importantly, using doctors—especially a whole team of them, and from a reputable hospital—may give a false impression of the medical necessity for the robot, which can cost up to $2.2 million a pop and may not offer significant medical benefits. Levy has since filed a complaint with the university, and you can follow his active pursuit of the matter on his blog, but the issue is bigger than da Vinci and the University of Illinois: how health companies advertise, and particularly their use of medical professionals in doing so, has a long history of deception, with companies regularly utilizing, or in some cases, fabricating, endorsements of medical devices to boost sales. The dogged pursuits from Levy and others concerned with relationships among doctors, academics and medical companies are extremely important.
—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.
“My Year of MOOCs,” by Jonathan Haber. Slate, February 6, 2014.
Earlier this month educational researcher Jonathan Haber completed a one-year experiment to determine whether it was possible “to learn the equivalent of a four-year liberal arts bachelor’s program” in just one year by taking free ‘massive, open, online courses’, or MOOCs. He chose to study philosophy for his Degree of Freedom One Year BA and, in lieu of final exams, attended a meeting of the American Philosophical Association. “My threshold for passing,” writes Haber, “was not feeling like an idiot” amidst students of philosophy who took a more traditional—and costly—path to self-enlightenment. Well, did he pass? I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say this: the implications for the democratization of higher ed are enormous.
—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.
“Faculty on Strike,” by Lennard Davis and Walter Benn Michaels. Jacobin, February 14, 2014.
Two prominent academics at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) describe the reasoning behind the decision of the UIC faculty union to go on strike. While the two-day strike has already ended, their statement provides a look at the changing face of labor. Most interestingly, Davis and Michaels make the case that the distinction between workers and professionals, elaborated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as part of the development of the middle class, has lost meaning under today's economic conditions and that it is necessary to come together as part of a larger struggle.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on homophobia in the NFL.
Comcast recently announced plans to buy Time Warner Cable. If the merger is approved, the country’s two largest cable providers would become one powerful behemoth that would control a massive share of our TV and Internet-access markets.
John Nichols summed up the danger of the merger:
Merging the two largest cable providers is a big deal in and of itself—allowing one company to become a definitional player in major media markets across the country—but this goes far beyond cable. By expanding its dominance of video and Internet communications into what the Los Angeles Times describes as a “juggernaut” with 30 million subscribers, the company that already controls Universal Studios can drive hard bargains with content providers. It can also define the scope and character of news and public-service programming in dozens of states and hundreds of major cities—including Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, DC.
The merger would be bad for consumers, bad for our free press and bad for democracy. Tell FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler that he must stop the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger.
In her column for The Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel explained why the proposed merger “doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Earlier this week, Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! interviewed former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who discussed the dangers of the deal, saying that it “should be dead on arrival.”
Of the 500 Cossacks patrolling Olympic Sochi, only one could talk to me. As I waited for two hours at the temporary quarters of these throwback warriors for Valery Vasilievich, deputy head of the Kuban Cossack Host, to arrive, I started chatting with a young Cossack named Oleg, who had traded his sheepskin hat and wool uniform for a polo shirt and short shorts on his day off. As he poked at his iPad, we talked about the cost of iPhones, the upcoming Canada-America hockey match and Oleg’s émigré brother and aunt’s love for the United States. Oleg said he had left his sword and traumatic pistol at home in Krasnodar, the regional capital—no need to scare the tourists. In short, he was just a normal 20-year-old kid playing soldier here in Sochi.
When I asked him what he thought about his brother in arms who gassed and beat Pussy Riot activists with a traditional Cossack whip yesterday, he said he hadn’t given it much thought.
“I support him as a fellow Cossack,” he said finally.
Once upon a time, Cossacks were the most feared horsemen in the czar’s army, members of a military caste that lived and died in the lawless borderlands of the Russian empire. But the contingent of Kuban Cossacks serving in Sochi are just modern Russians who happened to be born white and Orthodox Christian in the Krasnodar region, the traditional Cossack heartland. Thanks to this legacy—and the political expediency of all things “traditional” in Russia now—they’ve been able to claim a privileged status in local law enforcement, allowed to detain people until police arrive and conduct anti-immigrant raids. But while they may have the power, they don’t have the liability that comes with it, as the Pussy Riot whipping showed.
The Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi, is the center of the Cossack revival: Governor Alexander Tkachyov, who is himself a Cossack colonel, became the first to institutionalize Cossacks last year when he placed some 1,200 Cossacks on the state payroll.
The Cossacks have enjoyed the patronage of the federal government thanks to their ability to promote patriotism and traditional values, a main plank of Vladimir Putin’s foreign and domestic policy. Meanwhile, regional leaders like Tkachyov can employ Cossack groups as a loyal alternative to the police, which are controlled by the Interior Ministry in Moscow, according to New York University professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services. And local citizens—at least the ethnic Russians—generally like Cossacks and credit them improving law and order.
But the professionalism of the Cossack hosts springing up around Russia had been called into question even before the Pussy Riot whipping. The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Cossacks broke one man’s nose in Krasnodar in 2013 when he noted that they had no right to check his documents, and a local Cossack leader also punched a female electoral official in the nose that year. No one was prosecuted in either instance.
Meanwhile, Cossacks have continued the xenophobic streak of their forebears who led czarist pogroms against Jews, according to many historians. The Kuban Cossacks said they took part in mass anti-immigrant raids in Sochi this fall that resulted in the deportation of hundreds of immigrant workers who built the Olympic venues. Many of these workers were then held in inhumane conditions and not paid the wages they were owed, according to Human Rights Watch and local activists.
In fact, the regional news service Caucasian Knot reported that 270 Cossacks in the Krasnodar region serve in special “mobile brigades” that conduct raids to find undocumented immigrants. According to Oleg, these nighttime adventures are sanctioned by special documents from the prosecutor general’s office and involve bands of Cossacks rounding up immigrants and carting those without documents off in a van to face deportation proceedings.
Asked if modern-day Cossacks—many of whom actually do have minimal military experience—could be somehow reformed into an effective crime-fighting force, Galeotti said the first thing to do would be “to make it clear that Cossacks should not be regarded as having special privileges or rights.”
“With the beating of Pussy Riot, if it had been security guards who had used truncheons it would be regarded as a crime,” he said.
Even conservative pundit Maxim Shevchenko, who condemned Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2012, said their Cossack attackers had “shamed Russia and the Olympics” and called for them to face criminal charges. Instead, the one with the whip received an administrative violation and paid a fine, and he’s still on the Cossack payroll.
Valery Vasilievich, when he finally arrived, said he had commended his whip-happy subordinate on a job well done.
“We’ve driven and will continue to drive these girls out of here with a dirty broom,” he said of Pussy Riot, whom he accused of defiling Orthodoxy’s main church and being American agents.
Maybe with better training and reforms to the ill-defined legal area that leaves room for vigilante justice and anti-immigrant raids, these men in sheepskin hats could serve some minor security function. But for now, they’re just playing at soldiers, whipping girls and inflaming ethnic tensions on a whim.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Cossack soldiers’ attacking members of Pussy Riot
Questions abound following the fatal shooting of a Texas woman by a sheriff’s deputy Sunday, centering on conflicting statements as to whether she was armed.
Deputy Daniel Willis fatally shot Yvette Smith, 47, after responding to a 911 call at a residence at 105 Zimmerman Avenue regarding an argument between two men over a gun, according to local police. Smith died later at a local hospital.
Bastrop County police initially claimed that Smith, who is black, walked to the doorstep with a gun and refused to follow officers’s commands before she was shot. A subsequent statement, released hours later, said investigators “cannot confirm” that Smith was armed or refused to follow commands. The sheriff’s department has placed Willis, who is white, on administrative leave.
One of the men involved in the reported argument, Willie Thomas, who was the homeowner and Smith’s boyfriend, told the Austin Statesman that she did not have a gun when the incident occurred. Smith’s 25-year-old son Anthony Bell said his mother was uneasy around guns.
Bell added that there was, indeed, an argument in the residence over a gun, but no gun was in the home.
The Bastrop Sheriff’s Department chose not to comment, pending further investigations.
Here’s more about Yvette Smith from the Statesman:
Smith worked at the Austin State Hospital as a caretaker until a few months ago, when she had knee surgery, and enjoyed her time off, listening to blues music on her front porch and smoking a cigar, family members said.
Smith was a single mother who was loving yet stern to Bell and his 18-year-old brother, family members said. While teaching them the value of a dollar and pushing them to do chores, she also spoiled them.
The last three days have been the bloodiest in Ukraine’s twenty-two-year post-Soviet history. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen railed against the tepid response of Western leaders to this eruption of violence. Warning that the chaos in Ukraine could spark a civil war—or even “a new Cold War divide”—he chastised the United States and Germany for placing responsibility for solving this political crisis squarely in the hands of the Ukranian government. According to Cohen, President Obama and Chancellor Merkel’s implicit support for the anti-government protesters helps to “rationalize what the killers in the streets are doing. It gives them Western license.”
Editor’s note: The interview with Cohen starts at 11:40.
This week witnessed a minor contretemps in the world of crossword puzzles. The details are not especially important, nor are they easy to discuss without the risk of spoiling a prominent puzzle for those who may not have solved it yet (the original blog posts are here and here). But the underlying issue had to do with the importance of consistency in a puzzle’s theme.
If you construct a puzzle based on theme entries in which one letter changes to another, must every occurrence of that letter change? Are little words such as “of” and “the” exempt? Does it make a difference if the changing letter is a rarity like Q or Z, or a workhorse like E or T? And what about puzzle themes that involve entire words? Do the thematic words have to occur at particular locations in the theme entries—the beginning or the end, say—or can they be placed freely?
As you might expect, those taking part in the discussion (which soon spilled off of the blogs and onto Facebook) wound up arrayed along a continuum, from advocates for maximum consistency to those maintaining a more laissez-faire attitude. There was general agreement that some degree of consistency is required in order to make a puzzle theme both comprehensible and pleasurable; the question is how to make that judgment.
These questions arise for us as well when we construct puzzles with themes. In recent months, for example, we’ve run some themes with comparatively loose constraints. For Puzzle #3313, we used whatever long entries we could find that included the part words we were trying to use; Puzzle #3289, by contrast, put the names of the three most recent popes in the same spot in each of three theme entries.
And sometimes, we split the difference. We built Puzzle #3307 around the countries with four-letter names. There are 10 of them, of which we could only get seven into the grid. So to placate our consciences—and the nagging cry of consistency—we put the other three into the clues.
How important do you find consistency in a crossword theme? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail.
Matt Taibbi, a favorite of Nation (and other) readers for several years thanks to his hard-hitting, but often humorous, reporting on the crooks and “squids” of Wall Street, and their DC cronies, for venerable Rolling Stone, announced today he was joining First Look. That’s the new media project from Pierre Omidiyar, which has already attracted the likes of Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras.
He will head the financial/economic team and produce the second digital magazine. Greenwald, Scahill and others launched the first, The Intercept, related to the NSA/Snowden leaks and privacy/security concerns earlier this month.
Taibbi’s farewell to Rolling Stone is here. (He learned of his big career break while walking in my native Niagara Falls.) See links to some of his “greatest hits” below. The First Look release is here and includes:
Taibbi will help assemble a top-notch team of journalists and bring his trademark combination of reporting, analysis, humor and outrage to the ongoing financial crisis—and to the political machinery that makes it possible. The magazine will launch later this year.
Taibbi comes to First Look from Rolling Stone, where he served as a contributing editor for the past 10 years. During his tenure, he built a large and devoted following that has grown to rely on his in-depth and irreverent reporting on Wall Street and Washington. Whether busting Goldman Sachs for market manipulation or revealing the hidden roots of the student loan crisis, Taibbi has exposed and explained the most complicated financial scandals of the day with a fresh and compelling approach to journalism that has enraged and inspired millions of readers.
“Matt is one of the most influential journalists of our time,” said Eric Bates, executive editor of First Look Media. “His incisive explorations of the financial crisis—and Wall Street’s undue influence over our political system—have played a key role in helping to inform the public and transform the national debate. He is a journalist who can explain what a credit default swap is and why it’s important—and, make you bust out laughing while he’s doing it. I look forward to having him on our team and helping him launch a dynamic new site unlike any other.”
Just this week I posted an item on Taibbi’s latest piece at my blog. “The Loophole That Ate the World,” as we put it, in describing his angle. Earlier, Taibbi on “advocacy journalists” (that is, all of them). How the bailouts created a “Ponzi scheme.” Of course, we enjoyed it when he went after David Brooks. Then there was his take on a Thomas Friedman sex tape.
Read Next: Nation in the News Stephen Cohen: In Kiev, We Can’t Ignore the Fascist Minority.
The grisly execution of convicted murderer Dennis McGuire earlier this year raised controversy over the lethal injection cocktail used to put him to death. That concoction—composed of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone—had never before been used for capital punishment.
Now, the maker of those drugs says it objects to their use for killing inmates.
Associated Press reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins obtained records tracing Ohio’s lethal injection drugs to Hospira Inc., an Illinois-based pharmaceutical company. A representative from Hospira told Welsh-Huggins that it makes the drugs for treating patients, not executing prisoners. But the company didn’t indicate plans for further action. Per AP:
Despite its opposition, Hospira also says there’s only so much it can do, given what it calls “the complex supply chain and the gray market” of US drug distribution. It says it can’t guarantee a US prison could not obtain restricted products outside of the normal distribution process.
This isn’t the first time Hospira has been mired in a death penalty controversy. In 2011, global protests prompted the company to stop manufacturing the drug sodium thiopental because of its use in US executions.
Ohio law mandates the use of midazolam and hydromorphone for executions. It switched over to the cocktail after European manufacturers barred sales of the drug pentobarbital to US prison systems.
During Ohio’s first trial with the Hospira-made cocktail, McGuire repeatedly gasped for air, choked and made loud snorting sounds throughout the twenty-five-minute procedure, the longest in the state since it resumed executions in 1999. McGuire’s family filed a lawsuit against the state, saying the manner in which he died amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
Outrage and national attention over McGuire’s gruesome death has spurred state officials to postpone upcoming executions using the same drugs. Earlier this month, a Louisiana judge delayed the execution of Christopher Sepulvado, convicted for murdering his 6-year-old stepson. And in Ohio, Governor John Kasich granted a reprieve for convicted killer Gregory Lott, as officials finish up an examination of McGuire’s death.
There are five more executions scheduled in Ohio this year.
Read Next: New York state bans solitary confinement for inmates under 18.