Cord Jefferson | The Nation

Cord Jefferson

Cord Jefferson

Thinking from the intersection of race, culture and politics. Also, talking smartly about stupid things.

The Glaring Problem With National Starbucks Appreciation Day

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

With Chick-fil-A announcing record profits following Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, a fake holiday created by conservative pundits to support the controversial fast-food chain, angry liberals are setting out to respond in kind. August 7, if this Facebook event from gay rights organization Equally Wed is to be believed, is now National Marriage Equality Day, also known as National Starbucks Appreciation Day. The goal, Kirsten Palladino of Equally Wed wrote in the Huffington Post, is simple: “Let’s affirm a business that operates on moral principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for human dignity and upstanding values, the same that we advocate by simply showing up, drinking and eating at Starbucks on Tuesday, August 7.” While I support the right of gays and lesbians to marry about as much as anyone who is not gay can, I don’t think I’ll be joining Palladino and her friends at Starbucks on Tuesday.

I’m not sure how we got to a place in which it’s considered a political act to buy fast food, but here we are. For the conservatives, it was fried-chicken sandwiches, and now, for the liberals’ turn, we get hastily prepared Frappuccinos. It would be one thing if Starbucks was working in conjunction with Equally Wed. If the coffee giant was giving some of the proceeds from National Marriage Equality Day to any of the very worthy nonprofits working to make same-sex marriage in America legal, I’d be the first one in line on August 7. As it stands, however, Starbucks has yet to make a peep about Starbucks Appreciation Day. Rather, the day is a response to Starbucks’ corporate office’s proclaiming in March of this year that it supports marriage equality in the company’s home state of Washington. Good for Starbucks, but what has it done for me lately? Specifically, is it ready to put its money where its mouth is on August 7?

To be sure, anyone who supports gay rights should say kudos to Starbucks for sacrificing customers by coming out in support of marriage equality (the National Organization for Marriage, of course, has already called for a boycott). But unless Starbucks is going to donate a large percentage of the largesse it gets on August 7 to gay rights causes, why should liberals feel obligated to give their money to a giant corporation? In what way is further enriching a food and beverage manufacturer a statement on same-sex marriage?

One of the reasons Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was such a success is because Dan Cathy, the company’s president, unabashedly donates millions of dollars to organizations trying to squash gay rights. When conservatives flooded Cathy’s restaurants on August 1, they weren’t just symbolically supporting his political views; they were also offering money to someone who routinely gives cash injections to bigots. Starbucks, a much bigger operation than Chick-fil-A, doesn’t do what Cathy does. It’s more friendly to the LGBTQ community than many companies its size, of course, but it doesn’t donate massive chunks of its fortune to gay causes, probably because doing so would be too politically imprudent. I don’t begrudge them their smart business decision, but I’m not planning on giving them any of my money tomorrow, either.

Until Starbucks comes out and says it plans on charitably parting with a significant portion of its August 7 profits, I recommend staying home on that day with your French press. You can write a check to Freedom to Marry or the Human Rights Campaign and be confident that your money is going directly to people in the thick of the struggle for same-sex marriage. Besides, Starbucks burns the hell out of their beans anyway.

To Be American, Christian and Oppressed

Customers gather by the hundreds outside the Gilbert, Arizona, Chick-fil-A restaurant, Wednesday, August 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Matt York)

I’d never have guessed Christians have it so hard in America until yesterday, when two incidents reminded us of how put upon our nation’s worshipful majority is.

The first came when, at the behest of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, thousands upon thousands of people turned out for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. After Chick-fil-A’s COO said recently that same-sex marriage brings “God’s judgment on our nation,” the fast-food chain with deep roots in the South has become a target of ire for Americans who support gay unions. Some people, myself included, have said they intend to boycott Chick-fil-A, while politicians in Chicago and Boston say they want to block Chick-fil-A from opening restaurants in their cities.

In response to the Chick-fil-A backlash, Huckabee teamed up with other right-wing pundits like Glenn Beck to make August 1 Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, a day for conservatives around the country to show their admiration for a company that heralds Christian ideals. The ad hoc holiday worked, and many Chick-fil-A locations saw standing-room-only crowds.

“It’s extremely encouraging to see this massive push back and support from prominent political figures,” wrote conservative blogger Michelle Malkin. “But before and after today, many small businesses and lesser-known companies will be battling government officials and progressive shakedown artists because of their religious beliefs and principles. They deserve your support and attention, too.”

Echoing Malkin’s assertions that Christianity is under fire from the godless hordes is Congressman Mike Kelly (R-PA). Yesterday, while conservatives were winning in Chick-fil-A drive-thrus everywhere, their fellow ideologues on the Hill were losing a protest against President Obama’s requirement that private insurers cover birth control. The contraceptive mandate went into effect Wednesday, and, in dissent, Kelly and some of his GOP colleagues held a press conference, where Kelly said the following:

I know in your mind you can think of times when America was attacked. One is December 7th, that's Pearl Harbor day. The other is September 11th, and that's the day of the terrorist attack. I want you to remember August the 1st, 2012, the attack on our religious freedom. That is a day that will live in infamy, along with those other dates.

Though the congressman’s words differ slightly in depth and tenor from Malkin’s, their ultimate points are the same: Christians in America are in a sort of wartime in which they are fighting for their religion and, if Kelly’s terrorist bombing analogies are to be believed, maybe even their lives.

Unfortunately for Malkin, Kelly and any other Christian who actually believes their melodramatic pap, the evidence that America is in the midst of some great paradigmatic shift away from Judeo-Christian virtues is nearly nonexistent, regardless of how many people boycott Chick-fil-A. Even less of a reality is that our nation is actively working to destroy Christianity and its acolytes the way the Japanese sought to decimate Pearl Harbor. For proof of this, one need only look everywhere.

When it comes to Christian corporations operating completely free of leftist “attacks,” America has everything from slinky women’s clothing store Forever 21, which emblazons its shopping bags with the words “John 3:16,” to Tom’s of Maine, a hippie natural toiletries line whose founder once attended Harvard’s Divinity School. In-N-Out Burger is a heavily Christian operation, as is Tyson Foods, the world’s largest purveyor of chicken. And like Forever 21 and Tom’s of Maine, In-N-Out and Tyson’s appear to be filling their coffers with money from customers across the political spectrum. Why aren’t these businesses being affected by this war on Christianity?

Outside of businesses, the Boy Scouts of America remains so Christian that it won’t allow atheists or agnostics within its ranks, nor does it tolerate openly gay scout leaders. Our current president is Christian, like every president before him, and more than 90 percent of the 112th Congress is some iteration of Christian. Nearly all our important political addresses are appended with “God Bless the United States of America,” and millions of American children are still forced to pledge their allegiance to  “one nation under God” every weekday.

In short, if this is not a country that remains—despite its Chick-fil-A boycotts—one steeped deeply and intractably in Christianity, I’d hate to see what kind of stringent theocracy a true Christian nation would resemble. While I agree with people like Mother Jones reporter Adam Serwer, who argues that liberal cities banishing Chick-fil-As is a bridge too far, the truth is that even if such drastic measures came to pass, the Christian God and the Christian Bible would still be everywhere in the United States, and neither is in any danger of being dethroned. That people like Malkin and Kelly like to pretend otherwise means one of two things: they are either paranoid religious fanatics who actually believe their house of worship is in jeopardy, or they’re playing politics and hoping to gin up the rabid religious fervor that paints an angry red so much of Republicanism these days. Regardless of their motives, their behavior is far from what one would expect from a true lamb of Christ. Then again, their lips slick with fast-food grease, many Christians don't appear to care too much about authentic Christianity anymore.

How About Also Taking the Guns From the Cops?

Idris Elba as Detective John Luther (Photo via the BBC)

In the wake of this month’s Colorado movie theater shooting, America has rightfully been inundated with debates about whether it should be harder for private citizens to get guns. Few, if any, of those debates, however, have focused on the merits of disarming law enforcement officers. It’s become the status quo in the United States that if anyone should be compulsorily armed, it’s police. We forget, however, that that’s not the case everywhere.

I started thinking about the overlap of police work and guns this weekend while watching the hit BBC drama Luther (available on Netflix Instant now). In the show, Detective John Luther, played by Idris Elba, is a troubled cop who, despite his willingness to confront the worst killers the UK has to offer, hates guns. “How does a guy who hates guns also work as a police officer in London’s bloody Major Crimes Unit?” you ask. Simple: cops in England—both on Luther and in real life—aren’t all constantly armed.

For an American, watching a cop show in which the police don’t all have handguns on their hips or underneath their suit coats adds a fascinating layer of tension to a genre that’s often depressingly formulaic. In one episode, for instance, two of Luther’s fellow detectives have to quietly talk a manic serial killer out of putting down his weapon, a rusty old claw hammer. Had the setting been any American city, the scene would have been obvious: the cops would have both pulled out their Glocks, ordered the suspect to drop the hammer and, if he didn’t comply, shot him. On Luther, the task of navigating an armed suspect becomes a lot more gentle and psychological, with the police frequently having to find better ways of defusing situations than immediately brandishing guns and blasting away. There are times when Luther et al. call for armed backup, to be sure. But they rarely have firearms at hand, and the show is more compelling for it.

A force of largely unarmed police does have its drawbacks, of course. On Luther, as in real cases in England, there are always times when a police officer’s having a gun on his person might have saved a life or two. But the question then becomes this: How many lives are lost because armed police shoot unnecessarily and how many lives could potentially be saved by arming every cop, and is the difference between those two sums worth it? To ask English police themselves—real ones, not TV ones—it’s not.

Following an uptick in gun violence in 2006, the Police Federation of England and Wales polled officers to ask them if they’d like to be routinely armed. While 43 percent of the police force supported increasing the number of cops trained to use guns, the overwhelming majority, 82 percent, said they were against all cops having firearms.

This weekend, in a part of Anaheim less than five miles from Disneyland, riots shook a neighborhood in which cops shot and killed an unarmed 25-year-old named Manuel Diaz. Diaz was running away from police when they took aim and fired on him in an alley. He died at the hospital shortly thereafter, and the ensuing clashes between his community and police have already resulted in another civilian death. In England, Diaz may have gotten away, but chances are he’d still be alive right now, and I think that’s OK. As I’ve learned from Luther, sometimes the best police work is knowing when not to shoot.

Kids These Days Are Not Interested in Vegetarianism

As both a longtime vegetarian and someone who reads the news every day, I must say these new Gallup stats threw me for a loop. They’re all semi-interesting—I’d never have guessed that college graduates are less likely to be vegetarians than high school dropouts, for instance—but I find the one on age to be most shocking. If you’d have asked me last week, I’d have said with total confidence that Millennials are surely more prone to vegetarianism than senior citizens. And yet, I’d have been so wrong.

The only way I can square this in my head is that American culinary culture is entering a phase in which the trend is to eat everything, but do so mindfully. Whereas vegetarianism was once a very binary decision—you either are or aren’t—in recent years, chefs and food writers like Michael Pollan have started preaching the gospel of rational and moderate meat consumption. The New York Times’s Mark Bittman, for instance, says he’s vegan before 6 pm, at which point he allows himself to eat whatever he wants, meat or no.

With people like Bittman and Pollan at the nation’s food helm, and fancy organic butcher shops opening up in trendy neighborhoods from coast to coast, maybe Millennials are moving away from the old, rigid vegetarianism promoted by Paul McCartney and PETA. The new thing is to allow yourself to eat meat, but to make sure that it’s meat that is hormone free and hasn’t been factory farmed. I can’t say I agree with that decision, but I do like that it appears we are living in a time in which Americans are thinking more than ever about what they put into their bodies.

The Pot Making the Prisoners Black

(Photo via Flickr user Colleen Danger)

Marijuana has for decades been a lot of things to a lot of people: sleep aid, pain reliever and recreational drug to name a few. Anymore, however, it’s also become a very effective tool for imprisoning young black and Latino men.

Though whites are statistically more likely to dabble in pot than minorities, the racial discrepancies of marijuana busts are staggering. In New York City, for instance, minor marijuana arrests are down thanks to a Bloomberg-backed effort to give leeway to people in possession of small amounts of the drug. But of those who are arrested, often via the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, nearly 80 percent are either black or Latino. Similarly, in Chicago in 2011, 20,603 people were arrested for having a negligible amount of marijuana. One thousand of those Chicagoans were white, while 15,862 of them were black.

If you can believe it, elsewhere, the disparity between white and minority pot arrests are even worse, as Steven Wishnia noted in Alternet this week:

In the six urban areas where [criminal justice professor Jon] Gettman found the highest rates of marijuana arrests, the handcuffs most often clamped black wrists. In Baltimore, Louisville, Omaha, Atlanta, and Syracuse and Buffalo in upstate New York, the arrest rate for black people exceeded 1 out of 65.

In Atlanta, African Americans were 93 percent of those busted for pot in the last two years, according to figures obtained by TV station WSB. The city’s people are slightly more than half black.

Black people are 88 percent of those busted in Baltimore, which is 64 percent black. In Omaha, Syracuse, and Buffalo, African Americans are slightly more than 10 percent of the population, and about half the people arrested.

Prima facie, the prejudicial manner in which major American cities are arresting nonviolent pot users is wildly wrong. But it becomes an outright tragedy when one considers that it’s these kinds of minor arrests early in a low-income person’s life that end up derailing entire futures. A wealthy college kid who gets busted with a bong in his room is likely to be ultimately fine, what with a decent lawyer who can sweet-talk a judge about his client’s bright career prospects. Meanwhile, a low-income 19-year-old in Atlanta who gets arrested for having pot probably can’t afford a lawyer good and well-connected enough to help him wipe his record clean. That means that he’s got a pot charge burdening him, which makes a person ineligible for federal student loans and subsidized housing, and difficult to employ in a world gone crazy with online background checks. If the boy’s arrested again, and that’s a distinct possibility once he’s got a record, it’s likely his prior conviction will also ensure his next punishment is harsher than before.

Blessedly, many cities are coming to their senses. Bloomberg, as I said before, is at least saying he wants to cut down on ticky-tack marijuana arrests in New York, and the Chicago City Counil ruled last month to allow cops to give tickets to people in possession of fifteen grams of pot or less rather than arresting them. In other words, we’re slowly improving, little by little, state by state. In the meantime, Americans need to understand that the war on marijuana isn’t a war on hippie stoners, and it never has been, despite the drug’s mythology. As with most of the drug war, the pot war is one being waged against young black and brown people. Even if you’ve never touched a joint a day in your life, you should consider that a major problem. One needn’t support weed to fight racism.

'Secundus Defecated Here': What Ancient Graffiti Means Today

Pompeii (Photo via Flickr user bonnieann1815)

Easily the best thing I’ve seen on the internet in a while I found late last week while cruising around Tumblr. It was a link to Pompeiana.org, a website from some classics scholars interested in educating the public on Pompeii, which was destroyed in the first century by Mount Vesuvius. The whole site is interesting, if not a little dated aesthetically, but what I found most intriguing was the graffiti page.

Indeed, in an effort to more deeply understand Pompeii, researchers have delved not only into the city’s architecture and frescoes, but also all the graffiti to be found throughout its ancient walls. But before you go assuming the ancient Pompeiians vandalized with only the most brilliant bons mots—“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” everywhere, perhaps—I suggest reading exactly what the excavators have dug up. Here, a list of some of my favorites:

  • Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!

  • Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates.

  • I screwed the barmaid.

  • Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here.

  • I screwed a lot of girls here.

  • Sollemnes, you screw well!

If you’d like to read all the graffiti (and I recommend you do), you can do so here. But you needn't read it all to see one thing very clearly: Despite whatever beliefs you may have about the dignity of the Roman Empire, a whole host of Romans, it seems, were foul-mouthed, hyper-sexual, and frequently prone to sophomoric humor. The Pompeiians were a smart people, of course, and they built a beautiful city well ahead of its time. But it turns out that they were also kind of juvenile. Go figure.

In and of itself, the graffiti is interesting. Juxtaposed with today’s society, however, the silly musings say a lot about the tired conservative talking point that modern culture has somehow fallen into immorality and chaos. Rick Santorum was once quoted as saying, “Satan has his sights on the United States of America." Elsewhere, David Cameron blamed 2011's London riots on a "moral collapse." In an American Conservative piece from last year titled “America’s Moral Decline,” the author ends with: “Neither Democrats or Republicans have the exclusive rights to morality, American or otherwise. But both parties continue to do grave damage to some of the most cherished values that have always made this country great.”  Do a simple Google search for “America’s moral decline” and you’ll encounter thousands upon thousands of shrill rants from people convinced that our “sex-crazed” society is rapidly decaying. For decades now, the professional right has made a big business out of pretending that TV, the rise of gay culture, rap music, and dozens of other things have contributed to the fall of a once greatly moral world, all the while seeming to forget that Thomas Jefferson is known to have taken sexual advantage of his slaves and Benjamin Franklin is believed by some to have been part of a drunken orgy club.

It may make you feel nice to pretend that the societies that gave rise to the modern world were ones of pure honor and decency, but that’s not reality. The world isn’t on a moral decline, because there was never a time when the world was particularly morally superior. If we can glean anything from the Pompeiian graffiti, it’s that even citizens of history’s most immaculate and important civilizations liked their sex and poop jokes. And that fact is as humbling as any magnificent and ancient temple.

Why Can't Terrorists Be Mentally Ill, Too?

James E. Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court, Monday, July 23, 2012, in Centennial, Colorado. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti, Pool)

In the wake of last week’s Aurora massacre, much of the pundit class has begun doing what much of the pundit class always does. First came the ugly and unnecessary speculation about whether James Holmes, the primary suspect in the case, is a liberal or a conservative. But that argument died down when it was discovered that Holmes describes himself as “middle of the road” when it comes to politics. Today, the popular discussion is about whether the 24-year-old former neuroscience student is a terrorist or just mentally unstable.

Some argue that, because he has no clear political motivation, Holmes cannot be classified the same as, say, Nidal Malik Hasan, the Muslim man who opened fire at Ft. Hood in 2010, killing thirteen. Others, like law professor Dawinder S. Sidhu, say that Holmes’s calculated efforts to stockpile weapons and body armor must be called terrorism if America is to remain just. If Holmes is not charged with terrorism, writes Sidhu in the Baltimore Sun, “it would be to posit, in effect, that the ‘terrorism’ definition applies without question to those who claim some allegiance to radical Islam…whereas all others get the benefit of the doubt. This double-standard is unfair to Muslims and lets everyone else off the hook, to our own peril.”

I agree with Sidhu in that I believe that the public needs to begin drawing less of a clear distinction between the Holmeses and the Hasans of the world. Where I differ with Sidhu, however, is that I wonder not why men like Holmes are given the benefit of the doubt about mental illness but why men like Hasan aren’t, also.

While there is by no means a mountain of evidence when it comes to the relationship between terrorism and mental illness, there is certainly enough data to make anyone interested in keeping America safe sit up and take note.

Firstly, the preponderance of religiosity in psychotic episodes is a well-documented phenomenon. That’s not to say that religion causes psychosis, of course, but that, probably due to religion’s central role in much of society, people given to psychotic episodes oftentimes latch on to religion in strange and severe ways. Consider the case of Ali Reza Shahsavari, who last year forced a Southwest Airlines flight to land after he leapt from his seat and started yelling, “You’re all going to die. You’re all going to hell. Allahu Akbar.” To many , Shahsavari might have seemed like he was making terrorist threats. But it turned out he was just a schizophrenic who’d been taking the wrong medication.

“While it’s wrong to dismiss all religious extremism as the result of mental illness, there is an overlap between certain mental illnesses and outbursts of a religious nature,” religious blogger Mollie Ziegler wrote of Shahsavari. “If you’ve ever had a family member with schizophrenia, for instance, chances are decent you’ve experienced this.”

Ziegler is right: I used to date a woman whose cousin was schizophrenic. He kept a blog on which he would often rant that God was talking directly to him, telling him what was wrong with the world. Sometimes he’d even theorize that he himself was God. When you meet people whose illness leaves them so vulnerable to suggestion like that, it’s not hard to envision a chicken hawk in one of the world’s biggest terrorist organizations (or the KKK, or the Crips etc.) taking advantage of them for his own harmful purposes.

And that, as other research shows, is what often happens. More and more evidence from around the world is suggesting that many of the terrorists wreaking havoc both in America and abroad are racked with emotional and mental trauma themselves. Paul Kix ran down just some of this research—that of the University of Alabama’s Adam Lankford—in a Boston Globe piece from December 2010:

Lankford cites Israeli scholars who interviewed would-be Palestinian suicide bombers. These scholars found that 40 percent of the terrorists showed suicidal tendencies; 13 percent had made previous suicide attempts, unrelated to terrorism. Lankford finds Palestinian and Chechen terrorists who are financially insolvent, recently divorced, or in debilitating health in the months prior to their attacks. A 9/11 hijacker, in his final note to his wife, describing how ashamed he is to have never lived up to her expectations. Terrorist recruiters admitting they look for the “sad guys” for martyrdom.

“Sad guys,” depressed people facing trauma and failure, and people who have attempted suicide before. Is it a psych ward at the hospital, or a large section of Al-Qaeda? It’s getting harder to tell.

To be clear, nobody’s saying that all—or even most—terrorists aren’t cold, bloodthirsty killers who know exactly what they’re doing every time they commit another heinous act. But there is reason to believe that a significant number of foreign and domestic terrorists are suffering from the exact same mental distresses by which we quickly assume men like James Holmes and boys like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers, to be afflicted. That we don’t immediately afford that same leeway to Muslims who deal out violence says more about us than about them. It says we’re a nation still operating under the assumption that all terrorists are brown and that all terrorism can be explained directly and thoroughly with words like “evil” and “Islam.” It says we’re a nation of people who still think we’re inherently very different from other people. And it says we’re a nation still searching for exact answers in a world where few exact answers exist.

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