Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Parable of the Mashed Potato Police

The Parable of the Mashed Potato Police

And other tales of working for the TSA.


I recently had a bad flashback. I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep when I was hit with a vivid memory from my time as a Transportation Security Administration officer at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. It was 2008, and I was conducting a bag check when three of my TSA colleagues got into an argument with a passenger at the checkpoint. Things got pretty heated.

The subject of debate? Whether mashed potatoes were a liquid or a solid.

In the end, of course, the TSA agents had the last word: Since the potatoes took the shape of their container, they were determined to be a liquid—specifically, a gel. That’s the official TSA line. “Liquids, aerosols and gels over 3.4 ounces cannot be brought through security.” The potatoes were forcibly surrendered.

If you’re anything like me, you may have thought, “Well, mashed potatoes are technically gelatinous, so…”—which sends one down the rabbit hole of bureaucratic absurdity that ends with a passenger looking a TSA officer in the eye and saying, “Do you really think my mashed potatoes are a terrorist threat?” And the officer, if he or she is just an all-around tool, saying: “Ma’am, possibly. Rules are rules.”

I’ve had a lot of flashbacks lately—nearly buried memories that have come flooding back ever since Politico Magazine published “Dear America, I Saw You Naked,” my first-person account of working for the TSA and anonymously blogging about my adventures in airport security.

Another one: It’s 2010, and a passenger is trying to bring her live goldfish through security. One of my co-workers informs her that the fish can go through but the water cannot. The woman is on the verge of tears when a supervisor steps in to save the fish’s life.

And another: Working alongside a screener who always demanded that pacifiers be removed from infants’ mouths and submitted for X-ray screening before the babies and their mothers were permitted to pass through the metal detectors.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to come out of what I now see as the life-changing experience of having my story go viral is the realization of just how much I still have left to tell about my six years at the TSA—the strange checkpoint happenings, the colorful passengers and the outrageous, real-life TSA characters.

Americans took my initial report as confirmation of what they always dreaded about a humiliating experience so many millions of them had shared. But I also realized that there was a part of the story I hadn’t fully told: about a government agency and its leaders, and how they came up with the absurd policies that turned me and my colleagues into just-following-orders Mashed Potato Police.


Soon after the article went up on the Politico website, I sent a note to my editor marveling at the fact that I had 30 new Twitter followers, up from a grand total of 240. I’d thought my article would get passed around in government and civil-liberties circles—a curiosity story of an anonymous TSA blogger unmasking himself, and that would be it.

Little did I know that within a few hours I’d be getting an average of three emails a minute—in the middle of the night—including interview requests from Good Morning America, Today, NBC Nightly News, The Kelly File and many others. And while my 30 new followers had at first seemed like a big deal, a few days later I had more than 5,000. Stephen Colbert even joked about my story. Stephen Colbert!

I got more emails in response to the article than I had in my entire year and a half writing my blog, Taking Sense Away, even when I revealed on the blog that the “nude” scanners didn’t work and that TSA employees were making predictably awful jokes about passengers’ bodies. I got only one piece of hate mail in response to my Politico Magazine article: an anonymous message that informed me that I was a “goon” because, it said, “Once a TSA goon, always a TSA goon.”

A few people did reach out to warn me that I am almost certainly being monitored by intelligence agencies now that I have revealed myself as a critic of the TSA. “My ex-husband is now a senior executive at the NSA at Fort Meade,” one said. “The NSA will probably track you.”

I’m not sure how credible these warnings are, but after being the subject of two official government responses—in which TSA denied and downplayed the claims made on my blog and in my essay—it’s hard not to worry that I’m being watched. I’ve received so many letters making this point that I now take it for granted that my every online move is being monitored by someone, somewhere. If the truth is more banal, so be it: I’d much rather be paranoid and wrong.

Most of the responses from current and former TSA employees were just as supportive as those from the general public—and that was another surprise. Quite a few read like letters from inmates: “Hi Jason. Remember me? We worked Terminal 1 together for a year-long bid. I am so glad you made it out and are doing something interesting with your life! Patting down crotches all day was the worst, wasn’t it?”

But some TSA employees saw my essay as an attempt to smear frontline workers. They were angry that I seemed to place responsibility for the agency’s problems squarely on the shoulders of low-ranking employees, rather than focusing on upper management and underlying organizational problems.

That was the argument in the email that gave me the most pause, a note from one of my former co-workers at O’Hare: “Obviously, TSA is not my dream job,” it said. “Sometimes I go home crying. I’d love it if you wrote more about the incompetency of the managers who got their jobs because of who they know. What you did will definitely make my job harder, because who will be attacked? Every worker on the floor in a uniform. Am I angry? No. But write more. Tell about those unqualified managers who take no part in the checkpoint operation, and who humiliate their workers. I know you’ve seen it all. Tell them.”

It’s an important point, and in fact that was my goal in launching my blog while still working on the TSA payroll: to call attention to the agency’s systemic flaws, while also defending the good, hardworking members of the nearly 50,000-deep frontline TSA workforce.

The agency was the product of a panicked national moment—fertile soil for poor decision-making—and irrationality was etched into the TSA’s DNA. Like most passengers, the average screener regrets the atmosphere of “permanent emergency” that has permeated airport checkpoints since 9/11,a reactionary culture passed down from TSA leadership year after year. And yet the most common concerns among TSA screeners usually stem from organizational flaws closer to the checkpoint floor.


One of the agency’s biggest problems is its arbitrary promotion system, which is also the source of a lot of outrage in letters I’ve gotten from current and former TSA workers. I saw signs of rampant cronyism and favoritism at O’Hare while I was there, and the emails I’ve received from around the country contain similar observations. And it’s not just me seeing this: Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced it would launch an investigation after a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report found “rampant” favoritism at the TSA.

The second most common cause for complaint that I’ve heard from floor-level employees is the yearly re-certification system. While I was there, an officer’s suitability for his or her job was determined in large part by a two-hour test administered once a year, in which a TSA screener was put before two clipboard-wielding test administrators and observed while giving patdowns and doing bag searches on test subjects.

In practice, this meant that screeners who were rude to co-workers and passengers or just generally incompetent but had made it through their probationary period could hang onto their jobs by learning to work the system. All they had to do was give a convincing two-hour performance once a year—their conduct the rest of the time carried relatively little weight.

I personally experienced the absurdity of the TSA’s certification bureaucracy when I was informed one day—more than two years after I’d been hired, and after having checked thousands of driver’s licenses and passports—that I was not on-record as having ever received travel-document training from the TSA. Apparently, my certification papers had been lost, so I was pulled off the travel-document checking position on the spot and de-certified until I took the training class again.

“So does this mean,” I asked my supervisor, “that all the passports and driver’s licenses that I’ve cleared through security over the past two years have been security breaches?”

“Let’s not think about that,” my supervisor said.

Coming out from anonymity has allowed me to take part in trying to change the TSA: I was contacted by a staffer for Sen. Tom Coburn, the ranking member on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and the watchdog group Judicial Watch, which asked me to help in an investigation of assault and molestation claims against the TSA. I told Judicial Watch everything I knew about how complaints are handled at TSA checkpoints, including that the yellow complaint cards passengers are given to voice their concerns are widely regarded as a joke by TSA supervisors. “Rarely does anyone actually read those” was something I heard all the time.

I also signed a declaration for blogger and civil liberties activist Jonathan Corbett’s ongoing lawsuit against the TSA over its use of the body scanners, swearing that everything in my essay about the agency was true so that he could submit it as evidence. He had a 24-hour deadline; if I’d had more time I would have added a statement describing how I had repeatedly witnessed TSA breaking its promise to the public that the screeners who reviewed the full-body scanner images would never come face-to-face with the passengers whose naked bodies they’d just seen.

In a few places around the Internet, I’ve found my name and Edward Snowden’s mentioned in the same sentence—in one case framed as “Jason Harrington is no Edward Snowden.” But let’s be clear: I never fancied my crotch-patting tales to be on par with revelations of top-secret global surveillance programs.

One thing I wrote—my very first blog post, which informed the public that many TSA employees felt the radiation-emitting Rapiscan imagers were ineffective, and that the TSA tried to work around the machines’ inherent flaws with secret directives involving additional patdowns—qualified as a whistleblowing act. Other than that, I’ve mostly just been telling stories of public interest.

That doesn’t mean I don’t consider some of what the TSA has been doing the last few years scandalous; I do. Perhaps the most egregious waste of money at the agency right now is the SPOT program, in which “Behavior Detection Officers” are supposed to read people’s body language in order to identify would-be terrorists.

A decade in, we’ve now spent a billion dollars on the program despite the fact that it’s based on pseudoscience that has been debunked in one study after another, and there’s no proof it has turned up even one terrorist threat. Many of the Behavior Detection Officers I knew at O’Hare privately admitted that their program amounted to a lot of walking around all day getting paid a lot of money for doing nothing.

I used to hear all the time from both passengers and TSA agents that airport security would make great fodder for a TV show or book. Since my essay was published, I’ve heard from agents and producers who share that sentiment, and I recently signed with a literary agent. With any luck, my true TSA stories will be bound for bookshelves soon.

One of the most common questions I get now is: “Do you get extra screening when you fly these days?” I haven’t flown since my essay was published, but I will soon.

Then again, there’s a train that can get me to New York. It may take 16 hours longer, but sleeper cars are kind of nice, and besides, the nation’s railways are relatively clear of the Transportation Security Administration. For now.

Jason Edward Harrington is a writer and MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Follow him on Twitter @Jas0nHarringt0n. 

J Street’s challenge to the U.S.-Jewish right: Focus on peace

Here’s the real J Street challenge:


In Jewish communal venues, let’s call an end to attack videos and mudslinging, and discuss the challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people. A response to Alan Dershowitz.

By | Mar. 28, 2014 | 9:58 PM

Jeremy Ben-Ami

Jeremy Ben-Ami Photo by Alon Ron


The majority of world Jewry agrees today: the future, security and character of the state of Israel all depend on reaching a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That’s why Secretary of State John Kerry’s push to achieve it is perhaps the most vital pro-Israel initiative since Bill Clinton was President.

Right now, the fate of that effort hangs in the balance. With negotiations stalled, the effort could break down leading to a rapid growth in Israel’s international isolation and in efforts to pressure it through boycotts, divestment and the like.

Given the significant negative consequences that could follow failure, one might imagine that pro-Israel advocates would be screaming from the rooftops to do everything possible to help the talks succeed before it’s too late.

Yet instead of organizing to meet this existential threat, some on the far right of the American Jewish community are focusing their effort and their fire in a different direction – on members of their own community. In particular, there is a new well-funded and energetic campaign to defame and delegitimize J Street, centered on an hour-long attack-umentary called the “J Street Challenge.”

Sadly even a couple of mainstream, established Jewish organizations and figures are associating themselves with it – contrary to our community’s firm commitment to civil debate on issues of legitimate disagreement.

Those who’ve made the film and are hawking it are, however, missing the real challenges that J Street is posing to the Jewish community. Here are a few of them:

• With the world losing patience with Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, will we rally to urge the national homeland of our people to change course before it loses its democracy or its Jewish character?

• As the BDS Movement against Israel gains traction, will we recognize that the best way to defeat it isn’t spending our energy on preventing its supporters from being heard, but on ending the conflict in two states for two peoples?

• If you recognize the existential necessity of a two-state solution for Israel to survive as a Jewish and democratic homeland, isn’t it time to acknowledge the price that has to be paid to achieve it? How can we say we support a two-state solution but oppose establishing borders based on the pre-67 lines with swaps? How can we say we support two states and oppose a Palestinian capital in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem?

• Is it appropriate to call those who criticize Israeli government policy anti-Israel or anti-Semitic? Plenty of Israelis including security chiefs, former Prime Ministers and Members of the Knesset are critical of present policy, and they’re certainly not anti-Israel. In fact, using the anti-Semitism label to describe criticism of Israeli policy demeans the horror of real anti-Semitism.

• Is it right or smart to limit the right to speak in Jewish communal spaces to those with whom you agree? The more we limit admission to Jewish communal spaces by imposing ideological litmus tests regarding Israel, the smaller our Jewish community will be.

• Are we, as a people, treating the Palestinian people the way we ourselves want to be treated? Are we living up to the moral standards of our people and have we learned the lessons of our own oppression through the centuries and across the globe?

• Can we finally stop ignoring what is happening beyond the Green Line? The day-to-day maintenance of a 47-year occupation of another people runs counter to the interests and values of Israel and the Jewish people. It places all the wonder and accomplishment of the state of Israel at risk. It is time for the occupation to end.

We urge those attacking us to spend a little less time leveling baseless accusations against a now-established Jewish organization and a little more time addressing these fundamental challenges facing the Israel we love.

One participant in the “Challenge” movie, Daniel Gordis, recently did, and we had a wonderful, substantive discussion about all these critical issues. We didn’t change each other’s minds but we provided food for thought for hundreds who came to hear us.

The possible failure of the Kerry mission is a disaster of epic proportions for the Jewish people and the state of Israel. That’s a challenge worthy of the time and effort of people like Alan Dershowitz and Charles Jacobs.

In Jewish communal venues here and across the globe, let’s call an end to the attack videos and mudslinging and let’s start discussing the significant challenges that really threaten not just Israel but the heart and the soul of the Jewish people.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and president of J Street.

Gwar Frontman Dave Brockie Has Died

Gwar Frontman Dave Brockie Has Died

Update: Richmond Police say they don’t suspect foul play.


Updated 8:21 a.m.: In the death investigation of David M. Brockie, detectives with Richmond Police say they “do not suspect foul play at this time,” department spokeswoman Dionne Waugh tells Style.

Police were called to Brockie’s residence in the 4800 block of West Seminary Avenue at approximately 6:53 p.m. on Sunday, she says, and found Brockie deceased when they arrived. The Medical Examiner’s office will determine the cause of death.

RICHMOND — The founder and lead singer of renowned metal band Gwar, David Brockie, has died, numerous sources close to the band tell Style Weekly.A member of the Richmond Police Department confirmed early Monday that the 50-year-old musician was found dead in his home Sunday between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. by his roommate.

“Dave was one of the funniest, smartest, most creative and energetic persons I’ve known,” former Gwar bassist Mike Bishop says. “He was brash sometimes, always crass, irreverent, he was hilarious in every way. But he was also deeply intelligent and interested in life, history, politics and art.”

“His penchant for scatological humors belied a lucid wit. He was a criminally underrated lyricist and hard rock vocalist, one of the best, ever! A great front man, a great painter, writer, he was also a hell of a bass guitarist. I loved him. He was capable of great empathy and had a real sense of justice.”

The news comes in a year the Grammy-nominated band marks its 30th anniversary and recently returned from a long-awaited first performance in Japan. It recently announced that it would hold its fifth Gwar-B-Q concert Aug. 16 at Hadad’s Water Park.

Brockie, aka Oderus Urungus, founded what became Richmond’s most famous band in 1984 with a group of five boundary-pushing artists and musicians working out of North Side’s Richmond Dairy. The band struck a nerve, selling out shows and touring the globe. It released its 13th album in 2013.

The self-described “Scumdogs of the Universe” were known for their messy shows, outlandish costumes and intentionally offensive theatrics. “We were and still are provocateurs,” Brockie told Style in a 2012 feature story. “We’re just a bunch of guys with warped senses of humor spit balling the most evil ideas that we could think of, to hold up a twisted mirror to the culture.”

Friends and others posted condolences and remembrances across Facebook into Monday morning. “I wish it was a joke,” says former band member Chris Bopst, a music writer for Style. “Everyone is in shock.”

We’ll report more details as they become available and share the band’s official statement here.

Brockie, a devoted fan of the Washington Redskins and a World War II buff, had recently fulfilled two of his lifelong dreams by visiting Stalingrad and playing shows in Japan with Gwar.

While the singer’s death will be mourned internationally by the metal community, his passing will hit even harder here at home among friends and family. It would seem to mark the end of an era in Richmond and this city will be a different place without him.

Brockie made numerous appearances in character commenting on current events and culture, including such unexpected places as “Red Eye” on Fox News. In an interview last month on Insane Clown Posse Theater, Oderus Urungus talked about the essence of what made him tick:

Mitt Romney Explains Where Obama Went Wrong (Hint: It Is ‘Everywhere’)

Not ashamed to admit I send monies to Wonkette for the pleasure she brings. For ten bucks, you really get bang for your buck.

via Mitt Romney Explains Where Obama Went Wrong (Hint: It Is ‘Everywhere’).

LET’S GO DO SOME CRIMEA 1:30 pm March 18, 2014

Mitt Romney Explains Where Obama Went Wrong (Hint: It Is ‘Everywhere’)

by Doktor Zoom

We need a leader who instills respect in his foesIt sure is a good thing that politics stops at the water’s edge, because otherwise this Mitt Romney pouting in the Wall Street Journal sure would be controversial, since basically he tells America that we really screwed up bad by choosing such a terrible president who is decidedly not Mitt Romney. You see, were it not for all of Barack Obama’s manifest failures to do things much differently, the world would be a pretty nice place, but as it is, everything that foreign countries have done is the result of Barry Bamz being a big weakling. Also, Hillary Clinton, too. Romney laments that there are “no good options” on a whole bunch of international issues, like Crimea of course, but also Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran and North Korea, all of which Obama really screwed up on, leaving America with its hands tied:

A large part of the answer is our leader’s terrible timing. In virtually every foreign-affairs crisis we have faced these past five years, there was a point when America had good choices and good options. There was a juncture when America had the potential to influence events. But we failed to act at the propitious point; that moment having passed, we were left without acceptable options.

Fittingly, the column was published on a Monday night; you sort of imagine Mitt in a helmet and shoulder pads, calling plays into the past. Because if you look at history, it’s clear that America can always make other countries do exactly what America wants when we have a good leader who does the right thing, as proven by that quote from Shakespeare about how you gotta catch the tide just right and ride it, because Charlie don’t surf.

First off, on Ukraine, Barry totally failed to recognize the possibility that Putin would invade Crimea, even though it should have been obvious once the government started responding violently to the protests:

That was the time to talk with our global allies about punishments and sanctions, to secure their solidarity, and to communicate these to the Russian president. These steps, plus assurances that we would not exclude Russia from its base in Sevastopol or threaten its influence in Kiev, might have dissuaded him from invasion.

Which is a pretty good backwards psychic prediction, because it doesn’t need to account for pesky details like the fact that shortly before the Ukrainian government started shooting protesters, it was looking like it was going to negotiate with them instead, and then that government fell almost as suddenly as it started killing people. But yes, had Obama just seen the situation with the clarity of a month later, he should have warned Putin, and we all know how Putin listens to other leaders.

Similarly, when protests in Syria first started to turn into a revolt against Bashar Assad, Mitt tells us that

the time was ripe for us to bring together moderate leaders who would have been easy enough for us to identify, to assure the Alawites that they would have a future post-Assad, and to see that the rebels were well armed.

Why, yes, all you have to do is look at the headlines from three years ago, when they all said “Good Guys In Syria Easy to Identify” — and when the administration sought to work with the moderate rebels, there certainly weren’t any teabaggers like Michele Bachmann screaming that the Arab Spring was just a cover for al Qaeda trying to take over everything.

And so on — in one foreign situation after another, Mitt Romney finds the perfect moment where Barack Obama was asleep at the switch again. Really, he should go back in time and fix stuff, but he refuses to because he is Weak. But has anything worked out for poor feckless Barack? Heck no, because he failed to bully the world into fearing America the way he should have:

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton traveled the world in pursuit of their promise to reset relations and to build friendships across the globe. Their failure has been painfully evident: It is hard to name even a single country that has more respect and admiration for America today than when President Obama took office, and now Russia is in Ukraine.

Because god knows, we were so very, very admired and respected under the able leadership of George W. Bush.


The Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming | Mother Jones

Something green for St. Pat’s Day. Bummer. And another reason why we need legal regulated growing, not this criminal free market bullshit.

The Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming | Mother Jones.

The Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming

This is your wilderness on drugs.

Starting about 90 miles northwest of Sacramento, an unbroken swath of national forestland follows the spine of California’s rugged coastal mountains all the way to the Oregon border. Near the center of this vast wilderness, along the grassy banks of the Trinity River’s south fork, lies the remote enclave of Hyampom (pop. 241), where, on a crisp November morning, I climb into a four-wheel-drive government pickup and bounce up a dirt logging road deep into the Six Rivers National Forest. I’ve come to visit what’s known in cannabis country as a “trespass grow.”

“This one probably has the most plants I’ve seen,” says my driver, a young Forest Service cop who spends his summers lugging an AR-15 through the backcountry of the Emerald Triangle—the triad of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties that is to pot what the Central Valley is to almonds and tomatoes. Fearing retaliation from growers, the officer asks that I not use his name. Back in August he was hiking through the bush, trying to locate the grow from an aerial photo, when he surprised a guy carrying an iPod, gardening tools, and a 9 mm pistol on his hip. He arrested the man and alerted his tactical team, which found about 5,500 plants growing nearby, with a potential street yield approaching $16 million.

“This is unicorns and rainbows, isn’t it?” says wildlife ecologist Mourad Gabriel as he stuffs a garbage bag with trash the growers left behind.

Today, a work crew is hauling away the detritus by helicopter. Our little group, which includes a second federal officer and a Forest Service flack, hikes down an old skid trail lined with mossy oaks and madrones, passing the scat of a mountain lion, and a few minutes later, fresh black bear droppings. We follow what looks like a game trail to the lip of a wooded slope, a site known as Bear Camp. There, amid a scattering of garbage bags disemboweled by animals, we find the growers’ tarps and eight dingy sleeping bags, the propane grill where they had cooked oatmeal for breakfast, and the backpack sprayers they used to douse the surrounding 50 acres with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The air smells faintly of ammonia and weed. “This is unicorns and rainbows, isn’t it?” says Mourad Gabriel, a former University of California-Davis wildlife ecologist who has joined us at the site, as he maniacally stuffs a garbage bag with empty booze bottles, Vienna Beef sausage tins, and Miracle-Gro refill packs.

According to federal stats, trespass grows in California alone account for more than one-third of the cannabis seized nationwide by law enforcement, which means they could well be the largest single source of domestically grown marijuana. Of course, nobody can say precisely how much pot comes from indoor grows and private plots that are less accessible to the authorities. What’s clear is that California’s marijuana harvest is vast—”likely the largest value crop (by far) in the state’s lineup,” notes the Field Guide to California Agriculture. Assuming, as the guide does, that the authorities seize about 10 percent of the harvest, that means they would have left behind more than 10 million outdoor plants last year, enough to yield about $31 billion worth of product. That’s more than the combined value of the state’s top 10 legal farm commodities.

“It simply isn’t regulated, and the upshot is that nobody really knows what’s in their cannabis.”

Even before voters in Colorado and Washington legalized recreational pot in 2012, marijuana was quasi-legal in California, and not just for medical use. Senate Bill 1449, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010, reclassified possession of an ounce or less from a misdemeanor to a maximum $100 infraction—you’ll get a bigger fine for jaywalking in Los Angeles. Indeed, many states have eased restrictions on pot use. But with the exception of Colorado and Washington, whose laws dictate where, how, and by whom marijuana may be grown, they have had little to say about the manner in which it is cultivated—which is challenging to dictate in any case, since growers who cooperate with state regulators could still be prosecuted under federal statutes that classify pot as a Schedule 1 drug, the legal equivalent of LSD and heroin. So where is all this legal and semilegal weed supposed to come from? The answer, increasingly, is an unregulated backwoods economy, the scale of which makes Prohibition-era moonshining look quaint.

To meet demand, researchers say, the acreage dedicated to marijuana grows in the Emerald Triangle has doubled in the past five years. Like the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, this “green rush,” as it is known locally, has brought great wealth at a great cost to the environment. Whether grown in bunkers lit with pollution-spewing diesel generators, or doused with restricted pesticides and sown on muddy, deforested slopes that choke off salmon streams during the rainy season, this “pollution pot” isn’t exactly high quality, or even a quality high. “The cannabis industry right now is in sort of the same position that the meatpacking industry was in before The Jungle was written by Upton Sinclair,” says Stephen DeAngelo, the founder of Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, a large medical marijuana dispensary. “It simply isn’t regulated, and the upshot is that nobody really knows what’s in their cannabis.”

It’s not just stoners who are at risk. Trespass grows have turned up everywhere from a stand of cottonwoods in Death Valley National Park to a clearing amid the pines in Yosemite. “I now have to spend 100 percent of my time working on the environmental impacts of marijuana,” says Gabriel, who showed up at Bear Camp in military-style cargo pants and a kaffiyeh scarf. “I would never have envisioned that.”

Gabriel grew up in Fresno, the son of immigrants from Mexico and Iraq, at a time when the Central Valley city was plagued by turf wars among pot-dealing street gangs, notably the local Norteños chapter and their rivals, the Bulldogs. That world did not interest Gabriel, who spent a lot of his free time catching frogs and crawdads on the banks of the San Joaquin River. His love of the outdoors led him to study wildlife management at Humboldt State University, where he became fascinated with fishers, the only predators besides mountain lions clever and tough enough to prey on porcupines. The fisher, which resembles the love child of a ferret and a wolverine, was nearly eradicated from the West by logging and trapping during the early 20th century. It still hasn’t rebounded. This year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service will consider listing it as a threatened species.

On local blogs, people have threatened Gabriel and his family. In February, one of his dogs was fatally poisoned.

When Gabriel first began venturing into the woods to trap and radio-collar fishers, he assumed that most of them were dying from bobcat attacks, disease, and cars running them over. But then, in 2009, he discovered a dead fisher deep in the Sierra National Forest that showed no signs of any of those things. A toxicology test indicated that it had ingested large quantities of rat poison.

Back in his lab, he tested frozen tissue from 58 other fisher carcasses he’d collected on some of California’s most remote public lands and found rodenticide traces in nearly 80 percent of them. Rat poison isn’t used in national forests by anyone except marijuana cultivators, who put it out to protect their seedlings. Rodents that eat the poison stumble around for a few days before they die, making them easy prey for hungry fishers.

In 2012, after Gabriel published his rat poison results, he was the target of angry calls and messages. One person accused him of helping the feds “greenwash the war on drugs.” Another made vague threats against his family and his dogs. Gabriel also received a prying email, later traced by federal agents to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, soliciting the locations of his home, office, and field study sites. In Lost Coast Outpost and other local news sites, commenters shared links to his home address. “Snitches end up in ditches,” one warned.

Then, last month, Gabriel’s Labrador retriever, Nyxo, died after someone fed him meat infused with De-Con rat bait.

The types of threats Gabriel has received are not uncommon, and they have frightened scientists away from studying the environmental impacts of pot farming. “At my university, there is nobody who will even go near it,” says Anthony Silvaggio, a sociologist with the state university’s Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research. Biologists who used to venture into the wilderness alone to survey wildlife now often pair up for protection. In July 2011, armed growers in the Sequoia National Forest chased a federal biologist through the woods for a half-hour before giving up. The following year, researchers surveying northern spotted owls on Humboldt County’s Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation were shot at with high-caliber rifles. Each growing season, a significant chunk of one designated fisher habitat in the Sierra National Forest becomes inaccessible to scientists because it’s dangerously close to illegal gardens.

Gabriel won’t go near a known grow site before it’s been cleared by law enforcement, as Bear Camp has. Scattered across the hillside, his team finds 4,200 pounds of chemical fertilizer, five kinds of insecticide, and three kinds of rodenticide. The stash includes a restricted pesticide capable of killing humans in small doses. Gabriel’s friend and colleague Mark Higley dons a gas mask and seals the canister in a garbage bag. “If it does erupt, I want everyone to be at least 20 to 30 feet away,” Gabriel warns. “It’s aluminum phosphide, and when it hits the air, it turns into phosphine gas.” Breathing it can kill you.
The Emerald Triangle’s pot culture has changed a lot since the hippies drove up from San Francisco in the early 1970s in search of peace, freedom, and blissful communion with nature. At first, the back-to-the-landers grew pot primarily for themselves, but news that the United States was paying to have Mexican pot farms sprayed with paraquat, a toxic weed killer, convinced American stoners to seek out the hippie weed.

Before long, Humboldt had become a name brand, but marijuana might never have come to define the Emerald Triangle had the old-growth timber industry not logged itself out of business by the mid-1990s. In 1996, when California became the first state to legalize pot for medical use, out-of-work loggers took advantage of the opportunity. “Then you had everybody like, ‘Sure, I’ll grow some weed,'” recalls Humboldt State’s Silvaggio. The size of the harvest grew, helped along by post-9/11 border enforcement, which made it harder for Mexican pot to enter the country. The latest leap in production was the result of Prop. 19, California’s 2010 legalization measure; although it lost narrowly at the polls, the Emerald Triangle’s growers boosted output in anticipation of having a mainstream product. Now marijuana “is all we have,” Silvaggio says. “Every other thing is built here to serve that economy.”

Drive around the Emerald Triangle during harvest season with the radio on, and you’ll hear ads openly pitching Dutch hydroponic lamps, machines “for trimming flowers,” and 2,800-gallon water storage tanks—because “you don’t want to be the one that has to call the water truck in for multiple water deliveries late in the season.” Even mainstream businesses like furniture stores get in on the green rush with “harvest sales.” Talk of bud-trimming parties and the going price per pound dominates restaurant conversations. And in backwoods hamlets where you’d expect high unemployment, you come across a lot of $50,000 pickups.

With prices dropping as domestic supply expands, “you’ve got to go bigger these days to make the amount of money you used to make.”

As with much of the state’s agricultural industry, the pot trade is stratified, and much of the labor is done by undocumented farmworkers. The man arrested at Bear Camp confessed to the police that he’d traveled north from Michoacán, Mexico, to pick apples in Washington, but knew he could make more money tending pot in California. Industry observers believe that at least some of the trespass grows are run from south of the border, but Silvaggio adds that many are financed by locals. Either way, the grunt workers tend to be the only ones busted when the grows are raided.

Although the original Northern California growers saw pot cultivation as an extension of their hippie lifestyles, their environmental values haven’t readily carried over to the next generation. “They are given a free pass to become wealthy at a young age, to get what they want,” Silvaggio explains. “And do you think they are going to give it up when they turn 20, with a kid in the box? They can’t get off that gravy train.” But with prices dropping as domestic supply expands, “you can’t go smaller; you’ve got to go bigger these days to make the amount of money you used to make. So what does that mean? You have to get another generator. You have to take more water. You’ve got to spray something because you may lose 20, 30 grand if you don’t.”

Smaller growers operating on their own properties tend to use slightly better environmental practices— avoiding rodenticides, for instance—than the industrial growers who have moved in solely to make money. Even so, Silvaggio says, “we found that it’s just a tiny fraction of folks who are growing organic.”

Among the downsides of the green rush is the strain it puts on water resources in a drought-plagued region. Scott Bauer, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, calculates that irrigation for cannabis farms has sucked up all of the water that would ordinarily keep local salmon streams running through the dry season. Marijuana cultivation, he believes, “is a big reason why” at least 24 salmon and steelhead streams stopped flowing last summer. “I would consider it probably the No. 1 threat” to salmon in the area, he told me. “We are spending millions of dollars on restoring streams. We are investing all this money in removing roads and trying to contain sediment and fixing fish path barriers, but without water there’s no fish.”

Thirty square miles in one Emerald Triangle watershed, where pot farms siphon up roughly 29 million gallons of water per season California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

At Bear Camp, Gabriel leads me to a steep slope where the growers have plugged a freshwater spring with a makeshift dam of logs and tarps, one of 17 water diversions found at the site. Where moisture-loving ferns and horsetails should be flourishing, a plastic pipe leads downhill to a 1,000-gallon reservoir feeding a vast irrigation network. Gabriel unkinks a hose to release an arc of water from a sprinkler. National Guard troops enlisted to help out have already yanked the cannabis plants here, leaving behind a hillside of girdled white oaks and bare soil. “When we have a two-to-four-inch rain, this will just be a mud river,” Gabriel says. Sediment laced with pesticides and other chemicals will find its way into the salmon stream below. We hike down to a clearing where a helicopter is pulling out sling loads of irrigation piping. “Look at this!” Gabriel shouts after plunging into a thicket to help the soldiers rip out another dam. “Insect killer right in the middle of it!”

He and his colleagues have seen much worse. At a grow site in July, he found a fisher that had died from eating one of many poisoned hot dogs strung around the site on a trotline. A state game warden raiding a grow in 2011 discovered a black bear and her cubs convulsing on the ground, having eaten into a stash of pesticides. Two threatened northern spotted owls, the species once at the center of a bitter fight between loggers and environmentalists, tested positive for rodenticides in Gabriel’s lab; he’s now looking into whether toxins from grow sites could be impeding that species’ recovery as well. “When there is no adequate regulatory framework,” Silvaggio warns, “you are going to have nature taking a hit.”
Most growers just want to be left alone, but the small minority who are politically outspoken tend to favor regulation. Kristin Nevedal chairs the Emerald Growers Association, the triangle’s marijuana trade group. The coauthor of an ecofriendly pot-farming guide, she often consults with state and local lawmakers about how to make the industry more responsible. “Prohibition hasn’t curbed the desire for cannabis,” she says. “So we really need to look at changing our policy and starting to treat it like agriculture, so we can manage it.”

“The trespass grows are really an issue because of prohibition,” says one enviro. The growers “are just a symptom. The real disease is the failed drug war.”

One of the most serious efforts on that front was a system put in place by Mendocino County, which as of 2010 allowed the cultivation of up to 99 plants, provided growers registered and tagged each one with zip ties purchased from the county. Sheriff’s deputies monitored the grow sites and checked that they complied with environmental laws. “That program was in a lot of ways fabulous,” Nevedal recalls. Almost 100 growers participated, but the program was shut down in early 2012, after federal agents raided one of the grows and US Attorney Melinda Haag hinted that she might just take the county to court. Later that year, a federal grand jury subpoenaed the county’s zip tie records.

Since then, efforts to regulate pot farming have mostly shifted to the state level. In Colorado, pot vendors are required to list on their packaging all the farm chemicals used to produce their products, and the state recently implemented a “seed to sale” tracking system. Most Coloradans grow indoors due to the climate, which reduces pesticide use and makes it easier to keep pot off the black market, but it’s highly energy intensive. In the journal Energy Policy, researcher Evan Mills estimated that indoor grows suck up enough electricity to supply 1.7 million homes—in California, they account for a whopping 9 percent of household energy use. The newly minted regulations for Washington state allow outdoor grows so long as they are well fenced and outfitted with security cameras and an alarm system.

In the next few years, new legalization measures appear destined for the ballot in California, Alaska, and Oregon. But while it may help create a market for responsibly grown cannabis, legalizing pot in a few states won’t wipe out the black market, with its steep environmental toll. There’s simply too much money to be made shipping weed to New Yorkers at $3,600 per pound, and too few cops to find all the grows and rip them out. “The trespass grows are really an issue because of prohibition,” says Gary Hughes, the executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, a 37-year-old Emerald Triangle environmental group that cut its teeth fighting the logging industry. “It is not the growers who are a disease. They are just a symptom. The real disease is the failed drug war.”

Yet without the drug war, the region’s pot sector might fade into oblivion. Take away the threat of federal raids, and to some extent pot becomes just another row crop, grown en masse wherever it’s cheapest. “A shift in cultivation to the Central Valley is definitely possible,” Hughes acknowledges.

There will likely still be a niche for the Emerald Triangle growers who started it all, Nevedal believes, just as there has been for craft whiskey distilleries in post-Prohibition Kentucky. Growing really good weed is simply too much work and too much strain on the environment to make sense on an industrial scale. As it happens, Nevedal speculates, the Emerald Triangle might just end up where it started, providing artisanal dank for a high-end market. “The future,” she says, “is the small family farm.”

Illustration by Gina Triplett

Radio icon: nakorn/Shutterstock

Sundays With The Christianists: American History Textbooks For Young Neidermeyers

TUNE IN TURN ON DERP OUT  2:14 pm March 16, 2014

by Doktor Zoom

Fine, there's your sideboob.Hope you filthy hippies are ready to get a good talking-to about your drugs and your communism and your satanic rock music, because this week it’s time to get a dose of revisionist history of the 1960s, courtesy of our textbooks for the Christian homeschooling market. Our 8th-grade text, America: Land I Love (A Beka, 1994, 2006), has no doubts about just what a terrible time the decade was, and why:

By the early 1960s, the teachings of humanist philosopher John Dewey, the father of progressive education, had permeated public education. Dewey was a leader in the secular humanist movement, which put man in place of or above God. Moral absolutes, such as those once taught in the McGuffey Readers, were replaced by humanistic ideas such as encouraging children to “follow their animal instincts” and to practice permissive “self expression” in the classroom…

As “progressive” educators removed godly values from the classroom, America’s youth became ripe for the spirit of rebellion that moved across the nation in the late 1960s, opening the door to drug abuse and sexual immorality. As discipline, dress codes, and moral standards relaxed in the public school systems, test scores continued to decline. Rock music began to influence American culture through such popular musicians as Elvis Presley.

In other words, this chapter of Land I Love is pretty much a grab bag of rightwing culture war complaints about the ’60s. Our other text, Bob Jones University Press’s 11/12th-grade United States History for Christian Schools (2001), is slightly less panicked in tone — as usual, it makes fewer sweeping claims about why everything went to hell — but nonetheless titles its chapter on 1963-73 “The Shattered Society” and emphasizes that America just barely avoided utter dissolution in that decade.

U.S. History takes a fairly conventional take on the ’60s, noting the social and political upheavals and sadly shaking its head in disappointment:

As he reviewed the dramatically widespread unrest in the United States, one California newspaper editor lamented, “We just seem to be headed toward a collapse of everything.”

In the midst of apparent chaos, many Americans looked to their political leaders for guidance — and deliverance. The presidents during this era were two of the shrewdest, most experienced politicians in America, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican Richard M. Nixon. Yet both found that America’s problems defied their efforts to solve them.

Obviously, Land I Love is going to be a lot more fun this week.

The greatest disaster of the ’60s, according to Land I Love, was America’s public abandonment of God, as forced by the ACLU and just one very bad woman:

In 1962, the Supreme Court removed prayer from public schools, and in 1963, it banned Bible reading from the public schools. These decisions came about largely through the efforts of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an atheist and Communist who used her teenage son, William, to protest daily Bible reading and prayer in the public schools of Baltimore, Maryland. A liberal Supreme Court ruled that even voluntary Bible reading and prayer were unconstitutional because they “discriminated against” non-Christians.

Of course, this leaves out a couple of details, largely around how you define “voluntary” — it’s perfectly legal, of course, for kids to read the Bible and pray on their own time; the decisions only barred school-organized devotions that kids could “volunteer” to not participate in. For its part, U.S. History simply says that the 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision “banned state-sponsored prayers in public schools as a so-called violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the separation of church and state”; while the Bob Jones editors clearly disagree, they don’t bother personalizing the issue as the whim of one cranky atheist commie. Land I Love even devotes a full paragraph to O’Hair’s son, William Murray, and his conversion to Christianity and 1980 “apology” to America

for his role in the removal of Bible reading and prayer from the public schools. He said that his mother had brainwashed him into accepting atheism and Communism, but after years of misery and despair, he had found faith in God. Now he prayed that God might somehow use his testimony to bring prayer back into the classroom.

God, sadly, has continued to slack off on fixing this for the past 34 years, probably because He has been busy helping with all those high school football games. In any case, those clearly illegal Supreme Court decisions were utterly at odds with the True Meaning of the Constitution:

The Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution had great respect for both prayer and God’s Word. It was because of our Christian heritage that most schools had included prayer and Bible reading in their daily routines for years. The Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution in a way that its writers would not have agreed with.

U.S. History doesn’t attempt to claim that the Founders wanted prayer in schools, but includes the prayer decision as part of a larger discussion of “judicial activism,” which is of course bad, since it expanded the rights of accused criminals and “defined ‘obscenity’ so narrowly that [Roth v. United States (1957)] actually struck down many obscenity laws.” The textbook approvingly quotes Justice John Harlan’s 1964 dissenting opinion that

The Constitution is not a panacea for every blot upon the public welfare, nor should this Court, ordained as a judicial body, be thought of as a general haven for reform movements … This Court … does not serve its high purpose, when it exceeds its authority even to satisfy justified impatience with the slow workings of the political process.

With a resigned sigh, the editors add, “Unfortunately, the majority of Harlan’s associates did not listen to him.”

To emphasize that all these terrible changes were imposed upon a majority of Americans who didn’t want them, Land I Love includes a paragraph explaining that, along with Madalyn Murray O’Hair, there was another bunch of troublemakers to blame:

Since the 1920s, a group of lawyers known as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had actively defended the extreme views of atheist, socialist, and Communist minorities. In the 1960s, the ACLU began to use the courts to force local communities to stop making references to Biblical values in public life. They claimed that the U.S. Constitution established a “wall of separation” between church and state. Later the ACLU would have bronze copies of the Ten Commandments removed from walls in schools, village halls, and county court houses, and some communities would be forced to ban public Christmas displays featuring the birth of Jesus. The ACLU would also later defend public displays of pornography as an expression of the First Amendment right to free speech.

Because lord knows, there’s nothing in the Constitution about minorities having rights that the majority has to respect. We’re sort of wondering about those “public displays of pornography,” which seem to have fallen out of favor — either that, or, more likely, the editors consider just about every PG-rated movie a public display of pornography.

Now, where are the hippies in all this? Ha-ha, we were joking you with that photo up there — we’ll get to the filthy hippies next time, because we have written our thousand words for this week, and suddenly we are run over by eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus.

Next Week: The Great Society makes everybody addicted to Big Government. Also, hippies.


‘Degenerate Art,’ at Neue Galerie, Recalls Nazi Censorship

Art & Design|Art Review

First, They Came for the Art

‘Degenerate Art,’ at Neue Galerie, Recalls Nazi Censorship


View slide show

‘Degenerate Art’

Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” at the Neue Galerie, opens with a quietly devastating compare-and-contrast. The walls of the narrow hallway leading onto the first gallery are covered with facing photomurals.

The image in one dates from 1938. It shows the exterior of the Haus der Kunst (House of the Arts) in Berlin where the traveling antimodernist exhibition called “Entartete Kunst” — “Degenerate Art” — has opened. The line of visitors waiting to get in stretches down the street.

The photo on the opposite wall is from 1944. It shows Carpatho-Ukrainian Jews newly arrived at the railroad station at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They are densely crowded together along the length of a platform that runs far into the distance and out of sight.

The message is clear: The event in the first picture led or contributed to that in the second. The show itself is one of the few in an American museum in the past two decades to address, on a large scale, the Nazis’ selective demonizing of art, how that helped foment an atmosphere of permissible hatred and forged a link between aesthetics and human disaster.


‘Degenerate Art’ Exhibit of 1937

Silent footage of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich, taken in 1937 by the American filmmaker Julien Bryan. The excerpt, part of a longer film, is featured in a new show at the Neue Galerie.

The basic facts of the narrative are familiar. Among Hitler’s grand plans upon coming to power as chancellor in 1933 was to purify German culture, to promote the Apollonian “classical” and eradicate the uncontrollably Dionysian “primitive,” a category that included, along with the mentally and physically deformed, avant-garde modernism, Bolshevism, and Jewish culture.

Hitler’s views on art were far from original; they had clear roots in 19th-century German sociology. Nor were they, at first, systematic. He was into big, divalike, Riefenstahlian gestures, but with no clear official philosophy. The problem was, of course, that while his speculative thinking was limited, his search-and-destroy powers were not.

One of his first moves as chancellor was to commission the building of a museum in Munich to showcase his version of an aesthetic ideal. He inaugurated it in 1937 with the first annual “Great German Art Exhibition,” which he more or less handpicked. Most of the art was locked into uplift-intensive academic styles of an earlier time. Even Hitler seemed disappointed with the results.

A day after the museum’s debut, a second, hastily assembled government-sponsored exhibition opened nearby. Titled “Entartete Kunst,” it was made up of work in vanguard modernist styles: Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, abstraction. The whole thing was pitched as a freak show, meant to demonstrate the threat the new art posed on everything German. Jews were implicated in the attack, even though only six of the 112 artists were Jewish.

The first room of the Neue Galerie exhibition gives an instant sense of the contrasting aesthetics and complicit politics of the two Munich shows through a side-by-side hanging of two large triptych paintings: Adolf Ziegler’s “The Four Elements,” from 1937, and Max Beckmann’s “Departure,” done from 1932 to 1935.

In Ziegler’s painting, the subject is obvious: Four blond academic female nudes decorously display themselves along with traditional symbols. Beckmann’s Expressionist picture is all mystery: Scenes of human torture fill the side panels, while at the center a cluster of stylized, possibly allegorical figures stand, as if waiting to push off, in a small boat.

Hitler loved Ziegler’s art. He chose “The Four Elements” for the big Munich show, then hung it over the fireplace in his home. Working through his minister of propaganda, the wily Joseph Goebbels, he also gave Ziegler the go-ahead to do a purge of modernist art from state-owned museums, a campaign that produced the “Degenerate Art” show but continued well beyond it. Eventually, some 20,000 pieces — Beckmann’s triptych among them — were confiscated, to be sold, hoarded or destroyed.

So the two triptychs broadly define the official view of good and bad (evil) art in the Nazi era. And they divide the Neue Galerie room into two corresponding zones. The “Four Elements” side is dominated by the life-size sculpture of a neo-Classical nude by Richard Scheibe, and two sculpted portrait heads of Ziegler by August Waterbeck, now forgotten. On the Beckmann side on the room is a small, violently twisting 1910 bronze Expressionist figure by Ernst Barlach titled “The Berserker,” and a 1911 still life of African sculpture by Emil Nolde that was in the “Degenerate Art” show.

But nothing is simple; paradoxes abound. Scheibe, after an early brush with censorship, worked steadily throughout the Nazi era without ever joining the party. An approved sculptural style seems to have been enough. At the same time, the much-touted Ziegler, who put Hitler’s aesthetic biases into catastrophic action, fell out of favor, was sent to Dachau, then finally allowed to retire.

Goebbels, who took over from Ziegler as degenerate-art prosecutor, started out as a big fan of modernism. There was even a moment early on when Expressionism was a candidate for becoming the official national art style. That ended when Hitler decided otherwise, and successful artists like Barlach and Nolde, whom Goebbels admired, fell into “degenerate” disgrace.

Nolde’s story, too, has its twists. Because of his disgrace, he emerged from World War II as something of a hero, an artist who, forbidden by the Nazis to pursue a career, had painted small, brilliant watercolors in private — some are on view here — and kept a kind of creative resistance alive. But Nolde wasn’t resistant to Nazism. He had always embraced it and spent the war years trying to get back into the party’s good graces.

You’ll find all these complex stories related in detail in the engrossing catalog edited by the show’s curator, Olaf Peters, an art historian and Neue Galerie board member. But the exhibition itself works in very broad narrative strokes that gain impact through the astonishing work used to illustrate them.

A gallery devoted to art in Dresden takes us back a step in time, to the years just before and after World War I, when the city was home to a group of artists who called themselves Die Brücke, the Bridge. One of their goals was to translate great German art of the past — Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach — into the language of present. In the process, they virtually invented Expressionism.

In the 1920s, they had success; you get a sense of this in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1925-26 painted portrait of himself and three Brücke colleagues, Otto Mueller, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, looking nattily dressed and self-confidently blasé. But under the Nazis, they were pariahs. Kirchner’s group portrait ended up in “Entartete Kunst” in 1937, as did all but one of the dozen Brücke paintings in the Dresden room. A year later, Kirchner, in exile in Switzerland, put a bullet through his head.

Harassment of Bauhaus artists began even earlier. In 1931, the National Socialist party, Hitler’s party, forced the school out of Dessau. It reopened to improvised quarters in Berlin, but closed there two years later. The clean-lined, functionalist Bauhaus style wasn’t “degenerate” exactly, but the school’s international — read, foreign — outlook was nearly as threatening. In the end, cosmopolitanism is what saved it. Most Bauhaus members felt comfortable enough in the wider world to leave Germany behind, and did.

What they left was inconceivable destruction, to lives and art alike. You get some grip on numbers in the show’s concluding gallery on the first floor, where a fat ledger book is on display filled with typed lists of “degenerate art” officially confiscated, mostly in 1937 and 1938, from German museums. Compiled in 1941-42 by the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda — Goebbels’s department — the ledger is on loan from Victoria and Albert Gallery in London.

An X beside an entry indicates a work known to have been destroyed; empty frames hanging high on the wall in the Neue Galerie symbolize work still missing. But it’s the art in the room called “The Fate of Works, the Fate of Artists” that your eyes go to, and particularly to a group of self-portraits.

There’s Max Beckmann, in 1938, dressed in a red robe striped like a prison uniform and grimly eyeing a trumpet he holds in his hand as if wondering whether to sound it. And Kirchner, in 1937, sitting in a sun-flooded room with a little cat, staring straight forward, half his face left unfinished — or half obliterated. Context means a lot in the way you see art. You can’t know how specifically personal these portraits are, how they connect to history, until you know that Beckmann was painting his in exile in Amsterdam the year after hundreds of his works had been impounded by the Nazis. Kirchner, painting in Switzerland, would be dead within a year.

Nor can you know that Oskar Kokoschka, who depicts himself in 1937 as a lantern-jawed palooka, is a hero until you read the nose-thumbing solidarity-affirming title he gave to his likeness: “Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist.” You don’t even realize Felix Nussbaum has painted his until you look closely at his multifigure 1944 picture “The Damned,” and recognize his face, familiar from other paintings by him, in a crowd.

Nussbaum, a German Jew, wasn’t in the 1937 “Entartete Art” show. Three years earlier, sensing menace in the air, he had left Germany for Belgium. There, in 1940, he was arrested as a “hostile alien” and put in a detention camp so nightmarish that he begged to be sent back to Germany. But he escaped en route and spent the next several years in hiding, on the move, living with friends here and there, and continuing to paint.

“The Damned” is a carefully composed, exquisitely painted horror story. A dozen gaunt, exhausted people crowd together in the foreground, shut in by high stone walls. A woman screams; another weeps; everyone else looks dazed except Nussbaum, who pulls his coat collar up and looks out of the picture furtively and appraisingly. A procession of skull-faced pallbearers carrying empty coffins enters the scene from behind.

In 1944, the year he finished the painting, Nussbaum was found hiding in an attic by Nazi soldiers, arrested and send to Auschwitz where he was killed, age 39. The photomural of Auschwitz that opens the show was shot in the same year. Nussbaum could have — I’m guessing — arrived at the train station in the picture. He could have stood on that platform. And — because everything connects, always — he could have been a figure in a similarly horizon-piercing crowd.

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” continues through June 30 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street; (212) 628-6200,;

9 Things You Should Know About Your Caffeine Habit | Mother Jones

9 Things You Should Know About Your Caffeine Habit | Mother Jones.

9 Things You Should Know About Your Caffeine Habit

A chat with Murray Carpenter, author of the book “Caffeinated: How Our Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us”

| Wed Mar. 5, 2014 4:00 AM GMT
Georges Guetary, Oscar Levant, and Gene Kelly in the 1951 film “American in Paris”

Even if you’re not among the 63 percent of Americans who drink coffee every day, caffeine is hard to avoid. It’s all over your corner store, from energy drinks to colas and bottles of iced tea to cans of Starbucks “Refreshers.” For a while there, it was looking like even your gum was going to be caffeinated.

But despite its pervasiveness, we still understand little about the stuff. It doesn’t help that the beverage industry hopes to keep it that way; for instance, though energy drink sales have skyrocketed in recent years, their manufacturers aren’t required to label how much caffeine their products contain. Meanwhile, emergency room visits related to energy drink use increased more than tenfold between 2005 to 2009.

In his new book, Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps Us, Hurts, and Hooks Us, out March 13, journalist Murray Carpenter takes on this mysterious substance. He toured Colombian coffee fields, Chinese tea lounges, and factories pumping out synthetic caffeine for soft drinks, interviewing FDA regulators, industry spokesmen, neuroscientists, and cacao cultivators. I chatted with Carpenter about how much caffeine is healthy, where the industry stands on labeling, and the most pretentious coffee preparation he’s observed. Here were some of the biggest takeaways.

Murray Carpenter Photo by Margot Carpenter

1. A healthy daily dose of caffeine can be very different depending on who you are.
“When doctors talk about moderate caffeine use, they talk about somewhere in the range of 300 to 400 milligrams. Most coffee drinkers tend to be in that range. Beyond that: 300 milligrams to one person might be perfect, but it might send another one through the roof. It varies so much, depending on your size, if you’re a smoker, if you have a genetic predisposition to metabolize caffeine slowly. It would be foolish to say X is the perfect amount or X is too much.

“Women on birth control metabolize caffeine twice as slowly—which means they get double the jolt from the same cup of coffee. And smokers metabolize it twice as fast. There are some people with a genetic predisposition to metabolize caffeine slowly. Those are the people who are going to be super sensitive to caffeine.”

2. There’s no standard amount of caffeine in each cup of coffee—even within the same brand.
“Starbucks gives an approximation of 20 milligrams per ounce. One 16-oounce cup of Starbucks puts you at about 320 milligrams of caffeine. One 16-ounce cup of Starbucks is for many Americans a good daily dose of caffeine.

“One researcher found that a 16-ounce cup had 560 milligrams of caffeine. The researcher, Bruce Goldberger, went to the same Starbucks and ordered the same blend of coffee for six days, and found that the levels varied more than twofold. He’s not the only one to have found those things. Even espresso shots, which are much more regimented, can vary.”

3. Caffeinated beverage manufacturers are not required by the Food and Drug Administration to label how much caffeine is contained in their product.
“If you market a product as a food or a supplement, they still don’t have a requirement that you label the amount of the quantity of caffeine in the product. There’s some voluntary labeling initiatives underway: The American Beverage Association has recommended bottlers do that, but you can still find energy drinks that don’t tell you how much caffeine is in them.

“But I should note: Lipton, for example, they label the amount of caffeine. A number of tea manufacturers are starting to do this. They seem to be pretty close to the amount tea typically has. It’s not impossible for coffee and tea to start doing this. And for the products where caffeine is blended in very specific amounts, I don’t see any reason consumers should be left in the dark.”

4. Your grandparents probably drank twice as much coffee as you do.
“They were taking twice as many beans, meaning they were actually drinking more caffeine, too. We like to think of ourselves as a supercaffeinated culture, but our grandparents were more caffeinated than we were. I think one of the reasons is counterintuitive: We make a much bigger deal out of coffee than they did. We think of ourselves as coffee lovers. For their generation, it was just like, yeah, gimme a cup of coffee.”

5. Pro athletes everywhere depend on caffeine—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I used to race bikes, and we used to drink a strong cup of coffee back then before a race. When I work out, I still like to be somewhat caffeinated. I think it helps me work out more vigorously, and I think a lot of people do. The ethics of it are really fascinating; it’s definitely complex. What’s changed in the past 30 years, since I was racing bikes seriously, is that you have much more specificity now in how people are able to take caffeine. You can quantify your dose, and there are products like gels that can help give the athlete caffeine in very specific doses.”

6. Keurig cups—those little disposable, single-serve cups of coffee with a special dispenser—are here to stay. As Carpenter writes in Caffeinated: “The 2011 production of K-Cups, lined up end to end, would encircle the equator six times—a foot-wide belt of plastic, foil, and coffee around the planet.”
“At the time I did a story for the New York Times about the environmental impacts of K-cups, Green Mountain was in the middle of doing an environmental analysis of the entire flow of coffee through K-cup through landfill to see if it was indeed more wasteful. It’s probably not as cut-and-dried as we first think. You’re able to extract the coffee more efficiently than, say, through a cone in your house. If you do a full life cycle analysis, it probably doesn’t look as bad as you would think.

“But certainly on the waste end, like downstream from your house, it doesn’t look good. And I think people have been pretty critical of the single-serving phenomenon for that reason. They experimented with different things: looked at renewable plastics, K-cups with paper tops and stuff like that. But it’s really difficult to make it impermeable. The thing you have to do is keep oxygen out, and it’s really hard to do that with any ecofriendly product. At least at the time I did that story, Newman’s Own Organics’ single top selling product was K-cups. Nell Newman has been a very forceful advocate of minimizing packaging. So some interesting questions there.”

7. Mixing caffeine and alcohol hasn’t been proven to be inherently unhealthy. But the resulting behaviors can be dangerous, potentially even fatal.
“From a health perspective, being stimulated could allow you to drink more than you might otherwise. You might otherwise pass out sooner. There’s still research going on in that area, for what it’s worth. I haven’t seen that there’s some synergistic effect that’s going to blow your brain apart when you mix caffeine and alcohol. Still, not a great idea.”

8. Caffeine could be way better for us—and also way worse—than we know.
“This is the question I got all the time: What’s the verdict? Is it good or is it bad? If I had a simple answer, it would have been a five-page book. It can be more effective than I had any idea, in terms of improving your alertness, your cognition, your athletic ability. It can have stronger more acute effects on sleep and anxiety than I’d imagined. It can be terrific. I think it’s important that everybody recognize how much is good for them, what it does for them when they take it, what they feel like when they don’t take it, and experiment.”

9. You’re not as much of a coffee buff as you think.
“I thought I was a coffee snob before reporting this book. I had no idea. I went into a very high-end coffee shop in New York, and ordered a pour-over, which is a fancy name for filter drip coffee right into a cup. A great way to make coffee, but there’s nothing particularly new about it. The guy who was serving me first had a little gram scale, and he weighed out the grounds on the scale, poured them into the thing…and then he weighed the water. That struck me as over the top. You see it all over the place.

“Other people talk to me about seasonality: ‘In this season, Colombian coffee is particularly fruity.’ There are a lot of people who are full of shit. But people are way on the edge of this. On the plus side, we do live in the golden age of coffee. It’s easier to go out anywhere you want—in San Francisco, or even in this little town of Belfast, Maine [where Murray lives]—and just get a really good cup of coffee any time you want it.”

Maddie Oatman

Research Editor

Maddie Oatman is the research editor at Mother Jones. For more of her stories, click here. To follow her on Twitter, click here. RSS |

Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda by Timothy Snyder | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books

Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda by Timothy Snyder | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books.


Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda


Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, February 19, 2014

From Moscow to London to New York, the Ukrainian revolution has been seen through a haze of propaganda. Russian leaders and the Russian press have insisted that Ukrainian protesters were right-wing extremists and then that their victory was a coup. Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, used the same clichés after a visit with the Russian president at Sochi. After his regime was overturned, he maintained he had been ousted by “right-wing thugs,” a claim echoed by the armed men who seized control of airports and government buildings in the southern Ukrainian district of Crimea on Friday.

Interestingly, the message from authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Kiev was not so different from some of what was written during the uprising in the English-speaking world, especially in publications of the far left and the far right. From Lyndon LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review through Ron Paul’s newsletter through The Nation and The Guardian, the story was essentially the same: little of the factual history of the protests, but instead a play on the idea of a nationalist, fascist, or even Nazi coup d’état.

In fact, it was a classic popular revolution. It began with an unmistakably reactionary regime. A leader sought to gather all power, political as well as financial, in his own hands. This leader came to power in democratic elections, to be sure, but then altered the system from within. For example, the leader had been a common criminal: a rapist and a thief. He found a judge who was willing to misplace documents related to his case. That judge then became the chief justice of the Supreme Court. There were no constitutional objections, subsequently, when the leader asserted ever more power for his presidency.

In power, this leader, this president, remained a thief, but now on a grand, perhaps even unsurpassed, scale. Throughout his country millions of small businessmen and businesswomen found it impossible to keep their firms afloat, thanks to the arbitrary demands of tax authorities. Their profits were taken by the state, and the autonomy that those profits might have given them were denied. Workers in the factories and mines had no means whatsoever of expression their own distress, since any attempt at a strike or even at labor organization would simply have led to their dismissal.

The country, Ukraine, was in effect an oligarchy, where much of the wealth was in the hands of people who could fit in one elevator. But even this sort of pluralism, the presence of more than one very rich person, was too much for the leader, Viktor Yanukovych. He wanted to be not only the president but the oligarch-in-chief. His son, a dentist, was suddenly one of the wealthiest men in Europe. Tens of billions of dollars simply disappeared from the state budget. Yanukovych built for himself a series of extravagant homes, perhaps the ugliest in architectural history.

Pochuyev Mikhail/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis A villa at Mezhyhirya, an out-of-town estate of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych north of Kiev

It is hard to have all of the power and all of the money at the same time, because power comes from the state, and the state has to have a budget. If a leader steals so much from the people that the state goes bankrupt, then his power is diminished. Yanukovych actually faced this problem last year. And so, despite everything, he became vulnerable, in a very curious way. He needed someone to finance the immediate debts of the Ukrainian state so that his regime would not fall along with it.

Struggling to pay his debts last year, the Ukrainian leader had two options. The first was to begin trade cooperation with the European Union. No doubt an association agreement with the EU would have opened the way for loans. But it also would have meant the risk of the application of the rule of law within Ukraine. The other alternative was to take money from another authoritarian regime, the great neighbor to the east, the Russian Federation.

In December of last year, the leader of this neighboring authoritarian regime, Vladimir Putin, offered a deal. From Russia’s hard currency reserves accumulated by the sale of hydrocarbons he was willing to offer a loan of $15 billion, and lower the price of natural gas from Russia. Putin had a couple of little preoccupations, however.

The first was the gay conspiracy. This was a subject that had dominated Russian propaganda throughout last year but which had been essentially absent from Ukraine. Perhaps Ukraine could join in? Yes indeed: the Ukrainian prime minister began to explain to his population that Ukraine could not have closer cooperation with Europe, since the EU was interested chiefly in gay marriage.

Putin’s second preoccupation was something called Eurasia. This was and is Putin’s proposed rival to the European Union, a club of dictatorships meant to include Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Again, perhaps Ukraine could join? Yanukovych hesitated here, seeing the trap—the subordination of Ukraine of course meant his own subordination—but he did allow himself to be jollied along toward the necessary policies. He began to act like a proper dictator. He began to kill his own people in significant numbers. He bloodied his hands, making him an unlikely future partner for the European Union.

Enter a lonely, courageous Ukrainian rebel, a leading investigative journalist. A dark-skinned journalist who gets racially profiled by the regime. And a Muslim. And an Afghan. This is Mustafa Nayem, the man who started the revolution. Using social media, he called students and other young people to rally on the main square of Kiev in support of a European choice for Ukraine. That square is called the Maidan, which by the way is an Arab word. During the first few days of the protests the students called it the Euromaidan. Russian propaganda called it, predictably enough, the Gayeuromaidan.

When riot police were sent to beat the students, who came to defend them? More “Afghans,” but “Afghans” of a very different sort: Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet Red Army, men who had been sent to invade Afghanistan during after the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979. These men came to defend “their children,” as they called the students. But they were also defending a protest initiated by a man born in Kabul at the very time they were fighting their way toward it.

In December the crowds grew larger. By the end of the year, millions of people had taken part in protests, all over the country. Journalists were beaten. Individual activists were abducted. Some of them were tortured. Dozens disappeared and have not yet been found. As the New Year began the protests broadened. Muslims from southern Ukraine marched in large numbers. Representatives of the large Kiev Jewish community were prominently represented. Some of the most important organizers were Jews. The telephone hotline that people called to seek missing relatives was established by gay activists (people who have experience with hotlines). Some of the hospital guards who tried to stop the police from abducting the wounded were young feminists.

In all of these ways, the “decadent” West, as Russia’s foreign minister put it, was present. Yes, there were some Jews, and there were some gays, in this revolution. And this was exploited by both the Russian and Ukrainian regimes in their internal propaganda. The Russian press presented the protest as part of a larger gay conspiracy. The Ukrainian regime instructed its riot police that the opposition was led by a larger Jewish conspiracy. Meanwhile, both regimes informed the outside world that the protestors were Nazis. Almost nobody in the West seemed to notice this contradiction.

On January 16, Yanukovych signed a series of laws that had been “passed” through parliament, entirely illegally, by a minority using only a show of hands. These laws, introduced by pro-Russian legislators and similar to Russian models, severely constrained the freedom of speech and assembly, making of millions of protesters “extremists” who could be imprisoned. Organizations that had financial contacts with the outside world, including Catholic and Jewish groups, were suddenly “foreign agents” and subject to immediate harassment.

After weeks of maintaining their calm in the face of repeated assaults by the riot police, some protesters now chose violence. Out of public view, people had been dying at the hands of the police for weeks. Now some of the protesters were killed by the regime in public. The first Ukrainian protester to be killed was an Armenian. The second to be killed was a Belarusian.

Then came the mass killings by the regime. On February 18 the Ukrainian parliament was supposed to consider a compromise that many observers believed was a first step away from bloody confrontation: a constitutional reform to return the state to parliamentary democracy. Instead, the riot police were unleashed in Kiev, this time armed not only with tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets, but also with live ammunition. The protesters fell back to the Maidan and defended it, the way revolutionaries do: with cobblestones, Molotov cocktails, and in the end their bare hands.

On February 20, an EU delegation was supposed to arrive to negotiate a truce. Instead, the regime orchestrated a bloodbath. The riot police fell back from some of the Maidan. When protesters followed, they were shot by snipers who had taken up positions on rooftops. Again and again people ran out to try to rescue the wounded, and again and again they were shot.

Gueorgui Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos Protesters clashing with police in Kiev, Ukraine, February 2014

Who was killed? Dozens of people, in all about a hundred, most of them young men. Bohdan Solchanyk was a young lecturer at the Ukrainian Catholic University, a Ukrainian speaker from western Ukraine. He was shot and killed. Yevhen Kotlyov was an environmentalist from Kharkiv, a Russian speaker from eastern Ukraine. He was shot and killed. One of the people killed was a Russian citizen; a number of Russians had come to fight—most of them anarchists who had come to aid their Ukrainian anarchist comrades. At least two of those killed by the regime, and perhaps more, were Jews. One of those “Afghans,” Ukrainian veterans of the Red Army’s war in Afghanistan, was Jewish: Alexander Scherbatyuk. He was shot and killed by a sniper. Another of those killed was a Pole, a member of Ukraine’s Polish minority.

Has it ever before happened that people associated with Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, Armenian, Polish, and Jewish culture have died in a revolution that was started by a Muslim? Can we who pride ourselves in our diversity and tolerance think of anything remotely similar in our own histories?

The people were victorious as a result of sheer physical courage. The EU foreign ministers who were supposed to be treated to a bloody spectacle saw something else: the successful defense of the Maidan. The horrifying massacre provoked a general sense of outrage, even among some of the people who had been Yanukovych’s allies. He did something he probably had not, when the day began, intended to do: he signed an agreement in which he promised not to use violence. His policemen understood, perhaps better than he, what this meant: the end of the regime. They melted away, and he ran for his life. Power shifted to parliament, where a new coalition of oppositionists and dissenters from Yanukovych’s party formed a majority. Reforms began, beginning with the constitution. Presidential elections were called for May.

Still, the propaganda continued. Yanukovych stopped somewhere to record a video message, in Russian, claiming that he was the victim of a Nazi coup. Russian leaders maintained that extremists had come to power, and that Russians in Ukraine were under threat. Although the constitutional transition is indeed debatable in the details, these charges of a right-wing coup are nonsense.

The Ukrainian far right did play an important part in the revolution. What it did, in going to the barricades, was to liberate itself from the regime of which it had been one of the bulwarks. One of the moral atrocities of the Yanukovych regime was to crush opposition from the center-right, and support opposition from the far right. By imprisoning his major opponents from the legal political parties, most famously Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych was able to make of democracy a game in which he and the far right were the only players.

The far right, a party called Svoboda, grew larger in these conditions, but never remotely large enough to pose a real challenge to the Yanukovych regime in democratic elections. In this arrangement Yanukovych could then tell gullible westerners that he was the alternative to the far right. In fact, Svoboda was a house opposition that, during the revolution, rebelled against its own leadership. Against the wishes of their leaders, the radical youth of Svoboda fought in considerable numbers, alongside of course people of completely different views. They fought and they took risks and they died, sometimes while trying to save others. In the post-revolutionary situation these young men will likely seek new leadership. The leader of Svoboda, according to opinion polls, has little popular support; if he chooses to run for president, which is unlikely, he will lose.

The radical alternative to Svoboda is Right Sector, a group of far-right organizations whose frankly admitted goal was not a European future but a national revolution against all foreign influences. In the long run, Right Sector is the group to watch. For the time being, its leaders have been very careful, in conversations with both Jews and Russians, to stress that their goal is political and not ethnic or racial. In the days after the revolution they have not caused violence or disorder. On the contrary, the subway runs in Kiev. The grotesque residences of Yanukovych are visited by tourists, but they are not looted. The main one is now being used as a base for archival research by investigative journalists.

The transitional authorities were not from the right, or even from the western part of Ukraine, where nationalism is more widespread. The speaker of the parliament and the acting president is a Baptist preacher from southeastern Ukraine. All of the power ministries, where of course any coup-plotter would plant his own people, were led by professionals and Russian speakers. The acting minister of internal affairs was half Armenian and half Russian. The acting minister of defense was of Roma origin.

The provisional authorities are now being supplanted by a new government, chosen by parliament, which is very similar in its general orientation. The new prime minister is a Russian-speaking conservative technocrat. Both of the major presidential candidates in the elections planned for May are Russian speakers. The likely next president, Vitali Klitschko, is the son of a general in the Soviet armed forces, best known in the West as the heavyweight champion boxer. He is a chess player and a Russian speaker. He does his best to speak Ukrainian. It does not come terribly naturally. He is not a Ukrainian nationalist.

As specialists in Russian and Ukrainian nationalism have been predicting for weeks, the claim that the Ukrainian revolution is a “nationalist coup,” as Yanukovych, in Russian exile, said on Friday, has become a pretext for Russian intervention. This now appears to be underway in the Crimea, where the Russian flag has been raised over the regional parliament and gunmen have occupied the airports. Meanwhile, Russia has put army battle groups on alert and sent naval cruisers from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

Whatever course the Russian intervention may take, it is not an attempt to stop a fascist coup, since nothing of the kind has taken place. What has taken place is a popular revolution, with all of the messiness, confusion, and opposition that entails. The young leaders of the Maidan, some of them radical leftists, have risked their lives to oppose a regime that represented, at an extreme, the inequalities that we criticize at home. They have an experience of revolution that we do not. Part of that experience, unfortunately, is that Westerners are provincial, gullible, and reactionary.

Thus far the new Ukrainian authorities have reacted with remarkable calm. It is entirely possible that a Russian attack on Ukraine will provoke a strong nationalist reaction: indeed, it would be rather surprising if it did not, since invasions have a way of bringing out the worst in people. If this is what does happen, we should see events for what they are: an entirely unprovoked attack by one nation upon the sovereign territory of another.

Insofar as we have accepted the presentation of the revolution as a fascist coup, we have delayed policies that might have stopped the killing earlier, and helped prepare the way for war. Insofar as we wish for peace and democracy, we are going to have to begin by getting the story right.

This is the second installment of Timothy Snyder’s series on Russian ideology and the Ukrainian revolution. In the next part, Snyder examines Putin’s intentions in Crimea.