The Suicide Cluster in Minnesota
Published on February 20, 2012 by Sara Foss

I finally got around to reading the excellent Rolling Stone story about the suicide cluster in the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota - nine teenagers in two years. Because four of the dead were gay or perceived as such, the article focuses on the anti-gay climate in the district, and the district's bizarro Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, which has just been repealed.

This is the sort of article you read and feel like almost every adult in it should be punched in the face FOR DOING NOTHING WHILE CHILDREN KILL THEMSELVES. Some of the adults actually indicate that if you're "choosing" to be gay, then you're choosing a lifestyle where you're more likely to kill yourself, and that's your responsibility. Another thing I picked up on is the general sense from these jokers is that being gay will send you directly to hell, and being harassed and bullied and urged to become straight isn't as bad as all that, especially if you do reject the dreadful "homosexual lifestyle" and thus spare yourself a trip to hell.

You don't have to be gay to be offended by the stupidity of the Anoka-Hennepin school district. You just have to be a decent person. And if you've been bullied in school, as I was, you'll relate to the frustration of watching a bunch of cowardly adults refusing to do anything about it. You might even relate to the feelings of one kid who, having just completed his freshman year, couldn't believe he had to SUFFER THROUGH THREE MORE YEARS OF HIGH SCHOOL. I remember feeling that way myself - three more years of this crap? It does get better, as they say, but sometimes that can be hard for 14 and 15-year-olds to understand.

The Rolling Stone story also pairs well with the recent New Yorker story on the Rutgers suicide last year, which involved a gay student and an insensitive roommate who thought nothing of violating has privacy and gossiping about him with other people.

That Evil Safety Net
Published on February 12, 2012 by Sara Foss

Turns out most people need, use or somehow benefit from a government-subsidzed safety net!

And if this is true, can the safety net really be so evil?

Anyway, this New York Times story has the scoop.

Hopefully Ayn Rand is spinning in her grave!


Filling the Jails
Published on January 31, 2012 by Sara Foss

Adam Gopnik's New Yorker piece about our insanely high incarceration rate appears to be the must-read of the week.

Giffords Update
Published on January 8, 2012 by Sara Foss

I've followed the story of Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who was shot a year ago, fairly closely.

News of Giffords' brain injury and recovery often bring back memories of my sister's near-fatal accident and miraculous recovery, and now the New York Times has put together an interesting article about Tucson a year after the Giffords' shooting. Times columnist Dan Barry also visited Tucson, for a piece that you can read here.

Story of the Day
Published on December 13, 2011 by Sara Foss

When I worked as a reporter in Birmingham, I used to say that every story had an Alabama connection. The latest evidence that this is true is a story about a sperm donor scandal in New Zealand involving a former Birmingham city councilman and conservative Christian candidate for governor, Bill Johnson.

Johnson has spent the past year in Christchurch, helping with earthquake recovery. Unbeknownst to his wife, he has also been donating sperm, seeking women, including lesbian couples, who want to have children on the Internet, according to news reports. At least nine women have received his sperm, and three are now pregnant; New Zealand fertility clinic guidelines recommend that no man donate sperm to more than four families. Also, Johnson campaigned on an anti-gay platform back in Alabama.

Asked whether his wife knew about his activities, Johnson said, "She does now."

Anyway, strange story. Click here for the Mobile Press-Register's take, or here for the New Zealand Herald's take.

Police Conduct
Published on December 6, 2011 by Sara Foss

This New York Times story about New York City cops being racist on Facebook pairs well with this piece on The Awl about a new grassroots movement taking aim at the aggressive tactics routinely used to police poor neighborhoods.

Pepper Spray Cop Meme
Published on November 22, 2011 by Sara Foss

I'm a big fan of the Pepper Spray Cop meme. It manages to take something disturbing and make it ... disturbingly hilarious.

The Week has compiled some reactions to the meme, as well as some images. Click here for more.

County Bankruptcy
Published on November 21, 2011 by Sara Foss

I used to live in Jefferson County, Alabama. In fact, I used to cover the Jefferson County Commission. Back then, this was a pretty boring beat - lots of articles about the county's big sewer project. Well, today things are far from boring in Jefferson County, and the big sewer project has a lot to do with it. Earlier this month Jefferson County filed for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy - the largest such filing in the history of the United States.

Over at Weld for Birmingham, Kyle Whitmire provides a pretty comprehensive look at how this came to pass.

Here's an excerpt:

"The inevitable is not always fast, but it is inevitable. After three years of negotiations, Jefferson County filed for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the largest such filing in the history of the United States, with debts more than twice the notional of the next record-holder, Orange County, Calif. The move sets in motion a legal battle that promises to be long, costly and uncertain.

The short version of how Jefferson County found itself here begins in 1901, when Alabama’s new constitution enabled Jefferson County to create its own sewer system, but denied all counties in general the autonomy and authority to finance themselves."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Congress is Full of Rich People
Published on November 15, 2011 by Sara Foss

Nearly half of Congress is comprised of millionaires, according to a new study by the Center for Responsive Politics, which notes, "That lofty financial status is enjoyed by only about one percent of Americans."

Click here for more.

Yes, Sexual Harassment Exists
Published on November 9, 2011 by Sara Foss

One interesting line of conservative thinking is to deny that sexual harassment exists.

Here's John Derbyshire at the National Review:

"Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like 'racial discrimination'? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up. Is this any way to live?"

Uh huh. How small does your world have to be to make a statement like that? I wouldn't say sexual harassment is prevalent, but it's pretty much impossible to join the workplace and never see or hear of it. I have no idea what went on between Herman Cain and the women accusing him of sexual harassment, but it certainly doesn't require a stretch of the imagination to believe that a powerful man might make unwanted advances toward the women in his office. Of course, I'm from earth, so maybe it's easier for me.

My favorite take on the whole "sexual harassment doesn't exist" line of thinking comes from The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes, in response to Derbyshire's piece:

"Yeah dude, I know exactly what you mean.  
Like the last time I went into the office, I told an intern, 'You totally look hot when you're researching my stories.' She didn't respond, so to show how much appreciated her hotness, I gave her a love-tap on her fanny when she walked past.
Now she's all screaming 'Sexual Harassment!' And dude in HR is all like, 'This is a serious issue, Mr. Coates.' And and I'm all like, 'Bros Before Hos!' And they're all like, 'Hostile Work Environment.' And I'm all like, 'Awesome Work Environment!' And my editors are all like, 'Fireable Offense.' And I'm all like, 'Men get harassed, too!'  She tells me 'Nice suit' and it's fine. I tell her 'Nice rack' and everyone gets all law-suity.
Anyway dude, it looks like this is my last post here at The Atlantic
Totally not cool, bro. That chick was harassing me. With her hotness."
Slate's Dahlia Lithwick addresses the stupidity here.

When We Talk About Civility, What Do We Mean?
Published on November 2, 2011 by Sara Foss

This New York Times article, on the supposed decline in Southern civility, has gotten a lot of criticism from the blogosphere, and rightly so. For one thing, the article makes an assumption I consider highly flawed: that civility (or the lack thereof) is something we should care about. I'm of the opinion that when people complain about a lack of civility, what they're really complaining about is the fact that some people disagree with them, and won't do them the favor of shutting up. If I remember correctly, the civil rights marchers demonstrated a distinct lack of civility by launching a bus boycott, and sitting at whites-only diner counters. People with manners just don't do stuff like that!

The article does acknowledge that civility has a dark side. "To be sure, strict rules regarding courtesy and deference to others have historically been used as a way to enforce a social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens," reporter Kim Severson writes. "In the Jim Crow era, blacks and whites lived with a code of hyper-politeness as a way to smooth the edges of a harsh racial system and, of course, keep it in place, scholars of Southern culture say."

Right. What some people might consider civil, others might consider racist and sexist. Or just plain dumb. The article quotes a second-grade teacher in Birmingham who says manners have been "at the lowest level she has seen in her 36 years in the classroom. Parents who move South tell her they don’t want their children to learn to say 'yes, sir' or 'yes, ma’am.' Too demeaning, they say." At the risk of sounding like a Yankee agitator, I'm going to come right out and admit that if I ever have children, they are not going to grow up calling their teachers sir or ma'am, because I don't believe in teaching blind subservience to authority. The article ends with an anecdote about a dedicated ballroom dance and etiquette teacher, who vows that she will not give up her quest to teach Southern children about civility. Which, speaking of things my hypothetical children are never going to learn to do (unless they really want to)...


When is a Withdrawal Not a Withdrawal?
Published on October 31, 2011 by Sara Foss

I couldn't quite believe it when Obama announced that U.S. troops would withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year. It seemed too good to be true.

As I suspected, there was a little more to the story. According to news reports, the U.S. is planning to bolster its presence in the Middle East after the Iraq withdrawal is complete. Which comes as no surprise, I guess. But still. Was it too much to hope that we were really changing course?

The Life of a Small-Town Druggist
Published on October 30, 2011 by Sara Foss

I'm trying to catch up on my New Yorkers, and I finally got around to reading this nice little slice-of-life story by Peter Hessler, about the life of a druggist in the remote town (population: fewer than 1,000) of Nucla, Colo.

Here's an excerpt:

"In the southwestern corner of Colorado, where the Uncompahgre Plateau descends through spruce forest and scrubland toward the Utah border, there is a region of more than four thousand square miles which has no hospitals, no department stores, and only one pharmacy. The pharmacist is Don Colcord, who lives in the town of Nucla. More than a century ago, Nucla was founded by idealists who hoped their community would become the 'center of Socialistic government for the world.' But these days it feels like the edge of the earth. Highway 97 dead-ends at the top of Main Street; the population is around seven hundred and falling. The nearest traffic light is an hour and a half away. When old ranching couples drive their pickups into Nucla, the wives leave the passenger’s side empty and sit in the middle of the front seat, close enough to touch their husbands. It’s as if something about the landscape—those endless hills, that vacant sky—makes a person appreciate the intimacy of a Ford F-150 cab.

Don Colcord has owned Nucla’s Apothecary Shoppe for more than thirty years. In the past, such stores played a key role in American rural health care, and this region had three more pharmacies, but all of them have closed. Some people drive eighty miles just to visit the Apothecary Shoppe. It consists of a few rows of grocery shelves, a gift-card rack, a Pepsi fountain, and a diabetes section, which is decorated with the mounted heads of two mule deer and an antelope. Next to the game heads is the pharmacist’s counter. Customers don’t line up at a discreet distance, the way city folk do; in Nucla they crowd the counter and talk loudly about health problems.

'What have you heard about sticking your head in a beehive?' This on a Tuesday afternoon, from a heavyset man suffering from arthritis and an acute desire to find low-cost treatment.

'It’s been used, progressive bee-sting therapy,' Don says. 'When you get stung, your body produces cortisol. It reduces swelling, but it goes away. And you don’t know when you’re going to have that one reaction and go into anaphylactic shock and maybe drop dead. It’s highly risky. You don’t know where that bee has been. You don’t know what proteins it’s been getting.'

'You’re a helpful guy. Thank you.'

'I would recommend hyaluronic acid. It’s kind of expensive, about twenty-five dollars a month. But it works for some people. They make it out of rooster combs.'"

The article is mostly a character study, but it also touches upon important issues, such as the difficulty of obtaining decent health care in rural areas, and the lengths to which people are willing to go to avoid incurring huge health care bills when they lack insurance.

Enough with the Drum Circles
Published on October 26, 2011 by Sara Foss

I visited New York City back in September, in the early days of Occupy Wall Street. My friend Susanna and I wandered by Zuccotti Park multiple times, and were intrigued by the motley band of folks gathered there. But we weren't impressed by the park's drum circle, because we are both anti-drum circle. This prejudice dates back to college, when warm weather brought the barefoot, drum-playing hippies into the quad. My friends and I generally gave these drum circles a wide berthe.

The drum circle at Zuccotti Park has inspired some interesting op-eds. Even sympathetic writers have expressed impatience with the drum circle; recently, The Nation's Katha Pollit wrote a fairly complimentary piece about OWS, but opened her piece with some anti-drum circle commentary:

"What a difference a few short weeks can make. The early word on Occupy Wall Street was that it was a motley collection of flakes and fools. 'Purpose in 140 or less,' tweeted CNN financial correspondent Alison Kosik, 'bang on the bongos, smoke weed!' (She’s since deleted that tweet.) New York Times financial writer Andrew Ross Sorkin, author of Too Big to Fail, asked on CNBC’s Squawk Box, 'Do we think that the whole Wall Street protest is overdone, real, not real? Were there really a lot of people down there? Were there a lot? I could never tell.' In a Times human interest column the archetypal OWS protester was 'a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka.' Arch condescension was definitely the dominant tone of mainstream coverage, and maybe a bit of it was even deserved: if you’re going to protest the policies of the Federal Reserve, you should probably know what it is, and speaking just for myself, the sooner the Zuccotti Park encampment loses the drum circle, the better. Men thumping away for hours on end, girls in tank tops vaguely dancing about—it’s just not the look you want for a movement that claims to be about getting rid of hierarchy."

That last sentence does a pretty good job of capturing some of my feelings about drum circles, for what it's worth.


The History of the Vampire Squid
Published on October 9, 2011 by Sara Foss

The website Vulgar Army has been compiling political cartoons and other propagandistic illustrations that use the octopus as a symbol, often of corporate and political oppression. So, no, Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi was not exactly breaking new ground when he described Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

Anyway, the website is cool, and the pictures are interesting. Click here to check them out.

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