Photographing the Backs of Sailors’ Heads
It’s 1982 and I’ve got a gig on a Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger. I climb aboard at Coronado Island across the San Diego Bay and get off seven days later in Honolulu, Hawaii. Three or four layers below deck I set up a portable portrait studio: three strobes on stands with a battery pack—two with umbrellas and one to spot the painted backdrop. I have an adjustable posing stool and a Beattie Coleman Portronic camera with a 100-foot roll of 70-millimeter color negative film. The Portronic sits on a roller tripod and has a slot for cards to ID the negatives. Approximately 3,000 men, who for the most part are still just boys, are slated for their yearbook portraits. These lucky sailors will hopefully purchase prints for the proud parents and girls in waiting back home in Dudvillie. I’ve borrowed the equipment from the storeroom of a portrait studio where I worked for a while and somehow ended up with my own key. I’m hoping to make a bundle.
The USS Ranger is a bustling city of men, many of whom live like cave dwellers and go for weeks at a time without seeing natural light. I think they’re all a bunch of idiots, but I can be quick to judge and tend to bristle around people in uniform. Enclosed in gloppy gray gloom, everything is narrow and riveted together. Heavy metal clanks echo from the walls but voices remain stationary. I eat with the officers in the mess hall and I’ve gone exploring and been lost three times by the second day.
Thanksgivukkah Is Coming and It Will be the Greatest Night of Our Lives
Thanksgivukkah 2013 is just around the corner and no one is more excited for it than me. Okay maybe Rob Reiner. That’s right, Thanksgiving, the national holiday where we give thanks for the previous year’s harvest and the first night of Hanukkah, the Hebrew festival of lights both fall on the same day. This quirk of the calendar has created one giant, starchy, delicious, guilt-riddled holiday for us to enjoy. It’s one of the rare occasions when something secular and something Jewish combines perfectly. It’s basically like if Liev Schrieber and Naomi Watts’ wedding ceremony was made into a national holiday minus the chocolate fountain. It’s also the opposite of watching George W. Bush light a menorah… or struggle to say “mazel tov” in that stupid hillbilly accent.
I don’t know about you but my inner Mandy Patinkin is kvelling! But before we get into all the wondrous things about Thanksgivukkah let’s take a step back and figure out how exactly this “mitzvah” (blessing) happened so that we may adequately thank “Adonai” (God, or as my people call him “G-d”) for allowing us to be alive during this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Last spring, the remains of 10 missing Afghan villagers were dug up outside a U.S. Special Forces base – was it a war crime or just another episode in a very dirty war?
NSA Spying on America’s Allies Is Business As Usual
Unsurprisingly, the news that the NSA has been monitoring the calls of dozens of world leaders hasn’t gone down particularly well with any of those world leaders. In fact, after suspecting that the US might have been snooping on her communications, last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel rang up Obama herself to demand some answers. A couple of days later, it emerged that her phone has potentially been monitored for more than a decade by the supposedly friendly American government.
In response to the latest revelations to be brought to light by Edward Snowden’s leaks, Germany and Brazil last week proposed that a UN resolution be drawn up to put a cap on America’s “indiscriminate” and “extra-territorial” surveillance. Twenty-one countries—including US allies Mexico and France—are now discussing such a resoluatoin. Ironically, there’s every chance that these talks about the issue will find their way into an NSA analyst’s earpiece at some point, since an earlier Snowden leak alleged that the US has bugged the UN headquarters in the past.
This type of surveillance isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, according to Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Countries all over the world do surveillance of their friends and enemies,” he told me. “That’s been happening for years.” However, he did stress that “the scope and magnitude of these [spying] initiatives is shocking to some folks… On the one hand you have the Obama administration sending a clear sign of its willingness to partner with Latin America, to break with the past and regard these countries as equals. But on the other: ‘We’re also watching you.’”
Some Well-Dressed White Nationalists Got Together in DC Last Weekend
The worst part about going to a white nationalist conference is when everyone thinks you’re a white nationalist.
As I approached the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington, DC, on Saturday morning, a group of protesters started jeering at me, and one hoisted a cardboard sign in my direction that read: “Fuck off, Nazis!” Then I had to pass through a metal detector and security checkpoint manned by several black policemen.
Hey guys, boy am I excited to cover this event, I wanted to say. Because I am covering this event, as a journalist, certainly not because I’m a crypto-fascist.
The event in question was the National Policy Institute’s “leadership conference,” titled “After the Fall: The Future of Identity.” It’s a boring name that, like a lot of vague monikers used by political entities, conceals an alarming agenda.
The National Policy Institute is a white nationalist think tank. These aren’t Breaking Bad Nazis or yokels in KKK robes. These are suit-and-tie white separatists—academic-sounding fellows who speak grimly about “preserving European culture” from the swarthy tide of egalitarianism and immigration. Their leader, Richard Spencer, is as clean-cut as they come, which, as he told Salon, is essentially a recruitment tactic:
“’[White separatists] have to look good,’ Spencer said, adding that if his movement means ‘being part of something that is crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid, no one is going to want to be a part of it.’”
The assumption is that if they dress nice, people will follow Spencer and his fellow travelers on their road to a white ethno-state where pasty people can listen to Jack Johnson records and play Frisbee in glorious racial homogeneity.
I Got Kicked Out of America for Having a Guitar
As any noncitizen who’s traveled to America knows, it’s a pain in the ass to pass through customs. The border officers are suspicious of everyone with a foreign-sounding name or accent, they’ll treat you like a terrorist until you prove to them you’re not, and, as I found out last month, they really, really hate guitars. At least, I assume they do, because I can’t think of any other reason they would have held me up for hours, given me a full-body search, and kicked me out of their country, when all I wanted to do was tour the South and maybe play some unpaid gigs with my guitar.
I was planning on following in the footsteps of my musical idols—Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker; well-travelled men with guitars and drug addictions—by taking the Greyhound through the South and up to the West Coast before visiting my aunt in Alabama and holing up in some motel somewhere in the Mississippi Delta to record some music of my own. I’d also emailed a number of bars in the hopes of playing some open-mic nights along the way, which I assumed would be OK with the US government. On the State Department’s website, it specifically says you can visit America without a visa if you’re an amateur who’s taking part in “musical, sports, or similar events or contests, if not being paid for participating.”
So I planned my trip without worrying about any bureaucratic red tape. Before going to the South, I’d meet my girlfriend in California. Since I live in London and she’s in Constance, Germany, we flew to the US independently, planning to meet at Los Angeles.
The Continuing Stupidity of the Government Shutdown
Last night, a week after the start of the aggressively futile, pointless governmentshutdown. Barack Obama addressed the American people. He explained—he loves explaining things—that he and the Congressional Democrats were perfectly willing to sit down and talk about everything they disagree over, but first Republicans were going to have to agree to end the shutdown and also to raise the debt ceiling, which is arguablymore important for the economy. This is how Obama phrased his offer to negotiate:
“I am happy to talk with [Speaker of the House John Boehner] and other Republicans about anything… [but] having such a conversation, talks, negotiations shouldn’t require hanging the threats of a government shutdown or economic chaos over the heads of the American people.”
That might sound reasonable if you’re on Team Democrat, but conservative media outlets like the Daily Caller heard something different:
“President Barack Obama tried Tuesday to sway the public’s jaundiced view of the budget crisis with a mishmash of economic threats, campaign-style attacks on Republicans’ repeated offers of budget talks and numerous promises to reject any compromise […] Obama slammed the GOP as deadbeats and extremists, as kidnappers, as unserious and insincere […] The stream of invective and contempt reassures his supporters and motivates them to turn out in the 2014 election, but boosts the GOP’s long-standing distrust of the president’s willingness or political ability to negotiate.”
That underscores the absurd stupidity of the situation Republicans and Democrats are in—it’s hard to have a reasonable discussion when you occupy entirely separate universes. The two sides don’t even agree on who is losing the most from the shutdown. In the world of hard-right commenters like Erick Erikson, “Republicans are winning the shutdown fight, and Democrats know it,” while the Democrats can look at the polls and conclude that voters actually blame the GOP more than anyone else for the shutdown.
The Hidden Victims of the Government Shutdown
It’s been two whole days since the US federal government closed down all “nonessential” functions thanks to an extraordinarily stupid intra-Republican fight over defunding Obamacare. Currently, Speaker of the House John Boehner is trying to negotiate not just an end to the shutdown and the raising of the debt ceiling, but also a “grand bargain,” the long-sought-after, practically mythical deal in which Democrats agree to spending cuts in exchange for the GOP agreeing to increased revenue (a.k.a. tax increases). Some House Republicans now just want to get the government running again, and would presumably be willing to get together with their Democratic colleagues to get that done, but Boehner won’t allow that for fear of his party’s ultraconservative Tea Party wing.
Meanwhile, the government is supposedly closed, though if you’re not among the 800,000furloughed federal workers you might not even have noticed. National Parks across the country have closed, NASA has shut down operations, and a bunch of government websites went dark—but mail is still getting delivered, the military is still getting paid, and city services in Washington, DC, which were rumored to stop during the shutdown, arehumming along (for now). Heck, the Army and Navy college football teams are playing this week. It turns out that a whole bunch of government functions are “essential.”
The shutdown of nonessential functions did hurt people, however, often in ways that aren’t readily apparent. Here are a few people and groups suffering thanks to Congressional deadlock:
Kids with Cancer
We’ll start off with the most fucked. The National Institute of Health had to furlough 75 percent of its employees as a result of the shutdown, and that means they can’t conduct new clinical trials to test new cancer treatment—which in turn means that patients, including children and even children with cancer, won’t be getting medicine that could potentially help them. “For every week that the government shutdown continues, 10 children with cancer will not be able to begin their clinical trials” is how ABC News put it. Jesus Christ.