Can This Chef Cook Up Black Support for Mayor Pete?

JA Moore doesn’t remember much about his conversation with Clementa Pinckney in the spring of 2015, save for the state senator and pastor’s final admonition: “You need to see your sister.” Moore’s half-sister Myra Thompson was a member of Pinckney’s church in Charleston, South Carolina. Moore hadn’t been great about returning her calls. “I did what I often did,” Moore recalls. “I didn’t listen.” The next time he saw Myra was at a funeral home a month later, after she, Pinckney and seven others were murdered by a white nationalist inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Just six months later, Moore’s brother James died after he walked into traffic. An Iraq War veteran who battled drug addiction, James had been living with Moore and putting his life back together. The brothers had gone out drinking that night to celebrate James’ progress. For a while, Moore blamed himself for his siblings’ deaths, until the feeling hardened into resolve: “You have to listen when you feel called to do something.”

That instinct led the 34-year-old owner of a catering company to run for office for the first time in 2018 and to endorse Pete Buttigieg for president ahead of Saturday’s South Carolina primary — sticking his neck out as the only Black state legislator to do so.

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Moore in the “spin room” after Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, S.C., wearing a suit and a fresh pair of Jordans.

Source Daniel Malloy/OZY

Buttigieg, 38, has struggled to attract Black votes in South Carolina and across the country, a critical constituency to securing the nomination. It starts with trust: South Carolina’s African Americans, Moore says, “expect to feel like they know you.” Former Vice President Joe Biden is well-known as President Barack Obama’s No. 2, while Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run made him a familiar face.

But Moore admits that Buttigieg’s being the first gay major presidential candidate also poses a challenge. “Pete’s sexuality, for voters and for me, it’s the same thing as Obama’s being Black for folks when he ran,” Moore says. “A part of who he is, but that’s not all that he is.” Once that’s out of the way, Moore says, he wins people over by talking about Buttigieg’s integrity and humility — and how, when Moore first introduced him to pastors and other Black leaders in Charleston, Buttigieg refused to post pictures or publicize the meetings. He was there to listen.

Moore compares Buttigieg to President Jimmy Carter — a man of integrity, intellect and faith who fit a post-Watergate moment.

And it’s Moore’s listening that has fueled his own political rise. The Hampton, South Carolina, native grew up steeped in civil rights as the son of a “hell-raiser” father who, together with Moore’s mother, ran the Hampton County Committee for the Betterment of Poor People.

Seeing joy in kids’ eyes while serving them free school lunches led Moore to become a chef in Charleston, where he became active in local politics and community organizations. He woke up one morning in 2018, he says, and felt called to run for office, a signal from God. Moore called state Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson, who told him there was a winnable state House seat in his backyard, but he had to decide fast: The filing deadline was the next day. Moore’s wife, Victoria, gave her blessing, and he started campaigning everywhere he could across a district that includes heavily Democratic parts of North Charleston as well as rural outlying areas. He set up his campaign headquarters in a barbershop, the better to catch Black men — who traditionally don’t turn out in high numbers — where they are. He defeated Rep. Samuel Rivers, the chamber’s only Black Republican, by 446 votes.

In the legislature, Moore became a leading voice in favor of gun control, considering his personal ties to the Mother Emmanuel shooting. Bakari Sellers, a former legislator who’s active in state politics, says Moore’s millennial perspective has been valuable in the Capitol — and he has the potential to run for statewide office, guided by the experience of representing a swing district. “JA is one of those rare talents in legislators who has a policy sense and the charisma to match,” Sellers says.

As for the Buttigieg endorsement, Sellers says it benefits both men, even if Buttigieg doesn’t win this year: “JA made the calculation that Pete Buttigieg is going to be around for a long time, and why not be close to one of your peers who’s going to help you change the world?”

Rivers, who’s running against Moore again this year and says he’ll win with Donald Trump atop the ticket, spies a more self-serving narrative: “He saw it as an opportunity to give him a leg up and get in front of the cameras, knowing that, hey, Buttigieg is looking for Black supporters.”

But Moore insists this is about believing in the candidate. He first backed Sen. Kamala Harris, wanting a Black female presidential role model for his baby daughter, but when she dropped out, he recalled the relationship he’d built with Buttigieg.

Chatting in the back of a small house in North Charleston while employees fill catering orders, Moore compares Buttigieg to President Jimmy Carter — a man of integrity, intellect and faith who fit a post-Watergate moment. (Moore is quick to add that Buttigieg, unlike Carter, wouldn’t be a micromanager and would win a second term.)

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Hours later, Moore introduces Buttigieg to a crowd of about 100 at a nearby community center. People have been asking him, Moore tells the crowd, why he endorsed Buttigieg. The answer? “He earned it.”

Buttigieg bounds out, thanks Moore and launches into a stump speech heavy on themes of racial justice and how he’s here to earn the votes of the African Americans who tend to make up more than 60 percent of the state’s presidential primary vote. The mostly White crowd cheers along.

“It’s not lonely,” Moore says. “Because I can talk about [Buttigieg’s record] with sincerity.” He does it at the debates, wearing a fresh pair of Jordan sneakers each time to go with his TV-ready suit as he gives reporters his pro-Pete take. Aside from media hits, he takes time at the Walmart and the barbershop trying to convince his neighbors that a young mayor with a hard-to-pronounce name deserves their trust. Says Moore, “I’m doing my part.”

Butterfly Effect: Iran’s Returning to the 2020 Race — Advantage: Trump

Just two months ago, the U.S. and Iran appeared poised for a dangerous military conflict. After an American drone killed Qassem Soleimani — the Iranian general driving his country’s regional expansionism — Tehran threatened to respond with force.

Saner heads on both sides pulled back from the brink. Iranian missiles slammed into American bases in Iraq but didn’t kill anyone. The impeachment proceedings and the Democratic primaries took over the news cycle. The Iran tensions melted into the background. They didn’t even get a mention in the Feb. 19 Las Vegas Democratic debate.

All that’s likely to change, with Iran’s hardliners securing a thumping majority in last Friday’s parliamentary elections. Prepare for Iran to return to the 2020 election cycle as an important subject of debate. And when that happens, it will almost certainly be to the advantage of President Donald Trump.

The Principalists, as the conservative loyalists of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei call themselves, have secured more than 220 out of 290 seats in Iran’s parliament, the majlis, though the final count in the country’s notoriously opaque electoral process is still unclear.

The results mark a consolidation of legislative power behind the religious right, and an electoral defeat for reformists within Iran’s mainstream politics, represented by President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Some implications are obvious. Two years after Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, last week’s results tighten the bolts on any window of hope left for the revival of the landmark 2015 agreement. Like many conservatives in the U.S., the Principalists in Iran never bought into the deal and have consistently opposed any rapprochement with Washington. Think of them as the John Boltons of Iran.

Now in firm control of the legislature — and still smarting from Soleimani’s assassination — they’ll likely seek to further extend the country’s external influence in West Asia, both directly and through proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. There will be an escalation in provocative statements and actions against the U.S. and its allies like Israel. The likelihood of the kind of events that led up to the assassination of Soleimani — including Iranian proxies targeting American soldiers in Iraq — has risen. It’s mostly a question of when, not if.

Those provocations — when they happen — will be impossible to ignore for candidates competing to win America’s presidential mandate in November. And they’ll be hard to pin on Trump, unlike in January, when the president’s decision to order the drone strike clearly led to an escalation of previously simmering tensions. Democratic presidential candidates who roundly criticized Trump then will find it harder to target him effectively if the provocations come from Iran’s military and intelligence agencies.

To be sure, Rouhani remains Iran’s president and has in recent weeks indicated he remains open to talks with the U.S. But it’s important to see the parliamentary elections in Iran for what they truly were: a power grab by conservatives backed by a regime that wanted to demonstratively show Rouhani his place. More than 7,000 mostly moderate candidates — including two-thirds of the outgoing parliament — were barred from contesting. In a remarkable moment for the Islamic republic, Rouhani publicly spoke out against those restrictions. “Do not tell the people that for every seat in parliament, there are 17, 170 or 1,700 candidates running in the election,” he said in a televised speech before the elections. “Seventeen-hundred candidates from how many factions? Seventeen candidates from how many parties? From one party? This is not an election.” His warning was ignored.

Yet the victory of hardliners was Pyrrhic. Coming on the back of those disqualifications, Iran’s accidental downing of an airliner that killed 176 people and street protests over economic mismanagement, the elections witnessed a record low turnout — just 42.6 percent. It was a vote of no-confidence in the regime and a defeat for the country’s already weak democracy.

11th Parliamentary elections in Iran

An Iranian woman casts her ballot.

Source Fatemeh Bahrami/Getty

That’s not the message Iran’s right has tried to project to its voters, though. “Victory for the anti-American candidates, a new slap for Trump,” wrote the conservative Kayhan newspaper as the results started streaming in.

Expect that rhetoric to grow more shrill as Iran’s conservatives try to present themselves as a credible alternative to moderates, whose failed attempts at bringing economic gains through the nuclear deal have frustrated their supporters. Like America, Iran has presidential elections coming up — in 2021. And like in America, fear and ignorance of the “other” have a constituency in Iran too.

Sadly, it’s not hard to imagine the latter half of 2020 mirroring the start of the year, with potential war clouds hovering over the presidential race. And Democrats will need a smarter response than blaming Trump. Iran may yet pose a key test they need to pass to win the presidency.  

How Smoking Could Make You Unemployable

Nearly a decade after she stopped smoking, Mabel Battle still has the last pack of cigarettes she ever bought. She keeps it as a reminder of all the gray Ohio winter workdays she spent standing outside her office with the other shivering smokers getting a nicotine fix.

The cigarette pack is a testament to her willpower, she says: after countless failed attempts, she finally quit. However, her success at giving up is also a striking result of a contentious corporate experiment. What finally prodded her into her decision was a fear that her habit might threaten her employment. “I wanted to keep my job more than I wanted to smoke cigarettes,” says Battle.

The Cleveland Clinic, where Battle works as a health unit coordinator, has been a leader in corporate anti-smoking initiatives. It first banned smoking on its 170-acre campus in 2008, and followed that up with a new policy to chemically screen job applicants for nicotine and refuse employment to those who test positive. Workers such as Battle who were on staff before the ban would not be fired for smoking in their free time, but she could see the culture changing.

Being a health care worker is setting an example,” says Dr. Bruce Rogen, the chief medical officer of the Cleveland Clinic’s employee health plan. Since instituting the ban, and offering free smoking-cessation programs to employees, Rogen says hundreds of people at the clinic have quit.

Only 21 U.S. states (including Ohio, where the clinic is based) allow companies to exclude smokers from their workforce outright. And in those areas this sort of policy has become the norm in the health care sector, says Rogen. Now the practice is spreading, and companies in other industries are implementing similar policies.

Your off-the-job behavior should have no bearing on your employment.

Dale Ewart, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

This delights anti-smoking activists. However, it has led civil liberties advocates to sound alarms about employers’ creeping control over workers’ lives even when they are off the clock.

U-Haul, an Arizona-based moving company with about 30,000 workers, this month became one of the country’s largest employers to stop hiring nicotine users — a term that includes not just smokers but users of “nicotine products.” This potentially covers people who test positive for nicotine because they are trying to give up smoking using vaping, gum or patches.

Like the Cleveland Clinic, U-Haul will allow those hired before the restriction to keep their jobs. And the hiring ban will only apply in the same 21 states.

However, should a U.S. company choose to fire any workers who use nicotine, the employees would have little recourse, depending on where they work. Smokers are not a “protected class” safeguarded by federal law, such as racial minorities or people with disabilities. That means in “at-will” employment states, a capricious boss can fire an employee for practically any reason, whether that is smoking off-duty or something as arbitrary as wearing the wrong color shirt to work.

“How far do the employer’s rights [to fire someone] go? It’s pretty much fair game unless the state prohibits it,” says Cathleen Scott, a Florida-based employment lawyer. “[A worker’s] choice is to take it or leave.”

The states that do not allow companies to ban nicotine users often prohibit discrimination against “legal off-duty conduct,” says Karen Buesing, an employment law specialist at Akerman. But the extent of the protections can vary.

Only a handful of employment cases over off-duty nicotine use have made it to court, but employment lawyers believe there could be ways to get these bans made illegal. “[Off-duty] smoking bans have not been litigated sufficiently for the public to have a grasp as to whether [they are] enforceable,” says Daniel Gwinn, an employment lawyer in Michigan.

As for U-Haul, the company says its new anti-nicotine policy is part of its commitment to employee “wellness,” but there are also clear financial motives at work. In the U.S., where health insurance is typically provided by employers, companies pay more for health coverage if their workforce includes a lot of smokers, says Buesing.

About one in every four companies with more than 500 employees offers nonsmokers a reduced rate on their health care premiums, says Steven Noeldner, partner at consultancy Mercer.

Yet off-duty smoking bans are only one type of potentially invasive “wellness” programs offered by companies. So-called “fitness contests” are growing increasingly common, where employees use step counters or other tracking devices to prove how active they are in exchange for a discount on their health insurance.

These programs are perfectly legal, as long as they are structured correctly, but companies can get into trouble if the devices they use track more than just an employees’ steps, says Buesing. Many companies are implementing intrusive programs — such as tracking workers’ locations via company-issued mobile phones.

“Technology is creating new ways to track and monitor employees,” says Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research at Gartner, a corporate technology consultancy. Companies often scrape employees’ web browsing history and monitor what they write and say on company equipment, he says. Others go even further. Some employers even turn on workers’ webcams and use facial-recognition software to gauge their sentiment about their jobs.

“What companies are truly struggling with … is that they have not thought through the ethical [ramifications of their] decisions,” says Kropp. U-Haul’s management is decreasing its health insurance costs, but they are also making a statement about what they believe are appropriate behaviors for society to participate in, he says.

These practices do not typically go down well with workers’ rights advocates. “There was a time when employers used to make sure their employees went to church and didn’t drink,” says Dale Ewart, who heads the Florida operations of labor union 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. “No one wants to live like that. Your off-the-job behavior should have no bearing on your employment.”

Still, Gartner’s research shows a growing level of acquiescence to employer surveillance, thanks to the growth of digital surveillance in people’s day-to-day lives by companies such as Amazon and Facebook.

And this can also be the case with smoking bans. Battle, from the Cleveland Clinic, initially held a negative view of her company’s smoking policy. Eight years later, she feels differently. “After I quit, I was glad they did it,” she says. “I am happy those cigarettes are out of my life.”

The Manila Theater Group Sharing Erotic Tales

It was just supposed to be for fun, a one-night performance. 

How fitting is it that Deus Sex Machina, the only erotic comedy show in Manila, began in the same way a fling would.

“One of our friends wrote a Facebook post about writing sexy fan fiction based on a popular Japanese manga. A bunch of us jumped on the thread with our own ideas that we all thought were better than Fifty Shades of Grey,” laughs writer Marco Sumayao. The group of eight writers and everyday folks then banged out eight 10-minute sex comedy skits.

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The crew of Deus Sex Machina celebrate their 4th anniversary.

Source Dale Amon/Deus Sex Machina

That was the birth of Deus Sex Machina (DSM), a pun on the literary plot device about problems solved in uncanny ways. Their first performance in 2014 was in a small bookstore with just enough room for their friends. But it was a surprise success that saw curious onlookers peering through the windows to watch hilarious “sex scenes” played out through a traditional Filipino nursery rhyme, national heroes engaged in a hot bromance and even Dr. Seuss. They’ve since produced about 30 shows.

We make sex funny and relatable. It’s difficult to talk about sex when it’s put on a pedestal.

Glerren Bangalan, core writer for Deus Sex Machina

They’ve also developed a cult following. The reason? As core writer Glerren Bangalan explains, “We make sex funny and relatable. It’s difficult to talk about sex when it’s put on a pedestal.”

Or on an altar. In conservative Philippines, the only predominantly Catholic country in Southeast Asia, sex is rarely discussed, and when the topic surfaces, it’s often tinged with fear or the subject of jokes. Yet the country has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate in the ASEAN region and the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the world.

This sobering reality influenced the content of follow-up DSM shows, where comedy is used to help people feel more comfortable with the topic of sex. For example, a 10-minute skit called iSex is about an app that allows you to have sex with your phone — replete with tingling, vibrating sensations — but also covers enthusiastic consent and how to ask for it. 

And in Earthquake Time, an unborn baby enjoys the undulations of his parents having sex. After the oohs and ahhs, the couple talk, getting to know each other better. But the big reveal: Their one-night hot date had resulted in a due date.  

“Promoting sex positivity in all of our scripts is our goal,” Bangalan explains, and that means highlighting “gender equality, inclusion and the overlapping elements of politics and economics,” while still being respectful of people’s situations and choices.

There are strict guidelines in the DSM sexual playground. No jokes about rape, sexual harassment, sexual identity or expression, or kinks. “Someone else’s feelings or possible traumatic experience can never be turned into a punchline,” says Bangalan. And scripts are also fact-checked and reviewed for correct usage of LGBTQ terminology — as well as vetted by core group members. 

Shows have been performed in bars around Manila and twice in the Cultural Center of the Philippines — the government’s art and culture hub. Their most ambitious production, My Dad’s Imaginary Castrated Penis, was a full-length musical staged in 2018 in a museum smack in the heart of Manila’s central business district. Amid paintings by national artists, the play tackled the issue of hypersexualized Filipino macho culture and its potentially harmful effects on young boys.

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The troupe’s first performance in 2014 was in a small bookstore. They’ve since performed 30 sex-positive shows.

Source Deus Sex Machina

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Two Deus Sex Machina actors perform in a skit called “Earthquake Time.”

Source Dale Amon/Deus Sex Machina

“My parents never talked to me about sex. I would have been a better person if I knew what I know now because of DSM,” says Sumayao, who describes his own upbringing — where homophobia was normal and transgenderism was “gross” — as “typical” and something he needed to unlearn. “Years of writing for DSM threw my perspective on sex and gender dynamics wide open.” 

Getting others to do the same is a different story, but so far, the backlash has been minimal, like someone leaving a show for religious reasons. Once, a Facebook scuffle with a religious group erupted when DSM posted support for a Pride march, but “we were able to shut them up by quoting scripture that favored equality for LGBTQIA+ people,” Sumayao quips.

Sumayao and Bangalan laugh at the undertones when they talk about DSM getting “bigger” in 2020. There’s currently an open script call from “virgins” or those who have never written or performed for DSM before with plans for an entire “virgins” performance. And there’s an upcoming show dedicated to two of their members who met while working on DSM material and recently got married.

Sex. Comedy. Knowledge. All three can go together and make for better informed sexual choices. “As long as you have enough lubricant and courage,” says Bangalan with a grin.

Japan’s Fatal Forest Mistake, and the Force to Fix It

Mention Japan and it conjures up images of bullet trains, crazy vending machines and towering buildings. But the country’s far from completely urbanized: Two-thirds of Japanese land is covered by forests. With traditional houses built from wood and prevalent use of fuel wood, forest management in Japan began as early as the Edo Era (1603–1868) when a feudal system was in place. During this period, any commoner who who dared to cut down trees faced stringent punishment — one proverb from the period goes “A hinoki tree; a head.” But after the devastation of World War II, the country saw a dramatic change in its approach to its trees.

“In the past, the mountains of Japan were divided into okuyama [wild forest] and satoyama [woodlands managed by villagers] as an ethnic unwritten rule,” explains Mariko Moriyama, a teacher turned environmentalist. The woodlands were open to people — at least during the day — while the wild forest was seen as a divine refuge that humans weren’t even allowed to enter. As a result, animal populations flourished.

But this sustainable system collapsed in the postwar period, as the focus shifted from traditional norms to planting trees for Japan’s construction industry. The existing beech trees, which one pre-1930 estimate found made up about a quarter of state forests, were considered a waste of space, as they weren’t useful for rebuilding cities. More than 15 million acres of primeval beech trees were cut, Moriyama says, and the forests replanted with lumber trees like cedar and cypress.

Managing the forests we already have and reforesting when we do clear cuts, or when we have natural disasters, is a huge problem.

Tabata Sunao, head of forestry startup Hyakumori

It is estimated that close to 17 million beech trees were destroyed due to this forest expansion policy, and artificial forests made up close to half of the total forest land by 1985. The reforested coniferous plantations caused their own problems: They had to be thinned regularly, but there weren’t enough workers to do it. As a result, large plantations were left unattended and underutilized. 

Japan wasn’t the only nation affected, according to Dr. Hikaru Komatsu of Kyoto University. After the war, regulation changes allowed Japan to import timber from Southeast Asia for the first time. “This in turn led to massive deforestation in Southeast Asia,” he says. Not only that, the imported timber was cheaper … meaning people lost interest in the coniferous plantations for which so many native trees had been sacrificed.

In the process of raising a forest for human consumption, Japan had also forgotten the other lives that thrive in a forest. The chopping down of beech forests cost local bears their habitat, says Moriyama. “Bears that needed a lot of food before hibernation began to come to the villages in the fall to seek food. Eventually, they were labeled as pests and killed.”

140 year old Hinoki cypress.

A 140-year-old Hinoki cypress.

Source Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty

By 1992, it was estimated that only 60 Japanese black bears remained in Hyogo prefecture, where Moriyama was teaching science to first-graders. One of her students submitted a report on the plight of the bears — and the class, moved, asked Moriyama to help the animals. So she, along with fellow teachers and a bunch of concerned students, launched The Group for Protecting Wild Japanese Black Bears. After various false starts, they decided that the only way to protect the bears was to give them a place to roam free, a new okuyama.

Working with students and citizen volunteers, they started planting seedlings of native broadleaf trees. How long they’ll take to be useful to the bear population depends on the tree — a chestnut might take three years, while beeches can take decades. In one area planted with new trees in 2002, signs of bears in the form of “bear shelves” — broken branches bears pile in trees to sit on — were seen in 2015. Bear hunting has also been banned in Hyogo, and the bear population is at 840 and climbing.

The group, now known as the JBFS (The Japan Bear & Forest Society), is the largest nonprofit wildlife conservation society in the country, with more than 17,000 members. Moriyama says she understands they can’t artificially restore the forest — but they can give the ecosystem a fighting chance to restore itself.

Bears weren’t the only animals affected by the misguided afforestation project. Insects and fish were driven to extinction as well, and deer — without any forests to eat — turned to human-inhabited areas, causing an estimated $50 million in damage in 2017. Relying on just one or two types of trees, as plantations do, is also a risky game: Such tracts are particularly susceptible to climate change crises.

In Japan, only about a third of the forests are state owned — compared to 42 percent in the United States. That means getting the local community on board, as Moriyama has done, is key.

“Japan is a rare country where afforestation is not much of an issue,” says Tabata Sunao, whose company, Hyakumori, works on sustainable forest management. “However, managing the forests we already have and reforesting when we do clear cuts, or when we have natural disasters, is a huge problem.” The company works with private owners — more than 700 people — to redesign local forested areas and determine which trees can and should go where.

Those decisions can have far-reaching implications, and not just for bears. The cypress and cedar trees planted in the 1960s are reaching maturity now, and the older trees, which produce more nitrogen, are causing toxic runoff into local streams. The trees could be cut down to make way for new growth or native plants — but clear-cutting them is hardly a sustainable option either. In fact, getting rid of those trees could undermine Japan’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There’s no easy solution — but perhaps the example can serve as a lesson to other countries that bad forest management has unintended consequences.

Desperate Dems Struggle to Slow the Bernie Train

The desperation was palpable on the debate stage in Charleston, South Carolina, last night. The MSNBC and Democrat-industrial-complex freakout over the prospect of a Sen. Bernie Sanders nomination has finally hit the candidates themselves. It resulted in Tuesday’s debate, where the volume was turned to 11, the transcript was littered with “CROSSTALK” notations, and the other Democrats — at long last — were training sustained attacks on the Democratic socialist front-runner.

“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight,” Sanders said. “I wonder why?”

Even the audience got in on the act. “Joe has voted for terrible trade agreements,” Sanders declared, and as the crowd booed him, the candidate who had been rarely hit so far seemed surprised. “No, no, no,” he jumped back in, trying to finish the point. “Cuba has made progress on education,” he said, and the boos rained down again. “Really? Really?” he replied.

Yes, really. From 60 Minutes to the campaign trail, Sanders is finally in the hot seat.

The Cuba issue — as well as Sanders’ past praise for the Soviet Union — would seem to be the juiciest target, as Republicans will make this a Rocky IV general election. And after Sanders riffed on past CIA assassination campaigns in Chile and Iran, he came around to his point: “Authoritarianism of any type is bad. But that is different than saying governments occasionally do things that are good.” The response could probably use some work.

He was more forceful as his rivals sought to capitalize on the news that the Russians are seeking to boost his campaign. “Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections,” Sanders said.

He was standing in a state that’s his toughest test so far. Affection for former vice president Joe Biden runs deep here, and Sanders trails in the polls, though he’s closing the gap. The problem for his rivals, as Yogi Berra liked to say, is it’s getting late early. Sanders could amass a huge lead by Tuesday, when one-third of the delegates will be handed out. The candidates all know that, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar even skipped ahead at one point, asking the “Super Tuesday states” whether they “want to have someone in charge of this ticket who wants to put forward $60 trillion in spending, three times the size of the American economy?”

After the pile-on in Charleston, all signs still point to yes. A lot of it has to do with the inability of his rivals to shape an alternative.

Biden had his moments, but he kept stepping on himself. He unleashed an opposition research attack on Tom Steyer — a sign of Steyer’s gains in South Carolina, which have come at Biden’s expense — for the billionaire’s investment in private prisons. It was a rare onstage attack against the plaid-tied nice guy. Steyer turned it around to point out how he ditched the investment, worked against the private prison industry in California, and oh by the way, Biden helped write the infamous 1994 crime bill. Biden complained to the moderators frequently about not getting enough time to speak and even admonished himself on stage for it. “Why am I stopping? No one else stops. It’s my Catholic school training,” he said to awkward laughter.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston Ahead Of SC Primary

Democratic presidential candidates take to the debate stage in Charleston four days before the South Carolina primary.

Source Win McNamee/Getty

Mike Bloomberg didn’t crash and burn quite as hard as his first outing, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren still brought out her baseball bat for the uber-billionaire and ex-Republican. Among other things, she needled him on nondisclosure agreements for employees who have accused him of sexual harassment. “And the trouble is, with this senator, enough is never enough,” Bloomberg replied, a line that could well wind up on a Warren T-shirt at some point.

But Bloomberg was the first candidate to bring the discussion to the news that has many Americans and financial markets freaking out even more than Sanders: the coronavirus. “The president fired the pandemic specialist in this country two years ago,” Bloomberg said. “So there’s nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing.”

Warren had her sharpest summation yet of why she’d be better than Sanders, her contrast focusing on her ability to spend time sweating the details and enacting policy. “Progressives have got one shot, and we need to spend it with a leader who will get something done,” she said.

While Warren’s most dominant debate of the cycle last week got her $5 million in new donations, it couldn’t move the needle much in Nevada. And there’s no indication she will have her breakout here, either. The gentle criticisms of Sanders at times seemed more like she’s playing for the vice presidency.

That’s not a concern for former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has been the most willing to throw elbows at Sanders.

“If you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump,” Buttigieg said. “Think about what that will be like for this country.”

It’s not a theoretical question anymore.

South Africa’s Small Towns Are Simmering With Frustration

As the patter of rain is heard across the parched South African town of Graaff-Reinet and its empty dam, Corene Conradie can feel the hopes of her fellow citizens rising after a long, brutal drought. And yet she knows exactly how easily those hopes can be dashed.

“Just that little bit of water is hope. But … even with a full dam, we may not have water in our taps,” says Conradie, a former financial adviser turned charity worker.

Even as a brownish pool of water has returned to the dam in the semidesert Karoo region, its pipes remain in disrepair and its walls crumbling — part of a municipal collapse in one of South Africa’s oldest towns that goes beyond the pressures of a drought that has lasted almost two years in the voter heartland of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Many of Graaff-Reinet’s residents, faced with dry taps for months, have given up on the cash-strapped local municipality to distribute water and look instead to Gift of the Givers, Conradie’s charity, for boreholes and water truck deliveries.

Every day messages for help flood in via WhatsApp. “My phone is going mad — water, water,” Conradie says. A day care. A home for the elderly. A traffic cop who needs to wash her uniform.

It would be a sad picture. Having a full dam and still carrying buckets to a water truck.

Corene Conradie, Gift of the Givers

Graaff-Reinet’s crisis is a metaphor for both the decay of South Africa’s state institutions in the past decade and a growing failure to recover under Ramaphosa, who took office almost two years ago vowing to turn things around.

In a state of the nation address on Feb. 13, Ramaphosa said his government was rebuilding “the capability of the state where it has been most broken” after a culture of graft under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. “This year, we fix the fundamentals,” he said.

But Ramaphosa’s presidency has been overtaken by crises including that of the blackout-prone state power monopoly Eskom and fears that South Africa will soon lose its last investment-grade credit rating, forcing up the cost of its debt and further squeezing embattled businesses.

Ramaphosa “has bigger fish to fry” at a national level, says Samantha Graham-Maré, an opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) member of Parliament and a former Graaff-Reinet councilor. “I don’t think he has a clue what’s happening in the small towns,” she adds.

The collapse of ANC-ruled Graaff-Reinet is a harbinger of what the future could hold for small South African towns, and with it, the South African state. Municipalities in financial distress almost doubled over the decade to 2018, to 125, nearly half the total.

This is leading to the disintegration of South Africa’s post-apartheid state at local level, throttling the economy and shifting the burden of providing services onto private actors such as Gift of the Givers and businesses.

“When you come down to the provinces and municipalities, it’s totally drifted far away. We are at a crossroads,” says Hento Davids, head of the Graaff-Reinet Chamber of Commerce.

Graaff-Reinet began Zuma’s rule as 2010’s South African town of the year, a mountain-ringed “Gem of the Karoo” with centuries-old houses and monuments. It remains a “beautiful town with all the potential,” in Davids’ words.

But the town fell into decline, in part due to an ill-fated political merger with other towns that left Graaff-Reinet with large debts and diminished ability to collect revenue to pay for boreholes and infrastructure upkeep.

The town’s ANC mayor has rarely been seen during the crisis, residents complain. A spokesperson for Lindiwe Sisulu, the national water minister, says that “it is important to realize that while the natural elements resulted in the current drought since 2014, there is also a challenge of failing infrastructure at local government level.”

The municipality is “not sustainable. They must just leave it to collapse. They just don’t care,” says Joe Kroon, a farmer outside Graaff-Reinet. Kroon had to let three-quarters of his workforce go and watched cattle and prized game, a draw for tourists, die in the dust. Government drought relief aid has been so inadequate and ill-targeted that “it was like giving someone a T-shirt in winter,” Kroon says.

State Of The Nation 2020 in South Africa

President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives his the State of the Nation Address in Cape Town.

Source Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty

Water supply is a local government responsibility, but neglect is entrenched at the national level, the opposition DA and civic activists argue. They have accused Sisulu of stuffing her department with ANC cronies to advance future ambitions to supplant Ramaphosa as party leader, at the cost of attention to drought-hit areas.

Sisulu declined to be interviewed about the plight of drought-hit towns, citing the need first to table a “master plan” for South Africa’s water security before Ramaphosa’s Cabinet. She denies the charges of nepotism.

When the master plan does arrive on Ramaphosa’s Cabinet table, it will make for grim reading. According to its estimates, the reliability of water supplies is at its lowest since 1996, despite expansion in provision since the end of apartheid. The plan says $60 billion is needed to repair decaying infrastructure over the next decade, but only $38 billion is available.

With junk status looming for government borrowing and no end to public bailouts for Eskom and other broken state firms, there will soon be even less fiscal room to help revive small-town South Africa, including Graaff-Reinet’s decayed dam. “It would be a sad picture,” Conradie says. “Having a full dam and still carrying buckets to a water truck.”

The Rise of India’s Protest Libraries

It’s around noon and the February sun is finally warming up. On a stretch of road in Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi — the epicenter of recent protests against India’s controversial new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims — it’s unusually quiet. Constantly innovating, the men and women there have today chosen a silent protest, even as posters, drawings and huge plastic sheets with slogans against the citizenship regime line the walls of the Muslim-majority neighborhood. That silence suits Jauzi just fine.

The 24-year-old medical student from Chittor in the state of Rajasthan (who doesn’t want to share his last name) is reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, at the Shaheen Bagh bus stop — now a makeshift library. Every day, Jauzi and other volunteers set up the library by noon, with mattresses and blankets on which visitors sit and read. Named the Fatima Sheikh Savitribai Phule Library after two pathbreaking 19th-century Indian women educators and friends — Phule was Hindu, Sheikh Muslim — it now has more than 1,000 books on different subjects ranging from history to literature and philosophy to science, all donated by visitors.

It’s one of a growing number of libraries sprouting up across protest sites in India, promising to reshape the language of popular agitations in the world’s largest democracy. Across New Delhi, violent clashes between Hindu and Muslim mobs over the past two days have claimed at least 20 lives. But these libraries are offering an alternative form of resistance, opening up platforms traditionally reserved for committed activists to waves of first-time protesters — from high school students to homemakers — who have joined hands against moves by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to introduce a religious test for naturalized citizenship.

There’s the Inquilabi Library — roughly translated as the Revolutionary Library — created by the students of Aligarh Muslim University in the northern Indian city of Aligarh. A similar makeshift library has come up at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. The Park Circus Maidan protest site has a library, as does the one at Azad Market in New Delhi. Several of the other indefinite, round-the-clock protests that continue in city after city also have libraries, some of which start out with as few as 10 books.

This government is scared of questions or anyone who differs from them … This is when libraries become a form of protest.

Mohd. Asif, student protester

These libraries double as classrooms for lectures on the Indian constitution — which Modi’s critics say is being violated through the citizenship law. The Shaheen Bagh Library, for instance, was set up on the principle of “Educate, Agitate, Organize,” propounded by B.R. Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution, say organizers. Mohammad Umar, a 22-year-old student volunteer there, writes down his message for me on a piece of paper so he doesn’t break his silent protest. The library, he writes, also has “biographies of some of the freedom fighters.”

And in a more fundamental way, these libraries are allowing India’s protesters to reclaim public spaces not just for political sloganeering and marches, but for education and learning.

“It is occupying the public space and saying we’re just going to have the world that we want,” says Sherrin Frances, an associate professor at Saginaw Valley State University, whose book Libraries Amid Protest: Books, Organizing, and Global Activism is releasing in June. “It’s sort of a utopian vision, kind of it comes out of the roots of anarchy, and it has to do with appropriating space and building what you want.” 

Ready_for_revolution_poster_shaheen_bagh_new_delhi_2020

Read for Revolution and JNU is Bleeding posters following the 2020 attack at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Source CC

Frances says libraries have played a role in other protest movements too in recent years — be it Zuccotti Park in New York City during the Occupy Wall Street protests or at Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013. But it’s only now that these sporadic instances are giving way to a surge in pavement libraries at protest sites in multiple cities. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy agitation has also seen libraries come up at protest sites.

And in India, the symbolism behind these libraries is deeper than just the citizenship law. They’re emerging at a time students have come under attack and Modi’s critics are accusing his government of defunding public education. In December, police entered the library of Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi and lobbed tear gas shells to drive students out, while they were ostensibly searching for protesters. On Jan. 3, masked goons — since identified as members of the student union affiliated to Modi’s party — entered JNU and thrashed students protesting against a fee hike.

“There is a war that the government has waged against educational institutions,” says Mohd. Asif, a 25-year-old student of Persian. “This government is scared of questions or anyone who differs from them. Books help us understand our past. Our ideals. They are trying to limit the reach of education now. This is when libraries become a form of protest.”

The books are also a lasting legacy of protests, suggests Frances’ research. She found that after protests in New York, Madrid and other cities ended, “the librarians [who are the activists] kept the books and hauled them around and tried to find permanent places,” she says. “And so the libraries persisted for months and years after the occupations themselves were over.”

Back at the Shaheen Bagh Library, 5-year-old Laiba Fazal walks in with her mother after school and finds herself a drawing book. She is soon consumed by the colors, as her mother looks on happily. The library will stay there until the government withdraws the citizenship law, insists Umar. And if and when the protest ends, he says, “we will shift this [library] to another location, and this will be for the public forever.”

NASA’s Fight to Protect Aliens From Naked Ladies

On March 2, 1972, NASA launched Pioneer 10, the first probe destined to leave our solar system. Carl Sagan, the renowned public scientist, frequent NASA collaborator and proponent of the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI) convinced the agency to affix a 6-by-9-inch plaque to its antenna engraved with, as he put it, “a little bit of where we are, when we are, and who we are” on the off chance that an alien intelligence might find the probe. But when and if they do, aliens won’t be getting the whole picture.

The most famous image on that plaque is of a naked cis man and woman. But while the man’s penis is on full view, the drawing omitted any sign of the woman’s vulva. In other words, as the scientist-artist Joe Davis puts it, we sent aliens an image of “a man and a Barbie.” 

It is not clear why the Pioneer plaque omitted external female genitalia, but not male genitalia. Sagan once claimed it was a stylistic choice, emulating ancient Greek statuary. Linda Salzman Sagan, his wife and the artist behind the sketch, claimed she deleted a line representing the woman’s vulva from her initial draft to head off potential qualms from NASA. Pioneer supervisor Robert S. Kraemer claimed they submitted a design featuring the vulval line to his higher-ups only for them to demand an edit. A representative from NASA told OZY that they would see if anyone could comment on this, but apparently never found someone in a position to do so. 

But this was not the only time NASA sexually censored its SETI projects. These outbound missives are quixotic stabs at introducing the entirety of human or earthly reality to beings that may work and think in radically different ways than we do. So when these messages are crafted — points out space artist, SETI communicator and longtime Sagan collaborator Jon Lomberg — their contents are often tailored as much, if not more so, to the human audience guaranteed to see them. The Pioneer plaque project — a rush job cobbled together in less than a year — was one of the least alien-oriented messages ever sent to aliens.   

This earthbound orientation explains why someone censored the plaque. NASA depended on popular support to propel and justify funding and so could not risk alienating powerful political blocs uncomfortable with sex and nudity. And the flack they took in the press for even the censored plaque — newspapers lambasted the agency for wasting taxpayer money on sending out space smut — likely reaffirmed the necessity of sexual censorship, at least in the most public-facing projects, to NASA and many SETI types.

That is likely why, when NASA in 1977 launched two Voyager probes carrying records of audio and visual data about humanity, the agency censored a picture of a naked man holding hands with a naked pregnant woman, using instead a silhouette with no anatomical detail save a diagram of a baby in utero. “I pointed out to NASA that we selected a picture that minimized eroticism,” Lomberg notes. “A NASA lawyer replied to me that some people think that naked, pregnant women are extremely erotic. That surely must rank among one of the most unusual statements to appear on NASA letterhead.” 

Jon Lomberg, Space Artist at the centre for astrology Macquarie University, Eppi

Jon Lomberg, Space Artist at the centre for astrology Macquarie University

Source Fairfax Media via Getty

Lomberg points out that some nudity made it onto the record — a rear shot of nude African hunters stalking prey, a shot of a newly delivered baby, and his update on the Pioneer plaque sketch, which featured female pubic hair but still no vulva. These images, he suggests, got to stay in because they didn’t trip sexual or sexualizable nudity alarms among the NASA brass.

That matters less for SETI efforts writ large now than in the ’70s. Congress defunded NASA’s SETI projects in 1993, dubbing them wasteful. As private groups have taken over, they’ve adopted less censorial perspectives. Some have even advocated beaming the entirety of Google, porn and all, across the skies. The various radio signals we constantly bounce all over Earth also likely incidentally send all manner of smutty messages off into space.

But Davis, the scientist-artist, argues SETI’s real value is in helping us take a critical look in the mirror as a species, whether or not that reflection ever reaches “little green men in flying saucers.” To him, all instances of censorship betray that fundamental goal. That is why he saw fit to poke at NASA’s censorship in 1986, first in projects called Poetica Vaginal and Microvenus. For the first, he built a vaginal detector to record contractions in a group of ballerinas’ vaginas, then used an MIT radar dish to beam that data to two distant star systems for 15 minutes, before the U.S. Air Force shut him down. For the second, he programmed a 47 base pair sequence into a bacteria species that, when decoded in the right way, formed a runic symbol for Mother Earth that also resembles the Pioneer plaque’s omitted vulva and jokingly proposed releasing the species into space. He also opposes the goal of putting humanity’s best foot forward, insisting that is equally censorial and thus a disservice to human self-knowledge. So he is currently working on a swan song message to aliens listing out human atrocities visited on each other.   

And even if NASA’s censorial attitude is no longer relevant to SETI, it still may represent a dire threat to science. When public morality and politicking play a role in deciding what gets studied and how, it often leads to systematic neglect of taboo yet vital subjects. NASA’s choice to omit a vulva from an etching sent beyond our solar system in 1972 was not just a historical oddity. It was a symbol of humanity’s reticence to see ourselves honestly, and the challenge of conducting scientific work dispassionately and thus optimally. In other words, it was a reflection of humanity at its worst. At least aliens will almost certainly never find it.