Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Sept. 23 2014 9:36 PM

School District Wants to Censor American History Curriculum to Make It More Patriotic

A school district in Colorado thinks its American history curriculum is a bit too glass-is-half-empty when it comes to America’s historical awesomeness. So, to spruce things up a bit, a proposal before the school board of the state’s second largest school district in Jefferson County wants to, you know, nip and tuck a tad—accentuate the positives. What would that look like? The proposed curriculum would “promote patriotic material, respect for authority, and the free-market system,” the Denver Post reports. “In turn, the panel would avoid material about ‘civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.’”

The new, well-buffed version of American history didn’t go over well with students, as the Associated Press reports, “[h]undreds of students walked out of classrooms around suburban Denver on Tuesday in protest over a conservative-led school board proposal.” Here’s more from the AP:

Student participants said their demonstration was organized by word of mouth and social media. Many waved American flags and carried signs, including messages that read "There is nothing more patriotic than protest." "I don't think my education should be censored. We should be able to know what happened in our past," said Tori Leu, a 17-year-old student who protested at Ralston Valley High School in Arvada… The proposal from Julie Williams, part of the board's conservative majority, has not been voted on and was put on hold last week. She didn't return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment Tuesday, but previously told Chalkbeat Colorado, a school news website, that she recognizes there are negative events that are part of U.S. history that need to be taught. "There are things we may not be proud of as Americans," she said. "But we shouldn't be encouraging our kids to think that America is a bad place."

"It's chilling," said school board member who opposes the changes told the Denver Post. "Does it mean [the district’s students] will no longer study the civil rights movement, the Boston Tea Party or women's suffrage?"

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Sept. 23 2014 8:24 PM

U.S. Federal Prison Population Drops for the First Time in Decades

This year 4,800 fewer inmates were behind bars in U.S. federal prisons than last year, marking the first decline in the American prison population in decades, Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Tuesday. According to the Bureau of Prisons, the decline in the prison population may not be an aberration. As the Associated Press reports, the bureau’s internal figures “show a projected drop of more than 2,000 inmates in the next year, and nearly 10,000 in the year after.”

“This is nothing less than historic,” Holder said Tuesday, addressing a conference at the New York University School of Law. “To put these numbers in perspective, 10,000 inmates is the rough equivalent of the combined populations of six federal prisons, each filled to capacity.” The federal prison population stands at about 215,000 this year. “Looking at both state and federal statistics, the attorney general said that in a roughly five-year span, both the overall crime rate and overall incarceration rates fell by around 10 percent, something [Holder said] hadn’t happened in more than 40 years,” NPR reports.


Here’s more from the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Holder attributed the drop in the number of federal prisoners to efforts to reduce long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. It also comes four years after the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, which shrunk the disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine … Throughout his six years in office, he has made it a priority to reduce what he views as overlong prison sentences and an unnecessarily high incarceration rate … Mr. Holder and other advocates of shorter sentences for nonviolent offenders say that they relieve strains on budgets without leading to an increase in crime … Some Republicans have criticized the administration’s efforts to reduce sentences, saying stricter punishment was critical to the decline in crime rates over the last two decades.

The decline of the federal prison population, however, has not corresponded to a reduction in prisoners at the state level, where the number of prisoners has increased. “Statistics released last week showed that the number of state prisoners rose by 6,300 to 1.4 million in 2013, the first increase since 2009,” according to the Journal.

Sept. 23 2014 7:02 PM

Conservative Star Dinesh D’Souza Avoids Jail Time for Illegal Campaign Contributions

In January, conservative commentator-cum-author-cum-director Dinesh D’Souza was indicted for not so subtly funneling illegal campaign contributions into the 2012 New York Senate race. In April, D’Souza pronounced he was being picked on by the government because of its decision to—gasp—actually prosecute him for said federal crime, claiming he was being targeted for his outspoken criticism of President Obama. In May, a more contrite D’Souza pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws, telling the court “I deeply regret my conduct.” On Tuesday, the self-created high-profile legal drama came to a close, as a federal judge spared D’Souza jail time, opting instead for probation and a fine. “I’m just relieved and want to thank the judge for imposing a fair sentence,” D'Souza said after Tuesday’s hearing, Reuters reports.

D’Souza could have faced more than a year in prison for his crime, according to federal sentencing guidelines. “The government charged Mr. D’Souza, 53, with illegally arranging to have two people—an employee and a woman with whom he was romantically involved—donate $10,000 each to the campaign of an old friend from Dartmouth College, Wendy E. Long, with the understanding that he would reimburse them in cash for their contributions,” according to the New York Times.


Here’s more from the Wall Street Journal on the sentencing:

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman sentenced him to five years of probation. The judge, who had tough words for Mr. D'Souza during a lengthy statement, said that while Mr. D'Souza didn't deserve to go to prison, his sentence had to have some teeth. He cited post-plea television interviews Mr. D’Souza gave in which, according to Judge Berman, he appeared to deflect responsibility for his crimes. “[Mr. D'Souza is] a talker, in fact, he’s almost a compulsive talker,” Judge Berman said. “I don't think he’s a listener … ” On Tuesday, Judge Berman said he has seen no evidence of any selective prosecution and that any such assertion was pure speculation by Mr. D’Souza. He ordered Mr. D’Souza to serve the first eight months of his sentence at a halfway house, undergo weekly psychological therapy, and spend one full-day a week teaching English as a second language throughout the duration of his probation.

“Even with his fate hanging in the balance, Mr. D’Souza plowed ahead with his thriving career as a right-wing provocateur,” the Times reports. “Over the summer, while awaiting his sentencing, he published the book America: Imagine a World Without Her, which reached No. 1 on the New York Times’s nonfiction hardcover best-seller list, and a companion documentary film that has made $14.4 million at the box office.”

Sept. 23 2014 4:28 PM

Moderate Chinese Intellectual Sentenced to Life in Prison After Show Trial

Ilham Tohti, a scholar and advocate for China's minority Uighur population, has been sentenced to life in prison for "advocating separatism" despite his avowedly moderate views. From the Economist:

Though he has always advocated nonviolence and says he opposes separatism, Mr Tohti appears to be paying a price for a series of episodes of violent unrest involving Uighurs. These include acts of terrorism both in Xinjiang and in other parts of China that, although crude in nature, are said by the government to be part of an increasingly organised separatist movement with links to jihadists outside China. In May, after a deadly attack on a market in Urumqi using explosives, authorities in Xinjiang declared a “people’s war” on terrorism.
The Intermediate People’s Court of Urumqi ruled that Mr Tohti had “bewitched and coerced young ethnic students” into writing separatist tracts for Uighur Online, a website he founded in 2006, according to Xinhua, an official news service. Xinhua said the court had found that Mr Tohti had “encouraged his fellow Uighurs to use violence”.

"By no stretch of the imagination—even the authoritarian imagination—could this be considered a fair trial," an Indiana University professor and friend of Ilham's told the Washington Post. Ilham's personal property will be confiscated; he is married and has 8- and 5-year-old sons.

The New York Review of Books' Ian Johnson posted interviews with four Chinese human rights figures about Ilham's situation yesterday. "He absolutely doesn’t want China to split," dissident Hu Jia told Johnson. "He wants to live in a system that respects the rights of ethnic minorities, in a free and equal space. He believes in peace."

Sept. 23 2014 2:49 PM

Texas Is Losing Its Edge

Texas, the self-governing Southwestern gun range that used to be known for the God-given freedom of its heavily armed inhabitants, has gone soft. From the AP:

Texas officials have withdrawn a plan to allow sales of alcohol at some gun shows

The fact that only “some” shows were being considered for the plan in the first place is already an embarrassment to Texas’s rich history of sociopathy.

Sept. 23 2014 1:59 PM

Ebola Could Be Contained—or Become “Permanent Feature of Life” in Africa, WHO Says

A new World Health Organization report published in the New England Journal of Medicine says that, if proper control measures are taken, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa can be contained and its spread to new victims halted. But WHO director Christopher Dye says this result is not guaranteed. From Reuters:

... if control efforts are only partly successful, Ebola viral disease in the human population could become "a permanent feature of life in West Africa", Dye said.
"The alternative possibility that we're talking about is that the epidemic simply rumbles on as it has for the last few months for the next few years, on the order of years, rather than months.
"Under those circumstances, the fear is that Ebola will be more or less a permanent feature of the human population. Of course it could be extinguished later on."

With large-scale responses from the United Nations and United States underway, there have been some positive developments in affected countries: Nigeria and Senegal, for example, have not reported any new cases in the last three weeks. Said Dye: "It is reassuring in many ways that a disease like Ebola can enter a city of 20 million, namely Lagos, and we are able to stop transmission, or rather the people of Nigeria are able to stop transmission." But the disease is still far from being controlled in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, where the epidemic has been most destructive.

Sept. 23 2014 12:34 PM

Norway Gives Liberia $150 Million to Stop Cutting Down Trees

Norway will provide Liberia with $150 million in development aid in exchange for reducing deforestation. From the BBC

In 2012, [Liberian] President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf attracted international criticism when she handed out licences to companies to cut down 58% of all the primary rainforest left in the country. After protests many of those permits were cancelled...
Now the Norwegians and the Liberian government have signed a deal that they both believe will protect the forests into the future.
The country agrees to place 30% or more of its forest estate under protected area status by 2020. It will also pilot direct payments to communities for protecting the forest.

Norway has made past attempts at this kind of policy in Brazil in 2008, Guyana in 2009, and Indonesia in 2010, and its effectiveness is a matter of some debate. In Brazil, deforestation rates were already on the decline when Norway promised up to a billion dollars in exchange for conservation efforts. After that, however, a controversial reform to forest protection law in the country has been accompanied by a 28% increase in Amazon deforestation between August 2012 and July 2013. Indonesia's deforestation rate has increased since the agreement with Norway, but some attribute this to a delay necessary for reforms to be implemented. It's also difficult to know whether deforestation would have risen more in the absence of the Norwegian funds.

While the new agreement provides that Norway will help Liberia develop the infrastructure to police the forests, whether such assistance will be enough to stem corruption is an open question. Natural resource management is generally considered to have improved under the tenure of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who came to power in 2006, three years after a civil war. At the beginning of her presidency, Johnson Sirleaf renegotiated several major contracts with foreign investors to raise safety standards and adjust shares of revenues for workers. However, the president has also been accused of nepotism and criticized for allocating a third of Liberia’s land to investors for logging, mining and industrial agriculture in the first five years of her tenure.

Norway's agreement with Liberia comes in the midst of the U.N. Climate Summit in New York; it may be worth noting that the petroleum sector is by far Norway’s biggest industry. In 2012, the country was the seventh largest exporter of oil and third largest exporter of gas in the world.

Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM

White House Erects Massive, Intimidating Barrier to Prevent Future Fence Jumping

This weekend an emotionally disturbed Iraq veteran with an affinity for weapons jumped the fence in front of the White House and made it inside the building before being apprehended. It's a serious situation and no doubt the Secret Service is making changes outside public view that will keep such an intrusion from happening again.

However, they have also taken the public step of putting a second, tiny fence in front of the regular fence, and it is hilarious.


Yep, that should do the trick. No...wait. It needs one more advanced security feature.


Lisa Larson-Walker

Perfect. Impenetrable.

Tho maybe we should cut the Secret Service some slack. There isn't a lot that can be done to address an issue like this on such short notice. A ha ha ha ha. Because the new fence is short. It's a tiny fence.

Sept. 23 2014 10:34 AM

Israel Kills Two Suspects in Kidnapping That Ignited Gaza Violence

Israeli forces have killed the two alleged perpetrators of the June kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers that precipitated this summer's violence in Gaza. The teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking in the West Bank on June 12; their bodies were found 18 days later. Suspects Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha were killed overnight in a firefight in the West Bank city of Hebron. 

Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Peter Lerner said Tuesday morning that both suspects were killed in the shootout; Hamas later confirmed this. 
The Shin Bet said that the two suspects, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha, were hiding in a house in the West Bank. Israeli forces approached the house with an excavator vehicle and fired a rocket at the house, according to Palestinian reports.

A third man who helped organize and finance the kidnapping was arrested and indicted earlier this summer. All the suspects related to the kidnapping are affiliated with Hamas, though it's not clear whether their plans were known to the group's senior leadership.

Sept. 22 2014 10:37 PM

The Rockefeller Family Made Billions from Oil, Now They’re Divesting Over Climate Change

In American history the Rockefeller family name is synonymous with wealth—and that wealth is defined by oil. John D. Rockefeller used the oil business to amass one of the greatest fortunes the world had ever seen. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was so dominant at the end of the 19th century that when the Supreme Court ordered its break up, the smaller companies it was broken down into were heavyweights: Conoco, Amoco, Chevron, Exxon, and Mobil.

But times change, and on Monday, a new generation of heirs to the Rockefeller fortune announced they were taking steps to get out of the oil business in favor of cleaner, more environmentally friendly alternatives. The symbolic move involves the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, an $860 charitable trust built with oil money, that will no longer invest in fossil fuel companies and “is selling investments in coal and tar sands producers in a move to pressure companies that are contributing to climate change,” Bloomberg reports. “We are immediately divesting from coal and tar sands, the most carbon intensive fuels,” Stephen Heintz, president of the fund, said on Monday. "Given the source of the fortune, 'it’s a very important signal to the market.'"


Here’s more on what the divestment means from Bloomberg:

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which has assets of $860 million and is separate from the larger Rockefeller Foundation, will now assess how to cut other fossil fuel investments while boosting renewable energy companies, [Heintz] said… Heintz said John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil more than a century ago, was developing cutting edge fuels when he began investing in oil production at the end of the 19th century to displace whale oil. “If he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy,” Heintz said. The Rockefeller family fund will keep shares of Exxon, the main successor to Standard Oil after the government-ordered breakup, in part to press the oil and gas producer to account for its carbon assets, he said.

“The announcement, timed to precede Tuesday’s opening of the United Nations climate change summit meeting in New York City, is part of a broader and accelerating initiative,” according to the New York Times. “In all, the groups have pledged to divest assets worth more than $50 billion from portfolios, and the individuals more than $1 billion, according to Arabella Advisors, a firm that consults with philanthropists and investors to use their resources to achieve social goals.”