Fire In Many Bellies

On Nov. 30 the National Portrait Gallery, a sister organization of the Smithsonian Institution, pulled a video piece from its exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture one month after the exhibit opened after pressure from both the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; and congressmen.

The piece in question, a four-minute excerpt from Fire in My Belly by AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, is a collage of images captured in Mexico, such as Mayan ruins, a man spitting fire, a marionette, cockfighting and a man masturbating. But it was an 11-second segment of ants crawling over a crucifix that prompted William Donohue, president of the Catholic League to condemn the film as "hate speech" against Christianity in a press release on Nov. 30.

The same day, Soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called for the cancellation of the exhibit, with his spokesman Kevin Smith saying, "Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves in."

Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called the piece "an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season."

Just how much taxpayer money went into the exhibit? As for just the exhibit, an editorial in the Washington Post points out that all exhibits at the portrait gallery are funded by private donations. $750,000 in private funds was spent on Hide/Seek. Around $6 million a year in public funds goes towards caring for the private collections, employee salaries, building maintenance and security.

The question of hate speech in the piece is more debatable, however, in any piece of artwork, context is always important and absolutely necessary for criticism. A review by the NY Times provided the example of testimony Wojnarowicz gave against Donald Wildmon of the American Family Foundation in a lawsuit for misrepresenting his artwork. The work in question this time was Wojnarowicz's take on Guido Reni's 17th-century painting Christ Crowned With Thorns, in which Christ looks both agonized and ecstatic. Wojnarowicz's painting depicts this Christ with a heroin syringe in his arm.

In court he explained that he was struck by the rampant and rising use of hard drugs among people he knew and the self-destruction that resulted. He said that in his own upbringing as a Roman Catholic he'd been taught that Jesus took on the sufferings of all people in the world.

"I wanted to make a symbol that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets," Wojnarowicz testified.

Wojnarowicz made Fire in My Belly after his longtime lover Peter Hujar had died of AIDS and found out that he himself was H.I.V.-positive. Just as he was looking for a symbol of suffering and self sacrifice in his painting of Christ, he was most likely looking for those same qualities in his depiction of Christ in Fire in My Belly.

As a result of the actions by the portrait gallery, museums all over the U.S., (most recently, The Walker Art Center) have now begun showing Fire In My Belly, but the whole fiasco raises a question for both sides of the argument: If the crucifix had instead been a Qur'an or a depiction of Muhammad, would Rep. Boehner have issued such a threat, and would galleries even display such a video?

Outrage over the decision to close 10 Charlotte-Mucklenburg schools, with predominantly minority and low income students, by a white majority school board has lead to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

According the Charlotte Observer, seven complaints were filed after the November vote by the school board to close schools that serve mostly black, Hispanic and low-income students.

"Opening a complaint for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination on the merits of the case," education department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said in an e-mail. "Rather, the office is merely a neutral fact-finder. It will collect and analyze all relevant evidence from the parties involved in the case to develop its findings."

Officials at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have said they are aware that the cuts have a lopsided effect on minority families, but insist that the decision was based on low enrollment and academic weakness, not race.

As the L.A. Times reports, for a district that's being branded as segregators for the closing, the district's recent policies have made progress to close the achievement gap between inner city minorities and suburban white students.

When superintendant Peter Gorman took his job in 2006, he lumped some low-performing schools into an "achievement zone," making them eligible for more funds, staff and professional development. He also put into place a successful policy in which his best-performing principals were encouraged to take reassignments in low-performance schools.

Between 2005-06 and 2009-10 school years, district records show that black students in grades 3 through 8 narrowed the achievement gap between white students by nine points. Latino students showed improvements as well.

However, given a looming $100 million shortfall, closing the schools made more sense to the school board in order to pay successful teachers.

Those in suburbs have also felt that they pay the price for bettering inner city schools. They typically lose star principals when they are reassigned to the inner city, and suburban classrooms are overstuffed due to more spending on poor students.

Parents like DeAndra Alix, whose son Deon is a freshman at the soon-to-be-shuttered E.E. Waddell High School, have repeatedly tried to get the school board to redraw its boundaries to allow unused classrooms in the inner city to be filled by suburban students from crowded schools.

"What this is doing is awakening a beast in hibernation," she said: "The civil rights movement."

Amid brewing ethnic conflict, Russian police arrested 800 demonstrators in Moscow on Saturday, many of them young nationalists, to prevent large scale outbreaks of ethnic violence.

According to Reuters, hundreds of russian youths gathered for a sanctioned demonstration uner the Ostankino television tower in northern Moscow, chanting slogans like, "patriotism is not fascism."

According to Moscow police spokesman Viktor Biryukov, most of the demonstrators were in their early teens, and there had been no violence. "The rally was sanctioned, but soon the young people got bored, split into groups and started marching with flaming torches toward the metro," he said. "This was illegal of course, and the police made arrests."

The arrests came a week after about 7,000 soccer fans and nationalists chanted racist slogans while demonstrating near Red Square, and attacked minority passersby, injuring more than 30 people.

According to the Washington Post, the soccer incident was sparked after a young Moscow soccer fan was killed by rubber bullets in a fight with people from the Caucasus region.

Those in the region have traditionally been victims of ethnic discrimination, and after the killing, mobs rioted outside the Kremlin, attacking people from the Caucasus.

Minnesota's Somali Population Rises, So Do Concerns Over Autism

A recent study released by the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey shows that nearly one in three people in the United States with Somali ancestry now live in Minnesota. However, along with a growing population, a growing problem concerns Somali residents in the Twin Cities.

As the Star Tribune reported, of the 85,700 Somalis living in the U.S., about 25,000 live in Minnesota, more than twice the 11,164 figured in the 2000 Census. Seattle, San Diego, and Columbus, OH also have large Somali populations, but none more that 10,500, according to the survey.

Among Somali residents in Minneapolis, concern is mounting about over autism rates among their children.

Controversial autism researcher Andrew Wakefield was recently invited to talk at a Somali community meeting, according to MPR.

Wakefield published a paper in the late 1990s linking autism with measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations. Other studies have subsequently discredited Wakefield's theory, but the hypothesis has seen vocal resurgence among celebrities like former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy.

"We cannot accept the damage that is being done to all of these children," Wakefield said to a crowd of about a hundred people. "It is completely unacceptable and the suffering you're going through."

A study published last year by the Minnesota Health Department looking at school records for 3 to 4 year-olds found that from 2005 to 2008 the proportion of Somali kids receiving autism services was as much as seven times higher than non-Somali children.

Though MPR noted that these numbers might be due to Somalis seeking more help from schools than the general population.

Wakefield, who lost his medical license in England, and has asked audience members to take part in a study that would involve collecting genetic information from local Somalis to be analyzed in a database. He said his only role in the study was raising funding.

Stephen Miles, a professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota said that Wakefield has a track record of fraud.

"He's just not trustworthy," Miles said. "And it does not surprise me that he would seek out a population which is unsophisticated and desperate."

One of those who pledged to participate in the study, Shukri Osman, who has a 12 year-old son with autism, knows about Wakefield's past, but wants a solution.
"I know he's either some kind of controversial -- there [are] a lot of people are saying bad things about him," Osman said. "At least he's trying to give us answers and he's listening to us. We need doctors to listen to us."

Through the cold and snow last week, members Crow Creek tribal council and other local Dakota tribes gathered on horseback for a ride in eastern South Dakota in remembrance of the largest execution in U.S. history.

As the Daily Republic of Mitchell, SD reports, Jim Miller first started the ride in 2005 after he dreamt of riding 330 miles on horseback to a river in Mankato, Minn. where 38 Dakota warriors were hanged for their part in the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862. The violence had left around 500 white settlers and soldiers dead before numerous Dakota forces surrendered after the Battle of Wood Lake.

Initially, military tribunals had sentenced 303 Dakota tribesmen to death before President Lincoln intervened and had the sentences of 265 commuted. A massive scaffold was constructed in Mankato for the 38 who were to be hanged at one Dec. 26, 1862.

On the ride this year Peter Lengkeek said the pain from that day still runs deep.

You've heard Yosemite Sam say 'I'll hit you so hard your grandchildren will feel it'," he said. "That's what happened to us."

Yet he also carries an air of reconciliation. ""Let's move forward and come together and embrace each other."

While there may be a tone of among some of the riders, the execution has all but been forgotten by many people in the area.

A statue of a Dakota warrior and a plaque outside the Mankato library are the only reminders of the largest execution in U.S. history. The site where the scaffold stood is now known as Reconciliation Park.

One person in particular is now believed to have been forgotten as well. As the New York Times reports, records show a Dakota warrior named We-Chank-Wash-ta-don-pee, but known as Chaska, had had his sentence commuted by President Lincoln, but was executed with the other on Dec. 26.

With the 150th anniversary of the execution coming in 2012, movements going all the way up to Capitol Hill are taking hold to award Chaska (unlike the city, pronounced chas-KAY) a posthumous pardon.

Representative James Oberstar, before his defeat in November, had supported a federal pardon, calling it, "a grand gesture and one I think our Congressional delegation should support."

Sen. Al Franken issued a statement last week indicating he might move the matter forward in the next Congress.

Why Chaska was executed has brought about two theories: one is that he was mistaken for another convicted Dakota with a similar name.

The other sounds like the stuff of lusty romance novels. Chaska had taken a woman, Sarah Wakefield, and her son captive, however, at Chaska's trial Wakefield defended her captor, saying he protected her and her son from death at the hands of other tribesmen.

Her vehement defense of Chaska lead to rumors that the two had been lovers, with Col. Sibley even referring to Chaska as Wakefield's "dusky paramour."

Either way, Leonard Wabasha, a local Dakota leader, believes granting the pardon is the right thing for the federal government to do

"It would cause people to read and research into it a little deeper," Wabasha said. "It would be a step in the right direction."

Fox Editor Told Journalists Not to Use The Term "Public Option"

An e-mail supposedly leaked from Fox's Washington managing editor Bill Sammon, illustrates how Sammon instructed the network's journalists not to use the term "public option" when covering the health care reform debate last Fall, according to Media Matters.

Instead, Sammon outlined a number of other phases to be used:

1) Please use the term "government-run health insurance" or, when brevity is a concern, "government option," whenever possible.

2) When it is necessary to use the term "public option" (which is, after all, firmly ensconced in the nation's lexicon), use the qualifier "so-called," as in "the so-called public option."

3) Here's another way to phrase it: "The public option, which is the government-run plan."

4) When newsmakers and sources use the term "public option" in our stories, there's not a lot we can do about it, since quotes are of course sacrosanct.

According to Media Matters, the day the e-mail was sent, journalists on Fox's Special Report used Sammon's recommendations instead of "public option," as had previously been used.

Sammon spoke to The Daily Beast and said that he felt the term "public option" "is a vague, bland, undescriptive phrase," and that after all, "who would be against a public park?"

WCCO, and The Feds That Stole Christmas

With Christmas almost here, and a new year following shortly after, people tend to get reflective. For journalists why not reflect upon a newsroom ethics issue 24 years ago when a local drug bust became a First-Amendment clash.

T'was December 1986, and Doug Stone was assignment editor at WCCO-TV the day FBI agents and local police were scrambling around a Minneapolis convenience store where the sting had gone down, concluding a lengthy undercover investigation.

WCCO photographer Gary Feblowitz showed up on the scene for a routine twenty-second spot news piece to run that night. His reception wasn't a warm one.

Feblowitz was reportedly hassled by police, worried that his footage would blow the cover of the undercover agents. "Give up your camera, or you're going to jail," an agent eventually told Feblowitz. He complied.

For years, according to Stone, his newsroom had honored a gentleman's agreement with authorities not to reveal identities of undercover agents if it would put their lives in danger. Had the FBI informed WCCO about an apparent hit put out on one of the undercover agents, Stone says they would have agreed to mask the agents' identities.

After getting word of the seizure, Stone called around the Minneapolis Police, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the U.S. Attorney's office. There was now less than four hours before the 10 p.m. news, and Stone wanted to get that footage back.

Finally, the U.S. Attorney General's office called back with an hour and a half to air-time, and a deal was reluctantly brokered: WCCO would get their cameras and footage back, but federal agents had to oversee the editing.

All in all, three law enforcement agents, a DEA agent, a county sheriff's deputy and an assistant U. S. attorney walked into the newsroom carrying the camera and tape 20 minutes later. As Stone put it, "an unlikely mini-cam crew."

The mood in the editing room was difficult, but three minutes before 10 p.m. the story had been finished, electronically masking the undercover agents.

Looking back, Stone believes the deal may not have been worth it, as it was the foot in the door for several more law enforcement incursions into the newsroom in the following months.

Eventually, WCCO filed suit in federal court for their rights at news scenes, and won. Despite the long and expensive process, Stone feels the court battle was worth it.

The Onion publishes fake news stories, but it's sister pop culture news source The A.V. Club takes its audio-visual criticism seriously. It was, then, with much pain that editor Keith Phipps released an apology Dec. 9, announcing that one of its writers had published a fabricated review for Genious Imagined: The Life and Work of Alex Toth in the "Comics Panel" section of its website on Nov. 5--a book that even to date is not yet finished.

In the apology, Phipps wanted to assure everyone that the book's publisher, IDW, had no part in the review, and that the writer of the review would no longer be working with The A.V. Club.

"We've always asked you to trust us," Phipps added. "And we believe that one breach in ethics is all it takes to break that trust."

Leonard Pierce, a freelance writer with The A.V. Club for the past three years, admitted in a post on his blog to concocting the review, saying he had based it off of "secondary sources and second-hand information."

"That I had never done it before and will never do it again is meaningless," Pierce said in the post. "The fact is, I did it, and by doing so, I scuttled twenty-plus years of tireless work as a writer and did my reputation near-irreparable harm."

The fabrication was first brought to light in an online article in Comics Comics on the morning of Dec. 9. The article revealed that Pierce praised Genius Isolated for being "handsome" and "beautifully designed," as well as "much better written than such works" at a time when Dean Mullaney was (and still is) working on the book's final design, and Bruce Canwell was still researching the text.

When reached by Comics Comics, Mullaney felt surprise, then confusion after first reading the review. "I thought perhaps I was on Earth-Two, where the book had already been published," he said.

So, what grade did this unfinished, unread book merit? Apparently, the highest grade The A.V. Club has to offer: an A.

Two Be or Not Two Be President in Ivory Coast

After a presidential election that was supposed to be a step towards unity for the people of Ivory Coast, the two candidates have claimed the presidency, swearing themselves into office Saturday.

Laurent Gbagbo, president for the last 10 years, currently has the support of the army and legal authorities within the country. The nation's constitutional council threw out hundreds of thousands of ballots for opposition candidate Alassane Ouattarra, citing allegations of intimidation, according to Reuters.

Taking his oath of office Saturday, Gbagbo wished for an end to foreign interference in the country's election. "I wish that some of these parties would hold themselves back," he said. "Here in our country we dont ask anyone to come into your country"

However, the African Union, U.N., United States and European Union have all declared Ouattarra, former Ivorian prime minister, the rightful winner of the contest, according to CNN.

Ouattarra submitted his own oath Saturday, and took steps towards forming his own government.

The power struggle has now spread to the streets of the capital city Abidjan, alight with tire fires as rival supporters clash with each other and security forces.

Many Ivorians fear another civil war is brewing, like those the country endured in 2002 and 2003.

Wikileaks, Amazon and Free Speech

The leaking of hundreds of thousands of State Department cables has put the transparency advocate site Wikileaks on the run from domain to domain as governments where Wikileaks is hosted are putting pressure on service providers to take down the site.

One such case was here in the U.S. as Geoff Fowler in a Wall Street Journal video explains.

Over last weekend Wikileaks was hosted in Europe and under heavy cyber attacks. As a result, Wikileaks transferred at least some of its server time to Amazon Web Services on.

By Tuesday Amazon had been contacted by the office of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, one of the outspoken critics of Wikileaks throughout "Cablegate," asking Amazon to drop Wikileaks from their servers.

By Wednesday morning Amazon called back Sen. Lieberman's office, saying that they had severed all their ties with Wikileaks.

In a statement Amazon announced that it was for "copyright ownership violation" and not because of government pressure that they ended their service to Wikileaks. It's a valid excuse, as the cables certainly weren't Wikileaks' to release, but, then, why did Amazon host Wikileaks in the first place?

Lieberman struck next at data visualization service Tableau for hosting charts about the leaked cables, though unrelated to the actual content of the cables. Tableau, like Amazon, cited their terms of service as their reason for removing the charts from their servers.

If Lieberman gets his way, his SHIELD Act (Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination), introduced Tuesday, will make it illegal for sites like Wikileaks to publish information" concerning the identity of a classified source or informant of an element of the intelligence community of the United States," or "concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government," according to a Wired article.

All this calls into question how far one could be associated with such leaks and still be breaking the law. If an American publication did like The Guardian and posted the leaked archive on it's site, would that be illegal?

It's hard to tell, but for the moment, students at Columbia with an eye on the public sector had best keep their online mouths shut on Cablegate.