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  • Will Cambodia Flood a Sacred and Biodiverse Valley for a Dubious Dam?

    On September 15, Cambodian police detained 11 environmental activists for blocking a convoy of government vehicles headed for Areng Valley, the site of the controversial Stung Cheay Areng hydro dam project. The activists were released, but twelve Royal Cambodian Armed Forces officers are now stationed at the makeshift roadblock where villagers have been protesting the dam since March. Nothing now stands in the way of Sinohydro Resources, the Chinese company that the Cambodian government has contracted to construct the dam.

    Earlier this year, my film crew and I traveled to Areng Valley to document the story of the Chong people and their fight to stop this proposed dam, which they fear will destroy their forests, livelihood, and heritage. The Chong, who are considered Khmer Daeum (or original Khmers), have lived, farmed, fished, and hunted in this valley for more than 600 years. At a protest, one woman expressed her purpose clearly: "We've come to protect our land for our future grandchildren. And we're afraid all our spirit forests will be lost."

    If built, the Stung Cheay Areng dam would flood at least 26,000 acres or 40 square miles (some estimates say 77 square miles) — displacing more than 1,500 people who have no desire to leave their ancestral homes. The government plans to forcibly resettle them within the Central Cardamom Protected Forest, a vital elephant corridor, causing further encroachment on an area internationally recognized as a biodiversity hotspot. The dam would thereby threaten the habitats of 31 endangered animals, including the world's largest habitat for the threatened Siamese crocodiles.

    Conservation experts also question the project's economic viability, citing high production costs and a very low rate of economic return. During the rainy season, the dam is hypothetically capable of producing enough electricity to power some 87,000 US-style homes. But, according to Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers, "the dam will only operate at 46 percent capacity during the dry season, precisely when Cambodia most needs the electricity."

    The proposed Stung Cheay Areng dam is one of 17 the Cambodian government intends to build over the next 20 years to tackle the country's energy crisis. The dam building spree is prompted by some of the highest electricity prices in Asia. But Cambodia will sell most of the power to neighboring countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. And, as a US State Department cable obtained by Wikileaks indicates, "the proposed dams' construction and maintenance contracts will funnel near and mid-term profits to foreign construction companies."

    As with all large hydro dams being built in the country, Sinohydro will transfer ownership of the Areng dam to the Cambodian government in 40 years, just as maintenance costs spike and substantial sediment build-up is predicted to render the dam nearly inoperative. Many of the dams so far built are poorly constructed; the Stung Atay dam, located not too far from Areng, collapsed mid-construction in December 2012, killing four workers.

    "Cambodia's hydropower ambitions are not new, but China's substantial foreign aid in the form of grants and soft loans has driven much of the recent progress," the Wikileaks cable notes. Indeed, Sinohydro is the third company the Cambodian government approached to build this dam. Two Chinese companies that conducted feasibility studies pulled out of the project. The first company discontinued its involvement on moral grounds, citing issues of corporate social responsibility; the environmental and social impacts are irreversible and cannot be mitigated. The last company to bail concluded the dam was "economically unviable."

    So then why is the Government of Cambodia so eager to pursue this project? According to a Phnom Penh Post investigation, one of the country's wealthiest and most politically powerful couples—Cambodian People's Party senator Lao Meng Khin and his wife, Choeung Sopheap—are believed to have brokered the deal between Sinohydro and the Cambodian government. This would not be their first foray into environmental devastation for profit. The couple are the owners of Shukaku Inc, the company behind the controversial Beoung Kak Lake development in Phnom Penh, which has forcibly evicted and displaced over 1,500 families. They also own Pheapimex Group, a controversial development firm responsible for the land seizure of hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and farmland in Cambodia.

    Furthermore, the couple is connected to powerful logging syndicates that stand to benefit from the dam project. The construction will provide unhindered access to the Central Cardamom Protected Forest, building roads where none currently exist, and sending loggers deeper into the forests in search of rosewood, a highly prized luxury hardwood. Logging is technically not permitted in protected areas, but activists fear that timber will find its way onto trucks in the concession area. At that point, as one conservation activist noted, it is as if "the timber has already reached Vietnam." When the Stung Atay dam was built, conservation experts estimated 1,300 cubic yards of rosewood would be harvested. However, in actuality, at least 20,000 cubic yards were harvested, netting approximately $220 million in profit for timber companies. Experts expect the total area deforested in this project would almost equal that of the combined surface area cleared in four existing dam projects in the Cardamoms.

    The loggers are often poor migrants who have themselves been displaced by the destruction of their forests and farmland. Continuing this cycle of devastation they receive temporary permits to enter the forests and clear land, supplying luxury timber to logging tycoons. Once the land is cleared, it will never be reforested. Businessmen will snap it up for development. Meanwhile, local, indigenous communities are pushed deeper and deeper into protected areas, where they will, of necessity, place demands on previously pristine forest and wildlife habitats. According to a Global Witness report, since 2003 400,000 Cambodians have been harmed by economic land concessions granted to companies for industrial agriculture or dam construction. More than 70 percent of the concessions in 2012 were situated inside national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and protected forests.

    A panel of Sinohydro experts recently approved the technical feasibility of the project. The Cambodian government is expected to waive through the dam's environmental impact assessment, allowing Sinohydro to begin construction.

    Meanwhile, local NGOs like Mother Nature and Khmer Youth Empire continue to wage an empowering social media campaign against the dam and rallying protests in Phnom Penh. International environmental organizations like International Rivers, Conservation International, and Wildlife Alliance are also exerting pressure on the Cambodian government and Chinese companies to pull out.

    Villagers in Areng, dedicated to stopping the dam, vow to continue blocking the sole access road into the valley. One woman vehemently expressed it thus: "Even if they piled money one meter above my head, I don't want their Chinese money. I want to stay in my village. Even with all this money, I could only spend it in this life. I wouldn't be able to pass it on to my grandchildren. I just want my village and my land for the future of my grandchildren."

    And they just might be successful. On October 1, the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Sam Rainsy, said he'd been assured by Prime Minister Hun Sen that the activists call for a moratorium had been heeded. The dam would be put on the backburner for the foreseeable future, it's fate left to "future generations" to decide. However, the Minister of Mines and Energy has continued to insist that the dam will be completed by 2020 while the Minister of Environment assured that the dam had not been cancelled and nor had construction been postponed. It remains to be seen which party in this complicated fight over land and money and tradition will win out.

    This project was made possible by a grant from The Kendeda Fund, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the Sundance Institute Artist Services Program. The film was originally produced for The New York Times Op-Docs.

  • This Quirky Indie Rocker Can Help You Win at Scrabble

    Stephin Merritt, the singer for the Magnetic Fields, refuses to play Scrabble with me.

    I can't help but be a tiny bit disappointed. The ubiquitous word game, after all, is the reason I'm sitting down with him in this San Francisco bakery-cafe. Merritt is in town promoting 101 Two-Letter Words, a collection of poems—illustrated by the loveably oddball New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast—that he wrote to help himself remember the shortest words in Scrabble's official dictionary.

    But when I challenge him to a match, Merritt shakes his head. "The last time I attempted Scrabble with an interviewer," he says in his slow, gravelly voice, "I accidentally stole 12 tiles from the Bryant Park public Scrabble set."

    Perhaps it's no surprise that he doesn't want his attention divided. Merritt isn't known for doing things halfway. His band's best-known record, the aptly named 69 Love Songs, is a three-volume epic that ranges from gospel to punk. On another album, i, every song title begins with the letter I.

    He's also not fond of repetition. In addition to his work with the Magnetic Fields, Merritt has written several Chinese operas, a score for a silent film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and music for the audiobook of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. This poetry collection is his first. "I think I would get bored easily if I did the same thing again and again," Merritt says, so "I don't."

    The idea for 101 Two-Letter Words, which hit bookshelves at the end of September, came to him while he was on tour playing Scrabble and Words With Friends to kill time in hotels and airports. His opponents included a copyeditor, a journalist, and the novelist Emma Straub. He found himself losing often. So, in a ploy to remember strategically important words like "aa" (a type of lava) and "xu" (a unit of currency), he began composing quatrains for each.

    Roz Chast/W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

    "After a few," he writes in the book's introduction, "I thought I'd better write all of them down, and how better to do that than to write a book? I never finish anything without a deadline anyway."

    Merritt says he doesn't have a favorite poem from the book, as he's "not a person who has favorite things." But he does, disproving his own claim, have a favorite illustration: The poem for "be" reads "'Be yourself,' all thinkers say; how odd they think alike. 'Be yourself,' says Lao Tzu; 'Be yourself,' says Wilhelm Reich."

    To accompany it, Chast has drawn what Merritt describes as "an ugly American tourist couple with his/her shirts." His shirt says, "Be yourself." Hers says, "I'm with stupid."

    "It blew me away," Merritt says.

    Roz Chast/W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

    The book owes much of its aesthetic to Edward Gorey, whose unsettling illustrated books Merritt grew up on.

    "As a child with dark, morose-looking eyes, I looked like an Edward Gorey character," he tells me. "I guess I knew that I was going to meet some horrible end. Impaled by a candlestick or something like that. Sucked into the pneumatic tube in the department store."

    Merritt never considered setting the poems to music, he says. Each song would have been only about 15 seconds long—not enough to jog his memory. But some aspects of his creative process are consistent, no matter the medium. He prefers to work in the nearest gay bar (loud, drunk straight people annoy him), with a cocktail in one hand and his notebook in the other, trying to tune out the television and let his brain wander. If he's at home, he says, there are too many other pressing things for him to do.

    Stephin Merritt
    Stephin Merritt performs in New York. WFUV/Flickr

    I ask him whether thematic constraints, such as writing only love songs or focusing on two-letter words, help stimulate his thinking. He frowns. "It puzzles me that people keep asking me that, he says, because doesn't everyone give themselves thematic constraints in their work? Isn't that what a work is?"

    "Yes, definitely," I counter. "But not everyone makes an album where every song begins with I."

    "No," he says. "I think most people make albums where everything is more similar than I do. People make albums with only five instruments on them, doing more or less the same thing again and again for the entire album, and no one bats an eyelash. If I did that, I would be bored, and so would the audience. Everyone has constraints; I just have unusual constraints, I think. The Rolling Stones have sounded like Muddy Waters for 50 years, and no one has said, 'Don't you find that limiting?'"

    With this book, Merritt says, he didn't even choose his own constraints. He had a specific set of words he wanted to learn, and there happened to be 101 of them. He adds that he's always been drawn to small things: He plays the ukulele, he drives a Mini Cooper, and his pet chiuahua Irving (after Irving Berlin) slept in his shirt while he wrote some of the poems.

    Merritt has a theory about the origins of this affinity: "I'm 5-foot-3."

    So, I ask, have the poems succeeded? Is he now better at Scrabble?

    Without a doubt, he says. And his mother is too, ever since he gave her a copy.

    "It's not like I have a moral crusade to help people improve their game," he adds. "But why not? It makes the world a little more fun."

  • These 7 Geek Icons Have Had Enough of #Gamergate. Here's How They're Fighting Back.

    As the conflict known as #Gamergate continues roiling the internet, some #Gamergaters have been surprised to find that their geek idols aren't exactly on their side. Take, for example, science fiction author William Gibson, coiner of the term "cyberspace," who retweeted this on Tuesday:

    "Fuck. Fuck. Fucking hell," an 8chan user wrote on the site's GamerGate message board after reading through Gibson's Twitter feed. "I have been waiting for his new book forever but now I dont even want to buy it…I feel devastated."

    Dozens of irate gamers responded with the names of other fallen heroes who've "betrayed" them by criticizing macho video game culture. Here's a sampling of the offending tweets:

    From screenwriter and director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers):

    From comedian Patton Oswalt:

    From actor and filmmaker Seth Rogen (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up):

    (Adam Baldwin has been one of #Gamergate's most outspoken supporters.)

    From actress Felicia Day (The Guild):

    From computer game designer Tim Schafer (LucasArts, Double Fine Productions):

    From animator Mariel Cartwright (Skullgirls):

    Lamented another 8chan user, with no apparent irony: "Unfortunately even misinformed people can put out their opinion on whatever they want, and they've got a large platform to do it with via the internet."

  • 7 Worst-Case Scenarios in the Battle With ISIS

    This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

    You know the joke? You describe something obviously heading for disaster—a friend crossing Death Valley with next to no gas in his car—and then add, "What could possibly go wrong?"

    Such is the Middle East today. The US is again at war there, bombing freely across Iraq and Syria, advising here, droning there, coalition-building in the region to loop in a little more firepower from a collection of recalcitrant allies, and searching desperately for some non-American boots to put on the ground.

    Here, then, are seven worst-case scenarios in a part of the world where the worst case has regularly been the best that's on offer. After all, with all that military power being brought to bear on the planet's most volatile region, what could possibly go wrong?

    1. The Kurds

    The lands the Kurds generally consider their own have long been divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. None of those countries wish to give up any territory to an independence-minded ethnic minority, no less find a powerful, oil-fueled Kurdish state on their borders.

    Continue Reading »

  • Would Any of the Actual Czars Have Stopped Ebola?

    We need an Ebola czar, apparently. It "may make sense," President Barack Obama announced on Thursday night. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) agreed, calling on the administration to appoint someone like Colin Powell to manage the response to the deadly virus in the United States—five years after pushing legislation that would have prohibited the White House from appointing such czars. If it's a czar they want, it's a czar they must have. By Friday morning, we'd seen the white smoke: the President tapped Ron Klain, Vice President Joe Biden's former chief of staff, to head the response.

    But are czars any better than anyone else at responding to and containing outbreaks of infectious disease? If history is a guide, probably not:

    Wikimedia Commons

    Ivan the Terrible: Kind of incompetent, as the name suggests. When the bubonic plague killed 10,000 people in the city of Novgorod, triggering civil unrest, Ivan responded by sending his vicious secret police, the Oprichniki, to burn down the town and kill the inhabitants. Yikes.


    Catherine the Great: Although more popular than Ivan and largely successful in her aim of expanding the empire's land holdings, Russia's greatest czar was helpless in the face of the plague of 1771. Dissatisfaction with Catherine's handling of the outbreak, which killed more people in Moscow than the Black Death, resulted in the Moscow Plague Riot of 1771, during which time protesters assassinated an archbishop in the Russian Orthodox Church.


    Peter the Great: A real can-do spirit—just look at that mustache! When his soldiers contracted plague during a campaign in the Baltic, Peter ordered them to fall back and then took aggressive measures to prevent a full-fledged outbreak. "Unlike earlier outbreaks, when no medical assistance had been provided, Peter took a more active view and sent Dr. Christian Wiel to supervise anti-plague measures," wrote John T. Alexander, in his comprehensive study, Bubonic Plague in Early Modern Russia: Public Health and Urban Disaster. Historians credit Peter with nationalizing the response to disease outbreaks and investing new resources in medical institutions. But that didn't stop the disease from spreading east.


    Nicholas II: Nicholas is known mostly for being deposed during the Russian Revolution, but before he was executed he also proved himself largely incapable of responding to a string of cholera epidemics in the city of Saratov, even after a similar outbreak in the city during the Crimean War less than two decades earlier. The historian Charlotte Henze noted "huge gaps between the legislation of public health measures and their actual implementation."

  • This Republican's Campaign Promise Is: Elect Me and I'll Kill That Guy

    When he first ran for statewide office in 2010, John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told voters he supported the death penalty. But last year, as the state prepared to kill Nathan Dunlap, a convicted quadruple-murderer whom doctors had diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Hickenlooper said that new information—about the cost of execution, Dunlap's mental illness, and members of the jury who had changed their minds about killing Dunlap—had caused him to change his opinion. Hickenlooper stayed the execution but stopped short of granting full clemency—thus leaving his successors with the option of ordering Dunlap's execution at some future date. "Colorado's system of capital punishment is imperfect and inherently inequitable," Hickenlooper said at the time. "Such a level of punishment really does demand perfection."

    Now Bob Beauprez, Hickenlooper's Republican opponent, is running a campaign centered on a simple promise: Elect me and I'll kill that guy.

    "When I'm governor, Nathan Dunlap will be executed," Beauprez, a former congressman who represented Colorado's 7th District from 2003 to 2007, promised during a GOP primary debate in May. "This is not a flippant issue," Beauprez's communications director said in an email, "but Bob does believe capital punishment should be an option for our most heinous crimes."

    Hickenlooper, a once-popular mayor of Denver, is now running about even in the polls with Beauprez. And although it's unclear exactly how much Hickenlooper's death penalty stance plays into his struggles, a poll last year found that 67 percent of Coloradans disapproved of his decision in the Dunlap case.

    "It was handled very clumsily," says Kyle Saunders, a political scientist at Colorado State University. "It was a very nuanced decision in his head, but it came off being very wishy-washy and weak."

    Continue Reading »

  • How Harry Shearer Discovered the Soul of Richard Nixon

    The renowned satirist, actor, author, and musician Harry Shearer—you might know him as the bassist of Spinal Tap, the voice behind a panoply of Simpsons characters (Mr. Burns and Flanders among them), host of Le Show, and a former Saturday Night Live player—has done his share of presidential impersonations, but no subject has captured his imagination like Richard Nixon.

    In Nixon's the One, a series that first aired on British television and premieres October 21 as a YouTube series, the 70-year-old Shearer reenacts the follies of our 37th president word for word from Nixon's secret Oval Office recordings. (In the exclusive clip above, Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman aide discuss how to destroy the networks, and come up with something that sounds a lot like Fox News.) The "comedy-drama," cowritten by the distinguished Watergate historian Stanley Kutler, is pure unadulterated Nixon. And Shearer, a talented impersonator, has nailed the cringe-inducing, can't-help-but-watch pathos of perhaps our oddest and most paranoid Oval Office inhabitant. I caught up with the actor last week to discuss his comic attraction to Tricky Dick, his favorite Simpsons character, and the one thing he can't stand about The Daily Show.

    You also can listen to the unabridged audio version* (~46 minutes):

    Mother Jones: You spent a great deal of time researching and developing this project. What draws you to Nixon?

    Harry Shearer: I'm drawn to him like a bunch of flies to a pile of fascinating comic characteristics. I grew up in Southern California, and Nixon was omnipresent. I have dim memories of actually seeing the "Checkers" speech, where he saved his vice presidential bid by making a very mawkish, lachrymose speech. He was accused of taking—here's a quaint concept—illegal campaign contributions, and defended himself by saying, oddly enough, somebody gave us this dog, black and white checkered, and we're gonna keep her. And that saved his bacon! And then, you know, he had this silly kitchen debate with Khrushchev; in 1958 he runs for president at the first televised debates and loses to John F. Kennedy; runs for governor of California two years later and has this remarkable press conference after he loses where he says, "You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore," and then, of course, spends the next six years running for president.

    MJ: Being kicked around!

    HS: And kicking around. And so he sort of stood above and beyond the normal creepy politician. The first thing I was aware of as a kid was his hardball, if not mudball, politics. You may remember this cartoon by Herblock in the Washington Post which had Richard Nixon crawling up from down below in the sewer, followed shortly after by a picture of Nixon with just the words, "Would you buy a used car from this man?" Nixon with his endemic five o'clock shadow!

    MJ: So it was essentially his creepiness that attracted you?

    HS: That was the first thing. But then it became obvious that there were really funny characteristics about this guy, chief of which would be that he seemed to devote about 85 percent of his waking energy to suppressing any sign of his emotional response to anything that was going on around him, and the other 15 percent blurting out those authentic responses in the silliest and most inopportune ways. And he had these smiles that would come at the most inappropriate times—just flashes that there was an inner life screaming to get out.

    MJ: Are you saying that he had more pathos than the average president?

    HS: No, not more pathos. More—if the cortex is just a series of twists and bends and folds, he had more folds. [Laughter.]

    [Listen to an unedited audio clip of the previous exchange:]

    MJ: How long did it take you to feel you really had him nailed?

    HS: I've been doing Nixon pretty much my whole professional life. I was in this comedy group called the Credibility Gap in Los Angeles when he was president. I was doing Nixon on the radio, and when we did live shows I physicalized him—if that's a word—for the first time. And then I did a Nixon sketch on a very short-lived NBC show called Sunday Best. It was Nixon as a guest on an infomercial, where he was demonstrating a teeth-whitening miracle product. It was an opportunity to do full Nixon makeup and do the whole body, and a really great moment for me to see how far along I was.

    MJ: Did you see any traits this time around that you hadn't captured in your earlier impersonations?

    HS: Yeah. I did emphasize more something that I'd never seen anybody capture, which is, for a guy who is always banging on about the masculine virtues, he had this remarkable proclivity for very dainty gestures. If you go look at that iconic moment where he's standing on the bridge of the helicopter about to get in after he's resigned, and he gives a salute, it isn't a crisp, military salute at all. His hand is sort of like this butterfly flying away from his forehead. And he would purse his lips, he would flutter his eyelashes—there were a lot of these kinds of gestures.

    MJ: Nixon has been satirized by Philip Roth in Our Gang. Anthony Hopkins played him in Oliver Stone's Nixon, Frank Langella in Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon. Dan Aykroyd did him early on in SNL.

    HS: With a mustache!

    MJ: Indeed.

    HS: For added verisimilitude.

    MJ: Who do you think has done him best or worst, mustaches aside?

    HS: I'm not going to get into that. I saw a little bit of Anthony Hopkins after we did our show out of curiosity—I'm not a big Oliver Stone fan. But even sighted men have different versions of the elephant. And this is my version.

    MJ: One of your most harrowing scenes covers the minutes before Nixon's televised resignation speech. It really makes you cringe as Nixon nervously attempts to make jokey small talk with the television crew. Did you do anything special to prepare for that very emotional scene?

    HS: It's interesting. That is the one scene that is not from the White House taping system he installed. It was videotaped by an anonymous CBS engineer, and that tape circulated around in many bootleg versions of really dire video quality. When I went to the repository of the Nixon tapes at the National Archives, I befriended one of the guys there, and I said, "You know that tape?" And he said, "Oh, yeah, we have a great broadcast-quality version of it." And so I managed to get a copy. And for years I would watch that tape with friends, and I'd memorized that scene long since. We'd recite it along with watching it—it was just such a wonderful moment.

    MJ: [Laughs.] Is that what you do for fun in the Shearer household?

    HS: Instead of betting on football! But—this sounds like goofy actor talk— having lived with that scene for all these years, the closest I could come to understanding it was the following: Here's a guy who had no gift for small talk, never liked to be around strangers, was physically awkward, and he goes into the one business that calls for ease with strangers and a gift for small talk. And he manages through sheer determination—let's be Horatio Algeristic about it—to rise to the top of the greasiest pole in America. And now he has to climb off that pole in humiliation and mortification. And what does he do in this room for these eight minutes? He engages in small talk.

    I just thought it was ironically goofy. Then, while we were making this series, I happened upon a memoir by a midlevel White House staffer, and he had been in the room that night. This guy's memoir told me what Nixon's last words were. And they were, on August 8, 1974, to the crew: "Have a Merry Christmas, fellas!" That was just so bizarre.

    Now we're rehearsing the scene, and suddenly it came to me what was going on. This was the beginning of his next campaign! This night was to become the beginning of his campaign for rehabilitation. In his mind, all those crew members were going to walk out of there saying, "He wasn't bothered. He wasn't angry. He wasn't upset. He was the nicest guy. He was making jokes, he even wished us a Merry Christmas!"

    MJ: Christmas in August?

    HS: He wanted them to remember him at Christmastime. He was planning little seeds of his rehabilitation. That's my theory.

    MJ: Listening to so many of these Nixon tapes that never made a lot of news, what other new gems did you discover?

    HS: I wasn't looking for newsworthy material. My partner, Stanley Kutler—the historian whose life has been steeped in these tapes and who filed the lawsuits that made them public—we were looking for the character stuff, the stuff that made us laugh. I'm not sure there are any bombshells left.

    MJ: Well, did you learn anything new about Nixon?

    HS: I couldn't help but be struck that this guy I had thought was the embodiment of everything wrong with American politics, a lot of his domestic policy was mind-numbingly, head-spinningly to the left of Obama's. It was under Nixon that the EPA was created. It was under Nixon that OSHA was created. Under Nixon that the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed. He wasn't necessarily leading the parade, but they did happen during his administration. And he actually gave a speech late in his truncated second term advocating a guaranteed annual income for all Americans.

    MJ: Sounds like a commie!

    HS: Imagine the number of drugs you'd have to administer to Obama to get him to make that speech!

    MJ: Or any Democrat. Nancy Pelosi. Harry Reid. Even Paul Krugman wouldn't advocate that, or at least I don't think so.

    HS: Even Bernie Sanders probably wouldn't! If Nixon were a Republican senator today, he would have been primaried out.

    MJ: Did you feel any sympathy for the man as you spent hours putting on makeup to look like him and produce these hours of reenactments?

    HS: I wouldn't say sympathy. Because sympathy implies you're taking his side in things.

    MJ: Empathy?

    HS: Empathy gets a little closer to it. You know, I came up working for Jack Benny—I was a child actor. I think through osmosis I kind of got what his comic genius was about. If one recalls Jack Benny's comic persona, he was not a nice man. He was vain, he was miserly, he was a bad boss, all characteristics we would regard as unlikable, and yet he was a lovable performer, because he was portraying the very flawed humanity of that character. And I wasn't playing Nixon's satirical stick figure. I was playing Nixon the man. As an actor, I felt I had to get to the deeply flawed humanity of the guy. Here's the eerie part: We were word accurate. We did our own transcripts. We actually hired John Dean's transcriber.

    MJ: And some of these tapes are hard to make out.

    HS: Oh, they're incredibly difficult. We hired someone who is skilled at that and even she had "inaudibles" and guesses at words. I have these digital sound-processing tools so, as we were rehearsing, the cast and I would discuss these phrases that just didn't sound quite right. And I'd run the tape again through more of these tools, and almost magically words would pop out. And all of a sudden, Oh my God, that's what he's saying!

    We had more script revisions than a troubled sitcom. The script supervisor would come around after what we thought was a great take and say, well, you moved this word or you paraphrased this. And I would curse her, but we'd do it again. And strangely enough, the takes where I got the words absolutely right, true to the transcript, were the performances that I felt and looked most Nixonian. Getting to his weird word choices and the weird word order and the repetitions and the backtracking that make it impossible almost to memorize got me closer to that guy.

    MJ: Did you find that he had his own unique internal logic?

    HS: Absolutely. When Nixon died, on my radio show I started doing sketches with three basic conceits: One, there's a place called Heaven. Two, Nixon got in. And three, he's still taping. I was writing these sketches and trying to approximate the way he and Haldeman would jump over each other and race to confirm each other and then race to negate each other, and Nixon's way of expressing himself. So by the time we're doing the real stuff, I felt so familiar with that inner world of his. The relationship with Kissinger is so funny and goofy we made a whole episode out of it. Kissinger was everything Nixon hated: a Harvard professor and a Jew and an intellectual. And Kissinger knew it. But the offer to be in a position of power was so intoxicating that he put up with all that shit.

    Especially in the Kissinger scenes, Nixon would repeat the word "never" as if on a loop: "There's never gonna be people from Harvard invited into this White House ever again. Never. Never. Never." And he's saying this right to Henry's face, knowing that every time it's a little pinprick into Kissinger's gut. He did that on several occasions. You hear the "never, never, never" partly, I think, because Nixon knew that so many of the crazy things he told his staff to do they would ignore. There's a scene in the pilot episode where he tells Haldemann flat out, "Destroy the tapes!" and he says, "Can you do that?" and Haldemann nods and says, "Yes." Of course, the tapes aren't destroyed.

    There's another scene where he's bitching about how he never got invited to a social occasion at the White House when Kennedy was president. Now, Kennedy is long dead by this point, and this is still burning deep within Nixon. That's one of the things that I think is one of the darkly comic parts of his character. He just couldn't let go of these resentments.

    MJ: What was the response to the series in England?

    HS: It got a great critical response.

    MJ: You know how they love to feel superior to us.

    HS: Yes, and sometimes they're right. But I was thinking about why the show could get made there with this sort of creepy accuracy and couldn't get made here. I just imagined if I'd been in the office of an American highfalutin' cable channel, there would've been meetings that started with, "We know he didn't like black people, but did he have to hate Jews too?" And I wanted to avoid those meetings. I think the British learn their history through the prism of this gallery of grotesques known as the royals.

    MJ: Who are easy to caricature.

    HS: Drawing as well as acting. So in some ways, Brits just saw him as another one of those, except without a crown. Whereas in this country, at least when I was growing up, we learned our history almost as lives of the saints. And it came as a shock, "Oh, Jefferson had slaves?" It always comes as a shock to us that elevation to the White House didn't somehow cleanse them of all their deep character flaws.

    MJ: Does the fact that Nixon attained the highest office in the land say something about America?

    HS: Every president that makes it up there says something about the country. I think Nixon says a lot about those times. It was possibly hard, in the '90s and early 2000s to understand the grip of fear that communism had on the country in the 1950s and 1960s—a fear Nixon rode like a endless great wave on the Pacific to high office. I'm sure, though there's no evidence of it, one of the things that rankled him down deep was that it was called McCarthyism and not Nixonism.

    MJ: He should've trademarked it.

    Harry Shearer Mark Sullivan/WireImage

    HS: But now, in the grip of a very similar wave involving terrorism, we've succeeded in a far greater receding of our civil liberties in the name of avoiding an enemy much less powerful than the enemy when we were afraid of with communism. Yet that fear propelled Nixon to the White House. Nixon's genius was that he was able to portray himself as the toughest of the anti-communists, and yet run on a platform that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War. And, of course, his plan was to prolong it until his second election—but he didn't tell us that then.

    MJ: Is there any other president you'd like to play?

    HS: Well, I've, on my radio show I've played every one since—

    MJ: How's your Garfield?

    HS: Poor. But who's to know?

    MJ: Good point.

    HS: My Franklin Pierce is spot on. But I'm not sure that there's anybody else that's as psychologically complex and who's given us this window into his soul that Nixon gave us. That's what I find absolutely addictive and seductive.

    MJ: You're the voice of many characters on The Simpsons: Mr. Burns, Smithers, Flanders, and probably 27,000 others. Stupid question: Do you have a favorite?

    HS: Stupid answer: C. Montgomery Burns. [Watch the following clip of Shearer reading a scene:]

    MJ: Is there a Nixonian quality to Mr. Burns?

    HS: Burns is much purer evil than Nixon was. I think it's the purity of his evil that attracts me as a comic character.

    MJ: Will The Simpsons ever end, and if so, what should happen in the finale?

    HS: As they say in Washington, above my pay grade. But I've long had an answer to the first question, which is that The Simpsons will end as soon as Fox is able to find an 8 p.m. comedy hit to replace it—so I give us another 50 years.

    MJ: Long may you wave.

    HS: Thank you.

    MJ: Is it true that Spinal Tap is reuniting to do a collection of Crosby, Stills & Nash covers?

    HS: It'd be great! But sadly, no. I think you can look for a Crosby, Stills & Nash reunion doing Spinal Tap covers before you look for the other.

    MJ: I'd like to see that! So, looking around at the state of political satire—SNL, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, etc.—how would you say the form is faring today?

    HS: Well, I will say one thing that all those shows have in common, which I find sad, if not reprehensible. Satire is an art best practiced behind the back of the intended target. I think inviting politicians on a satirical show becomes a very big trap. Because one of two things happen: Either you have to kind of unsharpen your fangs because you can't be quite as cruel to people to their face as you are behind their backs…

    MJ: When you have the Pakistan dictator on, you kind of yuk it up with him.

    HS: Yeah. Or you don't defang, and those guests get the word and they stop coming. I think the former has happened in all three cases. I remember when Christopher Guest and Marty Short and I joined SNL in 1984. And we said to Dick Ebersoll, then the producer, "This show is established. We can get our own ratings. We don't need these guests that can't do comedy and are often politicians—everything kind of gets distorted by that." In fact, the first show of that season had no guest host. And we thought "Okay, great!" And by show three, our guest host was Jesse Jackson, and he had moved half of Operation Push into our office so they could make free long-distance calls.

    MJ: He did Green Eggs and Ham on SNL and it was very funny.

    HS: Yeah, I just think everyone knows you go on those shows if you're a politician to, "humanize yourself"—to show, "Hey, I can take a joke." Well, why should satire be in the service of humanizing these people who are supposed to be the target of our venom and vitriol? I think that's unseemly.

    MJ: So many political satirists seem to be on the liberal side of the equation. Are there any great humorists out there with a conservative bent?

    HS: Yeah, sure. PJ O'Rourke has been funny and conservative for years. I find myself being lumped in with the left, though I'm as critical of Obama as I have been of any president. I think it's the satirist's job to be critical of—the cliché—the guys with the monopoly on the guns. In the United States you have to amend it to say the guys with the majority of the guns. Or the bigger guns. But I think that's the gig. Otherwise you become a court jester. You become the satirist who ended up writing jokes on the side for one of the recent presidential candidates. Well, now you're really a hired gun. You're just comedy oppo research.

    Editor's note: In the audio, Shearer attributes the "used car" poster to Herblock. It actually was produced by the Kennedy campaign.

  • How One Man Poured Chemicals Into New Jersey's Drinking Water and Changed Women's Fashion Forever

    These days, drinking more water seems to be the solution for everything from weight loss to youthful skin. In fact, we've taken our obsession with water so far that the medical community is actually warning people that drinking too much water can be poisonous. What most of us take for granted, however, is that water (in reasonable quantities) is safe to drink—a notion that was absolutely not true 100 years ago.

    The innovations that gave us clean drinking water don't seem as sexy as self-driving cars or a rover on Mars. But author Steven Johnson argues that these types of technological advances have changed our world in profound ways—impacting everything from life expectancy to women's fashion (more on that below).

    Seemingly mundane scientific breakthroughs can create what Johnson calls a "hummingbird effect," a reference to the great evolutionary leap that species made when it began to mimic the flight patterns of insects in order to extract nectar more efficiently from flowers. Johnson coined the phrase while writing his latest book—How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World—in Marin County, California, where hummingbirds were frequent visitors in his garden. What started out as a distraction provided him with an apt metaphor for the often unpredictable and far-reaching effects that a simple innovation can have on society. "You think you're inventing something that just involves flowers and insects, but it ends up changing the anatomy of birds," says Johnson on this week's episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. "We see that again and again and again in the history of technology."

    So how does Johnson link clean drinking water with female fashion? The story begins with a 19th-century problem. As American cities grew larger, contamination of drinking water by sewage was becoming a serious health hazard. For John Leal, a doctor based in New Jersey, the problem was personal: His father had died a slow and agonizing death after drinking contaminated water during the Civil War. He wasn't alone. "Nineteen men in the 144th Regiment died in combat," writes Johnson, "while 178 died of disease during the war." 

    Steven Johnson Nutopia

    In addition to his work as a physician, Leal was a health officer and inspector for the city of Paterson, New Jersey. His duties included understanding and curtailing communicable diseases and disinfecting the homes of people who died from them. He was also in charge of the city's public water supply and the safe disposal of sewage. This combination of interests and responsibilities ensured that he spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve water safety. Whereas other doctors rejected the notion of using chemicals to kill noxious bacteria in water, Leal began to consider chlorine—in the form of calcium hypochlorite—which was commonly used to disinfect houses and neighborhoods affected by typhoid and cholera outbreaks.

    Chloride of lime, as it was called back then, smelled terrible and was known to be toxic, so the idea of putting it in drinking water seemed ludicrous. But Leal realized that in small doses, it was essentially harmless to humans and yet still effective at destroying deadly bacteria. "Leal understood [this] in part because he had access to very good microscopes," explains Johnson. "In the old days, if you had a hypothesis about how to clean the water, you would kind of do it, and then you'd wait for a month and see if anybody died."

    But putting what is essentially poison into the city's water supply was still an unpopular suggestion, to say the least.

    And so, a few years later, when Leal was put in charge of Jersey City's water supply, he added chlorine to the city's reservoirs "in almost complete secrecy, without any permission from government authorities (and no notice to the general public)," writes Johnson. And not surprisingly, once people realized what he had done, Leal was called a madman and even a terrorist. He had to appear in court to defend his actions, where he testified that he believed his chlorinated water was, in fact, the safest in the world.

    The case was settled in his favor and, unlike many of his contemporaries, Leal gave away the recipe for chlorination for free to whomever wanted it. "Unencumbered by patent restrictions and licensing fees," writes Johnson, "municipalities quickly adopted chlorination as a standard practice, across the United States and eventually the world."

    Mass chlorination had some predictable effects, reducing the mortality rate in the average American city by 43 percent. According to Johnson, parents of infants benefited even more significantly, as the death rate for babies dropped by 74 percent. And while reducing mortality is perhaps the most important consequence of Leal's innovation, there is also a lighter side to the story.

    As World War I came to an end and chlorination spread across the country, some 10,000 public baths and pools were opened in the United States, giving women a new forum to show off their figures. As pools became safe and swimming became the norm, swimsuit fashions exploded. Or compressed, more accurately. "At the turn of the century," Johnson writes, "the average woman's bathing suit required 10 yards of fabric; by the end of the 1930s, one yard was sufficient."

    "Hanging out at a pool and seeing people in swimsuits" became a major driver of fashion, says Johnson. And while Hollywood glamor, fashion magazines, and other cultural changes had an effect, "without the mass adoption of swimming as a leisure activity," he writes, "those fashions would have been deprived of one of their key showcases."

    How We Got to Now's publication also coincides with a six-part PBS and BBC television series airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT, from October 15 to November 12. You can watch a preview below:

    Click here to listen to our full interview with Steven Johnson:

    Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.

  • "More Money Than I Could Count": Mitch McConnell's Very Special Relationship With Lobbyists

    There may be no Washington lawmaker cozier with K Street than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). DC law firms and lobbying shops are stuffed with ex-McConnell staffers and pals. And he uses them well to preserve his power and position. As the conservative National Review reported, "McConnell has often exercised power in DC by pressuring major donors to withhold donations from a given lawmaker or organization. His allies on K Street are often the people who deliver this message and 'enforce' it." The stats below show just how close McConnell is with the well-heeled lobbyists of Washington, DC—a relationship that no doubt will serve both sides well, should the GOP win the Senate and McConnell become its majority leader.

    50 staffers
    second most
    3 million
    fortune 500
    chiefs of staff


  • 43 Mexican College Students Disappeared Weeks Ago. What Happened to Them?

    Nearly three weeks have passed since 43 Mexican college students went missing in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero after clashing with local police suspected of having ties to the Guerreros Unidos cartel. A break in the case seemingly came earlier this week when a mass grave with 28 bodies was unearthed, but Mexican authorities later said the students were not among the dead. (That remains unclear.) What exactly is going on?

    Let's start from the beginning. Who are these college students?
    The students went missing on September 26 after trying to collect money to attend upcoming protests against discriminatory hiring practices for teachers, according to the Guardian. The students were in Iguala, a town about two and a half hours inland from Acapulco. After fundraising and protesting in Iguala, the students apparently tried to hitchhike back to their rural teacher's college in Tixtla, about two hours south of Iguala, but police say the students eventually commandeered three buses from a local terminal.

    According to the Guardian, (and an eye witness), local police chased the buses down and apparently opened fire. The buses stopped, the unarmed students got out, and the attacks got worse. Many of the students apparently fled, but roughly 20 of them were taken away in patrol cars. Later, some of the students returned to the scene and were talking to reporters when they were assaulted again by police or other gunmen. Two students reportedly died, and one was left in a vegetative state. "The body of a third student was found dumped nearby later, his face reportedly skinned and his eye gouged out," the Guardian reported.

    The students' school, the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa, is one of more than a dozen around the country that formed after Mexico's revolution with the goal of raising living standards for impoverished Mexicans and teaching poor farmers to read and write, according to the Christian Science Monitor. The schools are typically seen as leftist, and people from this school, in particular, were some of the major players in the run-up to the Tlatelolco Massacre, a violent clash between students and police in Mexico City in 1968 that led to dozens of deaths.

    It's unclear whether the students' politics played a role in the attacks. Students from the school reportedly seized and vandalized Iguala's city hall in June 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal, and have clashed with police there before. "They practically destroyed the building," an Iguala city councilman told the Journal. "That's what these boys do. They cause trouble." The Journal added that the attacks could also have come about as the students were commandeering the buses; police could have feared that the students were going to disrupt a political rally organized by the mayor's wife set for the same evening.

    But what about the cops who led the assault on the students?
    Four days after the attack, the state government charged 22 municipal police officers with murder, according to the Guardian, but many more might have been involved. Corruption among Mexican police is a well-covered issue, but this situation reflects how things have reached a whole new level. Ioan Grillo, a veteran reporter who has covered narco crime in Mexico for more than a decade, wrote in the New York Times that this was something new: "As I inhaled the stench of death on that hill, and saw photos of the mutilated student on the road, I felt as never before that I was covering an act of pure unadulterated evil."

    Grillo explained that while the slaughtering of students may "seem inexplicable," the truth is that drug cartels have taken over so completely that they either control government officials or are themselves the government officials. "Being ruled by corrupt and self-interested politicians can be bad," Grillo wrote. "But imagine being ruled by sociopathic gangsters. They respond to rowdy students in the only way they understand: with extreme violence designed to cause terror. They stick the mutilated body of a student on public display in the same way they do rival traffickers."

    After the attacks, the federal government took away the local police force's power and brought in hundreds of its own cops.

    Which cartel is behind the violence?
    The working theory is that Guerreros Unidos (Warriors United) got the police to attack the students, mounted the attack themselves, or worked directly with police. According to Grillo, Guerreros Unidos is a cartel fighting to control a strategic drug transport area packed with marijuana and opium fields. The cartel operates valuable drug corridors in Guerrero and Morelos, the state immediately to the northeast, according to the Independent.

    It's hard to stay on top of the ever-evolving Mexican cartel breakdown, but here's what we know: Guerreros Unidos was formed in 2009 after breaking away from the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) following Arturo Beltrán Leyva's death. According to InSight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in the Americas, Guerreros Unidos is in a bitter turf war with Los Rojos (also an offshoot of the BLO) and the Knights Templar (a separate cartel) for control of the area's drug routes. The BBC has reported that the turf battle has taken a bite out of drug profits, so the cartel also makes money from kidnapping, extortion, and collecting fees.

    The cartel's extracurricular activities have put it in the crosshairs of the federal government, which, under President Enrique Peña Nieto, has been trying to look like it's taking on the country's most powerful cartels. The drug wars between the cartels and the Mexican federal government had apparently gotten quieter in recent times because, as the Washington Post notes, "the gore, it seems, was bad for business."

    That pressure may have also led one of the leaders of Guerreros Unidos, Benjamín Mondragón Pereda, to kill himself earlier this week after being surrounded by police. Iguala's mayor and police chief, both suspected of working closely with the cartel, are on the run.

    What happened with the unearthing of the mass grave?
    When word came after the students' disappearance that there was a mass grave found nearby, it seemed reasonable that it was the final resting place for the bodies. But yesterday Mexican authorities announced that none of the 28 bodies belonged to any of the students. As the Post reported after the announcement, the news brought fresh hope for families that the students may still be alive, but "to the rest of Mexico, the news that 28 mutilated, charred corpses correspond to another group of victims is a new stop on a carousel of horrors."

    There are at least eight more burial sites in just that area, the Post noted, and it's possible the students are in one or more of them. (The Post notes that authorities haven't said how many dead have been recovered, or who the bodies might be.) In fact, Guerrero is home to the largest mass grave ever found in Mexico: In 2010, authorities discovered more than 60 people who had been bound and gagged, some dismembered and decapitated, and thrown down a mine ventilation shaft.

    So what's next?
    The disappearance and likely murder of the college students has led to mass protests across the country, with Mexicans once again arguing that the government isn't doing enough to protect them. In Chilpancingo, the state capital of Guerrero, protesters have burned government buildings and demanded the resignation of the state's governor. Meanwhile, the federal government has said it will continue to search for the students and try to identify the bodies found in the additional burial sites.