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  • Which States' Kids Miss the Most School?

    September is upon us, and American kids are filling up their backpacks. But lots of kids won't be going back to school—at least not very much. The map above shows the results of a national report released Tuesday by nonprofit Attendance Works, which zooms in on a statistic called "chronic absenteeism," generally defined as the number of kids who miss at least 10 percent of school days over the course of a year. The measure has become popular among education reformers over the past few years because unlike other measures like average daily attendance or truancy, chronic absenteeism focuses on the specific kids who are regularly missing instructional time, regardless of the reason why or the overall performance of the school.

    Several studies have shown that missing 10 percent of school seems to be a threshold of sorts: If you miss more than that, your odds of scoring well on tests, graduating high school, and attending college are significantly lower. A statewide study in Utah, for example, found that kids who were chronically absent for a year between 8th and 12th grades were more than seven times more likely to drop out. The pattern starts early in the year: A 2013 Baltimore study found that half of the students who missed two to four days of school in September went on to be chronically absent.

    The Attendance Works study, which used missing three days per month as a proxy for the 10 percent threshold, categorized students missing school by location, race, and socioeconomic status. Here's what they found:

    Oddly enough, the federal government doesn't track absenteeism. Seventeen states do, and, as David Cardinali wrote in the New York Times last week, states have found that school attendance often falls on socioeconomic lines: In Maryland, nearly a third of high school students who receive free or reduced lunch are chronically absent.

    In order to work with a national dataset, Attendance Works looked at the results of the National Assessment for Educational Attainment, the nation's largest continuing standardized test, taken by a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country every two years. In addition to academic content, the test asks students a series of nonacademic questions, including how many days of school they have missed in the past month. If students reported missing three or more days, they had crossed the 10 percent threshold; assuming that month is representative of the rest of the year, the kids qualify as chronically absent. 

    Obviously, there's a huge disclaimer here: Students may not remember or accurately report their own absences, and one month may not be representative of an entire school year. But at the same time, the results were remarkably consistent, reflecting conclusions from localized studies: Students in poverty are less likely to come to school, and as the chart below shows, students who come to school less perform markedly worse on tests. (For reference, an improvement of 10 points on the National Assessment for Educational Progress is roughly equivalent to jumping a grade level.)

    Phyllis Jordan, a coauthor of the Attendance Works report, hopes that as schools look more into the data, they'll be able to identify the core reasons for the absence: "If everybody from a certain neighborhood is missing school and they have to walk through a bad neighborhood, then suddenly you say, 'Oh, we should run a school bus through there.' If it's all the kids with asthma and you don't have a school nurse, maybe that's a reason. Or maybe it's all concentrated in a single classroom, and you have an issue with the teacher."

    The good news is that citywide studies in New York City and Chicago show that when chronically absent kids start coming to school more, they can make substantial academic gains. And the simple act of tracking and prioritizing absenteeism can lead to statewide progress: When Hawaii started keeping track of chronic absenteeism in 2012, the state went from having a chronic absentee rate of 18 to 11 percent over the course of a single year.

  • Top Gun Rights Group Backs White Supremacist's Supreme Court Case

    Samuel Johnson isn't exactly a lawyer's dream client. He's a white supremacist with a lengthy rap sheet who a couple years ago was accused of plotting an attack on a Mexican consulate. He ended up drawing a 15-year prison term on a gun charge, and his case is now on his way to the US Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear a challenge to his sentence. Johnson has won the vocal backing of a top gun rights group, but as his case moves forward, it may eventually draw support from some liberals and civil libertarians who oppose harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

    Johnson's story started back in 2010, when he caught the attention of the FBI, not long after he'd started organizing anti-immigration rallies in Minnesota. Initially a member of the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group, Johnson quit to start his own outfit, the Aryan Liberation Movement. He allegedly planned to support the group by counterfeiting money.

    Continue Reading »

  • Meet the Risky Mortgage Pioneer Trying to Pay His Buddy's Way Into Congress

    If New Hampshire Republican Dan Innis wins his congressional race, he knows where to send the fruit basket: to the home of mortgage giant Peter T. Paul.

    Before running for Congress, Innis served as dean of the University of New Hampshire's business school, which was renamed for Paul after he donated $25 million. His campaign website touts major building projects he oversaw as dean—projects financed by Paul's contribution. And Innis' congressional run is getting a big-time boost from a brand new super-PAC founded and financed by Paul.

    "Dan's a friend," says Paul, who lives in California. Paul is an alumnus of the University of New Hampshire, and he met Innis through his UNH philanthropy. "He's the better candidate. He needs to get known."

    Innis, who is one of four candidates running in the Republican primary on September 9 to challenge Democratic Rep. Carol Shea Porter, is socially liberal and favors shrinking the government—exactly the type of politician Paul says he would like to see in Congress. In order to make that happen, Paul created a super-PAC, New Hampshire Priorities PAC, and financed it with $562,000. So far, $376,000 of that has gone into radio and TV ads supporting his friend. Innis himself has raised a little more than $338,000—about $150,000 less than his closest Republican opponent. With Paul in the mix, Innis is head and shoulders over his GOP competitors.

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  • Exclusive Premiere of Moby's New Video, "The Last Day"

    Moby is tired. Since he released his 11th and latest studio album, Innocents, last October, the six-time Grammy nominee has been crisscrossing the country on tour and spinning DJ sets at electronic dance music festivals, not to mention starring in a video with Miley Cyrus and Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. But then again, he reminds me, "I've been traveling for the last 25 years."

    Indeed, the last quarter century has been an epic voyage for the 48-year-old musician. Born in Harlem and raised in Connecticut, Moby (born Richard Melville Hall, an actual descendent of Moby Dick author Herman Melville) has led a prolific, star-studded career that has included collaborations with Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Slash, Gwen Stefani, and countless other A-listers. Longtime fans will remember his punk-inflected days in the early '90s, although most of us are more familiar with his quieter, cinematic sounds, which have graced Hollywood blockbusters such as Tomorrow Never Dies and The Bourne Identity.

    When he isn't writing, spinning, performing, or recording his music, Moby likes to raise some hell. A longtime vegan and animal rights activist, he has testified before Congress in defense of net neutrality and raised money to keep California from shuttering its domestic-violence shelters. But unlike his heroes—Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Chuck D among them—Moby usually steers clear of activism in the music itself. "Whenever I've tried to write issue-oriented or political music," he explains, "it just hasn't been good."

    In advance of our exclusive rollout of his latest music video, "The Last Day," Moby regaled me with stories about (almost) rubbing shoulders with Prince, his activist origins, and coming to terms with his feud with Eminem. Check out the video below, and stay for our conversation.

    Mother Jones: So, tell me what you've been up to this past year?

    Moby: Innocents. What I love about making albums in the 21st century is that so few people buy albums! I can make an album without any commercial concerns whatsoever. There's something sort of emancipating about that. An artist in 2014 who is thinking about album sales is either sadly deluded or has to make so many commercial compromises that it sort of takes the joy out of making music.

    MJ: I can kind of sympathize with that as a journalist working both in print and online. So how does a musician make a living now?

    Moby: Oddly enough, I think that the current climate enables a lot of musicians to do relatively well. Twenty-five years ago, you could be a bass player in a folk-rock band and do pretty well—that sort of means that you're going to have to go get a day job. But a lot of my friends have learned how to write classical music for movies and produce other people and do remixes, and DJ and go on tour, and do all these different things. The more diverse their approach, the better their chances of actually having a career.

    MJ: Like much of your work, the tracks on Innocence have a subtle quality. Is that intentional, to make music that contrasts with—as you phrased it at one point—the "bombastic" tunes we hear so much, in the Top 40 and whatnot?

    Moby: Yeah, I have nothing against bombastic music, but when it comes to making albums, I'd prefer to make music that has a sort of vulnerable subtlety to it. That's what I was trying to accomplish with the song and the video.

    MJ: Over the years, you've collaborated with icons from Michael Jackson to Lou Reed. Who's on your wish list?

    Moby: Well, my main interest is just to work with people who have beautiful, interesting, emotive voices; I'm not too concerned whether someone is famous. But I guess the two people on the planet that I would love to work with: One is James Blake—I just think his voice is so touching and beautiful, and his approach to music is really interesting. And also, at some point in my life, I'd love to make an album with Prince. I love Prince. I've just never been interested in his fast, exciting music. But I love the ballads that he writes, and I think it'd be great if he made an album of just romantic, slow ballads.

    MJ: Have you ever approached him?

    Moby: Once, in 1988, I danced next to him and his security guard at a nightclub on 14th Street in New York City. I think it was called Nell's. And then, about 12 years ago, I dated a woman who had grown up in Minneapolis and at one point had gone to a party at Prince's house and turned down the offer to have a threesome with him. So that's the only contact I've had. I can't even call either of them technically a contact. It's more just like six degrees of separation.

    MJ: So, you talk about being drawn to subtlety, yet some of your earlier work had inflections of punk and was a lot louder. Was there a moment of transition for you?

    Moby: When I was very young, I played in a punk-rock band, but I also studied music theory and classical music. In the late '80s and early '90s, I was playing a lot of electronic music but also playing drums in a punk band and writing experimental film music for friends of mine. I guess I've never seen the need to choose one type of music at the exclusion of another. That would feel kind of sad and arbitrary.

    MJ: You're credited, though, for helping usher electronic dance music into the mainstream.

    Moby: In some ways it's hard to see electronic music as a genre because the word "electronic" just refers to how it's made. Hip-hop is electronic music. Most reggae these days is electronic. Pop is electronic. House music, techno, all these sorts of ostensibly disparate genres are sort of being created with the same equipment. So it's sort of ironic for me to be associated exclusively with electronic music considering my background is punk rock and classical.

    But in the early '90s, when I was making techno and electronic dance music, it really felt like I was working in this maligned ghetto. A lot of music journalists wouldn't take it seriously, so it's been nice to watch electronic music rise to prominence. One of the things I love is how egalitarian it is. Up until the rise of electronic music, if you were a musician in Portugal or Germany or Italy or Japan, and you didn't sing in English, you really were limited: You could be successful in the country where people understood your language. The world of electronic music is completely international. You have DJs from Finland making huge records for people in New Zealand, DJs in South Korea making huge records for people in France. By the fact that it doesn't cost anything to make, and that it transcends language, nation, and barrier, it accidentally accomplishes a lot of really remarkable things.

    MJ: So does Eminem now look foolish for claiming "no one listens to techno"?

    Moby: I have a weird passing respect for him. I think he's quite talented. And in 2004, he put out a song called, I forget what it was called, but he made this really powerful video that was a call to arms to get inner-city youth to vote. The fact that he dissed me—he said I was too old and nobody listens to techno—it's sort of ironic, because now he's quite a lot older than I was when he made fun of me for being too old, and clearly everybody in the world is listening to techno. But I learned a lesson: Never have public feuds with anyone who's surrounded by people who carry guns.

    The way the feud started was that I had assumed, as we got into the '90s, that things like homophobia and misogyny were old, pernicious things that were sort of fading away. And I found it incredibly disheartening that in the late '90s, suddenly pop culture became even more misogynistic and more homophobic, and so I criticized Eminem for having lyrics that were egregiously homophobic and egregiously misogynistic.

    What I also found really odd, when I was criticizing Eminem for being misogynistic, is how few people came to my defense. I'm not trying to look for pity or sympathy. I was just surprised that so many people in the world of entertainment seemed to be okay with misogyny and homophobia as long as they were profiting from it. And I asked this one question, which was not necessarily for Eminem, but any musician: If you take a song that talks about committing acts of violence towards women and gay people, and if you change the subject and instead have songs about committing acts of violence against Jews and blacks, would the entertainment industry still be okay with it? Clearly the answer is no.

    MJ: Your song "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad" came out around that time. Any connection?

    Moby: Not really. I always just made music that resonates with me emotionally. A lot of my heroes are people who've written very political, issue-oriented music—Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and John Lennon and Neil Young and Chuck D. I wish that I could write politically inspired and issue-inspired music as well as Neil Young, but honestly, I just can't.

    MJ: But you're a serious activist offstage. How did that all begin?

    Moby: I was raised by very progressive intellectuals. At Thanksgiving and Christmas we'd sit around and talk politics and semiotics and art theory. It was instilled in me that every individual should do what they can to try and make things better. I have such a disparate list of causes, but the guiding principle is simply—and maybe this sounds obnoxious—that I'm offended by two things. One, when the actions of institutions or individuals involve the imposition of will upon people or animals. That violates my basic ethical understanding of the world. You can do basically whatever you want to, but the moment that you impose your will on another person or animal, that's when we are allowed to say you have committed an ethical breach.

    The other is: As a philosophy major, there's one logical fallacy that really stuck with me. It's called the is–ought fallacy. It states that because something is, it ought to be. That's been used to justify slavery, women not being allowed to vote, children working in factories, cigarette smoking, the use of DDT. It's so pernicious and asinine, but people still keep going along with it. When we look at factory farming, for example, the justification that most people have is, "Oh, well, we've always had factory farming, therefore we should continue to have factory farming." It's so illogical. The only people who benefit from it are the people who own the factory farms—everyone else is just lazy or complicit.

    MJ: What other experiences or people have shaped your outlook?

    Moby: Everyone from Jane Goodall to John Robbins, Peter Singer: I can't even count the activist heroes I've had. Two of the things that I've learned over the years is how can you be an effective and sustainable activist? And I don't mean driving a Prius. How can you apply yourself in a way that can be sustained over decades? Because I've seen a lot of my activist friends get burned out. And I see a lot of activists wasting time on actions that might not necessarily achieve their goals.

    MJ: Example?

    Moby: I've seen friends who are so well intentioned, and they have these great NGOs or charities, and at some point they decide to have a benefit concert. So they spend a year organizing a concert when they know nothing about organizing concerts, and at the end of the day either the concert doesn't happen or it does, and they end up losing money and not drawing awareness to what they're doing.

    MJ: What would you consider a successful model of activism?

    Moby: I think it's really being clear-eyed and having goals that are in line with a rational understanding of your resources. If I'm fighting factory farming, I don't have their financial resources, but I have media resources they don't have. So for me to go up against Monsanto in a financial realm is absurd. But on a media level, a grassroots level, that's where we win. Luckily, in the online platform insincerity becomes pretty apparent pretty quickly.

    MJ: Which brings me to Gristle, your 2010 book of essays about factory farming and meat consumption.

    Moby: I've been an animal rights activist and a vegan for 28 years. The entire time, I've asked myself: How do I best advance an animal rights agenda? At the time my friend Miyun Park at the Humane Society and I put out Gristle, there was this new wave of animal media from Food Inc. to Jonathan Safran [Foer]'s book Eating Animals to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. We wanted to put out a very factual resource that would be a companion to all of this other media. It's not a fun book, and it's not really a pop-culture book. It's more academic, in a way.

    MJ: Can we expect more books from you in the future?

    Moby: I hope so. I'm not quite sure what. I'm writing a memoir right now about my life in New York from 1989 to 1999.

    MJ: You've identified as a Christian. How do you square your religious views with your 2002 song "We Are All Made of Stars," which seems to espouse evolution over creationism?

    Moby: It's a great question. In high school I was a punk-rock atheist. Then I became what I'll call a sort of Kierkegaardian Christian. There was a time when I was a very serious Christian. Over time, I started becoming more and more aware of the vastness and complexity of the universe, which led me away from any sort of conventional Christianity. I realized the universe is 15 billion years old and unspeakably complicated. I still love the teachings of Christ, but I also believe that the human condition prevents us from having any true objective knowledge and understanding of the universe. All human belief systems are inherently flawed. If I had to label myself now, I'd call myself a Taoist-Christian-agnostic quantum mechanic. Also, there's nothing in the actual Bible that limits a Christian in their appreciation of or interest in science. Anti-science is purely a function of ignorant fundamentalism.

    MJ: Before I let you go, I've gotta ask: As a vegan who's into sustainability, what's your take on almond milk?

    Moby: I make my own every now and then. It takes about 30 seconds and tastes great. But honestly, I'm not too concerned about almond milk.

  • "Bull City Summer": Incredible Photos From a Year Embedded With a Minor League Club

    Twenty-five years after Bull Durham introduced the world to the minor league world of Crash Davis, Annie Savoy, and Nuke LaLoosh, a group of writers and photographers descended on Durham, North Carolina, to document life with the hometown team. The result is Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark, a rich photo book interspersed with smart, poignant essays about the game's rhythm, its injustice, and its occasional grace.

    The essayists introduce us to a familiar cast of characters: the elderly couple who've missed just 50 games in 30-plus years; the aging veteran playing out the string in Triple-A, four years removed from a World Series appearance with the Yankees; the Duke philosophy professor who, before succumbing to colon cancer in 2013, would "adopt" a player every year, bringing him cookies and the occasional CD filled with classical music; the Cuban first baseman whose league MVP award will get him no closer to the big leagues; the general manager who helped revitalize the club in 1980 and who claims at the start of one essay, "I'm a gifted salesman. I hate it, but I am."

    Meanwhile, the photos highlight the play between the sort of regional authenticity that clubs sell to local fans and the generic ballpark experience found in dozens of baseball towns—Corpus Christi, Rancho Cucamonga, New Britain, wherever—around the country. There are still lifes; there are landscapes; there are stadium workers and players and fans in varying arrangements and formats, including the occasional tintype.

    Running throughout Bull City Summer, though, is that old sense of the minor leagues as something special, something sui generis. "The majors are baseball's height, but the minors are its depth," writes Adam Sobsey, "and what we have here may be richer."

    All photos from Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark, Daylight Books. Conceived and edited by Sam Stephenson. Photographs by Alec Soth, Hiroshi Watanabe, Hank Willis Thomas, Alex Harris, Frank Hunter, Kate Joyce, Elizabeth Matheson, Leah Sobsey. Essays by Michael Croley, Howard L. Craft, David Henry, Emma D. Miller, Adam Sobsey and Ivan Weiss.

    Center Field #2, 2013 Alec Soth
    Holly, 2013 Alec Soth
    Outside the Ballpark #2, Durham, North Carolina, June 2013 Alex Harris
    Light in a Summer Night #7, 2013 Frank Hunter
    Approaching storm, Goodman field Frank Hunter
    Vendor Frank Hunter
    In collaboration with Colby Katz, Allen Mullin, Ben Berry, Emma Miller, Ivan Weiss, Michael Itkoff, Mika Chance, Matali Routh, Ryan Vin, and Sara Schultz: A Futile Attempt to Take a Portrait of Everyone who Attended the Latest Regular Season Game, 2013 Hank Willis Thomas
    Pitching practice (Team psychologist), April 2013 Kate Joyce
    Craig Albernaz's Catcher's Mask, 2013 Hiroshi Watanabe
    Untitled, 2013 Elizabeth Matheson
    Daylight Books, 2014


  • Stop Dreaming. Republicans Are Not Going for a Carbon Tax.

    This story originally appeared in Grist and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Republicans, as everyone knows, hate taxes and don't accept, much less care about, climate change. But wonks on both sides of the aisle fantasize that a carbon tax could win bipartisan support as part of a broader tax-reform package. A carbon tax could be revenue neutral, the dreamers point out, and if revenue from the tax is used to cut other taxes, it shouldn't offend Republicans—in theory.

    And so people who want to bring Republicans into the climate movement like to argue that the GOP could come to embrace a carbon tax. We've heard it from former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who lost his seat to a Tea Party primary challenger in 2010 after he proposed a revenue-neutral plan to create a carbon tax and cut payroll taxes. We've heard it from energy industry bigwigs like Roger Sant, who recently argued the case at the Aspen Ideas Festival. We've heard it from GOP think tankers like Eli Lehrer.

    It's the epitome of centrist wishful thinking. It will not happen.

    I know because I asked the man most responsible for setting Republican tax policy: Grover Norquist. As head of Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist has gotten 218 House Republicans and 39 Senate Republicans to sign his "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" never to raise taxes. His group has marshaled the Republican base's zealous anti-tax activists and successfully primaried politicians who violate the pledge, making Norquist a much-feared and much-obeyed player in D.C. The Boston Globe Magazine went so far as to call him "the most powerful man in America"—at least of the unelected variety.

    First off, Norquist has no interest in a carbon tax because, he told me, there has been no global warming for the last 15 years. That right-wing shibboleth is false, but the point is that if you don't accept climate science, as Norquist and the Republicans don't, you've got no reason to back a carbon tax.

    Although Norquist conceded that you could theoretically construct a revenue-neutral carbon tax that does not violate his pledge, he would still oppose it, and he said Republicans generally would too. "I would urge people not to [vote for a carbon tax], because the tax burden is a function of how many taxes you have," Norquist said, noting that higher-tax jurisdictions tend to have more sources of tax revenue. "With one tax, people can see how big it is. Divide it and no one knows."

    "I don't see the path to getting a lot of Republican votes," he concluded. Neither do I.

    It's useful to look at how Republicans react to other tax-reform ideas: Eliminate the carried-interest loophole that taxes hedge-fund managers at a lower rate than their secretaries? No way! Eliminate deductions for oil and gas companies? Nothing doing.

    The arguments Republicans make about this one tax being unfair or that one stifling economic growth are all just arguments of convenience. Republicans are for taxing the things they don't care about (poor people's meager earnings) and against taxing the things they do care about (rich people's unearned income). So Republicans oppose taxing inheritances and capital gains, but seem not to mind flat taxes on income or sales. That's why the big tax-reform proposals that insurgent Republican candidates have ridden to prominence—Mike Huckabee's "Fair Tax," Herman Cain's "9-9-9" plan—involve shifting much of the tax burden to a national sales tax: because sales taxes fall disproportionately on poor people. (Poor people have to spend a bigger portion of their income than rich people do just to get by, so sales taxes are regressive.)

    And that's why offering to cut payroll taxes in exchange for creating a carbon tax won't win a bunch of Republican votes. First of all, Republicans don't care about the tax burden on poor people, so the payroll tax deduction is not going to entice them. (In fact, they opposed an extension of President Obama's payroll-tax holiday.) Meanwhile, they don't share the premise that fuel consumption and carbon pollution are bad, because they don't accept climate science. And they don't want to shift the tax burden to fossil fuel companies, which are huge GOP contributors.

    It's worth remembering how a carbon tax became the ostensible bipartisan solution to climate change. Back in 2008, both parties' presidential candidates backed cap-and-trade plans. Obama won and advanced his plan, so Republicans all opposed it. By default, whatever Obama proposes becomes "partisan" and the alternative becomes supposedly the reasonable, non-ideological idea Republicans would have supported. It's always a lie.

    There are two possible paths to either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax: One, Democrats gain control of both houses of Congress and the White House, and feel more pressure to address climate change than they did in 2010, when they let the opportunity slip away. Or, two, Republicans come to accept climate science and decide they want to save the world from burning. But until Republicans come around to acknowledge the reality of climate change, they're not going to agree to a carbon tax.

  • This Is What a Farmer Looks Like

    During the 2013 Super Bowl, Marjorie Gayle Alaniz was captivated by a commercial for Dodge Ram trucks that featured portraits of American farmers. She couldn't help but notice, however, that among the many farmers shown, there were only a handful of women. Alaniz, who comes from a family of Iowa farmers, was disappointed. "I wondered, how has this happened, that images of farms don't include women, when practically every farm has a woman working on it?" Indeed, according to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, 46 percent of American farm operators are women.

    Shortly after her Super Bowl revelation, Alaniz quit her job at a crop insurance company and started documenting women farmers in Central Iowa. The result is FarmHer, an online collection of photographs of some 40 lady farmers and counting. "The feedback has been fabulous," says Alaniz. "It's usually coming from women who grew up around agriculture or are currently involved in ag. They say, 'Thank you for showing the rest of the world that we are out here doing this, too.'"

    Kim Waltman, along with her family and about 20 neighbors, drives a herd of her beef cattle from the pasture to a holding area for vaccination and branding.
    Angelique Hakazimona, who farmed in her native Rwanda before coming to Iowa as a refugee, digs sweet potatoes on the certified organic farm where she works. 
    Kate Edwards, who farms veggies on a few acres to feed 150 families through her CSA program, harvests produce during the last light of a long summer day.
    Inga Witscher pushes a wayward cow back into the barn on the organic dairy farm that she runs with her husband.
    Kellie Gregorich drives her John Deere tractor, which has been handed down through generations on her family's cattle and row crop farm. 
    Carolyn Scherf holds a heritage-breed turkey she raised on a farm in rural Iowa.
    Danelle Myer, the sole owner and operator of her farm, carries a box full of freshly washed produce from the field to the nearby barn, where she will sort and package it in preparation for the farmers market.
    Jill Beebout checks on her alpacas. With her partner, Beebout grows produce and raises bees for honey, chickens for eggs, and alpacas for fiber.
    FarmHer photographer Marjorie Gayle Alaniz


  • This 11-Year-Old Was Locked Up Trying to Cross the Border. Read the Heartfelt Letter She Sent Obama.

    On Tuesday, the nation's top immigration court allowed a Guatemalan woman who fled her abusive husband to petition for asylum in the United States. It's a landmark ruling that immigrant rights advocates hope will protect women who have escaped horrific marital violence in countries besides Guatemala.

    One of those women is a Honduran named Rosemary. In June, she entered the US with Daniela, her 11-year-old daughter, and both were detained near the border. Rosemary and Daniela are currently detained in a makeshift facility in Artesia, New Mexico, set up by the Department of Homeland Security. They are seeking asylum after fleeing Daniela's father, who allegedly beat and choked Rosemary for three years before the two escaped. (Rosemary asked me to withhold their last name.)

    And Tuesday's ruling could be good news for the two of them—if they ever get out of detention. "It is very difficult to prepare a meaningful asylum case within a detention center," their lawyer, Allegra Love, wrote to me in an email. "There is limited legal counsel and communication is nearly impossible."

    In less than two weeks, Rosemary and Daniela have a bond hearing. If the judge grants a low bond, the family will pay it and live with friends in Houston. But if it's too high—or the judge denies them bail—then Rosemary has considered voluntarily going back to Honduras, where she claims her life is in danger.

    Why would Rosemary risk heading back to one of the world's most violent countries? According to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other immigrant rights groups, conditions in Artesia are terrible: The facility is overcrowded, privacy is nonexistent, and phone calls to family and attorneys are limited to two or three minutes. Daniela says she has lost 15 pounds in two months. "Her mother is not sure she wants to risk her child starving to death in New Mexico," Love says.

    So Love encouraged Daniela to write a letter to President Obama. Daniela did, and Love translated and shared with Mother Jones. Here's an excerpt:

    I don't like being here because we don't eat well, and I can't do what I did in Honduras so I need to go back or get in school. I am a very intelligent girl. I can speak English and I am learning French, and I believe that all the kids who are here in this center should leave. No one wants to be here. We are getting sick mentally. The jail is affecting us. Some officials are very rude. President Obama, I am asking you to please help us leave here and stay in this country. While I have been here I've been sick two times. I ask you from my heart for your help.

    Here's a copy of Daniela's letter and Love's handwritten translation:




    A copy of Rosemary's affidavit to the court, which Love shared with Mother Jones, corroborates the basic details of her daughter's letter.

    In one sense, Rosemary and Daniela are lucky: Artesia is notorious for deporting migrants so swiftly that people with legitimate asylum claims never have a chance to file an application. The fact that the mother and daughter are in touch with a lawyer—they met Love through her pro bono work for the American Immigration Lawyers Association—sets them apart from thousands of other women who stream through Artesia every month. (The Department of Homeland Security did not reply to requests for comment.)

    Their story also flies in the face of conservative claims that, following Tuesday's decision, domestic violence victims can earn "instant US citizenship." Their claim to asylum might have improved in the abstract—but there are still plenty of hurdles between Rosemary and Daniela and their first asylum hearing.

  • Here Are the Psychological Reasons Why an American Might Join ISIS

    "Its Islam over everything."

    So read the Twitter bio of Douglas McAuthur McCain—or, as he reportedly called himself, "Duale Khalid"—the San Diego man who is apparently the first American to be killed while fighting for ISIS. According to NBC News, McCain grew up in Minnesota, was a basketball player, and wanted to be a rapper. Friends describe him as a high school "goofball" and "a really nice guy." So what could have made him want to join the ranks of other Americans drawn towards militant Islam like John Walker Lindh and Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Yahiye Gadahn? And how can we explain the dozens of other Americans who have also gone off to fight as jihadists in Syria, for ISIS and other militant groups?

    According to University of Maryland psychologist and terrorism expert Arie Kruglanski, who has studied scores of militant extremists, part of the clue may lie in that Twitter tagline of McCain's. Not just its content, but the mindset that it indicates—one that sees the world in sharp definition, no shades of gray. "These extreme ideologies have a twofold type of appeal," explains Kruglanski on the latest Inquiring Minds podcast. "First of all, they are very coherent, black and white, right or wrong. Secondly, they afford the possibility of becoming very unique, and part of a larger whole."

    That kind of belief system, explains Kruglanski, is highly attractive to young people who lack a clear sense of self-identity, and are craving a sense of larger significance. In fact, Kruglanski and his colleagues have found that one important psychological trait in particular seems to define these militants who leave their own culture and go off to embrace some ideology about which they may not even know very much. (We recently learned that Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, two British jihadis who went to fight in Syria last year, ordered Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon before they departed.)

    Arie Kruglanski

    These young people seem to have what psychologists call a very strong "need for cognitive closure," a disposition that leads to an overwhelming desire for certainty, order, and structure in one's life to relieve the sensation of gnawing—often existential—doubt and uncertainty. According to Kruglanski, this need is something everyone can experience from time to time. We all sometimes get stressed out by uncertainty, and want answers. We all feel that way in moments, in particular situations, but what Kruglanski shows is that some of us feel that way more strongly, or maybe even all the time. And if you go through the world needing closure, it predisposes you to seek out the ideologies and belief systems that most provide it.

    Fundamentalist religions are among the leading candidates. Followers of militant Islam "know exactly what is right and what is wrong, how to behave in every situation," explains Kruglanski. "It's very normative and constraining, and a person who is a bit uncertain, has the need for closure, would be very attracted to an ideology of that kind." And for an outsider coming into Islam and drawn to that sense of certainty that it imparts, Kruglanski adds, you then want to prove yourself. To show your total devotion and commitment to the cause.

    That's not to say every fundamentalist becomes a terrorist, any more than it is to say that every person with a need for cognitive closure does. Other life factors definitely matter as well, and the need for cognitive closure is a trait measured on a continuum; it's not that you either have it our you don't. All of that said, the trait clearly does show up again and again in these extremists.

    How do we know? Kruglanski and his colleagues have directly studied violent extremists and measured them on these traits. In Sri Lanka, for instance, Kruglanski was able to study thousands of members of the so-called Tamil Tigers (more formally called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). A militant and terrorist group fighting to secede from Sri Lanka—a conflict fueled by both linguistic and religious differences—the Tigers had lost their civil war and surrendered, and many were now in a deradicalization program (thousands have since been released). "We administered questionnaires and interviews to about 10,000 of them, and we see how their thinking has evolved, and how it has changed," he says.

    Other psychological research points to conclusions highly consistent with those of Kruglanski. Psychologist Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia, for instance, has investigated a trait called "integrative complexity," which is clearly related to the need for cognitive closure and can be analyzed by examining an individual's public speeches or writing. It is literally a measure of the complexity of thought, and one of its key aspects is whether one accepts that there are a variety of legitimate views about an issue, rather than thinking there is only one right way.

    Suedfeld's work has shown that in global conflicts, a decrease in integrative complexity on the part of the contending parties—exhibited, for instance, in an escalation of black-and-white rhetoric—is a good predictor that violent conflict will occur. He has also shown, through analyzing the speeches of Osama bin Laden, that the terrorist leader's integrative complexity plummeted markedly in the run up to two major attacks: the twin embassy bombings in 1998 in Tanzania and Kenya, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Bin Laden "was very purist in his ideology," adds Kruglanski—a trait suggesting his need for closure.

    The USS Cole, with a visible hole in its side following a terrorist attack Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

    And as it relates to terrorism, the need for cognitive closure has another, surprising implication. According to Kruglanski's research, when terrorists attack a population, the fear and uncertainty that are created (for instance, following the 9/11 attacks) induce a strong need for closure in the attacked population as a whole. And this creates a kind of extremism of its own. People become more suspicious of outsiders and much more supportive of strong security measures that could curtail individual liberties. And they tend to rally around what is perceived to be a strong leader.

    "The psychology of the terrorist victim—there is a high need for closure, high need for clarity, high need to commit to an ideology that would provide quick answers," says Kruglanski. That's certainly not saying that the victims of terrorism are themselves equivalent to terrorists. But it does mean that as psychological warfare, terrorism might very well work.

    So how do you overcome the need for closure, and achieve deradicalization, when much of this core impulse emerges from the very human need to manage uncertainty and find meaning and significance in life? Kruglanski celebrates community-based programs in Muslim countries that try to "inoculate" young people against extreme ideologies. He also praises deradicalization efforts that seek to weaken the ideology of former terrorists with the promise of potential release and reintegration.

    Both types of programs have shown at least some effectiveness, says Kruglanski. They help former extremists "find alternative ways of being significant, making a contribution, other than violence."

    This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of a new Pew report showing that social media may actually discourage the expression of some opinions (rather than enabling them), and of how neuroscientists and filmmakers are working together to understand how people's perceptions actually work in a movie theater.

    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 recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.

  • Is Boko Haram Teaming Up With ISIS for a Super Caliphate?

    Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group with a foothold in northeastern Nigeria that's known for its mass kidnappings and violent tactics, released a video earlier this month making an unprecedented claim: The group announced it had added the city of Gwoza to "the Islamic caliphate."

    Experts are unsure about the exact meaning of this claim, which was issued by Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau. There are at least two possibilities: The group has declared its own caliphate in Nigeria, or it has pledged allegiance to ISIS—that is, the so-called Islamic State run by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

    Shekau's speech was relatively vague, but Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, thinks it's more likely that he was throwing in with ISIS—though "it's not entirely clear." Jenkins speculated that the wording of Shekau's statement, citing "the" Islamic caliphate, paired with Shekau's praise of Baghdadi (both in the video and earlier statements) suggests an attempt to link Boko Haram with ISIS. "If the leader of Boko Haram is saying his area is part of the Islamic State," Jenkins says, "he agrees that Baghdadi is the caliph…or the sole leader of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims."

    There is a "sense of solidarity" between the groups, says Mark Schroeder, an Africa Analyst for Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm. He suggested that the video is "good for public relations" and might attract further attention to Boko Haram, given the success ISIS has had in the Middle East.  

    But Schroeder points out it is unlikely that any attempt by Boko Haram to hitch its wagon to ISIS will result in "any material gains" for the Nigerian radical group, given the small swath of territory in which it operates. Also, the group already has other alliances with Islamist militants such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Boko Haram has never declared a single allegiance to one group, and has not been formally adopted by one.

    Ryan Cummings, the chief analyst on Africa for Red24, an international security consulting company, says it's unlikely that Boko Haram will try to join up with ISIS. He notes that Shekau has not yet made a formal oath of allegiance to Baghdadi, and he questions whether the group would risk alienating Al Qaeda, which has financially supported Boko Haram and trained some of its fighters. Al Qaeda has rejected ISIS on the basis of its brutality, and Cummings says that Boko Haram probably would not want to take sides between ISIS and Al Qaeda.

    Whatever Shekau meant in his video, the reality is that his group won't be carving out its own caliphate anytime soon.

    Abubakar Shekau announces that Gwoza is now part of "the Islamic caliphate." Obtained by Agence France-Presse, Youtube

    The Nigerian military has contained Boko Haram in the northeast, and surrounding countries and Western powers have joined the effort to defeat the group after it made international headlines by kidnapping almost 300 schoolgirls in April. 

    Boko Haram remains a "local" insurgency, says Schroeder, and Cummings notes that it is "unable to declare a caliphate in Nigeria" because it does not have a continuous territory.

    "Warfare today—it's about the manipulation of perceptions," says Jenkins. Perhaps Boko Haram's statement was just that—a vague statement designed to get some press.