Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Documentary Blames Anti-Abortion Sentiment for Tiller’s Murder

Last night, Rachel Maddow set aside her regular programming to do the voiceover for a documentary dedicated to recounting the day that late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered in his church last May.

The documentary, The Assassination of Dr. Tiller, was directed and produced by Toby Oppenheimer, who co-produced Devil’s Playgroundand produced The Timothy McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist. It clearly had the feel of msnbc’s weekend true crime stories, but this one had a clear polticial message: The deep-seeded anti-abortion sentiment in this country is dangerous. In an era where so few mainstream media outlets desire to go anywhere near the abortion debate, this documentary takes a strong pro-choice stance. In an interview that ran with Feministing before the documentary aired, Maddow said, "There are not that many things in America, where you know who’s going to get killed, because there’s a campaign against them that includes people who think that violence up to murder is justified against people with whom they disagree or who they’ve vilified."

The documentary reinforced that idea. “The ones that don’t carry guns certainly incite the ones that do,” said Shelly Sella, a doctor who was Tiller’s colleague. The documentary interviews several people involved in nearly all aspects of the case, from clinic workers to anti-choice activists to those who knew Tiller’s murderer. It showed photos of the Tiller murder crime scene, the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kans., and played the recording of the 911 call.

Of those in the documentary who knew Scott Roeder, the man who was convicted of Tiller’s murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison without parole, several noted that he was “off” and “not the brightest light on the string.”

Lindsay Roeder, the ex-wife of Scott, explained that their marriage began falling apart around the time that Scott became obsessed with the idea of saving “babies.” Roeder was converted to a fundamental form of Christianity while watching the 700 Club, a conservative Christian televangelism program. Lindsay says their marriage began to deteriorate and one day after she came home from work and her son came home from school, Scott had packed up his things and left. He joined a group called the Militia Of Montana, a pro-gun anti-governmental group. The couple later divorced.

Perhaps what is most chilling in the documentary is the tapes of Roeder’s testimony during his trial. Roeder calmly affirms holding a gun to Tiller’s forehead and pulling the trigger. “If someone didn’t stop him, the children were going to die. The babies were going to continue to die,” Roeder explained during the trial.

But if anything, Tiller approached his work with conviction as well. Tiller’s clinic and Tiller himself had been attacked several times in the last 20 years. In 1993, a woman named Rochelle Shelly Shannon shot Tiller as he was leaving work. The next day, Tiller returned to work. He later hung a sign that said, “Women need abortions. I’m going to do them.”

Tiller’s former colleagues talked of how each day at the clinic was a battle—not because of what happened inside the clinic, but because of the constant harassment from anti-abortion activists. They explained that the women who sought Tiller’s services came mostly out of desperation: Either the fetus was plagued with severe developmental problems or the women were suicidal or extremely young. “Some were 11, 12, 13 years old,” one clinic worker said.

After Tiller’s murder, his family made the decision to close the clinic. Now women in Wichita who require abortion services must drive 200 miles to Kansas City or 500 miles to Denver.

The conclusion of the documentary states clearly that those who survived Tiller—fellow clinic workers, family, and friends—certainly blame Roeder for the murder, but they also blame the seething hatred of the anti-abortion movement. Today Tiller’s motto, “Trust Women,” has become the banner of many pro-choice activists who seek to call attention to the violent harassment of abortion providers.

Though a card with an Operation Rescue hotline was found on the dash of Roeder’s vehicle when police arrested him, Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, insists that their group had nothing to do with the murder. “We’re certainly not suspects in this case,” Newman said. The group says they never intended for their message to be taken to such extreme violence.

But Nola Foulston, the district attorney who successfully argued the case against Roeder, questions claims of innocence. After years of fanning the flames of anti-abortion sentiment, she asks, “What the hell was your intent?”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Google Launches Facebook Disconnect

I've always found Facebook's cavalier attitude toward its users' privacy a little worrisome, but I still maintained my Facebook account. Even after they rolled out feature after feature that was always "opt out" instead of "opt in." Instead, I barely used it, logging in once a week or less for 10 minutes at a time. (Given that the average Facebook user spent 7 hours a month on the site in February, it seems like my account is getting dusty by comparison.)

Then, Facebook rolled out "Facebook Connect" in May, which allowed its users to see which article his or her friends were reading (or "like"ing) on sites other than Facebook. Many news websites reported a traffic boom as a result of the service. Other sites, like Boing Boing, ran articles like "Six reasons to hate Facebook's new anti-privacy system, 'Connections'" citing a serious lack of privacy concerns on the part of the company.

Now, Google, the other kind-of-evil internet company that everyone still uses anyway, has rolled out it's own new weapon in the battle to be the biggest company to control the user experience: Facebook Disconnect. This seems like a good step for those who would rather not have Facebook track all of the sites you're visiting, but given that Google has had some of its own privacy flubs, it makes me wonder what Google's real motivation is here. I'm guessing it's not just about concern for my privacy.

Facebook, Twitter ‘Spirit Day’ Raises Awareness About LGBTQ Bullying

Today has been designated as Spirit Day, designed to bring attention to bullying of LGBTQ youth. It was an idea started by Canadian teenager Brittany McMillan, who was saddened by the recent suicides of LGBTQ teens, wanted to do something. On Oct. 2, she announced her plan on her Tumblr:

It’s been decided. On October 20th,

2010, we will wear purple in memory of the recent gay suicides. Many of them suffered from homophobic abuse in their schools or in their homes. We want to take a stand to say that we will not tolerate this. Purple represents Spirit on the LGBTQ flag and that’s exactly what we’d like all of you to have with you: spirit. Please know that times will get better and that you will meet people who will love you and respect you for who you are, no matter your sexua

lity. Please wear purple on October 20th to remember all the lives of LGBTQ youth that have been lost due to homophobia. Tell your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and schools.


Her message was effective, and folks from

all around the world are getting on board with Brittany's message. Spirit Day was officially endorsed by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and really took off on Facebook and Twitter. Even Perez Hilton got into the act, following up on his promise to play "nice." Here's a sampling of some of the #spiritday posts on Facebook and Twitter:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Women in Food Photos


Over at Serious Eats, Hannah Smith-Drelich writes about an experience she had with a food photographer at a meatball event (which sound delicious):
As soon as I turned away from Giada to consume her relatively unattractive meatball, a guy with a very large camera appeared. Startled but admittedly flattered, I smiled and held up my plate, pretending I was a venerable guest instead of a recent college grad with a lucky press pass. He took a picture and frowned at the result on his camera screen.

"Can you take a bite?" he asked, leering closer behind his apparatus. Without thinking I complied, closing my eyes to avoid looking at him. The flash went off with my eyes shut, fork in mouth, looking for all I know like a wannabe Nigella caught in a moment of oral pleasure.
Of course, it's impossible to tell if all or even most of food photos that include women are the ones that position women with their mouths open. But Smith-Drelich need look no further than much of advertising photography generally, which depicts women in sexual ways so often it has become a tired old stereotype for feminists to argue against such depictions. Just take a look at the clothing websites Urban Outfitters or the probably soon-to-be-defunct American Apparel to know that the photographer wants you to think sex when you see the model. Even looking at some of the photos that come out of reality television's America's Next Top Model show the contestants in provocative photos.

Still, food photography probably thinks of itself as more sophisticated than fashion or advertising photos. But the idea that women are there to be sexy is pervasive. It's hard for photographers -- especially ones that are looking for an "action" shot -- to negate all of the sexualized images they've seen held up as "good" photos over their lifetimes.

Monday, October 18, 2010

'Mad Men' Finale Blogging

People have a lot to say about Mad Men's season finale:

Arts Beat/NYTimes: Matthew Weiner Closes the Books on Season 4 of ‘Mad Men’ - Interview with Mad Men's creator.

RH Reality Check: Mad Men and the Abortion That Was (n't) - Or I guess it was.

The Awl: Footnotes of Mad Men: Full of Demands, Empty of Offerings - Huh, Life magazine did a spread of heroin addicts in 1965.

Slate: Mr. Draper's Wild Ride - Four reasons for the engagement.

Ned Resnikoff: What the hell is Don Draper’s problem? - What, indeed

Though I don't typically do "Mad Men" blogging, I have a few thoughts on this finale. Like Amanda Marcotte, I think this episode was one of my least favorite thus far and seemed pretty thrown together. (Spoilers ahead, obviously.)

First I'm with Sarah Seltzer at RH Reality Check in that I thought for sure that hinting around that Joan didn't actually have an abortion was kind of disappointing. Not because I don't think women are allowed to change their minds and carry on with inconvenient and/or difficult pregnancies, but because Joan always struck me as more practical than sentimental. Especially that she's previously had abortions, it makes little sense that she would decide to carry on with this one.

After all, she'd already told Roger that her pregnancy is the result of their night together. What's more, this storyline is fitting into an overall trend of women in various stories (i.e. pretty much everything that Katherine Heigl has starred in) toward getting knocked up under really terrible circumstances and then carrying through with the pregnancy anyway.

What's disturbing about this one is that this is the third such pregnancy on the show (remember Peggy's lovechild with Pete and the third Draper child?).

Secondly, the plot with Don deciding to marry his secretary was disappointing for a number of reasons. Initially I thought this season would be about Don's introspective exploration. After all, he'd begun to realize his drinking was getting out of control and his body wasn't in as good of shape as it used to be (thus the swimming at the Y).

So the conclusion that Don has decided to cop out of his reasonably adult relationship with Faye and instead marry his secretary is a pretty grim one. When I heard an interview with Jon Hamm on Fresh Air last month, he insisted that during a conversation with the show's creator Matthew Weiner, he learned that this season was about consequences. "Actions have consequences," Hamm said during the interview.

While that certainly seemed true of the first part of this season for Don's character, the end result is something much darker -- that no matter how much those consequences come back to bite us in the ass, we get trapped in our same horrible cycles. This point is hammered home when Betty is in the kitchen, ready to throw herself at Don again because her little divorce happily ever after plan didn't work out as she thought it would.

Now that we know that, there seems little that can be done with Don as a character. Perhaps then that will mean that Peggy and Joan will get a little more story next season. God, I hope so.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why Tax Credits Don’t Do Much for Low-Income Students

Today President Barack Obama highlights the benefits of a tax credit program called the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which gives families a $2,500 tax credit for education-related expenses. The program, which replaced the old HOPE tax credit program, would allow individuals making up to $90,000 as individuals or $180,000 as joint tax filers to deduct tuition, fees, and related education expenses at the end of the tax year. The program is currently set to expire at the end of 2011, but Obama is pushing to extend the program.

While the program is a $700 tax credit boost over the HOPE program, it's important to remember that while tax credits are often politically popular, they actually do little to incentivize low-income individuals to attend institutions of higher education. The lowest-income individuals, who often qualify for Pell grants and other student aid, often don’t pay federal income taxes anyway. Furthermore, such tax credits are only applicable after federal and institutional aid is deducted from the bill. As Higher Ed Watch once wrote when it was analyzing the HOPE program:
Every dollar received in the form of a Pell Grant or institutional grant aid leads to a decrease in the maximum possible tax credit a student can claim. Why? Because the Internal Revenue Service deducts Pell Grants and "any tax-free educational assistance," such as institutional aid, from its assessment of "qualified expenses" for college when determining the size of an individual's tax credit.

In other words, a low-income student with $10,000 in tuition expenses would normally be eligible for a $2,000 Lifetime Learning credit. But if that same student receives a $4,050 Pell Grant, he or she would only have $5,950 in "qualified expenses." For that not untypical low-income student, the maximum Lifetime Learning credit he or she could claim would be $1,190 a loss of $810 in benefits. And that's assuming he or she isn't receiving institutional aid as well, which is pretty unlikely and thus means an even lower tax credit.
Tax credits on education expenses also do little to offer instant relief to student debt. By offering a tax credit, the government essentially asks students (or their parents) to front the money for tuition, fees, and other higher education spending and then take that money off the tax bill at the end of the year. While that's a great incentive for someone on the higher end of that $90,000 ($180,000 for joint filings) income bracket, it is less likely to help low-income students. Additionally, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that revenue will drop by $10 billion as a result of this credit and cost the government an additional $3 billion in other administrative costs.

That's not to say that AOTC won't provide a little extra cash to some middle-class families in what is still a very tough economic climate, but if the objective is to help low-income students achieve better access to affordable higher education, let's not pretend that this program will help achieve that goal.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Marriage Among Under-30s Drops, Pew Study Finds

Pew released a study today on marriage, showing that the "gap" that had previously existed between college graduates and non-college graduates getting married by age 30 had practically disappeared. When Pew last did such a study, in 1990, they showed that 75 percent of college graduates were married by age 30 while 69 percent of non-college graduates were married by age 30. Now, it seems both of those numbers have dropped, but are almost the same, with 60 percent of college graduates marrying by 30 versus 62 percent of their non-college peers.

Now, it's worth noting that the 1990 "gap" that Pew is reporting isn't all that big to begin with. A 6 percent difference is statistically significant, sure, but it isn't a wide gap. It's also worth noting that marriage by age 30 is dropping overall since 1990. Pew has several reasons for this: "declining economic fortunes of young men without a college degree and their increasing tendency to cohabit with a partner rather than marry."

This seems reasonable. Marriage -- or rather -- weddings are getting more and more expensive. With an economic recession that has resulted in particularly high unemployment among the under-30 crowd, it's no surprise that couples who are making a serious commitment might put off blowing a lot of cash on a party for their partnership. This was reflected in Amanda Marcotte's analysis of the New York Times' eye-rolling piece on the Millennials and why it takes them so long to "grow up" (i.e. make enough money to live on one's own and get married). Although some studies suggest that co-habitation before marriage is correlated with a higher divorce rate, that fact seems to have done little to deter people from taking the step. It's also important to note other studies have found a historical increase in co-habitation over time (PDF).

Still, I think at a fundamental level, this statistic about marriage is about larger social trends that have separated marriage and sex. Or at least, marriage and one's first sex partner. Much as conservatives huff and puff about how sex before marriage is the devil, even funding ineffective abstinence-until-marriage programs in middle and high schools throughout the country. But the more mainstream point of view is that linking that first sexual experience to marriage is not only uncommon, it's probably a bad idea. Marriage and relationship councilors often preach about sexual compatibility and how essential it is to a good marriage. Not knowing whether a partnership is sexually compatible before locking it into a legally binding agreement, it seems, is often perceived as a mistake.

I can anecdotally support Pew's theory. In my group of late-20s and early-30s friends, most are in serious relationships, but save the few that have recently gotten engaged, no one seems in a rush to the alter. Instead, nearly all are co-habitating. (Note that this is very different among my high school graduating class in the upper Midwest, which I suspect has a high pre-30 marriage rate. Some of these differences might be between urban and rural populations.) Still, this try-it-out trend among 20-somethings (and even 30-somethings and 40-somethings) is probably a good thing. Making commitments is great. But making commitments you're sure about because you've tried it out first is even better.
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