Tuesday, December 17, 2013

History of the War... on Christmas

[ If Christmas creep continues to expand Christmas into September while Christmas becomes a time when people are at war with people... then more and more of our time will be spent fighting each other.... over Christmas. This is quite different from my childhood, when Christmas meant peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Oh, by the way, they have re-translated that to "on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."  That sort of explains it, doesn't it? Yet obviously, those fighting the Christmas wars are not at peace.]

A Short History of the War on Christmas

How everyone from Bill O’Reilly to Jon Stewart became a co-conspirator in an annual farce.


December 16, 2013

Henry Ford was an avid proponent of the idea that someone—or more precisely, some group—was waging a war on Christmas.

“Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone's Birth,” according to The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem, a widely distributed set of anti-Semitic articles published in the automobile magnate’s newsweekly during the 1920s. “People sometimes ask why 3,000,000 Jews can control the affairs of 100,000,000 Americans. In the same way that ten Jewish students can abolish the mention of Christmas and Easter out of schools containing 3,000 Christian pupils.”

In 1959, it was the far-right John Birch Society that published a pamphlet alerting the nation to an "assault on Christmas" carried out by "UN fanatics...What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations.”

Today’s War Over Christmas still revolves around department stores, and focuses on the rise of “Happy Holidays” and “Holiday Trees.” And it remains alert to an internal enemy poised to stab America in the back. But like everything else, the War Over Christmas has become tarted up, 24-houred and Twitterized—even as it has grown drearily routine, an annual pageant in which culture warriors line the trenches and, like mechanical toy soldiers in a shopping-mall display, fix bayonets and wage the same battle all over again.


The modern American War on Christmas began “pretty much 10 years ago,” Fox News host Bill O’Reilly recalled earlier this month in a conversation with Sarah Palin (the former would-be veep was promoting her new book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas). It was sparked in part, he said, by “major corporations [that] ordered their employees not to say ‘Merry Christmas.’”

He got the date slightly wrong. It was actually nine years ago, almost to the day, on Dec. 7th, 2004, that The O'Reilly Factor first aired a segment on “Christmas Under Siege” and, in so doing, appears to have launched The War Over Christmas as we know it.

“All over the country, Christmas is taking flak,” O’Reilly told viewers, deploying a fittingly martial metaphor. “In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the ‘holiday tree,’ and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores—that’s Macy’s—have done away with the Christmas greeting ‘Merry Christmas.’”

This was three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, two years after Fox had overtaken CNN to become the nation’s most-watched cable news channel, 20 months since the United States invaded Iraq, and one year after George W. Bush defeated John Kerry after a campaign focused so intensely on gay marriage that it is now hard to comprehend. The newest round of the culture wars was in full swing.

"The Christmas War is symbiotic, promoting a wholesome effect on ratings and web traffic alike," writes Denvir. "Liberals mock conservatives, and conservatives then hold up the liberal ridicule."

One happy warrior was Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who wrote in December 2003 that her snooty Upper East Side neighbors’ distaste for her Virgin Mary figurine was proof that “the meaning and actuality of 9/11 ... has receded.” It was a moment when conservative ascendancy had reached new heights, but also its outer limits. Liberals (or, in O’Reilly's language, “secular progressives”) were at the gate, and ready to jump the walls.

“Secular progressives realize,” O'Reilly continued, “that America as it is now will never approve of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation and many other progressive visions because of religious opposition. But if the secularists can destroy religion in the public arena, the brave new progressive world is a possibility. That’s what happened in Canada.”

The echo chamber-packaged absurdity reached its apogee last week, when a contributor to the left-leaning site Slate proposed, tongue not completely out of cheek, that “America abandon Santa-as-fat-old-white-man and create a new symbol of Christmas cheer. From here on out, Santa Claus should be a penguin.” Fox’s Megyn Kelly took the bait, and assured children watching her show that Santa was, in fact, white—as was Jesus. Slate responded, as did everyone else on all sides of the trench. Kelly then explained that she was kidding. It was all in good fun. Click, click, click.

But sometimes, the War Over Christmas brings out the ugly side of its most fervent believers.

“Go to Saudi Arabia, let them go to Pakistan,” televangelist Pat Robertson told imagined Christmas opponents in 2004. “Yeah, they can go to the Sudan and find a wonderful Muslim holiday.” O’Reilly told a Jewish person who called into his radio show that if you have a problem with Christmas, “you gotta go to Israel then.”

Blogger Peter Brimelow called a 2012 Stewart segment “mostly an irrelevant but uninhibited expression of Jewish alienation and Christophobia.”

Brimelow—the founder of a popular conservative and frequently white nationalist blog called VDARE—is an expert in such matters. He is credited, and credits himself, for inventing the War on Christmas in the late 1990s, well before O’Reilly. “I just got real interested in the issue,” Brimelow told the Daily Beast in 2008, “because I noticed over the years there was this social shift taking place where people no longer said ‘Merry Christmas.’”

Brimelow is a close student of social shifts, particularly when they are related to skin color or national origin. “The root cause in all cases is the same: an American elite which is increasingly divergent, culturally and even ethnically, from the rest of the country,” Brimelow wrote, referring to what he calls the “Minority Occupied Government.”

Some prominent conservatives aren’t on board. “Not every skirmish is a war, and Christmas seems to be doing fine, so I have nothing to add to this seasonal subject,” Washington Post columnist George Will told me. It’s the sort of culture proxy war that mobilizes the right-wing base while embarrassing the establishment—the paranoid angst that often flushes through right-wing corners of American political consciousness, from the nationalistic red scare of the early 20th century to John Birch’s Cold War fright.

And for O’Reilly, who once wondered whether criticism surrounding Mel Gibson's 2004 anti-Semitic blockbuster The Passion of Christ might be a result of the fact that “the major media in Hollywood and a lot of the secular press is controlled by Jewish people,” it is sometimes hard to believe that “secular progressives” isn't some kind of code word, too.

“Remember,” he said in 2004, “more than 90 percent of American homes celebrate Christmas. But the small minority that is trying to impose its will on the majority is so vicious, so dishonest—and has to be dealt with.”

Back then, at the patriotic height of the aughts, these were the kinds of dark, apocalyptic sentiments that worried liberals, and made centrist figures like George Will quietly uncomfortable. A decade on, though, the War Over Christmas is just something we do every year, like wrapping presents or drinking eggnog. But the hangover is giving me a nasty headache.

Daniel Denvir is staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Advertising to Bots

Welcome to the Internet of Thingies: 61.5% of Web Traffic Is Not Human

And here's how to build your own little traffic bot, even though you shouldn't

It happened last year for the first time: bot traffic eclipsed human traffic,according to the bot-trackers at Incapsula.
This year, Incapsula says 61.5 percent of traffic on the web is non-human.
Now, you might think this portends the arrival of "The Internet of Things"—that ever-promised network that will connect your fridge and car to your smartphone. But it does not.
This non-human traffic is search bots, scrapers, hacking tools, and other human impersonators, little pieces of code skittering across the web. You might describe this phenomenon as The Internet of Thingies.
Because bots are not difficult to build. In fact, it's so simple that a journalist (who has not learned to code) can do it.
I do it with a ($300) program called UBot Studio, which is an infrastructural piece of the botting world. It lets people like me program and execute simple scripts in browsers without (really) knowing any code.
Do you need 100 Hotmail accounts? I got you.
Perhaps you'd like some set of links autotweeted? I'm there.
You want to scrape a few numbers from a government website or an online store? Easy. It'd take 10 minutes.
Or — and this is the one that gets to me — perhaps you want to generate an extra 100,000 pageviews for some website? So simple. A programmer friend of mine put it like this, "The basics of sending fake traffic are trivial."
I'm going to tell you how here, even though I think executing such a script is highly unethical, probably fraud, and something you should not do. I'm telling you about it here because people need to understand how jawdroppingly easy it really is.
So, the goal is mimicking humans. Which means that you can't just send 100,000 visits to the same page. That'd be very suspicious.
So you want to spread the traffic out over a bunch of target pages. But which ones? You don't want pages that no one ever visits. But you also don't want to send traffic to pages that people are paying close attention to, which tend to be the most recent ones. So, you want popular pages but not the most popular or recent pages.
Luckily, Google tends to index the popular, recentish stories more highly. And included with UBot are two little bots that can work in tandem. The first scrapes Google's suggestions searches. So it starts with the most popular A searches (Amazon, Apple, America's Cup) then the most popular B searches, etc. Another little bot scrapes the URLs from Google search results.
So the first step in the script would be to use the most popular search suggestions to find popularish stories on the domain (say, theatlantic.com) and save all those domains.
The first search would be "amazon site:theatlantic.com." The top 20 URLs, all of which would be Atlantic stories, would get copied into a file. Then the bot would search "apple site:theatlantic.com" and paste another 20 in. And so on and so forth until you've got 1,000.
Now, all you've got to do is have the bot visit each story, wait for the page to load, and go on to the next URL. Just for good measure, perhaps you'd have the browser "focus" on the ads on the page to increase the site's engagement metrics.
Loop your program 100 times and you're done. And you could do the same thing whenever you wanted to.
Of course, the bot described here would be very easy to catch. If anyone looked, you'd need to be fancier to evade detection. For example, when a browser connects to a website, it sends a little token that says, "This is who I am!" And it lists the browser and the operating system, etc. Mine, for example, is, "Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_8_2) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/31.0.1650.63 Safari/537.36"
If we ran the script like this, an identical 100,000 user agents would show up in the site's logs, which might be suspicious.
But the user agent-website relationship is trust-based. Any browser can say, "I'm Chrome running on a Mac." And, in fact, there are pieces of software out there that will generate "realistic" user agent messages, which Ubot helpfully lets you plug in.
The hardest part would be obscuring that the IP addresses of the visits. Because if 100,000 visits came from a single computer, that would be a dead giveaway it was a bot. So, you could rent a botnet — a bunch of computers that have been hacked to do the bidding of (generally) bad people.
Or you could ask some "friends" to help out via a service like JingLing, which lets people use other people on the network to send traffic to webpages from different IP addresses. You scratch my back; I'll scratch yours!
But, if the botting process is done subtly, no one might think to check what was going on. Because from a publisher's perspective, how much do you really want to know?
In the example I gave, no page has gotten more than 100 views, but you've added 100,000 views to the site as a whole. It would just seem as if there was more traffic, but it'd all be down at the bottom of the traffic reports where most people have no reason to look.
And indeed, some reports have come out showing that people don't check. One traffic buyer told Digiday, "We worked with a major supply-side platform partner that was just wink wink, nudge nudge about it. They asked us to explain why almost all of our traffic came from one operating system and the majority had all the same user-agent string."
That is to say, someone involved in the traffic supply chain was no more sophisticated than a journalist with 10 hours of training using a publicly available piece of software.
The point is: It's so easy to build bots that do various things that they are overrunning the human traffic on the web.
Now, to understand the human web, we have to reckon with the logic of the non-human web. It is, in part, shady traffic that allows ad networks and exchanges to flourish. And these automated ad buying platforms — while they do a lot of good, no doubt about it — also put pressure on other publishers to sell ads more cheaply. When they do that, there's less money for content, and the content quality suffers.
The ease of building bots, in other words, hurts what you read each and every day on the Internet. And it's all happening deep beneath the shiny web we know and (sometimes) love. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Media Revolution's Cold Hard Facts for the TV Industry

TV Is Dying, And Here Are The Stats That Prove It

JIM EDWARDS NOV. 24, 2013, 10:11 AM Business Insider

The TV business is having its worst year ever.
Audience ratings have collapsed: Aside from a brief respite during the Olympics, there has been only negative ratings growth on broadcast and cable TV since September 2011, according to Citi Research.
Media stock analysts Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson recently noted, "The pay-TV industry has reported its worst 12-month stretch ever." All the major TV providers lost a collective 113,000 subscribers in Q3 2013. That doesn't sound like a huge deal — but it includes internet subscribers, too.
Broadband internet was supposed to benefit from the end of cable TV, but it hasn't.
In all, about 5 million people ended their cable and broadband subs between the beginning of 2010 and the end of this year.

People are unplugging.

Time Warner Cable, for instance, lost 306,000 TV subscribers in Q3, and 24,000 broadband web subscribers, too.
And Tom Rutledge, CEO of Charter Communications, told Wall Street analysts he was "surprised" that 1.3 million of his 5.5 million customers don't want TV — just broadband internet. "Our broadband-only growth has been greater than I thought it would be," he said.
The following charts show the evidence that cable TV is dying, and that people are also unplugging from broadband internet service.
Cable TV ratings are sinking. Cable TV ratings are in an historic slump. Note that the "growth" line, as charted by Citi analysts Jason B. Bazinet and Joshua P. Carlson, is persistently below zero.

Business Insider Intelligence

Fewer people are watching TV.

This is the macro problem: Ratings are falling across the board. They have been for years.
It's not too surprising that broadcast TV ratings are down. The major networks have faced increasing competition for years from niche-interest cable channels and the better-quality programming on places like AMC and HBO.
But ratings for both cable and the broadcast networks are down.

Even ratings for some major TV events are in decline.

People just don't watch the World Series like they used to. Recently, viewer decline is led by young people, according to Business Insider's Sports Page:

It's the same with basketball.

Maybe people prefer the NBA to the MLB? Turns out that today's big stars don't grab TV eyeballs the way they used to either.

Data via SportsMediaWatch.com and Zap2It.com

For the first time ever, the number of cable TV subscribers at major providers is about to dip below 40 million.

ISI Group / Business Insider

So why are ratings in decline?
We're at the beginning of a major historical shift from watching TV to watching video — including TV shows and movies — on the internet or on mobile devices.
This is going to hurt cable TV providers.
Nearly 5 million cable TV subscribers have gone elsewhere in the last five years. The number of subscribers remaining could sink below 40 million later this year, according to this data from ISI Group, an equity research firm (at right).

Cable and broadband companies are increasingly unable to retain customers.

This chart (below) is the most important chart in this set: It shows the number of net subscriber additions across all types of customers — cable TV, broadband internet and landline phone.
The cable and broadband subscriber business is seasonal. The net number of people leaving or adding services changes with the seasons, because people like to move house in the fall.
It used to be that up to 500,000 new subscriptions would be added across all companies in any given quarter. But now, cable and internet companies are lucky if they get any new subscribers at all. Increasingly, the industry loses subscribers rather than gaining them, according to this data from One Touch Intelligence:

For the first time ever, less than half of subscribers at the major broadband companies now subscribe to cable TV.

What's happening is that people are giving up on cable TV as a standalone product, and the market is shifting in favor of telco companies like AT&T and Verizon who offer TV as a package with high-speed internet access, according to media equity analysts at ISI Group. (Direct Broadcast Satellite appears to be remaining steady, in part because its customers often live in more rural areas and have fewer alternatives.)

Here is how individual TV providers are affected.

It's not an across-the-board collapse. But this is what you would expect to see during a technological sea-change: The weaker players are crumbling. The stronger players are picking up some of the pieces ... but how long can they also resist the tide?

Fewer households actually have TV.

One macro-economic factor behind the decline is that fewer houses actually have TV.
These charts, from Citi Research, show that the total "Nielsen TV Universe" — the number of people who watch TV — is declining. Note that the number of U.S. households is still growing, but growth in the number of households with cable TV is declining.

Fewer households have TV because they are watching video on mobile devices instead.

Here's the big picture: People are spending more of their time on mobile, and less of their time on TV:

Business Insider

Mobile video is booming.

Even though iPhone and Android phones still struggle to show video seamlessly, the amount of video seen on mobile devices is going through the roof. About 40% of all YouTube traffic comes from mobile.
Business Insider

Tablets are stealing prime time, the period we used to devote to TV.

In the media industry, iPads and other tablets are sometimes called "vampire" media — they come out at night.

Business Insider

Slowly, the money is following the eyeballs. It is shifting from TV to digital media of all kinds.

This research from Macquarie Capital shows a giant mismatch between where people spend their time and where advertising money is spent. People spend more time with digital media than TV now. Ad dollars are likely to follow that shift in the long run, Macquarie says.

Macquarie Capital

Ad revenue increases are masking the macro decline of TV.

The collapse of TV is having a counter-intuitive effect on TV ad sales: prices are going up, even though the number of commercials is going down.
The reason? It's still really, really difficult to gather a large, mass audience in any kind of media, mobile or otherwise. The Super Bowl — on TV — is the only media property than can reach more than 100 million people in a three-hour stretch. That scarcity of large audiences makes TV's dwindling-but-still-big audience increasingly valuable.

The TV business may actually be addicted to the very thing that is killing it.

Even though cable TV has had its worst year ever, cable TV revenues are still rising because companies are charging the dwindling number of customers more in subscription fees. According to analysts Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson, those higher prices are "part of the problem" that pushes out poor subscribers — losing the TV business even more eyeballs:
"Of course, the fact that pay-TV revenue is still rising smartly is part of the problem ... We have always argued that cord-cutting is an economic phenomenon, not a technological one. ... Pay-TV revenue growth reflects rapid pay-TV pricing growth and that is precisely the problem. Rapidly rising prices are squeezing lower-income consumers out of the ecosystem."

The market does not care that the TV audience is declining.

This chart (below) shows a basket of cable TV stocks over the last year. Not bad!

Google Finance

Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt said in his last-ever conference call that the cable business has been 'in denial.'

Britt, who is retiring because he has been diagnosed with cancer,told analysts on his Q3 2013 earnings call that he thought the cable business had spent too many years complacently dismissing the competition:
Regarding competition, well, duh, we have competition. I say that because when I first got this job 12 years ago, I think the cable industry as a whole, including our company, was in denial that we had real, viable competition. And I still hear some of my peers saying dismissive things about our competitors. And certainly, each of them has strengths and weaknesses, just as we do. However, they are around to stay, and we need to keep getting better at competing.

People who are unplugging from both cable TV and broadband internet are likely going to free wifi.

So if fewer people are watching cable TV and fewer people are paying for Internet service, does that mean that we just don't care about watching our favorite shows anymore?
Not necessarily.
Free wifi — at work, in coffee shops, and on campuses — is making it easier for consumers to get the shows, movies and videos they want without subscribing to any kind of cable or broadband service

All of Starbucks offers free wifi, for instance.
Fifty-seven cities in the U.S., including Los Angeles, offer free wifi. Facebook and Cisco have joined to offer free wifi access to customers in any business who check in to Facebook. Facebook’s original free wifi test included just 25 stores in the Bay Area. The company has now expanded it to 1,000.
For some people, there is just no need for a cable or pipe to deliver the internet or TV to their residence specifically, as long as they are within range of a free wifi hotspot.
This chart shows the free wifi hotspots available in Jersey City, N.J. Most reasonably dense areas of the U.S. look like this now, according to Bright House Networks, a company that tracks and maps wifi hotspots:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"The apology (such as it was) was at the tail end of the broadcast 60 Minutes"

Conservatives go mum about bogus Benghazi story
The apology (such as it was) surfaced at the tail end of the broadcast last night. 60 Minutes, having just been busted for nurturing a bogus Benghazi story over a span of 12 months, said it was sorry in a terse 90 seconds.
In recent days, everyone who values factual accuracy has been deploring the show's shoddy reporting, its flunking of Journalism 101. But barely a peep has been uttered by the usual right-wing suspects and Republican politicians who continue to think that Benghazi is akin to Watergate. They hyped the Oct. 27 60 Minutes segment, hailing it as a landmark inside look at the Obama administration's security failures (Fox Nation called it "the first Western eyewitness to the deadly Benghazi terror attacks!"), but now that it turns out that the "eyewitness" was never there, the Benghazi obsessives have fallen mute. Gee, big surprise.
For those of you who haven't tracked the 60 Minutes story, and the subsequent story about the story, a quick recap should suffice: Correspondent Lara Logan hinged her report on the purported adventures of British security contractor Dylan Davies, who appeared on camera under a pseudonym. Davies, billed as the first eyewitness to dish about lax security at the diplomatic compound, said that he was compelled to ride to the rescue - scaling a 12-foot wall, bashing a terrorist with a rifle butt, later sneaking into a Bengahzi hospital and seeing the dead body of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens...no wonder conservatives went nuts. What catnip!
And go nuts they did. Remember how they hated CBS News back in 2004, when the short-lived 60 Minutes II ran a bogus report about George W. Bush's service in the Air National Guard? Remember how they denounced that report as a hit job by Duh Liberal Media? Well, that was then. This time, all of a sudden, conservatives were in love with CBS News. This time, CBS News wasn't part of Duh Liberal Media at all - it was a truth-teller! An exemplar of objective journalism!
For instance: Fox news contributor Monica Crowley, on Twitter, hailed the network for being "among the very, very few reporting on this grave & outrageous scandal." The Heritage Foundation's blog declared: "This scandal will not go away. As a result of CBS reporter Lara Logan's report, the blogosphere has erupted in recriminations over Benghazi all over again. At the center of the piece is one of the few eyewitness accounts to the attack on the record..." Fox host Bret Baier lauded the broadcast by "one of journalism's heavy hitters." Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy praised the network for "finally catching up" with the conservative media, because, after all, "60 Minutes doesn't cover phony scandals."
Turned out, however, that 60 Minutes had ginned up a phony story; in bits and pieces, over a period of 10 days, it unraveled. On Oct. 31, The Washington Postdisclosed that Davies, in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack, had filed an incident report with his security employer, Blue Mountain, stipulating that he had been nowhere near the compound, that he never scaled a wall or rifle-butted a bad guy or saw ambassador Stevens' body - and that, instead, he spent most of the night at his Benghazi beachside villa.
In response to the Post report, which raised serious questions about Davies' credibility, CBS News stonewalled; it vowed to "stand firmly by the story we broadcast." CBS News chairman Jeff Fager told The Huffington Post that he was "proud" of the story and "confident:" about Davies. Meanwhile, Davies told The Daily Beast website that he had lied to his employer in the incident report, that he really was inside the compound even though he'd told Blue Mountain that he hadn't been. And in a statement that ran in The New York Times, Davies said that his new inside-the-compound account "is consistent with what I gave to the FBI."
Oh what a tangled web he weaved, having practiced to deceive. Last Thursday night, The Times reported that Davies told the FBI the exact same thing he had written in his Blue Mountain report - that he was nowhere near the Benghazi compound. And suddenly, CBS News ditched stonewall mode and went belly up. That same night, Logan's story vanished from the website. Fager said early Friday, "CBS News confirmed with our own sources at the FBI that the story (Davies) told the FBI was not in agreement with what we were told." Logan went on CBS This Morning with her initial apology: "We were wrong to put (Davies) on the air." Shefollowed up last night.
Lingering questions abound. How is it possible, having worked on this story for a year, that Logan and her crew didn't know about the Blue Mountain incident report? How is it possible that, over the span of a year, they didn't know what Davies had said to the FBI - until it "confirmed" the truth after the story blew up? Or did they simply not want to know that their linchpin source was a liar? Can their lapses be linked in any way to CBS' conflict of interest - the fact that Davies had a hot book deal, featuring his "eyewitness" account, with a conservative imprint at Simon & Schuster... which just so happens to be a subsidiary of the CBS Corporation?
But hey, don't expect the conservative echo chamber to demand any answers - particularly about the CBS conflict of interest. Better to just pretend that the ballyhooed story never happened, or to just briefly note its bogus-ness (as Fox News' Bret Baier did last Friday, in a brisk 26 seconds).
This is good news for the folks at 60 Minutes, because when conservatives went ballistic in the wake of that '04 Bush-National Guard report, heads rolled at the network. But this time, because 60 Minutes sought to serve up red meat to the Republican right (albeit with bad reporting), conservatives are staying mum, and giving it a pass. After all, it's the thought that counts.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Norbert Weiner - an open letter

[An open letter published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, January 1947 issue which could be subtitled personally as "Why I Often Argue Against Science and “Scientists” When It Seems by the Nature of My Opinions That I Would Not." Norbert Wiener was a profoundly brilliant man. I am currently reading his book: The Human Use of Human Beings.]

A Scientist Rebels

The letter which follows was addressed by one of our ranking mathematicians to a research scientist of a great aircraft corporation, who had asked him for the technical account of a certain line of research he had conducted in the war. Professor Wiener's indignation at being requested to participate in indiscriminate rearmament, less than two years after victory, is typical of many American scientists who served their country faithfully during the war.

Professor of Mathematics in one of our great Eastern institutions, Norbert Wiener was born in Columbia, Missouri, in 1894, the son of Leo Wiener, Professor of Slavic Languages at Harvard University. He took his doctorate at Harvard and did his graduate work in England and in Gottingen. Today he is esteemed one of the world's foremost mathematical analysts. His ideas played a significant part in the development of the theories of communication and control which were essential in winning the war.

- The Editor, Atlantic Monthly


I have received from you a note in which you state that you are engaged in a project concerning controlled missiles, and in which you request a copy of a paper which I wrote for the National Defense Research Committee during the war.

As the paper is the property of a government organization, you are of course at complete liberty to turn to that government organization for such information as I could give you. If it is out of print as you say, and they desire to make it available for you, there are doubtless proper avenues of approach to them.

When, however, you turn to me for information concerning controlled missiles, there are several considerations which determine my reply. In the past, the comity of scholars has made it a custom to furnish scientific information to any person seriously seeking it. However, we must face these facts: the policy of the government itself during and after the war, say in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has made it clear that to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequences.

One therefore cannot escape reconsidering the established custom of the scientist to give information to every person who may enquire of him. The interchange of ideas which is one of the great traditions of science must of course receive certain limitations when the scientist becomes an arbiter of life and death.

For the sake, however, of the scientist and the public, these limitations should be as intelligent as possible. The measures taken during the war by our military agencies, in restricting the free intercourse among scientists on related projects or even on the same project, have gone so far that it is clear that if continued in time of peace this policy will lead to the total irresponsibility of the scientist, and ultimately to the death of science. Both of these are disastrous for our civilization, and entail grave and immediate peril for the public.

I realize, of course, that I am acting as the censor of my own ideas, and it may sound arbitrary, but I will not accept a censorship in which I do not participate. The experience of the scientists who have worked on the atomic bomb has indicated that in any investigation of this kind the scientist ends by putting unlimited powers in the hands of the people whom he is least inclined to trust with their use. It is perfectly clear also that to disseminate information about a weapon in the present state of our civilization is to make it practically certain that that weapon will be used. In that respect the controlled missile represents the still imperfect supplement to the atom bomb and to bacterial warfare.

The practical use of guided missiles can only be to kill foreign civilians indiscriminately, and it furnishes no protection whatsoever to civilians in this country. I cannot conceive a situation in which such weapons can produce any effect other than extending the kamikaze way of fighting to whole nations. Their possession can do nothing but endanger us by encouraging the tragic insolence of the military mind.

If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or poisoning of defenseless peoples - and I most certainly do not - I must take a serious responsibility as to those to whom I disclose my scientific ideas. Since it is obvious that with sufficient effort you can obtain my material, even though it is out of print, I can only protest pro forma in refusing to give you any information concerning my past work. However, I rejoice at the fact that my material is not readily available, inasmuch as it gives me the opportunity to raise this serious moral issue. I do not expect to publish any future work of mine which may do damage in the hands of irresponsible militarists.

I am taking the liberty of calling this letter to the attention of other people in scientific work. I believe it is only proper that they should know of it in order to make their own independent decisions, if similar situations should confront them.

Norbert Wiener

Friday, November 1, 2013

Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, is leading to voter suppression, parallels the pre-1960s era

The U.S. Needs a Constitutional Right to Vote

Draconian new laws restrict suffrage in North Carolina, Texas, and Alabama—and point to a glaring omission.

Norm Ornstein, The Atlantic, OCT 31 2013

Gary Cameron/Reuters
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, is leading to a new era of voter suppression that parallels the pre-1960s era—this time affecting not just African-Americans but also Hispanic-Americans, women, and students, among others.
The reasoning employed by Chief Justice John Roberts in Shelby County—that Section 5 of the act was such a spectacular success that it is no longer necessary—was the equivalent of taking down speed cameras and traffic lights and removing speed limits from a dangerous intersection because they had combined to reduce accidents and traffic deaths.
In North Carolina, a post-Shelby County law not only includes one of the most restrictive and punitive voter-ID laws anywhere but also restricts early voting, eliminates same-day voting registration, ends pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and bans many provisional ballots. Whatever flimsy voter-fraud excuse exists for requiring voter ID disappears when it comes to these other obstacles to voting.
In Texas, the law could require voters to travel as much as 250 miles to obtain an acceptable voter ID—and it allows a concealed-weapon permit, but not a student ID, as proof of identity for voting. Moreover, the law and the regulations to implement it, we are now learning, will create huge impediments for women who have married or divorced and have voter IDs and driver's licenses that reflect maiden or married names that do not exactly match. It raises similar problems for Mexican-Americans who use combinations of mothers' and fathers' names.
In a recent election on constitutional issues, a female Texas District Court judge, Sandra Watts, who has voted for 49 years in the state, was challenged in the same courthouse where she presides; to overcome the challenge, she will have to jump through hoops and possibly pay for a copy of her marriage license, an effective poll tax on women.
The Justice Department is challenging both laws, but through a much more cumbersome and rarely successful provision of the Voting Rights Act that is still in force. It cannot prevent these laws and others implemented by state and local jurisdictions, many of which will take effect below the radar and will not be challenged because of the expense and difficulty of litigation.
Voter suppression is nothing new in America, as the pre-civil-rights era underscores. But it is profoundly un-American. The Texas law, promoted aggressively by state Attorney General Greg Abbott, the GOP choice for governor in next year's election, establishes the kinds of obstacles and impediments to voting that are more akin to Vladimir Putin's Russia than to the United States.

Looking at the demographics in Texas, the Republican authors of the law decided that suppressing votes was easier than changing either policies or approaches to appeal to the emerging elements of the state's electorate. In Virginia, with polls showing that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe's robust lead over Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli is driven by a huge gender gap, it is not surprising that Republicans in Texas are trying to suppress the votes of women as much as those of Hispanic-Americans.
A new Voting Rights Act would help to ameliorate some of these problems, especially if it applied nationwide (many of the restrictive laws are occurring in non-Southern states such as Indiana and Kansas). I have previously suggested a host of areas that could be included in a VRA 2.0 to make voting easier and more convenient. But despite the endorsement of a new VRA by influential Republicans such as Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the odds of enacting new voting-rights legislation in today's thoroughly dysfunctional and hyperpartisan Congress are slim.
The effort should be accelerated. We need a modernized voter-registration system, weekend elections, and a host of other practices to make voting easier. But we also need to focus on an even more audacious and broader effort—a constitutional amendment protecting the right to vote.
Many, if not most, Americans are unaware that the Constitution contains no explicit right to vote. To be sure, such a right is implicit in the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-Sixth amendments that deal with voting discrimination based on race, gender, and age. But the lack of an explicit right opens the door to the courts' ratifying the sweeping kinds of voter-restrictions and voter-suppression tactics that are becoming depressingly common.
An explicit constitutional right to vote would give traction to individual Americans who are facing these tactics, and to legal cases challenging restrictive laws. The courts have up to now said that the concern about voter fraud—largely manufactured and exaggerated—provides an opening for severe restrictions on voting by many groups of Americans. That balance would have to shift in the face of an explicit right to vote. Finally, a major national debate on this issue would alert and educate voters to the twin realities: There is no right to vote in the Constitution, and many political actors are trying to take away what should be that right from many millions of Americans.
Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., have introduced in Congress a constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to vote. It has garnered little attention and no momentum. Now is the time to change that dynamic before more states decide to be Putinesque with our democracy.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Most unequal place in America: East Carroll Parish, Louisiana

The most unequal place in America

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 5:42 PM EDT, Wed October 30, 2013

  • East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, has the nation's highest level of income inequality
  • The parish is more economically split than any other parish or county, Census Bureau says
  • John Sutter: The community should try to mend its divisions to move forward
  • He says the real problem with income inequality is that it creates gaps in empathy

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter,Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.
Lake Providence, Louisiana (CNN) -- Delores Gilmore used to have a dream.
The 44-year-old overnight prison guard grew up on the south side of Lake Providence, the crescent moon-shaped body of water that generally divides the haves from have-nots here in the northeast corner of Louisiana. It's a place where the air is so soupy-hot your shins sweat; where bugs are such a looping, whirring presence that it can feel like you're trapped in hell's version of a snow globe; and where the level of income inequality, as persistent as the bugs and humidity, is higher than any other parish or county in America.
It's not a place where dreams live long.
Not south of the lake, at least.
North of Lake Providence, on a side of town Gilmore rarely sees, there are tennis courts and ski boats, swimming pools and manicured estates. The lake is less than a mile wide, but the north side might as well be a world away from Gilmore, who earns $8.50 per hour working 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and still is two months behind on some of her bills.
John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter
"The first of the month, I pay the rent," she said. "The next check, I pay my light bills. Sometimes I won't pay my rent and I pay the light bill from last month -- if they cut if it off. Then I pay the rent the end of the month. ...
"I get it done. By the grace of God, I get it done."
A dozen or so family members rely on her for financial support. Her daughter, who has three children, lives across the street in a trailer so leaky that, despite her efforts to tar the roof to prevent rain from seeping through, it has mushrooms growing from the ceiling, like something out of "Alice in Wonderland." Stray dogs hound her door.
Gilmore's life is consumed with the needs of her family.
"I'm not fooling anybody," she told me. "I don't have any friends. And that's sad. ... I go to work, come home, take them where they gotta go, if they gotta go somewhere, come back home, lay down, go to work.
"That's what I do. All day, that's what I do."
It's the most unequal place in America
In her recurring dream, though, Gilmore got a peek at another life.
She was in a big house -- a nice house, nicer than any she'd ever seen.
"It was beautiful," she said. "It had upstairs, downstairs. Four bedrooms upstairs, four bedrooms downstairs. It had a guesthouse in the back. It had four bathrooms. There was a living room and a sitting room. It was just beautiful."
Gilmore, a stern but funny lady who answers the door saying, "What now?!" and carries a switch to church in case her kids act up, never wore shoes in the imagined house, only socks. Her real living room floor is made of splintered plywood. But the floors in the dream home were smooth as a skating rink. In the dream, Gilmore ran through the halls and slid across the floor in her socks -- just like Tom Cruise in "Risky Business."
In that moment, she felt free.
Gilmore told me about her dream while we were driving along the south side of Lake Providence in her 2005 maroon Ford Taurus, a pair of fuzzy dice and four air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror. Cypress trees zipped by the car. The rich side of the lake was blurry as we drove parallel to the southern shore, but I knew it was there. I'd already met some of the wealthier northsiders and seen their lakefront homes. I'd also looked at the statistics: This place has a wider gap between rich and poor than Manhattan, with its Bentleys and billionaires -- or than any country on Earth.
I'd learned that, whatever we tell ourselves about America being the land of opportunity, our country's rules are designed to make it likely Gilmore will stay here on the south side of the lake, in the modest white trailer where she raised eight kids, including a stepson and a nephew whom, she said, her sister abandoned on a street corner in town.
Personal choice, including her decision to have so many children, plays a role in it, of course, but the choices in front of her are limited by a host of factors, including an income that won't support her family.
She doesn't blame anyone for that -- doesn't bemoan the wealth here.
She absolutely loves her job.
But, to use a popular metaphor, the middle rungs of the economic ladder have vanished in Lake Providence. There's almost no middle class.
How could a person climb up?
As I listened to Gilmore recount her dream, however, anything seemed possible.
Pirates and Providence
My journey to Lake Providence started with a poll.
Readers of this column voted for me to cover income inequality as part of my Change the List project, which focuses on pushing for social change in places that fall at the bottom of an index or ranking. With 32,000 votes tallied, America's rich-poor gap was the top pick.
In your eyes, it's the No. 1 social justice issue of our time -- a continuation of the civil rights movement, which included a push for jobs and economic justice as well as racial equality.
Since the late 1970s, the gap between rich and poor has widened to Grand Canyon proportions -- pushing America toward a two-class society. People have a harder time getting ahead now than at any time since the Great Depression.
The nation is more economically split, according to the CIA, than Iran or Nigeria.
East Carroll Parish, population 7,500 and home to Lake Providence, is worse off still.
A Gini index score of 0 means everyone earns the same income; 100 means one person earns all income. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.
A Gini index score of 0 means everyone earns the same income; 100 means one person earns all income.
Lake Providence is a place of incredible natural wealth. It was named by people who floated down the Mississippi, past throat-slitting pirates, and found refuge at the beautiful, cypress-lined lake. "If a crew was fortunate enough to get safely past the pirates to the trading post at the lake below, they thanked Providence for sparing them," according to one local history.
"Thus, the lake and settlement acquired the name of Providence."
They were the chosen people -- the ones God had spared a nasty fate on the river and led to the fertile land of the Mississippi Delta.
Now, Lake Providence is at the confluence of the river and two highways.
It's well situated for economic development.
Yet divisions hold it back.
The rich largely live north of the lake and the poor on the south. They go to different churches and attend different schools. They have different friends and work different jobs.
Many of the richer people in town own land and run farms that produce corn, cotton and soybeans. Poorer people used to work on those farms, but they've largely been replaced by the Transformer-size machines you see driving along the road during harvest.
There are few nonfarm businesses in town.
On the main strip, you'll find The Banner-Democrat, the local newspaper with half of the letters missing from its sign; a "Price Cutter Discount Center," which advertises balloons and party supplies in a community that seems to have need for neither; and a corner store called Unique Fashion, which is where I found Michael Owens on a summer afternoon, sitting in a metal chair in front of an industrial-strength circular fan.
"How's business?" I asked.
"DEAD!" he said, without pause. "I ain't seen a customer all day."
The best a non-land-owning person can hope for here is a job at the prison (the sheriff's department is the largest employer), a bank, the schools or one of several restaurants, including The Dock, which sits on the lake and has a giant crawfish on its roof.
There's also Uncle Darrell's, a convenience store on Second Street, on the south side of the lake. Everybody knows that, outside, that's where you're likely to find the drug dealers.
Race is part of the divide, to be sure. Land was given to white families in the 1800s, not to blacks. The town resisted integration in the 1960s and '70s, and at least one voting rights activist was shot in the parish during that struggle.
The history of slavery and discrimination is still present.
But class has become the new barrier -- one that is both persistent and legal.
The richest 5% in the parish earns $611,000 per year on average.
That's 90 times what the bottom fifth makes per year: $6,800.
And 16% of parish residents are unemployed.
East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, has almost no middle class.
East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, has almost no middle class.
Despite the divide or maybe because of it, I was hard pressed to find people in Lake Providence who think income inequality, specifically, is a problem.
This is the way things are, they say.
Always will be.
The gap is so big they no longer can see across.
'Used to it'
Delores Gilmore's mother learned to sleep with the sound of wolves clawing at the walls of the family's two-room, wooden home on a cotton plantation.
She used an outhouse instead of a toilet and pumped water from a spigot. In the middle of the night, instead of going outside to fend with wolves, she relieved herself in a "slop jar," a small container with a lid they kept next to the bed. For food, the family tended a garden, and her father hunted deer. But Dorothy Jones recalls living for a day or two at a time on nothing but water. "It was rough on the stomach," she said. "I know that."
Jones, now 60, started working the cotton fields at 10. At 12, she became pregnant. She left school and kept working in the fields, strapping the infant to her back and walking up and down the rows of cotton, the white-hot sun breathing down on her.
Her starting wage: $3 per day.
But, like so many others here, she's not one to complain.
"I guess I just had to get used to it," she said.
Gilmore, her third child, was born in June 1969, six years after the March on Washington and six months before the federal government forced local public schools to integrate.
She came into this world at a time of great hope -- when it seemed like Lake Providence, a place that always had been segregated by race, might be entering a new era.
Her mother staked her dreams on Delores.
She was the resourceful one. She had a quick temper but also an infectious laugh. When the family ran out of food, she went looking for help from relatives.
She rolled with the punches.
It seemed like she might be the one to break free.
Lake Providence largely divides rich from poor in rural Louisiana.
The Bootstrap Ethic
One street in Lake Providence connects south to north.
Heading north, the road curves past a furniture store with windows covered in American flags and massive images of Marilyn Monroe, the 1950s movie star who spent part of her early life in foster care -- a symbol of the idea that anyone can make it in this country.
The road continues into neighborhoods with towering trees and well-trimmed lawns. Not all the houses on the north are massive. Some have the feel of a 1960s retirement community -- stone birdbaths, lawn trinkets. A few trailer homes are in the mix. A quick drive-by could leave you with the impression there's not much wealth here. But squint past the trees and you'll see wrap-around porches, columns, a private tennis court, pools and manicured shrubs. The billionaire Sam Wyly grew up in town, and his cousin, according to his book "1,000 Dollars and an Idea," lives in an antebellum home north of the lake.
"I grew up with the American idea that you pull yourself up by your bootstraps -- that you work hard and you do the best job you can ... and you make a living."
That's Thomas Terral, 71, who's said to be one of the richer men in the parish.
His family name is on a seed storage tower on the south side of town. The Terrals owned and operated several farm-related businesses for decades.
Terral and other northsiders live by what I'll call the Bootstrap Ethic -- that you can work hard, get a good education and get ahead. It's the American Dream, really.
No complaints.
The ethos has served Terral well, although it would be hard to argue he's needed it much. The son of a doctor, Terral told me he took over a part-family-owned seed business with a loan his father financed and, after he had made some payments, partially forgave.
Terral Seed became the largest business of its kind in Louisiana under his watch. He sold it in 2010 to DuPont, the international chemical company, according to news reports.
He's a great businessman, sure.
But it seems his bootstraps were pretty well pulled.
He lives a life of relative luxury -- nothing that would seem outlandish by national standards, but it is a far cry from life south of the lake. His living room has the vibe of an upscale ski lodge, with the heads of various animals -- one is a bighorn sheep, I think -- staring at you from elevated angles. In the office, a bear rug has its mouth open, fangs showing. Terral shot it with a bow and arrow on a hunting trip in British Columbia.
On the coffee table is a copy of Forbes magazine. Cover story: "Peace Through Profits."
That title embodies his thinking.
"I felt like my mission was to supply as many jobs as I could," he said. "Of course, we were a small company, and I think the most employees we had was a little under 70 -- 68 or so. What we did was probably the best thing we could do to help the situation."
By "the situation," he means the poverty south of the lake.
Some wealthy people north of Lake Providence won't speak of it -- nor do they know much about the situation. Several declined my interview requests.
I have a feeling Terral was gracious enough to talk with me because he's seen the south side of the lake -- and he has a genuine sense of service to the people there. He has volunteered on the south side, working on homes. And he met many people there as a young boy when he followed his dad on house calls. Terral would chat with families while his father, the doctor, tended to the sick and delivered babies.
One of them was Delores Gilmore.
He brought her into the world free of charge.
South of the lake
Delores Gilmore was baptized in Lake Providence.
It was 1979. She was 9. The only time she'd been in the water before that, she nearly drowned.
She hasn't been in the lake since the baptism, she told me.
On summer days, when the sun heats the gooey air to what feels like a boiling point, you'll see white families zipping up and down Lake Providence in pointy-nosed sport boats, dragging their children behind them on inner tubes and water skis.
Occasionally the boaters wave to a stranger on shore.
But it's almost unthinkable Gilmore could afford to join.
By 16, Gilmore got pregnant and dropped out of school, just as her mother had. She went to work in the sweet potato fields west of town. And by the early 1990s, Gilmore had five children and was raising a stepson and a nephew.
She didn't really have room for the extra kids in her crowded home. Nor did she have the money. She already was having trouble affording underwear for her own children.
Valtakia Jones has been unemployed for four years. But she hasn't given up hope.
But they were family. She had to help.
Gilmore's nephew, then 11 months old, was abandoned by her sister on a street corner downtown, she and other family members said. Gilmore suspects her sister has an undiagnosed mental illness. She later would try to burn her mom's trailer down in a fit of rage -- and would stab her mom, the family said, only to say she didn't remember the incidents afterward. She currently is serving a prison term, online records show.
Gilmore isn't angry with her sister. She had problems no one here could seem to address.
Gilmore kept striving for a sense of normalcy. For years, she had a boyfriend who helped.
He was the father of four of her children, and he gave Gilmore a financial cushion and moral support. When they first met, she found him arrogant. But her friends convinced her to give him a chance. She eventually was drawn to a softer side he usually kept hidden.
Then, in 1994, only three years after the birth of her fifth child, Gilmore got a phone call that would change her life. Her boyfriend had been shot in the head.
Two weeks later, his family pulled him off life support. His mother didn't want to pursue an investigation, Gilmore said, so the circumstances of his death remain unclear.
The results were all that mattered to Gilmore.
She lost her protector, and the kids lost theirs.
'If we could get some jobs'
You could blame Gilmore's hardship on bad luck, but huge income gaps also are associated with gaps in empathy and trust, and that eventually morphs into hopelessness.
Surprising links have emerged between income inequality and a host of social problems, including mental illness, substance abuse, incarceration, educational failure, teenage pregnancy, lower life expectancy, violence and infant mortality.
Such links don't exist when you look just at average income.
The inequality itself is to blame.
This is well documented in a book called "The Spirit Level" by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Drawing on decades of work, the researchers found, essentially, that people who live in economically unequal places -- such as Louisiana or the United States as a whole -- tend to live harder lives.
Not just poor people. All people.
When the researchers plotted income inequality against an index of social problems that included infant mortality, mental health and others, they got the chart below, which shows that more unequal places tend to have more of these issues. The United States, the most unequal of the developed countries, for example, also has the world's highest incarceration rate and a higher infant mortality rate than comparable nations. Sweden, meanwhile, has a low level of income inequality and fares much better on these social measures.
Social ills are associated with societies that have high income inequality, research shows.
Social ills are associated with societies that have high income inequality, research shows.
When the researchers plotted the same data according to average income, the correlation dissolved -- the poorer societies were not more likely to suffer the social ills:
No clear relationship exists between per capital income and social problems, research shows.
No clear relationship exists between per capital income and social problems, research shows.
The researchers suspect gaps in trust and empathy likely contribute to these gaps in health and social cohesion. More unequal societies also tend to have lower levels of trust, they found.
In Louisiana, for example, only slightly more than a third of the population says it trusts most people, according to "The Spirit Level." In more-equal North Dakota, that number jumps to 67%.
Inequality in America has grown in tandem with a host of factors. And things weren't always this way. In the 1950s and '60s, the U.S. was remarkably egalitarian. The economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich says he's often asked what society the United States should emulate if it wants to address income inequality.
His answer: the United States.
The '50s, '60s version.
Back then, things were markedly different.
Labor unions gave workers a voice. The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, was higher than now. College was affordable. And the super-rich were taxed at a higher rate.
Now all of that's changed.
The price of college, one way out of poverty, has skyrocketed, as CNNMoney reports.
College, one route out of poverty, is more expensive than it once was.
College, one route out of poverty, is more expensive than it once was.
The minimum wage is worth less now than it was in the 1960s.
The U.S. minimum wage is worth less now than it was in the 1960s.
The U.S. minimum wage is worth less now than it was in the 1960s.
And the tax rate on the richest Americans has dropped considerably.
The top marginal tax rate has dropped considerably since the late 1970s, according to the Tax Policy Center.
The top marginal tax rate has dropped considerably since the late 1970s, according to the Tax Policy Center.
Meanwhile, the country's now famous 1% continues to coast through the wake of the economic recession.
They're faring better than anyone else.
The U.S. 1% has fared better in the recession than others.
The U.S. 1% has fared better in the recession than others.
These issues are national, but they affect the dynamics of life in Lake Providence, and of every other community in America, in ways that are both common and unique.
In New York, where the mayor is a multibillionaire and the race for his successor has largely focused on this topic, inequality has skyrocketed as Wall Street traders and CEOs receive otherworldly compensation. In the Rust Belt, the decline of manufacturing jobs has helped hollow out the middle class, striking a serious blow to the idea that anyone who works hard, regardless of family background, can live an economically stable life.
And in the Deep South, economic justice is an extension of civil rights.
"It'd be a better town if we could get some jobs," Delores Gilmore said. "I do believe that. I believe that from my heart."
'If I can get this job ...'
Every mother wants a better life for her children.
That's why Gilmore agreed to send two of her sons away.
Her middle children, Stanley and Liray Jones, were going to drop out of high school in Lake Providence, she said. Rarely a week went by that fights didn't break out at the school, she said. She didn't think it was safe -- or an environment for learning.
So, with their OK, she sent her only two sons to Texas to live with a relative. She misses them constantly. But they graduated, she said. They found a better life.
Gilmore's kids who stayed in Inequality USA have not.
Samantha Jones is 28 years old. Her boyfriend, family members said, was shot in April 2010 when an altercation broke out near a convenience store in downtown Lake Providence.
He was hit by a stray bullet, according to a news report.
Valtakia Jones, 22, has been looking for work for four years. She left school four months shy of graduation to care for her second child. For about a year, she gave up on the job search completely. She felt like she was unemployable -- like something was wrong with her.
Recently, she's gotten a second wind. There's still some fight left in her, but talk to her about the job search and you can hear the life start to drain from her voice.
Not long ago, she got an interview at McDonald's in Oak Grove, Louisiana, about a 20-minute drive west of Lake Providence, in the next parish over.
If she were offered the job, she'd take it. But she doesn't know how she would get there. Her mom is the only one in the family with a car. Jones says she's hoping to walk to work, but that seems nearly impossible considering the job is more than 15 miles away.
Maybe she could pay someone to drive her?
Jones said she would do anything to make it work.
For one, she wants to provide a safer place for her kids to live.
The mother of three now lives in a sunken trailer across from her mom. Family members paid for the structure, which bows in the center, like a caterpillar inching forward. She's fixing it up the best she can. She painted half of the exterior blue before she ran out of paint; a friend helped her build a plywood cabinet to hold the sink.
"If I can get this job, it's gonna be the bomb," she said of the trailer.
Last I heard, McDonald's hadn't called back.
Delores Gilmore's granddaughter lives in a trailer her mom is working to repair.
Rebels and Panthers
Many people in Lake Providence never will climb out of poverty.
The tools simply aren't available.
Only 9% of kids from the bottom fifth of the earners in Lake Providence will make it into the top fifth, according to research from Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.
America has tried to create systems that are designed to ferry people from one side of the lake to the other, or to at least stop them from sinking further. Government programs help pay for health insurance and day care. Food stamps have kept families from going hungry.
And public schools have proven one of the best routes out of poverty.
In Lake Providence, however, the education system seems to underscore class divisions.
Kids from the north side of the lake go to Briarfield Academy.
Mascot: the Rebels.
Graduation rate: 100%.
It has no formal scholarship program, its principal said.
On the south, there's only one public high school.
Mascot: the Panthers.
Graduation rate: 72.5%.
I toured both high schools and met both of their principals. They genuinely want what's best for their students. But neither has the full support of the Lake Providence community. Neither can truly succeed without that.
Nationally, a 2011 study from Sean Reardon at Stanford Universityshows students from poor families test the equivalent of three to six years behind their rich peers.
Three to six years behind.
Middle-class jobs are another way for people to climb out of poverty. But those are scarce. Most jobs that do exist don't pay well enough for a person to meet his or her basic needs.
That, too, starts to look more sinister when you look at the big picture.
Across the country, workers are making just about what they did 30 years ago. But they're also more productive than ever -- producing far more stuff per hour now.
If you're making more stuff and getting paid the same, where are most of those gains in productivity going? If you guessed to the wealthiest Americans, you'd be correct.
That affects how a person like Gilmore is paid.
If her wages had kept pace with productivity, she would make $31,300 per year, instead of about $18,000, according to an analysis by theEconomic Policy Institute.
That's a wage that might actually be livable.
'I'll give you whatever I've got'
I first met Gilmore at a birthday party for her grandchildren.
Kids were orbiting her mother's trailer like fireflies. There were candles and cake. Above the kitchen sink hung a dirt-caked banner that said, "Rejoice!"
I was amazed with how lighthearted the mood was, especially when I learned that Gilmore's mother and partner were going to be evicted from their home imminently.
They fell behind on their payments when Willie Pullins Jr., 63, lost his job on one of the larger farms in the parish, they said. Pullins showed me a stub indicating he was paid $6 per hour. He told me he fell off the back of a truck on the job, and instead of getting sufficient medical assistance, he got the can. And now, an eviction notice.
Gilmore is trying to find $3,500 to buy them a new place.
"You have to help one another if you want to survive around here," she said. "You ain't got nothin'. I ain't got nothin', but I'll give you whatever I've got."
She's given so much that she's had to mortgage dreams of her own. Gilmore, who once worked as a certified nursing assistant, would like to go back to school to become a registered nurse. She's heard the pay is better, and she likes helping in times of need -- doesn't like to see people suffer, especially children and older folks.
But every month she has to take out a payday loan to get by.
Such lenders are known to charge the equivalent of 300% interest.
How could she possibly leave work, much less pay for school?
Sheriff Wydette Williams, Gilmore's employer, told me he would like to pay his employees more but that the parish is bouncing back from financial crisis.
"That is my whole goal -- to provide the best for my employees," he told me. "This is not a political phrase. This is where I come from. I want to provide everyone with a decent wage and better working conditions. .."
During his tenure, he said, he brought health insurance to all of his full-time employees.
Thomas Terral grew up with a sense of service to poorer people in town.
'Income guarantee'
Looking across Lake Providence from the north can warp a person's vision.
Find a modicum of success and it becomes all too natural to judge those who haven't. There must be something wrong with them, right? I made it, so why can't they?
It's not intentional or evil.
It's the product of an unjust system.
When the gap between rich and poor is as wide as it is in Lake Providence, it becomes almost impossible for people to imagine themselves on the other side.
It becomes all too easy, as many do, to argue that "entitlement" programs such as food stamps are holding back people on the south side of the lake. They don't have enough incentive to work hard and get ahead. They become lazy, complacent, dependent.
A closer look at how these programs work reveals another picture.
Forty-five percent of the parish's residents receive food stamps, or SNAP benefits. The average payout is $1,492 per person per year.
This is a top gripe of the northsiders.
What you don't hear discussed as much is that they get help, too.
Both the rich and poor are subsidized by government programs.
Both the rich and poor are subsidized by government programs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $12.3 million in 2012 subsidizing farming in East Carroll Parish through direct payments, insurance breaks and other subsidies, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group, which tracks government farm subsidies.
The average farmer who gets a commodity subsidy in the parish received $20,554 in 2010, according to the group. The most highly subsidized farmer that year in East Carroll Parish got more than $655,000 from that one subsidy program.
Look at that number again.
Farmworkers I spoke to made about $7.25 to $10 an hour, even after decades of work. Even in East Carroll Parish, where the cost of living is certainly nothing compared with major U.S. cities, those wages won't support a family. Business owners and farmers here are fond of saying they can't pay higher wages.
That's hard for me to believe after looking at the subsidies.
"It's really just an unprecedented income guarantee program," said Scott Faber, the Environment Working Group's vice president for government affairs. "It's absurd."
The farm subsidy programs grew out of a desire to provide a stable source of food during the Great Depression. Some are still needed, but there is no cap, Faber said, on the income a farmer earns while still receiving government help. And some of the subsidies in East Carroll Parish go to the production of corn, some of which, local farmers told me, is shipped up the Mississippi River for processing into ethanol for fuel, not food.
Lake Providence Mayor Robert Amacker, who farms 10,000 acres with his brother, told me some farmers would go out of business without the payments. They're needed, he said, because profits are tied to weather, which is completely unpredictable. But he didn't go so far as defending the full six-figure sums as always justified. "If you take 'em away it's probably gonna hurt us, but I'm not saying we won't survive," he said. "We have in the past."
The U.S. House voted in September to cut $40 billion from the SNAP program over the next 10 years. If that cut becomes law, it would make 4 million to 6 million low-income Americans ineligible for assistance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that studies how public policy affects lower-income people. Other reductions are expected to take effect in November.
It's Robin Hood in reverse.
'Yes pastor!'
On a recent Sunday, Gilmore was up by 11 a.m., only four hours after she'd gotten off work at the prison, to get her family ready for church at New Hope Baptist. She awoke to a wild scene: Grandma yelling at kids, kids running around looking for shoes.
It was nearly noon by the time everyone was running out the door, which sticks so hard you have to pull it with two hands and all of your body weight.
One of Gilmore's grandsons was last out of the trailer. As he ran toward the car his wide-brimmed hat flew off his head.
"Hey!" he yelled at the wind.
He mashed it on his head and it flew off not one but two more times.
"My hat!"
Gilmore's Ford Taurus, filled with seven people, pulled up to the church about 30 minutes after the two-hour service started. There are a few dozen churches in the parish. That's no coincidence, especially south of the lake. Folks turn to God when the world around them becomes too much to bear. For Gilmore, it's a place of solace.
The family piled into pews in the back and watched as the Rev. Michael Owens, the storeowner who rarely sees customers, delivered a sermon about the economy.
It was far more than a sermon, really. Owens pressed his mouth up against a microphone and ran all over the front of the sanctuary as he half-yelled, half-sang a series of parables and proverbs about getting by in the modern world.
"I wonder if I have a WITNESS in here!?"
"Yes pastor!" said Gilmore.
They went back and forth like that seven times.
"We got people that are desperate for jobs," Owens shouted, eventually becoming so worked up that he wiped his head with a towel. Sweat seeped through his pink tuxedo vest.
"The Lord said, 'I will supply all of your needs according to my riches and gold.' He did NOT SAY he would supply your wants for ya."
"All right pastor!" Gilmore said.
"If this town's gonna ever progress, we're going to have to come together!"
The more time passed, the more worked up Owens became. He walked out in front of the podium and stood on one foot, jittering like a person having a seizure. One of the amplifiers in the small, wooden church was misfiring, and the speaker system occasionally let out deafening squeals.
"I said, 'He'll do it!' " the reverend said.
"Yes, he will!" Gilmore said.
"He'll comfort ya!"
'Poorest place'
You can't leave Lake Providence thinking it's a bad town.
Doing so would miss the point, entirely.
It's a beautiful place that, since 1994, when Time magazine named it the "poorest place in America," has been trying to define itself in opposition to that title.
Genuine progress has been made.
Myriant, a chemical manufacturing company, recently opened a place in Lake Providence with a $50 million grant from the Department of Energy.
The company says it's created 50 new jobs.
A woman from the south side of the lake opened a bustling restaurant called My Dream Eatery, which aims to pay its employees a living wage, not just the minimum.
I met several local public school graduates who were headed off to college this fall. Williams, the sheriff, is trying to rid the town of its drug problems. He's the first black sheriff in the parish's history, and he's respected by nearly everyone in town, including members of the white community. And a host of people has moved to Lake Providence to try to help the community move past its divisions.
An Irish-Catholic nun, Bernadette Barrett, or Sister Bernie as everyone calls her, said she moved here after her employer decided it would be more useful to send a mission of nuns to this part of Louisiana than to Haiti, which had been the plan.
And on a recent Saturday, Lake Providence held an annual Soul Food Festival. People from both sides of the lake came together for corn bread, crawfish and chitlins.
"We've got a long way to go, but, you know, for the last 38 years we've been going down, down, down, down. At some point, you have to hit bottom," Amacker, the mayor, told me. "When you hit bottom, the only place to go is up. I think we're almost there."
Farmers are among the wealthier people in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana.
'I don't know ...'
"You never dream about a big ol' house?"
That's Gilmore talking to me in her maroon Ford Taurus.
I wasn't sure how to respond.
The reality is I don't dream about big houses and never have.
I grew up in a two-story house with four bedrooms and 3½ baths. We had linoleum and then tile in the kitchen.
I'm pretty sure I've slid across it in socks a time or two.
I had it easy. Gilmore and others should, too.
The problem with 2013 America is we don't believe that anymore.
We believe in the rich and the rest.
It seems obvious to us -- or immutable -- that some should have a better shot at financial success than others. That, in and of itself, is heartbreaking. We've lowered our expectations -- resigned ourselves to a country where class determines worth.
The rich fund political campaigns, and politicians cow to their interests. Raising the minimum wage to the point that it's livable and increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans would help narrow the rich-poor gap, according to some economists.
But politicians don't have incentive to pass those reforms.
Many of the rich don't want them.
It's remarkable to me that Gilmore and other poorer residents of Lake Providence are not more resentful. "They got money and I don't," she told me. "I don't feel bad. I guess I just wanna be blessed to be one of the ones that has money."
For the most part, richer people I met in Lake Providence want to help, too.
Terral, the doctor's son and man of industry, has helped rebuild homes south of the lake.
"I can't imagine that we in America would allow this to happen to so much of our people," said Tom Gattle, Terral's son-in-law, who runs a major river transportation service company in town.
Those attitudes tell me there's room for reconciliation -- and shared empathy -- in this place of haves and have-nots. There's room in America, too. If more of us saw how the other side of the lake lives, and if we really worked to understand the systems -- the schools, the taxes, the wages, the history -- that create and maintain economic injustice, I've got to think we'd work together to build a sturdier bridge to the other side.
Those bridges need to start going up soon.
The longer hard-working people such as Gilmore spin their wheels, the more likely they will become cold and resentful or, worse, give up.
Gilmore puts her hopes in her youngest daughter, Shinya.
Maybe the 9-year-old will be the first in her family to go to college?
Gilmore has been tutoring Shinya, writing math problems on the walls in a back room in the trailer, where the family has a computer but no Internet. Shinya reads to her nieces and nephews, too, and makes them flash cards. That makes Gilmore think she'd make a good teacher. Or maybe a doctor.
"I'm hoping for the doctor," she said, laughing. "I want her to be somewhere so she can be comfortable."
Gilmore's own dreams, though, are fading.
She'd like to go back to school to become a nurse, but she doesn't see how that is possible, financially or logistically. Too many people depend on her.
And she hasn't dreamed about that big house in years.
Hasn't glided across those slick floors in her socks.
"I don't know what I dream about now, I be so tired when I lay down, I be so frustrated," she told me as we drove to work. "I don't even have a dream I guess."
That may be the most frightening thing about the staggering economic inequality that plagues Lake Providence and modern America.
It changes the way we see each other.

And the way we see ourselves.