All posts by Randle Aubrey

“Working to Save the Amazon and Its Communities” – Ecuador, Chevron, And The Yasuni-ITT Initiative, Part 2

In the second segment of this three-part series, we will explore Pablo Fajardo’s legendary class-action lawsuit against Texaco/Chevron, and the methods and tactics used by the company to both escape justice and slander the plaintiffs and their government.

For part one in the series, click here.

The Battle Is Joined: Ecuador vs. Chevron

On November 3rd, 1993, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Texaco by the Ecuadorian people, the first salvo in a legal engagement that persists to this day. In Aguinda v. Texaco, the litany of abuses perpetrated by the company is described with brutal candor:

…illnesses including body growths directly related to oil contamination…”

…she must wash her feet regularly with gasoline to remove oil contamination acquired from walking on the crude oil…”

…subjected to inhalation of heavy levels of dust particles covered with oil that are damaging her respiratory system…”

…animals have died from drinking the water of the contaminated streams and he has been forced to stop raising cows, goats and chickens…”

The lawsuit outlines in astonishing detail Texaco’s blatant disregard for and maximum culpability in the systematic destruction of the Ecuadorian people and their lands, making for an incredibly strong case. According to the website ChevronToxico.com, “Texaco was headquartered in White Plains, NY,  at the time, and the plaintiffs’ legal team argued that the United States was the appropriate forum for the case,” and the trial began in New York state shortly thereafter. “Texaco petitioned for years to have the case relocated to Ecuador,” the website continues, “submitting numerous affidavits in the process praising the integrity of Ecuador’s judicial system. In 2002, after a series of appeals, Texaco’s request was granted,” indicating that the company would submit to the jurisdiction of the Ecuadorian legal system.

It seems in hindsight that Texaco’s praise of the Ecuadorian legal system was a red herring designed to remove the trial from the American press; immediately after the trial was relocated to Ecuador, the company reversed their position on the Ecuadorian courts, claiming they were rife with corruption and incompetence, and further stalling the legal process. Further complicating matters was the acquisition of Texaco by Chevron in 2001, who would now assume all liability for damages. This required the filing and approval of a new lawsuit, which took another two years. Once the new trial began, “both sides requested judicial inspections of Texaco’s former oil installations and waste pits,” according to ChevronToxico.com. The website goes on to say that “the scientific record resulting from these inspections clearly shows levels of soil and water contamination far above legal limits. Even Chevron’s own scientists have obtained significant data that supports the case against the company.” The evidence, it seemed, was indisputable.

Despite numerous protestations of extortion and fraud by Chevron, in 2011 Ecuadorian Judge Nicholas Zambrano ruled that Texaco/Chevron was in fact guilty, and demanded that the company pay $8.6 billion in damages to the 30,000 plaintiffs represented in the case. Unsurprisingly, Chevron appealed the verdict immediately, and took their cries of foul play to disturbing new heights in a countersuit against Pablo Fajardo and his legal team on racketeering charges in American courts. According to Professor Lu, the company has also been fighting to rewrite laws surrounding the charges against them, and have been cozying up to lawmakers and legislators across the country in efforts to get their charges dismissed. In addition, Chevron has engaged in a nationwide smear campaign against everyone who gave testimony against them, and have even gone as far as to engage with US lawmakers over rescinding trade agreements with Ecuador as punishment for the verdict, actions as reprehensible as they were (thankfully) unsuccessful.

Sadly, the same could not be said about Chevron’s countersuit itself. Just last month, Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled in favor of the company’s racketeering charges, much to the dismay of the plaintiffs. Kaplan’s verdict centers around the fraudulent testimony of one Alberto Bastidas, an Ecuadorian judge who has admitted on record to accepting nearly half a million dollars in bribes from Chevron to bear false witness, according to Fajardo.

Bastidas claims that he was present in Quito, Ecuador when the plaintiffs’ legal team was allegedly planning to bribe jurors in October 2012, an action he claims was spearheaded by Fajardo’s colleague Stephen Donzinger, a U.S. attorney. However, immigration records prove Donzinger was not in the country between September and December of that year, giving the lie to Bastidas’ testimony. Despite the admission of bribery and clear indications of perjury, Judge Kaplan asserted that Bastidas’ testimony was valid, and his verdict effectively nullifies the enforcement of Ecuador’s judgment and prevents the case from being heard in any country where Chevron has holdings.

Kaplan’s exoneration of Chevron is highly controversial, and sets a dangerous precedent for international law. The ruling essentially claims that any nation’s laws are invalid against corporate transgression, despite the fact that Chevron’s abuses took place directly on Ecuadorian soil. Needless to say, no country has the ability to strike down another country’s laws in such a fashion, and the New York State Second Circuit Court Of Appeals subsequently struck down Kaplan’s ruling. Chevron subsequently appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, but was denied a hearing.

Despite all of this, Kaplan continues to stymie Chevron’s redress of grievances, insisting that the plaintiffs’ case is invalid and should not be allowed another hearing in any U.S. court. He has allowed Chevron to pursue legal arbitration directly with the Ecuadorian government in efforts to shut Fajardo’s legal team out of the process, claiming that the plaintiffs need to pay an outrageous amount of court fees to be included in the arbitration. Chevron has spent over a billion dollars fighting the case against them thus far, and their war chest is seemingly inexhaustible. However, Fajardo and his legal team, undiscouraged by this recent turn of events, continue to fight for their people on multiple fronts. The appeals court ruling has allowed them to make their case global; in addition to fighting Chevron in America and Ecuador, Fajardo has brought the case to Brazil, Argentina, and Canada, three nations where Chevron has holdings and Ecuador has fostered good relationships.

However far away it might be, there is still light at the end of the tunnel for the Ecuadorian people, and their will to speak truth to power is indomitable. But the horizon is far from clear, and a new force has arisen within their own borders that threatens not only to undermine the trial, but the future of the entire Amazonian region: Ecuador’s current president, Rafael Correa.

In Part Three, we will explore the current tensions between the Ecuadorian people; their president, Rafael Correa; and the international oil industry, as well as the future of the Yasuni-ITT initiative. 

“Working to Save the Amazon and Its Communities” – Ecuador, Chevron, And The Yasuni-ITT Initiative, Part 3

For part one in the series, click here and here.

In the third segment of this three-part series, we will explore the current tensions between the Ecuadorian people; their president, Rafael Correa; and the international oil industry, as well as the future of the Yasuni-ITT initiative.

A Jungle In Jeopardy: Rafael Correa & The Yasuni-ITT Initiative

To call Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa a man of contradiction would be an understatement. Elected in 2006 on a tidal wave of Leftist solidarity at the end of a decade-long era of political turmoil, Correa’s career thus far has been a polarizing spectacle both internationally and domestically. Renowned for declaring Ecuador’s national debt illegitimate in 2006, Correa defaulted on $3.2 billion worth of loans from the IMF and the World Bank, claiming that odious debts incurred by the tyrants and despots that once held sway over Ecuador were no longer to be honored. He then took the creditors to task in various international courts, successfully reducing the price of what outstanding bonds remained by more than 60 percent, a stunning act of political gamesmanship by any interpretation.

In the years since, Correa’s administration has drastically reduced poverty, homelessness, and unemployment in Ecuador, primarily by investing heavily in infrastructure projects: roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals cross and dot the landscape in abundance, a testament to Correa’s socialist leanings. He also vowed when taking office to reduce Ecuador’s dependency on oil exports, to support the pursuit of justice against Chevron, and to preserve what remains of the Amazon within his country’s borders. In a world of political celebrities, Correa’s willingness to court controversy through populism has not gone unnoticed, culminating in widespread international attention over his offer of political asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange back in 2012, who currently resides at the Ecuadorean embassy in London. On the world stage, Correa is seen as a stalwart defender of his people, a maverick and a raconteur who’s larger-than-life personality is matched only by his love for his country.

Nestor Silva claims that the Ecuadorian people have a much different story to tell about their president, however. Among large swaths of the population, Correa is seen as a repressive, egomaniacal tyrant, who’s obsession with oil is driving the nation to the brink of disaster once again. In stark contrast to his asylum offer to Assange, Correa “has described the private media as his ‘greatest enemy’ and a major obstacle to implementing reforms,” according to a recent BBC report. “In 2011, three executives and a former columnist from an opposition newspaper, El Universo were sentenced to jail terms and a massive fine for libelling President Correa,” the report states. “He subsequently pardoned them, saying his aim had been to fight the ‘dictatorship of the media’.” The journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders highlighted the closure of a dozen media outlets who had been critical to the government, further lending credence to Correa’s assault against free speech.

As problematic is Correa’s “Citizen’s Revolution,” an effort to “embrace the humaneness of socialism while pursuing the efficiency of capitalism,” through the oil industry, according to Silva. This failed reconciliation of two opposing economic spheres has had results ranging from ineffective to catastrophic, particularly the latter in regards to environmental policy. Despite his promises to preserve the environment and reduce oil industry influence, oil extraction rates have remained the same or slightly increased since he took office, hovering at around half a million barrels per day.

Correa now has his sights set on what is essentially the last remaining virgin rainforest within Ecuador’s borders, Yasuni National Park. But true to form with his public persona, he has done much to distance himself from these desires. On June 5th, 2007, Correa launched the Yasuni-ITT initiative, a $3.6 billion program that promises to leave over nine hundred million barrels of oil in the ground within the park’s borders, roughly twenty percent of the nation’s reserves. Supporters of the initiative claim that drilling in the unprotected land surrounding the park will not have any effect on the park itself, but overwhelming historical precedent to the contrary stretches this claim to the edge of credulity. These claims become all the more outrageous when you consider that Correa’s government has already committed extensive violations of the initiative, largely unbeknown to the international community.

The area of the park that Correa claims is untouched in accordance with the initiative is rife with the trappings of the oil industry. Over two hundred wells populate the region, which is currently producing four thousand barrels a day, according to Silva. Various other sources exist to corroborate this claim: documents sourced from Ecuador’s state oil company by Wikileaks, including maps of the region that show the location of the illegal infrastructure, extensive testimony from officials in Ecuador’s Ministry of Non-renewable Resources, and numerous accounts of destruction by members of the Waorani tribe, who call Yasuni National Park home.

The preservation of Yasuni National Park is critical to the survival of not only the indigenous tribes that populate the region, but to the entire Amazon jungle itself. Ecuador is the most biodiverse nation in the world, and this biodiversity reaches critical mass in Yasuni. The 3,800 square-mile park contains more animals than the entire European continent, and more trees than all of North America combined. So compacted with wildlife Yasuni is, that the scientific community refers to the park as a “quadruple biodiversity mega-rich center,” a technical term indicating that there are record levels of plant, mammal, bird, and amphibian diversity, a phenomenon almost nonexistent anywhere else on the planet.

The destruction of Yasuni National Park threatens to collapse all of Amazonia in a domino effect that would seriously disrupt global ecology, drastically raising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, ocean acidification, and drought conditions across the planet. Chevron and their cohorts would bring our planet to the brink of apocalypse all for the singleminded pursuit of profit, power, and non-renewable resource. As a fossil fuel consumer, if you don’t think you’re directly implicated in Ecuador’s destruction, think again. “The vast majority of Ecuador’s oil exports come to the United States, and even a significant part of that comes to the west coast, to California,” according to Professor Lu. “So we are all part of this.”

It is mankind’s mindless dependency on and demand for cheap fossil fuels that enables the conditions that have been described here. We are all part of Ecuador’s slow, toxic decline. But with the help of people like Pablo Fajardo, Flora Lu, and Nestor Silva, we can all become a part of the country’s salvation, as well as that of Mother Earth herself.

The Myth Of Tomorrowland: Thoughts On A Protest

There was a protest in my neighborhood yesterday. The president is in town, fundraising for the DNC. He’s staying at one of the city’s most expensive hotels in the heart of downtown San Jose, and the people gathered in the public square facing the hotel–La Plaza De Cesar Chavez –to demonstrate against the Keystone XL pipeline project at the behest of Credo Action Network. About two hundred people eventually showed up, cordoned off well away from the hotel until the president’s motorcade arrived. Once he got there, dozens of protesters bum-rushed the front door, desperate to gain access to the event taking place inside. Countless others howled and chanted in the plaza, waving signs and banners proud and fierce. It was a spirited event, demonstrating once again that, if you manage to achieve the right combination of numbers, hostility, and bravery bordering on recklessness, a spark will be lit and a story will be made to tell.

It’s a shame that this one will serve only as a footnote in the history of the protest movement, as much for those who demonstrated yesterday as for the causes they were demonstrating against. Today, La Plaza De Cesar Chavez is empty, and the president is gone. But there is still so much to fight for.

I don’t want to make light of the fact that climate change is arguably the biggest issue of our time. The #noKXL movement has been the most successful push against the anti-science front thus far, drawing tens of thousands of people from across the country, and deserves all the respect it has earned. But the fervor of the climate change movement has failed to resonate well across other issues across Silicon Valley, whether related or otherwise.

The natural gas industry is encroaching on the lands surrounding our homes, searching for shale deposits and rapaciously gobbling up fracking rights. Where are the demonstrations? We have the largest homeless population in the country, tens of thousands living under bridges, in the sewers, or in abandoned buildings. Where is the effort to strengthen the social safety net? A huge wage-fixing cartel was just discovered among the Valley’s most prominent tech companies. Where are the picket signs?

The Silicon Valley’s climate change reformers, however noble their sentiments may be, tend to be people with too much to lose to devote time, energy, or money to issues that require them to either descend into the bowels of the city’s everyday litigation problems, small and large. It’s a polite, bourgeois revolution, providing a shiny, feel-good abstraction that doesn’t involve exposing themselves to more localized accountability or responsibility. Civic duty just isn’t sexy, nor is it especially innovative or visionary. It involves getting your hands dirty, literally and metaphorically. You have to abandon the safety of the Internet, and you have to do it regularly. You also have to know that you, too, are being exploited, and like the partygoers of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque Of The Red Death,” not only are you far from immune to the vagaries of corruption, they already walk among you.

Author Mark Ames, commenting on Silicon Valley’s wage-fixing cartel revelations, provides our epitaph:

“What’s more important is the political predicament that low-paid fast food workers share with well-paid hi-tech workers: the loss of power over their lives and their futures to the growing mass of concentrated power in Silicon Valley, whose tentacles are so strong now and so great, that hundreds of thousands of workers around the globe . . .  have their lives controlled and their wages and opportunities stolen from them without ever knowing about it, all the while being bombarded with cultural can’t about the wisdom of the free market, about the efficiency of free knowledge, about the need to take personal responsibility and to blame no one but yourself for everything that happens in your life and your career.”

It’s time to bury the myth of Tomorrowland that the Silicon Valley promised America. It’s killing us faster than climate change ever will.

Media Matters: The Union You Want vs. The Union You’ll Get

It’s a truism of politics that the people, parties, or organizations you choose to support will inevitably do something to betray your trust. Regardless of partisan allegiances or mission statements, the intersection of money, opinion, and cause is always a messy one, fraught with missteps and gaffes and broken promises. However, knowing this does little to remove the sting of betrayal felt when those whom you admire and support take actions you find antithetical. This holds even more true when the guilty parties stand on a platform of pointing out hypocrisy and double standards; take Media Matters For America (MM4A), a company whose actions in recent weeks have been as shocking as they are harmful to progressive credibility.

Not much media attention has been given to MM4A’s recent stymieing of union negotiations between management officials and the SEIU, which is rather surprising when you consider how much the corporate media loves to uphold the principle that “both sides do it.” MM4A has been at the forefront of exposing conservative propaganda and rhetoric for years now, and have proven themselves to be a staunchly pro-labor advocate. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the company would be all too eager to roll out the red carpet for union representatives, if for no other reason than to give them an excuse to polish off their pro-labor bona fides. Their actions to the contrary merit genuine concern, if not alarm.

At the same time, I’ll not give in to pro-labor hyperbole at this point and claim that MM4A is an anti-union shop. Statements from higher-ups within MM4A indicate that the organization appear to support the idea of unionizing, qualifying their assurances with all of the usual noises about “making sure the process is really clean” and ensuring that they “comply with all necessary laws and procedures.” But the nonprofit’s refusal to grant immediate card-check union recognition–often seen as a litmus test for progressive ideals in companies such as these–is rather telling about where management’s loyalties lie.

Given the nature of their political affiliations, MM4A simply can’t refuse unionization outright; to do so would utterly destroy their reputation, and likely force them out of business. What they can do, however, is drag things out long enough to give them time to “delay the proceedings, bring in union-busting consultants and pressure workers to vote down the union,” according to the Huffington Post, all under the guise of transparency and accountability. Whether they’ll do exactly that is uncertain, and will likely depend on how much public scrutiny they receive during the negotiation process. In the interest of avoiding scandal, it seems unlikely that they will do anything flatly controversial; they’ve made their liberal bed, and they have to lie in it, meaning that the employees of MM4A will almost certainly get their union. They’ll just get the union that management believes they deserve, and not much else.

 

“Working to Save the Amazon and Its Communities” – Ecuador, Chevron, And The Yasuni-ITT Initiative, Part 1

Even the most stalwart of proponents of corporate benevolence are occasionally forced to concede that no major multinational corporation is above a certain level of malfeasance, especially when it comes to the petroleum industry. The global demand for oil is so high that companies will go to disturbing lengths to obtain it, committing all manner of abuses while the general public largely turns a blind eye, easily swayed by multimillion dollar PR campaigns and the promise of cheap fuel for all.

Nowhere in recent years has this been more apparent than in the nation of Ecuador, and few companies have committed more atrocities in the name of oil than industry titan Chevron has within Ecuador’s borders, according to Flora Lu, professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, Nestor Silva, a PhD Anthropology Student at Stanford University, and Pablo Fajardo, the now-famous Ecuadorian attorney who won a landmark class action lawsuit against Chevron in 2011.

Speaking on the “Working to Save the Amazon and Its Communities” panel at the San Jose Peace and Justice Center on April 4th, the three outlined the widespread and systematic abuse Chevron and Texaco–who the former acquired in 2001–have perpetuated against the Ecuadorian people and their land, the company’s insidious role in obstructing justice both internationally and domestically, and the uncertain future of one of the most biodiverse locations on the planet, Yasuni National Park.

In the first segment of this three-part series, we will explore the origins of today’s conflicts between Ecuador and Chevron, and the systematic abuses that paved the way for Pablo Fajardo’s legendary class-action lawsuit.

Blood And Carbon: The Rise Of Ecuador’s Petro-State

Texaco first discovered oil in Ecuador back in 1967, sparking a ten-year oil boom that would drastically transform the nation from a third-world backwater to a modern petro-state. But the dreams of modernity and prosperity that petroleum promised to bring to Ecuador soon turned into an utter nightmare. The rapid and brutal expansion of oil industry infrastructure resulted in widespread deforestation, driving away much of the wildlife that the country’s large indigenous population subsisted on, thereby endangering the survival of a number of tribes. Resistance by the natives was swift and fierce, resulting in the deaths of several Texaco employees.

In response, the company began colluding with local Christian missionaries–who had been proselytizing in the region since the fifties–to pacify the natives with Western convenience and vice, a more seductive coercion that would persuade many of them to abandon their lands and traditions and side with Big Oil. So effective was this technique that it led to the destruction of two indigenous tribes, most notably the Cofan tribe, who’s leader Guillermo Quenama was fooled into drinking himself to death by Texaco officials, according to Professor Lu.

With Quenama out of the way, Texaco wasted no time sweeping across Cofan lands, subjugating the locals, and kidnapping Quenama’s wife, forcing her into prostitution amongst Texaco’s oil workers for the next two decades. After outliving her usefulness as Texaco’s whore, she lives in what remains of Cofan territory to this very day, sick, dying, one of only a few hundred of her people that remain.

Once the natives were properly pacified, there was no stopping Texaco from steamrolling across the Amazonian Ecuador, rendering huge portions of the landscape barren and lifeless. The scope of the damage is mindboggling: Texaco/Chevron’s environmental impact in Ecuador is thirty times that of the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and eighty times that of BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf Of Mexico, which took place in 2010. However, unlike these two great tragedies, the damage caused by Texaco/Chevron in Ecuador was by no means accidental. These are the deliberate actions of a corporation who considers itself to be above the law, and has the resources to keep it that way.

Examples of Texaco’s devastation abound: in their efforts to dispose of ‘formation water’, one of the primary waste products from oil drilling, the company has willfully disregarded both safety and handling regulations across Ecuador, instead pouring the toxic substance directly into rivers and waterways, or storing it in one of over a thousand open air pits, each one roughly equivalent in size to an Olympic swimming pool. More than sixty billion gallons of formation water have been disposed of or stored in such a fashion, causing untold damage to marine life and fertile soil. Over fifteen hundred kilometers of roads have been carved out of the once pristine wilderness, poured over with crude oil to prevent their erosion. The hundreds of miles of pipeline that snake across the landscape are shoddy and unsound, leaking often and causing even greater damage, mostly on what remains of the Cofan territory.

This speaks nothing of the human cost. Poverty holds millions of Ecuadorians in its grip, and diseases once unheard among indigenous people, like obesity and diabetes, run rampant. As the tribes have begun to falter, alcoholism, depression, and suicide have all become increasingly prevalent, as well. Among many tribes, groups of mostly young people known locally as ‘suicide clusters’ are killing themselves in large numbers, creating toxins from poisonous plants that were formerly employed for hunting purposes. Pablo Fajado’s claim that the “petroleum infrastructure that (Texaco) created was intended to maximize profit and minimize investment” seems dangerously euphemistic, given the conditions he described. A shadow looms large over Amazonian Ecuador, oily, black, thick with the stench of blood and carbon. Yet, through all this, hope still remains.

In Part Two, we will explore Pablo Fajardo’s legendary class-action lawsuit against Texaco/Chevron, and the methods and tactics used by the company to both escape justice and slander the plaintiffs and their government. 

CNN’s Sanjay Gupta Plays The Blame Game With Prescription Drugs, America Loses (VIDEO)

Despite their numerous gaffes over the course of the last year, the journalists and pundits of CNN usually do a decent job of getting their facts straight. Unless, of course, those facts include telling you who to blame whenever something goes wrong.

For example, daytime talk show host Dr. Oz hosted CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta last Wednesday for a discussion about the recent FDA approval of a new and potentially dangerous prescription drug called Zohydro. An opioid derivative similar to OxyContin but significantly more powerful, Zohydro was approved by the FDA without any additives that prevent the drug from being ground up for snorting or shooting purposes, dramatically raising the odds of its abuse. A quick review of the evidence reveals that Drs. Oz and Gupta did indeed get their facts mostly straight on the dangers of the drug, but also reveals a significant lack of context I’m sure their respective employers would prefer not be mentioned.

Like most things, America’s epidemic of prescription drug abuse ultimately comes down to a question of responsibility.

Dr. Oz: So Sanjay, we’re supposed to be the gatekeepers of the system. We’re given MD degrees, a license to protect society. Are we responsible for this epidemic? Are doctors to blame?

Sanjay Gupta: Yes. I think this is, in large part, our responsibility. I mean, when you look at the statistic that eighty percent of the world’s pain medications are consumed in this country, it does mean that doctors are much more willing to write a prescription, hand it to a patient. They don’t have as much time with the patient as a result, instead of doing the things that take more time. Let’s try physical therapy, epidural steroid shots for example, massage therapy. People roll their eyes when they hear this, because they think the pills [are] just the the only way they can get relief from their pain.

FDA OxyContin studyFirst off, a note on that statistic: it’s incorrect. Two days before the Dr. Oz broadcast, Russ Belville of High Times Magazine did a report on Zohydrol, where he cites a recent drug addiction study published in the medical journal The Lancet stating that Americans consume 80 percent of all opioids and 99 percent of all hydrocodone, the opioid derivate present in drugs like OxyContin and Zohydrol. OxyContin was only recently reformulated to include additives that prevent its abuse, after being introduced to the public nearly twenty years ago. Since its creation, the number of people being treated for opioid addiction has skyrocketed, as indicated in a 2009 FDA study.

Belville also noted that the DEA has approved a 1,500 percent increase in quotas on hydrocodone manufacturing throughout the medical marijuana era, explaining that the increase was justified because “there had to be enough left for legitimate patients after all the recreational users had illegally gotten theirs.” I wonder if Dr. Gupta believes doctors are responsible for that.

Lastly, Belville had this to say about Zohydrol’s manufacturer, Alkermes:

Also raising eyebrows is the company the FDA has approved to produce this new “Super-Vicodin:” Alkermes. In addition to making this powerfully addictive opioid drug, Alkermes makes the popular naltrexone medication Vivitrol, which is used to treat addictions to … wait for it … opioids. Sure, this may be no more shady than cigarette companies that also sell smoking cessation patches, until you find out that Alkermes also financially supports the American Society of Addiction Medicine, aka Big Rehab.

So the company responsible for making and selling this potentially dangerous new drug also makes a drug to treat its addictive properties, and is a major donor to the drug rehab lobby? You and I might call these things a conflict of interest, but I’m sure Alkermes merely considers it to be smart business.

It’s easy to blame doctors for America’s prescription drug epidemic. But doctors don’t produce medications; they only provide them. What they’re providing may not always be as safe as they believe it to be. Doctors are also not immune to the politics or the ravages of Big Pharma. In fact, much of the evidence points to a campaign of misinformation, subterfuge, and hush money on behalf of drug manufacturers. In January, the website Alternet published an article entitled “Five Shady Ways Big Pharma May Be Influencing Your Doctor,” wherein a number of industry offenses are detailed. From spying on prescription records to ghostwriting in medical journals to staging faux clinical trials, Big Pharma’s influence can be felt across the medical landscape. Perhaps Dr. Gupta believes doctors are responsible for that, too.

The problems with Zohydrol are numerous, and its introduction to the public is a frightening development in the fight against prescription drug abuse. As long as people like Sanjay Gupta are either unwilling or unable to direct the blame at all of the appropriate parties, then lasting solutions to the problem will always remain just out of reach.

To watch the segment, check out the following video:

Hobby Lobby, Ashley McGuire, & The Big Picture (VIDEO)

I just finished watching Thom Hartmann’s The Big Picture segment on Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, the ACA birth control mandate case now being heard before the Supreme Court. More accurately, I should say that I just watched Catholic Associate fellow and shill for Big Jesus Ashley McGuire rather shamelessly defend corporate personhood in the name of her faith. Her sad display of illogic and pitiful understanding of the issues at hand would be amusing if it weren’t for the fact that her marching orders come from people with extraordinary influence over public opinion. McGuire is merely a foot solider in the war against Enlightenment; her generals we can never hope to touch. But we can certainly try.

I’ve come to find over the course of my career that, when it comes to fundamentalism, be it religious, nationalistic, or both, those who prescribe to it tend to fall into one of two camps: wicked or incompetent. While there does tend to be considerable overlap between the two, when cornered, conservatives have can only fall back upon one of them. To do otherwise would leave them no loophole by which to escape any argument with their ideology intact. I’m not sure to which camp Ashley McGuire belongs, but the image she presents to Thom Hartmann is certainly not a wicked one. Consider the following:

“I actually think there’s more to this than just the corporate argument….which is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the rights of individuals. And I think what this really boils down to is: do you, if you are an individual citizen of the United States, can the government tell you…that when you enter the marketplace, you essentially forfeit your conscience rights if you make a profit? And that is actually the argument that the government has been making.”

The amount of mental gymnastics people like McGuire are required to execute in order to reconcile their vile opinions with their better natures is simply astounding, making it increasingly difficult to disbelieve author Frank Schaeffer’s assertion that religious fundamentalists, no matter how polite or well-intentioned, all suffer from some level of brain damage as a result of cleaving to their ideology. In order for McGuire’s idea to make sense, one must believe that corporations are more than just people: they are super-people, non-corporeal manifestations of the will of their architects writ large across the socio-political landscape. In short, one must believe that corporations are gods on earth, and that to serve them is to serve the One True God himself.

McGuire’s beliefs are disturbingly highlighted in absentia during the final exchange between her and Thom Hartmann:

AM: [T]he only four forms that don’t want to pay for are the four who’s own FDA labels warn can destroy an embryo, which to them is tantamount to an abortion…The destruction of an embryo whether it’s before implantation or after, the purposeful…

TH: So now we’re getting into the religious area, so should Seventh Day Adventists be able to deny blood transfusions to their employees?

AM: Well…we’re not talking about that. What we’re talking about is the Hobby Lobby case…

TH: Yes we are.

AM: Not necessarily…

TH: We’re talking about whether a corporation can assert their religious beliefs. Seventh Day Adventists, excuse me, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in blood transfusions. Should they be allowed to say, “we won’t pay for those?”

AM: What we’re talking about is whether or not the employer should be forced to pay for their employee’s abortions against their religious objections.

TH: OK, we’ll have to leave it at that.

I couldn’t have found a better way to end the segment if I wished to. As long as McGuire refuses to answer this question – whether corporations have the right to assert their owner’s religious beliefs (any of them) over their employees – there is truly nothing left to say.

Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius isn’t just about birth control. It’s about religious dominion and discrimination over people under the guise of big business, about turning corporations into demigods. The birth control “debate” just so happens to have the most political traction at the moment to achieve this end. If can journalists like Thom Hartmann start leading off interviews with questions like the one above rather than finishing with them, the only thing they’ll save us more than time is the trouble of having to take people like Ashley McGuire seriously.

Here’s the entire segment:

Hobby Lobby, Ashley McGuire, & The Big Picture (VIDEO)

I just finished watching Thom Hartmann’s The Big Picture segment on Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, the ACA birth control mandate case now being heard before the Supreme Court. More accurately, I should say that I just watched Catholic Associate fellow and shill for Big Jesus Ashley McGuire rather shamelessly defend corporate personhood in the name of her faith. Her sad display of illogic and pitiful understanding of the issues at hand would be amusing if it weren’t for the fact that her marching orders come from people with extraordinary influence over public opinion. McGuire is merely a foot solider in the war against Enlightenment; her generals we can never hope to touch. But we can certainly try.

I’ve come to find over the course of my career that, when it comes to fundamentalism, be it religious, nationalistic, or both, those who prescribe to it tend to fall into one of two camps: wicked or incompetent. While there does tend to be considerable overlap between the two, when cornered, conservatives have can only fall back upon one of them. To do otherwise would leave them no loophole by which to escape any argument with their ideology intact. I’m not sure to which camp Ashley McGuire belongs, but the image she presents to Thom Hartmann is certainly not a wicked one. Consider the following:

“I actually think there’s more to this than just the corporate argument….which is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the rights of individuals. And I think what this really boils down to is: do you, if you are an individual citizen of the United States, can the government tell you…that when you enter the marketplace, you essentially forfeit your conscience rights if you make a profit? And that is actually the argument that the government has been making.”

The amount of mental gymnastics people like McGuire are required to execute in order to reconcile their vile opinions with their better natures is simply astounding, making it increasingly difficult to disbelieve author Frank Schaeffer’s assertion that religious fundamentalists, no matter how polite or well-intentioned, all suffer from some level of brain damage as a result of cleaving to their ideology. In order for McGuire’s idea to make sense, one must believe that corporations are more than just people: they are super-people, non-corporeal manifestations of the will of their architects writ large across the socio-political landscape. In short, one must believe that corporations are gods on earth, and that to serve them is to serve the One True God himself.

McGuire’s beliefs are disturbingly highlighted in absentia during the final exchange between her and Thom Hartmann:

AM: [T]he only four forms that don’t want to pay for are the four who’s own FDA labels warn can destroy an embryo, which to them is tantamount to an abortion…The destruction of an embryo whether it’s before implantation or after, the purposeful…

TH: So now we’re getting into the religious area, so should Seventh Day Adventists be able to deny blood transfusions to their employees?

AM: Well…we’re not talking about that. What we’re talking about is the Hobby Lobby case…

TH: Yes we are.

AM: Not necessarily…

TH: We’re talking about whether a corporation can assert their religious beliefs. Seventh Day Adventists, excuse me, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in blood transfusions. Should they be allowed to say, “we won’t pay for those?”

AM: What we’re talking about is whether or not the employer should be forced to pay for their employee’s abortions against their religious objections.

TH: OK, we’ll have to leave it at that.

I couldn’t have found a better way to end the segment if I wished to. As long as McGuire refuses to answer this question – whether corporations have the right to assert their owner’s religious beliefs (any of them) over their employees – there is truly nothing left to say.

Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius isn’t just about birth control. It’s about religious dominion and discrimination over people under the guise of big business, about turning corporations into demigods. The birth control “debate” just so happens to have the most political traction at the moment to achieve this end. If can journalists like Thom Hartmann start leading off interviews with questions like the one above rather than finishing with them, the only thing they’ll save us more than time is the trouble of having to take people like Ashley McGuire seriously.

Here’s the entire segment:

Fred Phelps Is Dead, And I Don’t Care

I don’t want to talk about Fred Phelps. I don’t want to talk about the Westboro Baptist Church. They don’t deserve the press; it’s exactly what they want, so why on earth would we ever give it to them? But like a scab you can’t help but pick just to watch it bleed, Fred Phelps and his cadre of bigoted howler monkeys keep itching their way into my consciousness, clamoring for examination and ridicule. If there’s one thing the Westboro Baptist Church is good at, it’s gaining your attention, and for the time being, they’ve gained mine.

Nobody loves Armageddon more than these guys. (PHOTO: Eric Bowers, via Flickr)

Nobody loves Armageddon more than these guys. (PHOTO: Eric Bowers, via Flickr)

When I first heard that the The Daily Currant’s satirical article “Westboro Asks Public Not to Picket Phelps Funeral,” had gone viral, I was completely unsurprised. True to form with any other manifestation of fundamentalism, the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrates a critical lack of understanding when it comes to irony. Why wouldn’t they be compelled to say such a thing? It’s completely in line with their character. They’ve become such an unwitting parody of themselves that you can’t even make fun of them anymore. In truth, there will be no funeral for Fred Phelps, so the multitude detractors who would love a chance to spit on his grave will never get the satisfaction. If there is a hell down below, he’s there, laughing maniacally at all of us.

Of course, if I were as batshit crazy as he was, I’d be laughing, too. And for that, I can’t really hate the guy.

Vice wrote something akin to a thumbnail biography on Phelps, and published it the day he died. It’s a pretty compelling contextualization of the man, and while it won’t convince you to like the guy (hell, an army of PR lawyers with an army of image consultants couldn’t convince anyone to like they guy), it does demonstrate that Phelps wasn’t always the bigoted lunatic spokesperson for apocalyptic Christendom we’ve come to loathe. He was, once upon a time, a rather ordinary lunatic; a pill-popping junkie in denial who, after succumbing to an overdose in the late sixties, apparently lost what remained of his already rather warped and fragile grip on reality.

When charting the course of Phelps’ rise to hate-filled prominence as the head of the Westboro Baptist Church, you discover that the man was routinely beating his children for fun and profit, engaging in frivolous and often malicious lawsuits, and making a killing at both. Phelps’ unholy exploits are well chronicled by his estranged son Mark in his book Addicted To Hate, and I won’t elaborate on them in detail here. Vice author Gavin Haynes sums it up rather well with his claim that “the rather ordinary domestic tyranny imposed by this broken vessel seems far more unpleasant than all the more publicity-savvy placard-waving stuff he did outside the compound gates.” His family’s public misdeeds, vile as they were and are, pale in comparison to the destruction and abuse Fred Phelps himself wrought upon his family in the name of God. If it wasn’t for him, there would be no Westboro Baptist Church, and there would be no basis for this conversation I didn’t want to have in the first place.

Despite the suffering they have endured, I feel no pity for the Phelps clan. The House That Hate Built still stands, proud and defiant against respect and civility, and the Westboro flock are as hateful and shameless as ever. As I write this, the Internet is abuzz with reports of a WBC protest at a concert in Kansas City this past Friday, the day after Dear Leader died. Phelps’ death (not to mention his excommunication from the WBC last year) have not slowed them down in the slightest. Under new, even more vitriolic leadership, Westboro Baptist Church is poised to be a thorn in the side of respectable discourse for years to come, and a more perfect snapshot of just that could not have been better captured than the one obtained by pro-choice activist and The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead in the following Twitter exchange:

Lizz Winstead Twitter Screen Cap“The Ones With The Signs,” indeed. May they carve that upon every one of your headstones.

In the end, Fred Phelps was just a bad penny in a sea of wooden nickels. His death gains us nothing; to quote Gavin Haynes once again, “to cheer his demise would be to miss the point.” If success is the best revenge, then cold comfort can be had in the fact that, with marriage equality laws on the books in seventeen states and Attorney General Holder instructing state AGs to stop defending gay marriage bans, Phelps died on the losing side of LGBT history, and so will his family. His legacy–if he is even to be remembered at all–should serve only to instruct mankind of our base and savage nature, and that the peak of our evolutionary development lies at the base of a valley we can never hope to scale.

Fred Phelps Is Dead, And I Don’t Care

I don’t want to talk about Fred Phelps. I don’t want to talk about the Westboro Baptist Church. They don’t deserve the press; it’s exactly what they want, so why on earth would we ever give it to them? But like a scab you can’t help but pick just to watch it bleed, Fred Phelps and his cadre of bigoted howler monkeys keep itching their way into my consciousness, clamoring for examination and ridicule. If there’s one thing the Westboro Baptist Church is good at, it’s gaining your attention, and for the time being, they’ve gained mine.

Nobody loves Armageddon more than these guys. (PHOTO: Eric Bowers, via Flickr)

Nobody loves Armageddon more than these guys. (PHOTO: Eric Bowers, via Flickr)

When I first heard that the The Daily Currant’s satirical article “Westboro Asks Public Not to Picket Phelps Funeral,” had gone viral, I was completely unsurprised. True to form with any other manifestation of fundamentalism, the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrates a critical lack of understanding when it comes to irony. Why wouldn’t they be compelled to say such a thing? It’s completely in line with their character. They’ve become such an unwitting parody of themselves that you can’t even make fun of them anymore. In truth, there will be no funeral for Fred Phelps, so the multitude detractors who would love a chance to spit on his grave will never get the satisfaction. If there is a hell down below, he’s there, laughing maniacally at all of us.

Of course, if I were as batshit crazy as he was, I’d be laughing, too. And for that, I can’t really hate the guy.

Vice wrote something akin to a thumbnail biography on Phelps, and published it the day he died. It’s a pretty compelling contextualization of the man, and while it won’t convince you to like the guy (hell, an army of PR lawyers with an army of image consultants couldn’t convince anyone to like they guy), it does demonstrate that Phelps wasn’t always the bigoted lunatic spokesperson for apocalyptic Christendom we’ve come to loathe. He was, once upon a time, a rather ordinary lunatic; a pill-popping junkie in denial who, after succumbing to an overdose in the late sixties, apparently lost what remained of his already rather warped and fragile grip on reality.

When charting the course of Phelps’ rise to hate-filled prominence as the head of the Westboro Baptist Church, you discover that the man was routinely beating his children for fun and profit, engaging in frivolous and often malicious lawsuits, and making a killing at both. Phelps’ unholy exploits are well chronicled by his estranged son Mark in his book Addicted To Hate, and I won’t elaborate on them in detail here. Vice author Gavin Haynes sums it up rather well with his claim that “the rather ordinary domestic tyranny imposed by this broken vessel seems far more unpleasant than all the more publicity-savvy placard-waving stuff he did outside the compound gates.” His family’s public misdeeds, vile as they were and are, pale in comparison to the destruction and abuse Fred Phelps himself wrought upon his family in the name of God. If it wasn’t for him, there would be no Westboro Baptist Church, and there would be no basis for this conversation I didn’t want to have in the first place.

Despite the suffering they have endured, I feel no pity for the Phelps clan. The House That Hate Built still stands, proud and defiant against respect and civility, and the Westboro flock are as hateful and shameless as ever. As I write this, the Internet is abuzz with reports of a WBC protest at a concert in Kansas City this past Friday, the day after Dear Leader died. Phelps’ death (not to mention his excommunication from the WBC last year) have not slowed them down in the slightest. Under new, even more vitriolic leadership, Westboro Baptist Church is poised to be a thorn in the side of respectable discourse for years to come, and a more perfect snapshot of just that could not have been better captured than the one obtained by pro-choice activist and The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead in the following Twitter exchange:

Lizz Winstead Twitter Screen Cap“The Ones With The Signs,” indeed. May they carve that upon every one of your headstones.

In the end, Fred Phelps was just a bad penny in a sea of wooden nickels. His death gains us nothing; to quote Gavin Haynes once again, “to cheer his demise would be to miss the point.” If success is the best revenge, then cold comfort can be had in the fact that, with marriage equality laws on the books in seventeen states and Attorney General Holder instructing state AGs to stop defending gay marriage bans, Phelps died on the losing side of LGBT history, and so will his family. His legacy–if he is even to be remembered at all–should serve only to instruct mankind of our base and savage nature, and that the peak of our evolutionary development lies at the base of a valley we can never hope to scale.