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Vanessa Selbst

Too Hot for TED: Income Inequality

National Journal, May 16, 2012.

If you’re plugged into the Internet, chances are you’ve seen a TED talk – the wonky, provocative web videos that have become a sort of nerd franchise. TED.com is where you go to find Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explaining why the world has too few female leaders, or Twitter cofounder Evan Williams sharing the secret power of listening to users to drive company improvement. The slogan of the nonprofit group behind the site is “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

There’s one idea, though, that TED’s organizers recently decided was too controversial to spread: the notion that widening income inequality is a bad thing for America, and that as a result, the rich should pay more in taxes.

Read more here.

Stephen King: Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake!

The Daily Beast, April 30, 2012.

Chris Christie may be fat, but he ain’t Santa Claus. In fact, he seems unable to decide if he is New Jersey’s governor or its caporegime, and it may be a comment on the coarsening of American discourse that his brash rudeness is often taken for charm. In February, while discussing New Jersey’s newly amended income-tax law, which allows the rich to pay less (proportionally) than the middle class, Christie was asked about Warren Buffett’s observation that he paid less federal income taxes than his personal secretary, and that wasn’t fair. “He should just write a check and shut up,” Christie responded, with his typical verve. “I’m tired of hearing about it. If he wants to give the government more money, he’s got the ability to write a check—go ahead and write it.”

Read more here.

The Philosopher Whose Fingerprints Are All Over the FTC’s New Approach to Privacy

The Atlantic, March 29, 2012.

A mile or two away from Facebook’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, Helen Nissenbaum of New York University was standing in a basement on Stanford’s campus explaining that the entire way that we’ve thought about privacy on the Internet is wrong.

It was not a glorious setting. The lighting was bad. The room was half empty. Evgeny Morozov was challenging her from the back of the room with strings of tough, almost ludicrously detailed questions.

Nissenbaum’s March presentation was part of Stanford’s Program on Liberation Technology and relied heavily on her influential recent research, which culminated in the 2010 book, Privacy in Context, and subsequent papers like “A Contextual Approach to Privacy Online.”

Read more here.

The White Savior Industrial Complex

The Atlantic, March 21, 2012.

A week and a half ago, I watched the Kony2012 video. Afterward, I wrote a brief seven-part response, which I posted in sequence on my Twitter account:

These tweets were retweeted, forwarded, and widely shared by readers. They migrated beyond Twitter to blogs, Tumblr, Facebook, and other sites; I’m told they generated fierce arguments. As the days went by, the tweets were reproduced in their entirety on the websites of the Atlantic and the New York Times, and they showed up on German, Spanish, and Portuguese sites. A friend emailed to tell me that the fourth tweet, which cheekily name-checks Oprah, was mentioned on Fox television.

These sentences of mine, written without much premeditation, had touched a nerve. I heard back from many people who were grateful to have read them. I heard back from many others who were disappointed or furious. Many people, too many to count, called me a racist. One person likened me to the Mau Mau. The Atlantic writer who’d reproduced them, while agreeing with my broader points, described the language in which they were expressed as “resentment.”

Read more here.

You Can’t Occupy This

Slate, March 19, 2012.

In post-Occupy America, it’s often hard to know whether new citizen protest laws signal the end of free speech or a mere tweak of the machine. That looks to be the case with the new anti-protest bill that passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly two weeks ago and was signed into law by the president soon thereafter. On its face, the new legislation doesn’t change a whole lot. Yet the Occupy protesters are in an uproar that the bill both targets them and also signals a radical shift in free speech law. Almost nobody else seems to have noticed it at all. Who’s right?

That all depends on what you want to protest and where.

H.R. 347, benignly titled the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, passed the House 399-3. Such a lopsided vote suggests that nobody in Congress is bothered by this, on either side of the aisle. When President Obama signed it on March 8, almost nobody seems to have cared.

Read more here.

In Defense of ‘Homosexual Propaganda’ in Schools

Huffington Post, March 1, 2012.

During the Proposition 8 campaign, one of the arguments used by proponents of the ban on gay marriage was that, if it was not passed, schoolchildren would be taught about gay marriage when they learned about families. While the opponents of the proposition rightfully pointed out that this is inaccurate (education curricula and family law are, in fact, different), I often found myself wondering: what would be so bad about this?

The bogeyman of “homosexual propaganda in schools” isn’t new, either. I can’t pin down an exact origin, but as early as the 1970s, anti-gay bigots were trying to ban gay teachers as well as any teachers who supported gay rights. Their argument was that they didn’t want schools to be used as “recruitment centers” for homosexuality. In 2004 I was talking with a conservative friend of mine about the election, and he said he didn’t support John Kerry because Kerry wanted to “teach children about homosexuality in schools.”

Read more here.

Why Do Innocent People Confess?

The New York Times, February 23rd, 2012.

SEVERAL months after Antonio Ramirez was shot seven times in Oakland, Calif., the police picked up a frightened 16-year-old named Felix, isolated him in an interrogation room late at night without a lawyer, rejected his pleas to see his mother, and harangued him until he began to tell them what he thought they wanted to hear.

They wanted a diagram of the crime scene, he later told his court-appointed lawyer, Richard Foxall, but whatever he drew was so inaccurate that the police never produced it. When he described escaping in one direction after the killing, they corrected him, because they knew from witnesses that the shooter had gone the opposite way. When he didn’t mention an alley nearby, they told him about it, and he incorporated it into his statement. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” said one officer, as Felix recalled to his lawyer.

Read more here.

Two Justices Suggest Citizens United Ruling Should Be Reconsidered in Montana Case

The Washington Post, February 17th, 2012.

Two Supreme Court justices suggested Friday that the court reconsider its controversial 2010 decision that allowed unlimited corporate and union spending in elections.

The suggestion came as the court blocked a Montana Supreme Court decision upholding a century-old ban on corporate campaign spending in the state.

The Montana ruling seems squarely at odds with the court’s 5 to 4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission,which allowed unlimited corporate spending. The U.S. Supreme Court majority had said such independent spending did not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.

Read more here.

Private Prison Corporation Offers Cash in Exchange for State Prisons

The Huffington Post, February 14th, 2012.

As state governments wrestle with massive budget shortfalls, a Wall Street giant is offering a solution: cash in exchange for state property. Prisons, to be exact.

Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest operator of for-profit prisons, has sent letters recently to 48 states offering to buy up their prisons as a remedy for “challenging corrections budgets.” In exchange, the company is asking for a 20-year management contract, plus an assurance that the prison would remain at least 90 percent full, according toa copy of the letter obtained by The Huffington Post.

Read more here.

Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say

The New York Times, February 9th, 2012.

Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults. But a body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.

Read more here.

Race and Death Penalty Juries

The New York Times, February 5th, 2012.

North Carolina courageously passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009, making it the first state in the country to give death row inmates a chance to have their sentences changed to life without parole based on proof that race played a significant role in determining punishment.

A state court is now hearing the first challenge to a death sentence under that law. Marcus Robinson, who has been on death row since 1994, must prove that state prosecutors discriminated against blacks in selecting juries, affecting the outcomes of cases, including his. His lawyers presented a notable study by researchers at Michigan State University showing this kind of bias.

Read more here.

One Town’s War on Gay Teens

Rolling Stone, February 2nd, 2012.

Every morning, Brittany Geldert stepped off the bus and bolted through the double doors of Fred Moore Middle School, her nerves already on high alert, bracing for the inevitable.

“Dyke.”

Pretending not to hear, Brittany would walk briskly to her locker, past the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who loitered in menacing packs.

“Whore.”

Like many 13-year-olds, Brittany knew seventh grade was a living hell. But what she didn’t know was that she was caught in the crossfire of a culture war being waged by local evangelicals inspired by their high-profile congressional representative Michele Bachmann, who graduated from Anoka High School and, until recently, was a member of one of the most conservative churches in the area. When Christian activists who considered gays an abomination forced a measure through the school board forbidding the discussion of homosexuality in the district’s public schools, kids like Brittany were unknowingly thrust into the heart of a clash that was about to become intertwined with tragedy.

Read more here.

The Caging of America: Why Do We Lock Up So Many People?

The New Yorker, January 30th, 2012.

A prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly undramatic—the reported stories fail to grab us, because, for the most part, nothing happens. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades. It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.

Read more here.

Obama To Sign Indefinite Detention Bill Into Law

Salon, December 15th, 2011.

In one of the least surprising developments imaginable, President Obama – after spending months threatening to veto the Levin/McCain detention bill – yesterday announced that he would instead sign it into law (this is the same individual, of course, who unequivocally vowed when seeking the Democratic nomination to support a filibuster of “any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecom[s],” only to turn around – once he had the nomination secure — and not only vote against such a filibuster, but to vote in favor of the underlying bill itself, so this is perfectly consistent with his past conduct). As a result, the final version of the Levin/McCain bill will be enshrined as law this week as part of the the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). I wrote about primary provisions and implications of this bill last week, and won’t repeat those points here.

Read more here.

 

The Innocence Project

The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

Make the Road New York

Make the Road New York* promotes economic justice, equity and opportunity for all New Yorkers through community and electoral organizing, strategic policy advocacy, leadership development, youth and adult education, and high quality legal and support services.

*Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar. Searcher, there is no road. We make the road by walking. –Antonio Machado, Selected Poems, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982). 

American Civil Liberties Union

The ACLU is our nation’s guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.

The ACLU also works to extend rights to segments of our population that have traditionally been denied their rights, including people of color; women; lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people; prisoners; and people with disabilities.

If the rights of a society’s most vulnerable members are denied, everybody’s rights are imperiled.

 

Equal Justice Initiative

 

The Equal Justice Initiative is a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.

EJI litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.

 

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network

 

GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, is the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students. Established in 1990, GLSEN envisions a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. GLSEN seeks to develop school climates where difference is valued for the positive contribution it makes to creating a more vibrant and diverse community.

The Southern Center for Human Rights

 

The Southern Center for Human Rights provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails, seeks through litigation and advocacy to improve legal representation for poor people accused of crimes, and advocates for criminal justice system reforms on behalf of those affected by the system in the Southern United States.