Character Sketch, 3/13/2014: Curly Nickerson

  • 48, Filipino-Irish.
  • prize fighter, quit at 25.
  • favorite books are nature books.
  • master Italian chef.
  • grew up in Tampa, hung along the Gulf coast.
  • worked barges, owned a raft, got destroyed in Andrew.
  • shrimp shack bouncer; once saved an heiress to a shipping fortune from 3 bros.
  • Met some Hindu swamis building a temple on island off the coast of Alabama; related stories of potato/farmer famine, American savagery
  • Curly’s parents: refugees who met in Iceland, wound up on a merchant marine ship headed for Panama;
  • Settled for a time in corpus.
  • fought encephalitis as a kid, gave him colorful visions of utopia; consumed with worry about meting his opposite one day, he or she that sees the end in their vision; ontological opposite.
  • wants to meet holy men, take some part of their good with him.

Character Sketch, 3/11/14: Janessa Quayle

  • 29, white child of apartheid; adopted by Indian parents; came to the US circa 92/93.
  • works in a Foley’s, suburban Raleigh.
  • went to NC state; dropped out after 1 semester.
  • off the grid for 3 years, lived near Iqaluit for a spell.
  • made furniture for handicapped folks, befriended Aziz,the lord of the land.
  • parents never looked for her; father, diabetic, mother died in car wreck shortly after she left.
  • brother went into tech industry in Charlotte; cashed out of a company before they went huge, worked for the city after that.
  • Janessa’s favorite kind of furniture to make is little kids tea party furniture.
  • got real good with a knife; had to fight a bear, killed it. no one knows about this.

I didn’t draw this

Those backwater places and their marginalizing ways

A stereotypical image of tea plantation workers in Jorhat. via Indium Bound.

In The New Republic, Graeme Wood reports on the horrors facing the Rohingya in the Burma’s Rakhine state:

Muslims and Buddhists who recently lived with each other peacefully now squat on opposite sides of barbed-wire fences and plot each other’s elimination. Old women and children too infirm to run from raiding parties have been speared or beaten to death in their homes. The fortunate ones are fleeing to other countries on overladen, leaky boats.

The fear of displacement is acute:

Virtually every foreigner with extensive Burma experience I met told me a story of hearing ordinary Burmese—even friends and colleagues—speak openly about the “Bengali” problem. . . .The monks peddle implausible theories of how Muslims are slowly taking over Burmese society, by seizing land, marrying and converting women, and simply out-spawning Buddhists.

The threat of re-population, exacerbated by the horror of conversion-by-marriage, has stoked the age-old fear that Burma will go the way of ancient Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Afghanistan, countries that were once majority-Buddhist and today are decidedly not. In response, many Rohingya have been stripped of their citizenship. Escape—to Malaysia or Indonesia—requires contracting with human-traffickers; all-too-frequently, the journey ends in death.

Here, Burma’s broader regional context feels pertinent: its proximity to the backwater states of Northeast India, which have nurtured and exploited a long-simmering resentment towards the refugees that have spilled across its border with Bangladesh since the horrific war of its creation in 1971. Most of these refugees are Muslim. Many are poor. And when discussed derisively by the middle Assamese—their diasporic, jingoistic cousins here in the United States, at least—it is frequently with the bitter language of Theyness. As those “Bengalis,” corrupting the land, their land. The language of Otherness, it turns out, knows no borders.

The reasons for the vitriol are numerous. Those concerning economic stagnation and the dire need for a more coherent immigration policy have always struck me as valid, especially as vivid indictments of a historically negligent central government, one that has preferred to stage-manage this four-decade-old crisis rather than solve it.  In turn, the region has nurtured separaratist militias, student movements, and state governments hostile to the very presence of these Bengalis, these Others. 

It begins with a bitter resentment, and quickly metastasizes into anger and outright fear, the normalization of nativism as a principle. Extreme cultural nationalism deployed as a means of clinging to every last shred of rootedness. It is particularly acute and painful for those who’ve left India to make their homes abroad: We left it all behind and look what happened. They invaded. That resentment sometimes explodes like it did in the village of Nellie thirty-one years ago.

In Caravan, more recently:

The violence in the western Assam districts involving indigenous Bodo tribespeople and Muslims of East Bengali origin, which peaked in July-August this year, has abated. In the weeks that rioting gripped the state, over 100 people were killed and nearly 200,000 people displaced from their homes. . . . 

Amidst incidents of Bodo rebels attacking Muslims trying to return to their villages, leader of a faction of the Bodo rebel group National Democratic Front of Bodoland, Gobinda Basumatary declared that displaced Muslims would have to “prove beyond doubt” their Indian citizenship before they would be allowed to return to their homes.

Worryingly, following the western Assam incidents, the anti-migrant movement is spreading to other parts of Assam, as well as some neighbouring states. In Nagaland, the Naga Council and the Naga Hoho, both powerful local groups made up of local intelligentsia and tribal elders, have called for expulsion of all “migrants” from Nagaland. Nativist groups in neighbouring Meghalaya and Manipur have also called for the immediate detection and expulsion of “foreigners” (read: illegal migrants).

“It looks like a repeat of the early 1980s when the anti-foreigner agitation in Assam spread to other states in the Northeast and led to a lot of turmoil,” says Samir Das, a professor of political science who has authored books on Assam’s nativist movements.

You learn the language for all this in middle-class living rooms and over tea, in newspaper editorials, at rallies for vote-buying local politicians in small villages, at the student meetings in late 1970s and early 1980s that journalists like Sanjoy Hazarika have written about. These are the bourgeois and rural theaters where the urgency to protect your land, your job, your language, your children, is perverted over the decades into a harsh brand of normalized nativism.

What’s tragically ironic about all this is that the children of Northeast should know full well what it is to be unwanted and marginalized. Consider the death of Nido Taniam. In Tehelka:

On 29 January, Taniam was at Lajpat Nagar [in Delhi] and asked a shopkeeper for directions to a friend’s house. The shopkeeper made jibes at his appearance, especially his bleached hair.

After a verbal spat, Taniam broke the glass door of the shop. The shopkeeper and his friends smeared chilli powder on Taniam’s eyes and thrashed him. Soon, the cops landed there and packed off everyone to the nearest police station. The dispute was resolved after Taniam was made to cough up Rs 10,000.

Surprisingly, the police dropped Taniam back at the same spot where the tiff had taken place. Once the cops left, the shopkeeper and his friends attacked him again. The police returned and this time both sides “amicably resolved” the dispute and even signed an apology letter.

After Taniam returned home, his friends claim that he complained of chest pain and went to sleep at around 6 am the following morning. Around noon on 30 January, they took him to AIIMS, where he breathed his last.

Nido was the son of a government official from the state of Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern-most state of the far northeastern corner of India, the vestigial bulb that hangs off the end of the sometimes-widening, occasionally contracting chicken neck. Northeasterners from Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, and its sister states, who dare trespass into the mainland, are folding Nido’s death into the larger, troubling pattern of anti-Northeast racism in Delhi:

In February 2013, locals made racial slurs and attacked 10 Manipuri students at Katwaria Sarai in south Delhi. The police had refused to [act] . . . and the Northeast Support Centre had to intervene before a complaint was registered under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which attracts stronger punishment than simple assault charges under the Indian Penal Code. “Whenever we pass through a crowded street, people pass obscene comments like ‘How much for one night?’ as if we are prostitutes,” says Babina, a Manipuri student. . . .

[Assamese artist Utpal Borpujari:] “There is no representation of the history and the ethnic diversity of the Northeast in any school or college curricula. It’s not in history books and you don’t get to know about one whole part of India. Thus, you have people throwing around terms such as ‘Momo’ or ‘Chinky’. The Northeast is full of freedom fighters and other heroes.”

For a region that knows what it is to bear the brunt of stigma, to know the experience of marginalization: surely there’s some empathy to spare here. A call to re-evaluate how centers of power allow hatred to fester and bubble into an actual politics and policy. Surely there’s room in their hearts for the Rohingya, the “Bengali”? 

An alchemy of apocalypse in ‘True Detective’


As a caveat to this entire post, here’s True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto in The Daily Beast:

I’ve enjoyed reading people theorize about what’s going to happen because it’s a sign that you’re connecting. But I’m also sort of surprised by how far afield they’re getting. Like, why do you think we’re tricking you? It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years. The show’s not trying to outsmart you. And really if you pay attention… if someone watches the first episode and really listens, it tells you 85 percent of the story of the first six episodes.

Throat cleared.

In its first three installments, True Detective drenches us in atmosphere: a melange of religio-gothic horror, tinges of racial-class divide, the meaty scepter of modern theocracy, a wink at the supposed power of  state-sanctioned Christian rehabilitation. Are these the things that matter for puppet master Nic Pizzolatto? His show’s distinct blend of the macabre, its constant sense of dread—the swampland refineries looming in the background—even the devilishly comic banter (of which there is no shortage), suggest that, basically, this is it–the end is not only nigh, it’s churning away now. Here, 19 years after the murder of Dora Lange, we may well be living in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. True Detective is about the end of the world. The alchemy of the apocalypse.

If I understand the nature of novelistic television, True Detective‘s dreadful, gorgeous landscape are meant to inform how we understand the partnership of detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. Is their relationship a vector of sorts: a line that starts at a single point, zooming off into infinity in one direction? Or do Cohle and Hart exist on a continuum, some spectrum of human nature, their ramblings mean as proxies for competing remedies for reconciling the horror, callousness, and suffering of the human condition? Do we all have a little Rust and a little Marty in us, duking it out till the end of time?  

I can’t say I understand much of what Pizzolatto says later in the interview:

I think my serial killer’s personal pathology is wrapped in very culturally relevant symbols that may not be immediately apparent. Not just hunting, but the idea of woman as trophy to be stuffed and displayed. The idea of prayer, and one of the necessities of the prayer pose being the blindfold: in order to effectively pray you’re going to have to ignore some very basic facts about the world.

So to me it’s not just that Cohle and Hart are hunting for their savage id or their most destructive portion. It’s that the killer has some resonance in the kinds of shows we’re talking about. We only have the one murdered woman at the crime scene in the entire series. It’s not an unrelenting horror show. It’s meant to stand in for the universal victim in this type of drama. Because while I think we’re doing a good job of telling the story that this genre demands, I think we’re also poking certain holes in it and looking at where these instincts begin, both in the type of men that Hart and Cohle represent—and in ourselves as an audience.

On first glance, the image of the woman-as-hunting-trophy scans like an exploitative source of titillation. We see Dora through the detectives’ clinical gazes, and quickly come to grasp Cohle’s obsession with fitting the grisliness and symbology of her murder into ritual—to understand it as a by-product of that great sickness called religion. For Hart, it’s all just a bunch of crazy; dispense with the theorizing and simply follow the clues where they lead. It’s important to remember that the break in their case at the conclusion of episode 3 comes from basic shoe leather detective work. If anything, it seems to affirm Marty’s distilled, take-things-as-they-are sense of the world.

At the start of the series we don’t know the nature of Pizzolatto’s relationship with Louisiana, poverty, suffering, and violence, or with cultures of violence and wild depravity. It’s difficult to assess what Dora’s body means to him and the story. The antlers, the praying posture, Dora’s chalky nakedness, the blindfold, all seem like details included to to draw attention to themselves, perhaps in the same way that such details do in the world of a CSI. But we assume there is deeper meaning in all this for Pizzolatto, that those “very basic facts of the world” would seem to include the idea that there is hope for our most marginalized and forgotten.

There’s the meaning of the symbols for the detectives. Then there is its meaning for the murderer(s). And, then, there is its meaning for Pizzolatto, and, finally, the audience. Will Pizzolatto’s take on the genre end up subverting the idea of dead-woman-as-object? This is tricky terrain: aiming to use the convention with the full intent of upending how the convention is generally employed in “this kind of drama.”

Our capacity to forget about the Doras of the world should not only shame us. It’s what dooms us. Instead of confronting our failures, we subject ourselves to prayer, to pills, cheat on our loved ones then bathe in the guilt, as if it’s all some bizarre absolution for our moral failings. At least that’s what I want Pizzolatto to be saying.

For me, Cohle and Hart represent unique visions for coping with our civilizational, societal demise. Maybe that reading says more about me than Nic Pizzolatto (I guess that’s always the case with “readings). And I’m quite likely assuming far too much knowledge about our protagonists. What if, right now, all we know is what we don’t know…but, you know, still think we know? I’m prepared to be rebuffed, is what I’m saying.

I do want Pizzolatto to make a distinct choice, though. Each man and the world he’s constructed for himself is utterly flawed, and sometimes horrifically imperfect. These are mechanisms for coping with the worst sort of stuff the world has to offer. If this is a story about the end of decency and the permanence of suffering, circumscribed by the sheer necessity to cope, show me how to deal. I do prefer my television soupy and gray as all get out. But we’re only getting eight hours of Cohle and Hart; arcs, loops, thematic concerns, there must be some closure to these things.

It’s certainly brave, in its own right, to close a narrative with a hushed ambiguity, to end things by calling attention to the fact that nothing really ends, not really. But coming to expecting that out of storytelling as the current Golden Age has done is a sort of victimization, which is a part of the complex of conventions that Pizzolatto could, might, maybe, be seeking to deconstruct.

“Snubs” annals: the brutal ‘Captain Phillips’

Recall the moment in The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep’s domineering, icy fashion magazine mogul Miranda Priestly reveals the awful truth to her condescending, ambitious young assistant Andrea, played with pre-Lapsarian pluck by Anne Hathaway: no one opts out of the fashion economy. Our choices–our lumpy blue sweaters, specifically–are pre-ordained, filtered through the sketchbooks and palettes of Oscar de la Renta, onto the runway models of Yves Saint Laurent, “down through the department stores and…into some tragic Casual Corner” where the suddenly shrunken Andrea fishes it out, in Miranda’s vicious telling of her assistant’s life-as-product. “It’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you…when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you,” Miranda explains, #realtalkily.

Her deft sketch recurs in a more terrifying iteration in Paul Greengrass’ tense and terse Captain Phillips, a reenactment of the 2009 hostage crisis in which an American shipping captain, brought to salty life by a gamely un-self-conscious Tom Hanks, was taken hostage by a crew of desperate Somali fishermen-turned-pirates, led by Muse, played with a compelling, all-absorbing desperation by the now-Oscar-nominated Barkhad Abdi. There’s nary a wasted frame, no time to spare on moments of human frailty or small tragedy that do not service the movie’s sense of propulsion.  It is an efficient, evocative piece of film-making.

This is not to say there is no room for sentiment in Greengrass’ universe. Only that he respects his audiences too much to force them to expend emotional energy on moments and characters whose role is either incidental or expository. There is the tragedy that drives his first Bourne film, the second in the series, versus the near-absence of Catherine Keener’s wife character in Phillips; the former drives the story’s momentum, while the latter ensures that the stakes and escalating tensions remain trapped in the claustrophobic confines of the Maersk Alabama’s rescue boat. This is narrative economy, practiced in its its purest form: squeezing out excess oxygen and moments that feel arbitrary or forced. Characters count, and service the narrative’s propulsion. And vice versa.

Phillips’ ordeal could have been told as the cut-and-dry triumph of ordinary, blue-collar American decency. That would be the made-for-television version, the work of a filmmaker who rejects complexity rather than one who folds it into the narrative to raise the human and moral stakes. Indeed, there is nothing easy about Greengrass’ rendering of these events. His interpretation relies on constant, mind-spinning swells between foreground and background. In the foreground are our protagonist and his captors. The background is vast: global systems of production and distribution, and the trimmed-down, terrifyingly efficient machine that protects, preserves, kills, and captures all that which threatens our system of capital.

Greengrass’ project in Phillips is to lay bare the brutality at work here, the awful power to devalue the human elements that make these systems go. The cogs in these networks include massive container vessels like the Maersk Alabama and its parent company, the Danish A.P. Møller-Maersk. And it is only becoming more massive: the company is set to debut a new class of ships, each of which is 1,312 feet long, 194 feet wide, and weighs 55,000 tons when empty. “The size of the vessels and the economies of scale they bring have made transportation a vanishingly small part of the prices consumers pay and made possible a world in which Americans eat bananas grown in Ecuador while wearing designer knitwear from China,” Businessweek reported earlier this year.

These ships haul loads of factory parts, iPads, clothes or, in the film’s case, food, much of which was apparently headed for NGOs in Africa. On the opposite end of the spectrum: the silent ubermensch of our special forces, policing the world and helping us avoid international embarrassments (i.e., the capture of a civilian like Phillips). These near-silent sentinels stand ready and able to calmly air-drop into chaos and pull off the seemingly impossible at a moment’s notice.

After all the blood-letting and terror of Phillips’ ordeal, the swiftness of the SEALS’ operation is so striking and impressive in its finality that it seems almost comical. The suffering of Phillips and his captors’ alike feels oddly disproportionate to the  suddenness of its conclusion. You wonder: what, precisely was at stake? And for whom, to warrant bringing the full might, power, and authority of the US war machine to bear? The reality Greengrass suggests is that avoiding a diplomatic disaster and staving off the subsequent humiliation is, really, what counts here. Sending a message that, yes, we can and will defend the sacred sovereignty of our global shipping channels, and resultant spoils of a thriving capitalist empire. The scenes featuring the SEALS recall one of the resonant themes of Jeremy Schahill’s ground-breaking documentary Dirty Wars: they are a brilliantly honed machine. It is scary stuff.

Where that leaves us, then, is unclear. We, the consumers, taxpayers, union-dues payers, fishermen, drug addicts, and tuition-owees, frequently desperate, stubbly, perhaps rounder in the gut than we’d like to be at the age of 45 or 46, jockeying for position, prestige, and respect among our peers?  Watching Captain Phillips, the insistent question for me was: does the global economy as it functions, with all its grinding financial gears, lack of capital controls and universal labor standards, interlinked economies, have a real place for, you know, the people it purports to service? Phillips and Muse appear to wind up where they do up because of forces largely beyond their control; neither man, the film argues, has much choice over his respective plight or station.

For Greengrass, my sense is that while individual choice–Phillips’ choice to try to play the hero and save his crew, Muse’s to maintain his pursuit of Phillips’ boat even after his fellow man pulls out–do matter, there is a strict limit on its impact. You can only act within the limits of a pre-determined data set. Indeed, people like Phillips and Muse–people like us–are data points for extraction, delivery, execution, akin to the hundreds of cargo containers loaded onto the deck of the Maersk Alabama. I suppose the question comes down to whether people and their respective needs, hopes, dreams, and economic realities, actually matter. Whether, amid the permutations of a global economic behemoth and the forces that protect it, there is space for their humanity. Perhaps in the Devil Wears Prada version, the message is something like: the world that manufactured and shipped that lumpy blue sweater is passionately disinterested in those who would wear it. 

Greengrass, of course, was “snubbed” at this morning’s Oscar nominations announcement, as was Tom Hanks. Still, the movie’s larger aesthetic achievements have been “recognized” with a Best Picture nod. Snideness aside, Hanks’ performance is somewhat inherent to the movie’s basic “best”ness: the brutal stakes and victims of the deliver-hunt-destroy global economy only feel real because of Greengrass and Hanks’ commitment to challenging the notion of Hanks-as-mass-consumption, a feel-good export of American good intent.

Months after seeing it, this movie has stayed with me. Perhaps because it dares to be messy, to confront viewers with the desperation dripping out of our most maligned and desiccated places. 

How Big Beef Got Big

I’ve got a piece in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly detailing the ins and outs of a questionable program run by the USDA. This program facilitates the collection of a fee, known colloquially as the “checkoff,” from America’s cattle ranchers, and helps deliver that money to trade associations—one of which, in particular, engages in some disturbingly anti-rancher behavior. There’s a convoluted history behind the genesis of this group, known as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), and I figured it could be helpful for readers to have a sense of this history.

What exists today is certainly not what was intended all the way back in 1922, when Thomas Wilson—not a rancher, but a meatpacking mogul—established the National Livestock and Meats Board (NLMB) to promote beef, pork, and lamb products. Wilson introduced a 5 cents-per-car load checkoff, which brought in some $959,000 in today’s dollars. Over the decades, the federal government instituted a series of programs for a range of commodities in which it collected a fee from agriculture producers and used it to finance promotional and marketing activities ostensibly to help all links in the supply chain.

In 1985, the government established the modern beef check off system. This was an era that witnessed painful end for many independent farmers and ranchers, at the hands of massive agriculture companies like Monsanto and Tyson.

Jo Ann Doke Smith, the first woman to head up the National Cattlemen’s Association (NCA), is generally credited with crafting the more formal checkoff program. At the time, the NCA served as the primary trade association for cattlemen, funded primarily through membership dues paid by producers and feeders. Smith’s goal was to harness the existing network of state beef councils to bolster beef promotion activities, and provide the independent cattlemen with a sorely needed shot in the arm.

Smith spent much of 1985 touring the country, convincing state livestock associations to back the first-ever national $1-a-head checkoff. “This industry is in a war for survival, very definitely,” Smith warned in an August, 1985 appearance on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. “[T]o be able to survive, [the cattle producer has] got to make some money and he hasn’t been able to do that. But he’s willing to change for the first time. He’s willing to address that.”

Until that time, promotional institutions and efforts to boost demand for beef products were scattered, informal, and voluntary. By the mid-1970s, 30 states ran checkoffs; 18 were mandatory, and the other 12 were voluntary. They charged fees ranging from 25 cents to $1 for each cow or calf sold, amounting to some $10 million a year. Most of that money stayed in-state for local beef promotion activities, with the rest often sent on to the Beef Industry Council (BIC), a part of the National Livestock and Meat Board, to fund broader efforts. The Meat Board, notably, did not include a lobbying or government affairs wing.

Smith’s plan was to federalize the program and strengthen its voice. She also wanted to make the checkoff mandatory across the country. Her lobbying paid off in December of 1985, when Congress passed the Beef Promotion Research Act and Order, instituting the checkoff program as we now know it. That success was not due solely to Smith’s hustle: in one of Washington’s happy convergences, the NCA literally wrote the Act and Order, as the Federal Register of 1986 shows.

Perhaps the biggest change: with the induction of those NCA-authored measures, the checkoff program became mandatory. Per Smith’s wishes, the Act and Order required that domestic cattle producers pay $1-per-head to one of 45 “qualified state beef councils,” comprised of members of the cattle producing community. These state councils would keep 50 cents of each dollar, and could choose to send the other 50 cents on to the national checkoff program.

Congress also wrote in two key provisions to govern use of these funds. First, that the money would be controlled by actual ranchers in a democratic fashion, protecting it from the corporatist interests of the steadily consolidating meatpacking industry. Indeed, the Act makes clear that none of its provision “shall be construed to limit the right of individual producers to raise cattle”—a clear declaration of intent to stand up for the producer. Practically, this provision meant that the program would be required to contract with “industry-governed organizations” (rather than directly with advertising agencies) to conduct beef promotion activities. It also meant distributing contracting power among a few different actors, including the US Meat Export Federation, the American National CattleWomen, and the Meat Import Council of America.

To run the program, Congress created two bodies: the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board (CBB), which approves the budget for the checkoff, and the Beef Promotion Operating Committee (BPOC), which disburses checkoff funds and awards contracts. The Act and Order mandated that the BPOC must consist of 20 members. 10 were to be selected by the CBB, and 10 by the BIC.

The Act handed the responsibly of nominating CBB members—members of the beef producer and importer community—to the USDA, and required that board members disclose to the agency any relationships with beef promotion entities, or organizations under consideration for a checkoff contract. The Act also required that the CBB contract with an outside agency to conduct regular compliance and financial audits of checkoff spending. Those audits are funded by checkoff money.

The second key provision Congress included in the Act was that money was not to be used for politics. The Beef Act and its complementing order make it quite plain: the order “shall prohibit any funds collected by the Board under the order from being used in any manner for the purpose of influencing governmental action or policy, with the exception of recommending amendments to the order.” Those restrictions run a pretty wide gamut—theoretically, that would make enforcement all the easier. Any activity bearing even the slightest taint of political motivation cannot be funded with checkoff money. Full stop.

The 1990s saw radical changes unfold for the program, changes that would start to align the meatpackers’ policy interests with the checkoff. This would fracture the basic tenets of the beef checkoff, which explicitly dictated that checkoff funds remain separate from lobbying expenditures. It was this moment of Original Sin that began to crystalize just how profoundly the meatpackers’ lobbying aims diverged from the basic needs of cattlemen.

Mid-decade, it began to dawn on reform-minded lawmakers a major flaw had wormed its way into the checkoff system: it was becoming impossible to distinguish between checkoff spending and lobbying. In other words, there was no clear sense of where the firewall stood. Hence, lawmakers and regulators couldn’t prove that the checkoff groups weren’t spending their money on politics.

At a 1994 hearing, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin questioned how well the firewall worked. He focused specifically on the NCA, which received between $3 and $5 million from the checkoff each year. Feingold pointed out that recent NCA literature clearly discussed ways to influence legislation and trade policy. The Senator also dug up an ad the group placed in the Washington Post on the eve of a Senate markup of an ag-related bill. “Some might suggest that the current separation of checkoff dollars from lobbying activities is already blurry,” Feingold said.

Barry Carpenter, then-director of the livestock and seed division of the AMS, confirmed that NCA’s use of the funds “may push the boundaries.” But he went on to say that where those boundaries actually stood was unclear. In a separate exchange, Feingold asked Carpenter how the agency interpreted the statutory prohibition on checkoff dollars being used to influence government action and policy. “Our interpretation is that [the NCA keeps] those separate,” Carpenter replied—take us at our word.

And the boundaries would only become more ambiguous. In the early 1990s, NCA president-elect Bob Drake unveiled a plan designed to enhance his organization’s power in the beef checkoff system. Groups including the NCA, the Meat Export Federation, the National Livestock and Meat Board, the American National CattleWomen, and others, shared the checkoff pie. But the Beef Industry Council—a part of the meat board—won the vast majority of the contracts. Given its dominance within the BPOC, which awarded the checkoff contracts, this was not surprising.

But the NCA tired of losing. It was also hurting for cash:  even at the height of its influence, the NCA’s dues-paying membership rarely peaked beyond 40,000, out of some 800-900,000 cattlemen across the country.

Drake’s solution? Hand him control over almost all the money by allowing his #3 NCA to assume control of #1 BIC, and oversee the dissolution of #2 National Livestock and Meat Board. In other words, put all the money into one pot, to be controlled by one team. Despite the concerns from Congress, the National Cattlemen’s Association approved Drake’s plan (by a single vote) at its annual meeting in August of 1995, in San Antonio, Texas.

Here’s how it broke down under Drake’s scheme: one half of the new organization, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) would handle the collection and disbursement of checkoff money; this half would be the Federation of State Beef Councils, the successor to the Beef Industry Council. The other half would handle policy advocacy. In other words: checkoff dollars and lobbying cash would live under the same roof, with the NCBA entrusted to “code” expenses either as checkoff spending or policy spending.

Through its federation division, the NCBA would also automatically win power to appoint members to half of the seats on the BPOC. The other half would be selected by CBB members, most of whom are members of NCBA affiliates or of the NCBA itself.

In other words, the very same group that receives virtually all of the beef checkoff contracts would now be in the privileged position of rewarding itself with those contracts, securing nearly $40 million a year from ranchers all across the country, and winning nearly 99 percent of all checkoff-funded projects in the process.

Drake’s plan also retained two questionable features of the existing checkoff paradigm, ones that blurred the distinction between the state and national organizations. Spots on the NCBA’s board of directors are, quite literally, up for sale: state beef councils can “invest” in those seats, i.e., buy them at rates dictated by a preset payment schedule. And money talks: states with more cattle producers like Nebraska collect more checkoff money, making it much easier for them to buy their way into the NCBA.

Drake’s plan also greatly increased the power of the biggest meat packers over a program originally conceived to favor independent ranchers. Four companies currently control 85% of the business—Cargill, JBS, National Beef Packing, and Tyson—up from about a 25% share of the business in 1975. The new plan gave packers the opportunity to directly purchase special seats on the NCBA board, giving them the ability to influence how NCBA spends those funds.

This would also allow the packers to bring the NCBA more closely into alignment with the 107-year-old American Meat Institute, a trade group that lobbies chiefly for meat packing companies. In the conflict between the rancher and the industry, that assertion of control only further diminished his already winnowing voice and accelerated his slow demise.

Not surprisingly, NCBA began immediately to win virtually all of the federal level checkoff contracts. And not surprisingly, the NCBA began to spend its money in ways that reflected the interest more of giant packers than of independent ranchers. Robert Taylor, an agricultural economist at Auburn University, says that meatpackers have all but captured the NCBA and its state affiliates over the past twenty years. “At the very least, NCBA policy as manifested in DC . . . is pro-meatpacker, and often counter to the best interests of independent cattlemen,” he adds. “So, heck yea, the big packers can tailor the direction of the promotion program to their needs.”

As this was happening, what did the USDA—theoretically charged with protecting interest of those independent ranchers—do? Essentially nothing.

In theory, of course, those ten other BPOC seats, the ones filled by the CBB, might balance out the NCBA’s influence. Alas: the CBB’s membership is comprised mainly of state beef promoters tied to the NCBA. A vast number of CBB members have held positions with the NCBA’s affiliates, groups like the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Some have worked directly for the NCBA. Others have worked for meatpackers like JBS and Cargill. Of the 10 CBB members currently on the BPOC, five are current or past members of the NCBA or its state affiliates.

Over the years, a range of independent farmers have attacked the ways in which the USDA’s programs appear to favor big companies over small. In 2000, hog farmers, angry that the program only seemed to subsidize the pork industry, succeeded in passing a referendum to end their checkoff at the end of the Clinton administration, but were thwarted by Bush Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who overturned their referendum after alleging that the results were flawed. In the courts, tree fruit producers in California sued the USDA in 1996, arguing that the government couldn’t force them to pay for generic advertising through the checkoff. Especially when that advertising frequently promoted the products of their direct competitors. But the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against them.

In 1998, the Livestock Marketing Association (LMA) launched a petition to trigger a referendum to end the checkoff. The LMA and Western Organization of Research Councils, meanwhile, teamed up to challenge the checkoff in court. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the checkoff was government speech, making the checkoff a required tax. On the petition front, the ranchers secured 146,000 signatures, 38,000 more than the number required to spark a referendum. But Dan Glickman, Mike Espy’s replacement, disqualified a number of them, throwing out the petition and ignoring the will of the ranchers.

In 2004, R-CALF won a ruling from the US court of appeals for the Eighth Circuit declaring that the beef checkoff was “compelled speech”— that it forced producers to pay for a message they disagreed with. But the Supreme Court reversed the lower court in 2005, ruling that the beef checkoff does not violate the free-speech rights of producers. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia held that checkoff-financed speech was “government speech”; as such, the majority said, it could not be challenged under the First Amendment.

In the dissent, Justice David Souter, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Anthony Kennedy, scoffed. The program ignored the basic fact that, for instance, grain-fed beef raised domestically differs from imported grass-fed beef, “which the Americans consider inferior.” Taxing ranchers to finance advertising that treated all products the same was absurd, and counter to their own interests. “If government relies on the government-speech doctrine to compel specific groups to fund speech with targeted taxes,” he wrote, “it must make itself politically accountable by indicating that the content actually is a government message, not just the statement of one self-interested group the government is currently willing to invest with power.”

Conservatives frequently criticize labor unions on similar grounds. They allege that conservative union members, required to pay membership dues, are forced to support a body that advocates for Democratic positions. But there’s a key distinction: in those instances, union members are full-fledged, dues-paying members empowered by certain rights and a voice. So while they may not agree with the union’s politics, at least they’re afforded the opportunity to make their positions known. Ranchers, meanwhile, make up only a third of so of the NCBA’s total membership; as such, they’re forced to subsidize a group engaged in actions directly opposed to their interests, with virtually zero opportunity to speak up.

In all these years of battle against the NCBA, the biggest break of all seemed to fall out of the sky. This came in 2010, in the midst of the Obama hearings on agriculture reform, in the form of a highly damning audit of how NCBA spends its check off dollars.

The CBB had commissioned an audit of the program from its external auditor, Clifton Gunderson, whose relationship with the board dates back to at least 2005. In February of 2010, Clifton Gunderson completed a spot review of checkoff spending, assessing a sample of 45 checkoff expenditures and 25 employee timesheets from September 2008 to February 2010. The purpose was to ferret out “ineligible overhead expenses” like employees’ travel costs, as well as to test the integrity of the alleged firewall between the checkoff and lobbying activities.

Clifton Gunderson found tens of thousands of checkoff dollars either incorrectly charged or inadequately documented, findings that at least partially confirmed Thomas’ account. In one case, just over $3,500 in checkoff money went towards the travel expenses of the wife of NCBA CEO Forrest L. Roberts. The checkoff guidelines prohibit the money from being used for such purposes. Steve Foglesong, then-president of the NCBA, promptly announced that the NCBA would be reimbursing the money. (“We always felt it was important for them to bring their wives along…It’s always good to have your wife along to help you get centered,” Foglesong explained).

Most damning of all? The firm also could not verify whether some $25,631 charged to the Federation violated the Beef Promotion Research Act and Order. In other instances, the NCBA didn’t seem to have the paperwork to verify its expenditures. According to the executive summary of the audit, the “NCBA breached the financial firewall during the periods tested and . . . did not maintain sufficient documentation in many instances to adequately support the separation of expenditures between the policy side of NCBA and the checkoff side of NCBA.” To make amends, the group did agree to pay more than $216,000 back into the checkoff fund

What auditors found might, in fact, be only a small sample (less than one percent of beef checkoff funds, according to OCM) of an egregious array of abuses. Recall, the assessment only looked at a miniscule portion of the NCBA’s books, and was conducted by a firm the CBB has a history with. In addition, it was applied only to 25 employees who had been selected by the CBB. Notably, in a letter appended to review, Clifton Gunderson emphasized that it had no intention of expressing “an opinion or limited assurance” of NCBA’s books. “Had we performed additional procedures, other matters might have come to our attention that would have been reported to you.”

The audit, in other words, threw tens of millions of dollars of expenses into question.

On the heels of the audit, Fred Stokes at OCM successfully persuaded the USDA’s office of the inspector general (OIG), and Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Ed Avalos, to perform an internal review of the checkoff. OCM furnished the OIG’s team with the details of how the NCBA diverts checkoff money, its relationship with the CBB and the BPOC, and the lack of USDA oversight. Stokes himself spoke a number of times with lead investigator Don Pfiel over the course of what turned into a nearly two-year process. Though the review was slowed by Washington’s never-ending cycle of budget crises and near-government shutdowns, the office told Stokes that the investigative portion of the audit would be complete by December of 2011. The USDA has since published and retracted a version of the report.

Patti at Coney Island

via Flavorwire

via Flavorwire

If you can get with a passage like the following via the great Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ (interrupted by my annotations) let’s talk:

Nothing was more wonderful to me than Coney Island with its gritty innocence. It was our kind of place: the fading arches, the peeling signs of bygone days, cotton candy and Kewpie dolls on a stick, dressed in feathers and glittering top hats. We wandered through the last gasp of the sideshows. They had lost their luster, though they still touted such human oddities as the donkey-faced boy, the alligator man, and the three-legged girl. Robert found the world of freaks fascinating, though of late he was forgoing them for leather boys in his work.

All her descriptions suggest things decayed or on their way to becoming kitsch: things fading, things peeling, and losing that old shine. The elements that stick in Smith’s memory are those signaling time’s inexorable winnowing [a Beckett short, set in the decrepit remains of a post-nuclear Coney Island kettle corn stand—woo!] These fascinations with freakitude suggest a total embrace of the grotesque. A comfort with dark corners. There is a sense of the childlike and whimsical, subsumed by a dark substratum of decay and physical weirdness. It’s carnival made carnivale. Feeling as if you can fall into an alternate dimension with relative ease seems a prerequisite for the sort of creation Smith and Mapplethorpe practiced.  

We strolled the boardwalk and got our picture taken by an old man with a box camera. We had to wait for an our for it to be developed, so we went to the end of the long fishing pier where there was a shack that served coffee and hot chocolate. Pictures of Jesus, President Kennedy, and the astronauts were taped to the wall behind the register. It was one of my favorite places and I would often daydream of getting a job there and living in one of the old tenement buildings across from Nathan’s.

There’s the old guy and his odd contraption, the cumbersome toil of creating the image. In it lies something a little gloriously macabre, a tableaux of the perverse. With Smith, you observe a mind vigorously at work tagging the available simulacra in the room; she’s making a visceral notch for every relic and identifiable peculiarity, the things that perhaps don’t fit in any way other than how she might render them on canvas, verse, or song.

Something that emerges here is a fixation on dead, near-dead, or pretty much withered and weakened things.  Some kind of “beautiful stuff, drawn from the detritus of such-and- such” line of poetic logic. I’m sure that kind of fixation alienates lots of people. Maybe it seems too adolescently transfixed on creepiness. I’m not sure it works for me as direct inspiration.

All along the pier young boys and their grandfathers were crabbing. They’d slide raw chicken as bait in a small cage on a rope and hurl it over the side. The pier was swept away in a big storm in the eighties but Nathan’s, which was Robert’s favorite place, remained. Normally we only had money for one hot dog and a Coke. He would eat most of the dog and I most of the sauerkraut. But that day we had enough money for two of everything. We walked across the beach to say hello to the ocean, and I sang hm the song “Coney Island Baby” by the Excellents. He wrote our names in the sand.

We were just ourselves that day, without a care. It was our good fortune that this moment in time was frozen in a box camera. It was our first real New York portrait. Who we were. Only weeks before we had been at the bottom, but our blue star, as Robert called it, was rising. We boarded the F train for the long ride back, returned to our little room, and cleared off the bed, happy to be together.

How rooted in childhood this moment feels. Patti and Robert aren’t actually just kids, but there’s something here about simulating the experience of preadolescence. There’s the collision of the young and old, a shared ritual, the re-embrace of childish things and play. That innocent quality of sharing.

These passages and the book as a whole are about aesthetic awakening, and the partnerships and fascinations that bring us there. The process of realizing you really do have a way of seeing something no one else shares.