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AIDS in the South

Last summer when I was in Washington, D.C., I learned about the resurgent HIV/AIDS epidemic in our nation’s capital, something that most Americans have heard nothing about. It’s an outrage and a tragedy, and the fact that HIV is both preventable and treatable makes our inaction morally indefensible — and this is going on at the seat of our national government.

But the problem is widespread across the American South, and shouldn’t be forgotten. When I lived in New Orleans, I worked for the New Orleans AIDS Task Force (NO/AIDS) in their prevention department, and saw first-hand the impact that HIV has on individuals, families, and communities. I also saw how a hostile Louisiana state government actually cost people their lives, through discriminatory policies, bizarre Hester Prynne-style laws, and unexplainable shunning of federal funds.

So I’m glad to see that Human Rights Watch has released an excellent report detailing the state of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in neighboring Mississippi. This truly is a human rights issue, right here at home.

This 59-page report documents the harmful impact of Mississippi’s policies on state residents, including people living with HIV and those at high risk of contracting it. Mississippi refuses to provide complete, accurate information about HIV prevention to students and threatens criminal penalties for failing to disclose one’s HIV status to sexual partners. At the same time, Mississippi provides little or no funding for HIV prevention, housing, transportation, or prescription drug programs for people living with HIV, and the state fails to take full advantage of federal subsidies to bolster these programs. In Mississippi, half of people testing positive for the virus are not receiving treatment, a rate comparable to that in Botswana, Ethiopia, and Rwanda.

Take a look at the whole thing, and please watch this video below. Thanks to Human Rights Watch for bringing attention to an issue that’s been neglected for a generation.

The good folks at Blue Jersey drew my attention to this story earlier this week, which details the steps New Jersey is taking to implement its medical marijuana law which was passed last year. The Christie administration is slow-walking implementation of the law, and the state has proposed several regulations which at first glance might seem pretty tame:

Parents’ and caregivers’ frustration came through as they told Health Department officials that they object to a proposed limit on potency of the medical cannabis, a requirement that physicians go through more training before recommending the drug, and a $200 fee for patients to register for the program. The fee would cover two years; patients on state or federal assistance could register for $20.

Now, you might think, these pot-heads sure are complaining a lot about nothing! But the key here is that these patients are already obtaining marijuana illegally on the black market. The goal of the regulations, therefore, should be to first displace and then ultimately replace this black market for the sickest New Jerseyans. That’s why the legislature passed the law — so that HIV and cancer patients wouldn’t be branded criminals for taking their medicine.

But these regulations throw up roadblocks that would incentivize people to keep buying illegally. Does your pot dealer need a $200 license to carry your bag of weed? Is she limited to growing three strains of pot? Another proposed regulation bans home-delivery of marijuana through licensed alternative-care centers. That sounds nice, until you realize that a lot of marijuana dealers will gladly offer home-delivery. And they won’t be limiting the “potency” of their product.

It would be one thing if marijuana was truly dangerous or there was a high risk of overdose. But there isn’t. Do we really need to mandate that physicians get extra training to prescribe a drug that’s safer than virtually all prescription pain medication? I’m not sure if these regulations are well-intentioned or not; regardless, they will effectively neuter the law, despite their ring of common sense. Until they’re changed, I’d have to reluctantly agree with patient Sandra Failoa: “I would rather wait until [new] regulations are created rather than see a program with these problems.” Replacing the black market with a more expensive, more annoying market won’t get us very far.

I’m back from New Orleans and still struggling with a post-Mardi Gras return to reality. I hope to have several posts on the Big Easy in the coming days, but I wanted to start with a simple observation: Mardi Gras parades make absolutely no sense.

The idea is that people line up on the side of the road in eager anticipation. Hundreds of thousands of brave souls descend on the city. Many veterans camp out (with tents, grills, the whole she-bang). Then they stand and wait, rain or shine. As traffic across the city is blocked and re-routed to the point of making driving anywhere virtually impossible, ridiculously over-the-top and expensive parade floats begin to assemble on their pre-determined parade route. People on the floats dress up in various types of costumes, normally with a French aristocratic style. Then the floats start rolling.

At this point, parade-watchers become crazed animals reaching up in the air for free Mardi Gras beads. The beads themselves are worthless (you can buy a pack of a hundred them in any store for pennies), and yet people stand for hours, arms aching, desperate to catch one. Grown men trample little girls in pursuit of The Beads.

Maybe at one point in time, this form of entertainment made sense. But even with Cable TV, YouTube, and a thousand other things pulling us towards our couches, people still maintain all of the Mardi Gras traditions. And to be honest, I had a blast. I didn’t know why I was standing in the rain watching a old man dressed as Marie Antoinette throwing me worthless plastic and enjoying myself. But the sense of community was overpowering.

No profound insights here, other than the fact that any policy predicated on human beings’ rationality probably is flawed to its core.

I started this blog just last week and I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. Thank you to everyone who’s linked, commented, Tweeted, Facebooked, and all the rest. To have people you respect read and engage with your work is a truly humbling experience. I didn’t realize how motivated I would be to blog until I got started, but I’m excited to continue — even though blogging is a major time suck!

So, it’s pretty dumb to start a blog and then go on vacation the following week. But later today I’m heading to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where I’ll be in a place (and mental state) more conducive to public drinking and breast-bearing than policy blogging. I may post here and there, but there’s a possibility there won’t be new content until Tuesday, March 8th. (Side note: if you’ve never been to New Orleans, book a weekend trip there ASAP — trust me on this one).

For everyone who’s checked out the blog so far, thank you so much! And please come back when I do — you’ll find the same mix of budget analysis and diva music commentary that you’ve seen over the past nine days. Happy Mardi Gras!

On Monday, I heard that Rev. Grant Storms had been busted masturbating near a children’s playground. I wasn’t surprised, as I was familiar with Storms’ vocal anti-gay protests in Louisiana, and sadly, that’s how these types of stories usually end. I attended Southern Decadence this past September, nicknamed the “gay Mardi Gras,” and Storms and his crew were out on Bourbon St. with their bullhorns telling the revelers that they were going to Hell (after dying from AIDS). People in the northeast — save perhaps the brave people who staff abortion clinics — are simply never exposed to these types of mass public displays of hatred. Louisiana is really the epicenter of the anti-gay movement; Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, got his start in the Louisiana State Legislature.

Grant Storms: miserable even with confetti

Unsurprisingly, the story got picked up nationally. LGBTers around the country started to mock Storms as yet another in long line of bigoted weirdos and closet-cases, including Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, and George Alan Rekers. Dan Choi took to Twitter to pile on, as did many prominent LGBT bloggers. By far the most common argument I’ve seen is that Storms is a hypocrite — the theory being that if you don’t support equal rights for gays and lesbians, you really shouldn’t be masturbating near a park. Even Storms himself said he “understand[s] the hypocrisy.”

Honestly, though, I’m not sure if “hypocrisy” is the best way to describe this phenomenon. Assume for a second that you know you are gay, but you also hold extremely anti-gay political and moral views. Logically speaking, it is actually less hypocritical to stay in the closet. You disapprove of your own sexual orientation, so you hide it, and go about your business trying to take away the rights of those who are openly gay, unashamed, and demanding equal treatment. And if by “going about your business,” that includes jerking off in your van, that doesn’t really have to do with anything.

Without diminishing the repellent behavior of Storms, Rekers, Haggard, et al., I am increasingly troubled by another form of gay hyprocrisy — the prominent members of society who are living an actively gay lifestyle in the public eye but refuse to actually come out of the closet. We could all list a dozen or so celebrities who “everyone knows” are gay, but who have yet to publicly confirm this is the case. But why would you hide such a thing if being gay wasn’t shameful or embarrassing? And “privacy” only goes so far when you’re going to hardcore New York gay bars and attending gay parties with your boyfriend. If you’re going to host New Year’s Eve with Kathy Griffin and make jokes about balls, it’s probably time to say, “I’m gay.”

I don’t mean to pick on Cooper, because as I said, there are many more like him. But I’m concerned that the broader LGBT community gives these people a complete pass while coming down hard on closted anti-gay people who pretty clearly have mental issues. I was lucky; many people have truly terrible coming out stories and are therefore much more forgiving about each person going through his or her personal journey at a pace of their choosing. But I’m not sure how much longer that argument will suffice. Poll after poll after poll has shown that the most salient factor in someone’s support for LGBT equality is whether or not they are personally familiar with a gay person. If you’re going to join a campaign telling suicidal LGBT kids that “it gets better,” shouldn’t you, you know, tell them that you know personally that it gets better?

Obviously I’d rather there were more closeted gay people who are supportive of LGBT equality than bigots like Storms who are actively fighting against us. But I’m increasingly of the view that this is a classic case of the “free rider problem,” where generations past of gay activists have put everything on the line to get us where we are today — where someone can be rich, famous, going to gay bars, even marry their partner! — and still not actually come out of the closet. The problem is that the data about changing people’s minds doesn’t lie. People in positions of privilege who are living lifestyles that are only possible because of the strides of the LGBT movement should think about giving back. And all they have to do is say, “I’m gay.”

A couple weeks back, Greg Sargent had a great post where he essentially argued that the term “fiscal hawk” does not actually mean what progressives think it means (or want it to mean) — namely, someone who wants to aggressively tackle the deficit. Rather, since the media regularly confers the term on people like Paul Ryan, someone who voted for debt-financed Medicare expansion and tax cuts without offsets, the term “fiscal hawk” actually means “someone who is fully committed to reducing the deficit through tax cuts, entitlement reform and frequent expressions of general hostility towards government.” And I think the upshot of Greg’s post is that progressives need to realize that the media has internalized this definition to such a degree that it might no longer be worth fighting a losing battle with a mere dictionary in hand.

Well, I think we might be reaching that point with “fiscal conservative.” From an article about NJ Gov. Chris Christie’s new budget:

Gov. Chris Christie’s budget will include about $200 million in business tax cuts, with more proposed for the next four years, according to sources familiar with the proposal to be laid out later today…

The tax cuts would fulfill a Christie pledge to make New Jersey more business friendly and help solidify his image as a fiscal conservative. It’s unclear whether the cuts will include income taxes, which he has said would come only after the economy improved.

I thought there was a consensus that “fiscally conservative” meant “fiscally responsible,” not “supports corporate tax cuts.”  The accepted definition, by the way, is a huge triumph for the conservative movement, as conservatism has been anything but responsible when it comes to the federal budget. But there are few more annoying tics of cosmopolitan elites than the tendency to reflexively describe their politics as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative.” What they mean by this is, “I’m not like those crazy religious people, but I don’t know anything about fiscal or budget policy and want to show I’m not (Heaven forbid) a knee-jerk liberal, so I’ll attach the word conservative to fiscal and go on my merry way.”

But maybe that is changing. The article quoted above is evidence that at least some in the media are actually using a more accurate definition of the term — as in, being “fiscally conservative” means you support the fiscal policies promoted by conservatives when in power, which, as the article correctly notes, is tax cuts for corporations and wealthy people.

This is actually good news, as a change here will actually add clarity and vastly improve the debate. Unlike the “fiscal hawk” situation (who doesn’t like being a hawk?), what’s left is for progressives not to change the definition of fiscal conservatism but to convince people who aren’t orthodox Republicans that they are not, in fact, fiscally conservative. Much like the generation-long conservative crusade to demagague progressive judicial rulings as dreaded “judicial activism” run amok, it turns out that they were so successful that “judicial activism” lost even the thinnest thread of its original meaning. Even neutral observers began to notice that Scalia and Thomas were striking down plenty of Congressional statutes they disagreed with, which is the actual definition of judicial activism. But just like last year when Ted Olson admitted on Fox News that “judicial activism” really means “a ruling you don’t like” and Chris Wallace chuckled along, maybe progressives should realize that in this case, too, there’s a golden opportunity to come full circle.

Have you heard Britney Spears’ new #1 single “Hold It Against Me“? Reviews are mixed, but there’s no doubt the song is enjoying massive chart success, and strong sales for her upcoming album Femme Fatale are sure to follow. But would it make you uncomfortable to learn that Britney has not answered a single question about the song or her new album, let alone performed her single yet?

A few years back, South Park did an episode titled “Britney’s New Look,” in which Britney Spears shoots herself in the head due to the pressures of fame. She survives the suicide attempt, but blows her entire head off. From that point forward, Britney is wheeled into the recording studio to sing, and pushed onto stage to perform, headless, for her adoring fans. As usual, South Park might have been onto something more literal than even they envisioned.

One of Britney Spears’ biggest stans (“stan” equals “stalker” + “fan”), the Prophet, wrote a wonderfully honest post where said he “can no longer support the Femme Fatale era” due to concerns over Britney’s handling and mental health. Making comparisons to Michael Jackson (remember, Britney is still legally under a receivership, meaning she has the legal rights of a minor child), the Prophet writes, “I will always love and support Britney as a person, and I’ll always love her music (which is second to none), but I don’t agree with how I think she is being handled this era, and I believe that supporting this era financially is telling ‘Team Britney’ that I endorse what they are doing, when I don’t.” Similarly, Jeff Benjamin tweeted, “This whole entire era is so sketchily done & weird how Britney is seemingly the only one NOT involved in her album. I don’t get it.” Something is really amiss. The “Hold It Against Me” video was so heavily edited that even my untrained eye picked up on the fact that “Britney” in many parts of the video wasn’t even Britney at all.

When Britney finally emerged to make her first public statement about her #1 single(!), her voice had dropped an entire octave and she seemed physically ill. Watch this promo video for Good Morning America and ask yourself, does this sound normal? More importantly, if you like her song, does it matter? Do fans have an obligation to stop buying music they like because they’s concerned about the artist’s treatment and/or wellbeing? Depending on how Britney’s scheduled performance on March 29th turns out, we as a society might need to do some serious soul-searching.

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