47 States Call On Betsy Devos To Forgive Student Loans For Disabled Veterans

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos arrives at a White House event with Wounded Warrior Project veterans in April 2018. On Friday, 51 attorneys general called on her to institute automatic student loan forgiveness for veterans who are permanently disabled.

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On Friday, three days before Memorial Day, attorneys general for 47 states wrote to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking her to automatically forgive student loans for eligible disabled veterans.

The Department of Education has identified more than 42,000 veterans who qualify for a federal program known as Total and Permanent Disability Discharge, or TPD, that offers to relieve borrowers from repaying certain government student loans. These veterans, the letter says, shoulder over $1 billion in education debt that could be forgiven.

To get the benefit, veterans must first apply for the program. According to information obtained by the group Veterans Education Success through a Freedom of Information Act request, almost 60 percent of eligible veterans had defaulted on a loan payment as of April 2018. Yet only about 20 percent had applied to the loan forgiveness program.

The attorneys general want that to change. In the letter — which was also signed by attorneys general for the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories — they propose making the forgiveness program automatic for veterans who have been identified by the Department of Education.

“As a nation, we have a moral obligation to assist those who have put their lives on the line to defend us,” the letter reads. “There is no statutory or legal requirement that the Department of Education demand that eligible veterans affirmatively apply for TPD discharges before the Department will forgive their loans.”

DeVos has not responded publicly to the letter and officials for the Education Department were not immediately available to respond to NPR’s request for comment.

In a statement to Reuters, the department said it recognized the sacrifices veterans make for their country, and said it wanted to avoid “unintended consequences” that might result from automatic loan cancellation. The department said discharges could raise veterans’ tax bills or inhibit them from taking out more student loans.

In their letter to DeVos, the attorneys general dismissed the department’s concern about increasing borrowers’ tax bills.

“[F]ederal tax law now excludes loan discharges for disabled borrowers from taxable income, and most states’ tax codes do likewise,” said the letter. “Moreover, we think it likely that most borrowers would prefer to have one hundred percent of their outstanding loans discharged, even if this resulted in an increase to their state tax bill.”

The letter from the attorneys general follows at least two other similar letters that Republican and Democratic members of Congress sent to DeVos last year.

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Fresh Air Weekend: John Waters; Lizzo

Filmmaker John Waters, 73, has plenty of advice for his fellow elders: “Whenever any magazine says, ‘What photographer do you want to shoot you?’ I always just say, ‘The one that has the biggest retouch budget!’ ”

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Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:

‘Filth Elder’ John Waters Says There Are Still ‘Plenty Of Rules’ Left To Break: The cult filmmaker, 73, has plenty of ideas about what older people should and shouldn’t do. “You can’t be trying too hard to rebel [when] you’re older,” Waters says. His new book is Mr. Know-It-All.

Lizzo On Feminism, Self-Love And Bringing ‘Hallelujah Moments’ To Stage: The flute-playing pop star celebrates self-acceptance on her new album, Cuz I Love You. “About 10 years ago I made the decision that I just wanted to be happy with my body,” she says.

You can listen to the original interviews here:

‘Filth Elder’ John Waters Says There Are Still ‘Plenty Of Rules’ Left To Break

Lizzo On Feminism, Self-Love And Bringing ‘Hallelujah Moments’ To Stage

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President Trump Arrives In Japan For Inaugural State Visit

President Trump and first lady Melania arrive in Tokyo, Japan, for an inaugural state visit.

Koji Sasahara/AP


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Koji Sasahara/AP

President Trump is in Japan for his first official state visit since new Japanese emperor, Naruhito, assumed the throne.

The president and first lady Melania Trump have already dined with Japanese business leaders, and will attend a sumo wrestling match, where Trump will present the winner with a trophy called the “President’s Cup.”

Japan’s Emperor Naruhito, and his Harvard-educated wife, Empress Masako, will host an imperial state banquet for Trump. The president’s trip will also include a visit to a naval base and bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Top of their agenda will be trade and North Korea. Michael Green, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush and the National Security Council, and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told NPR, “The Japanese economy is No. 3 in the world, behind the U.S. and China, so it’s a really important relationship that both leaders need to move forward. Prime Minister Abe really needs Donald Trump to move past his 1980s vision of Japan, and see the great potential in the relationship.”

In 1987 Trump took out a full-page newspaper ad declaring “Japan and other nations have been taking advantage of the United States.”

In 1987 Trump spent a minor fortune buying big ad attacking US alliance with Japan and others. Parts sounds familiar. pic.twitter.com/9QWYGsYrEE

— Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) November 10, 2016

As president, Trump has maintained the view of Japan as an economic rival, rather than ally, and kept tariffs on Japanese metals in place, while lifting tariffs on steel and aluminum from Canada and Mexico. Trump has also threatened Japan with duties on autos. Last week, Trump said he had decided to delay those new auto tariffs for six months. Trump is seeking a bilateral trade deal with Japan, after pulling the U.S. out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Concerns over North Korea, and its resumption of short-range missile tests earlier this month, will also be a focus of Trump’s meeting with Abe. Japan has urged the Trump administration to maintain pressure on North Korea, and has said this month’s missile tests are a violation of U.N. resolutions.

NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe reports, “Japan wants to show it’s the U.S. best friend in the region, and this is important because Japan is dealing with China on the one hand, trying to assert its dominance, and North Korea on the other, being confrontational. Prime Minister Abe has invested a lot into developing a personal relationship with Trump, and in many ways this trip will be an extension of that.”

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What We (Don’t) Talk About When We Talk About Porn

From left to right: Jacky St. James, David Cruz, Danielle Brinkley, Shira Tarrant, Isiah Maxwell, Lisey Sweet.

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Liz Kuball for NPR

A porn director worries that young adults think sex is what they’ve seen on-screen.

A young man worries that the ubiquity of porn creates unrealistic expectations for everyone.

A porn performer worries that young viewers might think her videos are instructional.

They all wish people talked about it more.

Millions of people in the United States watch pornography, thanks largely in part to the Internet and free sites like Pornhub.

A majority of those people are under 34 years old. They’ve grown up in a world where online porn is free and, with the rise of smartphones, where viewers can watch it pretty much whenever — and wherever — they want.

But while porn may be easy to view, it’s still hard to discuss — even for those with the easiest access to it — and it creates a host of worries and misconceptions.

“My students are often immersed in it but don’t often have an opportunity to … learn about it with tools for critical analysis,” says Shira Tarrant, a professor at California State University, Long Beach.

NPR is exploring how people talk about sex — or don’t — and why it matters. And regardless of whether you think it’s good or bad, pornography is everywhere and it’s shaping the way people, especially young people, think about sex.

As part of the series, NPR visited a porn film set to hear the conversations that happen behind the scenes. (Listen to the audio story above for more on that.) On set, it’s clear that pornography is performance — like a TV show or choreographed dance.

But that’s not obvious for many people, especially for those who’ve never had sex before.

Here are six perspectives on how the fantasy of pornography affects our attitudes toward the reality of sex.


The Director

Jacky St. James is a pornography director and writer who has hundred of credits to her name. She has been in the business since 2011, when, on a whim, she wrote a script for a porn-writing contest — and won. When her script was made into a film, she was blown away by how professional the process was, and she left her job in online advertising to join the industry full time.

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St. James, 42, says she thinks there’s a lot of good that comes from porn — for example, creating sex positivity and normalizing a healthy sex life. But she hates the thought of minors viewing her work and recognizes there are downsides to the easy access so many young people — even those over 18 — have to porn these days.

“I think where it’s a disservice is that a lot of people … that are growing up on porn somehow feel that what they’re seeing is what they should be doing, instead of really discovering what they want,” she says. “When I grew up, you know, porn was so hard to get — I mean, I saw porn, but I couldn’t watch it every day if I wanted to.”

She says she worries about how that could affect young people.

“Pornography is not sex education, and it should never be looked at that way. … And I don’t think the onus of responsibility is on us to educate the public — I think that should be done in the school system and with parents, but certainly it’s not our responsibility. And I don’t think a lot of people are willing to accept that,” she says. “They want to blame us for everything, and I’m not going to be blamed, because it’s a fantasy — that’s what we’re creating at the end of the day.”


The Students

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David Cruz has tried to talk to friends about porn but has had little success.

“That’s maybe the appeal that porn has, is the fact that it’s supposed to be a secret, it’s supposed to be something that we don’t talk about,” the 26-year-old college student says.

Like many others, Cruz assumed that what he saw in pornography reflected reality and had to recalibrate his expectations once he started having sex.

“As a male, you see the performer acting a certain way, and giving pleasure a certain way, and you absorb that, and you expect that, and you want that from your partner,” Cruz says. “But I quickly learned that it takes connection-building and all kinds of other factors that lead into what works for specific people and certain couples.”

Porn definitely affects how a person interacts with the world, Cruz says, adding that it is only going to get easier and easier to access. “This conversation is long overdue. Because there’s no going back, it’s only getting bigger, and we have to adapt.”

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Millennials may be talking about sex more, Danielle Brinkley says, but she doesn’t think they’re talking about porn more — and that can lead to miscommunication and unspoken expectations.

“It means when they watch porn, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that girl is doing all these circus tricks,’ then when they go to the bedroom with their boyfriend or girlfriend [and] they’re expected, or they expect themselves to be able to do that, and I don’t think that’s necessarily fair,” she says.

Brinkley, 23, says she hasn’t watched porn much herself and she wasn’t sure if her boyfriend had, but she did feel like he might have been bringing unrealistic expectations into the bedroom. She says she was nervous to ask him about it, mainly because she was worried the conversation might make her feel inadequate.

After she spoke with NPR, Brinkley brought up the subject with her boyfriend, and they ended up having a long discussion about it.

“Once we started talking about it, I was wanting to ask him more and more questions,” she says. “It actually reassured me in our relationship.”


The Academic

Shira Tarrant, a 56-year-old professor, has given a lecture on pornography for 12 years as part of her class on pop culture, gender and media, and is the author of The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know. She says her students are at least exposed to — and often immersed in — pornography, but have never really thought about how to analyze it critically. She refers to it as “porn literacy” — understanding how porn is made, where it comes from and how it shapes society’s views on sex and sexuality.

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“When people are watching stunt performers, they know it’s a stunt. When you go to the movies, you know that the movie was edited,” she says.

But people tend to not make the same connections when they watch pornography.

“It gets into our private desires, and people don’t want to talk about that out loud, even though it’s so important if we’re concerned about both sexual pleasure and sexual safety,” she says.

Tarrant is neither pro- nor anti-porn but thinks that we should recognize that it’s here to stay — and then figure out how to talk about it. “We’re not going to get rid of porn any more than we’re going to get rid of Disneyland even if we don’t like the princess trope and the happily-ever-after motif,” she says.


The Performers

Now 30, Isiah Maxwell began performing in porn films in his 20s, and sex off camera, he says, is very different from the sex he has on camera.

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“The better male performers are great at having sex uncomfortably,” Maxwell says. “You need to get yourself in uncomfortable positions, because it disconnects you from the scene. And it allows the audience to put themselves in.”

Creating that disconnect, he says, often means leaning back, physically distancing himself from his partner and opening out toward the camera — which is not how ordinary people have sex. And he worries that less sexually experienced viewers don’t understand how manufactured the final product is and think that’s how they’re supposed to act.

Maxwell thinks a lot about peeling back the mystique around the content the porn industry produces, even though his job depends on the fantasy.

“For me, I see the conundrum,” he says. “Porn magic is what makes porn great. But an open dialogue instead of being closed off about it would help bring more of an understanding how much actually goes into this product. I mean, I could see how it kills the fantasy, but I think it would be beneficial.”

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Lisey Sweet, 29, was a research scientist before she got into the pornography industry. She says she has found it freeing — but she also worries that some viewers don’t understand it’s not reality.

“What they don’t see is that we laid out all of positions, and anytime something didn’t look natural, we would cut it out. So it really is like a perfectly choreographed dance,” she says. “It’s not a reflection of what they should be doing in their bedroom — it’s supposed to be entertainment.”

She thinks that’s why the conversation about porn should start early — because as much as she doesn’t want minors to see pornography, she also realizes it’s inevitable.

“I know that our society is not quite there yet, but the discussion about pornography should be part of sex ed in high schools and in middle schools,” Sweet says. “What do you think is more likely, that they’re going to come across porn first or they’re going to come across actual sex first? And it’s probably more likely porn.”

The audio story was edited by Jolie Myers; the Web story was edited by Maureen Pao.

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Rolling To A Halt: Memorial Day Motorcycle Rally Ends 30-Year Tradition

U.S. Marine Tim Chambers salutes to participants in last year’s Rolling Thunder motorcycle demonstration.

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Roll on, no more.

After a three-decade run, a veteran advocacy group will hold its last motorcycle demonstration ride – called “Rolling Thunder” – in the U.S. capital this Memorial Day weekend.

The non-profit that organizes the rally, Rolling Thunder Inc., was founded in 1988 to bring public attention to prisoners of war and those missing in action, and to hold the government to account for veterans who never made it home.

“We signed basically a blank check that said, ‘I’ll give you up to – and including – my life to defend our Constitution and defend the American freedoms,’ ” Doc Stewart, the group’s New England regional liaison, told NPR’s Amy Held. “But the return is, you’re going to ensure that I come home afterwards.”

Every year, hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists converge near the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., then rumble through the city’s downtown.

But next year’s Memorial Day weekend will be a quiet one.

The main reason the organizers gave for calling it quits is financial; it cost them about $200,000 last year to hold the rally, WAMU’s Mikaela Lefrak reports. A lot of that money went to the Pentagon for things like security, toilets and parking lot use, according to Rolling Thunder president Joe Bean.

Pentagon spokesperson Sue Gough told WAMU’s Lefrak that the fees are appropriate: “Just keep in mind that effective preparation for an event the size and scale of the Rolling Thunder ride is a complicated and lengthy process, especially for security,” Gough said. “The Pentagon has not wavered in its support of Rolling Thunder.”

Regardless, the ride’s organizers have decided their money can be better spent.

“The amount of money that we put on for the one demonstration ride, we could probably … help a lot more veterans with it,” Doc Stewart further told NPR.

Stewart said next year, the group plans to hold smaller rides at its chapters across the United States.

“We’re not done – we do not have full accountability,” he said.

Mike Wolff, a U.S. Army veteran and national board member for Rolling Thunder Inc., said he thinks local demonstrations might actually have more of an impact.

“None of the politicians are in town this weekend, so what better way to expand your impact than to … bring these to your hometowns,” Wolff said. Plus, he said, downsizing might give people who can’t afford a trip to the capital a chance to participate.

But that’s next year. For now, riders are getting ready to make their 32nd – and final – tour to Washington, D.C.

At a Harley-Davidson dealership in Fairfax, Va., about 5,000 bikers are expected to gather on Sunday morning. Then, they’ll ride to the capital together with a police escort and, in many cases, American flags secured to their bikes.

“You can almost smell the patriotism, like in the air,” the dealership’s marketing director, Kevin Hardy, told WAMU’s Mikaela Lefrak. “It’s palpable, there’s flags everywhere. And it’s so many people.”

In the ’80s, the group’s cause was centered on veterans of the Vietnam War.

So was its name. Founders Artie Muller and Ray Manzo named the group in reference to an air strike campaign in North Vietnam that was called Rolling Thunder. The idea, according to the group’s website, was that the “roar of their motorcycles” would sound like the bombs dropped during the campaign.

Muller, who served in the 4th U.S. Infantry Division in Vietnam, told WAMU’s Lefrak he was shocked by how he and other veterans of the war were treated by civilians.

“We weren’t going to put up with anybody being treated the way we were,” Muller said. “Spit at, called names … people really blamed us for everything.”

Wolff, who served in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, said that, in his experience, veterans of the Iraq War are treated better than Vietnam veterans were. But his return from service wasn’t greeted with parades or celebrations, either.

“I came back to a cup of joe and a box of donuts,” Wolff said. “And two people, slapping me on the back.”

That’s one of the things Wolff says he’ll really miss about the Rolling Thunder ride in Washington, D.C.

Wolff is trying to stay positive, but he knows he’ll get emotional on the ride home on Monday, not just because it’s the last Rolling Thunder, but also because it’s an soul-stirring day for many veterans – Memorial Day.

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