Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter: life rises again

Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
Hymnal 1982; No. 204

This Jesus-risen-from-the-dead stuff that is the center of Christian experience is testimony to life triumphing. This is all about living, not about what we have done wrong. It is not about institutions and churches, those these provide a language and culture. It is not about how moderns can make peace with the stories in our ancient sacred books, though those tales can still provide vital fodder for mind, heart and imagination. It's not about worrying about eternal damnation in an afterlife; there's quite enough damnation all around us right now, thank you very much. It's not about rules and purity taboos.

It affirms God is Living. It is about delight in Living -- God's living and our living. I don't know what that means, but I live into its meaning.
The popular Irish Catholic historian Thomas Cahill took a long view of religion in a recent interview with Bill Moyers:

In writing these books, six of them so far, I've come to the conclusion that there are really only two movements in the world. One is kindness, and the other is cruelty.

I don't think there's anything else, really. You can explain virtually everything by those two movements. The cruelty in religion is so often a form of, "Under no circumstances may you do this, because if you do, we will exclude you." ...

… And I think that all partisanship and sectionalism within Christianity is stupid. I don't think there really is anything to fight about. ...I'm a believing Christian who finds himself equally at home and equally impatient and equally ill-at-ease in virtually any church. ...

"Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." That's Christianity. The rest of it, isn't worth a hill of beans.

I can live with that.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Night falls -- will morning ever come?

From the Passion facade of the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, design by Antoni Gaudí, executed by the sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs.

Friday, April 18, 2014

In which Rep. Nancy Pelosi defends the indefensible

Congresswoman Pelosi yesterday joined a very mixed lot of her constituents, organized by the San Francisco Organizing Project, for an interfaith, Holy Thursday observance at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in the Mission.

Immigrants told their stories of lives disrupted and families torn apart by the Obama administration's deportation policies. The administration imprisons over 300,000 people a year for immigration irregularities and has deported some 2 million persons since taking office.

This youngster shared her story with Spanish-language TV.

Fr. Richard Smith put the case for our neighbors starkly: it is time that our government stop doing irreparable harm to innocent individuals who only want to work and improved their lives.

The Democratic Minority Leader argued that Republican Speaker John Boehner has President Obama over a barrel, threatening to sue if the administration doesn't keep the deportation prisons humming. That may play well in Washington, but giving in to such bullying is pretty meaningless among people who are losing parents and siblings to the deportation grinder.

Alongside Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus, Congresswoman Pelosi participated in the the ancient Christian ritual of washing feet of our brothers and sisters as part of this special season. She graciously suggested she hopes to be able to come back next year. Here in San Francisco, there's a growing movement demanding action on immigration reform, not just sympathetic words.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The crazy continues

Last February, after years of litigation, the U.S government was ordered by a federal judge to remove all references to Malaysian architecture professor Rahinah Ibrahim from its mushrooming "terrorist" databases. He concluded that secret testimony showed that back in 2005 an FBI agent had "checked the wrong box" on a form.

But, as reported by Robert Egelko in the San Francisco Chronicle, our secret spook masters won't let go. On Monday, they denied her a visa to visit the U.S. for "terrorist activities."

The case of a former Stanford graduate student barred from returning to the United States since 2005 has taken another twist with a U.S. consulate's decision this week to deny her a visa because of "terrorist activities" - after the government told a federal judge that she posed no threat to national security.

... [U.S. District Judge William Alsup] ordered the government to purge all references of the listing from its records and to allow Ibrahim to reapply for a visa. But he said he could not order officials to issue the travel documents, because that decision was up to the government.

On Tuesday, Justice Department lawyers submitted declarations from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies attesting that they had deleted Ibrahim's watch-list placement from their files.

However, they also submitted a State Department declaration disclosing that she had been denied a visa Monday in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur under a law that bars those involved in "terrorist activities" from traveling to the United States.

The tenacity of this woman who has fought their Kafkaesque system for nearly a decade must scare the spooks badly.

The judge's decision can be read here. Too bad it apparently has no force.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: Boycott and divestment?

A couple of weeks ago, the archbishop emeritus of Cape Town. South Africa, Desmond Tutu, wrote in the Guardian in full support of boycotts of the monster companies that are belching the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere:

Who can stop it? Well, we can, you and I. And it is not just that we can stop it, we have a responsibility to do so. It is a responsibility that begins with God commanding the first human inhabitants of the garden of Eden "to till it and keep it". To keep it; not to abuse it, not to destroy it.

The taste of "success" in our world gone mad is measured in dollars and francs and rupees and yen. Our desire to consume any and everything of perceivable value – to extract every precious stone, every ounce of metal, every drop of oil, every tuna in the ocean, every rhinoceros in the bush – knows no bounds. We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth. ...

It is clear that those countries and companies primarily responsible for emitting carbon and accelerating climate change are not simply going to give up; they stand to make too much money. They need a whole lot of gentle persuasion from the likes of us. ...

Tutu proposes boycotts and divestment from the fossil fuel giants.

I'm of many minds about boycotts. In the 1970s I worked as an organizer on the United Farm Workers Union boycotts of table grapes and some wines. These efforts were considered effective; they also took years of extremely dedicated work by ever growing armies of volunteers and consumers. And it is not even clear that the economic effect on the growers was what gave the workers a chance at a union. We succeeded in "giving a bad name" to a whole class of fruit; perhaps the growers, rightly, feared the long term effect of people learning to pass up grapes; certainly millions of folks stopped buying grapes for many years.

Tutu credits boycotts of South Africa with helping to bring down apartheid. Contemporary pro-Palestinian activists urge us to boycott, divest and sanction Israel over its dispossession of the native people of that land. In both those instances, the effect is probably not so much economic as on reputation. A growing boycott lets an offending state know it has crossed boundaries of what the world community thinks of as decent behavior. Such boycotts routinely evoke defiant objections from their targets, but they also seem to sting in some way that goes beyond their material effects.

Boycott and divestment from climate polluters is a tough project, one that starts with defining the appropriate targets. After all, we mostly all like living in a civilization that runs on abundant electricity and easy transport. But which companies are profiting without trying to adapt so as not to sink their own boat? The Institute for Southern Studies produced some lists. I'll just reproduce some of the publicly owned offenders in the United States:
  • Chevron, San Ramon, Calif. (investor-owned)
  • ExxonMobil, Irving, Texas.
  • ConocoPhillips, Houston, Texas.
  • American Electric Power, Columbus, Ohio
  • Duke Energy, Charlotte, N.C.
  • Berkshire Hathaway, Omaha, Neb.
  • Ameren Corp., St. Louis, MO
and then
  • there's the real monster among dirty energy energy purveyors: the U.S. Government.
We may not be able to divest from the Feds (or even want to) but we sure can see one entity that citizens ought to be targeting here.

More from Tutu:

Tutu says an apartheid-style boycott would be a way to curb polluters' stranglehold over energy policy. "We cannot necessarily bankrupt the fossil fuel industry," he wrote. "But we can take steps to reduce its political clout, and hold those who rake in the profits accountable for cleaning up the mess."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sign of the times in the city: media overlap

With the influx of affluent, over-busy new tech worker residents in San Francisco's Mission district, enterprising immigrant entrepreneurs see a business opportunity. How to spread the word?

With human power, naturally, when that is what is available: door to door leafletting and car flyering.

But customers can sign up for service online, also naturally when the internet is home.

The photo of a crumpled flyer is a by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look and sign up for sporadic email updates.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Some things are not ours

Reproduction of the Barcelona Haggadah, 14th century C.E., on display at the Museum of Jewish History in Girona, Spain
Tonight I'll have the privilege of attending a Passover Seder. My longstanding women's group consists mostly of Jews partnered with non-Jews, so we gentiles have become accustomed to retelling the Jewish people's story of liberation from bondage in Egypt with our friends. I've learned some Hebrew blessings and I love the food -- though nothing will convince me that Manischewitz is drinkable wine.

My pleasure in the Seder is enhanced by knowing that this celebration is not mine. I don't have to claim it as my own; I can simply delight in being invited into someone else's ritual.

A wise UCC minister/scholar has written a blog post that explains to Christians that although Jesus is recorded as participating in some kind of ritual meal before his seizure and execution, this cannot have been a Seder.
... we [Christians] really do not know for sure what the “original context” of Jesus’ ‘last supper’ was.  We think we do: since Sunday School we’ve been taught it was a Passover meal, or Seder; but scholars continue to debate the precise character of the meal Jesus shared with his disciples that night. One thing we know for sure, however, is that, although it may have been a Passover meal of some sort, it was not a Seder in the modern sense. We know this because the introduction into Jewish ritual life of the Seder we know today came after the time of Jesus.

Modern day Jewish celebrations of the Passover are a melding of traditions that arose shortly after the destruction of the Temple (70 CE), through Late Antiquity and into Middle Ages. It is a developing tradition, too, with additions being made to the haggadah even to this day. Ironically, some scholars believe that the modern Seder developed in part at least as a reaction and resistance to the growing influence of the Christian church and its sacred meal. ...
She goes on to warn Christians off the temptation to hold their own imitation Seder observances. Churches sometimes think they are being broad-minded or innovative through such exercises. But this beautiful ritual is not ours.
Contempt takes many forms: I think the celebration of a Seder by Christians for Christians for our own Christian agenda is one of them. ...
I could not agree more. But I am thrilled to enjoy my Jewish sisters' Passover meal.
From the Museum of Jewish History, Girona, Spain

Sunday, April 13, 2014

'Tis the season when Christians hate on Jews

Well, I sure hope not. But historically, a great many European pogroms (Jew-killing sprees) started during the Christian Holy Week. We modern Christians have a lot to repent for.

Billboard in downtown Barcelona depicting the parade with palms by Jesus and his followers
Holy Week starts today with Palm Sunday. This commemorates what is most likely an historical event: Jesus leading his ragtag rural followers on a march into the big city. Think of it as a small, strange demonstration. Adherents of the movement preceded their improbable prophet waving palm branches, proclaiming him as the bearer of a message of repentance and salvation from Israel's God -- maybe he was even the hoped-for Messiah of Israel. Jesus then caused a disturbance in the Temple, the holy focus of Jewish observance and identity. Later that week, the city and Temple authorities (one and the same: these folks hadn't invented church-state separation) seized the insurgent preacher, tried him, and, because they were subjects/collaborators of the Empire, handed him over to the Romans for the ordinary Roman punishment for being uppity: crucifixion. For Christians, the real excitement over these events comes afterward: somehow this Jesus turned out not to be dead; we celebrate that unlooked-for result of the unexceptional foregoing events as Easter.

Later followers of Jesus wrote the only known descriptions of what happened that week. Naturally they had some bones to pick with the authorities who killed the man they had since concluded was somehow God. They also had their own situations to consider. The extant writings -- the four gospels named for reputed authors: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John -- all date from after the Jewish Jerusalem authorities and their Temple had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. By that time, it certainly was politic to blame "the Jews" -- those deposed civic and religious authorities -- for what happened to their leader while, comparatively letting the actual killers -- the Roman authorities -- off the hook.

And so, on this Palm Sunday, Christians who read from the Common Lectionary (Catholics and most Protestants) will hear that the Roman governor Pilate asked a crowd of Jerusalem Jews what to do with Jesus and they screamed for his blood:
Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!" Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!"
Insofar as there is any historical record about this guy Pilate, the scene seems utterly improbable; he was known as a casually brutal enforcer of Rome's occupation, not prone to consider local opinion.

But the Gospel accounts have an effect when read by contemporary Christians that demands a more nuanced understanding. There is nobody in these accounts, aside from Pilate, who is not Jewish. Jesus was Jewish; his followers were Jewish; the priests and civic authorities were Jewish. This the story of a conflict within a community of people who thought of themselves as the same kind, if certainly not of the same class. There are no innocent Christians in this story. Christians were a later development. Some Jews sent Jesus to his death on a Roman cross -- and other Jews followed and exalted the itinerant rebel preacher. The extreme hostility to the Jewish authorities we meet in the Gospels reflects both contemporary (the priests were tools of the Roman oppressors) and subsequent (they rejected the Jesus movement) antagonisms.
Since Christians got to be not just the majority, but also the state power in many subsequent times and places, we have done an awful lot of killing Jews because "they killed Christ." That language contains another fallacy -- insofar as some Jews contributed to killing Jesus, they decidedly did not "kill Christ" because the name is a title for "Messiah" -- what those contemporaries were certain that Jesus was not. They incited the Romans to kill a crazy preacher who endangered their status.

James Carroll's Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History is a meandering but readable history of how Jew-hatred among Christians set the stage for the Nazi Holocaust. The essence of Carroll's history is also available in a 95 minute documentary of the same name that was nominated for an Oscar in 2007. I watched it streamed from Netflix this week and would commend it to my sister and brother Christians as a part of our preparation for Holy Week.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

San Francisco becomes a conflicted bedroom community; now what?


leads to this:

Considering that where I live in the San Francisco Mission district is ground zero for this conflict, I have written very little about the sense we have these days of being engulfed by a tidal wave of folks with a lot more money than the current population. Their arrival is radically changing the neighborhood. I have written about several eviction protests, but I haven't felt ready to summarize what I think about the implications of these developments.

This week the estimable community organization Causa Justa/Just Cause published Development without Displacement. This study provides some data:
Latinos are being displaced at a significant rate from the Mission district while white residents and homeowners have increased. Between 1990 and 2011, the number of Latino households in the Mission decreased by 1,400, while the number of White households increased by 2,900. White homeownership more than doubled during this time.

Gentrification is changing the population of Oakland and San Francisco as a whole. Between 1990 and 2011, Oakland’s African American population decreased from 43 percent to 26 percent of the population, the largest drop by far of any population group. During the same period of time, San Francisco’s Black population was cut in half from about 10 percent to only 5 percent of the population.
That is, Black and brown people are being pushed out of what was once their 'hood by affluent, mostly white, mostly very young newcomers, many of them beneficiaries of the current tech boom. Tech workers are currently 6 percent of employed San Franciscans, but their impact is larger. At the essential San Francisco site, 48 Hills, Sara Shortt, director of the Housing Rights Committee explains what is happening very cogently:
... tech companies [aren’t] taking responsibility for the impacts the influx of well-paid employees is having on the city. ...

Encouraging their recruits to live in the city and commute on private shuttle buses has created an incentive for the real estate industry to take advantage of those higher incomes, Shortt said, and low-income residents just can’t compete.

“The city has let it rise to a dire situation,” Shortt said, and has been “bending over backward for tech.”
That last is a reference to the enormous "Google buses" that use the city streets and bus zones, essentially for free. As reported in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Budget and Legislative Analyst Office reports
... there are 131 regional shuttles with 8,030 boardings (to San Francisco and back) per a day. Of the shuttles making 273 trips to and from San Francisco daily, the lion's share (57) are owned by Google. Its workers represent just over half of daily boardings.

The invading buses are also enormous. Taller than a Muni bus, the BLA reports that the Google buses weigh 31 tons when fully loaded, nearly twice the weight of a big rig truck. That's also a far cry from the seven-ton intra-city shuttles used by the likes of the Academy of Art University and Kaiser Permanente. That size comes with a cost.

"The Department of Public Works staff concur that heavier vehicles contribute to faster roadway deterioration," the BLA wrote. The damage a shuttle makes on the pavement with a single trip accounts for $1.08 out of the $1 million it will ultimately cost the city to reconstruct a mile of pavement. A typical personal car will cause $0.00023 of damage to pavement over its entire lifetime. So one shuttle trip is "equivalent to 4,700 passenger vehicles driving over the same lane."
The city fathers have just got around to asking for $1 for each use of a city bus stop by these behemoths -- somehow I doubt that is going to cover the cost of repaving streets.

In addition to working politically to get the city to attend to the interests of its long time residents, I find myself focused on what we can do to encourage the people who are moving in to preserve the city they find so attractive. It's not as if the city has not accommodated influxes that changed our culture before. In the over 40 years I've been here, I've seen the city assimilate migrants from the Chinese mainland, hippies, queers, Central Americans, and the ascendancy of a progressive labor movement that was before its time in incorporating all these different groups. The intersections were not always comfortable; far from it. I remember when Mission Latinos picketed a new lesbian bar right out of business -- today they'd probably be protesting together.

The city can (perhaps) reduce real estate speculation and slow the current dislocation. But we have only begun to consider what being a bedroom community for people who spend their working lives somewhere else means to our politics. This will probably take a while to work out; a great many of the new tech workers are under thirty, hence not particularly likely voters. Few of them have children, so they are not likely to get involved with the city schools, a frequent entry point for citizen activism. Mainly using the Google buses to get to work and Uber and its competitors to get around the city, I don't imagine they'll be into transit activism, except perhaps to defend their private buses. The tech workers are more white and much better paid than many long term residents. They are probably socially liberal or libertarian -- that seems the norm for their generation. But can they imagine that a community needs considerable collective provision of services to be a good place. Have they ever even used a public library?

There's some political science literature on the political behavior of people who live in bedroom communities. Years back, when I was trying to gin up electoral activity in southern California suburbs, I remember reading that people who worked in jurisdictions where they didn't live tended to be more aware of issues in the place where they worked than in where they slept. I know when I've been trying to get out the vote in far exurban bedroom communities (such as Tracy, CA), the reality that adults spend long hours commuting in traffic as well as working greatly reduced their inclination to get involved. But I haven't found much written about the situation in which we are now living, where the city is the bedroom and the periphery is the workplace. I guess we are going to find out.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Getting something done in the U.S. Congress

Last week Jim DeMint, a former Republican South Carolina Senator and current head of the rightwing think tank Heritage Foundation, astonished (historically literate) listeners by announcing that it wasn't "big government" that freed the slaves. I guess that Sherman's Union army that marched through his state to hook up with General U.S. Grant in Virginia didn't have a big government behind it. Mr. DeMint may not like remembering that some 18,000 white men from his state were willing to die to keep African-Americans in bondage. (I don't think that figure includes South Carolina slaves who joined the Union Army after the Emancipation proclamation.)

Historian Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money mocks DeMint's crackpot tale:

This is funny on so many levels but my favorite part of this “interpretation” that the federal government didn’t free the slaves is that in fact not only is this wrong, but doing so led to the largest expansion of the federal government in the nation’s history to that time.

What Loomis points out here is one of my main takeaways from James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. The short period (1860-65) when the U.S. government perforce operated without a bunch of conservative southern states obstructing progress was one of tremendous change and accomplishment well beyond the successful war to save the democratic republic.

In the absence of the conservative drag on government (in those days the naysayers were southern Democrats while the innovators were radical Republicans), Congress was able to advance ideas for national growth that had been stymied for a decade or more.
  • A Homestead Act enabled settlers moving west to stake claims to more than 3 million acres.
  • The Morrill (Land-Grant) Act provided public land to states to found colleges and universities.
  • The Paciic Railroad Act and other legislation gave railroads right of ways for their tracks and much additional land, thereby opening the west to modern commerce.
Perhaps most importantly to the growth of big government that causes DeMint such distress, Congress created a modern tax and financial system. While the Confederacy went gradually broke, its unsecured paper money becoming worthless, the modern U.S. dollar, the "greenbacks," paid for the war.

Congressman Elbridge G. Spaulding of New York, chairman of the House subcommittee charged with responsibility for framing emergency legislation, ... introduced a bill to authorize the issuance of $150 million in Treasury notes -- i.e., fiat money. This bill seemed to imitate the dubious Confederate example -- but with a crucial difference. The U. S. notes were to be legal tender receivable for all debts public or private except interest on government bonds and customs duties. ...

Opponents maintained that the legal tender bill was unconstitutional because when the framers empowered Congress "to coin money," they meant coin. Moreover, to require acceptance of paper money for debts previously contracted was a breach of contract. But the attorney general and most Republican congressmen favored a broad construction of the coinage and the "necessary and proper" clauses of the Constitution. "The bill before us is a war measure," Spaulding told the House, "a necessary means of carrying into execution the power granted in the Constitution 'to raise and support armies.' . . . These are extraordinary times, and extraordinary measures must be resorted to in order to save our Government and preserve our nationality." Opponents also questioned the expediency, morality, even the theology of the legal tender bill. ...

But the bill passed and the financing system proved stable thanks to the strength of the northern economy and Union victories -- and thanks to that other innovation of this Congress: an Internal Revenue Act which created a personal income tax as well as a Bureau of Internal Revenue. The former was a war measure; the later never afterwards withered away.

The relationship of the American taxpayer to the government was never again the same.

The new tax was relatively progressive; it exempted the food of the poor and the wages of manual laborers, hitting only persons of some property or other wealth.

Maybe that example is what DeMint truly resents -- along of course with freeing all those uppity black people.

McPherson summarizes the accomplishments of the Civil War Congress:

By its legislation to finance the war, emancipate the slaves, and invest public land in future growth, the 37th Congress did more than any other in history to change the course of national life. As one scholar has aptly written, this Congress drafted "the blueprint for modern America."

Much as I celebrate the accomplishments of my ancestors in preserving a republic that could gradually expand the freedom of all its people, I probably should feel a little cautious knowing that the progressive surge was made possible by war. The current, spurious post-9/11 wars have enabled far less desirable measures.

E.G. Spaulding, pictured here, was a western New York banker, a state assemblyman, mayor of Buffalo, a Congressman, "father of the greenback bill," and my great-great-great grandfather. Until reading "Battle Cry," I never had much sense of what he accomplished besides temporarily enriching himself.
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