Wednesday, October 22, 2014

#EndTorture: organizing for the UN review of the USA

You might think that signing on to an international treaty -- making promises to the nations of the world -- would mean you'd attempt to abide by what you promised. These days, for the United States, some of our treaty obligations seem to be treated as so much blank paper, occasions for political spin.

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was passed in the General Assembly in 1984, signed by President Reagan in 1988 and ratified by the Senate in 1994. In theory, we're on board with 80 other nations.

I'd be remiss if I didn't add that I've just listened my partner the author give a couple of dozen talks around the country explaining that US accession to the treaty was qualified by some magic (limiting) asterisks legally called "reservations." Our authorities apparently wanted to be sure the CIA could go on doing "academic research" on how to replicate North Korean "brainwashing" techniques used on US prisoners in that early Cold War conflict. And they were concerned that someone would claim that treatment of persons in US prisons might be torture. So the US enabling legislation only outlaws torture outside the country. Within our boundaries, legal claims of torture are covered (if recognized at all) by other existing laws.

All this is introduction to the fact that countries which have signed the treaty against torture come up for periodic review of their compliance by a United Nations Committee Against Torture. The United States will next have its turn this November 11-13 in Geneva.

In advance of that meeting, the New York Time's relentless torture reporter Charlie Savage tells us that some lawyers in the Obama administration seek to revert to Bush-era weaseling about what treatment of prisoners amounts to torture in order to give our spooks all the freedom they want to mistreat captives without fear of punishment. The Prez may be on board with this sophistry.

Meanwhile, there is an organized US-based effort to call the United States to account for torture practices. The US Human Rights Network has collected dozens of "shadow reports" that have been submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture detailing potential and actual violations of US treaty obligations. Some examples:
  • The Harvard Law School Human Rights Program recommends that "the United States promptly and impartially prosecute senior military and civilian officials responsible for authorizing, acquiescing, or consenting in any way to acts of torture committed by their subordinates" including former President G.W. Bush and former DOJ lawyer John Yoo.
  • The National Religious Campaign against Torture (NRCAT) calls out "the continued widespread practice of holding prisoners, disproportionately people of color in prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons" as does another another shadow report from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), and California Prison Focus (CPF).
  • The Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) protests a "convergence of criminal and immigration law" which obscures the US obligation to entertain claims that deportation to home countries will subject individuals to violence and torture.
The full list of shadow reports is available at the link. They are absolutely worth perusing. We have far too many possible violations of the treaty and of simple human decency to answer for!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Best new candidate of 2014 gets an unlikely endorsement

Author Stephen King has a message for residents of Maine. If elected, Shenna Bellows could be trusted to be a Senator who understands and advocates for civil liberties. We have Elizabeth Warren standing up for the economic well-being of the 99 percent. We need an equivalent leader who stands strong for the rule of law.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Drought, California's water supply, and Proposition 1

Today the most extraordinary thing happened to me: I got rained on while running along the beach in San Francisco. I hadn't figured on that possibility. Aren't we stuck in an epic drought? Yes, we are.

Having just driven through the Central Valley where parched fields and these signs abound and turned on the TV to catch Gov. Jerry banging a drum for a YES vote on Prop. 1 (and Prop. 2), I figured I'd better find out about the measure, the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014.

California is an unstable, unsustainable quagmire when it comes to water policy. The state is largely a desert, rendered abundantly fertile by siphoning water from rivers and mountains, into which 38 million people have flooded to enjoy sunshine and prosperity. At best, for decades we've been running just a little ahead of water collapse.

With the current drought and the prospect of human-caused higher temperatures in the future, the house of cards that has been our water policy seems to be breaking down. Valley residents whose wells are throwing up sand and brown sludge not surprisingly call on the government to help. It's not clear that the state can or will.

Prop. 1 seems to be a laboriously negotiated Sacramento compromise, a glancing blow at deep problems designed by such broad forces so as to please most everyone just a little. Pretty much all the big guns -- elected officials, both political parties and the state unions and the Chamber of Commerce, and the Farm Bureau Federation -- are on board with it. Some enviros are supporters. Here's some of the pitch I received today from the California League of Conservation Voters.

... the investments within this bond seek to address many environmental concerns that that directly affect water supply and access. Passage of the bond will improve access to and quality of drinking water statewide by funding water quality projects in several categories: safe drinking water, recycled water, regional water security, groundwater sustainability and coastal/ river protection. The bond will directly fund ecosystem and watershed restoration, protecting the California coast, the Sacramento River delta, and watersheds that provide California’s water supply. Finally, the bond takes steps to protect communities with the least access to clean water supplies by creating a technical assistance program and prioritizing state funding on the needs of the disadvantaged communities.

Opponents of Prop. 1 are some strange bedfellows. The Center for Biological Diversity argues for a NO.

1. The bond subsidizes more delta water exports. ... This will be very bad news for dozens of endangered and threatened species that call the [Sacramento River] delta home.

2. The bond will make way for new dams and reservoirs. The bond provides $2.7 billion for additional water storage projects to benefit Big Ag, including the Sites, Los Vaqueros and Temperance Flat reservoirs. Building these dams and reservoirs is misguided: It's a grossly expensive way to facilitate Big Ag's access to minimal additional water resources. The result will harm fragile ecosystems which need this water to survive.

3. The bond fails to bring real water solutions to California. The bond slashes funding for water conservation, efficiency and recycling to $1.5 billion -- just half of what it allocates to build new dams and reservoirs. ...

There's some evidence that opposition involves a pincer movement of the water-rich far north and the arid far south of the state. The Chico Enterprise-Register argues that

We in the north state are expected to solve the water problems south of the delta. We will be compelled to solve those problems whether we like it or not. .... We eye Proposition 1 with suspicion, because history has taught us it's wise to do so. It's a $7.5 billion dollar crapshoot that we're likely to lose, no matter how the dice fall.

Some San Diegans also believe that the rest of the state is failing them.

Marco Gonzalez, a prominent environmental attorney from the San Diego region, said Proposition 1 offers little for the local area.

“From a San Diegan’s perspective, Proposition 1 ignores the fact that we are at the end of the water pipeline, and among the most precarious regions susceptible to impacts of long term drought,” Gonzalez, head of the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, wrote in a recent U-T San Diego commentary. “With more than $5 billion allocated to projects on the San Joaquin River, Shasta Lake, and reservoirs in Contra Costa and Merced counties, San Diego and the rest of Southern California are being hung out to dry.”

Having just spent several hours reading the pros and cons, I am still not convinced that I know which way to go on this. When opponents object that we can't build our way out of our water shortage, they score points with me. As temperatures rise (a certainty) and population increases (not quite such a certainty given the disproportion between housing costs and job opportunities for most people), further fights over who gets the water are a certainty. I'm not sure whether Prop. 1 helps or hurts.

The outfit that distributes these signs urges a NO vote.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Evidence we are all different

When you are fortunate enough to have a dear friend who agrees stay in your house while you travel about for four months, on your return you know some items will have been moved around. People have different ideas about how to organize their lives.

Cat litter in the freezer was unexpected. When I get a chance to find out why she kept it there, I'll add the answer here.

Update: The promised answer to the puzzle. Apparently the cat litter, a wheat kernel variety, arrived from Amazon and proceeded to exude little black bugs. The cat refused it! And it sure wasn't something anyone wanted around. Our house sitter didn't know who had ordered it or paid for it and wanted to keep the evidence if someone wanted to make a complaint to Amazon.


After four months, we're home. Here the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean. Finally we feel the ocean is in the "right" direction.

Regular blogging will resume as soon as I catch my breath.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Searching for salad across America

When we launched off in June on the 14,000 mile road trip that is the bookapalooza, one of my fears had nothing to do with whether Rebecca's talks about Mainstreaming Torture would be well received.

My great fear was that I wouldn't be able to find anything green to eat on the road. I remembered a trip to rural Colorado in 2001 when there seemed no escape from burgers and fries and, for an exotic variation, over-cooked pasta. So I resolved to record whatever salads might be available across the country.

Good news: just about every town and even highway rest stop served something like a salad. A durable change has come to mid-America almost everywhere.

Here are some of the salads we found on the road:

At a local cafe in Woodland, CA

Whitefish, MT

A chain outlet in New York City's financial district

At Chop Fresh you select the ingredients and an army of workers churns out your choices cheaply. Great lunch!

No surprise that a random cafe in a New Orleans' French Quarter can provide a salad ...

But who expected something this good from a Newk's in Hattiesburg MS?

Here's a fruity turkey salad from Knoxville TN

West Memphis AR was the closest thing to food desert we encountered, but even there a truck stop Denny's produced this -- complete with Texas toast.

The salad I liked most was from Central Foods in Spokane. Simple, subtle, and surprisingly good dressing.
If you can afford it -- and often the toll is no more than for a burger -- you don't have to starve for live food on the highways anymore!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola security theater

It's not easy to raise a laugh out of our current Ebola hysteria, but the New York Times inadvertently gave me one this morning. The Prez has been trapped, between his health officials' missteps and GOP fear-mongering, forced to name an "Ebola Czar." That's what you do when you've lost your grip on the narrative.

The gent who gets the ugly job is one Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to both Al Gore and Joe Biden. The "newspaper of record" reports his qualifications:

Mr. Klain is known for his ability to handle high-stakes and fast-moving political crises. He was the lead Democratic lawyer for Mr. Gore during the 2000 election recount, and was later played by Kevin Spacey in the HBO drama “Recount” about the disputed contest.

Okay -- we hope Klain is as polished as the actor.

And we can hope the administration puts the bulk of its Ebola efforts into the only actions that would actually increase the security of people here and around world: ending the unchecked epidemic in West Africa. True medical experts on the disease are beginning to think that the best hope for control is to develop a vaccine.

"Being afraid at all is the wrong thing to do ..."

Do not listen to the hysterical voices on radio and television or read the fear provoking words online ...

You may have heard that a Fox News TV talking head contradicted his network mates by offering the naked truth about the U.S. ebola outbreak. I didn't choose to view this at first. But if you haven't seen it, you might like to run it. It is hard to be more unambiguously direct than Shep Smith is here.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Unbounded volatility

Feeling mystified by current Middle Eastern events and the latest iteration of U.S interventions in Iraq and in Syria? Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn, long time reporter for The Independent, has taken an early crack at explaining in The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the new Sunni Uprising.

This is a quickie book, meant to answer an immediate hunger for some idea of how a potent bunch of terrorist fanatics called (sometimes) ISIS could have suddenly overrun much of two countries. Based on Cockburn's own reporting, the result is somewhat Iraq-centric. It has probably been somewhat more possible to report from Baghdad than Damascus of late. But he's got a fairly coherent theory that is presented in this small book.

Cockburn locates the essential background to current events in two factors. First, the generations-long promotion of an intolerant variant of Islam by oil-rich Saudi Arabia. When you've got almost infinite cash to pass around, you can construct an awful lot of mosques and schools that teach your brand of religion; the Saudis have been at that project since 1945. And little as the U.S. likes the result, we've seldom said "boo" against it.

Cockburn's second background condition has been the Western world's war on Arab nationalism, in particular on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. After feeding Iraqi persistence in its long war against Iran in the 1980s and then smashing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Western-backed U.N. sanctions throughout the 1990s pretty much destroyed what remained of a functioning Iraqi state. The consequence, continuing and intensifying through the US invasion and occupation of the 2000s, has been to put all the functions of a government -- handing out bureaucratic jobs, law enforcement and criminal justice, even the military -- up for sale from whoever had grabbed the power of appointment to whoever would pay. Iraq became one of the most corrupt societies in the world. No wonder the Iraqi army of some 400,000 men put up almost no resistance to a couple of thousand ISIS fighters on the move in northern Iraq this summer. The officers sold the troops their positions, then pocketed half their salaries, and most of any money for supplies.

Soldiers were sent to the front with only four clips of ammunition for the AK-47s; they went hungry because their commanders had embezzled the money to be spent on food; in oil-rich Iraq, fuel for army vehicles was in short supply; some battalions were down to a quarter of their established strength.

According to Cockburn, the West frequently, and sometimes willfully, misinterpreted the upheavals of the Arab Spring. Worse, Arab insurgents themselves were poorly equipped to lead their own societies.

In March 2011, mass arrests and torture effortlessly crushed the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. Innovations in technology may have changed the odds marginally in favor of the opposition, but not enough to prevent counter-revolution, as the military coup in Egypt on July 3, 2013 underscored.The initial success of street demonstrations led to over-confidence and excessive reliance on spontaneous action; the need for leadership, organization, unity, and policies that amounted to more than a vague humanitarian agenda all went by the wayside. ... Many members of the intelligentsia in Libya and Syria seemed to live and think within the echo chamber of the internet. Few expressed practical ideas about the way forward.

... The Arab Spring revolts were a strange mixture of revolution, counterrevolution, and foreign intervention. The international media often became highly confused about what was going on. The revolutionaries of 2011 had many failings but they were highly skilled at influencing and manipulating press coverage. ... Good reporters still took immense risks, and sometimes paid with their lives, trying to explain that there was more to what was happening than [an] oversimplified picture, But the worst media coverage, particularly in the first two years of the revolts, was very bad indeed. ... Predictably, such news was so biased and unreliable that the real course of events turned out to be full of unexpected developments and nasty surprises. This is likely to continue.

Cockburn concludes that the U.S., the West, and Middle Eastern peoples are in for a long, ugly, and likely bloody passage. He's not the sort of reporter who prognosticates, but what he sees is unstable and frightening.

The region has always been treacherous ground for foreign intervention, but many of the reasons for Western failure to read the situation in the Middle East are recent and self inflicted. The US response to the attacks of 9/11 in 2001 targeted the wrong countries when Afghanistan and Iraq were identified as the hostile states whose governments needed to be overthrown. Meanwhile, the two countries most involved in supporting al-Qa'ida and favoring the ideology behind the attacks, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were largely ignored and given a free pass. Both were long-standing US allies and remained so despite 9/11. ...

It was not governments alone that got it wrong. So too did the reformers and revolutionaries who regarded the "Arab Spring" of 2011 as a death blow to the old authoritarian regimes across the region....Unexpectedness is in the nature of revolutionary change. I have always believed that if I can spot a revolution coming, so can the head of the Mukhabarat security police. He will do everything possible to prevent it happening.

...The political, social, and economic roots of the upsurges of 2011 are very complex. ... Protestors, skilled in propaganda if nothing else, saw the advantage of presenting the uprisings as unthreatening, "velvet" revolutions with English-speaking, well-educated bloggers and tweeters prominently in the vanguard. ...Opposition demands were all about personal freedom: social and economic inequalities were rarely declared to be issues, even when they were driving popular rage against the status quo. ... Economic liberalization, lauded in foreign capitals, was rapidly concentrating wealth in the hands of a politically well-connected few. Even members of the [Syrian] Mukhabarat, the secret police, were trying to survive on $200 a month...

What is the glue that [was] supposed to hold these new post-revolutionary states together? Nationalism isn't much in favor in the West, where it is seen as a mask for racism or militarism, supposedly outmoded in an era of globalization and humanitarian intervention. ... But without nationalism -- even where the unity of the nation is something of a historic fiction -- states lack an ideology that enables them to compete as a focus of loyalty with religious sects or ethnic groups.

... The deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria may now have gone too far to re-create genuinely unitary states. Iraq is breaking up...

Time will tell how far the redrawing of maps will go -- and which forces get to decide whatever new boundaries come to be.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Scared witless amid murderous phantasms

In central Arizona, this piece of Republican tripe seemed to be running in an endless loop on broadcast TV.

The same terrorists targeted by U.S. bombers for destruction in Syria and Iraq are coming to the U.S. to attack the homeland through the Mexican border.

That's how Time Magazine summarizes the political ad's message, before pointing out that the hyped threat has been "repeatedly refuted."

Delaware Senator Chris Coons tweeted Johnathan Cohn's unexceptional article, which points out that a tiny number of Ebola cases in the United States and Europe are a minor threat compared to "the real problem, which is the outbreak in West Africa and the toll it is taking there."

He received in turn hundreds of messages like this:

Too many people in this country are scared witless. Okay, it is obvious that keeping us terrified serves the interests of the Republicans. Their only policy proposals are to take necessary services away from the majority and give the country's resources to the one percent -- these are not very popular ideas when when people understand them, so they need us to remain witless.

But why are so many ready, even eager, to be governed by fears? The music historian and cultural critic Greil Marcus thinks the mere fact of there being a Black president has driven some of us over the edge.

... when you look at the murder of Trayvon Martin, when you look at the murder of Michael Brown, when you look at those situations, it’s not unrelated to Obama being president, but it’s more the way in which the country has reframed itself or rewritten itself since his election, with all kinds of people saying to themselves, maybe never putting it into words, just feeling it, “There’s a fucking n--er in the White House? Well fuck you, n--er, whoever you are.” And an inchoate loathing and hatred that seeks out its targets.

I’m not a psychiatrist, I haven’t sat down and interviewed George Zimmerman or the cop who shot Michael Brown, I don’t know what their motives are, I don’t know what kind of people they are, what kind of childhood traumas they have experienced. But I don’t think it’s nuts that in a certain way, when that cop killed Michael Brown, and when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, they were killing Barack Obama. ...

Sometimes my fellow citizens scare me. That seems an appropriate fear.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Evidence that this is a strange country

This chart, from Vox, illustrates a paradox. Thanks to the Supremes deciding not to engage with the rapidly expanding set of legal decisions allowing same-sex marriage in state after state, there are now 8 states where LGBT people can legally get married -- but where you can then be fired for being gay.

Those states are in white on the map: Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.

More struggles ahead.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A long struggle for both autonomy and inclusion

On this Indigenous People's Day (aka Columbus Day) it seems right to quote some observations from the descendants of original inhabitants from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

Their effort to preserve cultural and legal autonomy is summarized in this statement:

Sovereignty continues to be challenged and yet is sustained in spite of challenges from governments, agencies and individuals.

In 1924, a Citizenship Act finally made the people of the Pueblos into citizens of the United States.

Not all Indian people viewed citizenship as a something wonderful. Their experience in dealing with Washington and the states did not give them much confidence in government or desire to participate in it. Some feared they would have to give up their own sovereignty. Some feared this would open up taxing for their lands.

"United States citizenship is just another way of absorbing us and destroying our customs and our government. We had our citizenship ... Our citizenship is with our nations."

The state of New Mexico didn't actually treat native residents as full citizens until after losing a court case brought by a native veteran of World War II in 1948. Until then, the Pueblo people were considered merely "Indians not taxed" and denied the right to vote.

This was a monumental event ushering in new opportunities for representation in state, local and national elections. It would take many years before this was fully realized. Early advocates of political participation were ridiculed by their own Pueblo people. Their persistence however paved the way ...

As late as 2004, my own experience with electoral organizing in the state included running into many obstacles to getting Pueblo people onto the voter rolls. Today there is at least one State Representative who comes from a Pueblo community.
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