Sunday, July 21, 2019

It's Mueller time again

The former Special Counsel is expected to testify before House Judiciary and House Intelligence Committees this Wednesday. He has made clear that he will not enlarge on his findings as expressed in the report delivered in March.

But how many of us have read this 400 page document? Not many of us.

In The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts, playwright Robert Schenkkan has adapted the words of the report for a staged reading at the Riverside Church that took place on June 24. An all-star cast led by John Lithgow as Trump performs the legal phrasings with energy and even some laughs. After all, the Trump entourage are clowns as well as knaves and wanna-be gangsters. Lithgow's rendition of the raging Trump is sometimes funny -- until you remember this guy is president and shows every sign of wanting to use the power of his office to harm his enemies.

This performance is well worth a little more than an hour of your time. Stick with it, let it roll over you and sink in, and then ponder again what you are doing to make sure the Orange Crook is a one term president.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Movement history that can inspire today

Since I dinged one academic yesterday for what I considered weak historical analogies that shed little light on his subject, now I want to raise up an article by an historian that I think uncovers powerful resonances between contemporary events and US history.

Manisha Sinha is the author of the monumental study The Slave's Cause: a History of Abolition. In The New Fugitive Slave Laws in the New York Review of Books, she discusses several recent criminal cases brought against humanitarians which call to mind 19th century struggles to end slavery in the United States.
Scott Warren, a volunteer for the group No More Deaths, has been charged for illegally providing food and water to migrants in the Arizona desert. His travails remind her of the Ohio farmer John Van Zandt whose long legal battle in the 1840s against indictment for assisting nine fugitive slaves to hide successfully left him penniless and broken. Warren's recent trial led to a hung jury; the government wants to try him again.

The German ship captain Carola Rackete rescued 41 African migrants from the Mediterranean Sea; the right-wing populist government of Italy seized her ship, though individual criminal charges laid against here were dismissed by an Italian judge. The organization that sponsored her voyage, Sea-Watch International, charges Italy with "kidnapping." Sinha points out that

Abolitionists, too, often called those who captured free blacks and assisted in fugitive slave renditions “kidnappers,” ...

She goes on to draw out the similarities between our recoil from images of the drowned Salvadoran father, Óscar Ramírez, and his young daughter, Valeria with the immense impact of the scene of the slave Eliza and her infant escaping across the Ohio River in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

She concludes:

Today, in criminalizing the provision of humanitarian assistance to migrants we have resurrected the fugitive slave laws of antebellum America. Just as abolitionist activists were once targeted, human rights activists have found themselves in the sights of the Trump administration for surveillance and prosecution, according to a recent Amnesty International report. ...

Some historical analogies can mislead, granted, but we should be mindful of the lessons from history that can shine light on our current humanitarian crisis. The first is that evils we had thought long banished from civilized societies can reappear, and with alarming speed. ... The second lesson from history is how quickly such measures can be accepted as necessary, even “natural.” That ordinary people of any ethnicity or nationality can partake in and support evil actions at any time is not news to historians.

... the interracial nineteenth-century abolition movement can provide valuable inspiration to those involved in today’s efforts to provide humanitarian aid to migrants and refugees and to resist the threatened descent into authoritarianism, mass atrocity, and inhumanity. ... The plight of today’s “Dreamers” and citizens and legal immigrants married to undocumented immigrants is comparable to the status of runaway slaves who married free blacks and raised children in free states. ... We might well paraphrase Frederick Douglass’s great speech, “What to the interned migrant is the Fourth of July?”

The [1850] Fugitive Slave Law sparked outrage in the North, especially in areas where the abolition movement was strong. Hundreds of cases brought to court under the law by slave-catchers and slave owners in the 1850s led to abolitionist protests and scuffles with federal marshals.

Manisha Sinha's history of abolitionism is less a retelling of what happened in the course of this country's tormented trajectory toward ending slavery and more an exploration and evaluation of abolitionism as a prolonged social movement. Because that's how she's chosen to look at the past, it is not surprising that she excels at picturing the present within a social movement vision. Read it all here.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Can the US let go its global dominance without war?

I've thought since the end of the Cold War that navigating an inevitable stormy downsizing of US ambition would be the urgent responsibility for any political leader who aspired to memorable accomplishment. (It's turned out it will be just as burdensome to mitigate climate chaos and to reduce domestic terror about demographic change. Trump's the proof.) Obama seemed to understand our need to give up on being the world's economic hegemon and biggest bully. He got damn little respect or support for his necessarily weak moves, well out ahead of elite consensus.

Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School explores whether a US war with China-on-the-rise is inevitable. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? looks at the question through a somewhat tortured historical framework. The thesis:

Thucydides went to the heart of the matter. When he turned the spotlight on "the rise of Athens and the fear this inspired in Sparta," he identified a primary driver at the root of some of history's most catastrophic and puzzling wars. Intentions aside, when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the resulting structural stress make a violent clash the rule, not the exception. ...As far ahead as the eye can see, the defining question about global order is whether China and the US can escape Thucydides's Trap.

People who write within the discipline of international relations seem to feel free treat history as a handy bucket of threatening analogies, more or less applicable to whatever dynamics they want to write about. I get it; I sometimes succumb to the same temptation when trying to apply what I know of history to the present. But Allison's list of 15 analogous examples of hegemonic transitions strikes me as once-over-lightly cherry picking rather than bumpy, granular history, so I won't explore them here.

What I found more interesting was Allison's description of "what Xi's China wants." Like Trump, China's present ruler wants to make China great again; he's "driven by an indomitable determination to reclaim past greatness." After a couple of centuries of Western domination, Xi and most Chinese believe their huge, productive, inventive country is ready to resume its proper destiny leading the civilized world.

"Making China Great Again" means:

  • Returning China to the predominance in Asia that it enjoyed before the West intruded.
  • Reestablishing control over the territories of "greater China," including not just Xinjiang and Tibet on the mainland, but also Hong Kong and Taiwan.
  • Recovering its historic sphere of influence along its borders and in the adjacent seas so that others give it the deference great nations have always demanded.
  • Commanding the respect of other powers in the councils of the world.

Those ambitions hardly seem surprising for the country with the most people and the largest economy in the world. Real conflict is more likely to arise from their source:

At the core of these national goals is a civilizational creed that sees China as the center of the universe.

Allison takes his cues about Chinese ambitions from Lee Kuan Yew, the longtime, successful modernizing authoritarian ruler of Singapore, who of necessity knew a thing or two about co-existing with China. Lee helped him grasp Xi's vision of a revitalized (less corrupt) ruling Chinese Communist Party, reawakened Chinese patriotism, further exponential economic growth, and rebuilding a "fight and win" military. Though all this at once might seem like an unsustainable project, Allison concludes that Xi is well on the way to being able to tell the US to "butt out" of Asia.

So how will we react? Will we be governed by fear of China's rise? Allison sketches several terrifying scenarios that might lead -- mostly without malicious intention -- to a shooting war. He also suggests that China and a wise US might be able to redefine our relationship and achieve another long era of peace. Both parties know that war, especially with nukes, would mean Mutual Assured Destruction.

But a happy outcome is going to take wisdom -- currently lacking badly on our end. And China needs good fortune as well as ambition on theirs. It's worth remembering that China faces plenty of domestic challenges as has lately been very visible among the intelligentsia as well as in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Friday cat blogging

He ignored his new fountain for a month, but suddenly Morty has deigned to drink. He still expects us to turn on the water for him in the bathroom sink, but this is progress.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Offshoring our concentration camps

The Trump administration would like to turn Guatemala into an open air prison for Central American asylum seekers. Johnathan Blitzer explained at the New Yorker that:

... the Trump Administration is expected to announce a major immigration deal, known as a safe-third-country agreement, with Guatemala. For weeks, there have been reports that negotiations were under way between the two countries, but, until now, none of the details were official. According to a draft of the agreement obtained by The New Yorker, asylum seekers from any country who either show up at U.S. ports of entry or are apprehended while crossing between ports of entry could be sent to seek asylum in Guatemala instead.

We have such an agreement with Canada -- asylum seekers who somehow get to Canada are deemed to be in a safe country and so are almost always ineligible to apply for asylum in the United States.

But Guatemala?

In addition to the fact that many of the current wave of asylum seekers are running away from danger in Guatemala, that country is designated as very dangerous indeed according to the U.S. State Department's own travel advisory system.

Violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents. 

The whole country is labeled "Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution." As for the capital city and airport, it's even worse: "Level 3: Reconsider Travel."

Now obviously, no U.S. court would approve such a travesty of justice as allowing this phony "safe country" designation to stop asylum claims by migrants at the border?

Perhaps so. But people better versed in the law than I at Rational Security assert that the determination of whether a country is really "safe" is reserved under U.S. statutes to the sole authority of the Attorney General. And we have ample evidence that the current Attorney General is a Trump toady.

The Israelis have Gaza for their open air prison for Palestinians; apparently we're aiming to replicate that in Guatemala.

And the administration aims to coerce Mexico into another phony "safe-country" deal. Will Mexican nationalists resist? They often have in the past, but we'll see.

My favorite Mission District destination

The other day I answered some questionnaire, one of whose questions was "What's your favorite feature of your neighborhood?" I remember thinking they wanted some store perhaps -- but I knew right away that my answer was our nearby public library.

So I'm overjoyed that San Francisco's Board of Supervisors (what would be called a city council most places) has passed a resolution to end late fees and reduce outstanding fines. This has been in the works for awhile. Mission Local did its usual good job of explaining:

This means that the more than 17,000 local patrons whose accounts were previously blocked due to accumulated overdue fines (which was automatic once a fine of $10 was accrued) will once again be free to check out library materials. And the 157,000 library patrons — some 35 percent of the library’s users — who owe late fees will now be in the clear. Among those owing money, the average tab was $23.

Michelle Jeffers, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Public Library, said she has been looking forward to this decision for a while. “We really feel that late fees had been leading to inequity for certain segments of the community,” she said, adding that the fees are incongruous with the overall mission of a public library. “We want to be welcoming and equitable, and we want more people to be able to use the library.”

Jeffers isn’t concerned that the elimination of late fees will lead to later returns or longer wait times for books.

“We’ve been a library for 140 years, and fines haven’t really changed people’s behavior,” she said. “There are a lot of people who return their books on time, and a lot of people who don’t.”

Librarians are realists who want their patrons to use their resources. How healthy!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The ice tells the story

Now here's an insight into human history:

A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tied the rise and fall of lead in Arctic ice samples to economically significant historical events over the course of the last 2,500 years, from the Roman Empire to the present. Climate scientists and historians worked together to conduct the research, using data from 13 ice samples taken from different regions around the Arctic.

Atmospheric lead pollution and economic growth shared a “direct link,” said study coauthor Nathan Chellman, because of lead’s ties to money. Production of precious ores used for currency, especially silver, was pretty much the only source of lead pollution for many centuries.

... For most of history, wars and plagues corresponded with economic decline. That translated into dips in lead levels in the ice that formed during those years. Periods of growth and prosperity, on the other hand, were marked by increasing levels of lead pollution. That shifted into overdrive in the mid-1700s, when the Industrial Revolution brought rapid technological developments.

Grist, July 15, 2019

Those technological developments increased lead pollution exponentially over previous levels.

Have these scientists discerned the cycle of human species development? First we become really smart and improve living standards and life expectancy, then we poison ourselves and everything else and die back, only to start the sequence again (at least so long as the damage was localized)?

Those ice cores show a lot about increasing climate chaos too.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The personal is still political

Erudite Partner's latest commentary on our fraught world tells the story of her long-ago abortion. It's a thoughtful meander ... much to chew on. Do read.

I came away from her piece realizing that the short five-year difference in our ages (I'm older) makes for a split in our recollections. When I was in high school, I knew dimly that some girls who got pregnant did get abortions -- just how I had no idea, and the operation was a secret, a shameful thing. The girl had "let" some guy get her pregnant.

In college at UC Berkeley from 1965-69, we "knew" that abortion was possible, if difficult and maybe dangerous. I remember taking up collections to send friends to Tijuana for the procedure. They came back alive; I never knew if they were scarred physically or in their psyches. For myself I got lucky. My experiments with heterosexuality were unprotected but without lasting consequence.

When I lived in New York in the early '70s, abortion was still illegal in most of the country, but the Empire State had legalized it with a pro forma, overnight residency requirement. I remember hosting more than one friend for a three day stay. We didn't talk about it much, that I remember.

And then Roe v. Wade made abortion mostly legal in 1973 and, for those outside of that emergency, a non-issue. Abortion never truly became a moot question, of course, for young women and poor women and women blocked from access by other people's violent scruples. And now it looks as if this sad cycle may be played out again.

Many women won't stop getting abortions. The drive to save their own potential lives will continue to outweigh whatever drive they have to birth a child. But women will suffer more in the process.

EP invites other women to tell their abortion stories by telling hers. It's a worthwhile call.

Monday, July 15, 2019

San Franciscans protest Amazon complicity with ICE

People organized by Bay Resistance, Causa Justa, San Francisco Jobs with Justice and many more groups took to Market Street on #PrimeDay to deliver a massive petition to Amazon demanding the company stop selling its face recognition technology to immigration enforcers.

Amazon refused the petition.

Protesters shouted their solidarity with Amazon's warehouse workers who accuse the company of making a killing off their backs.

"We're humans, not robots," William Stolz, an Amazon warehouse worker in Shakopee, Minnesota, told CNN Business. "They're treating us like machines."

When a company becomes the world's retail colossus, people demand responsibility.

One tough woman in one tough campaign

If you are wondering why Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is not intimidated to find herself at odds with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, this film is for you. She's seen her fill of old, entrenched, white liberal women who don't recognize their time may be coming to an end.

If you wonder how Congresswoman Omar bears up under racist bullying by Donald Trump and friends, this film is for you. She's survived plenty of vicious attempts to squelch her. Trump's demand she "go back" somewhere won't stop her. She has a community and a home.

If you are curious about the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's hyper-participatory caucus nominating process, this is a great introduction to its potential. (Here's my commentary from a year when there was less obvious potential.)

If you have ever wondered what I mean on this blog when I declare someone running for office has become a "good candidate," Congresswoman Omar conducts a master class in meet, greet, and near-magical charisma in this film.

If you want an inspiring picture of a people-powered campaign that wins, this film is for you.

Time for Ilhan is available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Google Play.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Immigration raids and resistance

I'm pasting this inflammatory image here today because, for the second week in a row, I've been asked by friends at church, "But what can we do?"

They hope I might know. They are wrong. None of us who care about human decency and the torture of babies by our own government know -- yet. I have no roadmap, but I have experience, and I have thoughts.

Many of those of us who came of age during the long moral horror that was our country's war in Vietnam have experience that prepares us for this time. Much against our hopes, we learned to persist, to refuse to give up. The struggle against the war seemed to drag on forever in our young lives. By 1966, a substantial fraction of us knew that our government was doing something very wrong -- evil even -- into which some of our age peers might be conscripted. Yet our purportedly ethical political system seemed incapable of bringing the atrocity to an end. The Vietnam war dragged on for another 9 years with escalating commitments of U.S. troops; over all, 50,000 of our soldiers and millions of Vietnamese and other South East Asians were killed before North Vietnam definitively booted us out in 1975.

And across those long years, people of conscience in the U.S. tried expedient after expedient, tactic after tactic, appeal after appeal, trying to end our national atrocity in progress.

We educated, first ourselves, then our fellow citizens (at least I hope it usually went in that order.) What did we really know about a peasant society in South East Asia? What do we really know today about failing kleptocratic states in Central America's Northern Triangle, about how climate chaos drives migration, about how U.S. and international immigration and humanitarian law work, about how migrants who settle in the United States survive and thrive? Not all we should, though it may seem a little easier today to be informed in the era of internet. In the face of atrocity, knowing and spreading opportunities for knowing seems like not much, but it is a prerequisite to much more.

We mobilized and organized, by which I mean that people imaginatively found ways to create friction that expressed revulsion from an evil war in every sector of society. There were draft resisters and mass marches, but also over time there appeared businessmen [sic, though there weren't many women] against the war, labor against the war, teachers against the war, farmers against the war, even GIs against the war ... Name a social sector, some of its members sought to give it a role. They struggled to win over the indifferent and the hostile, they passed resolutions, held teach-ins, boycotted and picketed Dow Chemical (makers of that fiery weapon, napalm) and other war profiting companies, and supported military objectors. Today the Trump policy of deliberate cruelty to brown people seeking succor in this country has moved people to a multitude of similar actions, from shaming Amazon for selling its facial recognition technology to ICE to experts confirming that it's accurate to call the CBP detention facilities "concentration camps." These areas of pressure are limited only by our imagination and willingness to chip away through them.

We challenged power using the constitutional system. This came last in the Vietnam era, because both political parties were wedded to that evil war. (Ah yes, that was the era of less acute partisanship we're sometimes admonished to yearn for.) But we did bring down a sitting president; LBJ gave up on re-election in 1968 because Vietnam opponents had divided the Democrats. People repulsed by cruelty to migrants start off far ahead today. None of our Dems are going to endorse Trump's wall and his family-breaking random deportations. Can we get the Dems affirming that an aging country should welcome enterprising immigrants and refugees into our complex multi-ethnic future? This seems a goal worth agitating for.

A lesson from movement history is that you never can be sure in advance which initiative against the machine will strike a chord. Some take center stage for a season, then fade. But many of them might erupt at any moment. Pay attention.

A further lesson is that non-violence and kindness to one another in the midst of moral anguish and urgent struggle also count while working for greater justice. If so inclined, try praying. It too can help.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

How indeed?

Something is desperately wrong here. From The Pentagon Run-Down with Jeff Schogol:

Gen. Mark Milley warns against withdrawing from Afghanistan after only 18 years
You know what they say: If at first you don’t succeed, keep plodding on for two decades with no hope for victory.

That’s the story about the Afghanistan war in a nutshell.

Despite the fact that recruits will soon enter boot camp to train to fight in a war that began before they were born, Army Gen. Mark Milley said it is too soon to pull out of Afghanistan.

... Your friend and humble narrator may be bad at math, but it seems strange to call any withdrawal of U.S. troops from nearly 18 years premature. (Especially when a poll by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of veterans surveyed said the Afghanistan war has not been worth the sacrifice.)

Schogol offers a clear, short timeline of the U.S. Afghanistan war in case you've forgotten or never knew. Two more U.S. soldiers died as recently as in the last week of June.

As the young John Kerry, recently returned from fighting in Vietnam in 1971, once asked Congress, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Saturday scenery: the avenue of the pink sweet peas

'Tis the season when stands of wild sweet peas line the Old Pedro Mountain Road on the flank of Montara Mountain.

The higher reaches are too exposed to wind and fog to support the plants, but the old crumbling roadway admits enough sun to make a perfect environment for these flowers.

In a couple of weeks, they'll be gone for the year.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Friday cat blogging

Sometimes Morty just has to stick his whiskers in your face. Usually earlier in the morning than you had intended to wake up ... It's not clear what he wants. Often once you've stirred, he'll go back to sleep.


San Franciscans rallied against raids announced by the Trump administration that aim to seize migrants for deportation on Thursday afternoon.

Not in our 'hood; not on our watch!

Fr. Richard Smith leads several hundred protesters in prayer.

San Franciscans stand with our sisters and brothers who are threatened by Trump's campaign against migrants. "We all stand together" here.
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