Friday, February 27, 2015

Teach the children well ...

Parents trying hard to do the right thing brought their kids to the weekly farmer's market in the Mission on Thursday. Their flyer explained:

We stand with the Black Lives Matter movement and want to include our whole families in honoring Black History Month and beginning a public dialogue about how racial justice is everyone's responsibility. Of course we believe that All Lives Matter -- but right now -- we want to emphasize that Black people are being hurt at a very high rate and that having black skin does mean that you are treated differently and most of the times in a bad way. We want our kids to appreciate and see that Black is Beautiful and Black Lives Matter!

This action is for the children, to each kids how to stand up to injustice and have a voice in the community for what's right. It is also for the parents, to show that it is vital to talk to your kids about race and there are developmentally appropriate ways to do it. ...

Important note: the content of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is in response to racist violence, but since children have differing information about what’s going on in the world, participants will not be discussing murder, and staying away from the slogans that infer killing. Instead, they will be focusing on how and why Black lives are valuable in their community. The organizers thank you for respecting this.

After the minimum obligatory speechifying ...

... the little procession meandered past the vendors.

I'm not going to pretend that this event didn't feel slightly odd to me. The parents, mostly but not exclusively white, looked as if they came from up the hill in Noe Valley, a more affluent area. The market occupies the street in front of the Mission District landmark destroyed by fire early this month, a blaze that left over sixty people homeless. Most of the newly homeless are Latino immigrant families; many are children. This wasn't their march.

On the other hand, I would bet that the sort of parents who bring their kids to this sort of thing are the sort of people who helped raise $180,000 for the fire victims. For all its tensions, San Francisco can still sometimes delight.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Deadly coal

On February 26, 1972:

a coal waste dam owned by the Pittston Company collapsed at the head of a crowded hollow in southern West Virginia. A wall of sludge, debris, and water tore through the valley below, leaving in its wake 125 dead and 4000 homeless. The Pittston Company, owners of the dam, denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that the disaster was 'an act of God'.

The Catholic Worker community in which I was living at that time had a small offshoot in the neighborhood of the disaster. We reported on the horror, aghast.

Last summer we drove through West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. Some places, the only signs of life were billboards defending coal mining from its environmental detractors.

We know that politically, coal is still king in those parts. As recently as 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a coal company executive couldn't just spend millions on electing his own partisan judge to the West Virginia Supreme Court to escape a damages judgement. The coal magnates had just been doing "business as usual." (It was a close vote at the Supremes as things are these days; Judge Anthony Kennedy had to defect from the conservatives to win this repudiation of "undue influence.")

And coal turns out to be the preeminent source of the carbon dioxide pollution that is driving climate change. Even if the companies doing the mining were models of rectitude, we'd have to stop using it if we don't want to fry.

The memory of the Buffalo Creek flood, of those people, their houses, their community washed away by a callous company, has to be part of the indictment of coal mining. I wonder if the children of the survivors are working in the industry. They might be, if there is still any coal mining in the area. People do what they have to do.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why do I blog?

This site has been chugging along for ten years as of today.

Some thoughts on the question in the title:
  • I blog because I want to model that it is possible to draw out of the encounters and accidents of daily life some insights into political and social systems. That sounds grand. I mean such things as noticing that a restaurant has put a surcharge on your bill for "Healthy SF." That's the local program that insures the uninsured. You start noticing things like that and pretty soon you find your immersed in the economics of health insurance, of the restaurant industry, and even immigration policy. That's good!
  • I blog because I've lived a long life in politics, inside the electoral system and outside in the social movements of our time. I think I've learned something along the way and this place is a venue in which to share what I observe.
  • I blog because I think some things need to be said that people with institutional obligations or personal ambitions cannot or will not say. As I say to any organization for which I consult, "don't let me near any funders!"
  • I blog because good things do happen. Sometimes it is truthful to feel hope or delight and to say so!
I had taken it into my head to do a significant redesign of the blog, but Google in its wisdom has upgraded the HTML in the underpinnings of these things, so I would have lost my all the paragraph breaks in the archives. I probably could have figured out how to avert that, but I have things to do ... that's blogging, an avocation, not a job. I settled for some clean up and a new picture.

You get what you pay for and Blogger has been good to me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

San Francisco housing wars

I recently faulted the best seller Season of the Witch for underemphasizing San Francisco's ongoing fights over housing for lower income workers, the poor and the marginalized. James Tracy's Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco’s Housing Wars covers those seemingly continuous struggles. As the title indicates, the author was there in the trenches and he knows whereof he writes.

...this is a partisan book. With the exceptions of the histories that occurred long before I was born, I was either directly in the fray or close by as events unfolded. In order for this book to be useful, I've had to turn a critical eye on people, organizations, and movements near and dear to my heart. ...

... If the working-class spine of a city is broken, then no one but the moneyed get to dream big dreams in the city. These dispatches defend the communities that make cities an amazing place to live: the working classes, artists, immigrants, and communities of color.

I, for one, am grateful for his wisdom and candor. I was around peripherally for most of this, fortunate enough to be securely housed, but always aware of whose side I was on. After a brief recounting of some of the history of housing in the city, the book begins with the story of public housing tenants fighting demolition and privatization masquerading as reform; continues through the awful era when many of our single room occupancy (SRO) hotels went up in smoke; through Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition's (MAC) struggle to preserve something of the low rent Mission for Latinos and artists who often didn't speak the same language, politically and culturally as well as literally, during the first tech boom that peaked in 2000.

Tracy's story is full of reflections on what it is really like to engage in these struggles. For example:

The very real potential for impoverished people to lead and determine their own destiny [often can be] replaced with radical others' fantasies about them or rationales for ignoring their voices. In the [Mission] Agenda's case, it also led to ignoring the role of trauma in the lives of the people being organized. Living in slum conditions, and facing the aggregate impacts of poverty, leaves its own scars. By the time the Agenda folded, many of its shining stars were dead -- some of overdoses, others of untreated health conditions; others dropped out of movement work entirely, citing burnout.

Or, as my friends and I have remarked in more than one organizational context: "Struggle is hard; that's why they call it struggle." Tracy reminds us to try to organize care for each other while we work to defeat those who would brush us aside.

Organizations aiming to empower working class and poor constituencies are often confronted with an ethical dilemma: having got people stirred up, do they have an obligation to win what can be won for the constituency, even if that undermines the clarity and vision of the work? Often this takes the form of how deeply to go inside a bad system -- whether by engaging in electoral politics or policy planning -- or to stay outside, aiming to move an agenda through aggressive direct action. This seems to me a particularly difficult problem when it comes to housing issues. Housing policy (and finance) can be very arcane. If you feel compelled to work from inside, you are also likely to find yourself within the constraints of the nonprofit organizational form answering to funders who usually think they know more about your work than you do. Tracy explores some of these issues in relation to real San Francisco organizations including the Mission Housing Development Corporation where the organizers were displaced by builders of middle class housing.

And now San Francisco's conflict over housing is playing out again in a new tech boom. Tracy describes the pass we're now in as "clear cutting" of the working and middle class by the new money.

What is to be done? Tracy discusses community land trusts, citizen participatory budgeting, and building powerful organizations of people discarded by the power of money.

Activists should resist the temptation to fetishize one organizational form as the only one capable of contributing to a housing movement. That said, there are some characteristics that should anchor all organizing in the city. All organizations should reckon with the confines that capitalism places on their best aspirations. Accountability to participatory democratic practices and self-management to the greatest extent possible may be the best guarantees that a movement will be able to "keep it real." Most importantly, housing movements must demand that which would do the most good for the greatest number of people and not start out with the politics of pragmatism. ...

Social movements and labor upsurges achieve something far beyond their stated goals: they create a new common sense about what human beings deserve both by virtue of being human and in return for their labors. Without this change, all others will be fleeting.

I found this book both thought provoking and challenging. That's what I am looking for in such a book.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Can Chester Cheetah give offense?

I noticed this on a Mission Street bus shelter this morning and walked back to catch the image. Yes -- though the Cheetos logo is not badly done -- I think we can trust that this is art, not advertising.

I had what felt an odd reaction to it: I was slightly offended.

I don't think of myself as one to be offended by images that mock the Christian religion, even though I'm a Christian. I certainly had nothing against the famous Piss Christ -- a photo of a plastic crucifix immersed in urine -- that caused a hullabaloo in some circles when exhibited in the late '80s. So the artist evidently had a beef with whatever he read in that imagery -- why should I get excited about that? Apparently an attack on my tradition doesn't easily trigger offense, in me.

There are "Christian" images that do offend me: mostly blonde, long-haired, blue-eyed depictions of Jesus. How self-centered can we get? But that reaction is a consequence of my own intra-community arguments. Anyone with a modicum of a sense of history would be allergic to such pictures.

I have a very hard time feeling into why Muslims are so hurt by derogatory representations of the Prophet. Here is some reporting delving into that from the time of the original offending Danish cartoons. I can comprehend why a marginalized, stigmatized group would be worried by or frightened by images that they perceive as attacks. In Europe, and increasingly in the United States, Muslims are a stigmatized, endangered group.

But Christians are not endangered for our faith on Mission Street. So what gets to me about the pseudo-Cheetos cheetah on a cross? I think perhaps my problem is that I suspect that whoever created this is attacking an ignorant caricature of Christian faith. Since I feel surrounded by such ignorant caricatures, many purveyed by some of my fellow Christians, this rubs me wrong.

I guess it could be worse. In 2009, a Dallas couple claimed to have found a Cheeto in the shape of Jesus in their snack bag and named it Cheesus.

I guess I'm with whoever scrawled their commentary on the bus shelter: "WTF ?"

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Apology to Boston

Dear Boston,

I've been wrong about you, or rather about your parade of winter blizzards. Having grown up in Buffalo, I figured I knew about snow. (The photo shows yours truly on a not particularly unusual winter day sometime in the mid-1950s.) Every year we expected huge deposits of the white stuff; everyone was equipped for snow. We all owned boots and heavy clothes; each household had its shovels, rock salt and ice picks. The City publicized autumnal inspections of its plowing equipment. Whether the snow actually got removed depended on which contractors had gotten kickbacks lately, but that too was part of the culture of the place. The streets were a pot-holed wreck by spring, but that seemed just a fact of Bufflao life

Snow days off from school were few. I walked to my high school; it was never really impossible to get there, but I was plenty happy when they decided the buses from further away couldn't make it. I have one dim memory of walking all the the way home from the downtown library, maybe two miles, in a snowstorm; apparently the city buses weren't running. We were urban; we could get most anywhere we needed to go on foot, if we had to.

So I needed this account of your plight to give me a more adult appreciation of what it is like for you this winter.

Boston’s Winter From Hell
In just three weeks, between Jan. 27 and Feb. 15, we have had four epic blizzards — seven feet of precipitation over three weeks — which crushed roofs, burst gutters, destroyed roads and sidewalks, closed schools and businesses, shut down highways, crippled public transit and trapped people in their homes....

Decades of underinvestment and alleged mismanagement of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, known as the T, have meant that the nation’s oldest subway system has been partly or entirely halted for nearly a month. ... Across the region, mile-long lines of people stand for an hour or more, freezing in bitter winds, waiting for shuttle buses that are supposed to replace the trains and trolleys. Some have given up and walked home.

For workers paid by the hour, the impossibility of getting to work means disaster, especially since high housing prices have pushed poor people out of the city to outlying communities like Brockton, Lawrence and beyond. When I commiserated with a checkout clerk at my grocery store yesterday — he’s been missing work when the buses break down or just don’t come — thinly veiled panic showed in his eyes. “People will be losing their houses,” he said.

There's lots more at the link.

So that's how it is. Enforced sprawl, yet not a major factor in my childhood world, makes adaptation to a bad snow year that much harder. So does decades of disinvestment in cities. Parents are forced to figure out what to do with the kids. Even if you manage to get to your job by car, where are you going to leave the vehicle with over half the available parking spaces taken up by piles of snow? I can envision how tough it is.

I owe you an apology Boston. I get it; this winter is truly bad. Hope you dig out soon.

Yours sincerely,
A California transplant by choice

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tensions in the 'hood

There are plenty of people in the Mission angry enough about the invasion of tech workers to paste these all over. No subtle sentiments here. Click on any of these photos to enlarge.

A restaurant began serving outside -- a neighbor has managed to get in the way of the practice. The manager seeks to enlist his customers ...

A phony notice expresses frustrations.

Here a small business owner has posted his response to vandals who use acid to etch ugly marks on his windows.

...All i can say,
comes from a place deep inside,
your anger and rage
only helps you to hide.
Take your words and your art
to the whole world to see,
and please, pretty please
just let me just be me!

Someone hopes for illumination ...

Another has a better idea.

Friday, February 20, 2015

War porn, Islamophobia, and a Christian analogy

When I finished Graeme Wood's long opus explicating ISIS in The Atlantic, I felt as if I needed a bath. Wood brings the apparatus of journalism and academia to bear on the Islamic State, demonstrating that Syria and Iraq have spawned a horde of ferocious irrational religionists who aim to impose the unvarnished essence of Islam on everyone within their reach. That unvarnished essence is the culture of 7th century warring tribal Arabia; any other understanding of the religion of Islam is just an illegitimate gloss.

Although everything he reports may be true to Wood's particular sources and interviewees, he practices a vicious myopia by substituting a cluster of the worst possible Islamic crackpots for the whole body of some 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. This is propaganda, not intellectual discourse.

The article is not only quasi-sophisticated Islamophobia, it is also war porn. If these martyrdom seeking fanatics cannot be dissuaded from their violent obsessions by any means but extermination, we in "the West" can and should indulge our most muscular fantasies of violent domination. This is some ugly shit.

If this noxious item had appeared in say, The Weekly Standard, home of manly American imperialism, it would not be getting the attention it seems to be receiving. Despite having a resident Zionist in Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic is usually something less of a cheer leader for dumb wars.
I'll outsource my main commentary on Wood to Mohamed Ghilan at the London-based Middle East Eye.

Wood swiftly dismisses the validity of beliefs the majority of Muslims hold with regards to Islam, disregards the official position most Muslim theologians have expressed on ISIS and violent extremism, and grants Islamic doctrinal legitimacy only to that which is being promoted by spokespersons from ISIS or their fans.

The argument posed in the article is that the only group of Muslims who take their Islamic texts seriously is ISIS. ...

Ghilan's article is worth reading -- far more than Wood's screed.
As a Christian living in a culture shaped by cultural Christianity, I find it helpful to try to understand the form of Islamophobia which Wood indulges by analogy with more familiar religious formulations. He finds sources who adhere to and enact the most repulsive potentialities in Muslim texts and then treats these cranks as normative. Let's try this with a familiar Christian text from John's account of Jesus' teachings (14:6):

No one comes to the Father, except through me.

It's not hard to find fundamentalist Christians who understand that text to mean that Jesus acts as a kind of gatekeeper. People who fail to recognize Jesus as God are out of luck with the Deity and condemned to everlasting torment.

But we know that in daily life, even if large numbers of people profess to interpret this text in such a dread-filled manner, that's not how their lives work out in practice. Sure -- there are large pockets of hell and damnation fans. But many, perhaps most, fundies make a kind of mental allowance for any nonbelievers they actually know; "old uncle Harry may not have found Jesus, but he's not really such a bad guy ..." Sociologists of religion Robert D. Putnam (Harvard) and David E. Campbell (Notre Dame) recently published a whole book about how this works. Even if some Muslims (perhaps driven mad by Western imperialism?) are a bit more rigorous about their texts than some U.S. Christians, it defies human nature to assume this moderating humanity does not exist across a broad swath of the planet.

And besides, many Christians don't think the Jesus text cited means that the itinerant rabbi was claiming to be God's gatekeeper. Leaving aside arguments about whether Jesus ever said any such thing, we suspect he is just making the implausible assertion that God chose in him to be human and that this mystery means something powerful about how God is present among human beings. In this Christian perspective, Jesus accomplishes the purpose of his life whether we understand what he says or not -- and whatever that accomplishment means does not depend at all on what we may believe. The text is a statement about the nature of reality, the nature of God and humanity, not a behavioral injunction to have "right" thoughts and feelings.

For much of its history, the Islamic way to God fostered an intellectually creative human endeavor. Perhaps today, not so much so. The same could be said of Christianity. We do not live in an era in which the search for God makes free in most contexts. But humans seem to default to some flavor of religion even in these times.

And we are a stupid, suicidal species when we insist on holding up the worst potentialities of religion and going to war over them.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

An intriguing book with a hole in its gut

When you work on any serious political campaign, you can trust that somewhere there's a pollster who has attempted to understand the preferences and attitudes of the electorate for the purposes of micro-targeting "message development." The game is played by dividing people into demographic clusters based on location, economics and other variables. Searching in the bowels of my computer, I quickly found one such slightly out-of-date document that divided the voting population into 72 groups, labelling them with names like "Tuxedo Trails," "Only in America," and "Workin' on the Dream." You get the idea.

Journalist Colin Woodard has done something similar, recounting continental North American history by describing the component regions and people in terms of eleven distinct groupings. For the record, in order of founding, his labels are El Norte, New France, Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland, Deep South, Midlands, Greater Appalachia, Left Coast and Far West. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is certainly thought provoking, especially since Woodard projects his lens forward as well as backward, playing with possibly scenarios that might include rearranging political boundaries to more comfortably organize our cultures.

For a taste of this, here's how Woodard frames the United State's most violent internal clash:

The Civil War was ultimately a conflict between two coalitions. On one side was the Deep South and its satellite, Tidewater; on the other, Yankeedom. The other nations wanted to remain neutral, and considered breaking off to form their own confederations, freed from slave lords and Yankees alike. Had cooler heads prevailed, the United States would likely have split into four confederations in 1861, with dramatic consequences for world history. But hostilities could not be avoided, and the unstable Union would be held together by force of arms.

Contrafactual history is fun, but what happened happened and here we are.

To a considerable extent the value of looking at history through this sort of typology depends on whether cultural patterns that may have predominated in one place and time persist over time -- and human migration. Woodard says they do:

[Migrants] assimilated into the culture around them, not the other way around.

... Our continent's famed mobility -- and the transportation and communications technology that foster it -- has been reinforcing, not dissolving the differences between the nations.

Well maybe. But he hedges by pointing out that by closely examining any particular region you can find pockets more like other regions ... if you carry that process of really digging into the data far enough, do his "national cultures" survive examination? If you look closely enough, do all generalizations about groupings fail? I'm skeptical about Woodard's methodology, but that doesn't mean that at the sweeping level of generalization at which he opines, he is not mining a fertile perspective.

Where Woodard's schema really does historical truth a disservice is in its treatment of the African-American experience in the U.S. Most African Americans came to the continent as slaves; most have their ancestry in Woodard's Deep South, a region defined by whites' response to an enslaved black majority. And since the Deep South's authoritarian caste system was created to ward off a slave revolt, the Black people of this subdivision of the country end up in this book treated as non-actors without a nation. The rich history of Black survival and of acts of rebellion disappear in this telling because they would muddy the picture of Deep South. At best, Blacks contributed some cultural embellishments:

From the hell of the slave quarters would come some of the Deep South's great gifts to the continent: blues, jazz, gospel, and rock and roll, as well as the Caribbean-inspired foodways today enshrined in Southern-style barbecue joints from Miami to Anchorage.

I don't know where Woodard thinks Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. came from. Yes, I know some Black people who have generations of ancestry in Yankeedom and Midland areas, but they are still Black in a way that transcends region in their own eyes and in the eyes of their neighbors. Moreover, perhaps Woodard might be faulted for omitting one additional North American "nation" whose members have a distinct culture: people of African descent from the Caribbean whose culture both in the islands and in the States is different again from that of people whose ancestors were from the Deep South.

I've demonstrated that it doesn't take much effort to pick away at this book's thesis. And I don't think the country is likely to break up and reconfigure borders any time soon as Woodard speculates. But, like the polling models I encounter in campaigns, this sort of project does make for interesting and occasionally useful thought experiments. If you read it, bring along lots of salt.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday: coming and going

"Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."

Last year some of the people of Saint John the Evangelist offered ashes to our neighbors at 16th and Mission.

The offering was well received.

By way of The Lead, I came upon A Lent Where #BlackLivesMatter: 10 Ideas for Black History Month and the White Church. There's a lot there for most anyone.

For me, I'm beginning this season of reflection by listening to recordings of the African American theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman.

“There are two questions that we have to ask ourselves. The 1st is "Where am I going?" and the 2nd is "Who will go with me? If you ever get these questions in the wrong order, you are in trouble.”

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

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