Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and religous history

A core insight in Karen Armstrong's grand historical survey, The Case for God, is that, until the early modern period in Europe (ca. 1500), the human experience of God was lived, encountered in tradition, culture and ritual, not reasoned and argued about. Those old forms of knowledge, more metaphorical than scientific, are devalued in the modern world. "Faith" has come to mean accepting the implausible without what our culture construes as evidence. At her best, Armstrong is trying to remind us that there was a time when religion was not a question of orthodoxy of belief, but of orthopraxy, of doing.

It's probably easier for Christians steeped in creedal formulas to see this in other faiths more inclined to orthopraxy than ours. Armstrong raises up the story of the Marranos to introduce her account of the early modern period as pivotal to our current religious confusion.

In 1495, Manuel I succeeded to the throne in Portugal. Under pressure from his relatives, the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, he set out to forcibly convert his kingdom's Jewish population, many of them refugees from the Inquisition. His Jewish subjects had their own ideas.

Known as Marranos ("pigs"), a term of abuse that Portuguese Jews adopted as a badge of pride, they had time to organize a successful Jewish underground. For generations, closet Jews tried to practice their faith to the best of their ability, but they labored under huge difficulties. Cut off from the rest of the Jewish world, they had no access to Jewish literature and no synagogues and were able to perform only a few of the major rituals ....

Deprived of the observances that made Torah a living reality, Marrano religion became distorted. In the Portuguese universities, the Marranos studied logic, physics, medicine, and mathematics, but they had no expertise in the more intuitive disciplines of Jewish practice. Relying perforce on reason alone, their theology bore no relation to traditional Judaism. Their God was the First Cause of all being, who did not intervene directly in human affairs; there was no need for the Torah, because the laws of nature were accessible to everyone. This is the kind of God that, left to itself, human reason tends to create, but in the past Jews had found the rational God of the philosophers religiously empty. ....

One hundred years later, some of these Marrano Jews were allowed to emigrate to Amsterdam where individuals enjoyed religious liberty. But they discovered that they no longer fit in. Armstrong draws some interesting conclusions from this history:

...they found the conventional religious life bewildering. For decades the Iberian Jews had lived without communal religious life and had no experience of ritual observance. The Dutch rabbis had the difficult task of guiding them back into the fold, making allowances for their problems without compromising tradition, and it is a tribute to them that most of the Marranos were able to make the transition. But initially their reaction was similar to that of people today who find the "beliefs" of religion arbitrary and incredible because they have not fully participated in its transformative rites. ...

The unhappy stories of [Marranos who could not reintegrate into Jewish communities] show that the mythos of confessional religion is unsustainable without spiritual exercises. Reason alone can produce only an attenuated deism that is easily abandoned, as its God is remote, abstract, and ultimately incredible. ...the Christians of Europe had begun [at the same time] to develop their own form of deism; ...they too would regard scientific rationality as the only route to truth and would seek a rational certainty that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers had long held to be impossible in matters of faith.

***

It was easy to think about this as I ate, sat, reclined, sang and groaned with fullness at Seder the other night among a group of women who've known each other for decades and celebrate the Passover ritual yearly. Only a few are religious in the traditional sense, if that means having a connection to a Jewish congregation. Though a core are culturally Jewish, almost half of us are not. But over time we've come to value the ritual, the story of a people's escape to freedom and the reaffirmation of hope for freedoms unimagined in that ancient world -- freedom for women, for gays, for the global array of diverse strangers. Nobody knows quite why, but we do Seder. The doing does something to us. It is a reminder of a different form of knowing than that our culture routinely offers us. It seems right.
Brucha Yah Shechinah, eloheinu Malkat ha’olam, borayt p’ri hagafen.
Blessed is the Source that fills all creation and brings forth the fruit of the vine.
If that transliteration seems odd to anyone, it's in the feminine.

This is part 2 of several posts reflecting on Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. Part one is here.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What are they so mad about?


Want to understand why "responsible" Republicans are so bent out of shape over the passage of health care reform? Read this. The system was supposed to stay broken. Democrats actually made it work, more or less. Worth pondering, though I can't identify with the author's Olympian, above the fray, posture. Outcomes matter.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A daring history of the religious impulse

I'm a fan of Karen Armstrong's many writings on religion. She's is astonishingly prolific; since 1982, she has churned out 22 volumes including a memoir of her early religious exhaustion within an arid Roman Catholicism, much Christian history, Jewish history, a wonderful Islam for the uninformed, the Bible as understood by its adherents and detractors, Buddhism, the story of the so-called Axial Age (800 BCE-200 CE) when most world faiths came into being, and, in The Battle for God, an effort to explain the origins of fundamentalism. Her most recent book, The Case for God struck me as the most complete, most smoothly constructed and argued of her many volumes, a synthesis of what has survived a lifetime of study.

You see, Armstrong writes history in a way that is pretty much forbidden to "serious" historians: she asks what her stories of the past mean to contemporary readers. She's not unsophisticated; she is perfectly well aware that what we take for meaning, what we can see at all, is shaped by our contemporary experiences and understandings. We, too, like those who went before us, will one day appear ignorant and anachronistic. Historians today don't write sweeping conclusions -- when they are honest, they are too aware that when you dig into the nitty gritty of the historical record, broad strokes tend to erase the particularities of moments in the past. Honesty requires preserving whatever granularity we can recover and modern writers usually take that to mean that we should not strive for synthesis. We're still recovering from epic histories of great men that told us that progress was irreversible and heroes abounded. Modern histories demand more modesty.

There have been moments, when I was reading Armstrong's accounts of the past, when I have wanted to say -- hey, wait a minute, I happen to know enough about that event or that period so I think that what you write is too glib, too easy. Unequivocally, of all Armstrong's histories, The Case for God inspired the least of these mental hiccups in me. The woman gets better at the task she has given herself. What more can I ask?
***

Armstrong's most influential idea -- that "fundamentalism" is an historically novel modern reaction to modern religious anxieties -- is revisited brilliantly in this book. Her argument is enormously useful to understanding our world and politics. Here's some of her story of the time and place where U.S. Protestant fundamentalism got started:

Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is rooted in profound fear ... it is usually a response to a campaign of coreligionists or fellow countrymen that is experienced as inimical and invasive. In 1917, during a particularly dark period of the war, liberal theologians in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago launched a media offensive against the Moody Bible Institute on the other side of town. They accused these biblical literalists of being in the pay of the Germans and compared them to atheistic Bolsheviks. ...The conservatives responded in kind, retorting that, on the contrary, it ws the pacifism of the liberals that had caused America to fall behind in the arms race...

Both sides read pretty wacky now, don't they? But this round of super-heated anxiety about God and country set the stage for next round, the Scopes trial in 1925 in which liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow convincingly branded fundamentalist Christian hero William Jennings Bryan with the ignominy of being an anti-intellectual hick for opposing the teaching of Darwinian evolution. And with that, a nearly unbridgeable divide with strong elements of regional and class-based bigotry opened between liberal and conservative Protestants -- and we are still living with the results. Armstrong concludes that fundamentalists made a tactical retreat, then came back with a vengeance in the contemporary religious right.

Subsequent history would show that when a fundamentalist movement is attacked, it almost invariably becomes more aggressive, bitter, and excessive. Rooted as fundamentalism is in a fear of annihilation, its adherents see any such offensive as proof that the secular or liberal world is indeed bent on the elimination of religion. Jewish and Muslim movements would also conform to this pattern. Before Scopes, Protestant fundamentalists tended to be on the left of the political spectrum, willing to work with socialists and liberals in the disadvantaged areas of the rapidly industrializing cities. After Scopes, they swung to the far right ... an unswerving biblical literalism became central to the fundamentalist mindset and creation science became the flagship of the movement. It would become impossible to discuss the issue rationally, because evolution was no longer merely a scientific hypothesis but a 'symbol,' indelibly imbued with the misery of defeat and humiliation. ...When attacking religion that seems obscurantist, critics must be aware that this assault is likely to make it more extreme.

And there we are today, with Tea Baggers, Michigan militias, and legions of fearful people who are convinced that the majority is stealing something from them.

If Armstrong is right, some part of the remedy for eruptions of fundamentalist fear has to be get get these people calmed down. We have to promise not to annihilate them -- no wonder they fight for their survival. But their beliefs really do attack my survival as a lesbian, as a small "d" social democrat who believes the country ought to use its wealth to promote the general welfare of all its people, as a liberal who wants to live in tolerance and civilized accommodation with all faiths and non-faiths. It's all very well to point out that fundamentalism is a product of fear, but how to live with it in a plural society? That's the puzzlement I'm left with from Armstrong's book. She enjoins compassion. I can agree, but easier said than done.

This post is only part one of some reflections on The Case for God. I hope to find the time for more over the next few days.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Californication of the nation


That's what I see when I look at the Tea Party phenomenon. An older generation of white people is seeing their country turn brown before their eyes -- and it makes them act bat-shit crazy. We've been there -- and California is well on its way to moving beyond this stage. Let's look at what seems obvious from here on the Left Coast

This year, for the first time in U.S. history, more babies in this country who are not white will be born than babies who are white. In California in 1979, the majority of the children in the public schools shifted from white to non-white. By 2042, the whole country will be majority "non-white" (unless we agree to change the definition of "white" again as the country has in the past.) California passed that "tipping point" in 2001. (I refuse to use the language "majority minority" to describe whites losing our numerical dominance -- it's too crazy making itself.)

Charles Blow described what's going on for people astonished and frightened by these realities who respond by "wanting their country back":

The problem is that the country romanticized by the far right hasn’t existed for some time, and its ability to deny that fact grows more dim every day. President Obama and what he represents has jolted extremists into the present and forced them to confront the future. And it scares them.

Even the optics must be irritating. A woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the health care bill through the House. The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It’s enough to make a good old boy go crazy.

In California, there was lots of race-based sputtering about the new demographics as they became visible in the 80s and 90s. But there was also an effective pushback from the Republican Right that used their remaining demographic advantage -- older whites were still a larger fraction of the voting electorate than they were in the general population -- to create structural barriers to the participation by the new majority. First they broke the state's ability to raise revenue by populist anti-tax initiatives (Prop. 13 and subsequent). The state's current bankruptcy is a result of the super-majority requirement for legislative votes on budgeting and taxes, also a product of this era. Then they straight up attacked the provision of social services to immigrants (Prop. 187, 1994) and state affirmative action programs (Prop. 209, 1996) by successful initiatives. Immigrant residents responded by rushing to complete their citizenship process, while Latinos turned firmly to the Democrats (not always champions of the new diversity, but better than the Republicans.)

The consequence of these right-wing, white supremacist populist eruptions in California has been to turn the state firmly into a Democratic stronghold. Aside from Hollywood phenom Governator Arnold (current job approval around 22 percent) for the last decade we have elected Democrats statewide. The California electorate has gone from being 83 percent white in 1978 to 65 percent white in 2009 (Field Poll publication pdf); Latinos are now 21 percent of the registered, Blacks 5.8 percent, and persons of various Asian origins 8.2 percent. As long as about half of the dwindling (as a percentage) white population votes for Democrats, and younger people and liberals do quite happily, Democrats win in this state.

The vicious nativism of the 90s has driven people of color into the Democratic camp who might not otherwise have wanted to be part of that big tent. But the tent of Minute Men and anti-immigrant vigilantes wasn't ever going to work for them. Even ordinary state Republicans seem to have an inkling that promoting hate against brown and black people is Party suicide. This week flailing Republican gubernatorial hopeful Steve Poizner accused the front-runner Meg Whitman of being soft on illegal immigrants. The Los Angeles Times noted in some amazement that Poizner's attack got little traction even among the Republican base:

Every so often, change can be seen not in what does happen but in what does not.

Those of us involved in trying to stem the rising tide of racism in California in the 90s are happily amazed by this development.

The era of white backlash here in California may be on the way out, but the rest of the country is just getting started. It's important to understand that, in California, the older white voters who were losing control were willing to burn down the house as they retreated into the minority.

California once had some of the best public schools in the country. Today, because Republicans have created structural gridlock in the legislature, wealthy California spends less per pupil than any other state, even very poor places like Mississippi and Louisiana. The California public university system used to be the best public system in the country and a nationwide magnet for bright young people; this year even Gov. Schwarzenegger bemoaned the fact that we spend 11 percent of our general fund on prisons and only 7.5 percent on higher education. Got to lock up those scary dark people; forget educating their kids! This is what you get when backlash gets built into the structure of government.

And this is what the Tea Party types would do, anywhere they are able. Preventing Californication is a fight for the national future. The worst dangers are what amount to structural I.E.D.s planted along the way, procedural rules that prevent the emerging majority from governing. The last year has made it obvious that the Senate functions as a locus of egotistical reaction. This is not only about Republicans' refusal to allow majority votes to pass legislation (the filibuster), it is also about simply not letting the administration to fill important government jobs by refusing to vote on nominees. (Good to see the President making recess appointments this weekend!)

But Californication of the whole country is not a necessary outcome of this moment of racial anxiety and California itself shows it. This will pass. For most people, if the sky doesn't fall as demographic change progresses, fear will abate. And the number of people who can live with the new realities will increase.

We are fortunate to have a federal government under the leadership of people who exemplify the shift to the new reality (even if not as much as those of us on the left would wish they did!) This demographic transition could be worse; it certainly was under Bush and the neocons. We all need a Democratic party government to succeed as much as possible in restoring prosperity and, if possible, increasing equity, even if only marginally. We need to keep the Republicans, the party that daily chooses to represent the fearful past, out of office -- and then we need to push the Democrats we elect to do better. The nation does not have to sink into California-style dysfunction, but it is going to be a fight.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Better muzzle those generals


And we wonder why Afghans become "insurgents" ...

KABUL, Afghanistan -- American and NATO troops firing from passing convoys and military checkpoints have killed 30 Afghans and wounded 80 others since last summer, but in no instance did the victims prove to be a danger to troops, according to military officials in Kabul.

"We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat," said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who became the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan last year.

New York Times, March 26, 2010

What was it we were trying to do in Afghanistan? Certainly not make friends with the population -- who will still be there long after we finally leave.

Saturday scenes and scenery:
On the High Line

Spring came in mid-March to New York City while I was visiting there ten days ago. So we hied ourselves to one of the city's newer attractions, the High Line.

1High-Line.jpg

What's that? I had heard rumors. City dwellers had taken over an abandoned elevated rail line, planted gardens between the tracks -- finally gotten the government to develop their find officially. And so, in 2009, a new park opened up in the air in Manhattan above 10th Ave between Gansevoort Street and w. 20th St.

2on-the-highline.jpg
Who would have thought that an elevated rail track running among old warehouse could be such an attractive place to walk.

3walking-the-high-line.jpg
Or to gather in the sun.

According to the park's website the railroad had been originally installed to correct a traffic hazard.

The High Line was built in the 1930s, as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement. It lifted freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan's largest industrial district. No trains have run on the High Line since 1980.


4steet-from-high-line.jpg
Now it floats over the traffic below.

5construction-workers-look-down-on-parade.jpg
Above, construction workers raising a new building look down on the promenade.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Lies uninterrupted ripple outward forever


Writer Jane Meyer, in a New Yorker book review, has eviscerated Marc A. Thiessen's apology for the Bush administration's torture policies, Courting Disaster. Thiessen has recently been named a columnist for the Washington Post; he's a guy with a big megaphone who is devoted to celebrating the "successes" of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld war on human decency. Unfortunately, this Bush speech writer is not alone in obscuring responsibility for past crimes.

By holding no one accountable for past abuse, and by convening no commission on what did and didn’t protect the country, President Obama has left the telling of this dark chapter in American history to those who most want to whitewash it.

Meyer knows what she's talking about; she broke much of the awful tale in The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals.

Check out Meyer's thoroughly informed essay.

Friday critter blogging

It's hard not to try to figure out what they are thinking.

Frisker-b&w.jpg
Not that I'll ever figure out.

jojo-pensive.jpg
Frisker and Jojo (the beagle) live in the same building and pass by each other frequently. They do not interact.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

No more "doughnut hole" -- eventually!

Last year Ronni Bennett of Time Goes By pulled me into a group of elder bloggers who were talking with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office about the health care legislation. We asked a lot of questions.

Now that the bill is the law, Senate Democrats are promoting a pretty good video [3:16] that explains what the "doughnut hole" in the Medicare drug coverage means to some real people. Currently, prescription drug coverage includes a $4500 gap in which people have to pay for their meds themselves -- and pay their Medicare drug premiums too! Naturally, too many folks just stop taking their meds when they have to pay themselves.

Help is on the way, though the path remains a little tortuous. Medicare recipients who hit the gap this year will get a $250 rebate. Drug companies have agreed to a 50 percent discount on their name-brand products for Medicare recipients who hit the hole. (This was one of the deals the President cut to get big Pharma to moderate its opposition to reform -- 50 percent apparently is still a profit-making price when you compare it to what we could get if we imported the same drug from Canada.) And come about 2020, the doughnut hole will go away altogether. All good things!

Health care reform afterthoughts:
Speculative glimpses of democratic possibilities


Several years ago, back when there was no reason to believe an obscure African-American junior senator from Illinois would be our next President and try to pass health care reform, a wise friend explained to me one reason why it was so hard to make progress on this issue. He's one of those policy wonks, a researcher of health economics.

"Did you know that, by and large, people who have health insurance now are registered to vote? And most of them vote. The uninsured? -- they are not registered and don't vote!"

No wonder our politicians have taken more than half a century to make a commitment to getting almost everyone some kind of access to insurance.

So, now that they've expanded coverage, does that mean that it's the moment to work hard on getting the previously uninsured into the voting pool? It seems realistic to think that people who have newly received health insurance through government action might think that trying to influence what that government does had some value to them. Any such movement into the political class will take awhile; expanding registration is slow, tough work. But it is just possible that, like our improbable President's campaign, this reform is a step in the direction of expanding the electorate.
***
One of the best results of the excruciating HCR process has been delegitimating the U.S. Senate and U.S. Senators. Okay, the Founders had to throw a bone to the tiny population states (think Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Delaware) to get them to throw down with the big ones (New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania). And so the Constitution gave us the Senate. But what do these preening peacocks with their crackpot rules do for our democracy anyway? Not much, though their unchecked individual and collective power to gum up the works makes them an attractive buy for lobbyists.

(I am writing this while Senators are holding a "voterama" while trying to polish off the amendments to the insurance legislation. I could explain, but the point is to get rid of these curlicues, not understand them.)

I doubt we'll manage in my lifetime to get rid of the Senate; the current tiny states such as Wyoming like it too much. But the political pundit class is beginning to define the Senate as a problem. Retiring Senator Evan Bayh denounced misuse of Senate rules such as the requirement for 60 votes to end debate on anything (filibuster) for breaking the institution. We may get some reforms of some rules in the next session if Democrats retain the majority. (This is likely, though they may be reduced from 59 members to more like 53 out of 100.)

More generally, popular education about what a useless, anti-democratic body the Senate has become can create strong pressures for somewhat better behavior. Let's do it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

San Romero of the Americas

Gloria-del-Castillo-romero-mass.jpg
The Rev. Gloria del Castillo of El Buen Samaritano congregation preaching at a mass remembering Bishop Oscar Romero today at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist.

Thirty years ago on March 24, 1980 the Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador was shot through the heart while saying mass. He had spoken out against the violence used by the Salvadoran oligarchy and army to repress the country's poor. A right wing death squad assassinated this meddlesome priest.

According to the Wikipedia:

He is considered by some the unofficial patron saint of the Americas and El Salvador and is often referred to as "San Romero" by Catholics in El Salvador. Outside of Catholicism, Romero is honored by other religious denominations of Christendom, including the Church of England through the Calendar in Common Worship. He is one of the ten 20th century martyrs who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London. In 2008, he was chosen as one of the 15 Champions of World Democracy by the Europe-based magazine A Different View.

Fr. Romero is such a gripping figure for so many people because he did not begin as a champion of the poor, but came to his brave stance through an evolution in response to the horrors he saw around him. His trajectory points to the possibility of conversion to higher purposes that any of us might discover, if only we embrace courage and sheer determination to witness to truths we cannot evade.

Let's be glad -- and get back to work

In this morning's New York Times, David Leonhardt provides a nice insight into the direction the health care reform leads us:

For all the political and economic uncertainties about health reform, at least one thing seems clear: The bill that President Obama signed on Tuesday is the federal government’s biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago

I sure hope he's right that we've finally reached a turning point toward more equity.

Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias, liberal policy blogger, offered this in response to the passing of health care reform.

But over time, I think American politics will come to look quite different and we’ll look back on this day as a turning point. The crux of the matter is that progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done. There are big items still on the progressive agenda. But they don’t really involve substantial new expenditures.

No, no, no, no -- that can't be. Not when parts of U.S. cities still "house" their poor and crazy residents like this:

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That is my neighbor's home.

This country is too rich to allow people to live in this sort of squalor. If passing this bill proves anything, it is that we can do better. Let's get on with it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Prison abuse recruits for the Taliban


Released Afghan prisoners. Photograph: Syed Jan Sabawoon/EPA

This is what happens when you throw away the rule book and decide to make up the game as you go along.

The Cheney regime didn't want no stinking Geneva Conventions or even the U.S. court system getting in the way during their sexy little wars on the terra-ists -- so now we have this:

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The tribal elders had traveled many hours to reach a windswept Afghan military base on the capital’s outskirts to sign their names to a piece of paper allowing them to bring their countrymen home from American detention.

As an Afghan general read the document aloud, Cmdr. Dawood Zazai, a towering Pashtun tribal leader from Paktia Province who fought the Soviets, thumped his crutch for attention. Along with other elders, he did not like a clause in the document that said the detainees had been reasonably held based on intelligence.

"I cannot sign this," Commander Zazai said, thumping his crutch again. "I don’t know what that intelligence said; we did not see that intelligence. It is right that we are illiterate, but we are not blind.

"Who proved that these men were guilty?"

Alissa J. Rubin, New York Times, March 19, 2010

About time someone asked that question.

Actually General Stanley McChrystal figured out not long after he took over the U.S. war that the occupiers' custom of snatching up Afghan men without any legal procedure amounted to recruiting for the Taliban fighting his forces.

"There are more insurgents per square foot in corrections facilities than anywhere else in Afghanistan. Unchecked, Taliban/al-Qaida leaders patiently co-ordinate and plan, unconcerned with interference from prison personnel or the military," McChrystal said. He called for a taskforce to be established to take responsibility for US-held prisoners and to help improve Afghanistan's prison and judicial systems.

Arsala Rahmani, a one-time Taliban education minister, said prisoners were mistreated and rarely had access to lawyers. "It means the Taliban are getting stronger in the prisons as well as around the country where they are more popular than [Nato forces]," he said.

So McChrystal instituted a review process to try to get innocent detainees out of these hotbeds for radicalization. But according to Gareth Porter in writing in IPS, the officers from Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) now in charge of the release decisions are the same individuals who previously signed off on locking the detainees up without much basis. They have a lot of incentive to cover up their past mistakes while detainees still lack access to any effective legal process according to Human Rights Watch.

These things have a way of snowballing. It's a lot easier to start down the route of human rights abuse than to turn back.



Monday, March 22, 2010

Health care reform: I wish I were elated ...

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This fellow pushed at the limits of the possible.

So the House passed the "health care reform". I'd like to be elated; all I can manage is mild relief. As Paul Krugman says:

There is, as always, a tunnel at the end of the tunnel: we’ll spend years if not decades fixing this thing.

Some afterthoughts on both substance and process:

About the law itself:

Will the private insurance products that result be anything that ordinary people can afford to use? Or will they have to buy junk "insurance" so hedged with copays and other costs that they still won't dare go to doctors except in the direst emergencies?
Last week a friend of mine was filling out an application to rent an apartment when one of the stipulations on the form stopped her cold: "Applicants must show that the rental cost will not exceed 25 percent of income." Yeah, and the sky is pink. That statement is one of those economists' maxims about identifying a stable middle class person that may, a long time ago, had some reality in real life. But no one in San Francisco in decades has expected to pay less than one third of their income for housing and often much more. Are the assumptions in this new bill about "affordability" similarly unhinged from reality?

In theory "out-of-pocket expenses will be capped at $11,900 per year per family, or $5,900 per year for individuals." That out of pocket cost for a family is roughly a quarter of the income of the median household in this country. Since 90 percent of that income is almost certainly already committed to housing, food, transportation and health insurance (up to 9 percent of income under the law), where is that supposed to come from?

Oh, there are subsidies -- if you can find out where to apply, if you are not too ashamed to even consider asking for help, if you can understand the forms, if you can hold off the bill collectors while the bureaucracy that might help grinds through its paper work ... All this might "work," but the sunny protestations from policy wonks, economists and Congresscritters that it will be taken care of come from people who never had to work at being marginal or poor.

What we are getting is a punitive, means-tested program. "Fixing the tunnel" will, like fixing the tax code, become an endless struggle to simplify while the cheap and the greedy continue to lobby for ways to game the system.

The new law contains a gaping hole in coverage.
To dodge the political fight, the 12 million or so people in the United States without papers were simply left out. Though these folks are some of the healthiest people in the population (mostly young workers), that's a lot of emergency room visits and a lot of human misery ahead because as a country we are punishing these people rather than adopting reasonable immigration policies.

About the process of passing this bill:

From the point of view of democratic activists (small "d"), health care reform has been a clusterfuck.
The White House decided from the outset that it couldn't pass anything that aroused the whole-hearted opposition of any of the groups that profit from the existing system -- doctors, hospitals, drug companies, medical devices salespeople, or insurers. U.S. health care costs twice what as good or better care costs in other developed countries because all these people make huge profits on the desperation of sick people. But they were too powerful to take on, so the bill does nothing to significantly impede their continued blood-sucking.

This may have been a realistic political calculation. Maybe health profiteers would have sunk a bill that allowed a small public option to compete with insurers or modest drug importation from Canada to put price pressure on drug companies. I don't criticize the White House for weighing the odds of passage and threading the needle the best they could.

But I do criticize them for lying to their constituents. If this was what had to be done, the President needed to level with the people who put him in office -- to tell us the truth that, at this moment in time a slightly slimy accommodation with health profiteers was the best the actually existing, skittish Democratic Party can deliver. Instead, better possibilities like "Medicare for all" or "the public option" were continually dangled out there, then snatched away. This behavior simply pisses of their friends and kills enthusiasm.
  • Coming out of the 2008 campaign, the one thing that seemed certain about an Obama political operation was that it would be smart and subtle. On health care reform, it was ham-handed, tone deaf, and downright incompetent. Item number one: failing to understand until too late that Republican Scott Brown could win a Massachusetts Senate seat running against Washington.
  • Shying away from showing fight for reform in the hope of dragging in a few Republicans for this very conservative bill, the President reinforced the meme that Democrats are wimps. The people who worked their butts off to give the Party its huge majorities felt betrayed. The enthusiasm gap is very real: there are millions who who think something like this: "we elected you -- now fight for us and deliver." Time will tell whether passing the bill brings folks back. More were lost here than were necessary, I think.
  • OFA, the President's vaunted 13 million person email list and campaign apparatus, was neutered by the White House strategy. Making phone calls to thank Congress people who were already reliable votes is a waste of volunteer energy and volunteers aren't dopes. But the White House couldn't/wouldn't target Democrats who were the only votes in play until the very end. So OFA drowned and sank in busy work. It is an open question whether it can be resuscitated for November elections.
In the confused aftermath of the passage of something we won't really be able to evaluate for years, it will be easy to turn on the people who pushed for a better bill. Don't.
Yes, people got angry, shrill and even unreasonable, especially Jane Hamsher at FDL. Well good for them. I don't believe the powers that be would have done anything about this if they hadn't had the specter of furious constituents nipping at their heels. After all, they've got theirs. It takes people with a passion that goes well beyond reason to get anything difficult done, even if their presence complicates the accomplishment. Be grateful for the screamers.

And then get back to work to make this thing better. Not surprisingly, Jon Walker at FDL is out with a quick summary of six improvements it will take to make this "health care reform" more broadly meaningful.

It's never over.

UPDATE: This set of poll results among the very engaged, very informed, mostly progressive community at Daily Kos is interesting. I feel much in the mainstream here: I wanted this bill passed, but both content and process leave me less than joyous.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Yet another struggle ahead


What if you worked for months to be build a march to support your agenda -- and something so big came along it knocked your efforts out of the news? I'm afraid that today's health care reform brouhaha will do that to the Washington rally for immigration reform. (The worst previous case of this sort of thing I can remember was when friends brought women who had been hurt by welfare cutbacks from all over the country to Congress to testify -- on Sept. 11, 2001. Oops.)

But the necessity for immigration reform isn't going to go away. As a country, we've imported a low wage working class without any rights. We like the cheap labor they provide; we don't like that they undercut those of us already here. Most of us, citizens and non-citizens, are living with the dislocations and human misery that system creates. We're never going to deport 12 million people, the vast majority of whom are leading productive lives and have citizen relatives. Something is going to have to give.

Though immigration marchers will have a hard time getting attention today, it is worth remembering what they are asking for. Here's a list from the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights:
  • suspend detentions and deportations until humanitarian policy alternatives are in place, and to reinstate due process;
  • support legalization without the onerous hurdles of past proposals that will limit applications; [no huge fines or multi-year waiting periods!]
  • uphold family reunification as a core principle of immigration policy, and expand and expedite legal immigration;
  • end guestworker programs -- provide access to green cards for people brought here to work;
  • end the criminalization of immigrants, ... stop the militarization of the border and local police collaboration programs;
  • strengthen labor law enforcement for all workers, regardless of citizenship or immigration status;
and
  • ensure immigrant access to services.
That's a big list and not all likely to happen at once or fast. The new health care bill even undercuts the last item, barring undocumented people from buying into the new standardized health insurance with their own money! But this list does contain the elements of a sensible, humane immigration policy. Yet another necessary struggle to overcome fear, misinformation, and inertia lies ahead.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
The 2010 St. Patrick's Day Parade, New York City

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Irishmen from church and state strutted their stuff down the green line in the middle of 5th Avenue last Wednesday.
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I don't think it is unfair to note there was a corpulent theme going on among the many bands, police and dignitaries.

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Mayor Bloomberg working the crowd was a fast moving exception.

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This energetic drummer was a different sort of exception ...

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as was this horn player from Cathedral School.

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After marching, father and son made their way through the crowds.

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It was very clear that the main festivities, the imbibing of Guiness, etc., would come later, off the street. No drinking was allowed on the parade route. I was left with the feeling that I had seen the opening moments of a long party that wasn't quite underway yet.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday cat blogging

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Tessa had to be carried down stairs to meet the dinner guests. She only drew blood from one of us. She appreciates homage to her beauty (and gets it!) but only on her own terms.

That is, she is a cat.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Budget follies short-takes:
False premises


Washington Post policy blogger Ezra Klein needs to stop blithely reinforcing false premises. Here's what he just posted about the politics of the latest iteration of the health care reform bill in the House.

Won't it be substantively difficult for many House Democrats to vote no?

If you're a liberal House Democrat, here's what you'd be voting against: Legislation that covers 32 million people. A world in which 95 percent of all non-elderly, legal residents have health-care coverage. An end to insurers rescinding coverage for the sick, or discriminating based on preexisting conditions, or spending 30 cents of each premium dollar on things that aren't medical care. .... [etc.]

If you're a conservative House Democrat, then probably you support many of those policies, too. But you also get the single most ambitious effort the government has ever made to control costs in the health-care sector. ... [etc.]

But hey, wait a minute ... that's not the entire story. Let's try telling this another way.

If you're a liberal House Democrat, you probably are interested in cutting the deficit and avoiding waste -- you just have different ideas than the conventional wisdom about how to do it. You might like to raise the top tax bracket on gazillionaires -- after all, that's where the money is. You might like to hit Wall Street with a transaction tax so that people who insist on treating the nation's business as a betting pit at least have to pay for something useful in some other arena. You might like to cut back on wasteful government procurement of unnecessary weapons systems. You have ideas about how to save taxpayer money -- you are just not taken seriously by the permanent Washington establishment.

If you're a conservative House Democrat, you probably run for office in a district where your constituents are suspicious of government, a district where it takes a lot of money to sell them on the idea that you are a good guy. So you are really grateful that there are interests who will contribute to your campaigns. Of course you listen to the people who give you the dough -- you also try to listen to the other people who don't come in with checks, but there are only so many hours ... Your constituents are scared -- of Commies or terrorists or Washington -- whatever is the bugaboo of the moment. You are scared -- of your constituents. They get mad. The Washington establishment shares your fear of raving populists, so you are treated as a "very serious person."

There are more axises on which these people are playing than Klein's glib dichotomy.

(Since we're in national budget season, I'm not going to to resist offering occasional short comments on budget matters and process under this headline, just as I have done about health care reform. I have strong foundational views on what the U.S. government ought to be doing about and with taxpayers' money that I've laid out in this post.)

Betrayal at NUMMI


I found this dignified statement sad and telling. If we sometimes wonder why there is so much anger and frustration in the land, consider the millions of men and women who have have experienced something like this.

Statement by Sergio Santos
President, UAW Local 2244

This statement on the closing of the Toyota NUMMI auto assembly plant will, by necessity, be my last.

On Wednesday March 17, 2010, the members of UAW Local 2244 will most likely vote to accept a severance pay package offered by Toyota. The offer mandates a gag order that I believe violates our First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, and our rights to Freedom of Association under the Labor Rights Conventions of the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO). Nonetheless, under conditions set by Toyota, after the agreement is ratified, I will no longer be able to comment on the plant closing or its impact on our members.

While we are pleased that Toyota has increased its severance pay offer by millions of dollars, we are far from pleased that Toyota is going ahead and closing the plant where many of us have worked hard and faithfully giving Toyota the best years of our lives. Our skill has helped NUMMI repeatedly win JD Powers awards for quality, and has made Toyota the number-one automobile company in California and America. We are the ones who helped Toyota adapt their production methods to our American culture. We brought them success and now we have been betrayed. ...

With all of the recent bad publicity Toyota has earned, and because of the strong support we have received from newspaper editorial boards and from communities and individuals, Toyota sweetened its severance offer and will provide our members with a slightly better cushion to help us survive the next few months. After that we are on our own.

The tens of thousands who work at the auto parts suppliers and other businesses that support the Toyota NUMMI facility will fare far worse. Toyota has refused to consider any severance benefits for these people, some of whom have worked many years for subcontractors inside of our facility, alongside of us.

Toyota and its surrogate, NUMMI, will issue its own releases boasting of its generosity and philanthropy, its dedication to its workforce and the communities where it operates. But as the tens of thousands of people who made Toyota number one run out of money and unemployment benefits, as we lose our homes , our health benefits, and ultimately our health, the true toll of Toyota’s decision to abandon vehicle production in California will become clear to everyone. ...

Toyota has betrayed us and now they have gagged us. We will be silent in the future, but we deserve better. We are accepting the terms of Toyota’s settlement out of necessity, as a means of securing some limited funds for our families....

In closing, let me be clear. Toyota is closing the Toyota NUMMI auto assembly plant, not NUMMI, not GM. Toyota is closing our plant and Toyota could still choose to keep it open.
The NUMMI facility in Fremont, California was heralded as the future of the auto industry in 1984 when it re-opened (after closing as a GM plant) as a joint venture between Toyota and GM. The U.S. automaker would learn quality production from Japanese management that produced U.S.-built content at the factory.

The entire Northern California area will suffer along with the immediately affected workers.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Health care reform shorts:
A visual representation of where people need insurance

National Public Radio has put up a nifty web map that enables anyone to create U.S. maps that show roughly what percentage of the people in Congressional districts are currently without health insurance. Here's the map of the whole country; in the darkest districts, more than 20 percent of the population under age 65 is without health insurance.
NPR-all-districts.jpg

The Northeast, the Upper Midwest, and Northern California look better covered than the South and Southwest -- that is, these heavily Democratic areas are already places where most folks have insurance.

Now look at the map of the Republican-held districts:
NPR-republican-districts.jpg
There are some serious pockets where insurance isn't reaching people.

Now let's look at the districts held by Blue Dog Democrats, the Democrats mostly likely to be giving Nancy Pelosi trouble as she tries to round up House votes for health care reform.
NPR-Blue-Dogs.jpg

It's hard not to draw the conclusion that many of the places that most need the combination of subsidies, new insurance markets in the exchanges, and new rules that are in the current bill are precisely those where Congresscritters are going to vote against reform. Curious.

Harold Pollack, who brought this to my attention, concludes:

Americans who have the most to gain from activist government are often the very people most distrustful of such measures. In the short-run, these perceptions may cause problems come November and even come 2012. In the long-run, I believe this is an opportunity. Once health reform embeds itself within the fabric of American life, I'm betting that millions of Red-State Americans will not wish to see it go.

The original NPR maps enable anyone to see the percentages of lack of insurance by district by mousing over particular Congressional districts.

View out my window: New York morning

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Thanks Donald Trump. Can't say you build lovely buildings, but the light makes for a nice view for an early morning minute.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The future of democracy?

In The Future of Faith, Harvard religion scholar Harvey Cox makes the case for this prayer he quotes from a novel by Aldous Huxley:

"Give us this day our daily faith, but deliver us from beliefs."

He's a hopeful exponent of the idea that religious people of all faiths in the present time period show a readiness to move from rigid, incomprehensible creeds that must be affirmed into an experience of something transcendent beyond clerical hierarchies and institutional rigidities.

Well maybe. I can join him in hoping.

But along the way he reports on developments among Brazilian Pentecostals in terms that go to the heart of the concerns of this blog. I'll quote here at length from his fascinating chapter on what the rise of this religious variety means to democracy.

Are Pentecostals contributing to the shift from belief to faith, or are they among those holding out for a belief-defined Christianity? ...The answer is that there are, after all, 500 million of them, and they vary widely in theologies and practices. Some Pentecostals, especially white North Americans, have been heavily influenced by fundamentalism. But in the global South, they are more influenced by an ethic of following Jesus, and vision of the kingdom of God. They have recently become increasingly active in social ministries, but the hostility they sometimes show toward other faiths limits their ability to cooperate. ...

My own experience of the impact of this new Pentecostalism has taken place mainly in Brazil where I have been visiting for three decades. During one of my first trips there twenty-five years ago, I met a young Brazilian sociologist from Sao Paulo who as studying the peasant leagues then springing up in the arid, poverty-stricken northeast. The famers were organizing these leagues so they could buy seed and equipment and market their products cooperatively. During her research this novice investigator, a serious lay Catholic, discovered that indigenous Brazilian Pentecostals, even though they constituted only about 10 percent of the population then (the percentage is higher now), had done the lion's share of the work and provided most of the leadership. Eager to uncover the link between their religious faith and their work with the leagues, she interviewed several Pentecostals and asked what the correlation was. They seemed puzzled by the question, she said, and shrugged their shoulders. This in turn puzzled her, but the more she lived among them, the more she understood the connection.

Pentecostals, she explained, are practiced list makers. they are used to compiling records of people they intend to invite to church meetings. They knock on doors, then check off who was not at home, who responded favorably, and who slammed the door. Then they return, sometimes again and again. If the door was opened, they learned to get their message across quickly and clearly. ...

The essential qualities of a religious faith can be discerned most clearly in the shape of it gives to the institutions it spawns. Pentecostals give birth to voluntary associations, which are vital to any healthy society and the lifeblood of any genuine democracy. They mediate between ordinary people and the larger structures of economy, government, education and press. They provide alternative patterns of organization and unofficial networks. They school people in the indispensable skills needed to make democracy work.

Despite the misapprehensions of many North Americans, the Pentecostals of Brazil have neither remained aloof from politics nor have they imitated the American Religious Right. Careful analyses of their political behavior indicate their voting patterns tend to the "center left." In the recent Brazilian presidential elections, for example, a large majority voted for Lula and the Workers' Party. ...

Historically, Latin America has not been a continent richly endowed with voluntary associations. In general one belonged to whatever one was born into. Be it state or nation or tribe or church, you find yourself in a collectivity. You do not join it. But to be a crente you have to join something. To borrow a famous distinction from William James, most Latin American collectivities are made up of the "once born." Virtually the only exceptions to this rule have been labor unions, sports teams, base communities, and Pentecostal or evangelical religious congregations, which are constituted by the "twice born," people who have made a conscious choice to join something. All this means that the stunning growth of Pentecostals is a critical key to the democratization of the whole region, especially since they are beginning to participate in political life in an active way, hold public office, and seek to formulate a "social theology" of their own. But the continued growth of Pentecostals and their contribution to democracy are in no way guaranteed. They are often fragile, vulnerable to pressures from without and threats from within. How much they will strengthen democracy is still an open question.

...Until recently the contribution of Pentecostals to democracy has been an indirect one. Their role calls to mind the observation of historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) in the early nineteenth century that is was American religion that provided the indispensable fertile soil for democracy. Without the myriad congregations and other voluntary associations he found in America, he wrote, there would not be the "habits of the heart" democracy requires. In the religious congregations he visited, Tocquevillle observed, people learned to discuss issues, make corporate decisions, compromise when necessary, link moral principles to current events, and, finally, to accept the results these procedural strategies produced. ...

There is a difference between becoming a Pentecostal in Latin America today and joining a religious congregation in the United States that Tocqueville visited in the early nineteenth century. In Latin America choosing to become a Pentecostal can exact a high price, evoking the scorn of one's neighbors and family and, until recently, legal persecution. For Latin Americans this initial choice requires more courage. It is risky. But it instills a "habit of choosing" and hence a feeling of not being trapped forever in one's station. ... To borrow a phrase from North American black culture, they can say, "I am ... somebody." ...

One clear and present inner threat to Pentecostals' capacity to nurture democracy is a tendency to curtail it in their own congregations. Their emphasis on charismatic gifts came make their leadership arbitrary: "If God has put me in this position of power, why should you question my decisions?" Further, dynastic leadership is not unusual. ...

But Pentecostals also face threats from without. Ruling regimes in authoritarian countries do not worry so much about the theology of evangelical or Pentecostal congregations. But they do worry about "list makers" who know how to get people together, regionally, nationally, and even internationally. ...

Perhaps the clearest threat to the future of Pentecostals in Latin America is a combination of within and without ... the consumerist style is not just the wolf at the door; it is also a rather large camel's nose rather far inside the Pentecostal tent. It finds expression in the "gospel of prosperity," sometimes called the "name it and claim it" theology, derived in large measure from North American sources....

What comes next? ...No one knows, of course, But two core crente beliefs will play a decisive role: conversion ("you must be born again") and holiness ("be not conformed to this world.") In political and cultural terms conversion means that people can change and that therefore fatalism -- either personal or societal -- is not acceptable. Holiness means that you need not buy into the latest mind-numbing fads of the commodity lifestyle. You can be "in but not of this world."

I was surprised by Cox's optimism about the democratic potential of this form of Christian belief in Latin America. The little bit I know about Central American religious groups has not made me nearly so hopeful. I wonder whether any "free," non-established, religious community in a developing country and economy might not play a similar role in developing socially useful skills and character traits. But he opens a window here on a world of faith that might otherwise be invisible in the North American heart of empire. Interesting book.

Health care reform shorts: guys in black shirts are at it again

It's sad, though not really surprising, to see the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church lined up with Republicans in the "Just Die" faction on health care reform.

The Senate bill that will be the basis for the reconciled overall bill doesn't make it quite hard enough for poor women to get abortions for the bishops' taste. No taxpayer money will go to abortions -- that was never going to happen. But private companies that choose to sell policies in the new exchange insurance market will be allowed to include riders for abortion coverage -- so long as the insured women pay for that coverage themselves.

Get over yourselves gentlemen. You have the wrong plumbing to be trying to dictate on this.
***

UPDATE: T. R. Reid in the Washington Post relates an anecdote from a Bishop who didn't have to be authoritarian about reducing abortion. Reid was trying to understand why all developed countries have a lower incidence of abortion than the United States.

One key reason seems to be that all those countries provide health care for everybody at a reasonable cost. That has a profound effect on women contemplating what to do about an unwanted pregnancy.

The connection was explained to me by a wise and holy man, Cardinal Basil Hume. He was the senior Roman Catholic prelate of England and Wales when I lived in London; as a reporter and a Catholic, I got to know him.

In Britain, only 8 percent of the population is Catholic (compared with 25 percent in the United States). Abortion there is legal. Abortion is free. And yet British women have fewer abortions than Americans do. I asked Cardinal Hume why that is.

The cardinal said that there were several reasons but that one important explanation was Britain's universal health-care system. "If that frightened, unemployed 19-year-old knows that she and her child will have access to medical care whenever it's needed," Hume explained, "she's more likely to carry the baby to term. Isn't it obvious?"

There's a Bishop who gets it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Who cares about the people?

On the long flight eastward the other day, I got around to watching the February Frontline show "Behind Taliban Lines." Journalist Najibullah Quraishi managed to embed with a small northern Taliban unit that was trying to blow up U.S. supply trucks on the route from Tajikistan to Kabul. Quraishi's accomplishment (and daring) in getting to film these guys is admirable; the resulting film is pretty prosaic -- lots of "hurry up and wait" punctuated by bad luck and recriminations, just like real life.

This particular Taliban unit is loyal to an enduring northern warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who the U.S. once funded against the Russians; they certainly consider themselves allied and indebted to "Arabs" and al Qaeda. (Other Taliban groups in the south of the country not may be so in sync with "the Arabs" according to Pakistani sources.)

Quraishi explained in a PBS interview:

They would keep saying, "We will join in the Afghan government if the foreign forces leave Afghanistan." This was their message. All of them were saying the same. And I asked why. They said, "When Russia was in Afghanistan, all Afghan people jihad against Russia." There was at that time only one non-believer country [Russia]. "Now," they were saying, "there are 42 non-believer countries with hundred thousands of soldiers. So this is now our duty to fight against it."

In the same interview Quraishi reports:

One thing which I saw with them, they never, ever harm local people.

One day I asked one of the elders from a village, I said, "Why you guys supporting them?" They said, "Because they really care about civilians, about local people. And NATO, government and American, they don't care. They just put a bomb on civilians, they don't care and they just killing everyone." And I think this is the point [behind] the people's support for them. Even their operation, they didn't remove the bomb, because of civilians. So I think that's why local people support them.

***
This much hyped Frontline segment came along with an add-on I had not expected: a warning about the dreadful failures of public Pakistani education. The U.S. journalist David Montero has reported from Pakistan for several years. I was surprised by his slant: he indicts the Pakistani education ministry with failing that nation's children using criticism from upper middle class Westernized Pakistanis and implying corruption and apathy from officials. None of that was too surprising.

But Montero also interviewed at least one leader from the religious madrassa school sector which is flourishing among the poor while the secular government schools collapse. This mullah has a simplistic explanation for why people prefer to send their children to the religious schools.




Montero treats this religious and nationalist assertion as if it were self-evident nonsense. But what if the mullah's perspective is simply ordinary common sense among Pakistanis who aren't Westernized? I imagine it is.

U.S. allies among the Pakistani elite are not going to combat the influence of this kind of thinking so long as ordinary people have experiential reason to think the West treats Pakistani life as cheap (drone attacks) and their country of 166 million people as just a staging area for its war on Afghanistan.

It's time to get the U.S. out of the Middle World.

Health care reform shorts: Pelosi time

This will be the week that my Congresscritter shows her stuff. If we get the much weakened, but probably ground breaking, version of insurance reform Democrats have muddled their way to, Nancy Pelosi will be the closest thing to a hero in the story. The President and White House political operation have been pathetic; their part of the job was to set the table, making it nearly impossible for Congress not to want to be part of the banquet. Instead they've been pretty much AWOL til the last month ... and vacillated when they showed up. The Senate has meanwhile demonstrated a level of institutional dysfunction that begs for reform or maybe just abolition -- what do most of us need with this egocentric, anti-majoritarian clunker anyway?

Though it all, Pelosi has been the only steadfast voice saying that elected Democrats must get done the job we elected them to do. She's not the most felicitous explainer, but here's what she said in a press conference last week.

I have supported -- when I say support, signs in the street, advocacy in legislatures -- I have supported single payer for longer than many of you have been -- since you've been born, than you've lived on the face of the earth. ...

...So I believe we have a very strong bill that will increase competition, will lower cost for the American people and accomplish some of the same goals. It doesn't produce the same savings, and that's why, you know, we were fighting for it. ...What we will have in reconciliation will be something that is agreed upon, House and Senate, that we can pass and they can pass.

Swampland

This week, health care reform is on her turf, the turf she sometimes seems to value above all else, the land of the legislative intricacies of U.S. Congress. And in that arcane arena, she's the master, prodding, pushing, herding small egos, greedy mediocrities and quaking violets to assemble momentary majorities. I wouldn't bet against Nancy if she says she can push something through the House.

The very virtue that sets her apart in Washington makes her a less than perfect representative for her constituents. Her base is her House caucus members -- that's who she must attend to. We in San Francisco elect her, but where she lands on issues has almost nothing to do with our wants; she does what she needs to do to hold together her fractious cats. Most of her geographical constituents are happy and proud to have elected this first woman Speaker of the House. Some of us wish more of her energies went into our issues, for example, ending Obama's Afghanistan adventure.

But this week, on health care reform, I expect to see my Congresscritter at her best.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Weather delay

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We blew into New York City/Newark Airport in the middle of the night after delayed cross country flights. Oblivious Californians that we are, we didn't realize we were flying into a major storm.

Utility crews pushed through fallen trees and windblown debris to reach downed power lines Sunday, working to restore electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses as strong winds and heavy rain that wreaked havoc in parts of the Northeast pushed on into New England.

The storm, which battered parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut on Saturday with gusts of up to 70 mph, struck about two weeks after heavy snow and hurricane-force winds left more than a million customers in the Northeast in the dark. More than a half-million customers in the region lost electricity at the peak of Saturday's storm, and roughly 500,000 were waiting for power to be restored Sunday morning.

In Manhattan, Broadway's sidewalks and trash cans were littered with hundreds of shattered umbrellas.

AP

I can testify to that.

Having got to bed only briefly at 6am New York time today, regular blogging will have to wait until I get more sleep. Until tomorrow ...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery: Faces of our future

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The young people on the street last week at the education funding march are the future of California.

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Sure, they can be cute.

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But there is also an earnestness in some of their expressions ...

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a seriousness of purpose that belies their youth.

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Some of them are going to be accomplished rabble rousers. That's good -- we need them.

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Bang that drum!

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Determination will carry many of them far.
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