Saturday, April 30, 2011

A visual rant about the status of women

How come we're still a problem?

Often I look around and think, well -- the rich may have ripped off my country and succeeded in making the "little people" (thank you Leona Helmsley for naming us) pay the price in daily suffering for the empire's decline -- but at least in my lifetime women and queers seem on the way to equal opportunity participation in the general morass.

I'm not talking about the big battles, like the Republican war on women's health as expressed by denying funds to Planned Parenthood. Control of our plumbing remains contested.

But whenever I think I'm surrounded by little improvements that have moved the terrain, I run across reminders that women's equality is still problematic. Here are three examples for a quiet Saturday.

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A friend noticed these packages at the gift shop in San Francisco's tony Legion of Honor museum. Now I guess we can imagine that some tourists may be too overwhelmed by the facility's splendors to figure out what souvenir to buy for young relatives -- but do they really need gender labels on their gifts? My friend tried to complain to a mystified clerk.

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Walking through the Mission District (yes, photographing cats in windows), I ran across this odd example of pseudo-revolutionary porn. What was the artist thinking? I have no idea whether Libyan women have guns, but I'm pretty certain that most of them are hunkering down, hoping to keep their menfolk alive, and wondering whether their families will survive the fighting around them. Sure, they may have political opinions, hopes and fears -- but there's nothing pretty or attractive about living through a chaotic war among testosterone-poisoned guys with guns.

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This poster hangs on the wall of the conference room in one of our city's more effective neighborhood community organizing outfits. Yes, it feels a bit simpleminded and rigid, but following rules of behavior may be what we need to learn to get along. We become what we practice. The poster probably fades from members' consciousness, just another wall hanging in a familiar room. But the rules set a baseline. As in most such organizations, women outnumber men in the membership here and they sure aren't about to keep quiet or take any shit.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Security pipedreams


Can I just point out that U.S. gun laws are nuts?

The AP reports:

More than 200 people suspected of ties to terrorism bought guns in the U.S. last year legally, FBI figures show.

The 247 people who were allowed to buy weapons did so after going through required background checks as required by federal law. ...About the same number of people suspected of ties to terrorism also successfully purchased guns in the U.S. in 2009.

The government can only prevent people from buying guns for any of 11 reasons. Convicted felons and illegal immigrants, for example, cannot buy weapons. But the terrorist watch list is different. People become convicted felons only after a court process and an opportunity to defend themselves.

The watch list is secret and generated at the government's discretion. It is not a list of people convicted of terrorism crimes. The list of about 450,000 people includes suspected members of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, terror financiers, terror recruiters and people who attended training camps. People's names are added to and removed from the watch list every day, and most people never know whether they're on it.

***
I've pretty much stopped writing about no fly lists and watch lists because everyone who cares has noticed that they make no sense and constitute an ongoing abuse of arbitrary power in the name of "security." (Click the "no fly list" label in the right column for more than you want to know about this madness.)

Patrick Smith who writes "Ask the Pilot" for Salon recently described an experience that illustrates the utter absurdity of security theater, not to mention the bullying behavior of some TSA workers. Since he's often flying the plane, therefore uniquely well placed to accomplish any nasty plot he might be planning, his repeated brushes with this nonsense clarify how insane the security obsession has become. He concludes:

In the United States alone, more than 2 million people fly every day, subject to all manner of tedium and humiliation, yet there is virtually no protest either from citizens or their leaders. Certainly there is no political will to get things changed. People grumble, shake their heads, and move along in a woozy capitulation to a security apparatus that is both repressive and ineffective.

This will continue, presumably, until disaster strikes, at which point the screams for accountability will be shrill and righteous and entirely too late.

Separately, perhaps, from all of this, we need to acknowledge the reality, however unfortunate, that no amount of airport security is going to stop a terrorist who is clever and resourceful enough. There will always be a way to circumvent whatever measures we put in place, no matter how draconian. ...

Friday cat blogging: looking out as I look in ...

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The noble Imhotep surveys his domain -- that would be everywhere in sight. Once in a while he gets out. Then he's friendly.

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Even from my third floor perch, I can see you looking at me.

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Isn't a warm sun wonderful?

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Why at you looking at me?

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If you knew how to behave, you'd look away!

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If you must persist, I'll warn you off. These encounters can feel hostile.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rays of effing sunshine:
Johann Hari podcast and the royals

I don't want to just gripe here all the time. I do after all, quite frequently, encounter things and people that delight me. Hence a new feature: occasional posts labeled "rays of effing sunshine."

The first of these is a shout-out to the guy who gave me the idea: Johann Hari, a pissy, articulate, brilliant and funny leftish columnist for the London Independent. He has turned his thoughts into a podcast and that's the way to enjoy him if at all inclined -- sure you can read him, but listening to the guy himself is worth a visit to iTunes for a download.

Since I don't know how to implant audio here, I thought I'd share part of Hari's commentary on the royal wedding. It's a hoot.

Okay, let's cut a deal here. If Britain can afford to spend tens of millions of pounds on the royal wedding, we have to spend an equal amount distributing anti-nausea pills across the land – to all of us who can't bear to see our country embarrass itself in this way. Don't let the Gawd-bless-you-ever-so-'umbly-yer-Majesty tone of the media coverage fool you. Most British people are benignly indifferent to the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton. The 20 percent of us who are republicans, like me, have it slightly worse. We will suffer that face-flushing, stomach-shriveling embarrassment that strikes when somebody you love – your country – starts to behave in a deeply weird way in a public place. ...

In most countries, parents can tell their kids that if they work hard and do everything right, they could grow up to be the head of state and symbol of their nation. Not us. Our head of state is decided by one factor, and one factor alone: did he pass through the womb of one aristocratic Windsor woman living in a golden palace? The US head of state grew up with a mother on food stamps. The British head of state grew up with a mother on postage stamps. ...

The monarchist spin-machine, the tabloids and the tea-towel industry have created a pair of fictitious characters for us to cheer, while the real people behind them are being tormented by their supposed admirers. Think back to the 1981 royal wedding and you realise how little we know about these people we are supposed to get moist and weepy over. While millions wept at the "fairytale wedding", Diana was ramming her fingers down her throat, Charles was cursing that he didn't love her, and they both stood at the aisle raging against their situation and everyone around them, while the nation cheered.

Similarly, from beneath the spin, the evidence is pretty clear that William and Kate will be smiling at us through gritted teeth. ...

You get the style. By the way, Hari makes it a practice to tell you what he has enjoyed this week at the end of each of his podcast diatribes. That's was my inspiration for "rays of effing sunshine."

In honor of the royal-a-palooza this weekend, I thought I'd share below an artifact of the monarchist tea-towel trade that I inherited from my mother, an inveterate American enthusiast for the Windsor family. (She claimed it derived from listening to 1940 broadcasts on shortwave radio from London under Hitler's blitz.) I don't know if this card was from the current queen's wedding or her coronation, but it is a striking reminder that Elizabeth Windsor was young once.
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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Birthers, truthers, delighters and campaigns


So the President has released his birth certificate and so what? The State of Hawaii says he was born just where and when he always claimed to be. I'm hardly surprised.

I know perfectly well why the nation has been afflicted with "birtherism" for the last couple of years:
  • Some fraction of the country just knows that a Black man can't be a natural born Amurrican .. isn't that obvious?
  • Besides, how can anyone claim Hawaii is a state? They got more brown and yellow people than white people out there.
But that's not what I want to post about. What's getting to me at the moment is Republican elites' response to being called out about the 47 percent of their folks who are birthers: "But Democrats had/have truthers ..."

Truthers refers to the cohort that believed at times that George W. Bush or his government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks and let them happen. According to a poll by Rasmussen, in 2007, 35 percent of Democrats thought this was the case, not quite up to current Republican birther numbers, but a lot. After all, according to the 9/11 Commission: on August 6 2001, the President had been given a Daily Briefing headed: "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US." A warning is not evidence, of course, but it's existence didn't quiet suspicions either.
***
I was never a truther, mostly because I don't tend to believe anyone's conspiracy theories. Big institutions can't pull off conspiracies and get away with them. People talk. (See also the leaks from the "secret" torture regime the U.S. adopted in the last decade.)

But I was always a "delighter" -- I believed that Dick Cheney, David Addington, and their neo-con fellows -- puppet-masters of the lazy Bush -- were thrilled that the 9/11 attacks gave them cover to shred constraints on executive authority.

They danced gleefully ahead, violating international norms for going to war and for war's conduct as well as tossing aside "quaint" notions of the immunity of citizens from law-free searches or incarceration without judicial redress. They loved 9/11 -- the deaths of several thousand in New York and Washington, complete with pictures, gave them license to fulfill their fantasies of imperial domination.

They remain untried war criminals whose escape from judicial examination disgraces this country. The current President seems to like their policies enough to make himself, if not their peer (I doubt he's a delighter; that's what passes for an upgrade these days), their accomplice after the fact in the destruction of the rule of law in this country.
***
These days, according to the AP, about 25 percent of independent voters are birthers. It's pretty obvious that the 75 percent of independents who are not (currently) birthers are the Obama re-election campaign's target for the release of the Hawaii document. Obama needs their votes in 2012, so he needs to rub in that Republicans are abetting idiotic believers in racist fantasies.

The birther obsession is an opportunity for the Obama campaign. He's getting his political mojo back in time for re-election. Somehow he doesn't seem so good at using it to govern.

Warming Wednesdays: can our political institutions rise to the challenge?



We know the Fukashima nuclear plants were supposed to be safe, built to the most exacting engineering standards ... that hasn't worked out so well.

Californians have our own coastal nuke. The engineering and management of the plant don't inspire much confidence. This video is charming and chilling.

Some environmental and climate activists believe that nuclear energy has to be part of an array of bridge technologies to get civilization unhitched from carbon-dioxide belching coal and oil. Others look at costs, dangers and the unresolved waste storage problem and conclude "no way!"

In the light of the Fukashima crisis, Hugh Gusterson in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists brought an anthropologist's perspective to the future of nuclear power:

... it is hard to resist the conclusion reached by sociologist Charles Perrow in his book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies: Nuclear reactors are such inherently complex, tightly coupled systems that, in rare, emergency situations, cascading interactions will unfold very rapidly in such a way that human operators will be unable to predict and master them. To this anthropologist, then, the lesson of Fukushima is not that we now know what we need to know to design the perfectly safe reactor, but that the perfectly safe reactor is always just around the corner. It is technoscientific hubris to think otherwise.

This leaves us with a choice between walking back from a technology that we decide is too dangerous or normalizing the risks of nuclear energy and accepting that an occasional Fukushima is the price we have to pay for a world with less carbon dioxide. It is wishful thinking to believe there is a third choice of nuclear energy without nuclear accidents.

It is unlikely that all countries will make the same choice here. ... And what of the United States? ... A good way to think through this question is to look at how the United States responded to its last meltdown -- the meltdown of its banking system in 2008. To prevent a future recurrence of this disaster, the US government should have broken up banks that were "too big to fail," restored the Glass-Steagall Act's prohibitions on the commingling of investment and depository banks, and moved aggressively to regulate credit default swaps and financial derivatives. It did none of these things because the banks did not want it to, and the banks now run the show.

The US government, including its regulatory agencies, has been largely captured by the corporate sector, which, by means of campaign donations, is able to secure compliant politicians and regulators. ... we now have a government captured by special interests, paralyzed by partisanship, and confused by astroturfing political groups and phony scientific experts for sale to the highest bidder. Our democracy and our regulatory agencies are husks of what they once were. It is unclear that such a system is capable of learning any lessons or indeed of doing anything much beyond generating speeches and passing the responsibility for failure back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball between our two yapping political parties.

As in most aspects of our response to human-induced climate change, our ability to adapt is constrained not so much by lack of knowledge or even by cost, but mostly by whether our political institutions can still act for the general welfare. We have no choice to be to make them engage with this unfolding challenge.

H/t to A Change in the Wind for the clip.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How cities live and die

What happens when capitalism's winners, the owners and founders of industry and commerce, desert a city?

Harold Meyerson, formerly of the LA Weekly and now a columnist at the Washington Post, also wears the title "editor-at-large" at the The American Prospect. At that last publication, he currently has an insightful story about the decay of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Times. These are the city's signature institutions; they are both also being destroyed by incompetent management by outsiders who bought them up and have stripped them of the quality that made them so important to the city.

Those businesses...were key to the rise of the modern Los Angeles, helping cement its role as the dominant city of the Sunbelt as the nation expanded west and south after the end of World War II. Under O'Malley, the Dodgers became (along with the Yankees) the most successful franchise in professional sports. ...A similar combination of mass and class also characterized the Times once Otis Chandler took control. The paper, which had previously been the leading promoter of both local real estate and local Republicans (and I mean in its news stories, not just its editorials), dropped its partisanship and parochialism, established bureaus with talented reporters across the country and the world, and hired critics and columnists as good as any in the country.

Los Angeles in the years of O'Malley and Otis the Good was a city moving unevenly into modernity. ...They were elements of a city that had gained a certain sophistication and tolerance, major players in a civic elite that prided itself on the city's betterment as well as -- and linked to -- its own self-interest.

It was not to last. Most of the major corporations that had been headquartered in Los Angeles -- the banks, the aerospace conglomerates, the movie studios -- sold themselves to larger companies headquartered elsewhere.

The new owners milked the local gems for quick profits, investing nothing in creating sustainable institutions. Meyerson is arguing that perhaps local management, even public ownership of the baseball team akin to the situation of the Green Bay Packers, might restore the quality which absentee ownerships have stripped from them. He might be right.

The discussion caught my eye because he is saying that seemingly thriving Los Angeles has found itself prey to a modern version of what I believe sealed the doom of rust belt cities like the one I come from, Buffalo, New York. In prosperous early 20th century cities, the businessmen (they were all men!) who made fortunes in industry and commerce lived in the communities and so had some stake in the quality of life even among the peons who worked in their mills and foundries. They built churches and took credit for their generosity in inscriptions on Tiffany stained glass windows. They built universities and saw buildings named for them. They lorded it over their cities -- and expected the cities to reflect their greatness.

After World War II, the founding commercial generation died off and the heirs usually quickly cashed in, selling off to corporations headquartered elsewhere. Though the cities may not have missed the pretensions of the local barons, they also lost the benefits of their self-interested concern for the quality of urban life.

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Pittsburgh from Mount Washington.

A few years ago, I had the chance to "road trip" through the great rust belt cities: Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Only the last seemed a living place. Somehow, it had managed to move on from its past. In 2009, The Economist described Pittsburgh's success before the meeting of the G20 nations that took place there that fall.

Pittsburgh has “transformed itself from the city of steel to a centre for high-tech innovation—including green technology, education and training, and research and development.” Today, its main industries, health care and education, are thriving. Pittsburgh’s health-services business has almost tripled in size since 1979, creating more than 100,000 jobs. More than 70,000 work in research and development in the metro area’s 35 universities (Jonas Salk produced the polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh in 1955) and 100 corporate research centres, such as that of Bayer USA, a pharmaceuticals company.

Spending a couple of days in Pittsburgh, I couldn't help but notice that institutions bearing names from the city's past were still contributing to the sense of life: places like the Heinz History Center, four Carnegie Museums, Carnegie-Mellon University ... even the Pittsburgh Steelers football franchise enjoys local ownership by the founding Rooney family and plays at Heinz Field. Apparently the baronial families were stilled interested in their home town.

When your robber barons remain interested in a place, it's got a chance. When the money goes national -- or global -- divorced from place, the places suffer, or so it seems. Could the whole country come to resemble an abandoned rust belt city? Not easily, but I wouldn't rule it out.

Taxes, Medicare and gay marriage

There's a trio of troubles. Or so it can be for gay couples. I've got a post up this morning at Time Goes By: what it really like to get older that explores some of the complexities gay couples are currently encountering in this strange moment of marriage indeterminancy we're living through.

Monday, April 25, 2011

More Guantanamo leaks



This morning the New York Times has published a set of stories based on leaked secret documents that describe the horrendous morass the Bush administration created with its policy of sweeping up random Afghans and Arabs that somebody thought might be terrorists and warehousing them at Guantanamo. The Guantanamo Files stories are well worth reading, even the sensational hook about how a Libyan rebel we're now cozy with is a former "medium to high risk" inmate.

It's worth having the story fleshed out further. We've known for a long time that so-called "intelligence" personnel from U.S. spook agencies who apparently didn't speak the languages or have much notion of the cultures they were encountering "evaluated" these guys and many were held for years for no discernible purpose and without any judicial process to determine why they were there. No wonder a few of them later have done awful things. As the Times points out, the government's contention that 25 percent of them have "returned to the battlefield" (and it is not clear if that includes denouncing their treatment by the U.S.) is an awful lot less than the 80-90 percent of U.S. convicts who "re-offend."

In my opinion, any member of the legal profession who abetted Guantanamo's grotesque imitation of legality should be barred from further lawyering. They were tested on their professional ethics and they flunked. Some of the few heroes in all this were the military lawyers assigned to individual prisoners who have bravely contested the system, as well as the human rights lawyers who kept the captives from being completely disappeared.

I remember thinking as early rumors of U.S. mistreatment of prisoners, black sites, and Guantanamo began to circulate, "this stuff is going to come out."

Well, it has, repeatedly. And the current disclosures, apparently more of the Wikileaks trove (though the Times is cagey about that), show again just how fast information escapes in the current technical environment.

Last year I re-read William L. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich which I hadn't looked at in over 40 years. His preface explains how he came to write this monumental volume in the mid-1950s.

... [my] personal experience [reporting from pre-war Berlin] would not have led me to attempt to write this book had there not occurred at the end of World War II an event unique in history.

This was the capture of most of the confidential archives of the German government .... Never before, I believe, has such a vast treasure fallen into the hands of contemporary historians. Hitherto the archives of a great state, even when it was defeated in war and its government overthrown by revolution, as happened to Germany and Russia in 1918, were preserved by it, and only those documents which served the interests of the subsequent ruling regime were ultimately published....

The kind of disclosure that Shirer found so unprecedented is on its way to becoming commonplace. That seems a good thing. Governments should be looking over their shoulders, aware that the conduct they want to keep secret is likely to be revealed. They hate it; the Obama administration is actually even more diligent in seeking to punish leaks than the last bunch. Hoping to hide their abuses seems to go with the territory of holding power.

But this stuff comes out.

Photo from the NYT, by Louie Palu/Zuma Press.

Easter in Dolores Park

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San Francisco is still a gay old town.

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Nice bonnet.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Christ is risen! Hope lives!

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This icon of the resurrected Christ comes from the Coptic Encyclopedia. Coptic Christianity is one of the oldest forms of the faith. I post it here in honor of the contemporary unforeseen explosion of resurrected hope in Egypt.

In recent days, the new Egypt has seen tensions between the Coptic minority and some Islamists. Other members of the Muslim majority, including the young people who touched off the January 25 revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood, have opposed demonstrations against a Coptic regional governor.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A lethal family feud

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This tired crucified Jesus sits at a side altar in the Cathedral in Mexico City.

On Good Friday, the annual Christian day marking the crucifixion of Jesus, we hear read to us some version of the story. This year the reading was from the Gospel according to John. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor with jurisdiction over Jerusalem, is presented as puzzling over what to do with a Galilean agitator. He tells the guy:

“Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me ..."

We know the rest of the story.

We don't usually know that this presentation of Pilate as some kind of thoughtful gentleman is improbable. Other histories record that he was recalled to Rome for intemperately misgoverning the province so severely as to provoke local revolts. Think a Mubarak-type figure.

I wonder how many of us realize that in the readings we are listening to the echoes of a first century faction fight between two sets of Jews. After all, Jesus and his wandering band were Jews. The community that clung to his story after the trauma of the crucifixion were Jews (at least most of them were until later when that indefatigable community organizer Paul got to running all over the known world bringing on board all sorts of gentiles).

The proto-Christian Jews and the other Jews were all traumatized by the savage destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in the year 70. The place where G-D resided was gone. Like a lot of people suffering from surplus pain and surplus powerlessness, the Jewish factions attacked their weaker enemies -- each other -- viciously. The four Gospels blaming the Jews for Jesus' execution are the detritus of that family fight, written in the thirty years after the Romans wiped out the Jewish homeland. There's no one we're so ready to denounce as people we are close with whom we have disagreements. When the faction that became Christians got state power in the empire two centuries later, their propaganda in the family feud became the official story.

This obscure controversy wouldn't matter if it hadn't led to 2000 years of persecution of Jews by Christians, the Holocaust, and the rebound effect that sanctions Israeli oppression of Palestinians -- but it did.

If Christians took our own teachings seriously, we'd know that humans killed Jesus because that's what humans do to God among us -- except on those occasions when, by whatever grace, we don't.

That will have to do for my Holy Week meditation.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Can capitalism be godly?

Here's an interesting research finding: most U.S. citizens and most U.S. Christians don't think capitalism is compatible with Christianity. At least three quarters of us say we are Christians.



The finding is a product of a Public Religion Research Institute/Religion News Service survey. Democrats and the religiously unaffiliated are most likely to think there is an incompatibility of values here. Political independents are more evenly split and a plurality of Republicans think capitalism and Jesus go together just fine.

Digging into the data, the differences may be more about income than any other variable.

Nearly half (46%) of Americans with household incomes of $100,000 a year or more believe that capitalism is consistent with Christian values, compared to only 23% of those with household incomes of $30,000 a year or less.

I guess you don't think God's seal of approval applies to systemic greed if the system hasn't been good for you. With rising inequality, the incompatible side of this ethical divide is likely to grow as the comfortable upper middle sector shrinks.

I'm reminded of the striking finding in American Grace that most of us are more likely to change our religious affiliation to fit our politics than to change our politics to fit the pronouncements of the branch of religion we identify with. As with that finding, I wonder if this poll suggests simply that the people of this country have very little articulate descriptive language with which to discuss their political or religious values, so the survey is measuring some vague impressions, not strong values-based opinions.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Maybe it's in the air?


There's something about northern California that's good for politicians. I know the usual rap: we're a bunch of hippies, fruits and nuts here. Just this year, I heard a silly, very "serious" southern California Dem operative complain that organizers from the north had to be taught to cut their hair.

San Franciscans have the repeated experience of sending our least exciting politicians to Sacramento and Washington and seeing them branded as flaming lefties. Interestingly, after enough of that, they often operate as loosely liberal, far more liberal than they appear to us at home. I'm thinking not only of such genuine moderates as Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, but even of our essentially reactionary Senator Diane Feinstein. We raise them right somehow here.

So President Obama was out and about here yesterday scooping up the bucks for his 2012 campaign. And apparently among the big donors he said something true that you are not allowed to say in Washington.

At a fundraiser in San Francisco Wednesday evening, President Obama took direct, and unusually blunt, aim at a faction in the U.S. Congress that played a major role in upending his plan to pass sweeping clean energy and climate change legislation.

"There are climate change deniers in Congress and when the economy gets tough, sometimes environmental issues drop from people's radar screens," Obama told about 200 guests at the Pacific Heights residence of internet billionaire Marc Benioff, according to an official transcript. "But I don't think there's any doubt that unless we are able to move forward in a serious way on clean energy that we're putting our children and our grandchildren at risk. So that's not yet done."

TPM

Dude should visit more often. It would sure be nice to hear some more of this kind of plain speaking. Apparently people in northern California who can pay $35,800 for cocktails with the Prez don't want to hear BS about denying climate change. It's good for these pols to get a whiff of this place.

Full accounts of the local Presidential talks by Josh Richman here and here. And for a look at what the motorcade did to the city, check Mike's bird's eye view.

Who's the enemy?

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An Afghan National Army soldier accompanies a squad of Marines with Company B, 1st Tank Battalion, during a mission April 9. ... (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. John M. McCall)

Perhaps it's the guy following the squad. I find this news story just appalling.
Rising number of coalition troop deaths coming at hands of Afghan security forces

Since January, 13 troops with the International Security Assistance Force have been killed when Afghan police, soldiers or security guards — or insurgents who infiltrated their ranks — attacked coalition forces. These types of killings have accounted for the deaths of at least 38 coalition personnel since 2009, according to a Stars and Stripes review, constituting roughly 3 percent of the hostile fire deaths among troops during that time.

By comparison, 27 troops were killed by mortar or indirect fire attacks launched by insurgents during that same time period, according to the independent website icasualties.org. ...

In addition to the killings, there have been an unknown number of incidents in which Afghan forces almost fired on their Western trainers, fired and missed, or fired and wounded a coalition soldier. Often, the Afghan shooters escaped, suggesting that other Afghan troops sympathized and didn’t attempt to stop them.

Two years ago in Wardak province, for example, an Afghan policeman opened fire on U.S. soldiers, spraying them with about 50 rounds, wounding one soldier. This was after the Americans, at the request of local Afghan leaders, had removed their body armor as a sign of respect.

“He kept repeating in Dari, ‘I did this for my prophet,’ ” 1st Lt. Julian Stewart told Stars and Stripes at the time. “The whole time [this was happening], the ANP (Afghan National Police) are doing nothing.”

Stars and Stripes, April 17, 2011

My emphasis. I don't know how this country can keep asking its soldiers to serve in this mis-begotten, ill-conceived, failing war.

Photo via ISAF media.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: history lessons


As we move into the 150 year anniversary of the U.S. Civil War, if we have any imagination at all, we're likely to find ourselves wondering -- how could so many people in a new nation thrusting with all its youthful energy toward material and physical modernity -- an oasis of freedom for many people from the Old World -- have included such a large fraction of the country so attached to the ancient practice of chattel slavery? How could so many have been so attached to holding other people as property, as goods to be bought, worked, bred and sold like cows or mules -- at the same time they prided themselves on being such a novel experiment in liberty? How could our not-so-far-removed ancestors have held these contradictions together?

On a recent Fresh Air interview program, historian Adam Goodheart provided this explanation:

We tend to think of slavery also as just sort of simply a moral issue. But I think we think of it differently when we realize that the value of slave property, some $4 billion, enormous amount of money in 1861, represented actually more money than the value of all of the industry and all of the railroads in the entire United States combined. So for Southern planters to simply one day liberate all of that property would have been like asking people today to simply overnight give up their stock portfolios, give up their IRAs.

And again, it's terrible that people thought of their slave property this way. They thought of the amount that their slaves would be able to fetch on the market if they happen to fall on hard times. They thought of what those slaves would be worth as inheritance to their children, and how that slave property would have to be divided or liquidated with their estate.

Obviously (to us now) a deep certainty of white supremacy was central to the ease with which most took slavery for granted. And for most white citizens, the Civil War barely made a dent in their white supremacist assumptions, as Black people were restored to "neo-slavery" in subsequent decades.
Goodheart (author of the new Civil War history 1861) finds he has offer his students an analogy in order to help them make the imaginative leap to understand how slavery could ever have been considered the normal and proper status of other humans.

... one example I use with my college students at Washington College when I'm teaching this history is to talk about today when many of us recognize that in burning fossil fuels we're doing something terrible for the planet, we're doing something terrible for future generations. And yet in order to give this up would mean sort of unraveling so much of the fabric of our daily lives, sacrificing so much, becoming these sort of radical eccentrics riding bicycles everywhere, that we continue somewhat guiltily to participate in the system. And that's something that I use as a comparison to slavery, that many Americans in the North, and even I believe sort of secretly in the South, felt a sense of guilt, felt a sense of shame, that knew that the slave system was wrong but were simply addicted to slavery and couldn't give it up.

As it happens, I doubt our human species will find that responding to human-caused climate change is a matter of individual guilt and individual actions, like taking up bicycling (though moving around a bit more would do most of us good.) Rather, like the U.S. Civil War that ended legal slavery, finding a way forward is going to require an economic, social and moral transformation that most of us will experience as involuntary and wrenching, and for too many, deadly.

In Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, science journalist Mark Hertsgaard quotes Kris Ebi, an independent scientist who began analyzing global warming while working for the U.S. electric utility industry:

The point we have to get across to people is that the future is not going to be like the past. It's human nature to assume it will be, but with climate change that's no longer true ...

The U.S. is no longer a new, inventive, resilient nation; we've become a rather indolent and creaky old empire-on-the-wane these days. Our institutions respond poorly if at all to real human needs. But respond we will, because the future will be different from our past. We retain some choices about how inhumane adaptation will be; better to engage now than suffer later.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Running (s)hero

It's hard to imagine now, but when I began long distance running (jogging) over 30 years ago, otherwise sensible people were still arguing that the activity might ruin my reproductive organs. Dr. Joan Ullyot's Women's Running told us we'd be more than alright; Ullyot herself was a successful local competitor.

But the woman who really put the women's marathon before the public was the Norwegian super star, Grete Waitz. Between 1978 and 1988, she won the women's division of the New York City Marathon nine times. She lowered the women's world record to the mid-2:20s. And she came across as hard-working and competitive certainly, but also sensible, normal and nice. For a generation of women who ran before the sport became either professional at the high end or a fundraising platform for worthy charities at the low end, Waitz was our inspiration.

She died of cancer this week at the age of 57; she is pictured here in 1992 with Fred Lebow, the founder of the New York City Marathon, who died of cancer in 1994.

Passover good wishes!

Last night we celebrated the Passover with at a long table with good friends. But because Monday night was a work night, a few of the usual suspects could not attend. We sent them a substantial "care package" from the Seder foods; they replied this morning with this video clip for all who missed out on human company.

Enjoy.

Iraq prospects


Remember Iraq? You know, that ancient Mesopotamian country the United States has been afflicting since 2003? Well, under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that the Bush administration negotiated with Iraq's pretense of a government, U.S. troops are supposed to be all gone by the end of 2011.

Lots of thoughtful people have doubted that will really happen. What -- the empire give up an outpost that also sits on such vast quantities of oil? Can't be.

But I've long thought it would happen, because, little as our media can admit it, the U.S. is quietly slinking out of a country we never controlled nor defeated, though we sure made a mess of millions of Iraqi lives while trying. The Democratic administration can't have our troops dying in any significant numbers in that war zone: Afghanistan is more than enough to roil domestic political waters. And then there's the effort to dispose of Qaddafi.

Thus it is interesting to read what Adam L. Silverman, a culture and foreign language adviser at the U.S. Army War College, thinks is going to happen. From Tom Rick's "defense" blog:

The Iraqis, and here I'm referring to every major faction, have made it very, very clear beginning with our Sawha allies out in Anbar starting back in 2007, that they are waiting for us to leave. They are waiting for us to leave in order to settle scores.

The Sunnis and non-expatriate Shiite that make up the Sawha and primary opposition that composed the Iraqiyya Party (which was disenfranchised from forming the most recent Iraqi government after winning the largest plurality due to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's directing the power of the state at them in a successful attempt to reverse the electoral outcome) know they can't really win a head on confrontation, but they've made it repeatedly clear that they are ready to fight (back).

Maliki is waiting for us to go so that he can cut his forces loose on these folks once and for all and put an end to them. The Sadrists want us gone -- badly! The Kurds want their own state and are just waiting for us to stop paying attention long enough so that they can find an opportune moment to declare independence.

Moreover, given past and/or ongoing Iranian support for the bulk of the parties in the governing coalition (Dawa, Sadrists, the Kurds, ISCI/Badr) they won't allow their proxies to agree to anything that significantly prolongs any significant U.S. presence. They'll tolerate training of security forces as a large number of the Arab portion of the Iraqi Army (IA) are Badr Corps, which is tied directly to the Quds Force. So whatever we teach the IA, we're teaching the Iranians. No need for subterfuge at all.

The Bush administration's war succeeded in none of its objectives -- the current U.S. administration isn't going to waste any of its political capital on trying to hold off the settling of scores that is so likely over the next few years. Silverman worked in Iraq; he thought the occupying force had a responsibility to rebuild what it had destroyed, but was thwarted at every turn by ideologies emanating from GOP Washington. But reading his description of the post-invasion snafus, it seems utterly clear that the U.S. never understood much about Iraq at all. Just enough to blow things and people up.

Monday, April 18, 2011

In time for tax day, US Uncut visits the B of A

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As US Uncut points out:

Cheating out on taxes has real costs. If Bank of America paid their fair share of taxes, we could ‘uncut’ $1.7 billion in early childhood education (Head Start & Title I).

Bank of America is the #1 largest bank and the 5th largest corporation in our country, holding over $2.2 trillion in assets, and yet it pays less in taxes than the average American household. In fact, the federal government gave Bank of America $2.3 billion in 2009 while it made $4.4 billion in profits.

Bank of America is Bad for America. Despite ruining the economy with their reckless greed, Bank of America consistently avoids any form of accountability to the American taxpayer. Bank of America pockets billions in profits and bailouts, but then pays $0 in American taxes and even gets tax refunds.

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On Friday, these folks decided to carry their message to a B of A branch in the San Francisco financial district.

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It's not hard to get attention when you bring a brass band.

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"I pay, you pay. Why doesn't B of A?"

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The arrival of a flash mob can really change the atmosphere in a lobby.


Obviously actions like this one are made for video. Watch the whole thing.

British journalist Johann Hari explained the origin of the Uncut movement ("You Caused This Crisis. Now YOU Pay") in his country in a recent Nation Magazine article. Nice to see we noticed a good thing when someone thought of it.

Neither justice nor peace in the Holy Land

A few months ago a well-informed U.S. Jewish friend earnestly approached me: "I know I'm not getting what I need to understand this. Everything I read seems incomplete somehow. What should I read about Israel and the Palestinians?"

I unhesitatingly recommended Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, Kai Bird's memoir of growing up in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. I still would point to this book in answer to the same question from anyone from the United States.

But thanks to a friend who shared how disturbing and enlightening she found it, I now have another recommendation to make: The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by journalist Sandy Tolan. The book traces the lives of the al-Khairi family of al-Ramla, Palestine (now Ramla, Israel) -- and of the Eshkenazis who escaped Hitler's plan to exterminate Jews in Bulgaria during WWII and emigrated afterwards. The Eshkenazis fetched up living in what had been the other family's house after the establishment of the Israeli state. The 1967 war, in which Israel seized control of West Bank and Gaza -- the Occupied Territories -- created the pre-condition for the two families to encounter each other in the house so dear to both of them. They met and continued to exchange hospitality for some 40 subsequent years. They achieved a bit of understanding and even a kind of warmth, but no agreement about the meaning of their shared history or any resolution. The personal stories run parallel to the bloody history of the conflict. I'll say no more except read this book.

One observation about both this history and about Mandelbaum Gate: neither volume casts the conflict as a religious war, Jews against Muslims. The earlier stages could be (and were) understood as about Zionists and Arabs, about competing nationalisms articulating themselves on the same land. Over time, the language (and the reality on the ground) has morphed to describe an Israeli state that oppresses stateless Palestinians who have no rights. Though there are religious elements in the ongoing situation, this is not a religious conflict. The struggle is about power and the abuse of power, about resistance and sometimes the abuse of resistance.

And it is heart-breaking and not near resolution. The United States has consistently thrown down with the stronger party, the Israelis, and is part of the problem, not part of the solution. On the present trajectory, it seems inevitable there will be more blood shed, mostly of the blood of innocents. Neither justice nor peace seems likely in the land called "holy."

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Can religions get along?

Stephen Prothero's talks on the radio show Interfaith Voices tweaked my interest in reading God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter. The book is a good introductory text on the big faiths, but it was the author's asides on what it is like to try to study and teach about comparative religion that really grabbed my attention. Christianity is taken as the norm for religion in this country, actually Christianity of a Protestant sort at that. And the result is that even scholars tend to see how other people define and structure their interaction with whatever they think their ultimate concern might be though a distorting lens.

For example, take this observation from Prothero's discussion of Confucianism:

If religion is about the sacred as opposed to the profane, the spirit as opposed to matter, the Creator as opposed to the created, Confucianism plainly does not qualify. But perhaps what we are to learn from this tradition is not that Confucianism is not a religion but that not all religious people parse the sacred and the secular the way Christians do.

There is a persistent, unexplored bias in the study of religion toward the extraordinary and away from the ordinary. In the United States this bias manifests in a strong attraction (even among scholars who are atheists) toward hardcore religious practitioners -- people who are slain by the Spirit and speak in tongues -- for whom religion arrives as rupture rather than continuity. This bias leads us to see evangelicals as more "religious" than liberal Protestants, Orthodox Jews as more "religious" than Reform Jews, and Confucians as hardly "religious" at all. But there is nothing irreligious about the Confucians; it is our categories of analysis that are confused. If we listen to Confucians in their own voices and on their own terms, we will see how religion can incarnate in very different forms.

Perhaps this particularly grabbed my attention because of a recent conversation with a Chinese American friend who assured me that "no one in China is religious." Maybe he was just being fully American, seeing religion only where our culture leads us to look for it. Prothero's observations of Buddhism and Daoism as well as Confucianism would suggest that might be so.

Another interesting tidbit from Prothero concerns his effort to explain the Yoruba faith (in the U.S. usually encountered as Santeria.) The dominant scholarly typology leaves little room for recognizing this African-derived tradition at all.

Books on the world's religions often include a chapter on "primitive," "preliterate," or "primal" religions, as if they were one and the same. All these religions really share, however, is a stubborn refusal to be crammed into the boxes constructed to fit more "advanced" religions. Stuffed into these chapters (which often fall at the end of the book) are all sorts of religious traditions that in many cases have far less in common with one another than do the "advanced" religions. As a result, these chapters often read like half-hearted apologies for the tendency of scholars (many of whom are trained in translating and interpreting scriptures) to gravitate toward religions that emphasize reading and writing over speaking and hearing.

But the tendency to lump Australian and Native American and African religions with such lower-case religious phenomena as shamanism, totemism, and animism is driven by another, equally important bias. Just as considerations of black and white have dominated conversations about race in the United States, and considerations of Anglophone and Francophone have dominated conversations about culture in Canada, conversations about the world's religions have been dominated by the East/West divide. In BU's Department of Religion, our year-long introduction to the world's religions is split into Eastern and Western semesters. Unfortunately, this approach obscures and often renders invisible religions that do not fall easily along either side of the East/West divide.

Prothero's aim in this book is to explore seriously how various faiths are unique -- in the hope that knowing each other better will help us get along. He's an advocate for what he calls "religious literacy." Meanwhile, we all live in a world where atheists and "perennialists" -- those who jump across religious differences too facilely, seeing only ethical similarities -- try to make peace without understanding.

He thinks his profession, scholar of comparative religion, has something to offer that shouting combatants in religious controversy aren't appreciating.

There is a difference between doing art history and making art. Art historians can be artists, of course, but creating art and interpreting it are two very different projects. And so it goes with doing and interpreting religion. Some scholars of religion are religious, of course, but there is no faith requirement for the job, just as it is not necessary to be a sculptor or painter to be an art historian. ... The problem with Godthink of either the New Atheist or the perennial philosophy variety is that each camp fails to see what should be obvious to any outsider -- that theirs are theological positions too. ...

If human beings acted in their families, communities, and nations purely on the basis of greed and power, then economists and political scientists could do a decent job of describing the world. But people act every day on the basis of religious beliefs and behaviors that outsiders see as foolish or dangerous or worse. Allah tells them to blow themselves up or to give to the poor, so they do. Jesus tells them to bomb an abortion clinic or to build a Habitat for Humanity house, so they do. ... Call this good news or bad news, but by any name it is the way things are. So if we want to live in the real world rather than down a rabbit hole of our own imagining then we need to reckon with it.

I can go with that.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rally to protest violence against transgender woman

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Some of us gay folks who immigrated to San Francisco to enjoy the city's fabled tolerance have made a pretty good life here. We can forget that gender non-conforming people who are newcomers, who are poor, who are young, who are often black or brown, are still vulnerable to random violence, just for being themselves.

A young transgender woman who was beaten up in the BART plaza at 16th and Mission a couple of weeks ago plaintively told KTVU news:

"I'm from a small town. I came to San Francisco hoping there would be more safety than I found," Mia said.

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The assault on Mia was witnessed by an AIDS outreach worker. According to the TV report, this witness reported that one of the men who punched Mia said "Oh, I hate men dressed up as women." The assailants were arrested and a hate crime enhancement added to the charges.

Tonight members of the transgender and gay communities were joined by people from many area service agencies in a rally against violence in the 16th Street plaza.
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We listened to speeches.

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And chanted vigorously.

Sometimes what matters most is to be with family -- and to find out how very large family can be, when we make it.
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Friday, April 15, 2011

"Death is not a societal necessity"


The state of Georgia is once again going to set an execution date for Troy Davis. What's wrong with that? There's a lot of evidence that Troy Davis didn't commit the crime of which he was convicted.

According to Amnesty USA, Davis was

sentenced to death for the murder of Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail at a Burger King in Savannah, Georgia; a murder he maintains he did not commit. There was no physical evidence against him and the weapon used in the crime was never found. The case against him consisted entirely of witness testimony which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial. Since then, all but two of the state's non-police witnesses from the trial have recanted or contradicted their testimony. Many of these witnesses have stated in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against Troy Davis.

One of the two witnesses who has not recanted his testimony is Sylvester "Red" Coles – the principle alternative suspect, according to the defense, against whom there is new evidence implicating him as the gunman. Nine individuals have signed affidavits implicating Sylvester Coles.

Davis' case has kicked around in the courts for 20 years! For fear of "frivolous appeals" our legal system has made it extraordinarily difficult for prisoners to get relief from unjust or misguided verdicts in their original trials. So these things drag on and on. Too often, resolution simply means that the courts say what amounts to "sorry -- we took too long and we can't go back and help you." Should anyone die because the system can't be made to work?

Amnesty International has carefully studied Davis' case as an example of what's wrong with the death penalty in the United States. Their conclusion:

In the absence of judicial relief for Troy Davis, whether he lives or dies in Georgia’s execution chamber will be a political decision. There is no court order requiring that he be killed. His death is not a societal necessity. It can be stopped if the political will and moral courage can be found in those with authority and influence over the case.

To learn more about Davis and how to contact those political authorities that can make a difference, visit Amnesty USA.
***
How do people come to be convicted by eye witness testimony that turns out to be not true? Apparently it happens all too often. Brandon L. Garrett has a new book, Convicting the Innocent, that explores this question. Here's an excerpt from Slate in which he looks at a case in which a young woman positively identified the wrong man as her rapist.

The trial records I looked at suggest that unsound and suggestive police identification procedures played a large and troubling role. Police used unnecessary show-ups, where they presented the eyewitness with just the defendant. Or stacked lineups to make the defendant stand out. Or offered suggestive remarks, telling the eyewitness whom to identify or to expect a suspect in a lineup. Or confirmed the witness's choice as the right one. Even well-intended, encouraging remarks, like "good job, you picked the guy," can have a dramatic effect on eyewitness memory, as psychologists have shown.

Indeed, more than one-third of the cases I looked at involved multiple eyewitnesses, as many as three or four or five eyewitnesses who all somehow misidentified the same innocent person. Further, almost half of the eyewitness identifications were cross-racial. Psychologists have long shown how eyewitnesses have greater difficulty identifying persons of another race.

Even well-intentioned police can be under pressure to arrest someone, anyone; prosecutors are judged by their conviction rate. This stuff happens. Courts can be places where mistakes, even honest ones, create injustice.

Given that reality, it seems madness that the state should be in the business of judicially killing people. Some mistakes can't be fixed, ever.

Photo by Scott Langley.

Friday cat blogging

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The cat perches in the window of the curio shop.

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Might as well take forty winks if you are going to stare ...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Interest group politics: why can't we have sensible gun laws?



A little item in the New York Times the other day pointed out that gun regulation proponents are trying again.

TUCSON — Kelly O’Brien lost her fiancĂ©, Gabe Zimmerman, on Jan. 8 when a gunman opened fire at a constituent event held by Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Ross Zimmerman lost his son. The two appeared at a news conference in Washington on Tuesday to support legislation banning large-capacity ammunition magazines like the one used in the killing of six people that day.

“We don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” said Ms. O’Brien, a nurse at Tucson Medical Center.

The prospects for any kind of legislation remain low. Unfettered gun propagation has a devoted, activist constituency. The rest of us just have common sense and a lot of other things to worry about.
***
After the Tucson shooting, I went looking for a text that delved into what I find incomprehensible: some of my fellow citizens think they have a human right to own a weapon whose sole purpose is to kill or maim someone. I just don't get it. The standard text seems to be Robert J. Spitzer's The Politics of Gun Control.

Spitzer, a Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York, College at Cortland, uses an international relations analogy to discuss why gun regulation is a hot button issue. He explains

..a national policy that encourages and implements weapons ownership as a recognized means of self-defense invites a domestic arms race.

... On the individual level, it seems commonsensical that a crime victim has a better chance of self-protection and crime suppression if the citizen is armed. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, for example, some store owners saved their places of business by the display and even use of weapons. Yet this bit of apparent common sense is never held up to examination in the gun debate. That is, to have any meaningful effect, such an arming process must take place systematically, on a societal scale. We must then ask, what is the cumulative consequence of an implicit or explicit policy that encourages civilian arming to counteract crime and lawlessness in a modern, developed society?

Look -- we have plenty of reason to know what a widely armed, fearful society looks like: think Iraq in 2006 or maybe Ciudad Juarez, Mexico where there were 39 murders over last weekend. (If past experience holds up, it will turn out that the guns used in the latter case came from the U.S. Maybe this country needs an international intervention ... ) More guns means more shooting people ... when emotions run high.

For the moment, sensible gun regulation in this country probably can't happen. The people who want to keep shooting care more than their adversaries. Spitzer is right that what looks like sensible defense to some people looks like offensive threats to other people. This one is a generational struggle: gun proponents -- according to Spitzer "overwhelmingly white males, [likely to] live in rural areas (especially in the South), are likely to be Protestant, and are from "old stock" (that is, have ancestors who came to this country longer ago than the more recent immigrant waves)" -- will perhaps decrease in influence over time. Or not.

The Tucson shootings, traumatic as they were, probably aren't enough to tip the balance against unlimited guns, for now.

What the President neglected to mention ...

The President's big budget speech today had some good lines in it. He hit some good themes in his best parental mode, reminding us we are members of a community, dependent on each other.

We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities.

We are a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without those commitments.

Of course whether the nice rhetoric will survive making deals with Republicans who don't give a rat's ass about community or anyone but their rich sponsors ... well, we'll see. It is hard to trust this guy; the fruit hasn't yet matched its promise.

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What was completely missing from the budget message was any sense that putting the U.S. fiscal house in order MUST involve cuts in our crazy expenditures on the military.
  • Where's the money for our new war in Libya coming from?
  • Why are we still killing and being killed in Afghanistan where neither Afghans nor the U.S. people want us there?
  • Why do we need to pay out 42 percent of the entire global expenditure on war and war preparations? We're rich, but not that rich. The world can be dangerous, but does all that armament make it more or less dangerous.

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Chart data from SIPRI


Most people in the United States think we spend something like 25 percent of the budget on foreign aid. Not true; the real amount is less than one percent. If you add together current wars, the standing military including its hardware, and debt owed to pay for past wars, what we call "defense" spending is something more than 50 percent of the budget. (Chart is for 2009 by way of WRL. Doubt if it is more than a percentage point different one way or another for this year.)
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The President pledged not to seek fiscal health by "asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill ..." We'll know he's serious when he cuts into the war budget.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: science is so unyielding ...



I'll drop the transcript of this short clip into the first comment, but you really owe it to yourself to watch Rep. Edward Markey rip Republican obscurantism.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Democratic flailing, over and over again

As we await (with some trepidation) the President's budget speech, Salon editor Joan Walsh strives to put into words just how Obama has disappointed so many constituents.

... Obama has failed to project and execute a vision of Democratic Party policy and values that's as bold as the challenges the nation faces, marked by Gilded Age levels of economic inequality, as well as economic suffering surpassed only by the Great Depression. ...He could provide new reasons for people to support the Democratic Party: a progressive vision of fairness and equity that's up to the challenge of the times. ...

I find the echoes of Jefferson Cowie's description in Stayin' Alive of the Democratic Party's failures in the the 1970s overwhelming. Sure they faced problems, but they failed to articulate a vision for their diverse constituents. Here's Cowie:

From a policy perspective the Democratic Party faced a dilemma that it could not solve: finding ways to maintain support within the white blue-collar base that came of age during the New Deal and World War II era, while at the same time servicing the pressing demands for racial and gender equity arising from the sixties. Both had to be achieved in the midst of two massive oil shocks, record inflation and unemployment, and a business community retooling to assert greater control over the political process.

The challenges were enormous and the inability to find viable responses seems all too contemporary too.

In my previous post about this fascinating work of history, I've passed along some of Cowie's insights in the decay and decline of working class power as embodied in the unions. In this post I'll take up the political decay that presaged our current situation.

Though labor was still apparently potent in the early part of the decade, union leaders were astonished to discover that rebellions among youth, people of color, organized women and even homosexuals were displacing their influence in the Democratic Party. All these new people wanted in; labor's traditional white male constituency wanted nothing to do with these hippies; and the labor bargaining apparatus was no longer delivering enough goodies via collective bargaining to quiet grumbling in the shop.

... the changes in politics continued to pry loose white male workers' economic identity and drive them toward a more conservative cultural identity. Lost in the breech was the possibility of a vibrant, multi-cultural, and gender conscious conceptualization of class. In a militant defense of what already existed, labor leaders also did their best to resist the pleas, attacks, democratization movements, and criticisms coming from many corners. While the leadership's presumptions about race and gender hierarchies hampered a more expansive vision, the problems were even more troublesome as the existing power brokers believed they had built a perfectible system and, accordingly, did most of what they could to ensure the failure of those who challenged it.

Party political professionals didn't help -- as electoral activists have had to learn again and again, the people who make their living in politics are always quick to produce solutions to the problems of the last cycle, to try to convince the political establishment to fight the last war. In the 1970s, that meant that Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon taught the party, burned in 1968 by Vietnam and social unrest, that its salvation lay in

... running a negative campaign against the major social changes of the day. At best, their tactics could simply offer a social restoration with no clear vision of how it bettered society; they could win votes but not search out solutions; they could pander to fears but could not find a way to incorporate the solutions to the problems of the seventies into a meaningful Democratic agenda.

The New Politics candidacy of Senator George McGovern, spokesman for the outsiders, rose up to take over the party machinery in 1972. The traditional barons of organized labor were simply nonplussed, though a few came to a more generous appreciation of what was happening.

... the new activists of the sixties were largely doing what they had been told to do by their elders: moving out of the streets and pressing their demands within the mainstream political process. As Eugene Glover, the secretary-treasurer of the Machinists Union lamented, "Hell, we used to complain that the young people were running around the streets, demonstrating to no effect, and rejecting the 'system,' whatever the hell that is. But now they have come into the political system. We got mad because they have outsmarted us. They did a whale of a job in organizing and throwing us a thing or two. They beat us at our own game. What are we afraid of? They are our sons and daughters."


Richard Nixon's successful mobilization of social resentments of all kinds and the inner incoherence of the McGovern camp popped that balloon, but the Democratic Party had become a far more complex and difficult coalition than during the New Deal.

Democrats got another chance to see whether they could govern with the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976. The guy has had such a successful post-presidency that it almost seems mean to dwell on the incoherence of his presidency, but Cowie is unflinching. From the point of view of solidifying a Democratic coalition that brought together majorities on the basis of fairness and equity for all, Carter's time was a bust.

He had always understood race much better than class, did not understand unions at all, and felt caged rather than empowered by coalitional politics. His hope had been, in virtuous Wilsonian fashion, to rise above interest groups so as to become the moral steward of the nation in his battles with stagflation and the spiritual malaise ...

He confessed his alienation from the Democratic base at the beginning of the second year of his administration in his diary: "In many cases I feel more at home with the conservative Democratic and Republican members of Congress than I do with the others," he wrote, "although the others, the liberals, vote with me much more often."

This posture of Carter's is all too reminiscent of a certain President whose twists and turns in tough political and economic waters we now watch anxiously.

Carter's core difficulty according to Cowie was that the economic shocks of the '70s -- "stagflation" combining high inflation and high unemployment, the beginnings of deindustrialization, globalization and financialization, and a corporate class on the offensive -- were not problems for which Democratic policy makers had viable answers. Cowie quotes Alice Rivlin, director of the Congressional Budget Office during the Ford, Carter, and early Reagan years:

"It was just almost impossible to say what good economic policy would have been. Nobody had thought through what you do when we have stagflation. . . .It was easy to criticize what they were doing, but it wasn't clear, even in hindsight, what should have been done."

It seems to me as I watch the Obama administration flail that we've never got out of this bind. Except in moments of complete economic collapse like 1932, capital fights furiously for the interests of its owners against measures meant to promote fairness and equity for most people. Democrats, having conceded the supremacy of private property rights over the needs of the wider community, have no answers though they sometimes grope for palliatives. (Maybe it would have been better to live through a complete global crash in 2008?)

Every particular economic moment is different, so some of the immediate issues look different, but once you concede the right of some people to be filthy rich and to use their wealth to buy and enforce acquiescence from everyone else, there aren't a lot of policy options that serve to promote equity and fairness. It really seems an open question whether this runaway cancer of capitalist greed can be reined in before it renders the planet uninhabitable. But so long as we have a pretense of democracy, there's nothing to do but try. Our particular democracy generates a two party system, so that means yet more rounds of trying to organize a democratic Democratic Party. The struggle is still about "stayin' alive."
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