Saturday, March 31, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: Prerequisites for co-existence

newts on trail when wet.JPG

slow down for slow ducks.jpg

frogs on road.jpg

The newts and frogs wander the roads near Rodeo Beach. The ducks walk around Stowe Lake in Golden Gate Park, even more slowly than the people.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A grim reminder


For a lot of people, it is not at all clear we've hit bottom. There's still a limping economy out there -- even if you live in relatively prosperous northern California where there are intimations of another tech boom.

Yesterday a friend reported that her construction worker husband is once again out of work. Jobs have been hit and miss for awhile. What's this mean?

"Well, he rebuilt the engine on his car …

"And in a couple of months we'll have to choose -- will we make the house payment? or pay our local taxes -- they call them "fees"? or will we buy health insurance?" We'll only be able to do one of these ...

This was a solidly middle class family until Wall Street's speculative "bets" crashed their livelihood.

Even if her husband gets a job next week and they escape their immediate crisis, these are not young people. They have few resources for retirement and no time to rebuild.

The one percent trashed their dreams and walked away with their bonuses and our political system seems unable to help them -- or any of us.

Yeah, I'm angry. And I intend to remain active. Nothing else to do ...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Munching on those tablets from Mt. Sinai

David Hazony's The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life struck me as a mirror image approach to Biblical texts to Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman is all minute explication of the written word; Hazony is about spinning dense meanings out of spare exposition of old rules enunciated in almost unimaginably foreign societies.

I greatly enjoyed this book. I guess I like my apprehension of "the rules" to derive from cheerfully creative moral imagination more than from reverent search for The Answer. Not that I loved or agreed with all or even most of Hazony's conclusions, but I loved his method, his freedom, his wit, and hence was willing to interact with his wisdom.

This is an extremely dense book, a series of arguments, not something that is easily excerpted. To give just a bit of the flavor, he's talking here about ancient Israelite response to their demanding, exclusive, and novel God.

In most of the ancient world, the prevailing belief was that neither gods nor men could change the basic functioning of the universe, that there was a certain primordial reality that everyone needed to adapt himself to. In the Bible we have the opposite. God creates the universe, and he does not stop there. His continued interventions include also catastrophic acts of destruction -- the tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Egypt under Pharaoh. God continues to impose his will, and indeed much of the biblical narrative is dedicated to his interventions. Every word he utters, every punishment he metes out, every act of redemption is another act of creation, for he is acting in freedom, imposing his will, changing things. One need think only of the flood, when God, having seen the depth of human corruption, “repented” at having created the world and sought to begin again. He is an inventor, forever tinkering with his imperfect work. God “re-creates the universe each and every day,” says the Talmud.

When we change things, we re-create the universe just as God does. A changed world is a new one, even when the change is small. One of our most important discoveries in early childhood is that the world is not a given, but that we can affect it: A baby pushes buttons on a toy, causing a light to flash and music to play; a toddler builds a tower of blocks; an older child invites her friends over and avoids an afternoon alone; a teenager changes his attitude toward schoolwork and begins getting better grades. All these minor successes give us a rush of the effectiveness of our will -- something especially cherished by children who are so used to having the world and its rules presented to them as unchangeable.

We often forget how easily we may be agents of change. We no longer live in a world where the crucial choices of spouses, careers, and religious commitments are dictated by our parents and communities. Our lives are our own to a degree unimaginable just a few centuries ago, and even as we grow older, we are free to make both major and minor changes in the contours of our lives. Some of these, such as embarking on a new career, marriage and divorce, or religious conversion, entail not only promise but also enormous risk and pain. But as major acts of change, they reaffirm the infinite possibilities of which every one of us is capable. In a sense, every time we exercise our will in recrafting our lives, we imitate God in re-creating the universe.

Our modern, democratic world could never have sprung from a civilization that did not believe in change the way the Bible, and pretty much no one else in the ancient world, did. Modernity, if nothing else, is the unleashing of the individual’s creative will, through political institutions that protect our right to make choices, and through the cultural reverence for the individual as a source of change. …

I don't pretend to know whether what I've just quoted is defensible as history. It might be; it might not. But I do know I am offered something worth chewing on.

Anyone up for a good chew on the Ten Commandments would do well to try this book.

While the Supremes ponder whether we can have health care ...

... maybe they should watch this.

Not slick, but true.

Thanks again to The Blog's Best Friend.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012


She was probably the most honest person I ever enjoyed some tiny acquaintance with. That's the same as saying that for me she embodied courage.

The New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox does some justice to a woman both poet and prophet.

Art, Ms. Rich added, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

Of Rich's poems, I always come back to this:

I

When my dreams showed signs
of becoming
politically correct
no unruly images
escaping beyond border
when walking in the street I found my
themes cut out for me
knew what I would not report
for fear of enemies' usage
then I began to wonder

II
Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill

We move but our words stand
become responsible
and this is verbal privilege

Your Native Land, Your Life.
Again from Margalit Fox:

What she and her sisters-in-arms were fighting to achieve, she said, was simply this: “the creation of a society without domination.”

Warming Wednesdays: Allergy season came early

Every morning my partner gets up and complains: "Every tree in the city is trying to have sex in my nasal passages." Not fun, all this seasonal exuberance among the plants.

Apparently for those of us who respond unhappily to spring pollens, climate change is going to make the season more uncomfortable.

It's pretty well-documented that climate changes are affecting pollen production, pollen exposure, and allergies.

USDA scientist Lewis Ziska, among other researchers, has found that ragweed is one of the plants whose growth is most enhanced by exposure to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide. Not only does the ragweed grow faster when exposed to more CO2, it also produces more pollen. This is especially an issue in cities, which have higher concentrations of CO2 than rural areas, thanks to having a higher concentration of cars and other CO2 emitting sources. Extra bonus: There's also some evidence that allergy seasons are getting longer, as Spring starts earlier and Winter takes longer to truly set in.

Boing-Boing, March 21 2012

Climate Central discusses the earlier arrival of spring, regional differences, and how warming trends might project into the future.

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, March 27, 2012

Health insurance reform is before the Supreme Court …

and most of us still barely know what Obamacare does. In the interests of clarifying some of the fog of partisan war, here's a part of one the government briefs (via Balloon Juice.) This description is really quite readable, despite having been written by lawyers.

First, Congress made health insurance available to millions more low-income individuals by expanding eligibility for Medicaid. Beginning in 2014, Medicaid eligibility will extend to anyone under age 65 with income up to 133% of the federal poverty level. Currently, Medicaid beneficiaries are primarily children in low-income families, their parents, low-income pregnant women, and low-income elderly or disabled individuals. The newly eligible persons will consist primarily of low-income non-elderly adults without dependent children.

Second, Congress enacted taxing measures that encourage expansion of employer-sponsored insurance. The Act establishes new tax incentives for eligible small businesses to purchase health insurance for their employees. In addition, the Act’s employer responsibility provision imposes a tax liability under specified circumstances on large employers that do not offer adequate coverage to full-time employees.

Third, Congress provided for creation of health insurance exchanges to enable individuals and small businesses to leverage their collective buying power and maintain health insurance at rates competitive with those charged for typical large employer plans.

Fourth, Congress enacted market reforms that will make affordable insurance available to millions who cannot now obtain it. Certain reforms have already taken effect, including provisions that bar insurers from canceling insurance absent fraud or intentional misrepresentation and from placing lifetime caps on benefits, 42 In addition, the Act establishes medical loss ratios for insurers, i.e., minimum percentages of premium revenues that insurers must spend on clinical services and activities that improve health care quality, as opposed to administrative costs or profits. The Act also requires insurers providing family coverage to continue covering adult children until age 26, which has led to an additional 2.5 million young adults gaining coverage. Beginning in 2014, the Act will bar insurers from denying coverage to any person because of medical condition or history, (guaranteed-issue provision), and from charging higher premiums because of a person’s medical condition or history, (community-rating provision).

Fifth, Congress enacted new tax credits, cost-sharing reduction payments, and tax penalties as incentives for individuals to maintain a minimum level of health insurance. The Act establishes federal premium tax credits to assist eligible individuals with household income up to 400% of the federal poverty level purchase insurance through the new exchanges. These premium tax credits, which are advanceable and fully refundable such that individuals with little or no income tax liability can still benefit, are designed to make health insurance affordable by reducing a taxpayer’s net cost of insurance. The credits will be available even to families with incomes at (and above) the median level, which, in 2010, was $75,148 for a family of four and $42,863 for an individual. For eligible individuals with income up to 250% of the federal poverty level, the Act also authorizes federal payments to insurers to help cover those individuals’ cost-sharing expenses (such as co-payments or deductibles) for insurance obtained through an exchange. CBO projected that 83% of people who buy non-group insurance policies through exchanges will receive premium tax credits, (20 million of 24 million), and that those credits, on average, will cover nearly two-thirds of the premium,

In addition to those incentives through tax and other subsidies to purchase health insurance, Congress assigned adverse tax consequences to the alternative of attempted self-insuring. Congress provided that, beginning in 2014, non-exempted federal income taxpayers who fail to maintain a minimum level of health insurance coverage for themselves or their dependents will owe a tax penalty for each month in the tax year during which minimum coverage is not maintained.

Emphasis added for readability. There, that wasn't so bad, was it?
***
Whenever I think about Obamacare, I find myself wondering what inspires such violent resistance to what seems a simple moral imperative. I understand objecting that we've been gifted with a poorly designed Rube-Goldberg apparatus that still serves the interests of insurance companies as much as of patients. I don't understand the willingness to just let people die if they haven't found a way to get insurance from a profiteering system. We have at least 49 million people with no health insurance either because they lack the cash to pay for it or insurers refuse to cover them because they've been sick. But some Tea Party people cheer at the thought of person who makes the mistake of not having insurance being left to die. Somehow those who suffer don't qualify as real people, real neighbors, to those who cheer. I don't get it. Mere prudence -- self interest -- would seem to argue for wanting to find a way to extend care to everyone.

Once we finally win some kind of medical care for all, I doubt very much that there will be hardly any who don't avail themselves of it. Most of us know a good thing when we enocounter it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Nothing to be happy about in this


The case of Rutgers College freshman Dharun Ravi, convicted last week of invasion of privacy and "bias intimidation" (a "hate crime") for spying on his gay roommate, has haunted me. If the roommate, Tyler Clementi hadn't jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge, we'd never have heard of any of this. But he did. Ravi wasn't charged with causing the suicide, but obviously that tragedy hung over the case.

What follows are some observations, but few conclusions. It's hard to see how any good comes of this.
  • I'm instinctively respectful of the findings of juries. They heard it all; the rest of us just caught tidbits through the media. The jurors in this case shared their reasoning and should be listened to.

    The bias intimidation charges were the most difficult to agree upon, jurors said. And what tipped the scales there, they said, was that Mr. Ravi had discussed spying on Mr. Clementi not just once, but repeatedly, even inviting his online friends to watch Mr. Clementi and the other man in a second encounter.

    That, said Ms. Audet, is what elevated the case from one of teenagers behaving cruelly and insensitively to a crime.

    “To attempt a second time, is what changed my mind,” she said. “A reasonable person would have closed it and ended it there, not tweeted about it.”

    The webcam did not work for the second encounter; Mr. Ravi, 20, claimed that he had turned it off. But Ms. Audet said evidence suggested that he was lying. “He was at ultimate Frisbee practice,” she said, and evidence showed he then went to a dining hall. “We came to the conclusion that it was Tyler who turned off the computer to make sure he wasn’t filmed a second time.”

    She added, “That hit home big.”

    … Mr. Ravi’s lawyer pointed to apologetic texts that Mr. Ravi sent Mr. Clementi, in which he said he had no problem with homosexuality and even had a close friend who was gay. (At almost the exact moment he sent the apology, Mr. Clementi, 18, committed suicide after posting on Facebook, “jumping off the gw bridge sorry”).

    Mr. Leverett, a student and Twitter user himself, was unmoved. “I can’t speak for everyone on the jury, but me, personally, I believe it was something where he realized what he did was wrong, and it was just too late to amend for what he did.”

    Of the apology, Ms. Audet said: “My first impression was to believe what he said. Then, as we started reading stuff, we found things in there that I interpreted more as covering.

    “The friend he claimed was a good friend in high school, that person was never presented as a defense witness. If that person had come forward and said, ‘Hey, we’ve been good friends, and he knows I’m gay and he doesn’t have a problem with it,’ that might have swayed me in the other direction.”

    New York Times, March 17, 2012

    Whatever we may think of the verdict, we can't say the jurors didn't work at constructing a thoughtful understanding of the events.
  • In general, I'm a supporter of hate crimes laws. I'm always aware that their application requires an underlying crime, something that would be illegal even if the target of the crime were not in need of protection from a history of bigotry. But it does seem that the way the New Jersey hate crimes enhancement worked in this case was based on asking the jurors to intuit how Clementi felt about Ravi spying on him. The verdicts do seem properly described by this summary from attorney Elie Mystal:

    ... the jury believed that Ravi did not invade Clementi’s privacy for the purpose of intimidating Clementi over his sexual orientation. But they thought that Ravi should have known that Clementi would feel intimidated, and that Clementi believed he was intimidated, and so Ravi is guilty and going to jail.

    That is, the jurors were required by the way the case was framed to try to read the mind of someone who is dead. Now their conclusions may have been obvious -- and may have been correct -- but that seems a lot to ask and not, perhaps, a basis on which to deprive someone of freedom.

    A local New Jersey newspaper sought the opinion of a "prominent defense lawyer."

    Lawrence Lustberg said that subsection bases guilt "on the state of mind of the victim as opposed to the state of mind of the defendant."

    In most criminal statutes, the intent of the perpetrator is a key element in there being a crime. Predicting a hard-fought appeal, Lustberg said the argument would be that "it is unprecedented for a conviction to be based on the state of mind of the victim."

    "It is very worrisome to me that a defendant could be subjected to these very severe penalties based upon the state of mind of someone other than himself," Lustberg said before the verdict.

    I have to say I agree with that. The jurors concluded that Clementi was intimidated and/or humiliated because he was gay and therefore the invasion of privacy deserved the hate crime enhancement, even though what the evidence seems to show (via media accounts) is simply that Ravi was a garden variety jerk, not a dangerous intentional homophobe.
  • Unhappily, the style in which Ravi was a jerk seems quintessentially heterosexual suburban American -- but the conviction makes it very likely this young twit will be deported because he is in the U.S. on a student visa. Deportation is the law if his felony conviction holds up. In a complex and sensitive article about the case in Colorlines, Rinku Sen reports the opinions of South Asian community activists who take a wide view of human rights.

    Deepa Iyer, the director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, supported federal hate crimes legislation as well as related state and local laws, but says the consequences have to be proportionate to the act. Iyer notes that the automatic deportation of people with convictions amounts to double punishment.

    “When these incidents occur, it’s not just the individual that’s being assaulted, bullied or murdered, it’s the entire community that’s being victimized,” said Iyer. “At the same time, when it comes around to the court system, especially around sentencing, these cases and alleged perpetrators need to be assessed for whether the punishment fits the crime.” Deportation after a jail sentence -- essentially exile for someone like Ravi, who was born in India but raised in the U.S. -- constitutes double punishment in Iyer’s mind.

    That seems right to me.
Meanwhile Tyler Clementi is still dead and coming out is still fraught with anxiety and sometimes rejection for young people. Nothing to cheer about here.

Photo by way of John Munson/The Star-Ledger.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

To understand the past ...

This blog often includes items discussing books of history. For example, last year I focused heavily on accounts of aspects of World War I. I hold decided opinions about what is good historical writing and what is not.

In this context I was fascinated by discussions about the profession of history between the late Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder in Thinking the Twentieth Century. I consider Judt one of the few historians I've ever read whose work significantly re-ordered my thinking. (My discussion of his monumental Postwar is here.)

Judt is dismissive of most members of his own scholarly discipline. I imagine his colleagues found him a difficult guy to appreciate, but for this reader, it not hard to sympathize with his strictures.

If you asked my colleagues: what is the purpose of history, or what is the nature of history, or what is history about, you would get a pretty blank stare. The difference between good historians and bad historians is that the good ones can manage without an answer to such questions, and the bad ones cannot. But even if they had answers, they'd still be bad historians -- they would simply have a framework within which they could operate. Instead of which they have little templates -- race, class, ethnicity, gender and so on -- or else a residually neo-Marxist account of exploitation. But I see no common methodological framework for the profession.

That is, he thinks most of his colleagues are in thrall to various identity concerns or to an intellectual framework that has outlived whatever usefulness it once had. And so their efforts neglect what he considers the fundamental object of history: "to understand the past."

Furthermore, though students may be exposed to "history" in high schools and colleges, what they are too often getting fails to meet their need to integrate an orderly sense of where we come from with their perceptions of where we are. Contemporary history teachers have too often prioritized equipping students to look for what historical accounts neglect or how they implicitly argue with each other rather than getting down to the prosaic but necessary business of passing on largely agreed accounts of what happened. This has been profoundly destructive of the capacity of young people so educated to engage with the questions that rend their current societies.

…Before anyone -- whether child or graduate student -- can engage the past, they have to know what happened, in what order and with what outcome. Instead, we have raised two generations of citizens completely bereft of common references. As a result, they can contribute little to the governance of their society. The task of the historian, if you wish to think of it this way, is to supply the dimension of knowledge and narrative without which we cannot be a civic whole. If we have a civic responsibility as historians, this is it.

Snyder, also a distinguished historian, amplifies Judt's critique. If history is as malleable a commodity as much current teaching asserts, students become unable to judge what is is real and what matters.

I think that a lot of apparently critical history is actually authoritarian. That is, if you're going to master a population, you have to master its past. But if the population has already been educated -- or induced -- to believe that the past is nothing but a political plaything, then the question of whether the play-master is their professor or their president becomes secondary. If everyone's a critic, everyone seems free; but in fact everyone is in thrall to whoever best manipulates, with no possibility of resort to fact or truth as self-defense. If everyone's a critic, everyone's a slave.

History's fundamental ethical responsibility is reminding people that things actually happened, deeds and suffering were real, people lived thusly and their lives ended in such and not other ways. And whether those people were in Alabama in the 1950s or Poland in the 1940s, the underlying moral reality of those experiences is of the same quality as our experiences, or is at least intelligible to us, and therefore real in some irreducible way.

Both Judt and Snyder adhere to a standard for judging whether something is "good history" that must be infuriating to their detractors; as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart memorably declared about pornography, they claim to "know it when [they] see it." Says Judt:

… there has to be a plausibility in your story. A history book -- assuming its facts are correct -- stands or falls by the conviction with which it tells its story. If it rings true, to an intelligent, informed reader, then it is a good history book. If it rings false, then it's not good history, even if it's well written by a great historian on the basis of sound scholarship. … My younger colleagues find this a completely mystifying proposition: for them, it's good history if they agree with it.

I loved this stout declaration; it is exactly how I judge the many works I read, though I certainly can't claim these two gentlemen's erudition. I have some academic historical training and am widely read, but ultimately, I judge written history in this partially subjective manner. Simply put, I judge most of the books I read and write about within three categories:
  • Niche amplifications of the past: these explore small areas of past experience that need to be noted if our picture of the past is to be rounded. They create the raw materials of historical synthesis. History would be limited indeed without them, but they are not necessarily deep, or well written, or even much integrated with contemporary history. Lots of dissertations fall in this category. This book about free African communities in Canada before the U.S. Civil War is good example of this sort of history. I'd be poorer for not having read it, but it is not good history
  • Tendentious histories: These are written, ultimately, to use aspects of the past to make commentary on the present. An example of one whose author might endorse that description is this story of Social Security. Some are very good history, despite (or perhaps because) of their usefulness. I'd put The Fiery Trial in that category.
All of these have something to offer, but their limits need to be understood. Judt and Snyder contend that the academy has failed to educate us to be informed consumers of history and that the results are bad for civil society. I believe them.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Perfidious communists at work

Captured from the New York Times, March 24, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: more BART commuters

Here's a set of cell phone snaps of my fellow commuters riding home on the train. Another set is here.

staring manL.JPG sleeping womanR.jpg
Jan close as commuterL.jpg blind man and friendR.JPG
impassive flannel shirt guyL.jpg cyclistR.jpg
shaved headR.jpg sleepingR.JPG

Many of us look a little spaced out after a work day. I can say "we" here. One of these is me.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Intimations of spring!

spring!.jpg
Lake Lodi in California's agricultural central valley, contributed by a friend. I am so ready for the change of seasons.
***
Yet another day when I'm too pooped to blog.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

U.N. Secretary General speaks out for gay rights

This is something I certainly never thought to see: Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asking the nations of the world to decriminalize LGBT lives.

It is our duty under the United Nations Charter to protect the rights of everyone, everywhere. …To those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, let me say: you are not alone. … I stand with you … I call upon all countries to stand with you too. … We must tackle the violence, decriminalize consensual same sex relationships, end discrimination and educate the public ...

Some delegates walked out. This is still a brave stance for the leader of the U.N. bureaucracy. Thanks to All Out for sharing it.

Rays of effing sunshine: Supremes name a hidden truth

Count me as stunned by the Supreme Court ruling holding that "criminal defendants have a constitutional right to effective lawyers during plea negotiations." I am not a lawyer and I claim no crystal ball about what this decision may mean as its consequences are worked out in practice, but the very fact that five justices agreed and Justice Kennedy's opinion saw the light of day seems to me a significant and positive development.

You see, Kennedy announced a simple truth that amounts to revealing that the emperor has no clothes. Trials, juries and all that paraphernalia of justice that we see on TV has almost nothing do with what happens in our nation's courts -- and unless we find ourselves in that unfamiliar arena, most of us don't know that. The Justice explained how criminal "justice" works in the real world:

“Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. “The right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking account of the central role plea bargaining takes in securing convictions and determining sentences," …

Justice Kennedy, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, acknowledged that allowing the possibility of do-overs in cases involving foregone pleas followed by convictions presented all sorts of knotty problems. But he said the realities of American criminal justice required to the court to take action.

Some 97 percent of convictions in federal courts were the result of guilty pleas. In 2006, the last year for which data was available, the corresponding percentage in state courts was 94.

“In today’s criminal justice system,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant.”

Quoting from law review articles, Justice Kennedy wrote that plea bargaining “is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.” He added that “longer sentences exist on the books largely for bargaining purposes.”

New York Times, March 21, 2012

Now we know. The Supremes spelled it out.

Having the courts involved in judging whether ill-educated, often very young, frequently mentally disturbed defendants had competent legal advice as to their best interests when confronted by the power of the state has to improve the fairness of criminal proceedings.

Because I am working to end death sentences, I note particularly the Justice's mention of the heavy charges brought by prosecutors simply to coerce defendants into pleading out without trial. No wonder many District Attorney's want to keep the ability to threaten defendants with the death penalty. It is not surprising that if someone held by the cops thinks the state could actually kill him, he'll "agree" to pretty much anything to avoid what looks like the worst. Death Penalty Focus reports some of what can go wrong:

The threat of execution can be enough to scare people into taking responsibility for crimes they did not commit, especially since many of these confessions come at the end of grueling interrogations in which police are permitted to lie to suspects about the evidence, or lack thereof, gathered against them.  DNA evidence has exonerated a number of prisoners who are serving life sentences on the basis of these coerced pleas. As recently as 2009, the Governor of Nebraska had to release 6 prisoners, five of whom had falsely confessed, for a rape and murder that occurred more than twenty years earlier.  Peoples’ lives are ruined in this process, even if they are released. Richard Danziger, a Texas man put in jail because of an associates’ death penalty-inspired plea, suffered severe brain damage as a result of beatings he received in prison for a rape he had nothing to do with.

All defendants need competent lawyers throughout their encounter with the state AND we should take the death penalty out of the equation. Replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without possibility of parole would make for more certain, less costly, and more just outcomes in the criminal justice system.

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 this feature: occasional posts labeled "rays of effing sunshine." Photo via Blogonaut

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: Contradictions

charging-station
Want a parking place right next to the passenger terminal at Oakland airport? Here you go -- there are lots of empty slots.

You have to bring an electric vehicle to qualify for them. But if your car needs a charge, there are plenty of hook-ups.

Government is creating incentives for folks to adopt electric cars. Does this deserve a cheer? Hard to say -- most likely the electricity running to the charging stations comes from a coal fired plant somewhere. That doesn't make the air much cleaner or reduce carbon emissions much. Now if the electricity came from renewables, wind or solar, that might be more positive,

Meanwhile, why do you park a car (even to charge it) at an airport? Probably in order to fly somewhere on an airplane. Flying, unequivocally, is an activity that loads the skies with the products of burning hydrocarbons. So much for contributing to controlling emissions.

"Have a good flight" -- your car can charge while you travel.

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, March 20, 2012

Nine years on: the human residue in Syria of the U.S. war on Iraq

Where are they now? Iraqi refugees we met in Damascus in 2006.

Nine years ago on March 20 the forces of the United States began their assault on Iraq. It's pretty universally agree that this "war of choice" -- an aggression grounded in lies -- was a catastrophe for attackers and Iraqis alike.

One of the war's major consequences, in addition to directly killing between 100,000 and 1,000,000 Iraqis, was to drive several million Iraqis from their homes. Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population found themselves involuntarily on the move, whether because of direct attacks from the occupying army or the sectarian civil war the U.S. invasion unleashed.

The only neighboring country that willingly took in large numbers of these displaced and dispossessed Iraqis was Syria, now in the midst of its own civil struggle. Are these Iraqi casualties of war once again going suffer for being in the wrong place at the wrong time while the fighting rages? Perhaps. A new government maintains a dubious peace in Iraq, but going home remains dicey. The UNHCR -- the UN Refugee Agency -- estimates there remain about one million of these people in Syria. Here's how they describe things in classic bureaucratese:

Beyond the general protection concerns resulting from the current unrest in Syria, its social and economic impact on people of concern is likely to require UNHCR to provide them with significant direct assistance in the near future. Moreover, the current situation in the Syrian Arab Republic is likely to cause serious delays in the resettlement programme, jeopardizing refugees' access to this durable solution.

With refugees exhausting their personal resources and international assistance for public health and education programmes on the decline, new vulnerabilities could arise even among those who used to be able to provide for themselves.

Al-Akhbar English paints a more vivid picture of what the Syrian unrest means to the marooned Iraqis.

In 2008, Iraqi activist and journalist Hana Ibrahim fled from her home in Baghdad to Damascus, taking her two children with her. They had grown up under sanctions and war, and had as such never enjoyed the level of security they found in Syria. But even that has become a thing of the past.

“For years my daughter couldn’t go out alone, because the streets had become too dangerous for girls especially. In Damascus, she felt free to do as she pleased,” said Ibrahim. “In Iraq, we had grown used to electricity cuts. Once in Syria, my children were surprised we had power round the clock. In general, life was much better for us here.”

But one year on from the start of the uprising, life in Syria has changed dramatically for Syrians and non-Syrians living there. Many face a worsening security situation, disruptions to social services, increased impoverishment, and uncertainty in the face of the future.

It is not (so far) that either the Syrian authorities or insurgents are actively targeting Iraqis, but Syria's economic paralysis threatens their continued ability to make a living. As immigrants without legal status, they have never been able to work officially, but got by on the proceeds of informal commerce.

Today, a deteriorating Syrian economy and security situation have meant that “many of the Iraqis’ small businesses have either already closed down, or are about to be forced shut. Though many of the refugees have a high level of education, they have no other means of survival,” said [Souad] al-Azzawi, [an Iraqi environmental engineer, human rights activist, and herself a refugee.] “How will they pay their rent? How will they pay their bills? How can they survive this disaster? I don’t know.”

Al Azzawi is particularly concerned about the young people.

“These children have the additional burden of suffering for the second time in recent memory,” she said, pointing out the psychological toll of displacement, which is often especially traumatic for the young. “They left as a result of the American invasion of Iraq, and have already had to deal with rebuilding their lives once. While in Iraq, some of them had lost friends, others had lost family members. Now, they have to face uncertainty once again. …”

Iraqis who have officially declared their refugee status to the UNHCR have hoped to resettle somewhere with more opportunity than Iraq in its trashed condition or an uncertain Syria. Since 2007, 28,000 of them have moved on to other countries, mostly to the U.S. and Canada. But that's just a trickle from among the millions of lives torn apart by the war President George W. launched so blithely nine years ago.

And, as Al Ahkbar points out, now that the U.S. embassy in Damascus has been closed down, even that trickle has ceased to provide an exit for Syria's unbidden Iraqi guests.

Monday, March 19, 2012

War criminal on the loose

Probably should have shown Cheney, but Bush will do. Or Afghans might substitute the current U.S. Commander in Chief. In response to all the hype about the recent Central African viral video, I remained fixated on the bad actors in our own backyard.
***
Too busy to blog this morning. Maybe later.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Too much shooting; too little honest attention to realities

If I'd simply come across the title of David M. Kennedy's book, I don' think I'd have bothered to read it. Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America sounds like something written by a self-absorbed egomaniac, not an earnest work of popular criminology. I'd have missed something worth reading.

Fortunately, I heard Kennedy interviewed on Fresh Air and found what he had to say fascinating, so I gave the book a try. This is a man with a plan -- a plan to reduce killing in mostly Black communities. He could have been numbed by several decades of trying to find solutions; instead he's outraged. Here's how he introduces what our society is up against:

Everybody knows crime is down these days, it's a national success story. America's homicide rate hit almost 10 per 100,000 in the peak years; it's now about half that. But not for black men. Black men are dying, overwhelmingly by gunshot, at a horrendous pace. In 2005, black men aged eighteen to twenty-four were murdered at a rate of 102 per 100,000 (white men of the same age: 12.2 per 100,000). Recent data show that, even as homicide overall continues to decline, black men are dying more. …

Working to curb gang violence alongside Boston police, he discovered that if you could understand that gang members are rational within the terms of their setting, you could come up with rational measures that quickly cut the number of homicides, even while all the attendant horrors of poverty and inner city powerlessness still ruled in Black and brown communities. But he also learned that most intervention didn't continue to work because the three intersecting "communities" living within the agony -- law enforcement (culturally if not literally white), "ghetto" dwellers, and the street thugs -- had contradictory and destructive ideas about the others' realities. You could make short term gains, but the structures of power, poverty and policing made for back sliding into violence and misery.

The real problem, though, is not in our currently ineffective strategies, and the answer to the problem is not just to substitute new strategies for the old ones. The real -- the deep -- problem is what happens between communities, and how that generates the appalling situation on the ground: the communities that look at each other and say, This is your fault; the communities that see each other as toxic and malevolent; the communities that cannot imagine working together for a common purpose; the communities that do not understand how profoundly they want the same things; the communities that do not see how they are backing each other, and themselves, into corners none chose, none wants. To see what's really going on, we have to see this. …

…law enforcement has in general written these communities off. There is a powerful conventional wisdom in the law enforcement circles I live in: that these communities are at heart uncaring, complicit, corrupt, destroyed. Nobody cares about the crime, the law enforcement narrative goes, or they'd raise their kids right, get them to finish school, have them work entry-level jobs -- like I did, like my kids do -- instead of working the corners. They don't care about the violence; nobody will even tell us who the shooters are. … As long as this is how law enforcement sees the neighborhoods, they will continue to occupy them, stop everybody, arrest everybody, send all the men to prison.

The second important community is the community in even the poorest, hardest-hit black neighborhoods. It's vital, caring, resourceful; it wants what any community wants: to be safe, to prosper, for its sons and daughters to prosper. It's not happening. It's not safe, and they're not prospering. The community looks around itself, at the poverty, the violence, the drugs, and asks, why? And it has an answer. Many in the black community believe that this is all happening because we -- the outsiders, the cops, the white folks, the powerful -- want it to happen. All of it: the drugs, the killing, the destruction, all of it. …

That last insight is what this book is best at -- Kennedy describes for law enforcement and society at large how police methods and policing look to people on the wrong end of it. Here's lots more -- pay attention.

… In the hottest neighborhoods this is the dominant public narrative: The government brings the drugs in so they can put our kids in jail so the cops will have work and the private prisons can make their dividends.

Let's start with the fact that the idea, common currency in these neighborhoods, that the government is running a carefully organized racial conspiracy against black America is not as crazy as it sounds. Up until the late 1960s, when the civil-rights movement finally won out, America was a carefully organized racial conspiracy against black America. Written into the Constitution: blacks are three fifths of a person, free states will regard fugitive slaves as property. …

In these neighborhoods, the historical experience of abuse under color of law continues. It is a kind of arithmetic truth that the worst of this is in the most desperate neighborhoods, that the worst law enforcement, and the worst of law enforcement's unintended consequences, gets focused on the already most damaged, most alienated, most suspicious communities. Where the police break the law all the time. All the time.

What happens on the other side of the door when the drug guys go in: Everybody there is shouted down, manhandled, put on the floor, handcuffed. Every door opened, every room entered. Shoot the dogs, sometimes. Cereal, flour, milk poured into the sink, onto the kitchen floor. The baby's toys and videos broken open. Drawers pulled out, dumped, everything pawed through, on the floor. Beds upended, mattresses slit, furniture upended, cushions slit. The guys in armor are relieved that they haven't been shot, haven't had to shoot anybody; they're laughing, stomping around, tearing the place apart. Neighbors gather outside, watch through the door and windows, hear things. Most places when it's over the team piles out and leaves, doesn't even secure the shattered door. Anybody not arrested gets cut loose, shocky, crying. It's horrible. If it weren't the cops who'd done it to you, you'd. . . call the cops.

And we need to understand the way all this looks to the community. At best, law enforcement is not solving their problems. They are not safe, they are not secure, drug dealers own the streets, their kids are getting shot, they're getting shot. … Given the truth of our American history, it is all too easy for angry black communities to believe that this is not just incapacity: that it is malign. … Add the suspicion, or perhaps the conviction, not in fact all that wild-eyed, given history, that outsiders might be seeking to control and to oppress. It becomes not so hard to understand why conspiracy might seem a live option. Overseer, slave catcher, Ku Klux Klan, cop, DEA -- all seamless.

Residents want to know why their kids, good kids, get stopped all the time. Ministers want to know why they got pulled over and treated rudely, got treated like a drug dealer. People want to know why they're getting treated like this, the white folks in the suburbs aren't, and they're the ones driving in to buy dope. They want to know why the county is building a new jail when the ceilings in the school are falling in. They say the cops are selling dope to the corner boys. They want to know why their cousin got tuned up by the cops who arrested him. They want to know why nobody's talking about how the government is bringing the drugs in. They want to know why the cops aren't doing their job.

When this is what law enforcement looks like in poor communities, you can't end violence. Nothing works.

Kennedy maintains vigorously that the police don't want it this way, that the cops turn numb and cynical because they know the "war on drugs" they are required to carry on is a fruitless politically convenient fraud that doesn't make life better for anyone. He insists they are not racist bullies -- they just look like a racist occupying army from the 'burbs to people in the afflicted communities.

The relentless law enforcement we see is intended to save lives, to protect neighborhoods, to bring order to the streets. I have spent my adult life with the men and women who do the work, and I know this to be true. I have no time for the easy armchair cant that says this is all about profiling and racism and bias in the criminal justice system. It simply is not so. Nobody who has ever actually been on these streets could believe it for a moment. There is disparate treatment in law enforcement, no question, but that's not what's driving the problem.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, explicitly responded on NPR to Kennedy. For all his good will, she says he is still not getting it.

… you know, much of David Kennedy's work I agree with, but I think it's very easy to kind of brush off, as he does, the notion that the system operates much like a caste system if you are, in fact, not trapped within it.

... I have spent years representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color; and attempting to assist people who have been released from prison, quote-unquote "re-enter" into a society that never seemed to have much use to them in the first place.

And in the course of that work, I had my own awakening about our criminal justice system and this system of mass incarceration. Probably 10 years ago, I might have shared David Kennedy's view, but I don't any longer. My years of experience and the research that I have done has led me to the regrettable conclusion that our system of mass incarceration functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control.

Now, that's not to say that many of the people who work within it, including my own husband who's a federal prosecutor, aren't well-intentioned. Many of them are. But the problem is that the structure of the system guarantees that millions of people will be swept into the system for relatively minor crimes, the very sorts of crimes that are ignored on the other side of town, swept into the system, branded criminals and felons and then stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement.

I live in one of those neighborhoods that struggles with all this. A predominantly Brown neighborhood, not a Black one -- and that makes a difference. The Mission is not a really bad place, but still a neighborhood where street murders happen with some frequency; where parents fear shootings when their children play outside; where police hang posters hoping to get leads on crimes. A gang injunction forbidding certain individuals to congregate covers the neighborhood.

I've seen the cops treat residents respectfully --and I've seen them swarm like an invading force. I know most of us just want to be safe and unmolested as we go about our lives. I don't have any answers. But I'm gratefully to both Kennedy and Alexander for demanding that we not turn away from something very bad that goes on under our noses.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: protester

protest.JPG
It's raining in San Francisco. After an abnormally dry winter, the stuff of incipient drought actually, it has now rained for seven straight days. I should appreciate it, but Jojo expresses my feelings exactly. I'm spoiled. I want to go out and play, not splash through puddles!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Notes from our misbegotten Central Asian war


One morning's tales from Afghanistan:

An Afghan soldier shot to death a 22-year-old Marine at an outpost in southwestern Afghanistan last month in a previously undisclosed case of apparent Afghan treachery that marked at least the seventh killing of an American military member by his supposed ally in the past six weeks, Marine officials said.

Associated Press

The American staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers had been drinking alcohol — a violation of military rules in combat zones — and suffering from the stress related to his fourth combat tour and tensions with his wife about the deployments on the night of the massacre, a senior American official said Thursday.

New York Times, March 16

KABUL, Afghanistan — A Turkish helicopter crashed into a house in Kabul on Friday, killing at least 12 NATO service members and two civilians, the American-led coalition and Afghan police said.

NYT, March 16

Women visiting relatives at a notorious men’s prison on the edge of Kabul have in recent weeks been subjected to invasive body-cavity searches at the order of the prison’s commandant, who has told guards and American officials that the measure is needed to keep out contraband, Western and Afghan officials said.

…Having been repeatedly rebuffed, the Americans on Thursday tried to use the best lever they have: they cut off all American financing to Pul-e-Charki until they can confirm that the invasive searches have stopped, two Western officials said. The United States has spent about $14.2 million on improvements at the prison since June 2009. 

NYT, March 16

Enough.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On warrantless executions, other executive barbarism, and pragmatism

At Politico, a Washington scandal-mongering website, Josh Gerstein asks "What if Bush had done that?" It's ultimately an intellectually dishonest and trivial article: any piece of writing that equates popular reaction to a president's sporting habits (Obama and Bush are both golfers) to the similarities between the two men's enthusiastic adoption of law-free detention and murder of the empire's enemies (or theirs) is part of the problem, not part of the solution. But the question still hangs out there.

We live in a sad time when only satire can convey some realities. Watch Stephen Colbert:

"Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do," Colbert said. "The current process is apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them."

Why aren't protesters screaming from the rooftops about this administration's adoption of pre-emptive permanent detention, about a verbal renunciation of torture that leads to no prosecutions of proud war criminals like Dick Cheney, and an assertion of a right to kill individuals anywhere in the world without any adversarial process? Certainly, these retreats from the rule of law and historically evolved norms of human social decency are as grievous as those of the previous regime. Where's the outrage?

Well, of course, there is outrage. There are a faithful few among the relatively respectable, like the National Religious Campaign against Torture and the ACLU. There are also protesters -- Code Pink dogs the appearances of the last set of rulers and reminds us to watch out for opportunities to carry our message to the next set. That's faithful.

But mostly, most of us are pragmatists. When the Bushites were in power, it was possible to believe the other sort were better. Now that we know that about wars, torture, and the rule of law this set are not better, -- though perhaps they are a little verbally smoother -- we turn our attention to other struggles. The current rulers are better than the previous lot in some respects: by and large they know the earth revolves around the sun and that women are human. This is not so clear among the Republicans. We do have to try to re-elect Barack Obama and as many Democrats as possible.

But there is no way to enter into that 2012 campaign with hope of change. We are holding onto a frayed civilization and a tired democracy, sinking rapidly into kleptocracy, wondering if our institutions can evolve enough to keep our heads above water (often literally.) And we chip away at barbarism where we can.

And we laugh at Stephen Colbert. Things are not as different from 2006 as we had hoped. But we've got no other planet to escape to, so we have to keep trying to make a better place of this one. Guess that's being human ...

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: The winter that wasn't and some political dirt

This global warming stuff is hard to think about. I find graphic presentations help. So here are two images from the indispensable Dr. Jeff Masters Wunderblog.

2012-temps-the winter that was.jpg
To put it bluntly, it has been downright warm the last few months in the areas of the country that usually get all that white stuff. According to Masters:

If you lived in the Northern Plains, Midwest, Southeast and Northeast, it seemed like winter never really arrived this year--27 states in this region had top-ten warmest winters. … If you live in the Midwest, you saved a bundle this winter on heating and snow removal costs. In Minneapolis, where the low temperature falls below 0°F an average of 30 days each year, the temperature fell below zero on just two days. ...In a normal winter, there are 13 days with sub-zero temperatures in Chicago. The coldest it got in Chicago this winter was a relatively balmy 5°F on January 19.


2012 precip-winter that was.jpg
And though it is raining outside my window in San Francisco as I write, it has barely done so at all since December. It looks as if only a dried up Texas had a good season.

So much for good old climate predicability ...
***
Meanwhile on Tuesday …
Rick Santorum comes from behind in AL and MS
Here's the candidate spreading scientific ordure.

"The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is …"

HuffPo

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Reflecting on Mitt

This little item reminded me that Mitt Romney and I are the same age.

Mitt Romney turns 65 Monday, making him eligible for Medicare. But his campaign has confirmed that he will not use the government health care program. "No, he's keeping his current private insurance plan," a Romney source told CNN.

I wonder whether he gets the same junk mail I'm getting as I come within 3 months of Medicare: official looking envelopes that say in tiny obscure print "non-governmental document." I bet he does; the vipers that scam older people make their money on volume. Though most of us throw their crap out, a few elders get taken in and that's makes the "offers" profitable.

Actually, if I'd looked at Romney's high school yearbook picture, I'd have placed Romney's age instantly. Like me, he's high school class of 1965. Actually we turn out to have even more in common: both of us graduated from exclusive private schools in Rust Belt areas that catered to the children of the small class of wealthy citizens who expected to run the town -- and still did to some extent. Our circumstances were different though: his father actually did run his city (as president of American Motors) and his state (as governor); my parents were just the dying end of a line of folks who had run their city one hundred years previously. This discrepancy probably gave us somewhat different views of the world, plus being a lesbian in my case.

The young Romney looks like most of the boys I knew as a kid -- a dangerous mixture of cocksure and anxious. None of the ones I knew went to Vietnam; neither did Romney. An awful lot of our age peers did have to serve as cannon fodder in that imperial mistake. None of the boys I knew ended up in the public arena like Romney either, nor accomplished anything very notable. Has he done anything notable except chase a series of ambitions by any means necessary?

I guess he'll never have to join the rest of his age group on Medicare. Me, I'm fiercely glad that Medicare will be there for me a few months from now and I'll spend the rest of my days fighting any politician who seeks to undermine it. In fact, how about Medicare for All? Now there's a notion about what to do with the wealth of this country … stop invading other places and use our good fortune for our own people.

No, I don't think much of Mitt. I never did like those boys that looked like him.

Monday, March 12, 2012

On the freedom to ditch college

The change to Daylight Saving Time has disoriented me enough that I have no time for blogging today. But I did want to share a chart I ran across in a Thomas Edsall NYT blog post about how access to higher education has become a factor reinforcing privilege in contrast to the decades after World War II when college acted as a ladder for millions.

What fascinates me about this is the wild gyrations in the college completion rate among the top quartile of incomes. For everyone else, college completion is either a relatively flat line or slants gradually upward. But privileged young people apparently cut back their college graduation rate in the 70s and again at the end of the 90s and into the early years of the 00s.

I have no data that tells me why this happened. I do think we can assume that top quartile students are the social group that feels the most free to follow their inclinations; they can pretty much trust that even if they wander off the beaten track, they can get back on a ladder toward a good life.

The 70s were a decade in which society was assimilating the racial and gender freedoms partially won in the 60s, as well as disillusionment with institutions that had enabled an evil war and with nuclear families that broke up in record numbers. Can freedom to explore these changes explain the drop off in degree attainment? I did know the child of a university president who adopted the harsh life of a blueberry farmer -- temporarily, I assume.

The late 90s and early 00s seems to have coincided with an even greater relative temporary drop in college completion among the privileged. I'm tempted to suggest that they looked at the ascendency of the moronic George W. and shrugged: with rich parents, who needs school? But that is just snark.

Any better ideas?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Yet more evidence it's time to go in Afghanistan

A man cries over the bodies of Afghan civilians loaded into the back of a truck in Alkozai village of Panjwayi district, Kandahar province on Sunday. Image Credit: AFP

An AP photographer saw 15 bodies between the two villages caught up in the shooting. Some of the bodies had been burned, while others were covered with blankets. A young boy partially wrapped in a blanket was in the back of a minibus, dried blood crusted on his face and pooled in his ear.

Gulf News

It's hard to know what to say about the latest from the U.S. war on the Taliban in Afghanistan … or should it be called the U.S. war on Afghans? Here's the Times:

PANJWAI, Afghanistan — Stalking from home to home, a United States Army sergeant methodically killed at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children, in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan early on Sunday, igniting fears of a new wave of anti-American hostility, Afghan and American officials said.

Residents of three villages in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province described a terrifying string of attacks in which the soldier, who had walked more than a mile from his base, tried door after door, eventually breaking in to kill within three separate houses. At the first, the man gathered 11 bodies, including those of 4 girls younger than 6, and set fire to them, villagers said.

… Adding to the sense of concern, the killings came two days after an episode in Kapisa Province, in eastern Afghanistan, in which NATO helicopters apparently hunting Taliban insurgents instead fired on civilians, killing four and wounding another three, Afghan officials said. About 1,200 demonstrators marched in protest in Kapisa on Saturday.

Someone named Shaun Narine from Fredericton, Canada managed to say something semi-sensible in comments on the atrocity story:

I think that people in Afghanistan can probably accept the idea that a soldier will, from time to time, go crazy. It's not that surprising, if very unfortunate. I think that what may be worse is the incident mentioned in passing in this article -i.e., the death of four Afghan civilians and wounding of three more after being mistakenly fired upon by US helicopters. These "mistaken deaths" happen far too often and are the result of a matter of policy. This is the kind of thing that has made Afghans disgusted by and resistant to the ongoing American/NATO occupation.

My Canadian military friend got out with the rest of their forces a year ago. When are U.S. forces going to cut their losses and get out?

Connections that matter


My friends who track matters Anglican are following with gusto the rather obscure question of whether the Church of England will decide to adopt something called the Anglican Covenant. This document would try to lay out for the various progeny churches of the English state church worldwide a statement of belief and a procedure for disciplining or even expelling branches off the imperial tree that stray from or embarrass other branches.

Though the Archbishop of Canterbury promotes the Covenant, it is not popular anywhere. In particular, it seems designed to vote the rambunctious colonials in the United States off the island for including gay people in the clergy and moving toward marrying us. At present the initiative looks to be limping badly, probably failing -- and even if the C. of E. did manage to sign on to the document, it would not make a hill of beans difference to U.S. Episcopalians struggling to be faithful bearers of the good news of God's love in our own backyards.

But in this context, it was interesting to read Tony Judt's description of the Anglican Church in Thinking the Twentieth Century. Tudt, a Jewish Brit and the unequaled chronicler of Europe in the second half of the 20th century in Postwar, grew up in the shadow of this strange institution.

The Church of England was and is a weird animal: at its most conservative, it is far more ornate and tradition-bound than its Episcopalian brethren here in the U.S. In essence, High Anglicanism was Catholicism without the Pope (and without the Latin, until the Catholics themselves abandoned it). On the other hand, at its low end, the Anglican Church -- as embodied in village communities, particularly in certain parts of eastern England where Catholicism was weakest -- can resemble (except in its liturgy, long since formalized under episcopal authority) Scandinavian Protestantism: under-adorned, its authority vested in a single, often rather gaunt and morally and sartorially restrained pastor -- the kind who figures so prominently in much English literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Protestant in all but name.

What unites this weird religion is its long-established identification with power. From that little church in a Norfolk village through the High Anglican cathedrals of Liverpool or York, this is the "Church of England." Historically, the link between church and state in England has been unusually intimate, the ruling elite overwhelmingly drawn from Anglican families and the church itself umbilically attached to the political establishment -- not least via its great bishops, all of whom sit in the House of Lords and have in past times exercised real clout. The bishops and archbishops were typically born of a small network of families, reproducing across the years a class of ecclesiastical administrators who might just as easily have been army officers, imperial governors, royal ministers and so on. The establishment identity associated with Anglicanism is thus of far greater significance than its rather nebulous theological markers. This was above all an English church; its Christianity could at times appear almost secondary.

It is bracing to see oneself as others see one. This description sure accords with my view of the Covenant kerfuffle. Any U.S. Episcopalians clinging to nostalgic Anglophilia are likely having a tough season.
***
More indicative of church life in the United States these days is probably this report via Reuters.

Banks are foreclosing on America's churches in record numbers as lenders increasingly lose patience with religious facilities that have defaulted on their mortgages, according to new data.

The surge in church foreclosures represents a new wave of distressed property seizures triggered by the 2008 financial crash, analysts say, with many banks no longer willing to grant struggling religious organizations forbearance.

Since 2010, 270 churches have been sold after defaulting on their loans, with 90 percent of those sales coming after a lender-triggered foreclosure, according to the real estate information company CoStar Group.

Yes, there are quite a few large, rich religious institutions in this country. But the deeper story is that many congregations of all sorts are in economic trouble, no longer the sole or even major community-building institution in their neighborhoods and unable to bring in the cash to support their activities.

The financial meltdown is wiping out the weakest. Lots of people probably think that is fine; religion has too often been a nasty, cramped imposition on too many of us. But these institutions are where people have met and made fellowship; I don't think virtual connections can replace the sort of face to face connections these institutions created. Even when I don't like their beliefs, I worry.
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