Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A good week for Prop. 34

Momentum is building in the campaign to replace California's death penalty with justice that works. We've had a good couple of weeks as we work to pass Prop. 34.


First, the California Labor Federation included Prop. 34 among its endorsements. We're talking about a lot of people here:

The California Labor Federation is made up of more than 1,200 AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions, representing 2.1 million union members in manufacturing, retail, construction, hospitality, public sector, health care, entertainment and other industries.

That endorsement is even more gratifying as this year organized labor is in an electoral fight for its own life -- and the lives of all of us who depend on labor to support the best of our values. A deceptive initiative -- Prop. 32 -- aims to fool Californians by masquerading as “stopping special interests” while actually it would prevent unions from standing up for workers and would give even more voice to the wealthy one percent in elections.

Then over the weekend, the California Democratic Party gave its approval to Prop. 34. The party of Barack Obama and Jerry Brown has our back.

And today, the San Jose Mercury News explained why it supports Prop. 34. Here's an excerpt:

California's death penalty is archaic, unfairly applied and fiscally insane. More than 135 nations have abolished capital punishment, and the list of those that still use it is a who's who of human rights' abusers: Iraq, Iran, Libya, China, North Korea and Sudan, for starters. Oh, and us.

This fall voters should make California the 18th state to repeal the death penalty in favor of life in prison with no chance of parole. Vote yes on Proposition 34.

… Death penalty supporters argue that the lengthy appeals that run up public costs should be cut short or ended. That works in barbaric nations that immediately execute prisoners. But it doesn't deal with a major reason other states have abolished the death penalty: increasing evidence that innocent people have been executed. More than 100 inmates have been freed from death row nationwide in the past 35 years. California has had none so far, but with more than 700 prisoners on death row and improving forensic techniques, the likelihood of finding errors is ever more likely. Why not just lock people away for life?

Guilt or innocence aside, it's clear that the death penalty is unfairly applied in California. A county-by-county study of death sentences from 2000-07 found residents of Alameda County nearly eight times more likely to be sentenced to death than residents of Santa Clara County. Blacks in California are sentenced to death at a rate five times higher than their proportion of the population.

The paper lays out a strong case. Go read the whole thing.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Sometimes "occupying army" is no metaphor

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles Times

This was the scene in Anaheim yesterday afternoon as "law enforcement" converged to disperse citizens protesting seven shootings by police this year.

Sunday's was the latest in a series of demonstrations staged in Orange County's largest city in the wake of two fatal police shootings last weekend.

Manuel Diaz, 25, was shot and killed by police July 21. Authorities said the unarmed man was avoiding arrest. The day after Diaz was killed, Anaheim police fatally shot Joel Acevedo, 21, who authorities say had fired on officers during a foot chase.

A third officer-involved shooting -- this one on Friday, in which police opened fire on a burglary suspect, who was unhurt -- was the city's seventh such shooting this year, five of which have been fatal. The city had four officer-involved shootings in all of 2011.

Anaheim resident Brad Owens, 55, watched protesters from the shade of a tree near the police station Sunday afternoon. He’s lived in the city for 20 years, he said, and is "not a fan" of how police handled the officer-involved shootings this week. Police Chief John Welter “has to go," he said.

“It’s a style of management. It has to be a mind set if so many people are doing it,” Owens said of the officer-involved shootings. “They’ve been aggressive and lethal.”

Los Angeles Times

Something is very wrong in the "Magic Kingdom."

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Where was it Romney wants to be President?

Mitt is apparently running for President of those right wingers, like billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who confuse the interests of Israel with those of the United States.


As Romney prepared to fly to Israel on Saturday, an aide on board the plane he was travelling on was photographed briefly holding aloft an Israeli flag in front of journalists. It served as a reminder of the emphasis that the candidate's campaign team have placed on the high-profile visit.

UK Guardian

Good that the candidate is so clear about who matters to him.

And a little more from Juan Cole:

It is distasteful that Romney is promising his donors in Jerusalem a war on Iran. When George W. Bush promised his pro-Israel supporters a war on Iraq, it cost the US at least $3 trillion, got hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, destabilized the Gulf for some time, cost over 4,000 American soldiers’ lives, and damaged American power, credibility and the economy. As Nancy Reagan said of drugs, so US politicians must say to constant Israeli entreaties that the United States of America continually fight new wars in the Middle East on their behalf: “Just say no.” Instead, Romney is playing war enabler, and that abroad!

The last thing this country needs in another war for no purpose but to elect a Republican.

Lovely Anaheim


Since I'm in this city today, the least I can do is share this clip of what was happening in a neighborhood here last weekend.

Over in the tourist section of town where I am, not far from Disneyland and the Convention Center multiplex, I won't see any of this. But this city of 335,000 people is seething. According to AP, Anaheim was 90 percent white in 1970; today it is 53 percent Latino. Old timers and newcomers have not made peace with each other.

Last time I was here, in 2009, Disney workers were protesting for a living wage. It's not much fun to work in the "service industry" where a job entitles you to provide drudgery with a smile for people who seldom notice your humanity. You should at least be paid decently for your efforts.

The current upheavals began when cops acted as if suspicion of gang-membership was enough to justify shooting at young Latino men.

On Saturday, a police officer fatally shot Manuel Diaz outside an Anna Street apartment complex. Officers say Diaz, who had a criminal record, failed to heed orders and threw something as he fled police. The city's police union said Diaz reached for his waistband, which led the officer to believe he was drawing a gun.

Diaz's family, which is suing for $50 million in damages, says he was shot in the leg and the back of the head. During a protest the night of the shooting, a police dog escaped and bit a bystander.

On Sunday night, police shot to death Joel Acevedo, a suspected gang member they say fired at officers after a pursuit.

Let's hope the police can get over thinking they have to behave like an occupying army in communities where their brown-skinned neighbors live.

Over in the resort area, we hope that the California Democratic Party will today endorse the Yes on Prop. 34 initiative to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: cats on the walls

cat head.jpg
There seem to be a lot of these of different sorts. This one I first noticed while walking home late at night from the BART train after a trip out of town. A new mural had replaced an ugly wall. Intense!

not so welcoming.jpg
This one -- a panther? -- guards the door to the Mission Cultural Center. I don't know about that welcome.

wall cat.jpg
This feline looks to be on the hunt …

ginats tiger.jpg
... while this one is a jolly creature.

Friday, July 27, 2012

When the news gets you down, remember ...

This may be the breakthrough election year. Opponents of marriage equality crow that they have never lost a popular vote when our rights were put on the ballot.

But things are looking up. Not only did Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos just donate $2.5 million to the marriage equality, but it looks like he's jumping on a wave. Polls look good all across the country. Not that anyone in the afflicted states can ease up ... but we know we are on the winning side of history.

Check out this graphic from the Center for American Progress.
marriage_equality_infographic_web.jpg

Friday cat blogging

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I have no idea whether Morty shares our political opinions. He looks as if he wants me to get inside and pay attention to him.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Good man gone in his good time


Frank Donovan died last week; he was 95. That's Frank in the 1960s sitting on a bench with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement. For generations of us who flowed through that strange and wonderful maelstrom, Frank was a welcoming presence, a sane man and a humble man practicing the works of mercy with devotion.

When I passed through at the beginning of the 1970s, Frank still had a "real world" job as an executive at UPS. I remember that he joined the community at St. Joseph's House on First Street for dinner each night before returning to his apartment in mid-town. Frank's UPS connection came with a perk at Christmas: he was able to shower this community of the poor and homeless with undeliverable packages containing unobtainable goodies that we passed around as gifts.

Soon Frank retired and became the community's stalwart office manager.

He was simply good -- an exemplar for me of what a radical attempt to live out the injunctions of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount might look like in contemporary New York.

You can find several Quicktime video clips of Frank talking animatedly here.

The picture -- only one I could find on the internet and one in which this beautiful man is quite characteristically turned toward someone else -- is from a collection of images of Marge Hughes, another prominent Catholic Worker of that era.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Is Mitt Romney a sociopath?

When, a few months ago, I wrote about a biography of Mitt Romney written by Boston Globe reporters who had followed him since his days as Massachusetts governor, I felt I had to emphasize that I found the book "fair," "not a hit piece."

This video is a hit piece. It's purpose is to share with us what a cold, calculating, empathy-denying specimen of humanity Mitt Romney acted like when confronted by women whose story makes the case for gay people's need for the legal protections of marriage. It is harsh -- and, assuming it is true, Romney's lack of human concern for the women in front of him makes him come off as a sociopath, a robotic, self-interested man without normal feelings for those he meets.

I can't say whether this is fair, but I find it completely believable. Watch and consider.

Warming Wednesdays: a deficit of courage?



This scary, but it seems all too true.

“You know, it’s a crazy idea, that thousands of scientists are corrupt,” Dr. Emanuel said. “But some people believe that.”

Perhaps it is simply easier and less mentally taxing to conjure up conspiracy theories than it would be to accept the findings of climate science, with all that would entail about the changes needed in our economy and energy system.

“People only believe crazy ideas, in the end, if they get something out of believing crazy ideas,” Dr. Emanuel said. “The ‘get,’ in this case, is that they don’t have to worry so much.”

Like many other scientists, he acknowledges that asking people to sacrifice something today for the sake of generations yet unborn is asking a lot. He wishes that society would focus on that issue specifically – how much sacrifice, if any, is the right amount for the present generation to make – but in this country, the discussion has simply not matured to that point. And in the meantime, a clock is ticking as greenhouse gases continue to rise.

“Is there an example from human history of a culture taking action with the intended beneficiaries being two or more generations downstream, when there’s no benefit or maybe even sacrifice to the current generation?” Dr. Emanuel said in the interview.

“I haven’t been able to come up with one, and I suspect we’re just not genetically programmed to worry about two generations downstream,” he said. “That may be the heart of the problem.”

Green Blog, NYT

My emphasis. Life is quite stressful enough, thank you very much. Who wants to try to envision what we have to do to keep the planet habitable over generations? That envisioning, like most of what matters in life, demands courage. Courage is a habit. We can learn it. It's not easy. Are we willing to make the effort?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fearful times in a fearful land

When I wrote about David K. Shipler's The Rights of the People last year, I described it as recounting abuses flowing from "the choices U.S. rulers have made since 9/11."

In the second installment of Shipler's survey of what is becoming of us, Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America, he is still dissecting the erosion of protections against arbitrary government. But here he seems more aware -- and sometimes more tolerant -- of the corrosive effect that fear has had on ordinary people's courage in this ugly era.

The American experience has been a long struggle to live up to the Constitution. Periodically reversed, the effort was set back most recently after al-Qaeda hijackers flew airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. …

Shipler begins this volume with a dissection of the regime of torture put in place by the Bush administration. And, as in the previous volume, he will not let the reader forget that domestic "law enforcement" practices frequently violate the minds and bodies of designated unfortunates nearly as badly as the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. He reminds us that, once permitted, torture in the guise of investigation is hard to eradicate.

In Russia, wrote Vladimir Bukovsky, the human rights campaigner who spent a dozen years in Soviet prisons and psychiatric hospitals, one czar after another "solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. . . . They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery. . . . Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one's sources. When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists."

Two days after taking office, President Obama abolished torture. A few months later, he reduced the CIA's role in interrogations, making the FBI the lead agency. It remains to be seen whether his successor will have to abolish it all over again.

Shipler surveys abuses of immigrants by an arcane and arbitrary immigration bureaucracy that denies non-citizens most meaningful protections, especially if they are of Muslim origins. And he writes insightfully about "peace officers" who easily adopt militarized responses to protests.

Peaceful civil disobedience is still illegal activity," observed Captain Jeffrey Herold. … most police departments aren't good at calibrating their responses to the difference between breaking the law by passive resistance and by assault -- the difference between refusing to disperse, for example, and hurling stones. Departments will be criticized more for failing to preserve order than for failing to protect free speech, so they tend to expect violence and prepare for it. Like an armed force jockeying for military advantage, the police operate in a thick fog of misunderstanding and false assumptions about groups they see as adversaries. This may be the most damaging aspect of extensive surveillance: the state of mind that it creates in law enforcement. Studies of police behavior indicate that unverified intelligence and training sessions that anticipate violence can feed anxiety, leading to preemptive curbs on free expression.

On the other hand, Shipler reminds us that even in the wake of 9/11, some people in this country didn't stop voicing our dissent. Academia was sometimes unexpectedly protective of its own; McCarthyism does not always win.

In fact, the thought police in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni inadvertently documented just how robust freedom of speech remained after September 11. By collecting professors' "unpatriotic" remarks critical of American policy, they put the best of American values on display -- not the most admirable political opinions, perhaps, but the best principles, which include the right to self-condemnation even in time of war.

This two volume survey of U.S. rights does not end on a hopeful note:

Attorneys educated in the nation's finest law schools have stood ready since September 11, 2001, to rationalize torture, justify indefinite imprisonment without trial, and sanction warrantless eavesdropping on multitudes of citizens and foreigners inside the United States. Elected legislators across the country have scrambled to suppress hateful expression outside soldiers' funerals, despite long-standing prohibitions against regulating speech on the basis of its content alone. Local police have tried to enforce state laws banning flag "desecration," notwithstanding a body to judicial rulings striking down such statutes as unconstitutional. And on it goes: an unending dance between the violators and the violated, with a passive public watching, largely in silence.

... In American culture, it should take courage to defy the principles in the Bill of Rights. Instead, it seems to take courage to uphold them.

This is not a hopeful volume. A fearful country is not a good place for civil liberties. Whatever happened to our courage? That's an even larger question than Shipler's two excellent surveys engage.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Must we always have "the homeless" among us?

homeless woman.jpg
Charley James reports that the powers-that-be have finally understood the solution to "homelessness." I put the label in quotes because I remember a time in this country when we didn't expect that our cities and towns would have a permanent population of people who didn't have a stable roof over their heads. We called the few such people we saw "transients," or "beggars" or maybe "bums" -- but we thought of their condition as a short term state, uncommon, something of a throwback to a poorer, harsher time.

That ended in the early 1980s when the Federal Reserve created a sharp recession to curb inflation just as Ronald Reagan's administration pressed forward the long Republican war on provision for the poor. Suddenly San Francisco had beggars on the street who weren't young hippies, but "the homeless." Under Dianne Feinstein -- our mayor 1978-88 -- we began to see the billboards touting the "Mayor's Fund for the Homeless." A new category of persons, slightly subhuman, had been defined and the numbers of homeless people continued to grow.

Now, apparently, there is interest in a new path.

“The thing we finally figured out is that it’s … cheaper to solve homelessness than it is to put a band-aid on it,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told Jon Stewart when he appeared on The Daily Show in March. “It costs (government) about $40,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets.” That works out to roughly $110 a night, or more expensive than staying in a budget motel along the interstate.

…Right now, agencies at all levels of government combined are spending as much “to maintain a cot in a gymnasium with 100 other cots as it would cost to rent an efficiency apartment,” says Dennis Culhane, who studies homelessness and housing policies at the University of Pennsylvania. “We are paying for a form of housing that is largely substandard, and we are paying as much, if not more, than standard conventional housing.”

A HUD study backs up Culhane’s assertion. It finds that the cost savings of moving people into permanent housing would be astounding.

For example, putting a family of four in a Houston shelter costs nearly $1,400 a month while the market rate for a two bedroom apartment in the city is only $743. In Greenville, North Carolina – a much smaller city – the price tag for a shelter is $2,269, while rent for a two bedroom flat is just under $600 per month.

Maybe saving money can persuade elites to devote urban real estate to cheap housing. President Obama plans to introduce legislation that would push for this. Of course if it has to get through a Republican Congress, the prognosis isn't good.

You can read the rest of Charley Jame's article here. Apparently he is writing a book based on his own experience of being without a home.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mitt is burning dollars

Tis the season when people who organize in electoral campaigns turn our thoughts to data files. Data files -- voter files -- are the lists of all of you -- the people who are registered to vote and whose ballots will decide the fate of our candidates and propositions.

We are fascinated by you, eager to have access to every possible piece of information about you -- your age, your ethnicity, your voting history, your party affiliation if any, even who your friends are, your income level. (Yes various date vendors can give us some approximation of this information. It is not always accurate, but neither is your credit score unless you monitor it.) We will spend a lot of money to get the best, most accurate list that tells us who you are. And then we'll tailor and aim our pitches at those of you most likely to be responsive to what we are saying.

Mitt wants $$.jpg

Something's wrong with Mitt's lists. This mail fundraising solicitation should never have been sent to me: an older registered Democrat who has lived with another woman for over 30 years in San Francisco. The possibility that I'm a Romney supporter is just vanishingly small. The last time I gave a donation to a Republican when Lowell Weicker was challenged by "Democrat" Joe Lieberman in 1988. (My instincts were right in that one.) I'm a politically consistent voter -- there is zero chance I'm supporting Mitt. And they should know it and screen me out of their direct mail package.

Let's hope they go on wasting money on people like me!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: she has ribs and she's 72 feet long

1scow under construction.jpg

2bit of keel and open ribs.jpg
The vessel is a butt-nosed scow. A scow usually hauls freight in coastal waters. This one is very large.

3craftsman.jpg
The builder is intent on his project.

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This helper came by one day and offered his services. He's worked on the project for the sheer love of it ever since.

The builders hope to put her in the water by early fall.

Vineyard Haven, Mass. June 2012

Friday, July 20, 2012

For Aurora


This dude duzn't spell so gud on his "project in modern media" but the Cheryl Walker song seems appropriate.

I worked in Aurora during the 2008 election. Good people, just the kind that flock to the newest diversion in town at the movie multiplex.

Why re-electing Obama matters

SCOTUS via Kay D.jpg
Every time I write something critical about the Prez, friends remind me we nonetheless NEED to re-elect the guy. They are right. This graphic illustrates one of the reasons.

H/t Kay.

Friday cat blogging

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A fellow needs a nap.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Obama's biggest mistake


Jonathan Bernstein doesn't think much of President Obama's election season answer to a query from CBS News. Funny, I think the Prez is beginning to show some gumption. Here's what he said:

When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well. The mistake of my first term – couple of years – was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.

Bernstein reminds us that even the great B movie actor Ronald Reagan discovered that a good story won't cover up real policy failures like sending weapons to Iran in return for hostages. And it's true, Presidents can't change reality with a good story (yet).

But Bernstein misses what Obama seems to be really saying here: he seemed to think that once elected he could stop doing the political work required to advance and solidify the political aims that had made him attractive to so many voters. He apparently really thought there is something like "good policy" that exists apart from the reality of assembling the force to to enact and then defend your policies. Not true.

The Obama campaign of 2008 was a sure footed beast that assembled a novel coalition of people of color, the post-racist young, and the college educated along with reflexive Democrats. That such a coalition was potentially going to emerge has been obvious to anyone looking at U.S. demographic realities for years. But Obama's personal appeal and the atrocious job G W Bush had done in office, especially leaving the nation with two failed wars, enabled Democrats to pull it together about a decade sooner than had seemed possible.

Such a fragile new beast needed nurture. Instead, Obama in office acted as if the work of politics -- of dancing with those who elected him -- was an irritating distraction from the work of governing. He seemed to treat responding to urgent constituent concerns -- say those of gay folks or the DREAMers -- as beneath him once he'd been elected. In part this was because his instincts were much more centrist than those of some of the loudest members of his base. But also, he didn't seem to understand that many of these clamoring voices were the people who were the reason he was in office. He might not be able to do all they wanted, but his job was not to just to propose technocratic policies approved by "experts." That was nice, but he had also to take actions that enhanced his power to get them enacted. And that meant talking with and listening to the insistent voices of ordinary citizens.

Sure, there were a lot of loud and well-amplified voices saying he was a bad guy and doing wrong. These were never going to be converted by the President giving speeches. But he needed to talk to -- and listen to -- his friends so they'd have his back. And for a long time, the Obama White House acted as if it didn't know that.

Now we're back in an election season and the Obama campaign is doing smart politics again. On the campaign trail, Obama is telling home truths -- most of us need a hand from government. People like him (he says he's in the top 2 percent), and certainly people like Mitt Romney with his Swiss bank account and Cayman Island funds, may not need government to make sure the rules are fair and a safety net survives. But everyone else does.

You can read the whole stump speech here. It's a solid offering. He's too Presidential to point out that Romney is a lying parasite on the hard working mass of citizens, but he has surrogates for that. And he remains far too accommodating about people who should know better than even to listen to Republicans -- but hey, he's a politician.

That's the good Obama -- the one who knows he is a politician and that's the game he has play if he really means any of what he promises. That's what he learned over a hard four years. Think what he could have done if he had known it from the get-go … but he knows it now, in this election season, finally.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: mountains becoming more wild?


Having a glacier like this coming flowing toward you wouldn't be any fun. Argentine Patagonia

For most people this probably isn't the most significant manifestation of global warming, but I find it fascinated and threatening.

Sharper seasonal variations of ice and snow and temperature are being repeated all across the world from the Himalayas to the Andes, which scientists say are driven by a higher level of energy in the atmosphere from global warming. As a result, climbers have to think twice about what they might expect one year to the next, or even one day to the next, in places they might have climbed for decades.

On [Alaska's Mount] McKinley, the snows this year have been prodigious, and the four avalanche deaths have tied a record last seen in 1987. And conditions have varied widely. This month, a weather station on the mountain recorded a temperature range from 21 degrees above zero to 13 below over two days, with 21 inches of snow falling in the middle, rare for July.

“The chances of having an average year are very likely going down as climate variability increases,” said Brian Lazar, the executive director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and a senior scientist at Stratus Consulting, an environmental research company.

New York Times, July 15

Of course melting glaciers have more widespread consequences than increasing the risks to a few adventurous climbers. Pakistan faces high risk of both drought from decreasing melt -- and floods following sudden releases of glacial waters.

Increased melting of glaciers and snow in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau threatens the food security of millions of people in Asia, a study shows, with Pakistan likely to be among the nations hardest hit.

…The Brahmaputra and Indus basins are also most susceptible to reductions of flow because of climate change, threatening the food security of an estimated 60 million people, or roughly the population of Italy. "The effects in the Indus and Brahmaputra basins are likely to be severe owing to the large population and the high dependence on irrigated agriculture and meltwater," the authors say in the study. ...

[The scientists] said adaptation was crucial. "The focus should be on agriculture as this is by far the largest consumer of water," [Walter Immerzeel] told Reuters in an email interview.

Reuters, June 10, 2010

If we can't or won't stop pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and fueling the "wild," we better begin to get our minds around that concept: "adaptation."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Out of the closet for all


A friend suggested that I pass along this story and she was right. From the Atlantic:

The southwest Minneapolis suburbs of Minnetonka and Eden Prairie bring to mind Garrison Keillor's tales from Lake Wobegon: They're lined with well-maintained homes and tree-lined roundabouts, and home to residents of largely German and Scandinavian ancestry. But the ladies of these towns have quietly begun a revolt -- one fought with rainbow flags and a Minnesota nice attitude.

The women, mostly in their 40s and 50s, come from different political parties, religious views, and backgrounds, but they've united to fight what many of them call an embarrassment to Minnesota: a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage that will appear on the ballot this November.

… It started with Gwin Pratt, a senior pastor at St. Luke Presbyterian Church, which has a long history of advocating for gay rights. After the Minnesota State Legislature voted to include the amendment on the ballot, the congregation began an outreach plan to to oppose it. Cindy Eyden, a member of St. Luke, suggested buying rainbow flags in bulk and distributing them to anyone in the community who was interested. What she didn't know was that her idea would go viral.

Maureen Henderson, a fellow St. Luke congregant, was quick to follow Eyden's lead. "They were selling these rainbow flags, only $2.50 for this full size, beautiful flag, and I looked at it, and bought a whole bunch of flags." Henderson told herself "I'm going to go home to my neighborhood, and see, in our community, if one by one we can hand them out and then together start to address this issue."

So off Henderson went to her home in Eden Prairie, a suburb of 60,000 filled with white-collar professionals, 94 percent of whom are Caucasian. That afternoon, she started going door to door with flags in hand. She was quickly joined by her neighbor Wendy Ivins. They took the picture-perfect neighborhood by storm, engaging their neighbors in respectful conversations. Soon, more and more rainbow flags began to appear in the sleepy cul de sacs, planted on large lots and hanging from wood porches. …

This is happening right next to homophobic Congresswoman Michelle Bachman's turf, but these women are changing minds. Supporters of gay rights are learning that they are not alone. The few gay couples are finding new friends. People who've never thought much about gay people at all are learning that some of their neighbors have thought deeply and decided that all people deserve full and equal legal rights.

A campaign like this gives all who take it up the joy of coming out of dark closets of repression and fear of difference. It's a grand thing that we queers get to share our liberation like this. Yeah for these Minnesota moms!

Monday, July 16, 2012

San Francisco bus shut down

Muni shutdown.JPG
These flyers were all over the 'hood yesterday, taped on poles and windows. It was hard to believe it was going to come off, but apparently a mother whose son was (allegedly) shot by Muni police led a small peaceable protest.

More than 50 protesters disrupted Muni service for about an hour this morning before peacefully leaving to march down Market, in commemoration of the death of Kenneth Harding, Jr., on July 16, 2011.

...Some passengers were angered, while most took literature from protesters on their way to catch another train. A few joined in the picket line. Drivers, meanwhile, were mostly nonchalant. “I’m just enjoying the show,” said one driver.

“They shoot us down, we shut it down,” protesters chanted. They also mentioned the names of Raheim Brown Jr., Derrick Gaines, Oscar Grant, and other young African American Bay Area men killed by police.

As a police line closed in, one protester shouted at cops, "you are all complicit!" The group left the intersection around 7:30 without much confrontation with police.

Denika Chatman, Harding’s mother, has been organizing a movement demanding that the police who shot him be charged with murder since his death.

San Francisco Bay Guardian

For political junkies who don't live in "battleground states" …

We won't get to see Presidential campaign ads on TV, so if a powerful one comes along, it is probably worth putting it up here. Obama's team has come out fighting on the touchy subject of Mitt Romney's money -- where he got it and where he hides it. Take a look.

This will show in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. All the pundits seem to agree: it's brutally effective.

Since I'm working for a campaign that is in the middle of buying TV time for use late in the season, I'm interested in why this ad seems to have touched a nerve. (Understand, I have nothing to do with our TV strategy; I mobilize people in campaigns, not media. But if you are in California, you may see our spots in the fall.) Romney spent all Friday afternoon running around to TV network shows to complain about it.

The most interesting discussions that I've encountered has been on TPM, here and here. They get into the ad's sophisticated presentation of sound (Romney singing!) and also why Romney (and hence his campaign) seem to have a hard time understanding that for most of us his record of slightly surreptitious vulture capitalist wealth accumulation is a turn off, not an asset.

But what really stands out to me here is simply what a high quality effort this Obama ad is. I'm not used to political ads that come close in persuasive power and production values to what companies show us every day. We're approaching an orgy of Olympics; that will bring on a display of sophisticated marketing pitches that will make most political ads look like amateur hour. (Remember Demon Sheep anyone? There was amateur hour, also for a candidate whose only "accomplishment" was running a stumbling corporation.)

But this ad is on a different level. It's going to be a long, brutal and probably closely fought election -- no matter where we live, we all have a role as spectators as well as voters. As the campaign goes along, I'll continue to post any ads I think are genuinely interesting.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Drone war thoughts


We live in the era of the drone war now. For the moment, the U.S. has something of a monopoly on using this new weaponry, though there is nothing to prevent other states from joining the fray. Do we really have any idea where this technological breakthrough is taking us?

Michael Cummings -- back from deployments with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan -- has a simple explanation of what's dangerous about the military's new toys:

Kill enough of the wrong people, and everyone will join the insurgency. Why not? The Americans will probably come kill you soon enough.

That's the blowback the drone program creates in an actual theater of war. There's lots of argument about how many of the "wrong people" -- "innocents," non-combatants, children -- are being killed remotely in Afghanistan, but at least in that country there's a recognized war. And -- perhaps -- there's something of a recognized war in the adjacent areas of Pakistan where angry Pashtuns and many Taliban live, so there may be some justification for strikes on people the U.S. regards as "terrorists" in "safe havens." Whether knocking these guys (and their relatives) off is worth destabilizing a fragile nuclear weapons-armed state is a judgement question. A huge majority of Pakistanis certainly don't think so.

And we are also killing people in countries where we don't claim to be at war, but where there's not much government either, like Yemen and Somalia. Sometimes we know who we're killing, but apparently the administration has also authorized "signature strikes." If some bunch of remote tribal guys act in ways the C.I.A. associates with terrorist cells, sure -- blow 'em away.

Law professor David Cole points out the implications of that seemingly safe exercise:

While such a strategy might make sense on hot battlefields, where one frequently kills “the enemy” without knowing precisely who they are, it is extremely dangerous when employed beyond battlefields, where it can be very difficult to know with any degree of certainty which groups are engaged in hostile military action. For this reason, Obama initially banned such strikes in Yemen, but news accounts indicate that he has relaxed that ban recently. What criteria are used to distinguish the enemy from those who merely look like the enemy? As President Bush showed us, it’s all too easy to make mistakes in identifying the enemy. A mistakenly detained man can be released, as hundreds held at Guantánamo have been. Mistakes in the drone program are final.

That's the thing about killing people; you can't bring them back.

And that, perhaps, points up the worst feature of the drone option -- it seems so easy and clean. Press a button and "the enemy" is gone. But as real world warriors like Michael Cumming know, kill the "wrong people" and pretty soon all the people are ready to fight you. This new weapon may not prove so antiseptically safe after all.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: BART riders

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Mostly, we who commute just shut down on the train. But some folks go on with their lives.

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A few require distraction or education.

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Others sleep …

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And some just want the ride to be over soon.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Nancy Pelosi cutting loose at Barney Frank's wedding


My Congresswoman is a mixed bag -- way to the right of the city she represents, way to the left of the Congressional delegation she leads. Evidently she had a great time at these recent festivities. Not bad for a 72 year old.

Via Digby.

Friday cat blogging

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I always wanted one of these. It wasn't til I turned 65 that my loved ones were willing to indulge me. But now the beast wags its tail and rolls its eyes in our kitchen. It feels homey to me.

No, I'm not ready to grow up.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pressure builds, politicians listen, rights vindicated

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It was heartening to read today that, now that he's no longer acting as the President's political fixer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has become an advocate of letting most undocumented immigrants get on with their lives in peace. He's responding to the hopes and needs of his own population, not trying to manipulate a fractious nation.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he would propose an ordinance that would bar police officers from turning over illegal immigrants to federal agents if the immigrants do not have serious criminal convictions or outstanding criminal warrants. ...

“If you have no criminal record, being part of a community is not a problem for you,” Mr. Emanuel said, speaking at a high school library in Little Village, a Latino neighborhood. “We want to welcome you to the city of Chicago.”

New York Times, 7/11/12

I can only take this as evidence that Mr. Emanuel wants to be Mayor-for-life like several of his recent predecessors. He knows what's happening in his city -- it is only getting browner.

… the city saw a 7 percent drop in non-Hispanic whites and a 21 percent decrease in blacks since 2000; the Latino population increased by 3 percent to 753,644. Now whites and blacks each make up 32 percent of the city’s population and Hispanics account for 29 percent.

Medill Reports, Northwestern University

He also knows that the most successful cities are the most immigrant friendly cities.
***
Also today, the New York Times reports:

New York City’s accelerating use of police stop-and-frisk tactics has brought a growing chorus of opponents who have been matched in intensity only by the officials who defend the policy. But recent rulings by federal and state courts have now cast judges as the most potent critics of the practice, raising sharp questions about whether the city has sidestepped the Constitution in the drive to keep crime rates low.

The inescapable conclusion is that the city will eventually have to redefine its stop-and-frisk policy, legal experts say, and that the changes — whether voluntary or forced — will fundamentally alter how the police interact with young minority men on the streets.

...Randolph M. McLaughlin, a law professor at Pace University, said the new judicial attention was a product of the numbers: More than 80 percent of those stopped in New York are black or Latino, and last year there were 686,000 stops, with this year’s numbers heading higher.

“People are starting to wonder: ‘What’s really going on here? Is this a racial policy?’ And judges read the newspaper too,” Professor McLaughlin said.

Of course "stop and frisk" is a racial policy. For young men of color, New York is a repressive police state. It has taken awhile, but obviously pressure against this ugly byproduct of white anxiety is finally gathering force. There are other approaches to reducing crime and violence. Just maybe, New York City is going to have to learn what others have been discovering -- racial profiling destroys communities. Those same communities could help reduce crime with a little help from their friends.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Annals of the Anthropocene: when commercial science tries to replace food

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Unfortunately, I experience Michael Pollan as a scold. The popular food writer and activist has vital insights into our contemporary relationship with the stuff we eat. His prescription -- Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. -- rings true to me. But I don't like being lectured about what I eat and I catch an undertone from Pollan of wishing women were available to return to the labor-intensive food prep practices that our horrid commercial industrial pseudo-foods have rendered obsolete.

Thus conflicted about this author, I figured I had better read one of his books. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto was sitting around, so that's where I started. Nothing in it changed what I've just said.

But Pollan is good at what he is good at and his brutal take-down of commercial science's replacement of food with "nutrients" is worth reading.

If you spent any time at all in a supermarket in the 1980s, food was gradually disappearing from the shelves. … Where once the familiar names of recognizable comestibles -- things like eggs or breakfast cereals or snack foods -- claimed pride of place on the brightly colored packages crowding the aisles, now new, scientific-sounding terms like "cholesterol" and "fiber" and "saturated fat" began rising to large-type prominence. …

Vitamins did a lot for the prestige of nutritional science. These special molecules. which at first were isolated from foods and then later synthesized in a laboratory, could cure people of nutritional deficiencies such as scurvy or beriberi almost overnight in a convincing demonstration of reductive chemistry's power. …Beginning in the 1950s, a growing body of scientific opinion held that the consumption of fat and dietary cholesterol, much of which came from meat and dairy products, was responsible for rising rates of heart disease during the twentieth century. …In January 1977, the [Senate Select Committee on Nutrition] issued a fairly straightforward set of dietary guidelines, calling on Americans to cut down on their consumption of red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm of criticism, emanating chiefly from the red meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee …Henceforth. government dietary guidelines would shun plain talk about whole foods, each of which has its trade association on Capitol Hill, but would instead arrive dressed in scientific euphemism and speaking of nutrients, entities that few Americans … really understood but that … lack powerful lobbies in Washngton. ...

So the nutrients won out over the foods. … In doing so, the 1981 National Academy of Science's 'report helped codify the official new dietary language, the one we all still speak. Industry and media soon followed suit, and terms like polyunsaturated, cholesterol, monounsaturated, carbohydrate, fiber, polyphenols, amino acids, flavonols, carotenoids, antioxidants, probiotics, and phytochemicals soon colonized much of the cultural space previously occupied by the tangible material formerly known as food. The Age of Nutritionism had arrived.

According to Pollan, once industrial food producers and sellers succeeded in drafting science in support of their wares, most of our subsequent dietary monstrosities followed.

I'll accept that. But where I part company with Pollan is that I can't believe that a move away from pseudo-foods processed for profit can be achieved by lecturing people and shaming them into trying to emulate a leisured elite. We get to a better society by taking back science from the capitalists and using it to the benefit of all.

It's a good thing that food is ever cheaper and less labor intensive to prepare. Those are humane values for a sustainable society, not a sign of moral turpitude. We are letting food be corrupted by profiteers, but we're not wrong to want abundance and ease.
***
I post this on a day when I usually write about climate change, a "warming Wednesday," because the example of how the modern western diet has failed at replacing older food sources and customs is a good cautionary tale. Scientific invention is the key to human survival in the Anthropocene, but doing no additional harm along the way is part of what we must do, as is organizing societies as humanely as possible. Lots of work ahead.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Revelation


I thought I was beyond shock about this guy and then I read that Mitt Romney

took a tax break for his wife’s horse that’s larger ($77K) than the average American wage ($46K)

Really.

Somehow I can't quite believe we're so far gone as to prefer the plutocrat to the guy who epitomizes meritocracy. But I could be wrong.

Still waiting for the rhinovirus to be done with me. Deeper thoughts, if any, postponed.

Monday, July 09, 2012

All clogged up

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My nose and head have been occupied by a rhinovirus and I'm thinking and moving more sluggishly than this fellow in the yard. Regular blogging will resume when my head clears.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Murder Victim Families Speak Out About the Death Penalty

Laura Webb was murdered in the most deadly shooting in Orange County history, the Seal Beach hair salon rampage that left nine dead in October of 2011. Her sister, Bethany Webb, recently told assembled reporters that she can't even say the name of the man, Scott Dekraai, who's accused in the massacre.

"I'd appreciate it if no one did," she said. "It just happened. I'm still raw."

The trial in the case is set for October, but that delay is the least of her worries. Already having been to court seven times, Webb said she has 25 years of trials, testimony, and appeals in front of her. That's because the prosecutor in the case said he plans to seek the death penalty for the man accused of murdering Laura and eight others, and seriously wounding Webb's mother, who was getting her hair done by her daughter when the gunman opened fire.

"You can do me and families of all the innocent the courtesy of passing the SAFE California Act ..."

KPCC, Southern California Public Radio

Read more stories from victims family members supporting the SAFE California Act at this link.

Church politics

The subset of U.S. (and international) Christianity to which I belong, The Episcopal Church, is holding its triennial General Convention in sweltering Indianapolis. It's a heck of a wingding! Over 1000 voting deputies from over 100 dioceses are meeting as a legislature, not to mention several hundred bishops in their own legislative house. Together they govern the denomination, fractiously, laboriously, and somewhat democratically.

Not surprisingly, this unwieldy assemblage had its origins in the founding era of the United States. The President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, expounded on the peculiar history and culture of our governing body on July 4.

... the conditions of the American Revolution are in many ways responsible for the leadership of the laity that is one of the Episcopal Church’s particular gifts. … Independence from England meant a break with the authority of the Bishop of London. What’s more, many existing priests were loyal to England and new priests had to travel to England to be ordained. Ordained authority was hard to come by in the Episcopal Church in the United States, and the laity exercised significant leadership. Our first Presiding Bishop, William White, who like Thomas Jefferson was a student of John Locke, became a champion of shared governance by all orders — laypeople, clergy and bishops.

But, as many of you may be thinking right now, celebrating July 4 isn’t that straightforward. You don’t have to scratch the surface of July 4 very hard to expose the horrors of colonialism that the United States inherited from Great Britain and continues to impose on so much of the world. You’ll also find in the Declaration of Independence itself evidence of the bigotry and ignorance that led to the Native American genocide for which we have yet to atone or make restitution. And it is impossible to reflect on Independence Day without reflecting on the institution of slavery that so many of our Founding Fathers and their descendants defended to the death. …The scourge of African American slavery that Douglass struggled against has ended in this country, but the plagues of racism, oppression, discrimination, violence and poverty have not—not in the United States, and not in any of the other fifteen countries of the Episcopal Church. What we celebrate on July 4th in the United States is an ideal that we have not yet achieved.

…Let’s be honest. We in the Episcopal Church have been forced to get on the road toward the Promised Land. Some of us are happy about that, because being the institutional church of power and privilege, which we used to be, seemed a lot like being slaves in Egypt. Others of us were doing just fine in Egypt, and we’d be happier going back there. We’re wandering in a wilderness of declining membership and budget reductions and we’re pretty sure that we’re going to die out here.

But there’s no going back to Egypt. We’re on the Promised Land highway, and we’re spending a lot of time acting like the Israelites. We whine, we don’t trust each other, and we try to hoard what we have been given even though it won’t keep. Even though when we take more than we need, it breeds worms and becomes foul. And I’m pretty sure that we can all name some golden calves that we’ve been worshiping. We need to cut it out. All of us. …

Preach it, Madame President. Anderson could definitely give Nancy Pelosi a run for her money as a leader of women and men. Churches, like countries experiencing demographic and technological transitions, can only go forward, not backward.

Saturday I indulged myself by following the Twitter feed (#gc77) from the meeting. A complex event like this, with multiple caucuses, committees and hearings taking place concurrently is well suited to Twitter. One of my favorites from today is this commentary on the setting:

@JMCaler: Can't tell the gravitas and solemnity added to #GC77 to know that we share the Convention Center with a body building competition.

After some particularly rancorous parliamentary wrangling,

@rsgracey: Approve parliamentary combat pay for the PoHD

PoHD is the aforementioned Ms. Anderson. I've seen her run a tight ship.


But of course this is not all laughs. My friends from Transepiscopal are successfully shepherding resolutions through the process that will assure full access for all to consideration for ordination and for lay jobs in the Church without discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression. They seem to have swatted away any impulse to "study" them further -- putting folks under a microscope has historically been a "polite" dodge to avoid taking a stand for inclusion. This seems not to be in play this year.

What is in play is whether to approve some sort of optional experimentation with rites to bless same-sex couples, especially in jurisdictions that have achieved marriage equality. I'd bet they get to yes.

And then maybe all these good people can struggle through the numerous other challenges this governing body faces. These are tough -- whether to sell the Manhattan-based headquarters, how to structure the budget, how to interact with Anglicans around the world who sometimes resent us as both a little crazy and also ugly Americans.

Watching all this from afar (I worked at Convention three years ago), I take two thoughts away.
First from the opening address by Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefforts Schori:

Politics is not a dirty word – it refers to the art of living together in community, and it applies to Christ’s body as much as it does to the various nations in which this Church is present. We don’t yet live in the fullness of the reign of God, even though we do see glimpses of it around us and among us. Our task is to gather the various parts of this body of Christ, together with any partners who share our values, for the work of building societies that look more like the reign of God. That takes compromise, for we will never all agree on the proper route or method for getting there. We live in the awkward yet lively tension between what is and what will eventually come to be, in God’s good time.

The PB reminds me of President Obama: the very fact of her improbable elevation to this top job only 14 years after a woman was first made a bishop meant she carried wildly hopeful expectations among people wishing for rapid changes in the denomination. For them (us), she's been a mixed bag. But I have to like a Church leader copping to the truth that politics is holy work. I think she's right.

I'll give the last word here to my friend the Rev. Cameron Partridge, one of the trans activists whose agenda is moving through Convention. In the midst of this vital struggle, he was able to recall something else important.

The world is small, and we must be gentle to one another.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Transition

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There are some benefits. Riding BART (local subway) will cost me roughly one-third as much to get to work.

Don't know if I can claim wisdom yet. I do know I don't feel any different.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Is Pakistan about to melt down?

Journalist Ahmed Rashid has been at his project for much of his adult life. He knows we just don't seem to get it. He's determined to explain war-ravaged Afghanistan and his loved homeland of Pakistan to Western English-speaking readers. First there was Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (2000) which became a best seller after 9/11. Then there was disillusionment chronicled in Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2008). (More here.) Now the engulfing war and social and political collapse has crept yet closer to home as he explains in Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

This volume is unstinting in its examination of U.S. failure in Central Asia. The arrival of the Obama administration did nothing to turn the tide in Afghanistan.

If anything undermined President Obama's entire Afghan deployment, it was the failure to develop a comprehensive political strategy that the U.S. military could not delay or even hold hostage. … The Obama formula for Afghanistan failed to do several things: encourage Pakistan to change its policy of harboring the Taliban, build up an indigenous Afghan economy, start talks with the Taliban parallel to the military surge, and persuade Karzai to improve governance and end corruption. … Before Obama was elected president, his admirers viewed him as a practical visionary who had seen the world, knew how it worked, and promised to move U.S. policy away from the ideological blinders of the Bush administration. … So what happened? Obama was utterly trapped by the Bush legacy of failures in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2008 and by the power and authority of the U.S. military establishment after September 11: it became arbiter, driver, and decider of U.S. foreign policy. Obama's cold sense of reality could not free itself from the Pentagon's way of thinking or doing. …

That is -- the inertial energies of an empire always confidently expecting to make its own reality won the day. Rashid is a clear eyed observer, but also often seems the ultimate Pollyanna who hopes beyond reason that the U.S. empire's better angels will somehow override the demons it looses on the world.

As a U.S. and NATO withdrawal from the region becomes inevitable (the war without purpose is lost, whether we admit it or not), there remain more questions than answers.

By both action and inaction, the United States has contributed significantly to the region's dangerous instability. The Obama administration has failed to detail its aims in the region beyond 2014, thereby giving rise to speculation and conspiracy theories. … What are Washington's geostrategic interests in the region, and to what extent is it willing to deploy troops to pursue those interests? Does the United States want to stabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan, or would it rather try to contain or even challenge Iran and China? Or would it prefer to leave the region in the hands of trusted allies like India and Turkey -- a surefire way to antagonize Pakistan? Moreover, while the United States has other strategic priorities now, such as the Arab Spring, a greater commitment to East Asia, and containing China, it has far fewer resources than it once did to playa global role.

What distinguishes this book is its attempt to offer a kind of "Pakistan for beginners." Considering its size, importance and complexity, in the U.S. we usually allow ourselves to be vague about Pakistan. It has the sixth largest population among nations and the seventh largest army -- an army armed with nuclear weapons. It is the world's second largest Islamic country (Indonesia is the largest). Ostensibly a developing democracy, it seems very close to sinking into the chaos of a failed state.

Four factors have prevented Pakistan from stabilizing and becoming a cohesive state. First, its political elite has failed to establish a coherent national identity capable of uniting the nation. The very subject remains deeply contentious: Is Pakistan an Islamic state, or is it a state for Muslims that has space for other religions and ethnic minorities? Is it not a democratic state as envisioned by its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah? Are its people Muslims first, Sindhis or Punjabis second, and Pakistanis third? Or are they Pakistanis first and foremost? …

The second factor dividing the country is Pakistan's national security paradigm: Is it to remain India-centric [structured around fear of India], as determined by the military? Or is it to adopt an alternative vision, as advocated by civil society and the progressive political elite? The long-running civilian-military rift that underlies these two views has contributed to the army's rule of Pakistan for nearly half the country's existence. Whenever the army feels that its control over national security is being challenged -- usually in the midst of a political-constitutional-economic crisis, when an incompetent and corrupt civilian government is at the helm -- it invariably overthrows the government and imposes military rule. This has happened four times in Pakistan's history, and military rule has often lasted a decade or more. …

Third, Pakistan has become an abnormal state that uses Islamic militants -- jihadi groups, non-state actors -- in addition to diplomacy and trade to pursue its defense and foreign policies. These non-state actors have deeply antagonized its neighbors, all of whom have, at one time or another, felt their pressure. …

The fourth factor perpetuating Pakistan's fragility is the inability of its ethnic groups to find a working political balance with one another, and the failure of Pakistan's political system, its parties, and its army to help them do so. …

Whatever else a reader may take away from this book, it makes it impossible to doubt that dealing with Pakistan requires knowledge, subtlety and patience. U.S. forces blundering about in Central Asia since 9/11 have showed none of these attributes. Rashid has written a cri de coeur, an anguished cry from his heart, describing the dangerous instability of his country. If U.S. policies contribute to collapse and horror in Pakistan, U.S. authorities will likely claim we couldn't have known things would get so bad. Rashid has done his best to make that claim unsustainable.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

An Independence Day reflection:
Of campaigns, majorities and moral vision


Americans today aren't interested in slogans and sound bites. They want the candidates to offer them a vision, but so far neither Mitt Romney nor President Obama has done so. …

So writes Drew Westen, a professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, in the Los Angeles Times.

Well, maybe, but my experience of working in politics suggests that something much harder to overcome than a deficit of vision afflicts our political leaders. Yes, they are worried about their ability to raise money from the rich if they speak in an impolitic manner. And they've often been in thrall to a conventional wisdom that says this is country of "the center" -- a myth that only extremist nutcases want to rock any boats.

But, in California for two decades, and in the rest of the country increasingly, bland, ultra-careful politicians merely reflect the reality that this is a country whose people lack a unifying moral vision. We have simply become too diverse for that, at least in the contemporary moment. Each community among us looks to different cultural traditions and different people whose pronouncements are accorded some legitimacy -- but, by and large, few of us credit other communities' moral authorities.

I first understood this when working to defeat an anti-immigrant California ballot measure in the early 1990s. This would have denied schooling and medical care to undocumented children. In some communities, it was an obvious moral atrocity; how could we penalize children? Among others, it seemed only fair. And there was literally no public figure -- no bishop, no academic wise person, no politician -- who could speak and be heard across the values chasm that yawned between supporters and opponents.

That was California, two decades ago. The whole country is now experiencing similar fragmentation into communities that simply don't recognize each other's values. In a democracy, politicians have to assemble coalitions that amount to more than half of us. Naturally it behooves them to campaign without taking stands that alienate fractional constituencies. But each clamoring group wants to be sure it is not being tricked, so demands ever tighter allegiance to whatever it centrally values -- outlawing abortion or legalizing gay marriage; no new taxes ever or extending health care to all. We want to hem our leaders in -- then we fault them for failing to lead.

I find President Obama infuriating because he seems so much more interested in formulating complex policy solutions (preferably bipartisan ones) than in doing the hard work of creating a dominant political coalition that would enable him to enact them. He's clearly interested in his own re-election, but he doesn't seem to think it part of his job to build a larger Democratic party that might be strong enough to win his policy fights. He's a curious combination of political and apolitical; only a second term can reveal whether there's a vision in the man beyond the extraordinary fact that the "skinny guy with the funny name" could ever become President.

Meanwhile, the country's democracy is running off the rails because we lack unifying values that can bridge our smaller segments. We suffer from what the wise Ed Kilgore labeled

a breakdown of social solidarity that runs deeper than the wallet.

In history, the experience of overcoming threats to the nation has helped to establish social solidarity, even across communities who want no part of each other. The threat of fascism and imperial Japan forced a broad moral vision on the World War II generation -- there's a reason that a racist nation could move toward a broader citizenship for all in the decades after that existential crisis.

Contemporary shocks to the nation -- the 9/11 attacks and the ongoing, unequally distributed, Lesser Depression -- have not evoked bridging leadership. Quite the contrary, politicians (mostly Republican) have manipulated the response to real threats to stoke divisions rather than to bring the country together.

How big a crisis would it take for a majority to embrace a unifying moral vision? We face a threat of unparalleled magnitude, the threat of human-induced climate change making most current patterns of life unsustainable. These days, we're farther than ever from a consensus on what really matters. But threats can concentrate the mind and the body politic.
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