Friday, November 30, 2012

A peace movement accomplishment


The Senate did something good on Thursday -- and we, the people, made it happen.

The Senate adopted an amendment to the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) offered by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rand Paul (R-KY) stating support for an accelerated transition and drawdown in Afghanistan. That's voting the people's will: as far back as last April sixty percent of us wanted out, including 65 percent of those who planned to vote for Obama and 59 percent of "independents." Heck, even 49 percent of those who planned to vote for Romney wanted out.

Thursday's vote was the first majority vote ever in either the House or the Senate calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan, according to PeaceAction West.

No -- this vote doesn't mean the U.S. will actually be leaving very soon. Ultimately, that's up to the President. He's set the end of 2014 as the date. But what it does do is strengthen Obama's hand when generals and American-exceptionalist imperial enthusiasts come up with demands for huge "residual" forces to stay behind.

Will the peace movement be ready to claim this as our victory? I hope so. No, it's not what we want. If some of us had our way, the U.S. never would have gone blundering into Afghanistan in the first place. And most all of us have said "enough already" for about 10 years now. But our military and hawks can't admit the U.S. has lost a war against Central Asian tribesmen, so the dying goes on. For years, that's all the Afghanistan conflict has been about: saving face. And for years the peace movement has worked to inform and persuade our fellow citizens about what a complete piece of shit the whole enterprise was.

Obama's deal is that the U.S. will name the date for our departure and those who need it can keep lying about what they've achieved. (Nothing good.) The peace movement would like the U.S. state to swear off invading other people's countries, but we aren't going to get that.

But we have to learn to value what we can win and that's withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Oh sure, there will be more face saving "agreements" and we'll send in the spooks -- but that isn't going to prove much. Doubt me? -- look at Iraq.

The peace movement's job is to stop these arrogant fools from starting the next war.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In honor of the U.N. General Assembly vote recognizing Palestine's observer status

Here's a simple primer on the struggle most people in the United States wish they could ignore. It's short and surprisingly cogent.


Through out history, when governments have failed to push for justice, people just like you, like us, have taken the lead and won! Now it is the Palestinians turn for freedom and justice.

Jewish Voice for Peace

The United States put itself on the wrong side of justice, again, on Thursday by voting against the upgrade in the status of Palestine.

For people in the United States, we've got a huge job to do, turning around our cowed politicians who underwrite every Israeli atrocity.

Fiscal cliff follies

Okay -- a little about the fearsome "fiscal cliff".

The so-called "fiscal cliff" is an imaginary disaster of invented by politicians of both parties to cover up the fact that they are allowing themselves to be diverted from doing their jobs. There is no "fiscal cliff". There is only the perpetual unwillingness of rich people -- the 1 percent -- to contribute their fair share to the common good.

If the government needs money to do its job -- to "provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare" according to the Constitution -- it should get money from where the money is. And where's that? In the hands of the 1 percent. Tax 'em. If they won't pay, denounce them for the parasites they are.

The rest is all hoohah, obfuscation in the service of socially irresponsible greed.

Today the Prez sent his supporters a letter asking them to tell him what they'd do with $2K next year if he manages to keep the fearsome bogeyman -- that's the fiscal cliff -- from taking it away from them. Nice, but irrelevant. People need to be banging on the government to do its job -- to ensure the solvency of necessary programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. If that requires upsetting the 1 percent, screw 'em.

Here's how a brave President deals with this kind of phony "crisis":
On the monument to that President in Washington is this sentence:

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide for those who have too little.

Would that the current incumbent would show a little of that spirit.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: Climate change, cities and politics

Those of seeking to make the point that we humans are inexorably altering the planet's climate sure got some help from Hurricane Sandy. There's nothing like having a megastorm make a direct hit on the nation's largest city where the media is clustered to make an impression.

Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University, who studies urban centers teased out some of the implications of city vulnerability to rising seas in a Bloomberg View column.

The world’s urban agglomerations are often particularly vulnerable to natural and man-made disaster, yet they are also especially well-suited to defend their space. … For most of human history, water-borne transport has been vastly cheaper than movement over land. To reduce transport costs, we built our cities on waterways.

… It is also far easier to imagine building sea walls to protect the geographically limited area around cities than to cover a sprawling coastline. I am no civil engineer and have no opinion on whether New York City should protect itself with massive walls or with less- expensive, less-imposing defenses, but the city needs to shield itself, and sea walls provide that barrier. The Dutch Delta Program has spent billions to protect the Netherlands, largely successfully.

… [Dutch water-risk expert Jeroen Aerts] suggests a $17 billion solution with three great walls, and says that an extra $15 billion might be required in added coastline protection. Aerts’s total of $32 billion would be roughly half the city’s annual budget. But the costs of Hurricane Sandy also ran in the tens of billions. If the alternative is giving up on lower Manhattan, which has hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of property and infrastructure, the price looks downright cheap.

… Who should pay for these defenses? The protected property owners, of course. There is no reason why New York should look to the federal government in Washington for this spending. The city has the money to pay the bill, and it should champion the principle that we only build sea walls or other barriers when the people who are protected pay for them. This helps ensure that the benefits justify the costs. We don’t want to go further down a path where every hamlet on the Eastern seaboard feels it has a right to federally financed storm protection.

I do not have the expertise to judge whether Glaeser's and Aerts' specific prescription is the right one, but that last bit points to a set of issues raised by climate disasters that all of us in this democracy need to get some grip on. Glaeser is right: "every hamlet on the Eastern seaboard" will try to demand protection and the costs will force choices to be made. And we make our choices through a complex political system that privileges wealth and inertia over scientific expertise and efficient use of scarce resources.

Because our system is organized around money influence and choke points, one of the patterns revealed by the recent election will greatly impact how we respond to climate change. Cities are Democratic Party turf, demographically and especially ideologically. The Republican's Veep candidate may have thought he was pointing out the otherness of the people who so viscerally rejected him, but he spoke a truth: Ryan Sees Urban Vote as Reason G.O.P. Lost.

New York Times graphic

Cities are ideologically Democratic; we urban folks know from experience that we need one another.

… where people live densely together, [cities] require policies and an ideology that Republicans lately have not offered.

Some of the anger from cities this election season rightly pointed out that Republican Party leaders go out of their way to mock them. They denigrate urban ideas and populations because this has repeatedly proven an effective way to gin up enthusiasm among their base…

As the Republican Party has moved further to the right, it has increasingly become the party of fierce individualism, of "I built that" and you take care of yourself. Cities, on the other hand, are fundamentally about the shared commons. If you live in a city and you think government – and other people – should stay out of your life, how will you get to work in the morning? Who will police your neighborhood? Where will you find a public park when your building has no back yard? …

… The real urban challenge for conservatives going forward will be to pull back from an ideology that leaves little room for the concept of "public good," and that treats all public spending as if it were equally wasteful. Cities do demand, by definition, a greater role for government than a small rural town on the prairie. But the return on investment can also be much higher…

The Atlantic Cities, November 15, 2012

Insofar as there's been a tendency to conflate concern over climate change with historic conservation societies and back-to-the-land movements, we are looking in the wrong direction. Dealing with the threats of global warming is going to depend ideologically on urban experience and urban values. At present those are strongly clustered in the Democratic Party. We've got a huge distance to go before we actualize the force implicit in that observation, but it sure shows where we need to work. Educating urban populations about the dangers and opportunities involved in averting the worst and mitigating the rest of human-caused climate change makes good strategic sense. Are we doing it?

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, November 27, 2012

Strengthen Social Security: don't cut it!



With the New York Times leading off today with an article about how nasty liberals won't let the newly re-elected Prez slash Social Security and medical programs for the poor in order to please the plutocrats, I guess it is time to trot out this excellent video. Short, snappy and true. (H/t TGB.)

Now we reach the long part of the political cycle in which the voters who put these bums in office have to loudly and persistently remind Democratic officeholders why we put them there: to use government to promote the general welfare. At least that's what the Constitution says. What's so complicated about that? Not welfare for oligarchs, but the common good of all of us, most of whom need a little help sometimes.

What's difficult is that, after an 18 month election season which pummeled those of us who engaged to a pulp, we have to get back out there and scream bloody murder to prevent the politicians we elect from forgetting their job.

In the 1960s, we said we wanted "participatory democracy." And this sounds like a desirable thing. But we weren't always ready to do the unglamorous work of building and controlling the institutional props that make winning the general welfare possible. There were good reasons many chose to "drop out": being forced to fight and die in a pointless imperial war while observing the gender and racial hypocrisy of our elders prompted an understandable withdrawal. But the result was that for a generation the deal-makers and the careerists hollowed out the institutions in which progressive democracy is practiced: the unions, the think tanks, the Democratic Party.

The emerging majority -- what pundits are calling the "Obama coalition" including the young, the colored, the well-educated -- are taking back those institutions and building new ones. But winning and keeping a place in the push and pull of citizenship is a perpetual fight. The prospects for enduring victories remain tenuous.

The plutocrats don't rest (and they can always hire willing servants.) We can savor our wins but dropping out is not an option.

Monday, November 26, 2012

How to handle our propaganda media


Fox was operating as a wing of the Republican party ...

We need more people who are willing to interact with "news" media this way. You have to know your facts and be confident about it -- and you have to be willing to be barred from some outlets.

I just bought Ricks' latest book and will eventually write about it here. His blog is always worth exploring.

More interlude

Still out of commission with an injured back. Gotta stop falling while running. This interesting tincture, applied topically, seems to give some relief. Maybe this is a placebo effect, but I'll take it.

This new (to me) brand of beer definitely raised the standard on a long cross-country flight yesterday. I suppose it is a product of Anheuser-Busch InBev or MillerCoors like most every readily available brew, but unlike their usual stuff, it has some flavor. Some.

Back to blogging when then my back cooperates.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Cedric Brown, RIP

Our friend Cedric Brown died this week. At least we assume he died. Just before leaving town last Tuesday night we received a call from the intensive care unit at San Francisco General Hospital. Did we know a Cedric Brown?

Well, yes, in a way …

The hospital was looking for a Cedric Brown's next of kin or anyone who should be notified that he was dying. We asked whether he was still conscious, but they said they'd made him comfortable and unconscious with heavy doses of morphine and this time he wasn't going to make it. We didn't go to see him, but rushed to catch our plane.

We weren't kin, but I wasn't surprised my number had turned up in his records. We'd known Cedric, a homeless gay man living with Crohn's disease and HIV, for about a decade. He would turn up periodically at our door, begging for help, usually, at least ostensibly, to buy his latest medicine. The various stop gap expedients available to people without money or health insurance would get him repeatedly admitted to hospitals when near death. But then he'd be tossed out, unable to pay for the drugs, or the adult diapers, or the lotions for his erupting skin -- and still homeless.

Because Cedric was an appealing guy, not a drug user or obnoxious, he had a small army of social workers and acquaintances who kept him afloat, more or less. For whatever reason, probably because of his sexual orientation, he'd lost contact with any blood family. Before he got sick, he traded on his good looks for survival. After he got sick, social service agencies repeatedly placed him in housing -- but something always went wrong. One place, he brought in a forbidden hotplate so he could make meals for his friends on the same corridor. When one day he left it on and fell asleep, causing a small fire, he got thrown out of that place, though everyone felt terrible about it.

People often felt terrible about Cedric. But there never seemed to be anything adequate to change his situation.

Usually Cedric lost his housing because he had had yet another emergency room episode and, after a short stay in a ward, he'd be "too sick" for his past housing.

I wasn't always kind to Cedric. He was an inconvenient acquaintance. And the relationship with a person who needs you so desperately materially is seldom comfortable. Sure, his need meant that his professions of friendship couldn't be taken entirely at face value. But at the very least, I think it is fair to say we grew accustomed to each other and felt a kind of fondness, beyond the irritation and the insatiable need.

The world as it is didn't work for Cedric. That's the world's loss. Insofar as I'm able to believe the dead persist somehow, somewhere, beyond this location in time and space, I hope he is in a better place. He never deserved to have it as bad as he had it in this life. Rest in peace, Cedric Brown.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Luck and good comfort


Still immobilized by back injury, though now on the other side of the country, sitting in front an open fire in a New England evening. Good drugs preclude deep thoughts.

But if you need any more pointers to what to be thankful for this season, may I suggest these from Stephen Walt? Worth remembering what luck we enjoy.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Reason to give thanks

Happy Thanksgiving holiday to all and especially to these folks:
We weren't quite a majority this year, but an awful lot of us got the picture: the death penalty is an expensive, broken waste of resources that always risks executing innocent persons.

I give thanks for all who delivered this message and all who heard.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: once upon a time it got cold in November



Via NASA:

The global average surface temperature in 2011 was the ninth warmest since 1880. The finding sustains a trend that has seen the 21st century experience nine of the 10 warmest years in the modern meteorological record. NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York released an analysis of how temperatures around the globe in 2011 compared to the average global temperature from the mid-20th century. The comparison shows how Earth continues to experience higher temperatures than several decades ago. The average temperature around the globe in 2011 was 0.92 degrees F (0.51 C) higher than the mid-20th century baseline.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek points out:

... Sandy demonstrated once again that those who will suffer the most from increasingly common extreme weather events are poor people. Even though the storm’s tail only clipped the island of Haiti, Hurricane Sandy killed 52 people there, left 200,000 people homeless, and destroyed 70 percent of the crops in the south of the country. There is flooding across the country, making the lives of the 370,000 people still living in temporary shelters after the 2010 earthquake even more precarious. Haiti’s population is about half that of New York City’s metro area, yet even a glancing blow from Sandy carried a higher death toll in the Caribbean nation than did the direct hit on the Big Apple.

Current rates of global mortality from natural disasters amply demonstrate that being poor makes people far more vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Just in the past year, flooding killed 140 in the Niger Delta and left hundreds homeless, 66 dead in Manila and 440,000 in evacuation centers across the Philippines, 100 dead in northeastern India with 2 million people forced from their homes—and that’s a partial list. More broadly, around 90 percent of the 60,000 people who die in natural disasters each year die in the developing world.

That’s because surviving natural disasters is expensive. The best disaster resilience strategies involve paying for infrastructure—from sea walls to all-weather roads to irrigation systems—and solidly constructed buildings, alongside quality public services such as fire fighting, police, and ambulances. And withstanding a catastrophe requires being able to afford food and medicine even if prices for such goods rise in times of scarcity. ...

In rich countries, insurance companies have an interest in resilience strategies. Their business model requires an acceptible balance between risk and massive loss. Will they force our political systems to act in response to climate change? This seems like a more likely bet than counting on our political systems. That's not a good sign for democratic societies.

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, November 20, 2012

Noted

"For them this is just some place. For us, this is our home."

Because I'm spending a couple of days sitting on an ice bag in front of the tube watching football, I've been hearing that a lot.

It is the tag line for the trailer for a teenage shoot-em up action thriller that opens this week. Here's the premise:

Spokane, Washington becomes the initial target of a foreign invasion. Under enemy occupation, the town's citizens are taken prisoner. A group of young people, calling themselves 'The Wolverines' (after their high school mascot), band together in the surrounding woods. There, they train and organize themselves into a group of guerrilla fighters in order to liberate their town."

I guess this one won't be playing in Gaza. Might confuse the inmates of Israel's open air prison.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Interlude



No deep thoughts today. I'm sitting on a bag of ice, waiting for the pain in my back to subside. Note to self: when running on muddy trails, do not land on an innocent appearing pine cone. The little monster can slide; then you can slide... Thump...

Getting back in shape after a long campaign will be delayed until healing occurs.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Legislating against intoxicants; snotty history

In the wake of an election in which voters in two states sought to legalize marijuana, it's just plain weird to find the Washington Monthly promoting a muddled article warning that monopolistic beer breweries are conspiring to make drunks of us all and urging regulated inefficiency. I'm sure that Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors will jack up prices and reduce variety to nothing but tasteless warm piss if they can get away with it, but this article didn't help me form a convincing picture of how that might happen. And it's hard in the current libertarian enthusiasm for intoxicants to imagine regulation reducing alcohol consumption. That's just not where we are at these days. If anything, maybe we are finally getting around to looking for a better metaphor for the problems of substance abuse than the drug "war" and might be ready to stop creating casualties.
***
Daniel Okrent's Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition tells the story of a previous round of wrestling with the problems caused by intoxicants that led to the only amendment to the U.S. constitution ever enacted (1920) -- and then quickly repealed (1933). The story is fascinating and Okrent tells it with authority. Okrent used to be the New York Times' "public editor" during the era when the paper was struggling with its responsibility for allowing itself to be used as a conduit for Bush administration war propaganda. He's better at writing popular history than he seemed at dealing with murderous disinformation that exploited "journalistic" conventions.

But though I enjoyed the amusing story of a bygone era, I found this a troubling book. The cause of temperance -- outlawing booze -- was a classic social movement. An ungainly coalition of feminists, fundamentalists and nativists strove to use the political system to rid the country of what they thought -- for divergent reasons -- was a monstrous evil. This led to bizarre assemblages of strange bedfellows, such as the Ku Klux Klan supporting women's suffrage: women were expected to vote to outlaw drink which would strike at Jews, Catholics and other foreigners who were stealing the country from its rightful white male founders. Besides, all good Southerners "knew" that Black men would laze around drunk on the streets leering at white women if white manhood didn't stop them. (Some evil memes have great staying power.) On the other hand, the corporate barons who eventually funded the cause of repeal were led by Pierre Du Pont who wanted to legalize liquor so as to tax it heavily; such an excise tax would enable his class to do away with the new income and inheritance taxes that were cutting into his profits from a chemical empire built on weapons sales to the belligerents in World War I.

As I was carried along by Okrent's story, I realized he had somehow written a long account in which he encountered NO attractive people. Everyone on either side of the liquor debate comes across as ignorant, and/or bigoted, and/or self-serving. The story of Prohibition in his telling is all villains and no heroes. The kindest treatment that Okrent gives to any of them is to portray them as helpless obsessives.

The result is a book whose essential message is that vast social movements that change the country are the terrain of fools and/or charlatans. Now Prohibition certainly proved a terrible mistake. But is that all there is? I don't believe it; some of those people on one or the other side of liquor restriction must have had better motives that those.

Okrent comes off as an historian all too true to his background as a Very Serious Person calling balls and strikes at the Very Serious Newspaper of Record -- above and superior to the fray of movement politics. This is unattractive and, for me, undermined an interesting account of how citizens of this country worked out their wishes in a particular arena of passion and prejudice. These ebbs and flows are very much what life in a democracy is all about. Democrats (small "d") don't turn up their noses at them.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: Street potpouri

Been looking around; here's some of what I see:

bike is pipe bomb.jpg
Have we calmed down enough so we don't cringe, seeing that? Should we?

artists moving.jpg
Sometimes the difference between a moving van and mural is hard to discern.

fall colors.JPG
Who says trees don't change colors in autumn in Cali? Did ICA plant these varieties for this effect or did they just get lucky?

Public art.JPG
Public art. What to do when all the offerings are gone?

looming sky!.jpg
Possibilities in an urban landscape.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A bridge builder


Howard Wallace on a picket line at dawn in 2008.
The longtime labor and LGBT activist died Thursday at 76. He spanned the divide between the gay community and the labor movement when such an alliance was novel, almost unthinkable.

In the 1970s, Coors Brewing, then a family-owned company in Colorado, broke a strike by bringing in replacement workers and winning a certification election against its Teamster employees. The labor movement called for a boycott of their beer. Concurrently the company was fighting discrimination suits from Latino workers and family members were funding conservative causes including opposition to gay rights.

Wallace brought the Coors boycott to the San Francisco gay community and soon queers were demanding "Coors out of the bars!"

The AFL-CIO called off its boycott in 1987 and Coors -- now a multi-national corporation -- made itself a highly visible funder to LGBT events.

Howard Wallace devoted his life to building the labor power and gay liberation as overlapping movements in San Francisco. We're the better for his devotion to this community. More tributes to Howard here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Still clueless and entitled


I guess he actually thinks he's good for something. Mitt Romney I mean. Here he goes blaming the people for choosing good government and the general welfare over his magnificent offer of his leadership:

Mitt Romney told his top donors Wednesday that his loss to President Obama was a disappointing result that neither he nor his top aides had expected, but said he believed his team ran a “superb” campaign with “no drama,” and attributed his rival’s victory to “the gifts” the administration had given to blacks, Hispanics and young voters during Obama’s first term.

Obama, Romney argued, had been “very generous” to blacks, Hispanics and young voters. He cited as motivating factors to young voters the administration’s plan for partial forgiveness of college loan interest and the extension of health coverage for students on their parents’ insurance plans well into their 20s. Free contraception coverage under Obama’s healthcare plan, he added, gave an extra incentive to college-age women to back the president.

Romney argued that Obama’s healthcare plan’s promise of coverage “in perpetuity” was “highly motivational” to those voters making $25,000 to $35,000 who might not have been covered, as well as to African American and Hispanic voters. Pivoting to immigration, Romney said the Obama campaign’s efforts to paint him as “anti-immigrant” had been effective and that the administration’s promise to offer what he called “amnesty” to the children of illegal immigrants had helped turn out Hispanic voters in record numbers.

LA Times

Earth to Mitt -- it turned out most of us didn't want you. You had nothing to offer to the majority of the people. Your only accomplishment has been making yourself rich by destroying other peoples' livelihoods and bilking deluded donors. Go hang out with your car elevator and shut up. It's over.
***
UPDATE:
My Congresscritter gets Mitt. H/t Garance Franke-Ruta.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A decade of visions, victories, follies and fun

Despite working intensively on the Prop. 34 campaign for the last year, I did actually read and think about a few books during that long season. What I didn't have was the mental and emotional energy to comment on them here. But look out: I'm about to make up for that omission while I continue to digest the lessons of the campaign.

Ten Years that Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1978, an anthology by several dozen authors, worked exceptionally well for reading when exhausted; it's a multifaceted story of our fascinating city broken into bite size chunks. I lived San Francisco's Seventies so much of the terrain was familiar. It's easy to be nostalgic about a time of such energy, invention and sense that we could build the world anew -- or maybe my friends and I were just naive. But living was cheap and innovation abounded. There was much that seems ugly in retrospect: the People's Temple role in the city culminating in mass murder/suicide in particular. But the novel notion of gay freedom took center stage (and many of us needed all the liberation we could get!), the Mission wrestled with its Latin identity and many people experimented with alternative ways of making a living besides working for "the man."

And there are accomplishments that continue to set the tone of the city. I've written elsewhere about how San Bruno Mountain was preserved as open space because of some crazy environmentalists of that time. But this, from political activist Calvin Welch just floored me. Pretty much of anyone middle class and poorer who remains in San Francisco owes their ability to stay to the struggles of that era.

The existence of the community housing movement by 1977 would so influence the district-elected Board of Supervisors that in 1979 they passed San Francisco's Rent Stabilization and Arbitration ordinance, which by 2008 covered some 170,000 rental units. By 2008 an additional nearly 2,000 units of inclusionary housing (permanently affordable units) have been developed, also as a result of the advocacy of the community-based housing movement.

These 198,000 units of price-controlled housing constitute some 54% of San Francisco's entire housing stock. No such permanently "price-protected" housing existed in 1968 outside of the relative handful of public housing units which made up less than 1% of the housing stock. Over half of the City's housing remains within reach for most of its residents solely because of the struggles, events, victories, and setbacks of the decade of community organizing between 1968 and 1978.

Take that Downtown financial barons! We still believe and struggle for a city that should belong to its working people, not just socialites and financiers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Of social arsonists and voters

One of the privileges of working on the recent ballot measure campaign to end California's death sentences was the occasion to meet people who'd labored in those vineyards more years than I've been alive. As I limp toward being an elder myself, I become increasingly grateful for those who have gone before.

One of these elders passed along a copy of a little booklet assembled from the sayings of one of the people who had inspired him -- Axioms for Organizers by Fred Ross Sr., the legendary mentor to Cesar Chavez. A downloadable version is available at the link. The aphoristic contents are full of tips and truths. Here are a few samples that particularly strike me:

An organizer is a leader who does not lead but gets behind the people and pushes.

90% of organizing is follow-up.

Good organizers never give up – they get the opposition to do that.

How can you move others unless you are moved yourself?

An organizer tries to turn each person she meets into a temporary organizer.

Reminding is the essence of organizing.

When you find “live-wires” put them to work immediately. Find something they can do –any little thing –get them started and ready to do more,or you’ll lose them for the cause.

A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.

All true and all very much what I've experienced the work of organizing to be about.

I am reminded that organizing purists disdain electoral campaigns precisely because too many of them violate their notion of true organizing. An election is not about setting hopes ablaze or unleashing the untapped potential rabble-rousers inside many of us. Elections are about wide, shallow, time-limited mobilization that harnesses the power implicit, if underutilized, in voting. But people who successfully use the electoral arena to break new ground are building on a foundation of social mobilization that came out of past organizing.

One of my friends and mentors likes to quote another United Farm Workers Union stalwart, the Rev. Jim Drake, on this:

No good organizing is ever lost.

That seems to be true. Times and seasons flow back and forth between periods of deep organizing that changes people and sets them on new trajectories and moments of simply turning out (turning up?) that actualize the potential energy that organizing assembled. We need both.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Forever War: why are so many U.S. soldiers killing themselves?

120927-A-0461H-044
SGT Ruth Knowlton stands watch as vehicles passes through Salang Tunnel. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christopher Harper)

For the Veteran's Day holiday, consider this from Timothy Burke, an historian at Swarthmore College, posted to his blog Easily Distracted:

… why [are] Americans are not talking more about whether it is the wars we’re involved in and the sociopolitical context of post-9/11 service that are significantly to blame for this trend. I recognize that serving military, leaders and rank-and-file alike, cannot raise this point without violating the principle of civilian control. “Ours is not to question why”. So when the military sets out to ask, “What can we do about suicide rates”, they can’t raise or even consider the rejoinder, “Don’t send soldiers to be occupiers, don’t fight counter-insurgency wars unless you absolutely must, don’t ask soldiers to be nation-builders, don’t purposefully imagine your wars as endless and without hope of final victory.” If the military turns to experts and pays them for advice, they can’t purchase a product which includes even a discussion of those points.

Which is why it falls to Americans, both citizens and leaders, to step up to the plate and have the conversation that our serving military can’t have. Occupation under the best of circumstances is a peculiarly stressful mission for militaries. It’s much worse when some proportion, maybe most, of the populations in occupied territories hate or resent their occupiers, and worse again when the occupiers don’t know the local languages, don’t understand the local cultures, and have few if any points of historical connection to the places or people where they are deployed.

… A soldier enlisting today knows that whomever wins in November, we will still be fighting the Global War on Terror in terms which have deviated very little from their initial post-9/11 envisioning. A soldier enlisting today knows that there are many people inside the Beltway who are actively spoiling for a war with Iran, and anyone who has seen military service since 9/11 has to guess at some of the probable contours and consequences of such a conflict. Even before actually seeing service in a GWOT theater, serving military might begin to feel the emotional consequences of this knowledge, particularly if they’re training with or coming to know soldiers and their families who have already endured deployment. We are in a forever war now and there is virtually no one in political leadership who holds out even a faint hope that we might think otherwise about the uses of our military and our role in the world.

…Our current soldiers can’t look around and feel they are part of a universal fellowship, a shared sacrifice. They don’t see their whole hometowns there with them. Their units aren’t made up of the scrappy street kid from Brooklyn, the WASP from Boston, the surfer dude from California, the professor’s son from Ann Arbor, the guy whose dad made a fortune in railroad shipping. The US military is really our last, best meritocracy, one of the few American institutions that’s become more egalitarian and fair over time. It’s a model in many ways for the social aspirations that we’ve trashed and lost and forgotten. Inside its boundaries, that is. But outside? Our military is also professionalized and apart. It’s not a mirror of America any longer. It’s not even that most of us don’t serve or imagine serving. It’s that people don’t care much at all about what the military does or endures, beyond increasingly hollow and ritualistic appreciations for our “soldiers abroad”.

…Historians with a long view might recognize the evolving contours of this situation. It rarely turns out well when a society with imperial commitments makes heavy use of an increasingly professionalized, socially detached military with a warrior ethos and a high degree of skill who feel that their suffering is unappreciated and unrewarded. …

My emphasis. The whole thing is even better (and more coherent) than these excerpts. Go read it all.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

11 am on 11/11 -- the Armistice finally comes

So ended what contemporaries called "The Great War" and what European and U.S. historians call World War I. (What do historians who don't work in a Eurocentric tradition call this bloody folly? I don't know.) The scarcely readable text on the burial marker reads "the last Boche (German) shell -- a dud." The little German (or possibly Frenchman?) receiving a British Tommy's helmet and a smoke sure looks underfed.

The paradigmatic war of the last century began in popular enthusiasm for guns and glory, slogged without unequivocal resolution through trenches of mud and mass slaughter, and ended (perhaps paused) on at 11:00am/11/11 with European civilization in shreds and the seeds of further violence deeply sown among peoples bloodied and deranged.

The first World War produced some of history's first combat footage. Here's one of the better samples I was able to turn up.

The Great War all seems so long ago -- but both my parents were alive and easily old enough to remember that war. It gave shape to what historian Eric Hobsbawm called "short 20th century" from 1914-1989. Current upheavals in the Arab world take place within boundaries set without consent of the governed in a settlement imposed by its victors. The echoes are still with us.

In the United States, thousands of miles away and with millions less killed in that conflict, it is easy to forget. We call November 11 "Veterans Day" (not "Armistice Day" as in Britain or "Remembrance Day" as in Canada) and cheer for soldiers in fatigues at football games.

I still believe understanding World War I matters for building peace in this time and have written extensively about it: here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: Wowser meets a cousin!

wowser & cousin.jpg
For nearly two years now, I've driven a car that turns heads. Wowser, as our house-partner named her, is a pretty unique color. Ford seems to have painted very few of them in this shade. In those two years, I think I've seen one other.

Until, not so long ago, one turned up parked on our very street. A relative? Must be.
***
Still too pooped from the election to attempt substance. But that will come.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Friday cat blogging

morty eyes a visitor.JPG
The visitor wants to be friendly. But Morty is stand-offish. Does this foolish creature properly understand who is boss around here?

Morty knows.JPG
He accepts proper homage when humbly delivered.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Voting obstacles got to go

As I sat yesterday with my Prop. 34 comrades kicking around the defeat (there'll be more here about that campaign eventually, but not yet), I found myself blurting something I didn't expect: "I could imagine throwing myself into the struggle for voting rights in the next few years ..."

Uh-oh. I've said things like that before and, at least I as remember it, sometimes that has led to long term, arduous commitments. It is not clear to me what that means, except that I know that this struggle needs a lot more than just lawyers. Like everything meaningful in a democracy, it needs broad citizen engagement. So expect further exploration of voting practices, processes and possibilities here for awhile.

Here's a data set from Tuesday:
Four years ago patterns were similar.

More than eight in 10 voters said their polling places were very well run; seven in 10 said poll workers performed excellently; and less than 1% rated their service as "poor."

Black voters, however, reported waiting in lines for an average of 29 minutes to vote on Election Day and 43 minutes to cast ballots before Election Day, as 34 states allow. That was more than twice the average wait for others: 13 minutes on Election Day and 20 minutes when voting early.

Something happening here ...

When I had the privilege of providing technical assistance to left poltiical parties learning how to contest elections in El Salvador, these very sharp folks had a concise description for the procedural hurdles their constituents encountered in trying to vote. They called registration snafus and apparent infrastructural failures "strategic incompetence" by the right-wing rulers.

I suspect this country needs national standards to root out local electoral strategic incompetence by whoever the powers-may-be at any given moment.


Wednesday, November 07, 2012

A lovely election except in my little corner of the world


Here's the new Senator from Massachusetts, telling it like it is.

And here's the new lesbian Senator from Wisconsin -- who'd have thought such a person would ever exist?
“There will not be a magic day when we wake up and it’s now O.K. to express ourselves publicly. We make that day by doing things publicly until it’s simply the way things are.”Tammy Baldwin from Queers in History

Who were the voters who made this day?

The exit polls show the white share of the electorate declining to just 72 percent, 2 points lower than 2008. African American turnout held at 13 percent, while the Hispanic share of the electorate reached 10 percent--up from 8 percent in 2008. The exit polls also show Obama winning Latino voters by an even larger margin than he did in 2008, 69-29.

Nate Cohn

That's the country we're stumbling toward. I like it here. The struggle to end the death penalty will go on, though California was not ready for Prop. 34 this year.

Lots more to come, but for today, I'm ready for my first day in a year not being obsessed about a future election.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Monday, November 05, 2012

Identity politics


Since I read this by Tom Scocca in Slate over the weekend, I've thought that I should comment on it.

There is a real, airtight bubble in this election, but it's not Obama's. As a middle-aged white man, in fact, I'm breaching it. White people—white men in particular—are for Mitt Romney. White men are supporting Mitt Romney to the exclusion of logic or common sense, in defiance of normal Americans. Without this narrow, tribal appeal, Romney's candidacy would simply not be viable. Most kinds of Americans see no reason to vote for him.

This fact is obfuscated because white people control the political media. So we get the Washington Post reporting that the election is "more polarized along racial lines than any other contest since 1988"...

Polarization would mean that various races were mutually pulling apart, toward their favored candidates. "Minorities" is not a race (nor, you may have noticed, is "women"). Minorities and women are the people standing still, while white men run away from them.

…White people don't like to believe that they practice identity politics. The defining part of being white in America is the assumption that, as a white person, you are a regular, individual human being. Other demographic groups set themselves apart, to pursue their distinctive identities and interests and agendas. Whiteness, to white people, is the American default. …

But in truth, I couldn't think of anything to say.

If you live in California, this sad development is simply obvious. We went over this hump back in the late 1990s and we know we aren't going back. The local Republican Party has become a strange, distorted white rump faction, unable to attract more than a third of the electorate. The rest of us are trying to figure out how to restore the state they broke on the way out the door. I tend to believe we'll get there, though it is going to be tough. We need to restore the democratic power to tax by simple majorities, rebuild our once great infrastructure and educational system, and turn from fear to hope. We're trying -- in particular, note that even today's hobbled California has launched several initiatives to recognize and combat with the threat of climate change, more than we can say for much of the nation.

Let's give Chris Rock the last word on this:


H/t Digby for the cartoon. H/t to Annie Laurie at Balloon Juice for Chris.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Malign malarky of racial essentialism persists

On Friday, the the New York Times printed an obituary for psychologist Arthur R. Jensen. Though the kerfuffle is little remembered these days, I knew that name. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley in the 1960s, Jensen advanced the theory that scores on IQ tests showed that African Americans were intellectually inferior to whites. Or at least many of us thought that was the implication of his work.

You didn't have to be a genius, then or now, to recognize what hooey that assertion is. The only thing IQ tests measure is the ability to score well on IQ tests. If a test yields consistently different results across different populations, the object of study should be the test, not the population.

I had thought that respectable scientists outside such intellectual backwaters as the Heritage Foundation had noticed this. The much mourned Stephen Jay Gould eloquently demolished such drivel in The Mismeasure of Man.

But apparently educational psychologists remain mesmerized by and convinced that their tests prove something. At the very end of a long obituary, the Times saw fit to include incisive criticism of the malign malarky Jensen came to stand for:

“Socioeconomic status turns out to be the best predictor of your I.Q. score,” Sonja C. Grover, an educational psychologist at Lakehead University in Ontario, said on Wednesday. “Socioeconomic status has to do with your quality of schooling, the quality of the teachers that you’re exposed to. Many people who do poorly on an I.Q. test have a very poor fund of general knowledge, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not intelligent.”

A 1981 book by Professor Grover, “The Cognitive Basis of the Intellect,” was written as a response to Professor Jensen’s book “Bias in Mental Testing” (1980). In that book, he argued that it is possible to construct tests of general intelligence that are free of cultural bias, which in turn makes it possible to isolate heredity as a wellspring of intellect.

But in focusing on the link between genetics and intellectual ability, Professor Grover said on Wednesday, Professor Jensen’s work has sweeping, and potentially grave, implications.

“It was irrelevant and not particularly useful to suggest, as those who endorse Jensen have, that Jensen was just holding a politically incorrect point of view and that’s why he was being criticized,” she said. “His studies and his influence would have a dramatic effect on the perception that people have about minority groups and their potential, and even their right to a quality education.”

She added: “In no way am I suggesting that he wasn’t completely well intentioned. But I would make the point that you cannot separate social science from human rights, regardless of what side of the fence you’re on.”

Hear, hear!

I'm sure Professor Jensen was a perfectly nice human being to people in his world. But his theories have supported vicious undermining of the educational struggles of disadvantaged people.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

This is the march for our time


There will be other struggles in the future, but this is today's. Off to walk a precinct ...

Friday, November 02, 2012

Death penalty: "All cost and no benefit"


According to today's San Francisco Chronicle:

Death-penalty measure's support jumps
A ballot measure to repeal California's death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole has gained support in the last week and leads by 45 to 38 percent among likely voters in the final Field Poll before Tuesday's election

The poll, conducted Oct. 25-30, was the first to show a lead for Proposition 34, which had trailed 42 to 45 percent in the last survey in mid-September. Polling also found that a majority agreed with one of Prop. 34's major premises - that the death penalty is more expensive than life without parole - and a plurality said innocent people are executed "too often."

Some other recent statewide polls have reported Prop. 34 trailing by as much as seven percentage points. But Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said his organization's new survey was more up-to-date and found that the measure's margin of support had widened by six percentage points in a single week. …

…Yes on 34 campaign director Natasha Minsker said the poll results indicate voters are getting the message.

"When they hear our message and they hear the facts, they are much more likely to support the initiative," she said. "I think it really shows that the voters are learning the death penalty is all cost and no benefit."

… Sponsors of Prop. 34 have stressed the severity of a life sentence with no hope of release and made the cost of the death penalty their leading issue - $130 million a year more than a life-without-parole system, according to the Legislature's fiscal analyst, a figure that opponents dispute.

The new Field Poll found, for the first time, that a strong majority - 53 to 31 percent - agreed that the death penalty was more expensive than life without parole, a question that produced an even split a year ago.

Off to get out the vote.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

So get out there and vote!


Thoughtful posts have been few around here for the last little bit of time and they'll only get fewer as I work to get out the vote over the next few days. I'm not the only one; I was a little astonished to step over this graffiti on the sidewalk last night on the way to pick up Chinese food. Somebody with a spray paint can is on the same track. Not the most targeted effort, but pointing the right direction.
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