Monday, December 31, 2012

A nice fantasy for the New Year

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As I write, the "fiscal cliff" talks seem to have collapsed. Maybe those guys in Washington will put them together again, maybe not. I can't bring myself to care.

The realities of the situation remain the same: government has certain necessary tasks that it must perform for the common good. We argue about what those tasks are, but in the last election the majority of the people rendered some clear direction:
  • The government should support job creation in every way possible;
  • The economy should be made to work for ordinary people, not just for vulture capitalists;
  • Elders should retain access to affordable health care through Medicare and there should be no cuts Social Security;
  • Education should be accessible to young people who want it.
  • We expect government to provide a safety net for people who have been crushed by an under-regulated economic system that privileges greed.
  • No more dumb wars.
All these items except the last cost money. Roughly speaking, the policy of President Obama and the Democrats is to get the money for the government to do its job from the people who have the money -- that is, from rich people. It is the policy of the Republicans to put the government out of business. We rejected the latter option.

For the moment, the Prez and his fractious Democratic partners seem to be hanging tough, sticking up for the people who put them in office. The fantasy is that Dems will stay the course. The degree to which they do so will depend on how much heat they feel from constituents. We can't let up on them -- that's my fantasy for the New Year.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Books in the past year

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That's not a book case. Note the reflectors at the bottom right and left. That's the painted rear of a truck parked on 24th Street in San Francisco yesterday.
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The side panel proclaimed the vehicle an Archive … I do not claim to understand.
***
Nearly everyone I know has shifted over the last few years from reading books in their weighty, musty paper versions to using one of the various available electronic tablets. Josh Marshall who edits TPM describes how the transition happened for him.

I never had this desire to stop reading physical books. I was always into the physicality of books. This I just stumbled into. When I first got an iPhone I tried out the Kindle app for iPhone and discovered that even on that tiny non-ideal screen, it worked for me. Then I bought an actual Kindle, which pretty much worked. And then when the iPad came out, I downloaded that Kindle app and I was done with physical books. I haven’t bought one in at least a couple years now and I’m not sure I ever will again unless I find something I really, really need to read that isn’t out in a digital edition (and yes, it does constrict the numbers of books I can read.)

So far, I haven't been willing to move to a tablet. Why? It's not that I enjoy lugging heavy objects around -- nor giving up whole walls of our small living space to bookcases.

The stumbling block is that I'm not yet convinced that I'm willing to lose the miracle that is the public library. We live within a half a block of a branch. I can order any book in their collection; it will be delivered around the corner and I can keep it at least 3 weeks -- all for FREE. (Yes, I know my city taxes pay librarians and library bonds; that's a good thing!) The collection is wide ranging, though maybe a couple of months behind publication dates. But nearly everything anyone ever wrote can wait. And not everything I want to read has been published in the last ten years and hence electronically available, not by a long shot.

Yes, the library does have some kind of system for making e-book loans. I've looked at it and I don't quite get how it works. Maybe that's my future; at the moment it seems to be at an awkward stage: workable but anti-intuitive.

So for now I won't join the tablet readers, however much I envy them those light-weight, sleek appliances. Maybe soon, but not quite yet. I'll stick with the library -- and what book purchases I make will be audiobooks, volumes I can *read* while walking or exercising. After all, I can always get the print versions from the library …
***
Most years I record here which of the many volumes I've read stuck with me, made me think. This year there's no contest: I know which new book haunted my life and imagination throughout the year, but, oddly, I never directly wrote about it here, though I alluded to it often enough. Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is one of those rare "big books" that tries, hubristically, to explain all human history -- and at least makes a case for itself. Pinker thinks the species has become less violent, less destructive , kinder, even gentler, over time and sets out to prove his thesis. Professional historians hate this sort of thing because the effort always falls victim to anachronistic thinking that erases the particularity of past eras; scientists shout "confirmation bias" (seeing what you expect and want in the evidence) on contact. And it doesn't help that Pinker himself comes across in the book as an intellectually arrogant twit who has always enjoyed being the smartest guy in the room.

But he's on to something and I recommend it to anyone up for a romp through human history in 800 mind-expanding pages. The sheer length commends this book for tablet reading ...

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: behind the fence

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Sometimes it's (sort of) obvious that the fence is there you keep you out ...

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But it can be interesting to look through a fence.

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Not much to see through this fence ... unless you step back 10 feet from your screen. Go ahead ... try it.

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Sure I can photographed the garden, but isn't the previous image more interesting?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Friday cat blogging

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On these cold dark winter mornings, I awake to the discovery that something has come between the humans in the bed. If I could see, which I can't in the dark, I'd find a face like this one installed inches away on the pillow. Morty has decided he likes the spot where the pillows and bedcovers meet and appropriates it once we've dozed off. I don't even know he is there, unless I reach across, expecting skin and encountering fur.

When I think about it, it makes me a little anxious to find a creature who doesn't seem to appreciate the damage teeth and claws can do ensconced just inches from my face. What if he stretches? The claws come out then ...

But so far we coexist peacefully, Mr. Furry Brain and his human servants.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

For this "most charitable time of the year ..."

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Exuberant art deco mural in City Hall, Buffalo, NY

If you've ever had to raise money from rich people for a cause you cared about, you will love Reuters financial columnist Felix Salmon's article: Philanthropy: You’re doing it wrong. He's obviously not currently having to work the begging circuit, so he tells it like it is.

… since I’m personally feeling very charitable right now, I’ve decided to do you all the favor of telling you that when it comes to philanthropy, you’re doing it wrong.

Interestingly, philanthropy is one of those areas where the richer you are, the more likely you are to be doing it spectacularly wrong. So to make you feel better still, this is aimed mainly at the mega-philanthropists: the people who give away millions of dollars and feel fantastic for doing so. …

… Let’s run down the list of things you’re likely to be doing wrong, if you’re a rich philanthropist:

  • You meddle in the internal workings of the charities you donate to, even though you’re not on the board. …
  • You set up your own foundation. …
  • You fund architecture. …
  • You encourage mission creep. …
  • You kid yourself that your mere presence on the board, or your “celebrity endorsement”, is valuable. …
  • You’re a tease.
  • You think that going to to charity balls constitutes charitable activity. …
  • ...have some humility. Here’s one idea: for every dollar you spend on overhead and payroll at your foundation, make sure that you donate a dollar earmarked for overhead and payroll somewhere else. Those are the funds which are always the hardest to raise, after all. …
  • …Finally, there’s something that all of us can do, whether we’re dynastically rich or really rather poor: volunteering. But weirdly, volunteering is harder for the rich, who can more easily afford the time commitment: they often think that time spent volunteering is wasted.…The problem with this logic is that it ignores the enormous value to the volunteer of volunteering

When I work on political campaigns, I often find myself telling the unfortunate folks trying to raise the money that political donors are different people than charitable donors. (I'm usually fortunate mostly to be tasked with the spending, not the begging, though I try to do my part.) They are not entirely different, but the political giving impetus works slightly differently. Political donors are more straightforward about their ambition to change how the world works. There's more ostensible emphasis on efficacy; a little less about massaging their self-esteem. But most of Salmon's items have campaign analogues:
  • Donors are tempted to think they are strategic political geniuses -- but in fact they are less likely than the average person to have a finger on the pulse of what matters to ordinary voters. The lives of the rich are different.
  • Setting up a campaign committee and planning a campaign requires some legal and experiential professionalism; the donors need to trust the people who do this work, not think they can replace them. Yes, democracy is a participatory enterprise, even for the rich, but there are rules to know and skills to acquire that no one is born with.
  • Don't judge a campaign by whether it has a fancy office. Some of the more effective campaigns I've seen have been run out of dingy holes in the wall; the campaign needs computers and printing facilities, it doesn't need nice furniture.
  • Endorsements are necessary to campaigns to signal who is lining up behind them; however even genuinely respected political figures can rarely directly shift votes. And celebrities add almost nothing to campaign's success. Sorry -- politics just doesn't work that way.
  • If you decide to contribute, don't dole out the funds over time. Throw down. Early money makes for winners. Money in the last month is much less useful to the campaign and much less likely to make a difference.
  • Political fundraising events are the analogue of charity balls: necessary evils that by themselves do nothing to win votes. Give the money and ask your friends to chip in; skip the expensive party.
  • Do volunteer on the campaign. Active participation in the democratic process offers an opportunity to meet your fellow citizens without filters. It's educational.
As Salmon says, in politics as in philanthropy,

… there’s no good reason why you should be part of the problem.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jury duty

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Would you believe, I've been summoned for jury duty the morning after Christmas? Neither do I believe it, but I am required to report.

Don't get me wrong -- I think juries are a generally good thing, sometimes even surprisingly wise. And I love the air of civic earnestness that most people bring to the jury pool. Sure, hardly anyone is happy to have their life disrupted. But once resigned to their fate, people take the task seriously.

But I know I'll never be on a jury. I've worked in so many venues and know so many people that there is always something to disqualify me. No responsible lawyer on any side would take a chance on me, for good or ill. My only function is to pump up the numbers. Reporting for duty feels futile.

Regular blogging will resume when they let me go.

UPDATE: Well that was quick ... I've been excused for "hardship." The trial was expected to continue into the week next month during which I've got tickets to Kauai. That's cause for dismissal of a potential juror.

About 90 of us were in the first batch brought into a courtroom for a criminal trial. The defendant was an older black man, well dressed. Among the panel of jury candidates, only two were obviously African-American. One of those was one of the 30 or so of us released for various hardships.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Joyeux Noël

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May all your holidays be bright.

Monday, December 24, 2012

New life is born again, again and again

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A Song of Julian of Norwich

God chose to be our mother in all things •
and so made the foundation of his work,
most humble and most pure,
in the Virgin’s womb.

God, the perfect wisdom of all, •
arrayed himself in this humble place.

Christ came in our poor flesh •
to share a mother’s care.

Our mothers bear us for pain and for death; •
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.

Christ carried us within him in love and travail, •
until the full time of his passion.

And when all was completed and he had carried us so for joy, •
still all this could not satisfy the power of his wonderful love.

All that we owe is redeemed in truly loving God, •
for the love of Christ works in us; Christ is the one whom we love.

We sang this throughout the Advent season. Sometimes I cried.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

An unexpected voice of the season ...

Since I'm taking my retirement on the installment plan this year -- that's what I do for awhile after working political campaigns -- I'm trying to check in on all the East Armpit Bowls this year. "East Armpit" is the label we use around this house for obscure football games that the TV powers-that-be put on to sate the hunger of fans like us who will watch just about any gladiators bang away at each other. Bowls before Christmas are as Armpit-ish as they come, plus they are sponsored by a bizarre array of minor business enterprises like body shops and moving companies we never hear of any other time of year. For this fan, they are an intriguing, if outlandish, window on the national culture.

Naturally many of these contests between "bowl eligible" teams (they need six regular season victories to get an invite) are snooze fests. I've proved that. In my quest to get at least a look at all of them, I often record them for viewing later in the evening. So far this year I've fallen asleep watching both the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and the Beef O'Brady Bowl.

But I try to catch at least a bit of all of them. Sometimes you see a dazzlingly accomplished player. The current ascendancy of San Francisco 49er phenom quarterback Colin Kaepernick is no surprise if you watched his college -- Nevada (Reno) -- in Armpit games over the years. And sometimes the teams bring a passion to these obscure games that makes them more interesting than overhyped "championships" between arrogant behemoths (that's Notre Dame v. Alabama if you've been hiding in a hole.) The very first of this year's offerings, the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, was a riveting gem of a game.

I had no hopes at all for one of the most Armpit-ish of these bowls played yesterday, the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl between East Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette. That what??? But when I tuned in, I was surprised to hear a woman's voice doing the play-by-play. And not any female voice. This woman may not be a lesbian -- her life is her business -- but she's got the kind of deep voice that people associate with dykeyness in a woman. A little internet research told me she was Beth Mowins, a student athlete turned professional ESPN commentator.

Women doing football play-by-play work are rarer than blue moons, so I stuck around to see how she did. She did okay, nothing great. The play-by-play job consists of telling the viewers what they just saw quickly, coherently and accurately. I suspect it is hard -- and you know that thousands of people are ready to scream at the screen if you blow the down or distance call -- as you undoubtedly sometimes will. Mowins did fine. Mediocre is really successful when you aren't supposed to be there are all.

And she certainly is not. She is one of only two women who've ever called a broadcast football game. She inspires the venom of legions of angry football fans, mostly male. Here's a relatively polite specimen:

… ESPN2 puts Beth Mowings in as an announcer OMG IS SHE ANNOYING!!!!!!!! I can’t stand her voice!! [Who] would marry her, I keep thinking who is Beth Mowins husband and how miserable must they be!

You get the gist …

Evidently this career is something she wants very much. Good for Beth Mowins.

The game turned out to be moderately interesting as well, for an Armpit Bowl. Happy football season to all.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ready for Christmas ...

The great American consumption binge that is Christmas in is full flower on Mission Street in San Francisco. This segment of the street is the city's equivalent of Delancey Street in New York, a jumble of discount bazaars offering cheap Chinese imprts.

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I thought of this display when I read this:

IMAGINE walking into the toy department and noticing several distinct aisles. In one, you find toys packaged in dark brown and black, which include the “Inner-City Street Corner” building set and a “Little Rapper” dress-up kit. In the next aisle, the toys are all in shades of brown and include farm-worker-themed play sets and a “Hotel Housekeeper” dress.

If toys were marketed solely according to racial and ethnic stereotypes, customers would be outraged, and rightfully so. Yet every day, people encounter toy departments that are rigidly segregated — not by race, but by gender. There are pink aisles, where toys revolve around beauty and domesticity, and blue aisles filled with toys related to building, action and aggression. ...

Elizabeth Sweet, NY Times.

The whole is worth reading. Apparently gender-based toy marketing has made a big comeback.

This trend makes me ache for the child who doesn't fit the gender stereotypes. By enforcing this division, we say to many children that they are no good at being part of their own society.

I know. I was a cap-gun waving, sword-fighting, riotous bundle of little girl energy as a child in the 1950s. Curiously it may have been easier to violate gender norms then: those of us who were misfits were just "experimenting"; the adults trusted we'd grow out of it. Nowadays, girls actually can grow up to attend West Point and end up in combat. The society approves. But we still demand they conform to gender stereotypes and even reinforce those with "science."

Is it possible that some contemporary children comfortably outfox the social rules, learn early to play gender as a game of possibilities rather than restrictions, sail through childhood's obstacle course, and emerge comfortably themselves. I've seen a few of these who seem to have little trouble navigating the gender minefield. But I weep at this season for the ones whose way of appearing in the world seems to violate their inner being. This is a tough way to come up.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Irish-American working class woman adrift ...

I strongly looked forward to the public library acquiring Joan Walsh's What's the Matter with White People?: Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was. Walsh spent six years as Salon's editor in chief. I've read her for years and learned to trust her consistent injection of a woman's perspective into the all-too-male enterprise of progressive liberal punditry. Besides, as a white woman myself, I wanted an answer to the question posed by her title. Finally I got a crack at it. Here are some reactions.

Walsh's book is a personal story, not an analytic exercise. It's the tale of how her Irish immigrant working class relatives drifted away from supporting racial and economic justice and away from liberal Democrats. Like too many older whites, they somehow ended up in the party of the plutocrats, of G.W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. It is also the tale of how Walsh managed to remain a liberal Democrat despite feeling out of place among progressives. And so, necessarily, it is a story of feeling whiplashed, without a place.

Like such authors as Rick Perlstein, Jefferson Cowie, and even the too little noted Judith Stein, Walsh points to the late 60s and the 70s as a hinge time, the time when the white working class became alienated from Democrats.

Because Democrats were in charge when the country came undone in the 1960s, Democrats got blamed. …

… prosperity undermined the New Deal coalition, giving white workers the freedom to believe their enemy was black protesters and white hippies, while providing the New Left with the dream it could create a progressive majority coalition without big labor. The two groups suddenly had the luxury of hating each other, of focusing on their cultural differences, because their economic battles seemed to have been won.

She mourns the disdain and ignorance with which liberals treated the terrible history of Irish suffering -- somehow other people's travails counted more than those of her people. None of us respond well to feeling our culture has been dismissed.

And Walsh experienced a particular wrenching that many white progressives felt in the Reagan era:

… I had given up on my working-class family; I tuned out their problems and anything they had to say that was legitimate. I was out of touch with the number of people who shared their concerns and blissfully ignorant of what the new Reagan Republicans would impose on the national scene in the coming decades -- a full-scaled Republican revolution that used social issues to inflame the people I grew up with, while betraying their economic interests.

She identifies with the experience Obama recounts in his autobiography of checking out the squabbling sectarian left groups of that era while seeking a political home and, like him, recoiling at their lack of realism and of an inspiring vision.

A savvy post movement do-gooder stayed away from that leftover left. … Obama went into community organizing, I went into community journalism. Trying to be effective in the Reagan years, we mostly had small dreams.

I lived some of the same sense of losing my place (though my mostly WASP family had always been Republicans of the now-extinct northeastern sort), but for me, insurgent feminism filled the hole where New Deal populism might have once lived. Though Walsh is the epitome in some ways of what the women's movement has won us -- a Hillary-admirer, a writer, a TV commentator who brings a woman's experience to politics -- the women's movement doesn't seem to have served her as a political home in that difficult time. She reports with resentment her feeling of having no place in social struggles in which race seemed to trump concerns for economic justice.

In at least two different Oakland meetings, heavily attended by welfare-rights groups, the very same African American woman stood up, as if on cue, pointed to me sitting with the decision-makers, and said angrily, "There's only one reason you're sitting there, and I'm standing here." No one needed to spell out the reason: that I was white. I understood her anger, but it felt like theater, not practical politics intended to bring about change. (I also noticed that "minorities" always singled out other "minorities" at such times. Why didn't she suggest an older white male colleague had taken the place that should have been hers?)

I'm a little older than Walsh with a different political history, but I've been in some of those meetings -- in Oakland in fact. Come on Joan -- you shine that stuff on. It will either pass away or it won't; you'll either be accepted for your work by people whose work you respect or you won't; there's nothing to do but let it go and do the work. I'm sure she knows that, but the book is a testament to how hard it has been for her to hang on to what she knows.

Anyone who has read this far will have gathered that I'm ambivalent about What's the Matter with White People? It didn't help as much as I hoped in answering its own question. I can't stop with recognizing the humanity of people whose bitterness (yes -- bitterness and disappointment, I will just say it) keeps them acting politically against their own self-interest. I want to know what we can do -- truthfully, respectfully -- to help them change that. I'm an activist, I guess.

On the other hand, if you don't know much about the history of Irish assimilation in the U.S. melting pot, this is a good and valuable book. There are more histories in this country than we realize and we become more ourselves as we assimilate more of them.

Move-On is moving


President Obama -- stand up for people who need Social Security, Medicare, and I'll add Medicaid!

This is a tough ad. Let's help get it out there.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Standing up to save her home

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The Rev. Gloria Del Castillo listens while a small crowd rallied in front of Citibank in San Francisco this morning.

Citibank wants to sell Del Castillo's home out from under her on December 31. With the financial crisis, she had lost half her paid hours and couldn't afford her mortgage payments. She had been negotiating with the bank to refinance for months, submitting paper, re-submitting more paper when they lost some of it, making phone calls, etc. At the same time, without notifying this Episcopal priest, the bank had been completing legal foreclosure proceedings. Last week she found a notice on her door that her house would be sold next week. This underhanded behavior by a bank is called "dual-tracking."

On January 1, dual-tracking will be outlawed by the California Home Owners Bill of Rights. Rev. Gloria traveled to Sacramento last spring with other clergy leaders from the San Francisco Organizing Project to lobby for these protections. Citibank is out to get her before she enjoys the protections of the law she worked to pass.

Her friends, her congregation, and numerous faith leaders rallied to stop this. Instructions on how to call the bank here.

UPDATE: When Rev. Gloria carried a letter from protesters into the bank, Citibank employees said they'd be canceling the auction of her home set for December 31. Good news, but the bank has a lot to prove before we can be confident they are acting in good faith.

Wind-powered mine clearing

Damn, we're an ingenious animal! We make horror and we invent ways to abate our horrors.

Mine Kafon | Callum Cooper from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

A boy from Kabul grows up to be an engineer in the Netherlands … and comes up with an ingenious device for making his country and other combat zones livable again.

H/t Afghanistan War.

Incongruously, this clip is available thanks a contest sponsored by the military contractor General Electric. They made the problem; they expect to profit from the solution?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What Barack Obama's pet accounting gimmick would do to us

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Here's the answer in one chart; the fine print points out this starts from the "Chained CPI" standard being in place for three years. So if you are, say, currently 62 and plan to take Social Security at 65, this is your future.

Why is Obama willing to give this to obstructionist Republicans? Damned if I know. If he does give it in the course of current fiscal negotiations, he better explain the truth: both Democrats and Republicans are signing on to force 90 year old ladies to get by on cat food.

This woman is about to lose her home

Losing Home, Fighting Back - Rev. Gloria's story from Stephen Eyer on Vimeo.

You can help stop the bank from selling her house out from under her. Even if you can't join us tomorrow -- Thursday, Dec. 20 at 10am at 245 Market St. in San Francisco -- to protest, you can call Citibank.

From the website of the San Francisco Organizing Project, here's how:

1. Call Citigroup Corporate Headquarters: (212) 559-1000 and ask for “Michael Corbat,” Citigroup’s CEO.

2. When the robot asks you if you are trying to reach Michael Corbat, say “Yes.” You will then be connected to the CEO’s office.

3. Tell them your name and that you would like to lodge a complaint with the CEO on behalf of Rev. Gloria del Castillo, whose home is being foreclosed upon. Tell them to cancel the auction of Rev. Gloria del Castillo’s home, explain that even though she has been in negotiations with CitiBank about her loan, she recently received notice that her home will be auctioned off on December 31st, one day before the Homeowner Bill of Rights goes into effect, making this practice of dual-tracking illegal in California.

4. In case they ask: Rev. Gloria’s phone number is (510) 837-1430, she serves a church in San Francisco and lives in El Sobrante, California.

UPDATE: A friend made one of these calls and reports she felt empowered by the experience.

I did call the Citigroup CEO's office and spoke to a secretary who really listened. She said they'd had a lot of calls about this case and that it may possibly be changed. So, I felt sort of powerful as I hung up -- and I'm going to ask all my friends to call, too. It's a little hassle to deal with the automated robot, but then you get connected to the CEO's office where a real person talks - and listens!

Warming Wednesdays: many expect government action

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The Public Religion Research Institute has good news and bad news on U.S. citizens' understanding of global warming.
  • Sixty-three percent of us believe weather is more extreme and human activity is the cause.
  • As the chart shows, 91 percent of those who see climate change happening want action to do something about it.
  • Majorities of the religiously unaffiliated and Catholics see climate change as causing weather disasters. So do 50 percent of white evangelical Protestants.
  • More than one third of us think that severe weather events show that we are entering the scriptural End Times. Most of these are Protestant evangelicals, but not nearly all.
  • Significantly,

    A majority (55%) of Americans agree that God gave human beings the task of living responsibly with the animals, plants, and resources of the planet, which are not just for human benefit. Nearly 4-in-10 (38%) Americans disagree, saying that God gave human beings the right to use animals, plans, and all the resources of the planet for human benefit.

  • Fifteen percent of us believe the world will end in accordance with Biblical prophesies in our lifetimes.
  • Unhappily, for the hope of getting anything done, our beliefs about climate change and end times correlate closely with our political divisions.

    Seven-in-ten (70%) Democrats and 65% of independents agree that the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of global climate change, compared to only 43% of Republicans. A majority (55%) of Republicans disagree.

    If anything is likely to fuel religious strife, that divide can do it.
As is so often the case in these surveys, mainline Protestants and religious congregations in the communities of color get no more than a glancing mention in these statistics. According to the Pew Forum 14 percent of us are mainline Protestants, 5 percent are Latino Catholics, and 16 percent are Black Protestants. The later two groups are increasing as a political force. All these religious segments of the population have been moving strongly toward the Democratic Party -- and, I imagine, toward the consensus Democratic stance of demanding climate action from government.

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" -- reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How NOT to cover a school shooting


Here's the BBC being self-critical after a previous episode.

Every time we have intense saturation coverage of a murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week.

I've had this squirreled away since I first ran across it via Jay Rosen. But in the aftermath of the Connecticut shooting, I too forgot what I had understood, along with everyone else.

Gun massacre preaching


Sunday night the President preached at Newtown, Connecticut. I would describe his message as "paternal." The guy is not usually all that forthcoming about what really matters to him; he's too carefully controlled, too cool, to reveal his moral foundations. But I suspect this speech gets close to the inspiration for his own trajectory: he feels responsible for making this a society (and a planet?) that ensures a good future for his own children and all children. Despite the 18 minute length, this is worth watching or you can read it here. He's telling us we are grown ups and asking us to act our age.

One of the instinctive, but unconsidered, linguistic tics we have recourse to when confronting the latest massacre is to invoke the "innocence" of the victims: "innocent" children, "innocent" civilians, always "innocents" … (Conservative columnist Ross Douhat provided a fine, maudlin example of the genre here.) Do we really mean that only the deaths of "innocents" count in some cosmic scale? And who are "innocents" anyway? Does the noun include the suffering crazy people who are often the perpetrators? Are young victims more "innocent" than ordinary adults caught in extraordinary circumstances? Why? Why not?

One of the best treatments of the "innocents" question that I've run across was in this reflection on the school shootings by the theologian Marilyn McCord Adams:

Visceral responses to attacks on our young are hard-wired. I think of Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit sculpture of Herod’s soldiers’ butchering, of the mothers’ tug-of-war vice-gripping their babies with primal rage and hysterical grief. Big-brained creatures need more time to mature, are vulnerable for longer. Biology builds in instincts to protect offspring at all costs. They are our species’ future. Human biology transposes this into the personal.

A sense of the "innocence" violated, whether among children or other random victims of atrocity, is not a moral categorization. Our sense that "innocence" is significant in our responses is an inarticulate recognition of our common humanity with people more directly touched or harmed.

A friend, a woman I admire -- not yet a priest but on the way to being a very good one I believe -- preached in church on Sunday. She quite successfully navigated the difficult business of tying the liturgical readings, the Advent season, and the Newtown horror into a coherent message of hope and possibility of love. But along the line, she used one phrase that yanked me out of the flow:

…the hurt of unjust violence …

What's that? What is "unjust" violence? Or alternatively, what is "just" violence? In a setting where the message is Hope died and comes alive again, I am not sure there is any such thing.

Having just been through a campaign to end death sentences in California, I've thought a good deal about "just" and "unjust" violence. At one level, our entire effort in support of Prop. 34 was to enable people to understand and internalize that the death penalty is not about "justice." It's insanely expensive, convoluted, and broken beyond repair, and cannot completely avoid the risk of making an irreparable mistake. To an astonishing degree, California voters internalized that message -- 48 percent of them.

Unfortunately, 52 percent did not. Some portion of the majority were people who have had personal experience of violent evil and want the perpetrators dead. But most of them were people applying a rather vague notion of desired "justice." When a heinous act has been done, someone should suffer -- that's a gut reaction, seldom a deeply considered conviction. When people put their minds to it, numerous other factors lead to a conclusion there are better responses to perceived harm. That is, more adult responses.

It's no crime to respond viscerally to the evil some of us do to other members of our species (not even to get into what we do to other species and the planet) -- but most of us do have to try to become grown ups and act our age.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Busy today ...

A friend, the Rev. Gloria Del Castillo, is facing foreclosure of her home at the end of the month. Yes, she was behind in her payments and the house is "underwater" -- worth less on the current market than her remaining mortgage debt would require her to pay.

She has been attempting to negotiate refinancing with the bank (CitiBank, in case you wondered) but apparently the bank has been engaged in the underhanded practice of "dual tracking" -- pursuing foreclosure without disclosing this while stalling talks with my friend.

On January 1, this sort of bank duplicity will be outlawed under legislation passed last year. So naturally CitiBank has scheduled foreclosure for the December 31.

Time to organize against this outrage!
The San Francisco Organizing Project has called for a press conference and demonstration outside a branch of the bank. Here's the information:
Thursday, Dec. 20 -- 10am sharp
CitiBank at 245 Market Street, near Embarcadero BART, SF

Call CitiBank Corporate Headquarters: 800-285-3000 and tell them to stop the auction of Rev. Gloria del Castillo’s home! Press 8 for the Directory, then press * for operator assistance, tell them your name and that you would like to lodge a complaint with the CEO on behalf of Gloria del Castillo, whose home is being foreclosed upon. You will probably be put on hold for a little while. More information about making these calls at SFOP.
Regular blogging will resume when I've done some organizing for this.

We need to put the banks on notice they can't get away with their greedy tactics.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gun despair

Yesterday my friend Ronni was taken to task by commenters for failing to devote her blog to the Connecticut school shootings.

I didn't write about the horror either. Why would I? There is no reason to believe that anything is going to change. Crazy people we will always have with us. The Supreme Court has adopted crackpot legal interpretations that protect the right of lunatics to possess weapons. Many states let nuts carry their guns wherever they go. We don't yet ordain that broken, angry people must have firearms, but as a society we've decided we want guns to be so available that if such folks want guns, they'll have no trouble getting them.

For too many of us, this bumper sticker (sighted in Massachusetts) says it all. (You might need to click on it to see a larger image. Then hit the back button of your browser to get back here.)

Then, when nature takes its course, we soothe ourselves with perfunctory wailing, maybe a vigil or two, and move on, just glad it wasn't our town, our school, our friends … this time.

What's to write about? Call me when you've got a strategy to extirpate gun culture. Until then, we can expect nothing but repeats of Newtown.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: urban eyecatchers

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Just looking at you ...

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Always a good idea, but points off for spelling ...

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Cri de couer ...

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Breath taking.

Contemporary Hannukah


A friend passes this along ...


Friday, December 14, 2012

Outsourcing the shame of empire

The judgement doesn't even show up in the electronic summary of the New York Times I look at every morning.

Yesterday the European Court for Human Rights issued a 6000 page judgement against EU member state Macedonia for its cooperation with the U.S. CIA in capturing and torturing Khalid el-Masri in 2003. El-Masri is a German auto mechanic; our spooks mistook him for a terrorist. When they realized their mistake, they dumped him without apology on an Albanian mountain side. U.S. courts won't touch his case; that's why his lawyers have gone after the European state for enabling his treatment.

What did we do to him? We tortured him. I reproduce part of the ECHR description of his capture:

On that occasion [el-Masri] was beaten severely from all sides. His clothes were sliced from his body with scissors or a knife. His underwear was forcibly removed. He was thrown to the floor, his hands were pulled back and a boot was placed on his back. He then felt a firm object being forced into his anus…a suppository was forcibly administered on that occasion. He was then pulled from the floor and dragged to a corner of the room, where his feet were tied together. His blindfold was removed. A flash went off and temporarily blinded him. When he recovered his sight, he saw seven or eight men dressed in black and wearing black ski masks. One of the men placed him in a nappy. He was then dressed in a dark blue short-sleeved tracksuit. A bag was placed over his head and a belt was put on him with chains attached to his wrists and ankles. The men put earmuffs and eye pads on him and blindfolded and hooded him. They bent him over, forcing his head down, and quickly marched him to a waiting aircraft, with the shackles cutting into his ankles.

Naturally the guy's a mess now, sometimes in trouble with the law; most people have a hard time making a good life after this kind of thing.

This atrocity was U.S. work, but we'll let the Macedonians -- who admit their complicity -- pay the fine.

Friday critter blogging


Jojo does serenity.

It's not all she does; you should see how energetic she can be if she gets a whiff of something desirable to eat. She lives out behind us.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Older parents: really such a novelty?

In December issue of The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz explores "How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society: The scary consequences of the grayest generation." Here's her jumping off point:

…we have our children much later than we used to…

Well, yes. Many of us are accustomed to the possibility of older parenting. I just had a conversation a few days ago with a friend who is 60 who is trying to adopt a 4 year old. (He knows what he is getting into; this would be a second round for him.)

Schulevitz, TNR's science editor, catalogues our emerging understanding of chromosomal and other genetic anomalies that apparently increase as the age of procreation rises. Scientists attribute to couples procreating over 35 much of an increased frequency in the incidence of a spectrum of disorders ranging from full blown autism through more subtle "delays" among contemporary children. Older childbearing exposes offspring to whatever accumulated environmental stresses the parents have survived and it is not as if our eggs and sperm live a safe, pristine setting. There's even a finding that men over 55 are "three times more likely to father a schizophrenic child."

She also knows the news about older parenting isn't all bad.

Study after study has shown that the children of older parents grow up in wealthier households, lead more stable lives, and do better in school. After all, their parents are grown-ups.

But she worries about how older parenting disrupts the social life-cycle:

A mother who is 35 when her child is born is more likely than not to have died by the time that child is 46. The [mother] who is 45 may have bowed out of her child’s life when he’s 37. The odds are slightly worse for fathers: The 35-year-old new father can hope to live to see his child turn 42. The 45-year-old one has until the child is 33.

And all this goes with a lower birthrate worldwide which she concedes may not be all bad.

Fewer people, of course, means less demand for food, land, energy, and all the Earth’s other limited resources. But the environmental benefits have to be balanced against the social costs.

She knows why birthrates go way down in all modern societies: when women can control our fertility and achieve creative satisfaction outside of raising the next generation, they (we) will do so -- in significant numbers. But she thinks the "social costs" are too high. I don't see it. I bet the species can figure out how to adapt to less population growth and different life-cycles.

Feminists have a lot to say about Schulevitz' themes. I ran across her piece through commentary at Feministe. I'm among those who question Schulevitz' handwringing .

But I want come at this here from a more personal angle: I'm the product of a long family line of people who had children when they were older. I can't say the family was completely well balanced, but I don't think my forebears were that much wackier than anyone else's either. Some data points:
  • My great grandfather was born nearly 200 years ago -- in 1814. His son, my grandfather who was a lively part of my childhood, was born when that great grandfather was 60 years old (to a younger wife in those pre-fertility-enhancement days). He had not married until he was 54. Such late marriages seem to have been a form of fertility control when birth control measures were less accessible and reliable; unless you were able to support them, it was thought irresponsible to have children.
  • My own parents were in Schulevitz' "old" category when I was born -- their first and only child. My mother was nearly 40 and my father older still. That's me at one year with my father at 45 above. According to Schulevitz, they might have been expected to die when I was in my 30s, but in fact I was 52 when my mother died. That is, I was grown up. Moreover, my older parents didn't operate under the social assumption Schulevitz makes that grown-up children rely on their parents into middle age. Perhaps as a familial adaptation to long generations, my parents seemed to assume that relations between grown children and parents would be loving, but not intimate. Some of my best times "with" my parents were when we were all just adults, independent. They struggled to remain independent of me as far as they could in old age. They thought that was how the life-cycle was supposed to work. That too is a possible social adaptation.
  • This may be a function of being a member of the earliest Baby Boom cohort, but I was not completely unusual in my childhood in having parents who were "older." I think this may have been a function of the parental cohort having come up first through the Depression and then through World War II. Times and livelihoods were simply too insecure to encourage forming families while young. They waited, even after they married. One of my mother's best friends had her first child (my age peer), when her husband came back from the war and she was 44. She then proceeded to have two more (!) children, all without any fertility enhancements that I know of. It was just what people did, when they could.
I don't know quite what all this means, except that I'm inclined to take Schulevitz with considerable grains of salt. Her article is an artifact of a very particular time, place and social situation, as is my life history. Human beings -- genes and societies -- find diverse ways of organizing how we perpetuate the species. Sure, there are (or were before some modern technologies) physiological constraints on how we can organize families, but possibilities are broader than any snap shot of "reality" is going to suggest.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: ciimate migrants

Al Jazeera reports on one of the discussions at that climate conference in Qatar.

As Juan Cole comments:

There are no climate change deniers in Bangladesh.

Warming Wednesdays: before we smash into the underlying reality, there are things we can do …


We can adopt better light bulbs. No, really. And we're not just talking about the awful squirrelly fluorescents many of us have dutifully inserted in place of incandescents in recent years. Since lighting uses something like 19 percent of the electricity we consume and far too much of that is generated by coal fired plants that are spewing carbon, wider adoption of more efficient bulbs is a good thing. And new bulbs using new materials are being invented. First there were new bulbs that use light emitting diodes (as are used for indicator lights). But now there are bulbs that create light by running a weak current through layers of plastics. The inventor explains:

"What we've found is a way of creating light rather than heat."

That's got to be more efficient.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has thought up some ways that President Obama can push for serious cuts in carbon emissions without needing to win a Congressional vote, according to an article by David Roberts at Grist. The Environmental Protection Agency has the legal authority (and duty) to force coal-fired generating plants to clean up their act under the Clean Air Act. But since reaching the lower standards is pretty much impossible for most old coal plants, the agency has not issued a standard because they haven't wanted to fight the ferocious opposition the electric industry would undoubtedly unleash. NRDC proposes the EPA should regulate emissions on a state by state "fleet" basis. That's how it works for automakers: they face an average fuel efficiency target that their entire line must meet. Electrical energy generation would get the same treatment. That is, some old plants might continue to exceed the standard, so long as newer natural gas and alternative energy sources kept their emission well below it and so kept the entirety of an electric utility's pollution at a lower level. Might work -- and the legal mandate for this sort of regulation is already in place.

Along with these initiatives, the New York Times reports that a promising campaign is underway to persuade colleges and universities to disinvest from large fossil fuel companies. Crazy? No way. Students may not be able to win these battles rapidly, but this is a good fight in a good arena that will yield a new generation of climate warriors. Students feel the urgency -- it's great to find them an avenue to make a difference. Who knows what might grow out of such campaign? Gotta start somewhere ...

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" -- reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Health care reform shorts: what screenings are good for


Since our rulers seem to be dicking around again with Medicare and Medicaid funding so as to protect rich people from paying their fair share for the common good, it's refreshing to run across someone who remembers what doctoring is for.

We're often told that improved preventative care will save the health system (and insurance companies) lots of money. And we tend to believe it. Heck, I'm running off this morning for a mammogram suggested by my HMO. But Aaron Carroll reports on a study of the fiscal impact of getting people to stop smoking that says this conventional wisdom ain't so. If smokers quit, they do live an additional 3.7 years (yeah!) but the added life just means they cost more in medical bills.

[The study] also makes the point that the increased spending is modest. I think that’s besides the point. We should get people to quit smoking because it will make their lives better and their lives longer. If that causes them to cost the health care system more eventually, so be it. I’m a doctor, and making lives better and longer is why I got into this. It’s also what the health care system is for. That should be the focus. It’s not always about saving money.

Urgent messages for a December evening

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A small group of citizens assembled on Monday night in San Francisco Civic Center to wave signs urging our Congressional representatives to shun the austerity bluff, tax the rich, protect Social Security and Medicare … that is, do what we elect them to do. The event was called by the AFL-CIO, Move-On, our faithful single payer agitators among others. It drew about 100 people, most of them old enough to have a personal stake in the safety net for elders.

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Fr. Louis Vitale, who spends too many of his days in prison for impeding US wars, posed with Tim Paulson, Executive Director of the San Francisco Labor Council.

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Several singers formed a small chorus.

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Watching our rulers dither, it's hard not to fear they'll let us down -- again. This gentleman and his dog expressed a common sentiment: Don't Cave! It's easier to be upbeat when the sun shines.

Monday, December 10, 2012

On encouraging low frequency voters to get the habit



This admonition from Ed Kilgore to progressives crowing over the November election results has been bumping around in the back of my head since I encountered it:

… the one [concern that] should most trouble Democrats: the growing disparity between the partisan leanings of the presidential and midterm electorates, attributable to the unusually high correlation of party preferences to age and ethnic divisions. Just as odds of Republican gains in 2010 went up the moment after Barack Obama’s election, so too have the odds of GOP gains in 2014, regardless of what happens in Washington between now and then. So it’s no wonder Republicans want to get there fast.

Yup. Our folks -- the young, new citizens, low income people of color -- just don't turn out in the same numbers in midterms as they do in presidential elections.

So what does it take to get more of them voting more regularly? Obviously more participation from these citizens would change the kind of society we make. And obviously, we do need to "fix" (as as the Prez said on E night) a voting system that makes it difficult to participate whether through registration hoops and/or other obstacles like long voting lines and short hours. But also, we need to think in terms of helping folks acquire the habit of voting.

The people who are more likely turn out every time -- older, whiter, and more affluent folks -- are people who think of themselves as rightful, responsible participating citizens. Part of their self-definition is that they are voters; voting is what good citizens like them do, pretty much every election. How do we encourage that affirming self-understanding among currently less engaged people? Those of us who work in campaigns have long assumed that voting is "habit forming." But how do we help people get the habit?

In Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns, Lisa García Bedolla and Melissa R. Michelson report on their research on just that question. They studied the efforts of community groups that were turning out new voters over multiple cycles, looking at what sort of activities raised participation and helped create the voting habit. And they concluded that it is possible to draw these folks into regular participation. But this can be hard to see if our focus is mainly on turn out in presidential contests. It was the contacts in previous, low turnout, often local and insignificant, elections that raised turn out in presidential years.

... habit casts a different light on the usual way of evaluating the costs and benefits of a GOTV campaign. The typical approach is to think only in terms of votes produced in the current election. A more realistic calculation would take into account the future effects of this year's voter mobilization drive. If a campaign generates 1,000 additional votes at a cost of $40,000, the price amounts to $40 per vote for the current election. But if we also include the 310 votes in the next election, the price falls to slightly over $30 per vote ($40,000/1,310).

… What these habit formation calculations tell us is that increasing turnout in communities whose members have a low propensity to vote not only is possible but has enduring effects. Those living in low-income communities of color will vote, assumptions notwithstanding, and they may even vote at high rates. When made to feel included in a way that moves them to adopt a voter schema, they will vote, particularly in high-salience elections when the perceived importance of doing so is obvious.

The enduring effects of voting once make it clear that a socioculturally based cognitive shift happens during the initial mobilization, one that is reinforced by voting to produce a remarkably enduring long-term effect. By acting as voters, those previously moved to the polls become voters.

These findings have real world implications.
  • If we want to build the habit of voting -- and Democrats sure should! --we need to contest every election in order to maximize the number of opportunities for people to experience that cognitive shift. It doesn't matter if the election is to select a dog-catcher. The habit built by participation can have effects in the big contests.
  • We need institutional players to make investments in minor elections so that we can reap the rewards down the line. The experiments these researchers carried out tracked the foundation-funded work of small local community organizations. These formations enjoy the enhanced legitimacy that comes from being neighbors among the target population, but they lack the stability and scale to rapidly move large numbers into voting. As non-profits, they cannot legally work on candidate campaigns. They make good labs to carry out experiments; they don't have the capacity to be the main game. There were was a time when urban units of political parties saw this task of incorporation as their work. We need Democratic Party organs to see this as the party's most vital function. Outsourcing it to NGOs won't cut it.
Oh hell, do I have to stick my toe in to party politics to encourage this? That may be more than this jaded activist can stomach, but I am sure grateful to the people who labor in those trenches. Spreading the voting habit, along with structural voting improvements, must be a significant piece of any strategy to get the country onto a more sustainable and equitable track.

The picture above comes from a pretty scuzzy San Francisco Mission District alley. Some one is on this voting thing ...

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Health care reform shorts: we are still skeptical

After the election comes the analysis. The sample of citizen opinion expressed, however murkily, on election day is larger than any poll. But pollsters try to fathom and shape our understanding what those 120 million voters meant by it all.

So the polls keep on coming and people who have something to say try to knock the results into the thick skulls of our politicians. This seems about right to me.
***
One of the more thorough and interesting post-election surveys has been described by Ronald Brownstein in the National Journal. Brownstein devotes most of his attention to the huge disparities along partisan and racial fault lines in attitudes toward government and policy found by the survey. Guess what? Expressed in multiple ways, the emerging majority that re-elected Obama believes government exists to promote the general welfare, not to protect the rich.

The whole is worth reading, though not surprising.

But hidden away in Brownstein's description of the findings is this remarkable paragraph:

On the impact of health care reform, Americans sort almost exactly into three camps, with about one-third each saying Obama’s plan will improve the system by increasing access and lowering costs, hurt the system by disrupting it, or not do enough to change it.

Get that? Three camps, not the two -- young and brown v. the old and white -- that this commentator sees facing off on almost all other topics.

It's still true: the unspoken secret underlying Obamacare's failure, so far, to win majority support is that about one third of us simply suspect that it will not to go far enough to ensure access and care for all of us. With the insurance profiteers in the mix, we remain unconvinced -- and largely unheard.

Maybe the implementation of Obamacare all work out, but with Republicans throwing up every road block they can find, the administration has a hard job ahead.

UC has a new logo



This may surprise some people, but this ancient Berkeley grad likes it. And I love this promotional video.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: EWASTESF.com to the rescue

I saw the sign yesterday on my walk.
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Our chance to clear out the basement had arrived!
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Some of our stuff was huge -- note the twenty-year old, 150 pound, photo copier on the lift at the right (next to the monster picture tube-era TV, not ours). The small stuff, 4 dead printers, a couple of scanners, several routers, plus all their various cords and accessories filled our small SUV.

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As we offloaded the junk, we realized this was the third time since we became early PC adopters in the 80s that we had performed this sort of clean out of a carload of expensive obsolescence. At least now days the stuff is cheaper and lighter and getting rid of it responsibly is free.

Transit in campaign organizing


Yesterday's post about transit policy racism reminded me that I learned a lot about shared transportation in the context of working on the Prop. 34 campaign. This was not something I expected.
  • This was the first time in years that I've been able to use public transport to a job. Riding BART daily gave me a heightened appreciation of my fellow commuters; I enjoyed having the train deliver me to the job. I also experienced one of the contentions in the POWER report I wrote about yesterday: when fares go down, I become much more willing to ride. In my the cost of riding dropped precipitously on my birthday.
  • Twenty years ago it was rare to hire a twenty-something organizer who didn't own a car. I remember one, but she was an odd ball. Today, many -- even most -- don't assume that owning a car is a necessary part of life. We even had two staff in Los Angeles who had no vehicle. (No, that didn't work very well.) Access to some by-the-day car sharing option has become a necessary campaign expense. This is almost certainly a planet-healthy cultural shift, but not one I'd anticipated.
  • I proved it is possible to get to and from LAX (the main Los Angeles airport) to downtown on public transportation, but I can't say I'd recommend the effort. If you shop around for off-brand car rentals, you can get a rental for roughly the same cost. Something is wrong there, but that's the fact. I put energy into figuring out the most emission and energy efficient way to carry off one-day trips into and out of Los Angeles and kept coming back to car rentals.
Times and habits are changing.

Friday, December 07, 2012

San Francisco moving toward transit justice

Last night I attended a public party to celebrate the release of the publication pictured. If, like me, you are linguistically challenged, that's NEXT STEP: JUSTICE -- Race and Environment at the Center of Transit Planning in the English edition. It seems a solid piece, spelling out how seemingly neutral policies can harm people dependent on public transportation who are overwhelmingly people of color. Necessary graphs and maps are supplemented by the testimony of members and supporters of the community organization POWER.

POWER has just led and won a community campaign for free transit passes for low income youth. San Francisco had started its 16 month pilot program -- POWER sees its next job as making this victory by and for young people a permanent practice. The new publication (not yet available on the web -- I wonder if they'll make it downloadable?) has a lot of little gems packed in.

Just to give you a taste, here's Howard Nelson from the Transit Workers (bus drivers) Union describing his job:

Being a Muni driver is a good skill to have because, just like people need food, people will always need public transportation. At one time driving the bus was one of the only jobs that any minority could get. Muni drivers today are still majority Black and Latino and increasingly also Asian. Before, no one ever wanted to be a driver. It is a hard job. In a new class of 25-30 operators, Muni is lucky if 5-6 them stay on as drivers. …

I would also like to see the MTA [the transit authority] invest in our buses. There are new models of buses that are much easier for elderly people and people with disabilities to enter, and I know I will get older myself one day. If the MTA can spend money on a light rail, the Transbay terminal and the America's Cup, they can afford to buy some new buses. When we look at the bigger question of raising more revenue for public transit, I think Obama is on the right track. No one needs to die a billionaire -- what good does that do you? People making over $250,000 a year can afford to pay more taxes to fund things like transit…

Gotta love this guy. Gotta support the transit justice project, whoever you are.

Photo via Westside Observer.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Violence and efficient mass organization combined

I needed a long reading project concurrent with the recent campaign, so I dove into Richard J. Evans' The Coming of the Third Reich. This volume is the first of three; I'll write about the other two as I (slowly) work my way through them.

Evans is a Brit, a professor of history at Cambridge. An interesting preface explains why he felt an exhaustive narrative history of the mid-20th century German rogue state was needed. He served as an expert witness in the 1996 libel trial in which historian David Irving sued historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books for writing that Irving was a Holocaust denier (the court concluded he was). Evans discovered in that work that a new general account might help. He also seems irritated that for English speakers the paradigmatic account of Hitler's Germany remains William L. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He explains:

...the number of broad, general, large-scale histories of Nazi Germany that have been written for a general audience can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The first of these, and by far the most successful, was William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, published in 1960. Shirer's book has probably sold millions of copies in the four decades or more since its appearance. … There are good reasons for the book's success. Shirer was an American journalist who reported from Nazi Germany until the United States entered the war in December, 1941, and he had a journalist's eye for the telling detail and the illuminating incident. His book is full of human interest, with many arresting quotations from the actors in the drama, and it is written with all the flair and style of a seasoned reporter's dispatches from the front. Yet it was universally panned by professional historians. …

The emigre German scholar Klaus Epstein spoke for many when he pointed out that Shirer's book presented an 'unbelievably crude' account of German history, making it all seem to lead up inevitably to the Nazi seizure of power. It had 'glaring gaps' in its coverage. …even in 1960 it was 'in no way abreast of current scholarship dealing with the Nazi period'. …For all its virtues, therefore, Shirer's book cannot really deliver a history of Nazi Germany that meets the demands of the early twenty-first-century reader.

It does seem that Evans is distressed that Shirer managed to make his account so gripping that it has endured. He also finds Shirer morally judgmental and intentional chooses not to emulate him in this. I think I am an admirer for Shirer's history of the Third Reich precisely because of the visceral outrage he incorporates in his narrative.

But these quibbles certainly don't mean that I didn't get a lot out of Evans first volume. He describes its purpose:

Understanding how and why the Nazis came to power is as important today as it ever was, perhaps, as memory fades, even more so. We need to get into the minds of the Nazis themselves. We need to discover why their opponents failed to stop them. …The story of how Germany, a stable and modern country, in less than a single lifetime led Europe into moral, physical and cultural ruin and despair is a story that has sobering lessons for us all; lessons, again, which it is for the reader to take from this book, not for the writer to give.

What stands out for me from Evans' account of Hitler's rise is the centrality of violence -- assaults on opponents, rioting, intimidating mass marches -- employed by many factions in Weimar German politics. Defeat in World War I and the economic pain that followed left ripe ground for the growth of intolerance. He shows that as early as the 1920s, what had been a pervasive cultural anti-semitism was transformed in this unstable context into a foundation that would underlie the Nazi project of mass extermination.

It was not just an unprecedented willingness to translate vehement prejudice into violent action that broadly distinguished post-I9I8 antisemitism from its prewar counterpart. While the overwhelming majority of Germans still rejected the use of physical force against Jews during the Weimar Republic, the language of antisemitism became embedded in mainstream political discourse as never before. The 'stab-in-the-back', the 'November traitors', the 'Jewish Republic', the 'Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy' to undermine Germany -- all these and many similar demagogic slogans could be regularly read in the papers, whether as expressions of editorial opinion or m reporting of political incidents, speeches and trials. They could be heard day after day in legislative assemblies, where the rhetoric of the Nationalists, the second largest party after the Social Democrats during the middle years of the Republic, was shot through with antisemitic phrases. …The sensibility of many Germans was so blunted by this tide of antisemitic rhetoric that they failed to recognize that there was anything exceptional about a new political movement that emerged after the end of the war …

The Great War had left behind a substantial cohort of damaged ex-combatants (and younger siblings who envied their "heroic" older "brothers") who knew no way to be in society except as warriors. A Columbia sociologist, Theodore Abels, persuaded the Nazi Party to back his collecting the personal stories of many original Nazi movement members, especially the para-military brownshirts who intimidated and fought other Germans with other political allegiances. Their motivations don't seem to have been very ideological.

Among ordinary Party activists in the I920s and early I930s, the most important aspect of Nazi ideology was its emphasis on social solidarity -- the concept of the organic racial community of all Germans -- followed at some distance by extreme nationalism and the cult of Hitler. Antisemitism, by contrast, was of significance only for a minority, and for a good proportion of these it was only incidental. … Men often came to the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party after serving at the front in 1914-18, then becoming involved in far-right organizations such as the Thule Society or the Free Corps. …Violence was like a drug for such men …

"The terror of police and government against us', as one stormtrooper put it, was another source of resentment against the Republic. Such men were outraged that they should be arrested for beating up or killing people they considered to be Germany's enemies, and blamed the prison sentences they sometimes had to suffer on the 'Marxist judicial authorities' and the 'corruption' of the Weimar Republic.'

…It is difficult to grasp the full extent of the stormtroopers' fanaticism and hatred unless we accept that they often did feel they were making sacrifices for their cause. …The Nazi Party depended on such commitment; much of its power and dynamism came from the fact that it was not dependent on big business as the 'bourgeois' parties and the Social Democrats to varying degrees were, still less on the secret subsidies of a foreign power, along the lines of the Moscow-financed Communists.

In addition to their violent, fanatical base the Nazi leaders seem to have excelled at organizing party activities -- a quality that seldom goes with ideological lunacy and celebration of violence. The Party generated groups and projects in all sectors of German life. It was very good at running electoral campaigns, at spreading propaganda, and mobilizing voters.

All this mass organization meant that in 1933, when the politicians of the Weimar Republic -- a collapsing state structure that had long since ceded any allegiance to democracy and the rule of law -- gave over power to Hitler as Chancellor, the Nazi Party was organized to take over the functions of a government that had lost its legitimacy. Nazi organizations quickly took over the police, "cleansed" the government bureaucracy and educational institutions of Jews and political opponents, and generally dominated public life in all its aspects. Evans makes it clear that they could accomplish this as quickly and completely as they did because they combined an enthusiastic use of violence with efficient mass organization. It required both to install the Third Reich, the Nazi dictatorship.

As a student of history and politics, I still am amazed that this incendiary combination of forces could emerge in a large, rich, modern state. Evans is right: this is a sobering narrative.
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