Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why immigration reform is both so hard and yet so beneficial ...

... in one chart, courtesy of Juan Cole.

Only the blue and possibly the yellow wedges of that pie derive from places that the contemporary U.S. majority thinks of as the source of the North American culture.

That's changing, but this takes time. As has been true since Europeans invaded this continent, the future and dynamism of this country depends on immigration.

Bloomberg View, an organ of business news, is willing to let Ezra Klein explain this:

... consider a few facts about immigrants in the American economy: About a tenth of the U.S. population is foreign-born. More than a quarter of U.S. technology and engineering businesses started from 1995 to 2005 had a foreign-born owner. In Silicon Valley, half of all tech startups had a foreign-born founder.

Immigrants begin businesses and file patents at a much higher rate than their native-born counterparts, and while there are disputes about the effect immigrants have on the wages of low-income Americans, there’s little dispute about their effect on wages overall: They lift them.

The economic case for immigration is best made by way of analogy. Everyone agrees that aging economies with low birth rates are in trouble; this, for example, is a thoroughly conventional view of Japan. It’s even conventional wisdom about the U.S. The retirement of the baby boomers is correctly understood as an economic challenge. The ratio of working Americans to retirees will fall from 5-to-1 today to 3-to-1 in 2050. Fewer workers and more retirees is tough on any economy.

There’s nothing controversial about that analysis. But if that’s not controversial, then immigration shouldn’t be, either. Immigration is essentially the importation of new workers. It’s akin to raising the birth rate, only easier, because most of the newcomers are old enough to work. And because living in the U.S. is considered such a blessing that even very skilled, very industrious workers are willing to leave their home countries and come to ours, the U.S. has an unusual amount to gain from immigration. When it comes to the global draft for talent, we almost always get the first-round picks -- at least, if we want them, and if we make it relatively easy for them to come here.

... There are few free lunches in public policy. But taking advantage of our unique position as a country where the world’s best, brightest and hardest-working desperately want to live is surely one. In the end, economies aren’t mainly about budgets and tax codes, though Congress occasionally pretends otherwise. They’re about workers and business owners. Immigration reform is a way to get more of both.

Klein concedes that new immigrant workers may, sometimes, compete with native workers who are already struggling. I'm not one to deny that; I see it in construction, in yard work, in the hotel industry -- regardless of the broad statistical picture. There are citizens who have a harder time because someone else has come along to do the dirty work. No question about that.

But it's not usually these citizens who are leading the charge against the newcomers. It is too often those of us who simply find immigrants too strange and take that as threatening. Those new people are a challenge. They won't look like us; even once they learn English (and they do, fast!) they won't speak like us; they bring different foods and different sports. But this new United States that is coming into being including all these cultural strands is our best future. Hiding our heads accomplishes nothing. We're in for yet another nasty season of backlash and haggling as immigration reform bumps along in Congress. Real, already present, neighbors are hurt by our reluctance to move ahead on this.

But -- despite the dreams of some of the white Republican base -- there's no going back. Those "foreign born" are part of our future.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: small steps in Massachusetts


Since I'm temporarily located in the Bay State, it seemed right to look into what measures are afoot here to reduce carbon emissions. It turns out that even more permanent residents can be unaware of local progress, according to "charley-on-the-mta" writing at Blue Mass Group.

Little known fact, which bears repeating: We in the northeast USA are under a cap-and-trade program right now — the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. It has put an ever-increasing price on carbon emission[s], and spreads the proceeds around to conservation measures, like the terrific MassSave program, which gives big incentives to get your house insulated, sealed-up, and otherwise energy-efficient. (I’ve taken advantage of it personally — they subsidize 75% of insulation work, up to a cap of $2000. It’s a big savings and makes the house more comfortable. What’s not to like?)

Charley goes on to point to a New York Times article about the RGGI that highlights some of the program's challenges linked to the arrival of low cost natural gas (fracked in other folks' states, by the way.) Charley thinks New Englanders should know this is no time to back down on their efforts:

... now is absolutely not the time to back off on carbon pollution, which is a direct threat to … well, everyone on the planet, but certainly those of us who live near the ocean and in the line of hurricanes.

***
Here on Martha's Vineyard, the local media are celebrating the official launch of a solar project built on a capped landfill that will power the municipal infrastructure in Aquinnah.

The panels are expected to produce enough power to meet all of the town's municipal electrical needs and more. … The town currently spends more than $14,000 per year on its municipal electrical load, including town offices, police and fire stations, the library, street lights, and public bathrooms.

The 50-kW panels are expected to produce approximately 65,000kWh per year. Their life expectancy is almost 30 years. Mr. Wilson said that in ten years when the town buys the panels, he expects they should turn a profit for the town.

Martha's Vineyard Times, 1/23/2013

Other towns have taken note and plan to place solar arrays on their dumps -- got to make something of such valuable municipal land.

The photo shows one of the panel trucks belonging to The South Mountain Company, a builder of the Aquinnah site.

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, January 29, 2013

Not with a bang but a whimper …


Office Working to Close Guantánamo Is Shuttered
FORT MEADE, Md. — The State Department on Monday reassigned Daniel Fried, the special envoy for closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and will not replace him, according to an internal personnel announcement. Mr. Fried’s office is being closed, and his former responsibilities will be “assumed” by the office of the department’s legal adviser, the notice said.

The announcement that no senior official in President Obama’s second term will succeed Mr. Fried in working primarily on diplomatic issues pertaining to repatriating or resettling detainees appeared to signal that the administration does not currently see the closing of the prison as a realistic priority, despite repeated statements that it still intends to do so.

Charles Savage, NYT, 1/29/2013

Well that's over … unless you are one of the United States' "war on terror" prisoners -- mostly now cleared for release -- who gets to rot in our "legal black hole" for the the rest of their lives.

Over, except that the shame of our law-free rendition site, set up for the purpose of being beyond the reach of the US courts, will continue to undermine our pretensions to being a state ruled by law.

Thanks David Addington, thanks Dick Cheney, thanks George W. Bush, for cowardice in the face of a novel challenge that has permanently humiliated your country.

Rays of effing sunshine: The Mark of Zorro (1940)


Tyrone Power skewers an evil Basil Rathbone and wins the girl -- not to mention bringing peace and justice to the peasants -- all by passing as fag.

What's not to like? Caught on Turner Classic TV and highly recommended.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Truth abolished but united mongrels triumph



A friend sent me a link to this, asking whether the U.S. military would still produce something like it? I doubt it. I'm pretty sure some Tea Party politician would blow a gasket on Fox News if they did any such thing.

During World War II, the military propaganda machine not only spewed out anti-VD posters, it also devoted its considerable artistry to condemning the ideology of the fascist enemy in Europe. The result was a vigorous endorsement of citizen solidarity against racial, religious and ethnic prejudice.

This U.S. Army Signal Corps trailer was filmed and shown to some returning GIs and even in some civilian theaters in 1946-7.

Unconstrained by fidelity to historical fact, it's portrayal of brave resistance to Nazis among German Christian clergy and academics is seriously exaggerated. But the viewer gets the point: the Nazis crushed all opposition institutions in order seize power, impose their racial agenda, and lead Europe into a futile war. They had to be stopped and citizens of the United States should be proud of having done the job.

Concurrently, the struggle in the Pacific theater in World War II evoked quite a different sort of propaganda. The fight against the Japanese empire was portrayed as honorably racist, a battle against an enemy depicted as hate-filled primitive savages. The Japanese side was no less racist.

"Don't Be a Sucker" is a pleasant artifact of another time. Enjoy.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Drone war: what for?


Code Pink visits the San Francisco residence of Senator Diane Feinstein. Photo: Rashad Sisemore, The Chronicle

Joshua Foust isn't Code Pink. He's a Fellow at the American Security Project with expertise in irregular warfare and Central Asia. That is, he's one of those guys who run in U.S. intelligence, military, and D.C.-establishment think tank circles. He has recently churned out a public paper on the drone war.

The Obama administration seems more and more enamored of using drones for overseas power projection. It's nice to see Foust move beyond technical assessments to ask the hard question:

Ultimately, the question that must be answered when evaluating drone strikes is “what is the end state?”

Drones have some discrete and measurable effects, but what purpose are the strikes meant to serve? The stated U.S. policy is to destroy, degrade, and defeat al Qaeda. But determining what that looks like is no simple task. While drones can be effective at destroying parts of al Qaeda and thus degrading its capacity to launch attacks, they are also insufficient on their own for accomplishing the broader goals of U.S. counterterrorism policy. 

Most academic studies agree that targeted killing conducted by armed drones may be effective as part of a broader strategy. Drones, however, have limits. Where drone strikes are found to have a measurable effect, it tends to be temporary. Successful strikes correlate in some circumstances with a temporary reduction in the incidence and intensity of terrorist violence, but may also correlate with long-term increases in retaliatory attacks against local government and persistent instability.

This suggests that while drones can manage the terrorist problem for a short time, they are not necessarily contributing to a long term reduction of the threat. The long term reduction of threat is absent in most discussions of the drone program. Drones have killed many al Qaeda terrorists, but the threat appears to be migrating elsewhere and taking on new forms. So what is that end state drones are meant to accomplish, and can we measure whether that end state is being reached?

There it is again, just as became obvious in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the U.S. is flaunting our unparalleled military capacity wherever our government chooses -- but for what purpose?

The Iraq invasion was a vainglorious war of choice without any purpose that served the interests of the United States people -- and which produced nothing for us but wasted treasure and squandered lives. Nobody ever figured out what the object of the Afghanistan occupation might be after the Taliban were smashed and Bin Laden evicted in late 2001; the U.S. will leave in 2014, never having set a plausible objective for the murderous exercise.

Current U.S enthusiasm for drones is simply a cheap technical fix for the imperial drive to show the world who is boss. Okay, we get it. The U.S. can blow up people remotely (in countries that can't shoot back) with some accuracy. But the questions remains, what's the point? It is really just to prove we can? Of course there are people who hate us and would do us wrong -- but do we have to wander the world playing "whack-a-mole," all the while making new blood feuds where once there were none? Or, in Foust's language: "“what is the end state?”

These days, on the domestic front, enough of us are on to the con; we don't like wasting lives and our tax dollars on stupid wars. So playing with our latest hardware is pretty much all our rulers can do without major political pushback. (Ask George W. what happens to a presidency when majorities turn against a costly war.) The U.S. monopoly on this new plaything won't last. By the standards of military hardware, these things are cheap. All developed countries will have them soon enough. That will be a lovely world.

Shooting up little guys who can't shoot back is what dumb empires do. And democracies die when their rulers can't even explain to their people who and why they kill -- or why we should take on distant fights.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: sudden immersion in a New England winter

sunrise over snow.JPG
I didn't expect to be here now, but I can hardly be ungrateful for this time when I look out the window at dawn.

some snow!.JPG
Yes, this east facing window holds a permanent screen. In the summer, I'm glad of it.

morning light.JPG
At ground level, the western sky is beginning to clear.

pink cloud sunrise.JPG
Clouds can take on a momentary pink tinge.

Snow is fun to visit, but I wouldn't want to live with it.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Extractive or inclusive; vicious or virtuous?

When I was growing up, economic and political development was supposed to involve a linear march toward riches and progress. Think W.W. Rostow's stages of growth. Nowadays the more apt metaphor seems to be a circle, vicious or virtuous.

James A. Robinson and Daron Acemoglu's Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty is one of those "big books" -- an attempt to envision a grand unifying theory that the current of era of post-Marxist awareness that modern capitalism has kicked the Anthropocene into high gear necessarily evokes. I found it interesting and often persuasive, though, as with all such efforts, only time will tell how predictive their thinking proves.

Here's how the authors describe their project:

…we need a theory of why some nations are prosperous while others fail and are poor. This theory needs to delineate both the factors that create and retard prosperity and their historical origins. This book has proposed such a theory.

Our theory has attempted to achieve this by operating on two levels. The first is the distinction between extractive and inclusive economic and political institutions. The second is our explanation for why inclusive institutions emerged in some parts of the world and not in others. While the first level of our theory is about an institutional interpretation of history, the second level is about how history has shaped institutional trajectories of nations.

Central to our theory is the link between inclusive economic and political institutions and prosperity. Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few and that fail to protect property rights or provide incentives for economic activity. Inclusive economic institutions are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions, that is, those that distribute political power widely in a pluralistic manner and are able to achieve some amount of political centralization so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy. Similarly, extractive economic institutions are synergistically linked to extractive political institutions, which concentrate power in the hands of a few, who will then have incentives to maintain and develop extractive economic institutions for their benefit and use the resources they obtain to cement their hold on political power.

These tendencies do not imply that extractive economic and political institutions are inconsistent with economic growth. On the contrary, every elite would, all else being equal, like to encourage as much growth as possible in order to have more to extract. Extractive institutions that have achieved at least a minimal degree of political centralization are often able to generate some amount of growth. What is crucial, however, is that growth under extractive institutions will not be sustained, for two key reasons. First, sustained economic growth requires innovation, and innovation cannot be decoupled from creative destruction, which replaces the old with the new in the economic realm and also destabilizes established power relations in politics. Because elites dominating extractive institutions fear creative destruction, they will resist it, and any growth that germinates under extractive institutions will be ultimately short lived. Second, the ability of those who dominate extractive institutions to benefit greatly at the expense of the rest of society implies that political power under extractive institutions is highly coveted, making many groups and individuals fight to obtain it. As a consequence, there will be powerful forces pushing societies under extractive institutions toward political instability.

The synergies between extractive economic and political institutions create a vicious circle, where extractive institutions, once in place, tend to persist. Similarly, there is a virtuous circle associated with inclusive economic and political institutions. But neither the vicious nor the virtuous circle is absolute. In fact, some nations live under inclusive institutions today because, though extractive institutions have been the norm in history, some societies have been able to break the mold and transition toward inclusive institutions. Our explanation for these transitions is historical, but not historically predetermined.

That's all pretty dense and abstract. Our authors eagerly apply their model concretely. Perhaps it's not surprising that they are pretty confident that they can predict what countries will be rich in coming decades:

…vicious and virtuous circles generate a lot of persistence and sluggishness. There should be little doubt that in fifty or even a hundred years, the United States and Western Europe, based on their inclusive economic and political institutions, will be richer, most likely considerably richer, than sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Central America, or Southeast Asia.

On the other hand, they are also pretty sure that the continuing strength of extractive political institutions (arbitrary and corrupt rule by a self-selecting elite) ensures that China will reach a limit to the extension of its somewhat inclusive economic development.

…Even if Chinese economic institutions are incomparably more inclusive today than three decades ago, the Chinese experience is an example of growth under extractive political institutions. Despite the recent emphasis in China on innovation and technology, Chinese growth is based on the adoption of existing technologies and rapid investment, not creative destruction. An important aspect of this is that property rights are not entirely secure in China. Every now and then, … some entrepreneurs are expropriated. Labor mobility is tightly regulated, and the most basic of property rights, the right to sell one's own labor in the way one wishes, is still highly imperfect. The extent to which economic institutions are still far from being truly inclusive is illustrated by the fact that only a few businessmen and -women would even venture into any activity without the support of the local party cadre or, even more important, of Beijing. The connection between business and the party is highly lucrative for both. Businesses supported by the party receive contracts on favorable terms, can evict ordinary people to expropriate their land, and violate laws and regulations with impunity. Those who stand in the path of this business plan will be trampled and can even be jailed or murdered.

Though skeptical about China's potential to generate a virtuous circle in which inclusive economic and political institutions support each other, they are much more optimistic about developments in contemporary Brazil.

The formation of a broad coalition in Brazil as a result of the coming together of diverse social movements and organized labor has had a remarkable impact on the Brazilian economy. Since 1990 economic growth has been rapid, with the proportion of the population in poverty falling from 45 percent to 30 percent in 2006. Inequality, which rose rapidly under the military, has fallen sharply, particularly after the Workers' Party took power, and there has been a huge expansion of education, with the average years of schooling of the population increasing from six in 1995 to eight in 2006. Brazil has now become part of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), the first Latin American country actually to have weight in international diplomatic circles. The rise of Brazil since the 1970s was not engineered by economists of international institutions instructing Brazilian policymakers on how to design better policies or avoid market failures. It was not achieved with injections of foreign aid. It was not the natural outcome of modernization. Rather, it was the consequence of diverse groups of people courageously building inclusive institutions. Eventually these led to more inclusive economic institutions. But the Brazilian transformation, like that of England in the seventeenth century, began with the creation of inclusive political institutions. But how can society build inclusive political institutions? History, as we have seen, is littered with examples of reform movements that succumbed to the iron law of oligarchy and replaced one set of extractive institutions with even more pernicious ones. …

There are many parallels between [previous instances of] historical processes of empowerment and what took place in Brazil starting in the 1970s. Though one root of the Workers' Party is the trade union movement, right from its early days, leaders such as Lula, along with the many intellectuals and opposition politicians who lent their support to the party, sought to make it into a broad coalition. These impulses began to fuse with local social movements all over the country, as the party took over local governments, encouraging civic participation and causing a sort of revolution in governance throughout the country. … empowerment at the grass-roots level in Brazil ensured that the transition to democracy corresponded to a move toward inclusive political institutions, and thus was a key factor in the emergence of a government committed to the provision of public services, educational expansion, and a truly level playing field.

***
Short excerpts cannot do justice to this ambitious project. I hope these quotations have piqued interest.

I was fascinated by this thesis for use in thinking about how development occurs within nations when countries are treated as distinct entities. But I wondered how these authors' extractive v. inclusive frame worked in the context of a global system that exploits and exacerbates poor countries' internal contradictions to the benefit not only of rich global elites but also to some extent of the general populations of rich countries. There are many examples of transnational extractive institutional arrangements. Remember the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank? Can a framework so rooted in the experience of particular discrete states be usefully applied to the era of universal global capitalism? There are hints here, but the nation is the primary unit of analysis -- and possibly not the true way the planet is presently divided, if it ever was.

I read this book during the U.S. election campaign and couldn't shake the image of Romney as the slippery champion of extractive elites who promote their interests by way of the Republican Party. The book's frame describes these forces to a T. Republicans increasingly aim to interrupt the U.S. virtuous circle embodied in electoral institutions that maintain some measure of inclusive equality among citizens. It's not just attachment to patriotic hokum when progressives stick up for the democratic rights of all of us. Robinson and Acemoglu remind us that the decisions about what kind of country we are going to have happen in history -- there's nothing that ensures we'll keep our relatively inclusive economic and political institutions, though inertia helps. These inclusive institutions are worth defending and these authors would contend that organized collective defense can matter.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A friend remembered


I suppose in the end some combination of the pain and his skewed, convoluted rationalizations against despair won out. Nothing ever quite shut off the toxic tsunami of rejection, complex ideation, and brilliance that always seemed to be barreling down life's way toward him, about to submerge him.

He was a Jew who grew up in Texas: not the modern Texas of Dallas suburbs, but "home on the range" Texas. He was an urban poet who needed to be around horses. At times he seemed almost happy, when selling and recommending books.

He was an overage hippie who had once been a stalwart of the War Resisters League. Later on, he proudly affixed a National Rifle Association decal to his ancient VW bug.

He was a transman. That fit him better than being a courtly, diminutive, aging lesbian. That identity seemed closer to who he felt himself to be. It was better, but maybe the person inside it all never quite fit any of his civilization's labels. I don't know.

He finally ended his life -- shot himself, naturally -- in Central Park in New York. I can't say "why." None of his friends are surprised; I feel sure all are as horrified as I am. I guess the pain won. That was not right.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Taboo breaking: still changing the conversation after 40 years


Yesterday, January 22, was the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that (more or less) legalized abortion for women in the United States.

Over the last year, I had occasion to work in fruitful, if uncomfortable, coalition with ethically serious religious people who really do believe that abortion is murder. When they seek to outlaw women's choice of abortion, they think they are "supporting equal protection of the law for prenatal children." Every zygote is a child in this perspective. Don't these good folks notice that something is missing? The woman -- the adult human bearing that potential creature -- I guess she's just a convenient vessel -- what happened to her full unique humanity, anyway? Kind of disappears, doesn't it?

Fortunately, polling on the occasion of this 40th anniversary says most us think that woman deserves to make her own decision about whether that potential child comes into her life.

... a majority of Americans – for the first time – believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

... a whopping 70 percent of Americans oppose the Roe v. Wade decision being overturned, including 57 percent who feel strongly about this.

That’s up from the 58 percent who said the decision shouldn’t be overturned in 1989; the 60 percent who said this in 2002; and the 66 percent who said this in 2005.

By comparison, just 24 percent now want the Roe v. Wade decision overturned, including 21 percent who feel strongly about this position.

Much of this change, the NBC/WSJ pollsters say, is coming from African Americans, Latinos and women without college degrees -- all of whom increasingly oppose the Supreme Court decision being overturned.

First Read, January 22, 2013

There's that "coalition of ascendant" that put the Prez and many Dems in office last November again, that harbinger of the country's direction and hope we've just seen again at the inauguration.
***
Out of respect for one of the unique women who have shared their unique experience of the choice to abort, I'll reprint below my friend Renee Bracey Sherman's story on this 40th anniversary. There's nothing easy or casual about this, but neither does she feel she ought to experience shame.

Indifferent. As I rode home from the abortion clinic and the days after the procedure, I felt indifferent. I had been told to expect overwhelming feelings of sadness and physical pain, yet I felt none. I felt fine. Not better than normal, but also not worse than normal. Indifferent. It was not at all what I was told to expect, by the doctors, the nurses, or what I had heard from friends.

I grew up in what many would call a ‘liberal’ family. We were middle class; my parents are both nurses, college educated, we lived in the suburbs of a major city, and we were a very open family. My parents are both ‘pro-choice’ and would have supported my decision when I was 19 years old to have an abortion, yet, why did it take me six years to tell them about it?

My experience wasn’t unlike other women’s; I had a steady boyfriend, I was on birth control, but I missed a few weeks of pills and became pregnant. At sixteen, when I told my mom about a friend’s abortion decision, she told me that it was a personal choice and one she supported. So, I should have been able to go to my parents when I needed support, right?

It just wasn’t that easy for me. Many of my cousins had children in their teens and were unable to finish high school and college, yet I was on track to do both. I didn’t want to disappoint my mother, I felt that if I told her that I was pregnant, I would let her down, make her mad. I felt that she and my father would be disappointed, even though they would have supported my decision....

Read the rest at Trusting Women archive.
***
The Rev’d Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton recently spoke at a Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice Interfaith Service and quoted an insight that the people who would deny women the choice to abort an unwanted pregnancy would do well to remember:

Frederica Matthews-Green is quoted as saying, “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.”

Animals and people fearing their own extinction will fight. Don't get in their way.

Perhaps there's a lesson there for my uncomfortable allies who want to do away with abortions: care for and honor those women; make sure they are protected from predatory men and can always secure convenient birth control; ensure they can escape the poverty that makes a child a burden; help them know they are valuable creatures in their own right. If those conditions aren't met, understand they'll fight, even it it means their own deaths. That wasn't the outcome you wanted, was it? Was it?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Presidential inauguration contradictions

A good leftist like me would have to be a complete cad not to thrill to President Obama's second inaugural address. As much as someone who can be elected President is ever likely to, he presented a vision of the sort of country I wish this were: inclusive, generous, responsible, intelligent, fair-minded … No, the real country is not very worthy of any of those adjectives, but I don't mind someone at the center of the political world reminding us that these are ideals worth aspiring to.

James Fallows who has heard and studied a lot of Presidential speechifying call the speech "startling" and "a departure for him," That accords very much with my reaction: The Prez has seldom allowed himself the license to try to win by inspiring. Probably temperamentally, and certainly politically, it has served the guy well to modulate his utterances, never risking being perceived as too passionate. In this one, he dared a vision of our history formed in our citizens' struggles for democracy and equality. Good for him.

Yet even on this special day, I can't let him off the hook on what he obviously hopes he never has to talk about: the country's continued flouting of international law and human rights constraints in its overseas power projections. U.S. drones killed three people in Yemen today; are we at war there? With who? If so, for what? This President isn't saying beyond broadly claiming uncontested and secretive authority to label individuals "militants" and "al Qaeda" and blow them and anyone unlucky enough to be nearby to smithereens. This is not how a civilized democracy behaves.

And we didn't hear more today from this President who boldly outlawed torture on coming into office, but refused to make that edict stick by exacting any accountability from torturers and their enablers. Matthew W. Daloisio of Witness against Torture marked the inauguration with this truth:

Two presidents now, Bush and Obama, have worked to seal America’s identity as a torture nation, based in nearly incomprehensible hypocrisy and delusional commitment to the myth of America’s essential and unerring virtue.

Some people refuse to forget unfulfilled promises:

Yes, Mr. President, we still ask better of you. We take seriously the aspirations for a better country you presented today. We have no choice but to remind you there's more you must do.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Blog holiday and announcement

I'm taking a blog day-off today. I'll probably catch some coverage of the inauguration: whatever beefs I have with the Obama administration (and there are and will be many), the alternative would have been much worse!

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Meanwhile I'll announce my new project. I've begun to walk all 596 election precincts in San Francisco while toting my camera. So far, each small area takes about two hours to cover. I seem to shoot about 40 pictures from which I intend to select one or two photos and post at 596 Precincts. Some December 2012 entries are already up.

This isn't an obsession; it's recreation. So posts will go up as I get around to it. Covering all the city's districts could take me the better part of ten years. If the idea happens to intrigue you, I recommend following by email through the link on the blog page, as posts will be sporadic.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dr. King's memory implies protest against US government when it does wrong

Legacy Mandates Respect for Due Process, End to Drone Killings and Warrantless Surveillance
by Dawud Walid, reprinted with permission

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day symbolizes many important moral and ethical principles, including the citizenry's responsibility to end the federal government's abuses of civil and human rights, both at home and abroad.

Dr. King is most often remembered for his leadership in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, his witnessing the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, which challenged America to achieve a higher sense of morality. Moreover, Dr. King is remembered as being imprisoned by bigoted Birmingham, Ala., police and having his life threatened by White Supremacists.

What seems to be left out of contemporary MLK Day discussions is that Dr. King was a strong critic of American military actions against civilian populations and was himself the subject of intrusive federal surveillance by the FBI.

Dr. King was one of the first prominent public intellectuals to take a vocal stand against the war in Vietnam. In fact, he specifically declared that America was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world," much of which targeted "little brown Vietnamese children."

Dr. King's call for justice for all of humanity caused him to come under intense spying by the FBI and for its director, J. Edgar Hoover, to label him "the most dangerous man in America." America has made great progress since the time of Dr. King, yet our nation remains plagued by these same moral challenges created by American violence abroad and by intrusive warrantless surveillance by federal law enforcement.

For example, America's drone program continues to kill civilians under the banner of "collateral damage," thus causing the rise of anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.

According to a recent study by Stanford University and New York University titled "Living Under Drones," only two percent of extra-judicial drone killings in Pakistan are of terrorists that pose an imminent danger to America.

Retired General Stanley McChrystal, former top commander in Afghanistan and once a strong proponent of drone strikes, now questions the negative impact that they have on long-term American interests. Simply put, it becomes difficult to justify the deaths of so many civilians, including innocent women and children, and at the same time claim to be the world's torchbearer of liberty and justice for all people.

Regarding warrantless surveillance, the FBI sent uncounted confidential informants and agent provocateurs into Islamic houses of worship -- without predication of criminal activity -- to make "initial threat assessments."

The tragedy of 9/11 continues to be misused as a justification for blanket monitoring of law-abiding Americans. Along with American Muslims, the FBI in recent years even monitored the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and spied on Occupy Wall Street activists for the constitutionally-protected freedoms of speech and assembly. Such warrantless surveillance not only is a waste of tax dollars and does not make the homeland any safer, but is also a violation of the very principles that are supposed to separate us from police states.

In the spirit of Dr. King, our national discussion should not only focus on racial equality, but also must include serious conversations about how the violence that America commits overseas affects the soul of the nation and how intrusive monitoring by the federal government is opposed to the aspirations of the Founding Fathers.

No one can know for certain what Dr. King would say about America's current drone killings and warrantless surveillance under the guise of national security. However, based on what he preached and was subjected to, it is safe to say that those who seek to follow in his footsteps should stand up for due process, question the violence carried out by our nation overseas and call for the cessation of federal law enforcement's intrusive monitoring of law-abiding citizens and legal residents.

Dawud Walid is executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil liberties organization.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Friday, January 18, 2013

Gun owners aren't the only ones feeling invaded ...


Yesterday Rain and I had a civil discussion in comments about what ought to be done about regulating guns. I'm an extremist on the topic and I was just tired of having those of us who want guns gone being polite and reasonable while the right wingers and the gun lobby screech about tyranny.

Josh Marshall at TPM apparently was also feeling that a large number of us are being silenced. He called his post "Speaking for My Tribe." Click the link to read it all:

I have my own set of rights not to have gun culture run roughshod over me. ... In the current rhetorical climate people seem not to want to say: I think guns are kind of scary and don’t want to be around them. Yes, plenty of people have them and use them safely. And I have no problem with that. But remember, handguns especially are designed to kill people. You may want to use it to threaten or deter. You may use it to kill people who should be killed (i.e., in self-defense). But handguns are designed to kill people. They’re not designed to hunt. You may use it to shoot at the range. But they’re designed to kill people quickly and efficiently.

... A big part of gun versus non-gun tribalism or mentality is tied to the difference between city and rural. And a big reason ‘gun control’ in the 70s, 80s and 90s foundered was that in the political arena, the rural areas rebelled against the city culture trying to impose its own ideas about guns on the rural areas. And there’s a reality behind this because on many fronts the logic of pervasive gun ownership makes a lot more sense in sparsely populated rural areas than it does in highly concentrated city areas.

But a huge amount of the current gun debate, the argument for the gun-owning tribe, amounts to the gun culture invading my area, my culture, my part of the country. So we’re upset about massacres so the answer is more guns. Arming everybody. ...

I heartily recommend reading Marshall's post and its follow ups. He's a reasonable person; I choose not to be on this topic.

This is one more arena in which our ability to work out our differences within a democratic system is suffering strains. I'm not one to fear polarization over political differences reflexively; I find it clarifying and don't mind some accompanying incivility. We can't wish polarization away -- we do disagree. I guess the best we can do is hope that majorities can be civil; some folks will always be screaming.

We're not in Kauai anymore

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Indeed we are not. A family emergency required a quick flight to New England. Lovely, but very different.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hardly anyone should own a gun ...


"The most savage ideological warfare imaginable…" That's what Ed Kilgore predicts we're going to see now that the President has thrown down with his "gun safety" proposals.

In the interests of adequately wide ranging ideological warfare, I'm happy to throw down my thoughts: nobody who is not a public safety officer should be allowed to wave a gun around. If we can't get that -- and a plurality of nincompoops at the Supreme Court have misinterpreted language about primitive state armed forces to say we can't -- then anyone not legally required to carry a fire arm on the job should be able, briefly, to check out a pistol to play at a shooting range or a rifle capable of no more than one shot without reloading to hunt for a day. And those "sport" uses should require a thorough background check. Anyone else in possession of a firearm goes to the slammer. Period. No "assault" weapons. No monster magazines. No "concealed carry." No armor piercing bullets. No bullshit.

Ain't gonna happen, so a couple of comments on what we're seeing. From the left, the ACLU warns, quite properly, that putting "new resource officers and counselors" into the schools can be another means by which youth of color just acting like dumb teenagers end up criminalized and lose their chances in life.

While well-meaning policymakers might assume that adding police, metal detectors and surveillance necessarily makes students safer, experience demonstrates otherwise. In practice, most school police spend a significant portion of their time responding to minor, nonviolent infractions—children who have drawn on desks or talked back to teachers, for example—rather than behaviors that seriously threaten school safety. … Criminalizing minor misbehavior that should be handled by teachers or school administrators has serious consequences for kids and only contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline - that is, pushing kids out of classrooms and into jail cells. When students are arrested just once, their chances of graduating drop dramatically and they face lifelong repercussions as a result.

Colorlines is following this aspect of the gun story.

Meanwhile, Kilgore tells us over and over what the wingnuts' gun obsession is really about: they think they must be armed well enough to overthrow the US government.

To “protect the citizenry from even their own government” may sound reasonable as an abstraction. But what it means is that Erick [Erickson, a prominent right wing blogger] wants Americans to be able to keep an assault rifle at home in order someday to use it to shoot police officers dead if the laws they seek to enforce represent “tyranny.”

But who decides when a tyranny is present? The people with assault rifles in their closets, apparently. With a few easy clicks, I can find people publicly describing Obamacare, progressive taxes, and even Keynesian economics as “tyrannical.” “Tyranny” has become an extraordinarily common term on the Right for describing the Obama administration generally. …

It is obviously impossible to have a rational discussion of gun regulation with people who think they may need to shoot you at some point to defend such fundamental liberties as their right not to subsidize health insurance for “takers” and “looters.” But it is important to remind them and everyone else now and then that their eminently respectable-sounding ideology is based on blood and fire and the implicit threat of violence.

A pretty substantial majority of us don't' want these bitter guys (yes, they are mostly guys) deciding what kind of government we have. We decide that by voting. And the proper use of force in this case is to disarm the lawless. We fought a civil war about this 150 years ago. "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people" prevailed. The struggle to actualize it never ends, but we don't carry it on by shooting law enforcement personnel enforcing laws we don't like.

Obligatory disclaimers: yes, as a kid, I took "riflery" and enjoyed shooting at targets. My older male relatives were hunters in the more rural society in which they lived. One of my current friends is a competitive biathlete. I know lots of contemporary gun owners have more sense than the NRA leadership or Erick Erickson. But I still think private gun ownership is not yielding a safer, saner United States and that we should just stop it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: push, pull and scientific communication



It's recently been reported that the New York Times is closing down its environmental desk. Nobody is getting fired. The seven reporters and two editors are being dispersed to other departments.

The Times assures worried readers that it remains committed to quality science reporting; the paper just wants to embed these journalists' expertise in other sections of the paper.

It's easy to react with a feeling of panic. Is the US newspaper of record giving up on demanding we take notice of global warming? By the very low standards of US journalism, the Times does a decent and interesting job of highlighting environmental issues. Are they letting frustration with our unwillingness to attend to impending disasters lure them into foolish cost cutting?

At a Scientific American blog, Bora Zivkovic suggests that we needn't be quite so worried -- yet.

… back in the old times, when I actually read newspapers on paper, how did I do it? I pick up the paper. I open it up. I take out all the sections I am not interested in -- Sports, Auto, Business, Real Estate, Classifieds, etc. -- and throw them directly into the recycling bin. Then I read the parts I am interested in (front sections, domestic and world news, opinion, Sunday Magazine, Week In Review, Book Review). When I was a kid, I read the comics first, then TV and movie listings, then Kids section, perhaps some nature/science, perhaps some sports.

Other people have their own preferences. If there is such a thing as "Environment" section, or "Health" section, or "Science" section, how many people do you think automatically recycle them and go straight to Sports instead?

A dedicated Environment section is a pull method. It pulls in readers who are already interested in the topic. Others never see it. And being online doesn't change a thing -- it works the same way as on paper, in its own ghetto, isolated from the stuff people actually read.

The 'push' method inserts science/health/environment stories everywhere, in all sections of the paper, linked from all the pages of the website. It includes science/health/environment angles into many other stories. People interested in politics, economics, education, art, culture, comic strips, whatever, get a steady diet of relevant information mixed into their breakfast. They can't avoid it any more. It is pushed onto them without their explicit request.

Let's hope that The New York Times is thinking this way, as that would be the best possible outcome.

The whole article is worth a read.

Zivkovic's discussion of the difference between "push" and "pull" made me think about my "Warming Wednesdays" blog posts. I started writing these in order to force myself to think more frequently and in perhaps a deeper manner about impending climate change. The discipline has served me, I think -- on my better days anyway. I'm no expert and can't expect to evaluate whether some tidbit I've noticed is important or marginal. But I notice the developing Anthropocene era more every day.

It is not at all clear whether my attempt to write some on these topics once a week serves anyone else. I do know that the minuscule visit-count at this blog goes down on "Warming Wednesdays." I get it -- thinking about how we're rapidly rendering our only home less habitable and how can't seem to find the political will to stop the damage is dispiriting. Much of what I write about here concerns struggles that seek to realize the promise of democracy, to realize a hope that something good can happen here. Climate change politics -- an unhappy conjunction of scientific prediction, popular ignorance, and interest group self-dealing -- doesn't show democratic (small "d") government in a good light.

Finding political solutions to the deadly byproducts of the deadly economic and political systems we've ourselves trapped in is tough work. But we have no choice. Perhaps naively, despite our having already done irredeemable damage to the natural systems that made our evolution possible, I do still trust our crazy species will find a way.

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, January 15, 2013

One more Kauai sunrise

Kauai sunrise.JPG
I chose not to resist posting.

Kauai: invaders, past heritage, and progress jostle


In a museum at the 1835 plantation settlement of Koloa on Kauai, there's a placard that proclaims:

… the Koloa settlement remains a cultural crossroads of history. Those who live here still address the issues of progress versus preservation of past values and heritage.

Maybe because the first place we visited on the island, the McBryde Garden, a unit of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, is a display of plants brought to Hawaii from away, I became very conscious that just about everything in this place comes from elsewhere -- even, long ago, the ancestors of the native Hawaiians who are thought to be descended from Polynesian and perhaps Tahitian voyagers.

Apparently there were only about 12 genuinely native plant species -- nearly every bit of greenery on the islands was brought for somewhere else. So were most of the birds and all the larger animals. Now all these living things co-exist -- or more accurately jockey for niches to live in.


Perhaps the relative newcomer status of so many life forms leads to the prominence of the many warnings about how to deal with various invasive species. Rules are essential.

That last sign is about a rare native, struggling against extinction by vehicular competitors.

Of course the truly disruptive invasive species is not usually named on these warnings: the human tourist. When rice and sugar cane cultivation collapsed on Kauai, the island's already heterogeneous population was left to sell the island's beauties and breezes to wave after wave of vacationers and curiosity seekers. That influx certainly tests the equilibrium between the values of past heritage and of progress. As far as I can see, to date Kauai is managing the delicate dance both practically and gracefully.

Monday, January 14, 2013

What to do about Social Security?


It's all a lie: the idea that there's something terribly wrong with Social Security, and that paying for it is putting the country in hock, and that it won't be there for young people anyway is just propaganda from the system's enemies. Remember the Republican prescription for health care reform: just die. The same goes for growing old without sufficient income.

Social Security is fully funded by our past taxes through 2033 (2012 estimate) and will be funded longer if the economy ever recovers and more people start paying in. Even if nothing is done about projected shortfalls (that may or may not be of the scale estimated) the system can pay 75 percent of benefits through 2086.

But there's a possible significant tweak that seldom gets discussed but ought to be the first direction to look to ensure Social Security remains solvent. We can raise the cap on the amount of income on which we pay SS taxes. Nicholas Beaudrot explained this so succinctly and clearly that it seems worthwhile to pass along here.

Social Security is paid for through payroll taxes. For every $1 of wages or salary, $0.062 is withheld as social security, so the worker only sees $0.938 today (though they'll get paid back, in essence, through Social Security wages when they retire). But, this only applies to the first $110,000 or so in income, though that threshold is adjusted every year for inflation. Historically, the payroll tax cap has meant that about 90% of income is subject to social security taxes, but the explosion in inequality over the past generation means that the tax covers only about 84% of income. Taxing the first $200,000 or so in income would get us back to the historical 90% threshold while still mostly preserving the "you get out what you get in" nature of Social Security, which is a big reason for the program's political stability.

If politicians aren't open to raising the cap, they aren't interested in fixing the system. They just are pretending to worry about budgets and debt in order to gut supports for old people. I'd make raising the cap a litmus test for all of them.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Kauai sabbath

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First we went to church at this lovely little place built from native stone. With a high season congregation of less than 40, consisting about half of (very nice) tourists, we wondered how the locals keep it afloat. I am sure they sometimes wonder too.

Then, since it was sprinkling intermittently, we sat back to watch some football on TV, much of it in the poolside bar. Off shore, huge breaks were forming and a few intrepid surfers were being towed out by jet skis.

I've been trying the local beers:
mehana volcano.jpg longboard lager.jpg big wave.jpg
None of them are anything to write home about, so I won't.

This is what a vacation looks like ...


Thirty seven lovely seconds from the East shore of Kauai. Just another day in paradise ...

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Football play-off post

I suspect my favorite NFL gladiators, the San Francisco 49ers, are just too banged up to prevail in their game tomorrow. But it has been an exciting season. Here's a lovely tidbit of NFL porn featuring Patrick Willis to mark the occasion.



The other day, Joe Staley, another of the local stalwarts, said something smart (they do have to be smart, in their own way, you know.) It strikes me as good advice in political struggles as well as football:

That's just the way … You can't get too up and you can't get too down. You can only control what you can control.

But you have to keep going ...

UPDATE: Well, the 49ers sure made the most of their bye week, seemed healthy today, and hammered the Pack who seem hapless. I love being wrong sometimes!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Friday critter blogging: a bevy of Kauai birds

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This goose, a Nene, is Hawaii's state bird. In the 1950s, the population of this indigenous fowl was down to about 50; protective efforts are enabling a comeback. They don't migrate and are nowhere near as frightened as they should be of autos and humans.

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The red crested cardinal seems common.

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As does the signature bird of the island: the chicken. Apparently some Polynesian chickens bred with some European chickens and the rest is history. They are everywhere, announced by the roosters' cries.

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This white-tailed tropicbird nests on the cliffs at the Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.

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A colony of Laysan Albatross inhabit the refuge. The link is worth exploring; apparently some of these large birds form female pairs that find ways to breed young.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Meanwhile in DC ...


Catholic Workers and friends (Catholic Workers often have lots of friends of varying persuasions) are fasting in Washington to remind us that our country's shame -- the prison at Guantanamo -- remains open, that most of its current inmates have been cleared for release but are still held, and that the military commissions/kangaroo courts grind on. Matthew W. Daloisio writes

January 11, 2013 marks the eleventh anniversary of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the seventh anniversary of Witness Against Torture’s January 11 presence in D.C., and our fifth liquids fast.

Here we are again, pilgrims from across the country, gathering in D.C. Though it is not to pay homage to the nation’s capital that we come, but to honor a common cause, a divine mandate in fact, “love one another.” Even enemies, even strangers, undoubtedly those unjustly detained.

Bearing witness alone is never enough, but without witness, more cannot come. Or so I think.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

To anyone who wondered ...

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yes, we're having a great vacation.

I'll post more when I'm less tired from having fun.

Warming Wednesdays: what does global warming mean for Hawaii?

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A bit of Kauai shoreline outside our windows.

Arriving in Hawaii reminds me of national border crossings. Instead of a visa application, airlines hand out agricultural import forms to all passengers. The island state, though heavily dependent on the flow of tourists, struggles to prevent introduction of all sorts of foreign pests.

Isolated out here in the ocean, the state seems somewhat insulated from acrimonious debates about climate change in the political arena on the mainland. Hawaiian media know warming is coming; our best measurements of CO2 come from the observatory at Mauna Loa on the Big Island. The obvious threats here are sea levels rising, coral reefs bleaching leading to die-offs of fish species, and declining rainfall. All this suggests a bleak future for the tourism that provides much of the state's bread and butter.

But unlike most states on the mainland, the state government has attempted some pretty serious mitigation measures going back over a decade as well as moving toward less carbon polluting energy sources.

Unlike many small, developing island nations, as part of the United States, Hawaii has the capacity and resources to mount a credible defense against environmental impacts caused by climate change. Hawaii has exhibited foresight in anticipating climate change impacts. In 1998, the state issued a lengthy report on the effects of climate change on the islands. Recommendations and action plans to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions over a broad range of industries were included in the report. Hawaii is proactive and has positioned itself to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2007, Hawaii enacted “A Global Warming Solutions Act 234″ to cap greenhouse gas emissions to the 1990 level by 2020. In 2008, Hawaii launched a Clean Energy Initiative with the goal of creating a 70 percent clean-energy economy within a generation. As a result of its location and lack of fossil fuel resources, Hawaii is the most oil-dependent state in the nation, getting 90 percent of its energy needs from imported oil. In a memorandum of understanding signed in 2008, the Department of Energy (DOE) will assist Hawaii to achieve the goal of reducing its dependence on oil for electricity generation.

Hawaii has at its disposal a plethora of renewable energy options to transition to a renewable energy economy including biomass, hydro, wind, geothermal, ocean waves and, of course, solar. In its favor, Hawaii emits only 0.4 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and is therefore one of the lowest state emitters in the country. Hawaii is also part of the EPA’s Clean Energy State Partnership Initiative to support the introduction and use of clean, renewable energy. The Sierra Club reports that Hawaii also recently imposed a $1 surcharge on each barrel of oil imported into the state. Funds collected here will be earmarked for the development of clean, renewable energy. Last but not least, the [Republican!] Governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle, … signed an energy bill [in 2009] into law mandating that 25 percent of Hawaii’s electricity must come from renewable energy sources by 2020 and 40 percent by 2030.

Henry Kwong, Perspectives on Global Issues

I guess it should be no surprise that the new Senator appointed to fill out Sen Daniel Inouye's term, Hawaii's former Lt. Governor Brian Schatz (D), immediately asserted

… personally, I believe global climate change is real and it is the most urgent challenge of our generation,

The Hill

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

People just want to stay in their homes ...

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For more on the struggles of tenants to stay in their homes, hop on over to Time Goes By for my latest Gay and Gray article.

I'm off on vacation to Kauai today. Don't know what the internet access will be, but will try to post some photos, if nothing more.

Monday, January 07, 2013

An accessible look at the aftermath of the freedom struggle

I feel as if Douglas Foster's After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa had been written for me.

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela, a leader of the long struggle of the African National Congress against apartheid, was released after 27 years in prison. The release was televised world wide; Mandela spoke to waiting crowds on the Grand Parade in Cape Town. Millions felt they were seeing an almost unimaginable advance toward greater democracy and justice.

Within the next month a call went out to U.S. activists to send a team to teach digital publishing to newspapers associated with the "Mass Democratic Movement" against apartheid. My partner and I took up the call and in April 1990 began a three month stint working for South African tabloids in Cape Town, the Western Cape town of Oudtshoorn, and Johannesburg. It was a strange in-between time in South Africa: apartheid was clearly going to end, but just how a transition to non-racial democracy could happen was not at all clear. White racist fascists threatened and sometimes acted in terrorist resistance to the changes. Leaders of the African National Congress who had spent decades in foreign exile were returning and re-establishing their connections with the mass movement that had carried on a costly struggle within the country. Black people were going to have power, but what would that mean? -- and which black people? Elections were still years in the future, so the question of who could legitimately claim to voice the aspirations of the masses was unsettled.

Dropped into this, all the two of us were sure of was that we were ill-equipped to understand what we were seeing. Oh, it was heady. We attended the first legal rally by the ANC in decades in the township of Mitchell's Plain. Mandela and South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo spoke -- Slovo was the more exciting draw insofar as we could gage the response. We saw a one day general labor action against developing inter-communal violence in Cape Town. We met with medical workers in the Khayelitsha township who were desperately trying to prevent the AIDS epidemic they saw coming -- after all we were gays from San Francisco; we knew something about living under that threat.

We certainly came away wishing the ANC and South Africa well -- but we also came away full of doubts. We didn't talk about this much; while we were in his country, Mandela had toured our country being received by liberal adulation. Every anti-racist progressive person in the United States was full of hope for the new South Africa.

We wanted to be that hopeful, but we came away afraid for the future. Our succinct expression of this, voiced seldom and privately, was that South Africa was more like the United States than anywhere we'd ever been. By this we meant that we saw a society proclaiming verbal allegiance to popular democracy and equality, but where huge parts of the population lived in such material and educational deprivation that it was hard to imagine how they could be brought into the national life. We anticipated that the white and "colored" English speakers we had worked with in the media might have a bright future in affluent white-owned enclaves, while black Africans and Afrikaans speakers of all races remained on the outside. (Foster's book bears this out, mentioning prominently some of the folks we worked with who we knew would rise to the top of any heap.)

One of us was asked to create a flyer for an introductory first meeting of a newly legal ANC branch committee. "Come elect your leaders" it was to say -- until the woman making the request came back to say it should read "Come meet your new leaders …" A culture of democratic decision making doesn't spring up without nurturing. Many trends looked like trouble ahead. But like the whole progressive world, we wanted so much for South Africa to remain a beacon of hope. And then, like much of the world, we applauded the 1994 non-racial, universal suffrage, elections that brought Mandela and the ANC to power -- and turned our attention elsewhere.

Foster's publisher describes After Mandela as a

revisionist account of a country whose recent history has been not just neglected but largely ignored by the West.

So it is and anyone seriously interested in the struggles within that wonderful country at the tip of Africa should read it.

Foster surveys the horrors of the unchecked and long officially unacknowledged AIDS epidemic. South Africa has plenty of smart scientists and doctors who saw the HIV plague coming, but for a variety of political and cultural reasons, the ANC ruling authorities flunked the challenge. One of Mandela's sons (and one of that son's wives) died of AIDS -- it was a breakthrough for open truth telling when Mandela, retired from the presidency, chose to speak of this in 2005. Foster reports on the conflicting emotions that HIV/AIDS created in the new country:

There was a deep sense of having been crushed by paralyzing grief right at the moment of everyone's supposed freedom -- "the simultaneity of new life and new death," as one scholar put it. Many people found the accumulation of such deep anguish quite difficult to bear, especially when it felt as though they were being dismissed or mocked by the regular public celebrations of their putative liberation.

The new country confronted intractable problems. Apartheid had been a social and economic safety blanket for white people, especially Afrikaans-speaking ones. The new democracy inherited grotesque economic inequality and only came into being on a promise not to dispossess the holders of wealth. The results are frightening:

…continued high unemployment, violent crime, and an uncontrolled spread of HIV brought people back to ground. These seemed like the intractable triad standing in the way of national progress. "If only the ANC knew how to govern as well as it knows how to campaign" a friend told me … here problems were deep-seated, and not matters of simple good governance alone. The Gini index, used to measure income inequality across populations, showed that South Africa scored far worse even than other middle-income developing countries in Africa, such as Kenya and Nigeria. The index for the country had been heading in the wrong direction -- toward a wider gap between rich and poor -- since Liberation Day, in 1994.

A racial age gap makes all this more difficult:

[Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela in office in from 1999 to 2008.]… Mbeki's Cabinet was well aware that economic growth alone would not substantially improve the picture on its own. Even if the country's growth rate surged up to 6 percent, orders of magnitude higher than its current rate, presidential advisor Joel Netshitenzhe figured that many young people from marginalized communities still would not be affected in a meaningful way. …This was the intersection where race, class, and age discrimination were thoroughly, frustratingly intertwined. While blacks accounted for 79 percent of the country's population, they made up 84 percent of South Africans up to fourteen years old. Seventy-nine percent of South Africans aged thirty and over were employed, but only half of those twenty-four and younger who were looking for work could find jobs.

The statistical material I'm quoting here misrepresents what Douglas Foster has done in this book -- though the book would not make much sense without it. Almost all of the book consists of reports of interviews with South Africans -- mostly young; mostly people who grew up after the 1994 liberation; of all races; famous and obscure -- about their hopes, anxieties and dreams. I don't know how a white English speaking US journalist achieved such apparent intimacy with his subjects, but I find their conversations utterly believable. I guess persistence pays off; Foster taught journalism in South Africa for several years. The result is fascinating, hopping from cultural commentary, through gossip, to policy insight, all skillfully woven into a series of story lines about people Foster seems to have cared about and who the reader can also relate to.

You don't need the sort of background I've got to read this book, though I think my experience helped. There's so much more to the South African freedom struggle than the singular moment when the world chanted "Free Mandela." Perhaps this volume can help some people in this country attend to the varied, bountifully contradictory, still mesmerizing, South Africa that is emerging in the 21st century.
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