Sunday, March 31, 2013

Cesar Chavez remembered

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Detail from a mural on a public school wall in the San Francisco Mission district.

In California, Texas and Colorado, March 31, the birthday of the United Farm Workers Union co-founder Cesar Chavez, is a state holiday. Especially among Mexican Americans, Chavez -- the labor leader, not the boxer -- is revered for demonstrating that poor and humble people could rise up against agribusiness and Anglos prejudices. He taught pride -- and organizing for justice.

The union Chavez founded is campaigning to make the date a national holiday.

For a contemporary appreciation of Chavez's legacy, one that acknowledges some elements that do not stand the test of time, see this discussion by Maegan Ortiz.

In this moment when it appears that full inclusion of gay and lesbian people as complete citizens is rapidly approaching, we should remember that Cesar Chavez was a very early supporter of gay civil rights. I know; I heard him acknowledge us among a list of people struggling for fuller freedom at a rally concluding a farm worker march to Modesto in 1975. At the 1987 Gay and Lesbian National March on Washington, he was in the first rank, helping to carry the lead banner.

Because the Chavez commemoration fell on Easter Sunday this year, actual observances are all over the lot -- some offices closed for a day last week; the annual Mission District parade and 24th Street fair in San Francisco has been moved to April 20.

Easter bonnets

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Seen in the Mission.

These photos are by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look and sign up for sporadic email updates.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: socks place their relationship ads

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Single striped knee-high looking for solemate

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Rainbow toe looking for same sock marriage

These photos are by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look and sign up for sporadic email updates.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday observance

The Christian observance of Good Friday reminds us (or should remind us) of the human propensity to torture and kill that which we find frightening or too just terribly different from ourselves. We do that all too easily. And we do it over and over.

In the U.S. gulag at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, prisoners have been on hunger strike for the last month. Lt. Colonel Barry Wingard, one of the military lawyers representing these men, explains their motivation for refusing food.

"… these men who live in animal cages in America's offshore prison ask for justice. They've been there 11 and one half years; 90 percent of them have no charges. Having looked at my clients' cases, they will never get a trial based on the evidence that is against them. ... Forty eight men will be condemned to die [in Guantanamo] without ever having been given a trial or an opportunity to defend themselves. They are essentially condemned -- dead -- men who just happen to breathe. … The vast majority of people in Guantanamo Bay are cleared for release. … the United States acknowledges they have committed no crime …These men have figured out that probably the only way for them to go home, cleared or not, is in a wooden box …

Of course the United States has many other prisons. In domestic prisons, at least there has been some pretense of a process before humans are confined forever. Every once in a while, far too often, the system admits it has imprisoned the wrong person and releases an innocent. The National Registry of Exonerations lists 1085 cases since 1989 as I write. And even the properly convicted usually are returned to the "free world" at some point.

We can't be sure how many other -- secret -- Guantanamos the United States has somewhere on the globe. The President says "no more secret prisons" but his word provides little assurance.

We do know about this Guantanamo and these cases. Witness Against Torture is leading a solidarity fast while the inmates remain on hunger strike. This seems appropriate to the day.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Chinua Achebe: choosing to side with the powerless

The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe died last week at the age of 82. He mattered:
Mr. Achebe was a source of pride to many Nigerians, an elder we could point to when the world laughed at our shortcomings. We often invoked his name like that of a fierce god.

… With fiction and nonfiction, he helped us deride colonialism. … He also addressed corruption head on, teaching younger Nigerians not to be hungry to the point of selling our birthrights. His soul and conscience were nonnegotiable. He turned down Nigeria’s national honors twice because he was one who believed an elder should not eat his meal atop a heap of malodorous rubbish.

Mr. Achebe was a gentle rebel who refused to shake the necrotic outstretched hands of corrupt leaders. He was an old breed, a wise man from a different generation who could not stand the wanton looting of Nigeria’s public coffers.

Mr. Achebe would have loved to spend his twilight years among his own people instead of in America. With the bastardization of a nation he was once proud of by kleptocratic military and civilian rulers, the old man had no country to return to alive.
By coincidence, I have just finished reading Achebe's memoir, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. The book is a chronicle of his hopes for Nigeria independence in 1960; how hope turned sour amid corruption, continued Western interference, and ethnic competition; and the terrible story of how his native Biafra (region) attempted and failed to secede from the federal state. A massacre of some 30,000 Eastern region Nigerians -- members of his Igbo people -- prompted the secession in 1967; federal Nigerian forces killed some three million Biafrans by direct military invasion and a blockade of food stuffs in the war that followed. The war (and Biafra's independence) ended in 1970 but Achebe still was moved to add his final witness to that terrible experience in this 2012 book.

Achebe published his first novel about one African experience of British colonialism, Things Fall Apart, in 1958 and was immediately recognized as an accomplished literary interpreter of his country to English speaking readers. I remember reading Things Fall Apart in high school in the early 1960s while studying decolonization. In this new book, he recalls meeting some South Korean students who had also read it in high school -- and who recognized the sort of interaction it portrays between colonizer and indigenous people because they too had been colonized -- not by Britain, but by Japan.

Achebe's memoir is well worth reading for its history of the Biafra war and insight into the failure of the Nigerian state to deliver on the promise of democracy and independence. But, in light of the author's passing, it seems more important to dwell on some of his observations on his vocation as a writer; this was a man who viewed his own talents within the frame of his responsibilities to his community.
… Writing has always been a serious business for me. I felt it was a moral obligation. A major concern of the time was the absence of the African voice. Being part of that dialogue meant not only sitting at the table but effectively telling the African story from an African perspective -- in full earshot of the world.

… Some of us decided to tackle the big subjects of the day -- imperialism, slavery, independence, gender, racism, etc. And some did not. One could write about roses or the air or about love for all I cared; that was fine too. As for me, however, I chose the former. Engaging such heavy subjects while at the same time trying to help create a unique and authentic African literary tradition would mean that some of us would decide to use the colonizer's tools: his language, altered. sufficiently to bear the weight of an African creative aesthetic, infused with elements of the African literary tradition. I borrowed proverbs from our culture and history, colloquialisms and African expressive language from the ancient griots, the world views, perspectives, and customs from my Igbo tradition and cosmology, and the sensibilities of everyday people. … My kind of storytelling has to add its voice to this universal storytelling before we can say, "Now we've heard it all."

… I believe that it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest. In my definition I am a protest writer, with restraint. Even those early novels that look like very gentle re-creations to the past -- what they were saying, in effect, was that we had a past. That was the protest, because there were people who thought we didn't have a past. What I was doing was to say politely that we did -- here it is.

… The question of involvement in politics is really a matter of definition. I think it is quite often misunderstood. I have never proposed that every artist become an activist in the way we have always understood political activity. Some will, because that's the way they are. Others will not, and we must not ask anyone to do more than is necessary for them to perform their task. At the same time it is important to state that words have the power to hurt, even to denigrate and oppress others. Before I am accused of prescribing a way in which a writer should write, let me say that I do think that decency and civilization would insist that the writer take sides with the powerless. Clearly there is no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless. …
The United States seems bent on meddling further in the affairs of Africans, extending our military presence (AFRICOM), competing with China for the continent's resources. Somehow, I cannot trust we'll have much care for the powerless. That, if it comes at all, will have to start with Africans.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

An Easter challenge to targetted killings


As we approach Easter, religious leaders challenge our political leaders' presumption that they can ethically play God.

Warming Wednesdays: the price of carbon


Carbon pollution makes for "weather on steroids." Who pays?

At the moment, a good place to get plugged in to the international citizen movement to stop all this is 350.org.

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, March 26, 2013

Who are the super rich and what are they doing to us?

Last fall during the election campaign I'd occasionally be asked what I really thought about President Obama. Questioners seemed to mean something along the lines of "who is he?" Damned if I know. Mere consumers of the political theater of democracy can't know, of course. But even when he is disappointing, Obama remains a fascinating figure. I'd say I had a book to recommend, one that I found somehow a little more enlightening than his own autobiography, or David Remnick's effort or William Jelani Cobb's. I suggested Jodi Kantor's The Obamas. I don't know if anyone took up my suggestion -- after all, this was "chick nonfiction" (according to historian Douglas Brinkley.) But it brought me insights that none of the others had teased out.

Chrystia Freeland's Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else strikes me as another important book that a lot of people are probably dismissing as "chick nonfiction." Dismissing this is a mistake. Freeland has been an accomplished financial journalist with the Financial Times and Thomson Reuters; she cut her reporting teeth on describing the rise of Russia's post-Communist billionaires in Sale of the Century. Sure, she writes charmingly about the milieu of her subjects -- but it's the dimwitted reader who misses the edge she brings to her topic.

In this book she chronicles the two current Gilded Ages she sees global plutocrats exploiting concurrently.
… we aren't just living through a replay of the Gilded Age --- we are living through two, slightly different gilded ages that are unfolding simultaneously. The industrialized West is experiencing a second gilded age; … the emerging markets are experiencing their first gilded age.

The gilded age of the emerging markets is the easiest to understand. Many countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa are industrializing and urbanizing, just as the West did in the nineteenth century, and with the added oomph of the technology revolution and a globalized economy. The countries of the former Soviet Union aren't industrializing -- Stalin accomplished that -- but they have been replacing the failed central planning regime that coordinated their creaky industrial economy with a market system, and many are enjoying a surge in their standard of living as a result. The people at the very top of all of the emerging economies are benefiting most, but the transition is also pulling tens of millions of people into the middle class and lifting hundreds of millions out of absolute poverty.

… The collapse of communism is more than a footnote to today's double gilded age. Economic historians are still debating the connection between the rise of Western democracy and the first gilded age. But there can be no question that today's twin gilded ages are as much the product of a political revolution -- the collapse of communism and the triumph of the liberal idea around the world -- as they are of new technology. …

At the same time, the West is also benefiting from the first gilded age of the emerging economies. If you own a company in Dallas or Dusseldorf, the urbanizing peasants of the emerging markets probably work for you. That is good news for the plutocrats in the West, who can reap the benefits of simultaneously being nineteenth-century robber barons and twenty-first century technology tycoons. But it makes the transition even harsher for the Western middle class, which is being buffeted by two gilded ages at the same time.
Freeland, not surprisingly given her experience, is one of the many smart critics of plutocracy who adopts the view that un- and under-regulated free market capitalism is the worst of all possible systems -- except any other that humans have created.

Like at least one other female financial journalist I can think of (Gillian Tett), Freeland approaches her subjects with an ethnographer's eye.
… if you are looking to define the archetypal member of the super elite, he isn't Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy, with his gorgeous acres of Pemberley. He -- and they are almost all still men -- is an aggressive, intensely educated mathematician, the son of middle- or upper-middle-class parents, who made his first fortune young. … The result is a super-elite whose members have been working to join it for most of their conscious lives -- if not since nursery school, certainly since high school, when the competition for those elite college places begins in earnest. … One sign of the shift is the illicit drug of choice among the gilded youth -- Adderall. Its great virtue, one Princeton engineer told me, is that you can study for twenty-four hours without losing your concentration or needing to sleep.

… Revolution [technological, financial, political] is the new global status quo, but not everyone is good at responding to it. My shorthand for the archetype best equipped to deal with it is "Harvard kids who went to provincial public schools." They got into Harvard, or, increasingly, its West Coast rival, Stanford, so they are smart, focused, and reasonably privileged. But they went to public schools, often in the hinterlands, so they have an outsider's ability to spot the weaknesses of the ruling paradigm and don't have so much vested in the current system that they are afraid of stepping outside it.

… If wonks were fashionistas, big data would be this season's hot new color.

… The plutocratic bubble isn't just about being insulated by the company of fellow super-elites, although that is part of it. It is also created by the way you are treated by everyone else. One financier, speaking about his friend who is one of the top five hedge fund managers in the world, said, "He's a good man -- or as good as you can be when you are surrounded by sycophants."
Freeland seems to find the plutocrats she has reports on alluring, if also slightly horrifying; I find them repulsive. Their myopic worship of money and undisguised greed leave me wondering how their mothers can have failed so utterly to knock some humane values into them.

But Freeland knows that the society these men are building is a house of cards that can't last if plutocrats succeed in warping our institutions entirely to their benefit. She explores some of the contradictions between the one percent and the .01 percent that provide some space for efforts to rein in the global super rich. She covers some of the same ground explored in Why Nations Fail, such as the example of the Venetian Renaissance elite who stifled innovation and social mobility and ended up losing their preeminent position in commerce. A Gilded Age, new or old, is delightful for global winners and their hangers on, but it is devastating for most of us.

If you want your plutocracy charmingly and bitingly described, this is a book for you.
***
I need to mention that the notion that uncontrolled free market capitalism is heating up the planet in ways that are likely to change the prospects for even the most affluent humans shows up nowhere in this book. In 10 years, in 20 years, in 50 years, will be it be possible to describe how our economies are and have been organized without mentioning the impact of climate change? I doubt it. But for now, the band plays on...

Monday, March 25, 2013

Marriage equality at the Supremes - NOT a Roe v. Wade rerun



On Saturday, the New York Times previewed the hoopla that will accompany arguments about marriage equality in the Supreme Court this week in an article entitled "Shadow of Roe v. Wade Looms Over Ruling on Gay Marriage."

When the Supreme Court hears a pair of cases on same-sex marriage on Tuesday and Wednesday, the justices will be working in the shadow of a 40-year-old decision on another subject entirely: Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion.

Judges, lawyers and scholars have drawn varying lessons from that decision, with some saying that it was needlessly rash and created a culture war.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal and a champion of women’s rights, has long harbored doubts about the ruling. “It’s not that the judgment was wrong, but it moved too far, too fast,” she said last year at Columbia Law School.

The article goes on to acknowledge that there are differences in the political climate and in political discussion of same-sex marriage, even though the opponents of equality -- Roman Catholic, fundamentalist Protestant, and other traditionalist religious groups -- are very much the same forces that have tried for forty years to substitute fetal personhood for women's control of our reproduction.

The meme sent me running to Professor Kristin Luker's Abortion & the Politics of Motherhood, a 1985 study that I consider the essential history of the earlier phases of the abortion debate.

Luker sets the stage for the 1973 Roe decision by tracing the legal history of abortion in the U.S. This country only acquired laws against abortion in the late 1800s as a byproduct of the medical profession's effort to kick a variety of competitors -- homeopaths, chiropractors, midwives -- out of the business of healthcare. University trained doctors didn't really have much to offer patients until the early 1900s, but they wanted exclusive rights and used the state governments to get them.

The abortion prohibitions allowed doctors discretion to conclude that some physical or mental impediment made the procedure indicated. Abortion wasn't something people talked about; it was a dirty secret. Because doctors didn't discuss openly the criteria they used to make exceptions to the laws and accorded each other the professional courtesy of not asking, individual doctors evolved different definitions of necessity for abortions. Meanwhile women continued to attempt self-abortion (think knitting needles) and to pay dangerous quacks to enable them to escape pregnancy.

Pressure for state-by-state reform of abortion laws only evolved in the 1950s and early 60s as doctors began to understand that they had very different views of the practice. The women's movement was not really launched until the end of the 1960s by which time medical professional advocates had won liberalized abortion laws in California and New York. Doctors who believed in liberalized abortion had achieved legal cover for their activities. Only the rudiments of an activist movement in favor of women being central to the decision to give birth had come into being when the Supreme Court legalized the practice, as a right for the woman and her doctor, in 1973.

Only then did opponents of legal abortion organize themselves to try to overthrow the Court's judgement. Opponents simply had not imagined that any substantial set of people believed women should have the option to decide when to raise a child. From Luker:

The new group of people brought into active participation in the anti-abortion movement by the Supreme Court decision were predominately women with high school educations (and occasionally some·college) who were married, had children, and were not employed outside the home. They were, as the earlier pro-life activists called them, "the housewives." None of them had ever had an abortion, and only a few of them had ever had a friend who had had an abortion; the closest most of them came to actual experience in the matter was having heard rumors in high school about someone who had "gotten in trouble" and "done something" about it. Their values and life circumstances made it unlikely that they themselves would need abortions, and they were surrounded by people who shared these values. Moreover, since they were known to be devout, traditional women who valued motherhood highly, they were not likely to be on the receiving end of confidences from women who did not share these values. As one of them said, "Look, I'm a devout Catholic and people know how I stand on these kinds of things. I'm not the kind of person you would confide in if you were having an abortion. "

… One out of every three pregnancies in California might end in an induced abortion by 1971 -- but these did not include their pregnancies or those of their friends.

… We may now ask why the Supreme Court decision of 1973 provoked such a massive response from people who had tolerated (or at least lived with) what were in effect very liberal abortion laws for years. It will be recalled that reform physicians in California originally claimed that the Beilenson bill would do little more than "clarify" the legal grounds for the sort of abortions they were doing anyway and that the deletion from the bill (under threat of a veto by Governor Reagan) of a clause permitting abortion for "fetal indications" removed any explicit challenge to the belief that the embryo is a full human life. Pro-life people could believe, therefore, that the principle they cherished was still safe, that only the decision rules about how to weigh one life against another had been modified. Equally important, the new California law said that the abortion decision had to be made not by the woman involved, nor even by the woman and her doctor, but by a panel of three doctors -- in effect, by representatives of the medical community. Thus, from the pro-life point of view, abortion was still medical, still the taking of a human life, and still wrong, except in extraordinary circumstances.

The Supreme Court decision changed all that. …

Because a fraction of the population that was politically uninvolved was totally dumbstruck by evolving professional opinion as embodied in the decision, there was huge space in which an anti-abortion movement could grow. Pro-choice women were not much better organized yet either and took some time to rally themselves against their unexpected foes.

The current decision about marriage equality will come in a very different environment. We've been arguing about same-sex marriage for 20 years in the public square -- more or less since Hawaii's highest court decided for legalization in 1993 and sent their legislature scurrying to stop it. We've fought elections over marriage equality for years, first losing, then winning in the ultimate court of public opinion. Progressive religious denominations have affirmed marriage bonds between LGBT couples. Opinion polls show 58 percent of us now support the novelty.

What this means is that there is no currently silent constituency that will be awakened by a pro-marriage equality decision. This is not like the abortion debate. It may take some years to work all the legal kinks out, but marriage equality is coming.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

An isolating, vicious psychodrama

Scientology hasn't been the most prominent whack-a-doodle, abusive cult on view in Northern California in my time here. After all we've housed the Peoples Temple and Synanon, so L. Ron Hubbard's baroque faith had serious competition from this part of the world.

When I heard Lawrence Wright interviewed about his new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, he explained that he had been interested in exploring how large numbers of people can come to accept and hold on to what seem crazy beliefs. Since I knew Wright as a reporter who'd done a creditable job explicating the intricacies of the development of Al Qaeda (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11), I figured this one could be worth exploring.

The book certainly was worth a look -- as an example of what careful, fact-checked reporting should look like. Of course Wright had to be tight with his sourcing. Scientology was enjoined by Hubbard to sue, sue and sue again anyone who criticized it. It even managed to drive the old Cult Awareness Network out of business (though apparently Scientology's apparatchiks took over the name.) And, according to Wright, Scientology successfully browbeat the IRS into labeling it a legally recognized religion, giving it considerable latitude in financial and other disclosure issues. The story is pretty awful -- this seems to be one of those two-tiered outfits where leaders and movie stars like Tom Cruise are pampered by (small) armies of mistreated followers. For my friends on the left, this reminded me of nothing so much as what I've heard of the nasty inner life of Marlene Dixon's unlamented Democratic Workers Party.

Though this is a great exposé, it doesn't quite do what Wright has seemed to promise in his interviews. All the focus on the abuse by the powerful doesn't catch why apparently sensible, otherwise ordinary people who weren't born into it get caught up in Scientology's isolating psycho-drama. I was pleased to read that Scientology's institutional homophobia is currently stirring unease among some adherents; it's good to know my people are disturbing the (minor) powerful in yet another arena.

This book is a good read and a good warning about what we're capable of.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: San Bruno Mountain in spring

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When I started uphill, the fog still covered the way ahead. But not for long. The city is lovely and a bit magical this spring day.

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The air is clear all the way to Mount Tamalpais, even though the Golden Gate is still fogged in.

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I could hardly be surprised that these runners whizzed by me. I was "running" but I am no longer in their league.

Yes, I know, I publish a post much like this every spring. But how could I cease to be amazed by the proximity of this barren summit to the city? On weekdays, I sometimes see no one else on the 3.1 mile circuit.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Shall we all drink together?

Today is World Water Day, an annual observance instituted by the United Nations:
World Water Day is an international day of observance and action to draw attention to the plight of the more than 1 billion people world wide that lack access to clean, safe drinking water. Clean, fresh drinking water is essential to human and other lifeforms. World Water Day aims to increase people's awareness of the water's importance in all aspects of life.
This year's theme is "Water Cooperation."

It's easy to dismiss these aspirational international efforts, but we have to start somewhere.

Friday cat blogging: Puss-in-boots

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I'm digitizing 100s of old family pictures and came upon these, some of my first efforts with a Brownie camera dating from about 1958.

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Puss-in-boots, like most subsequent cats I've lived with, was one of my main subjects. I'm not sure she much liked it.

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Like most cats, she asserted her right to the run of the house. She also scratched children as I remember, but I didn't get the action shot.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

On political desire and collective action


Back in the day (that would be before George W.'s reign of error when it seemed safer to ignore the doings of the U.S. government), our friends sometimes asked my partner and I what enabled us to attend to the various political ills of the day. We were always working to mitigate U.S. dirty wars in Central America, alleviate poverty at home, stop racist police brutality in our cities, not to mention working to end discrimination against us as lesbians and women. These friends* had (partially) checked out; it was all too dreary, or too complicated, or too something. And besides, they had things to do that felt more urgent.

We didn't quite know what made us different. We usually said: "nothing else to do..." That didn't mean that we weren't earning a living or enjoying life -- but somehow attending to politics, engaging with the issues of the day, made us feel more alive. Taking part in the liberating struggles of our time made life feel worthwhile. We were as happy as busy activists can be, often very happy. When we were feeling most inclined to share our feelings, we'd add " … politics is like sex, you know."

As you can imagine, some folks thought we were crazy!

I recalled that time of fielding bemused questions the other day when I ran across this from Michael Hardt, a Professor of Literature at Duke University. It was embedded in a discussion of the future of democracy.

Humanity sets itself only such tasks, we could say modifying Marx’s words, for which it already desires and imagines the solution. Desire and imagination are part of the material conditions necessary to constitute a new reality. We can’t simply wish away climate change, of course; merely imagining world peace will not put an end to war; and just repeatedly expressing our deepest hopes, like the incantations of would-be magicians, will not make them real. But the more of us imagine and desire politically, and the more intensely we do so, the more power we have to create a new world because in that desire and imagination are born collective political action.

A sequence that emerges from the current social movements and points toward a new democratic future: experimentation opens imagination and desire that have the potential through political action to make a new reality. Perhaps a century from now they will look back and see in our era the time when that political desire took root.

I guess I still believe it: political desire and collective action amount to imagining a better future into being. Of course this is like sex.

*I should say that most of the people who asked us these sorts of questions have since engaged much more deeply, especially helping to elect President Obama and identifying with the Occupy movement. Politics is too important to leave to politicians.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Find time to watch this!



While waiting for the garage door repair guys, I found sixteen minutes to view this. If you possibly can, you should find that time.

It's the story of young law students working with elders and communities in the old South to come to terms with brutal murders, often of their family members, that they witnessed in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Many of us are vaguely aware that white supremacists killed without fear to enforce the social order that benefited them before the civil rights revolution. This gives us a chance to listen to people who were there. The witnesses will not be with us much longer. (See also this.) But while there is time, some justice and some healing remain possible. The stories both horrify and inspire.

No post today

Material reality is trumping electronic life.

But by the end of the day, we should have a new garage door ...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ten years later: too sad to write

Ten years ago today my country launched its "shock and awe" bombing and its ground assault on Iraq and accomplished this:

The picture is from a newspaper article of March 23, 2003 by the journalist Robert Fisk archived here. Lest we forget, this is still worth reading, if you can stomach it.

This blog was founded as a minor part of my efforts to respond to the descent of this country into ever more arrogant barbarism abroad and into squalor and apathy at home. The blog goes on, tracing the twists and turns of political necessity and opportunity as is my won't.

Ten years later, I am too sad to write more.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ten years later: some costs of the Iraq war

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U.S. Army Sgt. Joseph Chamberlain and Spc. Alex Egan, both from 1st Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, provide security during a patrol in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 29, 2007. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jeffery Sandstrum)

A Brown University study came up with some figures (my comments in italics):

  • More than 70 percent of those who died of direct war violence in Iraq have been civilians — an estimated 134,000. This number does not account for indirect deaths due to increased vulnerability to disease or injury as a result of war-degraded conditions. That number is estimated to be several times higher. (As I heard an Iraqi explain last night, the U.S. government has a better estimate of the number of rats in the New York City sewers than of Iraqis dead because of our war.)
  • The Iraq War will ultimately cost U.S. taxpayers at least $2.2 trillion. Because the Iraq war appropriations were funded by borrowing, cumulative interest through 2053 could amount to more than $3.9 trillion. (The officials who made the choice to go to war didn't want us to be able to find out that figure any more than they wanted to count dead Iraqis.)
  • The $2.2 trillion figure includes care for veterans who were injured in the war in Iraq, which will cost the United States almost $500 billion through 2053. (Aaron Glantz, writing for the Center for Investigative Reporting, recently revealed that the Veterans Administration currently has a backlog of 900,000 claims for disability benefits -- and expects the number of ex-soldiers waiting for a determination of their cases to rise to one million by the end of the year.)
  • The total of U.S. service members killed in Iraq is 4,488. At least 3,400 U.S. contractors have died as well, a number often under-reported. (This does not include suicides among veterans, recently estimated by the Department of Veterans Affairs to number 22 a day.)
  • Terrorism in Iraq increased dramatically as a result of the invasion and tactics and fighters were exported to Syria and other neighboring countries.
  • Iraq’s health care infrastructure remains devastated from sanctions and war. More than half of Iraq’s medical doctors left the country during the 2000s, and tens of thousands of Iraqi patients are forced to seek health care outside the country. (If they can afford it. At least 15 percent of Iraqis are unemployed and near a quarter live below the local poverty line, despite sitting on all that oil.)
  • The $60 billion spent on reconstruction for Iraq has not gone to rebuilding infrastructure such as roads, health care, and water treatment systems, but primarily to the military and police. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has found massive fraud, waste, and abuse of reconstruction funds. (Dick Cheney's buddies grabbed their bit of taxpaper loot and waltzed away.)


H/t to Political Animal for pointing to the study.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

This is what a democracy deficit looks like

















If you put money in a U.S based bank, the Federal government insures it up to $250,000 -- if the bank gambles your money on worthless paper, gives it to its CEO, or otherwise fails, you get paid back up to $250,000 by the FDIC. Nobody would trust banks without this guarantee. It would make more sense to hide your money under a mattress which would lead to a very different and impoverished world. (This is how banking worked before the Great Depression; 4000 U.S. banks failed leaving their depositors without recourse in 1933.)

The present government of Cyrus promised people who put money in its banks that their deposits were insured up to 100,000 Euros (about $130,000). The Cypriot banks gambled and lost, like so many under-regulated financial institutions all around us. If they are to stay in business, they need a bail out. And they are getting one -- one third of which will be financed by grabbing a percentage of individual deposits from the banks. Many of the big depositors are Russian oligarchs who were using Cypriot banks as a place to stash money in Euros. But Cypriot depositors, ordinary people with less than $130,000 mostly middle class families, are getting hit for 6.75 percent of what they thought was safe government-insured savings. It is not as if Cypriots are even getting anything tangible for this tax: this is cash the European Central Bank (ECB) demands to be used to pay off bank investors -- mostly richer European countries like Germany.

I don't usually write about this sort of thing, but the ill-omens are too strong to ignor. I'll pass it to someone who knows what he is talking about: Felix Salmon, Reuters' finance blogger.
What we’re seeing here is the Cypriot government being forced to break one of its most important promises — the promise that if you put your money in the bank, and your deposits total less than 100,000 Euro, then they will be safe. What’s more, there’s no good reason for insured deposits to be hit in this manner: the same amount of money could be raised just by taxing the uninsured deposits at a slightly higher rate. The insured depositors are being hit, it seems, just so that the uninsured depositors can be taxed at single-digit rather than at a double-digit rate.

Meanwhile, people who deserve to lose money here, won’t. If you lent money to Cyprus’s banks by buying their debt rather than by depositing money, you will suffer no losses at all. And if you lent money to the insolvent Cypriot government, then you too will be paid off at 100 cents on the euro. ...

The big winner here is the ECB, which has extended a lot of credit to dubiously-solvent Cypriot banks and which is taking no losses at all. … of course, there are all the hedge funds who have been betting that the Cypriot government won’t default: they’re all popping Champagne right now.

The big loser are working-class Cypriots, whose elected government has proved powerless in the face of decisions driven by Germany, and who are now edging towards fury. The Eurozone has always had a democratic deficit: monetary union was imposed by the elite on unthankful and unwilling citizens. … Across the continent, they’ve lost their democratic right to determine their own fate at the ballot box, and instead they’re being instructed what to do by Germans. Now, in Cyprus, they’re simply and directly losing their money.

Someone with 8,000 Euro of life savings in the bank can ill afford to lose an arbitrary 540 Euro, but that’s exactly what is going to happen. … This decision is important not only because of the precedent it sets with regard to bank depositors, but also because of the way in which it points up just how powerless all the Mediterranean countries (plus Ireland) have become. More than ever before, it’s Germany’s Europe. That’s bad for Cyprus — and it’s not even particularly good for Germany.
People have been known to go mad with rage when they experience broken promises on this scale. The promise that their vote and their well-being matter is being exposed as a fraud. If we don't want to find ourselves in this fix someday, we need to make sure our democracy has the capacity to impose limits on capitalist greed. The many have to rein in the few, ultimately in the interest of all of us, even the plutocrats.

Whose fish?


This is really very well done and worth watching. (If you get an ad, be assured it will go away.)

This is a good follow-on on my recent post about a New England fishing village in winter.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: mysterious trail

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Something has been here.

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Yes, it is quite distinct.

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Hmmm -- a different creature. Or maybe not.

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That explains it all.

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Friends.

These photos are by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look and sign up for sporadic email updates.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Community rally for a community college

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Thursday afternoon about 500 students, teachers and plain citizens concerned about the looming possibility of losing City College of San Francisco (CCSF) rallied at Civic Center. The 85,000 student community college is under the gun -- threatened with losing its accreditation for failure to comply with ultimatums from its oversight body, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). This isn't a state agency though the school gets most of its money from taxes -- according to its bylaws, the accrediting commission is a private non-profit recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Hmmm …

An outside Interim Chancellor, Dr. Thelma Scott-Skillman, was brought in bang CCSF into line. I guess she's a professional flack catcher. She ought to be if reports that she is being paid $1000 a day are correct.

CCSF is a much beloved community institution. It provides educational opportunities to a very diverse student body. State budget cuts have hammered it, like all state educational institutions. Nobody doubts CCSF also has internal problems. But well-meaning people disagree as to what the problems are. An outsider like me can only have an impressionistic sense of things, though I have some data points.
  • As a person who follows city politics, I've too often seen political hacks treat the college's elected Board of Trustees as a putative launching pad. That's not fair to everyone elected to the body, but it has been for too many. This hasn't shown great political acumen either -- I can't think of anyone who went on to higher things from the Board.
  • Last fall the city was assured that passing a parcel tax, Measure A, would keep the school going. We responded, giving the measure a 72 percent vote -- that's an awesome endorsement for a tax, even in liberal San Francisco. Now we're told this money is mostly going into a "rainy day fund." Now prudent financial management is nice, but we didn't tax ourselves to help auditors sleep soundly. We thought we were assuring that some of the thousands of newcomer students clamoring for English as a Second Language instruction could get the classes they need. Apparently not so. There have even been layoffs ("not rehired") in that department.
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  • A friend who teaches at CCSF told me the other day that he had been hit with a 12 percent pay cut. This agrees with press accounts. Then he went on: "they just did it even though we were in negotiations!" The insult rankles. Unions remain strong here; is some outside commission aiming to break the union? Sure looks like it.
After looking in on the rally today, I thought I ought to explore news accounts of the CCSF situation. I turned up two interesting details of the accreditation process that seemed telling.

The ACCJC report accused CCSF of having too few administrators! What?!? The complaint seems unheard of. Aren't educational bureaucracies top-heavy?
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It turns out that what the Commission was complaining about was a system whereby academic department chairs got released time to carry out administrative functions. That apparently is wrong: to get a passing grade, the college must hire professional administrators to be "deans." The Bay Guardian reported some faculty responses to this move:

“People without academic expertise, who don’t know the field, will lead the departments,” said Kristina Whalen, the director of the speech department at CCSF. “Academic reorganization will have automotive and child development under the same dean -- those fields aren’t related.”

… “I’ve worked at other schools where you reported to a dean,” art teacher Andrew Leone told us ... He’s worked at San Francisco State University, and USF, among other schools, he said.  “The dean has so many responsibilities, there’s no way they can deal with them all.”

The chairpersons at City College were more efficient at taking care of teachers’ needs, he said. Now, “they’re giving us a top down corporate model. They’re turning us into Wal-mart.”

That last charge goes to heart of the fears this accreditation process has unleashed. Is City College required to lose its soul in order to stay open? There certainly are hints that is what the ACCJC wants. Under its pressure, the school's mission statement has been changed. Past objectives that included “civic engagement, cultural enrichment and lifelong learning” are gone from a new mission statement.

Our primary mission is to provide programs and services leading to
*Transfer to baccalaureate institutions;
*Achievement of Associate Degrees in Arts and Sciences;
*Acquisition of certificates and career skills needed for success in the workplace;
*Basic Skills, including learning English as a Second Language and Transitional Studies.

In addition, the college offers other programs and services consistent with our primary mission, only as resources allow and whenever possible in collaboration with partnering agencies and community-based organizations.

This set of objectives -- with their grudging addendum -- emphasizes what very likely the majority of the students most hope to get from the institution: academic and vocational credentials. But the new emphasis begins take the "community" out of community college.

It is not a pipe dream to say the city wants more; we've said we'll pay for it. In the long run, reducing this institution to a mere vocational hurdle will kill community support. I guess a non-union, corporate City College might be good for Walmart. But it wouldn't be good for the life of our lively city.

The accreditation commission will evaluate CCSF's peace offerings and render judgment in July. My friends at the school are not hopeful. The demands seem insatiable.
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Thursday, March 14, 2013

This and that on the bigotry beat

That Muslim US Air Force vet from McAlester, Oklahoma who was told he was on the TSA no fly list has finally been allowed go home. First they wouldn't let him visit his ailing mother, then they finally let him come back to his own country, then they wouldn't let him return to his job and family in Qatar.The trip wasn't easy.

… he took a bus from Oklahoma City to Mexico, then boarded flights in three different countries to return to Qatar.

Apparently, according to our spooks, he is dangerous enough to harass, but they have no charges against Saadiq Long. So he can't fly to, within, or over the United States. But he can travel if he can find a way around these restrictions.
***

Should we forgive Bill Clinton for signing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996? That's the law that denies LGBT people access to many of the legal privileges heterosexual couples enjoy under federal law, even if we can marry in our home states? I'm very conscious of DOMA this time of year -- it immensely complicates my tax preparations! Clinton recently published an oped asking the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA as just "an excuse for discrimination." He is right of course; we'll see how far the judges go.

As for forgiving Bill Clinton, I have little trouble with that on this topic. Gay people then and now are on the rise and capable of pushing back. I don't forgive him for, in the same year, kicking poor women with kids who can't fight back. The "welfare reform" took the federal government out of the business of ensuring that no US child starves for want of a (very) few dollars. The consequences of this policy shift (just the sort of thing contemporary Republicans want to do to adult poor people, the sick and elders, by the way) have taken a long time to work their way through the population. Consider it one of the pillars of our current inequality. Now that's close to unforgivable.
***

I sure never thought I'd be the occasion of a lot of straight people realizing they've been bowing to the wrong shibboleths. But we do seem to be in that sort of moment in the long struggle to win full, equal rights for gay people. This former Republican law maker wants to apologize.
Unlike the poor women and kids Bill Clinton shafted, gay people enjoy the confidence that full legal equality is coming. It's time to extend the tent and greet new friends. Yea for Lynnne Ostermann.
***
I do have to mention that the Catholics just implanted a new pope. Pope Francis is the first to arrive from a country that has legalized gay marriage. He not only opposed the measure; he found the idea demonic.

This is not a mere legislative proposal (that's just it's form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God…

We can hope and pray that occupying the role of Bishop of Rome will broaden this man's perspective.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: a farmer's view


Clay Pope, a rancher from Loyal, Okla., schools President Obama on climate change.

Mr. Pope's clear exposition of the imperatives of the moment put me in mind of the new study getting a lot of play these days: rank and file voters are a LOT less conservative than our legislators think. We are also a lot smarter and a lot more likely to take a longer term view than our re-election obsessed "leaders."

H/t Timothy Egan for pointing to the existence of this video, though it took some hunting to find it. How about a link, darn it!

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Paul Ryan tells the truth


The Republican slipped up today and said what's really going on these phony budgets he churns out. Will we let them do it?

Fukushima on their minds

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Anti-nuclear power activists rallied outside the Japanese consulate in downtown San Francisco on Monday.

When the earthquake and tsunami hammered the Fukushima nuclear plant two years ago, I remember thinking something like well, at least this happened in Japan -- they are a lot better at earthquake engineering than we are … As it turned out, though I still think that is true in some respects, Fukushima showed that a commercial power provider cannot be trusted to make nuclear power safe. The incentives are all wrong. Skimping on safety leads to higher profits now. Catastrophic events are rare. Probably the individuals who make the decision to skimp will have cashed out and moved on by the time problems are revealed. So corporations and their regulators will often cut corners. After all, in the long run, we're all going to be dead.

Christoph Neidhart, a Swiss writer and journalist based in Tokyo, summed up the shock of the Fukushima meltdowns.

The disaster at Fukushima was triggered by a natural catastrophe, a tsunami, but it was allowed to happen, because Tepco, the plant’s operator, and subsequent Japanese governments ignored ample warnings, an earthquake or a tsunami of this magnitude might knock out the emergency back-up systems.

Tepco systematically violated safety rules. In more than 200 instances between 1977 and 2002, the utility submitted false data to the authorities, as stated by a commission of the Japanese parliament, the Diet. The nation’s nuclear safety authorities and government were complicit in Tepco’s blunders.

… Japan sees herself at the pinnacle of technology, a major exporter of nuclear power. Despite the fact Japan’s nuclear industry has suffered a substantial number of accidents before, the country did not have any contingency plans to deal with a nuclear accident as it happened in Fukushima. Six days into the catastrophe, Japan had no idea how to get the plant under control. In a desperate attempt, seawater was dumped from a helicopter to cool spent nuclear fuel. Despite warnings, Tepco failed to prevent hydrogen-explosions.

… Japan, a nation proud of her safety standards and disaster preparedness, was totally unprepared for an accident that had been predicted by experts. The nation of the industrial robot did not have a single machine to mitigate the crisis.

If the Japanese can't build and run these things safely, don't ask me to think U.S. companies can do it. I'm just not that credulous. This is too bad. Nuclear does look like a better alternative than coal -- but at the price of occasionally making large swathes of land uninhabitable for generations? Not to mention, nobody seems to have figured out what to do with the nuclear waste they generate except to make bombs out of it.

According to Elaine Kurtenbach and Mari Yamaguchi, writing for the Associated Press, the clean up is not going so smoothly either.

Two years after the triple calamities of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster ravaged Japan's northeastern Pacific coast, debris containing asbestos, lead, PCBs — and perhaps most worrying — radioactive waste due to the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant looms as a threat for the region.

So far, disposal of debris from the disasters is turning out to have been anything but clean. Workers often lacking property oversight, training or proper equipment have dumped contaminated waste with scant regard for regulations or safety, as organized crime has infiltrated the cleanup process.

To clear, sort and process the rubble — and a vastly larger amount of radiation-contaminated soil and other debris near the nuclear plant in Fukushima, the government is relying on big construction companies whose multi-layer subcontracting systems are infiltrated by criminal gangs, or yakuza.

In January, police arrested a senior member of Japan's second-largest yakuza group, Sumiyoshi Kai, on suspicion of illegally dispatching three contract workers to Date, a city in Fukushima struggling with relatively high radioactive contamination, through another construction company and pocketing one-third of their pay.

He told interrogators he came up with the plot to "make money out of clean-up projects" because the daily pay for such government projects, at 15,000-17,000 yen ($160-$180), was far higher than for other construction jobs, said police spokesman Hiraku Hasumi.

Well that is straightforward: when the criminals in the boardrooms make a mess, hand it over to a mafia to clear it up. The hell with the workers ... This episode is only one of many instances of untrained and underpaid workers unwittingly carrying the risks of the clean-up.

It's hard to believe there is any such thing as safe nuclear power when there are greedy humans involved -- and I don't know how we accomplish an ethical shift to change that. The nukes may be okay, but we're not ready for them.

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Hugo Chavez celebrated in the Mission

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San Francisco's left gathered at 24th and Mission on Sunday afternoon to mourn and honor deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

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Old and young were there, including many from the Latino immigrant left.

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I never knew quite what I thought of Hugo Chavez. I loved it when he jerked pretentious Northamericans around, accused George W. of being a sulpher-emitting "Satan," presented Obama with a copy of Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America. Much of Latin America has finally thrown off U.S. economic and political domination in the last decade -- Chavez led the way. Majorities of Venezuelans elected him repeatedly. How was I to evaluate what he was doing?

I'll let the right -- Bloomberg Businessweek -- describe his accomplishments.

Chávez’s most enduring and positive legacy is his shattering of Venezuela’s peaceful coexistence with poverty, inequality, and social exclusion. He was not the first political leader who placed the poor at the center of the national conversation. Nor was he the first to use a spike in oil revenue to help the poor. But none of his predecessors did it so aggressively and with such a passionate sense of urgency as Chávez did. And no one was more successful in planting this priority into the nation’s psyche and even exporting it to neighboring countries and beyond. Moreover, his ability to make the poor feel that one of them was in charge has no precedent.

Another positive aspect of his legacy is that he ended the widespread political indifference and apathy nurtured over decades by a system dominated by decaying and out-of-touch political parties. The political awakening of the nation sparked by Chávez has engulfed people in the barrios, workers, university students, the middle class, and, unfortunately, even the military.

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But charismatic leaders, leaders whose proud bluster seems too often to lead back to their personal vision and central importance, undermine genuine participatory democracy. I have friends who know Venezuela well who lament the violent crime and chronic corruption in Caracas. Chavez's Venezuela is a very hard place to live and work for most everyone, despite all the oil wealth and the political excitement.

I'll let the left -- Greg Grandin in the Nation -- recite some of Chavez' faults.

Chávez was a strongman. He packed the courts, hounded the corporate media, legislated by decree and pretty much did away with any effective system of institutional checks or balances.

But Grandin still assesses Hugo Chavez as a uniquely inspiring figure for all his faults. Millions of Venezuelans and their friends around the world agree. This is not something to quarrel with or to discount.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Out of place ... or not?

The New Yorker is pretty much the only (non-entertainment) print magazine I get around to looking at. Sorry, Progressive; sorry, Nation … I let you lapse. Web offerings suffice to keep me informed, I hope. But I can't yet do without The New Yorker.

So, perusing the current profile article on Justice Ginsberg, I was stunned to see this right there alongside perfume ads, TV show promos, and Microsoft:
Now that takes me back. Insurrectionary images for sale at a New York gallery auction? Evidently so.

A little internet research reveals that the artist, Emory Douglas, is still around and still kicking. In fact, unknowingly, I recently photographed one of his contemporary agitprop posters on the wall at a community meeting:

Yes -- the SF8 had their charges dismissed.

In 2009, Douglas was interviewed at length about joining the Black Panther Party, creating its images, and the Black liberation movement's legacy. This YouTube is a fascinating account of people that the government tried hard to exterminate in the late '60s -- well worth 10 minutes of your time.
I sure hope Douglas is getting the benefit of that swank New York art auction. He apparently also sells images through this website.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: a pixelated door

So I'm walking down a residential street … what's this?
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A little closer and I see this:
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Moving past I can finally see how it shapes up:
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It's all much clearer from across the street:
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Can anyone put a name to this face?

These photos are by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look and sign up for sporadic email updates.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The U.S. war in Vietnam: habitual lying wins out

Vietnam resupply
For people in my age cohort (early baby boomers,) the war in/against Vietnam was what broke our trust in information from "authoritative" sources -- politicians, the media, and the military. We were led along, promised the "light at the end of the tunnel" that always seemed to recede from realization, fed reams of reports that asserted that all was going just fine -- all the while we watched the images on TV and heard from the young men we knew a completely contrary story.

Many of us have never regained much faith in what government and leaders tell us. That's okay with me.

Two of the books I've been writing about lately -- Karl Marlantes' What It Is Like to Go to War and Thomas Ricks' The Generals tell the story of Vietnam as a war of lies from different points of view, the bottom of the military in the former and the top brass in the latter.

Here's Marlantes explains vividly how young soldiers learned to lie about body counts in Southeast Asia:

The teenage adrenaline-drained patrol leader has to call in the score so analysts, newspaper reporters, and politicians back in Washington have something to do. Never mind that Smithers and his squad may have stopped a developing attack planned to hit the company that night, saving scores olives and maintaining :control over a piece of ground. All they'll be judged on, and all their superiors have to be judged on, is the kill ratio.

Smithers's best friend has just been killed. Two other friends are missing pieces of their bodies and are going into shock. No one in the squad knows if the enemy is 15 meters away waiting to open up again or running. Smithers is tired and has. a lot of other things on his mind. With scorekeepers often 25 kilometers away, no one is going to check on the score. In short, Smithers has a great incentive to lie.

He also has a great need to lie. His best friend is dead. "Why?" he asks himself. This is where the lying in Vietnam all began. It had to fill the long silence following Smithers's anguished "Why?"

So it starts. "Nelson, how many did you get?" Smithers asks.

PFC Nelson looks up from crying over the body of his friend Katz and says, "How the fuck do I know?"

His friend Smithers says, "Well, did you get that bastard that came around the dogleg after Katz threw the Mike-26?"

Nelson looks down at Katz's face, hardening and turning yellow like tallow. "You're goddamn right I got him," he almost whispers. It's all he can offer his dead friend.

"There's no body."

"They drug the fucker away. I tell you I got him!" Nelson is no longer whispering.

… The patrol leader doesn't have a body, but what are the odds that he's going to call his friend a liar or, even more difficult, make Katz's death meaningless, given that the only meaning now lies in this one statistic? No one is congratulating him for exposing the enemy, keeping them screened from the main body, which is the purpose of security patrols.

He calls in one confirmed kill. ...

Just then PFC Schroeder comes crawling over with Kool-Aid stains all around his mouth and says, "I think I got one, right by the dogleg of the trail after Katz threw the grenade."

"Yeah, we called that one in."

"No, it ain't the one Nelson got. I tell you I got another one."

Smithers thinks it was the same one but he's not about to have PFC Schroeder feeling bad, particularly after they've all seen their squad mate die. … the last thing on Smithers's mind is the integrity of meaningless numbers.

The message gets relayed to the battalion commander. He's just taken two wounded and one dead. All he has to report is one confirmed, one probable. This won't look good. Bad ratio. He knows all sorts of bullets were flying all over the place. It was a point-to-point contact, so no ambush, so the stinkin' thinking' goes round and round, so the probable had to be a kill. But really if we got two confirmed kills, there was probably a probable. I mean, what's the definition of probable if it isn't probable to get one? What the hell, two kills, two probables.

Our side is now ahead. Victory is just around the corner. … [then the artillery has to claim their own additional kills…] By the time all this shit piles up at the briefing in Saigon, we've won the war.

Having reported how lying became the norm, Marlantes has thought hard about why this happened:

This nonsense went on in Vietnam for several reasons. Probably the most important was that the president and a group of advisers insisted on running things from Washington with no clear military objectives to pursue. So they had to have something upon which to make decisions, because, after all, if they didn't make decisions, what the hell were they doing in charge? The second factor was military careerism, in both competing with statistics and not blowing the whistle on their stupidity. This happened all the way up the line. And finally the lying took place because the kill ratio statistics were so totally out of line with the ordinary grunt's psychology that lying about it was a trivial and meaningless act for him.

Rick's book looks at Vietnam from the top, from the angle of the generals. He locates the ongoing adoption of lying in the particular weakness of the man who was the longest serving commander in that adventure. He's scathing:

William Westmoreland himself was a new thing in the Army, an organization man more educated in corporate management than in military affairs. He was an odd combination of traits: energetic and ambitious, yet strikingly incurious, and prone to fabrication even as he considered himself a Boy Scout in his ethics… He did well in World War II as a battalion commander… Yet in his subsequent career, he would embody the empty approach of looking good rather than being good … For example, in his memoirs he depicted himself as a student of military history, someone who always kept a few classics at his bedside. This was untrue. "He simply doesn't have any interests," Charles MacDonald, the military historian who helped Westy write his memoirs, told [his biographer Lewis] Sorley. "I would venture to guess that the man has not read a book from cover to cover in a hell of a long time." … Westmoreland told people he had no idea that he had been invited to address a joint session of Congress while in Washington in April 1967, yet in fact he had been notified of this before leaving Saigon and had prepared for it for weeks.

Such minor instances of mendacity probably were harmless, but the habit carried over into his conduct of the war and his defense of it for decades afterward. He provided false evidence in 1967 that his attrition strategy was working, telling the president during his April trip that "the crossover point" had been reached and claiming on Meet the Press that November that North Vietnamese "manpower cannot be replaced." As Sorley notes, this was "in no way accurate." As Army chief of staff, he oversaw the preparation of a history of the Vietnam War that was laden with omissions and evasions, yet he would assert to the editor of Readers Digest that "the fact remains that this is the only authentic publication on the war." … Ultimately, the habit of saying whatever sounded good at the moment would catch up with him when he sued CBS News for libel, only to have the network's defense lawyer read to him passages from his memoirs that undercut his testimony.

Lies, lies and more lies ...

Photo: U.S. Army Flickrstream. Caption: An UH-1B[D] helicopter prepares for a resupply mission for Co B, 1st Bn, 8th Inf, 4th Inf Div, during the operation conducted 20 miles southwest of Dak To. December 10-16, 1967

Friday cat blogging

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I wonder how often these two creatures engage in this frustrating confrontation? I walk by here almost every day. Today the cat was in its place, but no pigeon.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Bad wars make bad generals

I find Thomas E. Ricks' Best Defense blog an indispensable window on the thinking of reflective members of the U.S. military. So I was happy to give a try to his current book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.

Ricks maintains that, subsequent to the tenure of Gen. George Marshall as Army Chief of Staff during World War II, the U.S. military has neglected to remove generals and other officers who fail -- and consequently, despite its vast armament and reputation, is an inefficient and ineffective institution.

From where I sit, the reason that good generalship seems to have disappeared in that period is so obvious as almost not to require mentioning: when generals are asked to fight illegitimate, misbegotten, immoral imperial wars, they are not going to be models of good leadership. If, in retrospect, the generals of World War II look "good," this is because they fought what is remembered as the "good war." Simplistic? Maybe, but this perspective makes sense of a lot. Ricks' account actually provides evidence for this point of view, if only obliquely.

In World War II, General Marshall used a quick hook on generals who weren't succeeding as a
political act, making a statement to both insiders and outsiders about the nature and responsibilities of the U.S. military. It was, as FDR once remarked, "a New Deal war." To Marshall's eye, being willing to remove an officer signaled to the American people that the Army's leaders cared more about the hordes of enlisted soldiers than about the relatively small officer corps. …Looking out for the common soldier was not an insignificant consideration in a war being fought for democracy …
If the masses of draftees were to continue to believe in the fight, they needed confidence that their leaders were accountable.

Ricks thinks general officers formed in the World War II mode changed the subsequent trajectories of military men in U.S. civilian politics, in a direction that has been good for democracy.
… Marshall's insistence on grooming a certain type of general might have had a less direct political effect: that of encouraging the decline in American life of the caudillo, the "man on a white horse" tendency of military leaders to move from the armed forces into political life. There was a strong tradition of elevating a general to the presidency in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, beginning with George Washington. … But since Benjamin Harrison, who for a few months at the end of the Civil War was a brigadier in the Army of the Cumberland and who won the White House in 1888, only one general has been elected to the presidency, and that last general to become president was the least coup-prone of officers: Eisenhower, Marshall's protege. The Marshall template, with its studied distance from politics, may have put a stake through the heart of the general as politician. Since Eisenhower, generals who have toyed with running for president have been humiliated in the primaries, emerging from the experience somehow diminished in the public eye. …
Yes, Alexander Haig and Wesley Clark took a beating. I was worried for awhile that we were seeing a politically ambitious general in David Petraeus -- who Ricks has largely approved of -- but that one seems to have blown his chance.

Ricks writes that by the Korean War, the Army had turned inward, to the detriment of the ordinary soldiers. We've largely forgotten what a terribly mismanaged horror that experience was for the draftees who fought and died in it. (I recommend David Halberstam's The Longest Winter to anyone interested; I don't know of any accounts from a Korean perspective.) Here's Ricks on Korea:
In reading histories of the Korean War, when new regimental and division commanders are discussed, it is striking how often they are introduced with phrases such as "had not previously led troops in combat." Instead they had spent World War II in the Pentagon war-planning division, or had trained troops, or had been a staff planner in the Mediterranean Theater, or had been a corps chief of staff. … Trying to be fair to officers can be lethal to the soldiers they lead on the battlefield. The Army was using the Korean War to give the staff officers of the earlier war "their chance" to command in combat -- with disastrous results.
Not surprisingly, when Asians proved fierce opponents (to the surprise of many of these unprepared and racist officers,) U.S. citizens at home lost interest in providing cannon fodder to under-formed commanders.

Ricks thinks very poorly of U.S. generals in Vietnam (remember My Lai?), Gulf War I, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but I am not going to run through his catalogue of their failings here. I just want to highlight his conclusion which takes me back to my instinctive sense of why generals in World War II were successful -- and in subsequent wars they were not:
… the American military, as of mid-20l2, has not steeled itself and launched a soul-searching review of its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without such a no-holds-barred examination, akin to the Army review of the state of its officer corps conducted as the Vietnam War wound down, it might not do much better the next time it goes to war. But as long as it cares more about not embarrassing generals than it does about taking care of soldiers, it is unlikely to undertake such a review.
Democratic nations hold their military officers accountable; in decaying empires, the officers think the military exists from their benefit -- in the language of a post Vietnam report the author cites, for "Me, my ass and my career." If we expect to have better generals, we'll have to avoid dumb, illegitimate wars. We, the civilians, are responsible for that very difficult project.
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