Friday, October 24, 2014

Seasonal expenditures

Every election season we are buried in glossy mailers and bombarded by TV ads. I don't even live in a state where there are any significant contests for higher offices and yet I am surrounded by pitches for and against this and that.

Think what this must feel like in areas where close contests are being fought out: Wisconsin or Iowa, for example.

All this costs candidates and the "committees," whether independent or party-affiliated, a pretty penny. (Yes, raising the $$ is certainly corrosive and corrupting of democracy.)

David S. Joachim reports that interested parties are on track to spend some $4 billion on this year's election.

That's a lot of money! But it is important to keep the sum in perspective:

... Americans will spend nearly twice that amount this year on Halloween costumes, decorations and candy.

Is this disparity representative of what matters to most of us? Actually, I don't think so. But I do think most people have more idea how to celebrate Halloween than are able to imagine ways of participating more actively in their democracy.

Friday cat blogging; more travel and talks

We were glad to see that Morty still rules the roost on the home front. It took him about two hours to accept that we were truly his humans even if we'd been absent for four months.

I'm not sure he's figured out that one of us has already gone back on the road -- to a board meeting of the organization whose pillow Morty is perched beside here. Rebecca is again wandering the East Coast talking about Mainstreaming Torture.

She'll will be at the bookstore Busboys & Poets (2021 14th St, NW
 [at V] Washington, D.C. 20009) on Tuesday, October 28, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.

On Wednesday, October 29, 2014 from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m, she'll be at the Church Center of the United Nations (777 UN Plaza, New York) for a brown bag discussion sponsored by the Loretto Community and September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Vote Yes on Measure P

What's this? There is no Measure P on San Francisco's engorged November ballot. This one is in Santa Barbara County but it matters to all of us.

Residents of the area want to ban fracking. This oil and gas extraction technology is endangering their water supply, the air, their health, and their tourist economy. Governor Brown and state legislators didn't listen to them. As Thomas Murray explains in the video

It's frustrating because I can't call and make an appointment with Governor Brown or a congressperson and have lunch with them because I don't have that kind of money but the oil companies can send their lobbyists to have lunch and dinner and breakfast five days a week with these people and convince them to make laws that aren't good for me.

Oil companies are spending $5.7 million to defeat Measure P, according to sponsors. They want to stop this citizen uprising against polluting technology, whatever it takes.

Ordinary folks don't have the money to level the playing field, but we can help a little and get the word out that there are brave folks fighting fracking in their backyards (literally) in California.

A similar fracking ban, Measure J, is also on the ballot in San Benito County.

H/t Food and Water Watch.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

#EndTorture: organizing for the UN review of the USA

You might think that signing on to an international treaty -- making promises to the nations of the world -- would mean you'd attempt to abide by what you promised. These days, for the United States, some of our treaty obligations seem to be treated as so much blank paper, occasions for political spin.

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was passed in the General Assembly in 1984, signed by President Reagan in 1988 and ratified by the Senate in 1994. In theory, we're on board with 80 other nations.

I'd be remiss if I didn't add that I've just listened my partner the author give a couple of dozen talks around the country explaining that US accession to the treaty was qualified by some magic (limiting) asterisks legally called "reservations." Our authorities apparently wanted to be sure the CIA could go on doing "academic research" on how to replicate North Korean "brainwashing" techniques used on US prisoners in that early Cold War conflict. And they were concerned that someone would claim that treatment of persons in US prisons might be torture. So the US enabling legislation only outlaws torture outside the country. Within our boundaries, legal claims of torture are covered (if recognized at all) by other existing laws.

All this is introduction to the fact that countries which have signed the treaty against torture come up for periodic review of their compliance by a United Nations Committee Against Torture. The United States will next have its turn this November 11-13 in Geneva.

In advance of that meeting, the New York Time's relentless torture reporter Charlie Savage tells us that some lawyers in the Obama administration seek to revert to Bush-era weaseling about what treatment of prisoners amounts to torture in order to give our spooks all the freedom they want to mistreat captives without fear of punishment. The Prez may be on board with this sophistry.

Meanwhile, there is an organized US-based effort to call the United States to account for torture practices. The US Human Rights Network has collected dozens of "shadow reports" that have been submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture detailing potential and actual violations of US treaty obligations. Some examples:
  • The Harvard Law School Human Rights Program recommends that "the United States promptly and impartially prosecute senior military and civilian officials responsible for authorizing, acquiescing, or consenting in any way to acts of torture committed by their subordinates" including former President G.W. Bush and former DOJ lawyer John Yoo.
  • The National Religious Campaign against Torture (NRCAT) calls out "the continued widespread practice of holding prisoners, disproportionately people of color in prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons" as does another another shadow report from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), and California Prison Focus (CPF).
  • The Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) protests a "convergence of criminal and immigration law" which obscures the US obligation to entertain claims that deportation to home countries will subject individuals to violence and torture.
The full list of shadow reports is available at the link. They are absolutely worth perusing. We have far too many possible violations of the treaty and of simple human decency to answer for!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Best new candidate of 2014 gets an unlikely endorsement

Author Stephen King has a message for residents of Maine. If elected, Shenna Bellows could be trusted to be a Senator who understands and advocates for civil liberties. We have Elizabeth Warren standing up for the economic well-being of the 99 percent. We need an equivalent leader who stands strong for the rule of law.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Drought, California's water supply, and Proposition 1

Today the most extraordinary thing happened to me: I got rained on while running along the beach in San Francisco. I hadn't figured on that possibility. Aren't we stuck in an epic drought? Yes, we are.

Having just driven through the Central Valley where parched fields and these signs abound and turned on the TV to catch Gov. Jerry banging a drum for a YES vote on Prop. 1 (and Prop. 2), I figured I'd better find out about the measure, the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014.

California is an unstable, unsustainable quagmire when it comes to water policy. The state is largely a desert, rendered abundantly fertile by siphoning water from rivers and mountains, into which 38 million people have flooded to enjoy sunshine and prosperity. At best, for decades we've been running just a little ahead of water collapse.

With the current drought and the prospect of human-caused higher temperatures in the future, the house of cards that has been our water policy seems to be breaking down. Valley residents whose wells are throwing up sand and brown sludge not surprisingly call on the government to help. It's not clear that the state can or will.

Prop. 1 seems to be a laboriously negotiated Sacramento compromise, a glancing blow at deep problems designed by such broad forces so as to please most everyone just a little. Pretty much all the big guns -- elected officials, both political parties and the state unions and the Chamber of Commerce, and the Farm Bureau Federation -- are on board with it. Some enviros are supporters. Here's some of the pitch I received today from the California League of Conservation Voters.

... the investments within this bond seek to address many environmental concerns that that directly affect water supply and access. Passage of the bond will improve access to and quality of drinking water statewide by funding water quality projects in several categories: safe drinking water, recycled water, regional water security, groundwater sustainability and coastal/ river protection. The bond will directly fund ecosystem and watershed restoration, protecting the California coast, the Sacramento River delta, and watersheds that provide California’s water supply. Finally, the bond takes steps to protect communities with the least access to clean water supplies by creating a technical assistance program and prioritizing state funding on the needs of the disadvantaged communities.

Opponents of Prop. 1 are some strange bedfellows. The Center for Biological Diversity argues for a NO.

1. The bond subsidizes more delta water exports. ... This will be very bad news for dozens of endangered and threatened species that call the [Sacramento River] delta home.

2. The bond will make way for new dams and reservoirs. The bond provides $2.7 billion for additional water storage projects to benefit Big Ag, including the Sites, Los Vaqueros and Temperance Flat reservoirs. Building these dams and reservoirs is misguided: It's a grossly expensive way to facilitate Big Ag's access to minimal additional water resources. The result will harm fragile ecosystems which need this water to survive.

3. The bond fails to bring real water solutions to California. The bond slashes funding for water conservation, efficiency and recycling to $1.5 billion -- just half of what it allocates to build new dams and reservoirs. ...

There's some evidence that opposition involves a pincer movement of the water-rich far north and the arid far south of the state. The Chico Enterprise-Register argues that

We in the north state are expected to solve the water problems south of the delta. We will be compelled to solve those problems whether we like it or not. .... We eye Proposition 1 with suspicion, because history has taught us it's wise to do so. It's a $7.5 billion dollar crapshoot that we're likely to lose, no matter how the dice fall.

Some San Diegans also believe that the rest of the state is failing them.

Marco Gonzalez, a prominent environmental attorney from the San Diego region, said Proposition 1 offers little for the local area.

“From a San Diegan’s perspective, Proposition 1 ignores the fact that we are at the end of the water pipeline, and among the most precarious regions susceptible to impacts of long term drought,” Gonzalez, head of the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, wrote in a recent U-T San Diego commentary. “With more than $5 billion allocated to projects on the San Joaquin River, Shasta Lake, and reservoirs in Contra Costa and Merced counties, San Diego and the rest of Southern California are being hung out to dry.”

Having just spent several hours reading the pros and cons, I am still not convinced that I know which way to go on this. When opponents object that we can't build our way out of our water shortage, they score points with me. As temperatures rise (a certainty) and population increases (not quite such a certainty given the disproportion between housing costs and job opportunities for most people), further fights over who gets the water are a certainty. I'm not sure whether Prop. 1 helps or hurts.

The outfit that distributes these signs urges a NO vote.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Evidence we are all different

When you are fortunate enough to have a dear friend who agrees stay in your house while you travel about for four months, on your return you know some items will have been moved around. People have different ideas about how to organize their lives.

Cat litter in the freezer was unexpected. When I get a chance to find out why she kept it there, I'll add the answer here.

Update: The promised answer to the puzzle. Apparently the cat litter, a wheat kernel variety, arrived from Amazon and proceeded to exude little black bugs. The cat refused it! And it sure wasn't something anyone wanted around. Our house sitter didn't know who had ordered it or paid for it and wanted to keep the evidence if someone wanted to make a complaint to Amazon.


After four months, we're home. Here the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean. Finally we feel the ocean is in the "right" direction.

Regular blogging will resume as soon as I catch my breath.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Searching for salad across America

When we launched off in June on the 14,000 mile road trip that is the bookapalooza, one of my fears had nothing to do with whether Rebecca's talks about Mainstreaming Torture would be well received.

My great fear was that I wouldn't be able to find anything green to eat on the road. I remembered a trip to rural Colorado in 2001 when there seemed no escape from burgers and fries and, for an exotic variation, over-cooked pasta. So I resolved to record whatever salads might be available across the country.

Good news: just about every town and even highway rest stop served something like a salad. A durable change has come to mid-America almost everywhere.

Here are some of the salads we found on the road:

At a local cafe in Woodland, CA

Whitefish, MT

A chain outlet in New York City's financial district

At Chop Fresh you select the ingredients and an army of workers churns out your choices cheaply. Great lunch!

No surprise that a random cafe in a New Orleans' French Quarter can provide a salad ...

But who expected something this good from a Newk's in Hattiesburg MS?

Here's a fruity turkey salad from Knoxville TN

West Memphis AR was the closest thing to food desert we encountered, but even there a truck stop Denny's produced this -- complete with Texas toast.

The salad I liked most was from Central Foods in Spokane. Simple, subtle, and surprisingly good dressing.
If you can afford it -- and often the toll is no more than for a burger -- you don't have to starve for live food on the highways anymore!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola security theater

It's not easy to raise a laugh out of our current Ebola hysteria, but the New York Times inadvertently gave me one this morning. The Prez has been trapped, between his health officials' missteps and GOP fear-mongering, forced to name an "Ebola Czar." That's what you do when you've lost your grip on the narrative.

The gent who gets the ugly job is one Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to both Al Gore and Joe Biden. The "newspaper of record" reports his qualifications:

Mr. Klain is known for his ability to handle high-stakes and fast-moving political crises. He was the lead Democratic lawyer for Mr. Gore during the 2000 election recount, and was later played by Kevin Spacey in the HBO drama “Recount” about the disputed contest.

Okay -- we hope Klain is as polished as the actor.

And we can hope the administration puts the bulk of its Ebola efforts into the only actions that would actually increase the security of people here and around world: ending the unchecked epidemic in West Africa. True medical experts on the disease are beginning to think that the best hope for control is to develop a vaccine.

"Being afraid at all is the wrong thing to do ..."

Do not listen to the hysterical voices on radio and television or read the fear provoking words online ...

You may have heard that a Fox News TV talking head contradicted his network mates by offering the naked truth about the U.S. ebola outbreak. I didn't choose to view this at first. But if you haven't seen it, you might like to run it. It is hard to be more unambiguously direct than Shep Smith is here.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Unbounded volatility

Feeling mystified by current Middle Eastern events and the latest iteration of U.S interventions in Iraq and in Syria? Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn, long time reporter for The Independent, has taken an early crack at explaining in The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the new Sunni Uprising.

This is a quickie book, meant to answer an immediate hunger for some idea of how a potent bunch of terrorist fanatics called (sometimes) ISIS could have suddenly overrun much of two countries. Based on Cockburn's own reporting, the result is somewhat Iraq-centric. It has probably been somewhat more possible to report from Baghdad than Damascus of late. But he's got a fairly coherent theory that is presented in this small book.

Cockburn locates the essential background to current events in two factors. First, the generations-long promotion of an intolerant variant of Islam by oil-rich Saudi Arabia. When you've got almost infinite cash to pass around, you can construct an awful lot of mosques and schools that teach your brand of religion; the Saudis have been at that project since 1945. And little as the U.S. likes the result, we've seldom said "boo" against it.

Cockburn's second background condition has been the Western world's war on Arab nationalism, in particular on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. After feeding Iraqi persistence in its long war against Iran in the 1980s and then smashing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Western-backed U.N. sanctions throughout the 1990s pretty much destroyed what remained of a functioning Iraqi state. The consequence, continuing and intensifying through the US invasion and occupation of the 2000s, has been to put all the functions of a government -- handing out bureaucratic jobs, law enforcement and criminal justice, even the military -- up for sale from whoever had grabbed the power of appointment to whoever would pay. Iraq became one of the most corrupt societies in the world. No wonder the Iraqi army of some 400,000 men put up almost no resistance to a couple of thousand ISIS fighters on the move in northern Iraq this summer. The officers sold the troops their positions, then pocketed half their salaries, and most of any money for supplies.

Soldiers were sent to the front with only four clips of ammunition for the AK-47s; they went hungry because their commanders had embezzled the money to be spent on food; in oil-rich Iraq, fuel for army vehicles was in short supply; some battalions were down to a quarter of their established strength.

According to Cockburn, the West frequently, and sometimes willfully, misinterpreted the upheavals of the Arab Spring. Worse, Arab insurgents themselves were poorly equipped to lead their own societies.

In March 2011, mass arrests and torture effortlessly crushed the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. Innovations in technology may have changed the odds marginally in favor of the opposition, but not enough to prevent counter-revolution, as the military coup in Egypt on July 3, 2013 underscored.The initial success of street demonstrations led to over-confidence and excessive reliance on spontaneous action; the need for leadership, organization, unity, and policies that amounted to more than a vague humanitarian agenda all went by the wayside. ... Many members of the intelligentsia in Libya and Syria seemed to live and think within the echo chamber of the internet. Few expressed practical ideas about the way forward.

... The Arab Spring revolts were a strange mixture of revolution, counterrevolution, and foreign intervention. The international media often became highly confused about what was going on. The revolutionaries of 2011 had many failings but they were highly skilled at influencing and manipulating press coverage. ... Good reporters still took immense risks, and sometimes paid with their lives, trying to explain that there was more to what was happening than [an] oversimplified picture, But the worst media coverage, particularly in the first two years of the revolts, was very bad indeed. ... Predictably, such news was so biased and unreliable that the real course of events turned out to be full of unexpected developments and nasty surprises. This is likely to continue.

Cockburn concludes that the U.S., the West, and Middle Eastern peoples are in for a long, ugly, and likely bloody passage. He's not the sort of reporter who prognosticates, but what he sees is unstable and frightening.

The region has always been treacherous ground for foreign intervention, but many of the reasons for Western failure to read the situation in the Middle East are recent and self inflicted. The US response to the attacks of 9/11 in 2001 targeted the wrong countries when Afghanistan and Iraq were identified as the hostile states whose governments needed to be overthrown. Meanwhile, the two countries most involved in supporting al-Qa'ida and favoring the ideology behind the attacks, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were largely ignored and given a free pass. Both were long-standing US allies and remained so despite 9/11. ...

It was not governments alone that got it wrong. So too did the reformers and revolutionaries who regarded the "Arab Spring" of 2011 as a death blow to the old authoritarian regimes across the region....Unexpectedness is in the nature of revolutionary change. I have always believed that if I can spot a revolution coming, so can the head of the Mukhabarat security police. He will do everything possible to prevent it happening.

...The political, social, and economic roots of the upsurges of 2011 are very complex. ... Protestors, skilled in propaganda if nothing else, saw the advantage of presenting the uprisings as unthreatening, "velvet" revolutions with English-speaking, well-educated bloggers and tweeters prominently in the vanguard. ...Opposition demands were all about personal freedom: social and economic inequalities were rarely declared to be issues, even when they were driving popular rage against the status quo. ... Economic liberalization, lauded in foreign capitals, was rapidly concentrating wealth in the hands of a politically well-connected few. Even members of the [Syrian] Mukhabarat, the secret police, were trying to survive on $200 a month...

What is the glue that [was] supposed to hold these new post-revolutionary states together? Nationalism isn't much in favor in the West, where it is seen as a mask for racism or militarism, supposedly outmoded in an era of globalization and humanitarian intervention. ... But without nationalism -- even where the unity of the nation is something of a historic fiction -- states lack an ideology that enables them to compete as a focus of loyalty with religious sects or ethnic groups.

... The deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria may now have gone too far to re-create genuinely unitary states. Iraq is breaking up...

Time will tell how far the redrawing of maps will go -- and which forces get to decide whatever new boundaries come to be.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Scared witless amid murderous phantasms

In central Arizona, this piece of Republican tripe seemed to be running in an endless loop on broadcast TV.

The same terrorists targeted by U.S. bombers for destruction in Syria and Iraq are coming to the U.S. to attack the homeland through the Mexican border.

That's how Time Magazine summarizes the political ad's message, before pointing out that the hyped threat has been "repeatedly refuted."

Delaware Senator Chris Coons tweeted Johnathan Cohn's unexceptional article, which points out that a tiny number of Ebola cases in the United States and Europe are a minor threat compared to "the real problem, which is the outbreak in West Africa and the toll it is taking there."

He received in turn hundreds of messages like this:

Too many people in this country are scared witless. Okay, it is obvious that keeping us terrified serves the interests of the Republicans. Their only policy proposals are to take necessary services away from the majority and give the country's resources to the one percent -- these are not very popular ideas when when people understand them, so they need us to remain witless.

But why are so many ready, even eager, to be governed by fears? The music historian and cultural critic Greil Marcus thinks the mere fact of there being a Black president has driven some of us over the edge.

... when you look at the murder of Trayvon Martin, when you look at the murder of Michael Brown, when you look at those situations, it’s not unrelated to Obama being president, but it’s more the way in which the country has reframed itself or rewritten itself since his election, with all kinds of people saying to themselves, maybe never putting it into words, just feeling it, “There’s a fucking n--er in the White House? Well fuck you, n--er, whoever you are.” And an inchoate loathing and hatred that seeks out its targets.

I’m not a psychiatrist, I haven’t sat down and interviewed George Zimmerman or the cop who shot Michael Brown, I don’t know what their motives are, I don’t know what kind of people they are, what kind of childhood traumas they have experienced. But I don’t think it’s nuts that in a certain way, when that cop killed Michael Brown, and when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, they were killing Barack Obama. ...

Sometimes my fellow citizens scare me. That seems an appropriate fear.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Evidence that this is a strange country

This chart, from Vox, illustrates a paradox. Thanks to the Supremes deciding not to engage with the rapidly expanding set of legal decisions allowing same-sex marriage in state after state, there are now 8 states where LGBT people can legally get married -- but where you can then be fired for being gay.

Those states are in white on the map: Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.

More struggles ahead.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A long struggle for both autonomy and inclusion

On this Indigenous People's Day (aka Columbus Day) it seems right to quote some observations from the descendants of original inhabitants from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

Their effort to preserve cultural and legal autonomy is summarized in this statement:

Sovereignty continues to be challenged and yet is sustained in spite of challenges from governments, agencies and individuals.

In 1924, a Citizenship Act finally made the people of the Pueblos into citizens of the United States.

Not all Indian people viewed citizenship as a something wonderful. Their experience in dealing with Washington and the states did not give them much confidence in government or desire to participate in it. Some feared they would have to give up their own sovereignty. Some feared this would open up taxing for their lands.

"United States citizenship is just another way of absorbing us and destroying our customs and our government. We had our citizenship ... Our citizenship is with our nations."

The state of New Mexico didn't actually treat native residents as full citizens until after losing a court case brought by a native veteran of World War II in 1948. Until then, the Pueblo people were considered merely "Indians not taxed" and denied the right to vote.

This was a monumental event ushering in new opportunities for representation in state, local and national elections. It would take many years before this was fully realized. Early advocates of political participation were ridiculed by their own Pueblo people. Their persistence however paved the way ...

As late as 2004, my own experience with electoral organizing in the state included running into many obstacles to getting Pueblo people onto the voter rolls. Today there is at least one State Representative who comes from a Pueblo community.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Native American wellness

During our stay here in Albuquerque, we enjoyed an opportunity to visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. The 19 Pueblos of New Mexico intend the museum to "preserve and perpetuate Pueblo culture and to advance understanding by presenting, with dignity and respect, the accomplishments and evolving history of the Pueblo people of New Mexico."

The exhibits included many arresting examples of native arts and crafts as well as historical artifacts. But I was particularly drawn to the three rooms which describe this people's history and society, imposing their own periodization and outlining a conception of a good community.

I've copied below a panel describing a communal understanding of well-being for all the stages of life. I found it very much worth pondering.

Being healthy means ...
to be able to participate in activities of the Pueblo, both physically and emotionally,
to be physically, mentally, and spiritually secure, living to a ripe age of 90+.
to be there to see your grandchildren and children grow into adults.
to be without excessive worry, fear and stress.
to be happy alone and with others.

Ways our People Stay Healthy:

*Participating in traditional dancing and ceremonies
*Utilizing traditional healing
*Helping out in good times (weddings) and bad times (funerals) in the village
*Chopping wood
*Doing physical chores (housework, yard and ditch cleaning)
*Participating in Senior Olympics
*Working out
*Participating in health programs (classes, health workshops, health events)


"Healing does not take place alone; it takes place in the context of family."

"When we think about our traditional calendar -- the activities that happen that engage the entire community for sometimes week to week, from month to month ... the central purpose of our engagement is all about sustaining a healthy spirit, mind and body as part of that engagement."

"Everything that comes along with participating [in the traditional calendar] is about being a healthy person. If you are in that framework during your daily life, it is not hard to be healthy."

SFIS Leadership Institute 2007

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday scenes and scenery: New Mexico fall folliage

The trail climbs Fourth of July Canyon, just east and south of Albuquerque.

Maples and oaks grow alongside and below a canopy of evergreens including great Ponderosa pines.

The display is worthy of the canyon's name.

Friday, October 10, 2014

How to lose the people

Sometimes you might think that no one who makes decisions in the Obama administration ever worked a day in their lives.

Two examples:
  • With considerable fanfare, the Prez announced in 2011 that home care workers would finally be included under the country's minimum wage laws, becoming entitled to higher pay and overtime. For forty years, these people (mostly women; often immigrants and/or of color) who take care of the sick and elderly in their homes had been treated as not-quite-genuine workers, so not deserving of elementary protections. The Department of Labor even wrote regulations. But in this election season, the bureaucracy announced it won't be enforcing the new rules in 2015. What good is that to people who work for so little return that they and their families end up on food stamps and Medicaid?
  • Even more outrageously, the administration has weighed in against workers who are seeking to be paid for time they spend waiting around to be searched before leaving their employers' premises. Amazon workers claim this daily process can take up to 25 minutes. The legal arguments are labyrinthine, but the situation is simple and ought to obvious: if keeping your job means you must give the job your time, you should get paid for that time. The Supreme Court seems unfriendly to this obvious reality and the administration is no better.
Bloomberg View commentator Francis Wilkinson insightfully suggests that, regardless of how Democrats fare in the upcoming midterms, this is "a moment of triumph for the party."

The nation's key social evolutions -- civil rights, the women's movement, gay rights, a demographic revolution driven by historic waves of immigration -- all bear a Democratic brand. The party has been an agent of the change sought by women and minorities and a mediating force in the conflicts that evolving power relations inevitably engender.

This is a serious achievement in the face of gruesome history, lingering cross-resentments and a sizable, if steadily dwindling, population of whites who (consciously or not) perceive racial privilege as the natural order of heaven and earth.

True, I think. But insofar as the emerging majority becomes normalized, they will assert just demands for a fair share of the country's wealth. The one percent have been getting almost all the economic gains of the past 40 years. Can the Democrats represent their constituents in this struggle? It is not at all clear that the answer is "yes."

Friday critter blogging: peaceable kingdom edition

Koshka is the head honcho here.

He knows he has nothing to worry about.

Vinegar is anxious and eager.

Chulo is simply beautiful.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Race and the death penalty revisited

In 2012 I had the privilege of working on a California campaign to end death sentences by making life without parole the state's harshest punishment for awful crimes. The initiative failed narrowly.

In the course of the campaign I unavoidably learned a great deal about why many voters insist on preserving death as a option in response to atrocious acts. A considerable number really believe that the state can and should step in to deliver God's (or the universe's) intended punishment to wrongdoers. But many voters, probably far more, simply cling to the death option through a kind of inertia: they assume unspeakable acts should call forth from the community some sort of equally violent response. We are habituated to believe killers deserve to be killed. Unless we are deeply involved with the criminal justice system, we don't think much about the implications of an easy equation of justice with the death option.

In July 2014, a federal judge ruled California's death penalty system unconstitutionally arbitrary and dysfunctional. The state is appealing this ruling. Meanwhile, for the time being, and possibly forever, the state is out of the execution business.

In the 2012 campaign, we talked very little about racial discrepancies in the application of the death penalty, but they persist.

Racial identities unequivocally do play out in the application of law and criminal justice. California had and has the country's largest contingent of condemned prisoners; 743 at last count. Among these, 36 percent are Black, 35 percent white, 24 percent Latino, 2 percent Native American and 3 percent Asian. In the state population at large in 2013 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state's racial breakdown was 6.6 percent Black, 39 percent white, 38 percent Latino, 1.7 percent Native American, 14.1 percent Asian, and 3.7 percent persons claiming two or more races. California death sentences have long been out of line with the state's racial composition.

All this is background I wanted to give to a report on a recent study of how white racial bias puts a disproportionate number of African Americans at risk of death sentences in states that retain the practice (32 at present). According to Dara Lind reporting at Vox, the 2012 campaign was smart not to harp on the racial disparities in capital cases.

The death penalty in the United States has a race problem. ... it's not the racial disparities in the outcome that are most illustrative of the death penalty's race problem. It's the racial disparities throughout the entire process: African Americans are simultaneously the people most affected by death-penalty cases, and the people least likely to have a say in them. ...

Sixty-three percent of whites support the death penalty, as opposed to 36 percent of African Americans (and 40 percent of Hispanics).

There's evidence that calling attention to the racial disparities doesn't make whites more wary of supporting the death penalty — it makes them more enthusiastic. [Emphasis added.] One 2007 study looked at whether poll respondents were less likely to support the death penalty after hearing various arguments against it. It found that whites "actually become more supportive of the death penalty upon learning that it discriminates against blacks." (This is similar to other studies, which have shown white people are more likely to support harsh prison policies if they believe that black people are overrepresented in prisons.)

There's some unvarnished racism at work here that makes Black defendants far more "death-worthy" than other criminal offenders.

Lind goes on to detail how Blacks are routinely, and legally, excluded from juries in death penalty cases with the result that Black defendants are not judged by a jury of their peers. Further, the legal system excludes the statistical evidence that might enable Black defendants to show how systemic racial bias works. The entire article is important reading.

Not exactly her name in lights ...

but darned close. Rebecca gave the book talk Tuesday in Albuquerque.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

What's in a name?

French Muslims are livid about the preferred title that the rampaging be-headers in Iraq and Syria, the so-called Islamic State, have taken for themselves.

“This is not a state; this is a terrorist organization,” he added. “I call them terrorists because that’s what they are. One has to call a dog a dog. One can’t play with words.”

Ahmet Ogras, vice president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith

I sympathize. I've often felt similarly when watching Christianists in our midst, like Pat Robertson, appropriate the good name of my faith for oppressive ends.

Since the attacks of September 11, we seem to be stuck with the label "Homeland Security" for a bureaucracy that too often seems more interested in 24/7 snooping into our private lives than protecting us. Where'd that foreign-sounding locution come from? Josh Marshall has dug into the history of the use of "Homeland" by our rulers. He feels that the phrase carries more than a whiff of fascism, of the "blood and soil" nationalisms of the mid-20th century that led to barbarism in Europe. He first finds the usage in the 1990s in the victorious excitement at the apparent arrival of a unipolar, U.S.-led, world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And he finds even earlier suggestions of the term.

... implicit in the 'homeland' terminology is an imperial vision of America's role in the world. There's defense - which is something safely beyond our borders but operating in areas of our control and dominance and then there's us proper - the homeland.

His discussion left me wondering whether the more significant linguistic anomaly in our current usage is not the still-jarring "Department of Homeland Security" but the longer standing and equally inaccurate "Department of Defense"?

That name for the Cabinet department which runs the U.S. military is actually younger than I am, having been adopted in 1949. Before that, there was the Department of War. At least consciously, until after the Second World War, we still had a pre-imperial view of our military. We thought the armed forces were more for necessary protection from foreign threats than for power projection around the world -- even though we had a long history of sending in the Marines to muck about in other people's countries, especially south of the border.

Since 1945, the foreign aims of the United States have been to win and maintain global hegemony, sometimes through institutional arrangements like the United Nations, NATO and trade pacts, but through force if necessary. This is what we "defend."

When the United States simply made "war" rather than claiming to "defend," it acted on the assumption that its citizens supported and expressed their own interests through its power projections. Imperial power projections have never really been popular, because the people of this nation have instinctively known that we scarcely face military threats. We only support wars when kept shaking in our boots. During the worst of the Cold War, continual pointing to (mostly illusory) nuclear threats served the production of terror. It should be no surprise that the long, bloody, draft-dependent military adventure in Vietnam became so unpopular; people in this country instinctively understood that a remote part of southeast Asia presented no vital threat. Since Vietnam, our rulers have understood we won't accept significant numbers of U.S. casualties except when immediately panicked.

Seen through this lens, the adoption of "Homeland Security" betrays its deeply anti-democratic character. For our rulers, tasked by their sponsors in the one percent and ideologically in accord with imperial aims, the United States and its people are just another theater of the "war" against which they "defend" global hegemony. They have to work tirelessly to keep us scared, focused on fluctuating enemies. (The terrorists understand this better than we often do!)

In most undemocratic states, the bureaucracy that is analogous to our "Homeland Security" is called the "Interior" department, charged with internal security for the rulers against not-so-much foreign challenges as homegrown opposition. Because of our peculiar history, that name, the Department of the Interior fell to the part of government that first managed lands expropriated from the native population and now is devoted to resource extraction by our oil and mineral barons.

Hence we are stuck with "Homeland Security" for the government department that pretends to protect but mostly keeps us frightened and, in a pinch, would likely be used to keep us in line.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

An uplifting afternoon

Every stop on the bookapalooza is different, as in every city the local hosts for Rebecca's talks about U.S. torture are different.

Here in Albuquerque, our friends from the band Losotros/Lasotras have set up several events for her, including one tonight at Bookworks, talking with a class at UNM tomorrow, and an appearance along with the band at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice on Friday.

Yesterday we had the pleasure of seeing our friends perform on the World Music Stage at the Oldtown Gazebo in the midst of crowds in town for the Balloon Fest.

Pretty soon part of the crowd was on their feet.

We don't often get to have so much joy in the midst of spreading the word about pain.

Monday, October 06, 2014

And the winner is ...

... $2.89 for regular gas outside of Oklahoma City. Times are good in oil country.

So imagine my surprise as we rolled across western Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle to see broad expanses of wind turbines competing with the ever-present celebration of the oil industry.

The sight confirmed for me the accuracy and wisdom of what David Roberts has been writing since his return to Grist from a year long break for recharging and reflection. Denial among Republicans and right wingers of the reality of climate science is no longer intellectual. They know radical changes in the climate are happening and that these are man-made.

But denial has become just a tribal marker; "our kind of people" don't go in for that high-brow, squishy environmental stuff. They will hang onto denial as if their lives depended on it. Otherwise they'd have to concede that "those people" have a point.

But being hard-headed business and civic leaders, they will also aim to cash in whatever opportunities follow from our need to mitigate the damage to our lives from fossil fuels. The U.S. military has been in the forefront of preparing for climate change for years. Evidently the oil companies plan to keep their dominance in the new energy economy that is coming.

Those forests of windmills in Texas are testimony to their prescience. We need to watch what they do as well as what they say. And our political efforts for sustainability need to be grounded in those observations, not only on our own cherished tribal shibboleths.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Rolling along across the country

Present circumstances are not conducive to deep blog thoughts. The bookapalooza is in the midst of a l-o-n-g several day sprint from Alabama to New Mexico. Our days consist of barreling down I-40, dodging semi-trucks.

One observation: yesterday we woke up on the east side of Arkansas near Memphis, TN. By midday we were in a Taco Bell on the west edge of the same state -- and suddenly realized we'd made a big cultural transition. We're in the West again. I don't have evidence to back this up, just feelings. But for the last two months, since leaving St. Paul, Minnesota, we've been in places where society and history looked to the Atlantic seaboard. Once again, we're pushing on now into the western frontier; it's another world. The sky, even if clouded, is getting wider.

How do we know where to stop, eat, even sleep? We're using an iPhone app called iExit that tells us what's coming along in the more featureless areas.

iExit can't guarantee there is anyplace we want to be, and it catches nowhere near all the options, but it helps.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

An immodest proposal

We encountered this in a women's bathroom in a truck stop in Mississippi.

I'm sure such dispensers are common enough in public Men's bathrooms, but I've seldom seen one in the "Ladies."

Maybe these benighted states we're currently driving across (AL, MS, TN, AR, OK, and TX} that are striving to make abortion completely inaccessible to women who need it, should require these machines in every women's bathroom. Maybe they could also dispense non-prescription morning after pills. Now that might reduce the frequency of abortions.

But they aren't really interested in controlling abortions -- they want to control women's sexuality. Easier access to condoms wouldn't help with that.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Friday cat blogging

From his perch on the weaving in progress, Bentley greets each visitor to the rug shop in the French Quarter in New Orleans. He accepts petting from all.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

What are we so afraid of, anyway?

Dr. King stares down from the monument on the national mall in Washington.

The most remarkable thing about terrorism is how rare it is here in the U.S., despite our plentiful and easily obtained weaponry, which would make carrying out such an attack so uncomplicated.

According to the Global Terrorism Database, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a total of 49 Americans have been killed in terrorist incidents. The New America Foundation, focusing only on jihadist acts of terrorism, counts 25 Americans killed in that time. Your chance of dying from almost anything else, including getting struck by lightning, is far, far higher.

According to FBI crime statistics (with a little extrapolation for 2014), more than 200,000 Americans have been murdered since September 11, 2001 —just regular folks killing their wives, neighbors, and business rivals, mostly with guns but also with knives, poison, paperweights, and what have you. Over the same period, somewhere between 2.7 million and 5.7 million of us died because of preventable medical errors. Around half a million Americans died in car accidents.

Most of us appreciate, at least intellectually, that our chance of dying in a terrorist attack is approximately zero, and even if it increases, that increase would mean it has gone from approximately zero all the way up to pretty much zero. But that's not how we act and react. ...

[Imagine what would happen after a hypothetical attack. Republicans would] go on TV to denounce [Obama] for being so weak that the evildoers struck us in our very heart, and proclaim not only that the blood of the victims is on the hands of every Democrat, but that more attacks are coming and we're more vulnerable than we've ever been. Dick Cheney would emerge snarling from his subterranean lair to warn us that this is only the beginning and we really need to start bombing at least five or six more countries. Senator Lindsey Graham, who has already said about ISIL that "this president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home," might just tear off his shirt and scream, "We're all gonna die! We're all gonna die!" right on Fox News Sunday.

And the public would follow right along. In a recent CNN poll, 41 percent said they were very or somewhat worried that they or a member of their family would be a victim of terrorism—which, to repeat, is about as likely as they or a member of their family getting hit by a falling piano. ...

Paul Waldman, the American Prospect

Indeed we've become a nation of cowards.

I'm chewing on this while mentally preparing for a visit this morning to the Birmingham, Alabama Civil Rights Institute. These were people who knew real fear and many of whom overcame that fear.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A nation of cowards

Yesterday Rebecca carried on an animated conversation about Mainstreaming Torturewith students and faculty at Loyola Law School in New Orleans. In every talk, she elaborates on the point that by embracing torture of enemies -- whether those enemies are resisting occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan and other distant lands or among the "tortureable" class of persons in our domestic prisons -- the United States is transforming its more privileged citizens into "a nation of cowards." We, the spectators of state terror, are encouraged to be attached to a false "security" that our authorities promise is guaranteed by their outrages on human persons. And we become easy marks for those who would terrify us.

According to Joshua Marshall, current US political developments confirm her thesis:

The Return of Terror Politics
... Something very big happened in June when ISIL burst out of Syria and overran a huge chunk of Sunni Iraq. But in the field of US domestic opinion something much bigger and graver happened in September when ISIL beheaded US reporter James Foley and again when they behead fellow journalist and captive Steven Sotloff. (The filmed executions of other foreign nationals followed.) Public opinion data seems to show that these two incidents had a massive and galvanizing effect on US public opinion - driving a public extremely unsupportive of further foreign military operations toward overwhelming support for attacking ISIL.

To make the point clear, what happened in June was a very big deal in terms of the already fractured and fragmented state system in the Arab Middle East. But the executions changed the equation for the US public. It goes without saying that the executions were grisly and brutal, deeply disturbing and revealing about the character of this group. So June and September have an obvious connection. But hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis have been killed in recent years. Thousand of US military personnel have been killed. And even many US civilians and captives have been killed.

But these executions were packaged - there's no other way to put - as brilliantly evil propaganda. That made all the difference in the world in terms of the shifting sands of US public opinion which soon bore fruit in shifting US policy.

Republican Senate candidates and the right wing media generally are all too happy to stoke the fear. They seek to gain advantage over President Obama and Democrats who, once again, can be tarred as bumblers when faced with mortal perils. They would love to return to their glory days in the traumatic aftermath of 9/11 when war hawks ruled the roost.

For the media, stoking fear makes for better story lines. For good or ill, media need elections to be close contests. Turmoil and ferment, emotion and strife sell. Our trained, habitual cowardice is good for the wingers and good for business.
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