Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bombs away

Last night, cops apparently closed down my neighborhood while inspecting something they thought might be a bomb. It wasn't. I slept through the episode.

But apparently, in our national eagerness for oil and oil commerce, we're allowing the whole East Bay to become a blast zone, crisscrossed by rail lines carrying crude oil in aging tank cars not built for the task.

Oil trains are more than a mile-long with 100+ cars, concentrating the risk of an accident that could ignite the three million gallons of crude on a single train.

Oil train traffic has increased more than 4,000 percent in the last five years. Rail routes run right through major urban areas and cross water supplies.

The US rail system was not designed to transport dangerous crude oil.

Dangerous DOT-111 cars, which make up the majority of US oil tanker trains, have serious flaws that make them highly prone to puncture during a derailment.

The crude oil carried by train is more explosive and more toxic than conventional crude oil; it is also more carbon intensive. At a time when our oil use is decreasing and the threat of climate disruption is growing, the risk from oil trains is unacceptable.

There's a petition against this. It is probably worth signing as a prelude to warding off one more hazard created by one more careless, greedy industry.

Saturday scenes and scenery: Bay Bridge west


The western section of the Bay Bridge, stretching from Yerba Buena Island into San Francisco, is the ugly duckling of the city's bridges. The Golden Gate Bridge is iconic; the new "signature span" that is the eastern half of the Bay Bridge may not have been worth a 26 year wait from the time it fell down in the 1989 earthquake, but it sure is spectacular. (It includes a bike path; I'll have to go walk it one day ...)


Still, from the Embarcadero running below its western end, this bridge is pretty spectacular. The palms are a post-earthquake embellishment; they've done better than I expected.


The attachments of its suspension cables to the concrete anchorage are suitably gargantuan.

Monster cranes over downtown are visible through its struts.


When weather cooperates (rarely except this winter), this patio is a nice place to sit.

All photos are out-takes from Precinct #7638 at 596 Precincts.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Teach the children well ...

Parents trying hard to do the right thing brought their kids to the weekly farmer's market in the Mission on Thursday. Their flyer explained:

We stand with the Black Lives Matter movement and want to include our whole families in honoring Black History Month and beginning a public dialogue about how racial justice is everyone's responsibility. Of course we believe that All Lives Matter -- but right now -- we want to emphasize that Black people are being hurt at a very high rate and that having black skin does mean that you are treated differently and most of the times in a bad way. We want our kids to appreciate and see that Black is Beautiful and Black Lives Matter!

This action is for the children, to each kids how to stand up to injustice and have a voice in the community for what's right. It is also for the parents, to show that it is vital to talk to your kids about race and there are developmentally appropriate ways to do it. ...

Important note: the content of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is in response to racist violence, but since children have differing information about what’s going on in the world, participants will not be discussing murder, and staying away from the slogans that infer killing. Instead, they will be focusing on how and why Black lives are valuable in their community. The organizers thank you for respecting this.

After the minimum obligatory speechifying ...

... the little procession meandered past the vendors.

I'm not going to pretend that this event didn't feel slightly odd to me. The parents, mostly but not exclusively white, looked as if they came from up the hill in Noe Valley, a more affluent area. The market occupies the street in front of the Mission District landmark destroyed by fire early this month, a blaze that left over sixty people homeless. Most of the newly homeless are Latino immigrant families; many are children. This wasn't their march.

On the other hand, I would bet that the sort of parents who bring their kids to this sort of thing are the sort of people who helped raise $180,000 for the fire victims. For all its tensions, San Francisco can still sometimes delight.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Deadly coal

On February 26, 1972:

a coal waste dam owned by the Pittston Company collapsed at the head of a crowded hollow in southern West Virginia. A wall of sludge, debris, and water tore through the valley below, leaving in its wake 125 dead and 4000 homeless. The Pittston Company, owners of the dam, denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that the disaster was 'an act of God'.

The Catholic Worker community in which I was living at that time had a small offshoot in the neighborhood of the disaster. We reported on the horror, aghast.

Last summer we drove through West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. Some places, the only signs of life were billboards defending coal mining from its environmental detractors.

We know that politically, coal is still king in those parts. As recently as 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a coal company executive couldn't just spend millions on electing his own partisan judge to the West Virginia Supreme Court to escape a damages judgement. The coal magnates had just been doing "business as usual." (It was a close vote at the Supremes as things are these days; Judge Anthony Kennedy had to defect from the conservatives to win this repudiation of "undue influence.")

And coal turns out to be the preeminent source of the carbon dioxide pollution that is driving climate change. Even if the companies doing the mining were models of rectitude, we'd have to stop using it if we don't want to fry.

The memory of the Buffalo Creek flood, of those people, their houses, their community washed away by a callous company, has to be part of the indictment of coal mining. I wonder if the children of the survivors are working in the industry. They might be, if there is still any coal mining in the area. People do what they have to do.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why do I blog?


This site has been chugging along for ten years as of today.

Some thoughts on the question in the title:
  • I blog because I want to model that it is possible to draw out of the encounters and accidents of daily life some insights into political and social systems. That sounds grand. I mean such things as noticing that a restaurant has put a surcharge on your bill for "Healthy SF." That's the local program that insures the uninsured. You start noticing things like that and pretty soon you find your immersed in the economics of health insurance, of the restaurant industry, and even immigration policy. That's good!
  • I blog because I've lived a long life in politics, inside the electoral system and outside in the social movements of our time. I think I've learned something along the way and this place is a venue in which to share what I observe.
  • I blog because I think some things need to be said that people with institutional obligations or personal ambitions cannot or will not say. As I say to any organization for which I consult, "don't let me near any funders!"
  • I blog because good things do happen. Sometimes it is truthful to feel hope or delight and to say so!
I had taken it into my head to do a significant redesign of the blog, but Google in its wisdom has upgraded the HTML in the underpinnings of these things, so I would have lost my all the paragraph breaks in the archives. I probably could have figured out how to avert that, but I have things to do ... that's blogging, an avocation, not a job. I settled for some clean up and a new picture.

You get what you pay for and Blogger has been good to me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

San Francisco housing wars

I recently faulted the best seller Season of the Witch for underemphasizing San Francisco's ongoing fights over housing for lower income workers, the poor and the marginalized. James Tracy's Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco’s Housing Wars covers those seemingly continuous struggles. As the title indicates, the author was there in the trenches and he knows whereof he writes.

...this is a partisan book. With the exceptions of the histories that occurred long before I was born, I was either directly in the fray or close by as events unfolded. In order for this book to be useful, I've had to turn a critical eye on people, organizations, and movements near and dear to my heart. ...

... If the working-class spine of a city is broken, then no one but the moneyed get to dream big dreams in the city. These dispatches defend the communities that make cities an amazing place to live: the working classes, artists, immigrants, and communities of color.

I, for one, am grateful for his wisdom and candor. I was around peripherally for most of this, fortunate enough to be securely housed, but always aware of whose side I was on. After a brief recounting of some of the history of housing in the city, the book begins with the story of public housing tenants fighting demolition and privatization masquerading as reform; continues through the awful era when many of our single room occupancy (SRO) hotels went up in smoke; through Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition's (MAC) struggle to preserve something of the low rent Mission for Latinos and artists who often didn't speak the same language, politically and culturally as well as literally, during the first tech boom that peaked in 2000.

Tracy's story is full of reflections on what it is really like to engage in these struggles. For example:

The very real potential for impoverished people to lead and determine their own destiny [often can be] replaced with radical others' fantasies about them or rationales for ignoring their voices. In the [Mission] Agenda's case, it also led to ignoring the role of trauma in the lives of the people being organized. Living in slum conditions, and facing the aggregate impacts of poverty, leaves its own scars. By the time the Agenda folded, many of its shining stars were dead -- some of overdoses, others of untreated health conditions; others dropped out of movement work entirely, citing burnout.

Or, as my friends and I have remarked in more than one organizational context: "Struggle is hard; that's why they call it struggle." Tracy reminds us to try to organize care for each other while we work to defeat those who would brush us aside.

Organizations aiming to empower working class and poor constituencies are often confronted with an ethical dilemma: having got people stirred up, do they have an obligation to win what can be won for the constituency, even if that undermines the clarity and vision of the work? Often this takes the form of how deeply to go inside a bad system -- whether by engaging in electoral politics or policy planning -- or to stay outside, aiming to move an agenda through aggressive direct action. This seems to me a particularly difficult problem when it comes to housing issues. Housing policy (and finance) can be very arcane. If you feel compelled to work from inside, you are also likely to find yourself within the constraints of the nonprofit organizational form answering to funders who usually think they know more about your work than you do. Tracy explores some of these issues in relation to real San Francisco organizations including the Mission Housing Development Corporation where the organizers were displaced by builders of middle class housing.

And now San Francisco's conflict over housing is playing out again in a new tech boom. Tracy describes the pass we're now in as "clear cutting" of the working and middle class by the new money.

What is to be done? Tracy discusses community land trusts, citizen participatory budgeting, and building powerful organizations of people discarded by the power of money.

Activists should resist the temptation to fetishize one organizational form as the only one capable of contributing to a housing movement. That said, there are some characteristics that should anchor all organizing in the city. All organizations should reckon with the confines that capitalism places on their best aspirations. Accountability to participatory democratic practices and self-management to the greatest extent possible may be the best guarantees that a movement will be able to "keep it real." Most importantly, housing movements must demand that which would do the most good for the greatest number of people and not start out with the politics of pragmatism. ...

Social movements and labor upsurges achieve something far beyond their stated goals: they create a new common sense about what human beings deserve both by virtue of being human and in return for their labors. Without this change, all others will be fleeting.

I found this book both thought provoking and challenging. That's what I am looking for in such a book.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Can Chester Cheetah give offense?

I noticed this on a Mission Street bus shelter this morning and walked back to catch the image. Yes -- though the Cheetos logo is not badly done -- I think we can trust that this is art, not advertising.

I had what felt an odd reaction to it: I was slightly offended.

I don't think of myself as one to be offended by images that mock the Christian religion, even though I'm a Christian. I certainly had nothing against the famous Piss Christ -- a photo of a plastic crucifix immersed in urine -- that caused a hullabaloo in some circles when exhibited in the late '80s. So the artist evidently had a beef with whatever he read in that imagery -- why should I get excited about that? Apparently an attack on my tradition doesn't easily trigger offense, in me.

There are "Christian" images that do offend me: mostly blonde, long-haired, blue-eyed depictions of Jesus. How self-centered can we get? But that reaction is a consequence of my own intra-community arguments. Anyone with a modicum of a sense of history would be allergic to such pictures.

I have a very hard time feeling into why Muslims are so hurt by derogatory representations of the Prophet. Here is some reporting delving into that from the time of the original offending Danish cartoons. I can comprehend why a marginalized, stigmatized group would be worried by or frightened by images that they perceive as attacks. In Europe, and increasingly in the United States, Muslims are a stigmatized, endangered group.

But Christians are not endangered for our faith on Mission Street. So what gets to me about the pseudo-Cheetos cheetah on a cross? I think perhaps my problem is that I suspect that whoever created this is attacking an ignorant caricature of Christian faith. Since I feel surrounded by such ignorant caricatures, many purveyed by some of my fellow Christians, this rubs me wrong.

I guess it could be worse. In 2009, a Dallas couple claimed to have found a Cheeto in the shape of Jesus in their snack bag and named it Cheesus.

I guess I'm with whoever scrawled their commentary on the bus shelter: "WTF ?"

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Apology to Boston

Dear Boston,

I've been wrong about you, or rather about your parade of winter blizzards. Having grown up in Buffalo, I figured I knew about snow. (The photo shows yours truly on a not particularly unusual winter day sometime in the mid-1950s.) Every year we expected huge deposits of the white stuff; everyone was equipped for snow. We all owned boots and heavy clothes; each household had its shovels, rock salt and ice picks. The City publicized autumnal inspections of its plowing equipment. Whether the snow actually got removed depended on which contractors had gotten kickbacks lately, but that too was part of the culture of the place. The streets were a pot-holed wreck by spring, but that seemed just a fact of Bufflao life

Snow days off from school were few. I walked to my high school; it was never really impossible to get there, but I was plenty happy when they decided the buses from further away couldn't make it. I have one dim memory of walking all the the way home from the downtown library, maybe two miles, in a snowstorm; apparently the city buses weren't running. We were urban; we could get most anywhere we needed to go on foot, if we had to.

So I needed this account of your plight to give me a more adult appreciation of what it is like for you this winter.

Boston’s Winter From Hell
In just three weeks, between Jan. 27 and Feb. 15, we have had four epic blizzards — seven feet of precipitation over three weeks — which crushed roofs, burst gutters, destroyed roads and sidewalks, closed schools and businesses, shut down highways, crippled public transit and trapped people in their homes....

Decades of underinvestment and alleged mismanagement of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, known as the T, have meant that the nation’s oldest subway system has been partly or entirely halted for nearly a month. ... Across the region, mile-long lines of people stand for an hour or more, freezing in bitter winds, waiting for shuttle buses that are supposed to replace the trains and trolleys. Some have given up and walked home.

For workers paid by the hour, the impossibility of getting to work means disaster, especially since high housing prices have pushed poor people out of the city to outlying communities like Brockton, Lawrence and beyond. When I commiserated with a checkout clerk at my grocery store yesterday — he’s been missing work when the buses break down or just don’t come — thinly veiled panic showed in his eyes. “People will be losing their houses,” he said.

There's lots more at the link.

So that's how it is. Enforced sprawl, yet not a major factor in my childhood world, makes adaptation to a bad snow year that much harder. So does decades of disinvestment in cities. Parents are forced to figure out what to do with the kids. Even if you manage to get to your job by car, where are you going to leave the vehicle with over half the available parking spaces taken up by piles of snow? I can envision how tough it is.

I owe you an apology Boston. I get it; this winter is truly bad. Hope you dig out soon.

Yours sincerely,
A California transplant by choice

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tensions in the 'hood

There are plenty of people in the Mission angry enough about the invasion of tech workers to paste these all over. No subtle sentiments here. Click on any of these photos to enlarge.

A restaurant began serving outside -- a neighbor has managed to get in the way of the practice. The manager seeks to enlist his customers ...

A phony notice expresses frustrations.

Here a small business owner has posted his response to vandals who use acid to etch ugly marks on his windows.

...All i can say,
comes from a place deep inside,
your anger and rage
only helps you to hide.
Take your words and your art
to the whole world to see,
and please, pretty please
just let me just be me!

Someone hopes for illumination ...

Another has a better idea.

Friday, February 20, 2015

War porn, Islamophobia, and a Christian analogy

When I finished Graeme Wood's long opus explicating ISIS in The Atlantic, I felt as if I needed a bath. Wood brings the apparatus of journalism and academia to bear on the Islamic State, demonstrating that Syria and Iraq have spawned a horde of ferocious irrational religionists who aim to impose the unvarnished essence of Islam on everyone within their reach. That unvarnished essence is the culture of 7th century warring tribal Arabia; any other understanding of the religion of Islam is just an illegitimate gloss.

Although everything he reports may be true to Wood's particular sources and interviewees, he practices a vicious myopia by substituting a cluster of the worst possible Islamic crackpots for the whole body of some 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. This is propaganda, not intellectual discourse.

The article is not only quasi-sophisticated Islamophobia, it is also war porn. If these martyrdom seeking fanatics cannot be dissuaded from their violent obsessions by any means but extermination, we in "the West" can and should indulge our most muscular fantasies of violent domination. This is some ugly shit.

If this noxious item had appeared in say, The Weekly Standard, home of manly American imperialism, it would not be getting the attention it seems to be receiving. Despite having a resident Zionist in Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic is usually something less of a cheer leader for dumb wars.
***
I'll outsource my main commentary on Wood to Mohamed Ghilan at the London-based Middle East Eye.

Wood swiftly dismisses the validity of beliefs the majority of Muslims hold with regards to Islam, disregards the official position most Muslim theologians have expressed on ISIS and violent extremism, and grants Islamic doctrinal legitimacy only to that which is being promoted by spokespersons from ISIS or their fans.

The argument posed in the article is that the only group of Muslims who take their Islamic texts seriously is ISIS. ...

Ghilan's article is worth reading -- far more than Wood's screed.
***
As a Christian living in a culture shaped by cultural Christianity, I find it helpful to try to understand the form of Islamophobia which Wood indulges by analogy with more familiar religious formulations. He finds sources who adhere to and enact the most repulsive potentialities in Muslim texts and then treats these cranks as normative. Let's try this with a familiar Christian text from John's account of Jesus' teachings (14:6):

No one comes to the Father, except through me.

It's not hard to find fundamentalist Christians who understand that text to mean that Jesus acts as a kind of gatekeeper. People who fail to recognize Jesus as God are out of luck with the Deity and condemned to everlasting torment.

But we know that in daily life, even if large numbers of people profess to interpret this text in such a dread-filled manner, that's not how their lives work out in practice. Sure -- there are large pockets of hell and damnation fans. But many, perhaps most, fundies make a kind of mental allowance for any nonbelievers they actually know; "old uncle Harry may not have found Jesus, but he's not really such a bad guy ..." Sociologists of religion Robert D. Putnam (Harvard) and David E. Campbell (Notre Dame) recently published a whole book about how this works. Even if some Muslims (perhaps driven mad by Western imperialism?) are a bit more rigorous about their texts than some U.S. Christians, it defies human nature to assume this moderating humanity does not exist across a broad swath of the planet.

And besides, many Christians don't think the Jesus text cited means that the itinerant rabbi was claiming to be God's gatekeeper. Leaving aside arguments about whether Jesus ever said any such thing, we suspect he is just making the implausible assertion that God chose in him to be human and that this mystery means something powerful about how God is present among human beings. In this Christian perspective, Jesus accomplishes the purpose of his life whether we understand what he says or not -- and whatever that accomplishment means does not depend at all on what we may believe. The text is a statement about the nature of reality, the nature of God and humanity, not a behavioral injunction to have "right" thoughts and feelings.

For much of its history, the Islamic way to God fostered an intellectually creative human endeavor. Perhaps today, not so much so. The same could be said of Christianity. We do not live in an era in which the search for God makes free in most contexts. But humans seem to default to some flavor of religion even in these times.

And we are a stupid, suicidal species when we insist on holding up the worst potentialities of religion and going to war over them.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

An intriguing book with a hole in its gut

When you work on any serious political campaign, you can trust that somewhere there's a pollster who has attempted to understand the preferences and attitudes of the electorate for the purposes of micro-targeting "message development." The game is played by dividing people into demographic clusters based on location, economics and other variables. Searching in the bowels of my computer, I quickly found one such slightly out-of-date document that divided the voting population into 72 groups, labelling them with names like "Tuxedo Trails," "Only in America," and "Workin' on the Dream." You get the idea.

Journalist Colin Woodard has done something similar, recounting continental North American history by describing the component regions and people in terms of eleven distinct groupings. For the record, in order of founding, his labels are El Norte, New France, Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland, Deep South, Midlands, Greater Appalachia, Left Coast and Far West. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is certainly thought provoking, especially since Woodard projects his lens forward as well as backward, playing with possibly scenarios that might include rearranging political boundaries to more comfortably organize our cultures.

For a taste of this, here's how Woodard frames the United State's most violent internal clash:

The Civil War was ultimately a conflict between two coalitions. On one side was the Deep South and its satellite, Tidewater; on the other, Yankeedom. The other nations wanted to remain neutral, and considered breaking off to form their own confederations, freed from slave lords and Yankees alike. Had cooler heads prevailed, the United States would likely have split into four confederations in 1861, with dramatic consequences for world history. But hostilities could not be avoided, and the unstable Union would be held together by force of arms.

Contrafactual history is fun, but what happened happened and here we are.

To a considerable extent the value of looking at history through this sort of typology depends on whether cultural patterns that may have predominated in one place and time persist over time -- and human migration. Woodard says they do:

[Migrants] assimilated into the culture around them, not the other way around.

... Our continent's famed mobility -- and the transportation and communications technology that foster it -- has been reinforcing, not dissolving the differences between the nations.

Well maybe. But he hedges by pointing out that by closely examining any particular region you can find pockets more like other regions ... if you carry that process of really digging into the data far enough, do his "national cultures" survive examination? If you look closely enough, do all generalizations about groupings fail? I'm skeptical about Woodard's methodology, but that doesn't mean that at the sweeping level of generalization at which he opines, he is not mining a fertile perspective.

Where Woodard's schema really does historical truth a disservice is in its treatment of the African-American experience in the U.S. Most African Americans came to the continent as slaves; most have their ancestry in Woodard's Deep South, a region defined by whites' response to an enslaved black majority. And since the Deep South's authoritarian caste system was created to ward off a slave revolt, the Black people of this subdivision of the country end up in this book treated as non-actors without a nation. The rich history of Black survival and of acts of rebellion disappear in this telling because they would muddy the picture of Deep South. At best, Blacks contributed some cultural embellishments:

From the hell of the slave quarters would come some of the Deep South's great gifts to the continent: blues, jazz, gospel, and rock and roll, as well as the Caribbean-inspired foodways today enshrined in Southern-style barbecue joints from Miami to Anchorage.

I don't know where Woodard thinks Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. came from. Yes, I know some Black people who have generations of ancestry in Yankeedom and Midland areas, but they are still Black in a way that transcends region in their own eyes and in the eyes of their neighbors. Moreover, perhaps Woodard might be faulted for omitting one additional North American "nation" whose members have a distinct culture: people of African descent from the Caribbean whose culture both in the islands and in the States is different again from that of people whose ancestors were from the Deep South.

I've demonstrated that it doesn't take much effort to pick away at this book's thesis. And I don't think the country is likely to break up and reconfigure borders any time soon as Woodard speculates. But, like the polling models I encounter in campaigns, this sort of project does make for interesting and occasionally useful thought experiments. If you read it, bring along lots of salt.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday: coming and going

"Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."

Last year some of the people of Saint John the Evangelist offered ashes to our neighbors at 16th and Mission.

The offering was well received.

By way of The Lead, I came upon A Lent Where #BlackLivesMatter: 10 Ideas for Black History Month and the White Church. There's a lot there for most anyone.

For me, I'm beginning this season of reflection by listening to recordings of the African American theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman.

“There are two questions that we have to ask ourselves. The 1st is "Where am I going?" and the 2nd is "Who will go with me? If you ever get these questions in the wrong order, you are in trouble.”

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Parks should belong to the people


We took a day off on Monday and went hiking. We didn't go to the trails shown on this video because, for no plausible reason they've ever offered, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission bars recreational use of its Peninsula watershed. On the San Mateo County side to the east, along the Sawyer Camp Trail, you can amble beside the Crystal Springs Reservoir for miles. But not on San Francisco's property to the west.

I actually have joined one of the limited outings the PUC permits to authorized groups. Our entrance was monitored by a ranger; another drove the back roads to check on us twice over the eleven mile hike. It felt very police-statish -- what are they hiding up there?

Brian Coyne told the history.

... until the PUC bought the land in the 1930s from the private Spring Valley Water Company and closed the land to the public, the roads through it were among the most popular scenic routes—for motorists, bicyclists, and hikers—in the whole Bay Area. A popular guidebook of the era recommends routes that start in Millbrae, wind along the shores of the reservoirs, and connect eventually to what’s now Highway 92 leading to Half Moon Bay.

Tom Stienstra, longtime outdoor guru for the Chronicle, calls the PUC's excuses for not opening the area "just a bunch of puckey."

Open the SF Watershed has been pushing the PUC to change its policies. Politicians in both San Francisco and San Mateo are taking up the cause. Just last week, the agency indicated openness to allowing more access to the Fifield-Cahill road along the ridge. Let's hope they follow through with this. In San Francisco, Supervisor John Avalos is on the case. In San Mateo County, it's been Dave Pine and Dan Horsley.

Monday, February 16, 2015

How did the U.S. lose in Afghanstan?

Aiming for the light at the end of the tunnel? Baz Ratner photo
This post is an afterword to the discussion of Carlotta Gall's The Wrong Enemy that I wrote here last week.

One aspect of that very interesting book about the U.S. war in Afghanistan that I did not emphasize is that she is unwilling to say that the U.S. "lost the war." I find this odd, as she describes cascading failure and folly, but that is her position.

Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers who fought there have been having a discussion at reporter Thomas Ricks' The Best Defense blog asking what the hell happened? Many of their judgments lack empathy for the Afghans upon whom their forces were launched -- but they were there and people at home need to listen to what they are thinking. The conversation started with a query from a regular, Jim Gourley, a former military intelligence officer. He seems to have no doubt the U.S. "lost."
Why did we lose in Afghanistan? ... I’ve heard the “because we lost civilian support” argument dozens of times, but I’ve yet to see how that materially affected the effort. It certainly didn’t stop funds and recruits from reaching the combat zone. I recently got into a discussion with someone about how our primary method of destroying armed resistance was through direct fire engagements, and by various means we made that task extremely difficult on soldiers. He responded “you can’t say we lost because we couldn’t chase them over mountains when most of our guys died in IED attacks.”

It reminded me of Patton’s saying that no one ever won a war by dying for their country. The point is to kill the other guy. I think our fundamental failure can be identified right on page one, chapter one of On War. “Force… is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object. To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless.” We never rendered the enemy powerless. ...
Someone who calls him(?)self JPWREL responded:
The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and the subsequent war against the Pashtun people was reckless foolhardiness of the most profound kind considering the evidence from the most recent Soviet experience. ...

... we lacked an essential political harmony, a feature common in limited wars that people sense are unimportant to the existence or prosperity of the nation.
In order to succeed in limited wars one needs to discipline oneself to reach for very limited objectives, and for a prideful people conscious of their power this is extremely difficult to do.

The question is no longer why we lost but have we learned anything?
A commenter who calls him(?)self Kriegsakademie (who Ricks knows and trusts) replied:
Had we not moved on from our six month triumph (chasing out Al Quaeda) to the role of an occupying power trying to build a state that almost no Afghan wanted, we would not have needed to fight a protracted war against the Taliban.

Unless we start from a clear statement of American national interests, and American war aims, and a defined "enemy" that flows from those two, then we cannot have a sensible discussion of whether or not we might have "won" this war.
Another, Kieselguhr Kid, was quite emphatic about how the wars of the '00s felt to him.
Quite a number of our leadership thinks we won.  Shortly after dropping my own papers [resigning from the military] I saw an article by GEN Petraeus in these pages titled, "How we won in Iraq."

Hell, maybe we did win in Iraq and Afghanistan; what do I know?  It didn't feel like winning, it doesn't smell like winning, but what do I know from winning say a tennis match or a chess game?  So far as I understood the objectives, we didn't achieve them, but I'm not one of the flags who ran the thing.  Shoot, maybe we won.  Although if we did, man, I don't want to win a lot more of these things.
Here's a last word from someone (waris-safi123) who might be an Afghan.
the reason why all the invaders failed in Afghanistan and Will fail is simple Afghans dont like foreigners in thier country! how would you feel if Afghans holding guns in the streets of London or Washington tells you what to do? you wouldn't like it! similarly Afghans dont want that eithrr WE WERE BORN FREE!WE WILL BE FREE FOREVER! even if we have to sacrifice millions more afghans
I hope people in the military are discussing these questions somewhere besides Ricks' blog. Even more, I hope our politicians understand that, if they are going to authorize more wars, they better be prepared to listen to the folks who elect them and figure out why they are sending soldiers to kill and die!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Why insist the North Carolina murders are a hate crime?

After all, it won't make these nice young people any less dead.

The murders of Muslim students in North Carolina seem likely to precipitate bad feeling between local law enforcement and mourning relatives and communities over whether this was a "hate crime." After all, the crime is "solved." The shooter, who seems to have been the kind of dangerous angry crank who likes to act as the policeman of his neighbors' activities, turned himself in. In a state where such crackpots have an absolute "right" to hoard and strut around with guns, bad things happen too easily.

So why call the North Carolina killings a "hate crime"?

The question seems worth unpacking. First and foremost, there was a "crime," a murder, three murders. Nobody is arguing that Craig Stephen Hicks had a right to kill these young people. His crime is murder.

Labelling it also a "hate" crime is an "enhancement:" for the killer, it might mean a longer sentence. But the effect of the hate crime label is really elsewhere, in the community.

For bereaved relatives and the Muslim community in general, labelling the murders a "hate crime" affirms that we understand that to be Muslim in the United States is to be afflicted by ignorance and prejudice. We have all too much evidence; twit-wits like Republican Presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee spread insults such as "Muslims will go to the mosque, and they will have their day of prayer, and they come out of there like uncorked animals -- throwing rocks and burning cars."

Additionally, labelling the killing a "hate crime" serves as a spur for law enforcement to take minor bias crimes seriously -- before they turn into ghastly multiple murders. Cops and prosecutors need to be trained to recognize that "hate" leads to "crime." If they take their job to be preventing crime, they can make that job easier by recognizing "hate" as the precursor to crime. People have a right to say what they want, but they can't assault their neighbors. Law enforcement needs to understand that hate is dangerous to a law abiding society. In particular, training about the dangers of terrorism must not be allowed to slide over into reinforcing prejudices; sometimes it has.

In fact, hate is what leads to religious, racial and gender terrorism. David Neiwert explored the issues raised by "hate crime" laws lucidly in Born on the Fourth of July, a book that remains as relevant today as it was a decade ago.
***

This flyer turned up under the wiper blade of my car yesterday. Click to enlarge.

The flyer is from a proselytizing offshoot of orthodox Islam; the Christian analogy would be something like getting a tract from Seventh Day Adventists or Mormons. Obviously they think they have a hurdle to surmount. Believers in this sect are objects of persecution in Pakistan and other Muslim countries.

Their leaflet is a good illustration of the protestations that even the most innocuous of Muslims are forced to express as they carry out what they consider their religious obligations, in this case to try to convert the ignorant.

March for Renter's Rights

Over two hundred people marched through suburban Redwood City on Valentine's Day to demand that the town, neighboring jurisdictions and the whole of San Mateo County take action to ensure that the people who do the work can afford to live nearby. Just as in San Francisco, middle and working class people are experiencing a deluge of displacement.

The march followed a rally at the Redwood City City Hall on Thursday at which residents told their stories according to The Daily Journal.

Led by the nonprofit San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action, the group held the rally to highlight the need for tenant protections as rents in the area continue to climb.

“In the past, residents of all incomes were able to live in Redwood City,” said Diana Reddy, with Redwood City Residents for Housing Security. “People lived in their apartments for decades because those apartments were affordable.”

But skyrocketing rents have priced out seniors, individuals with disabilities who live on fixed incomes and young families who earn low wages, Reddy said.


Marchers were greeted by enthusiastic honking. Apparently they are not the only ones feeling squeezed.

The short procession on concluded on the steps of the old courthouse, now the San Mateo County History Museum.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saturday scenes and scenery: heron nests in Golden Gate Park

We haven't exactly had winter this year, but I take the sight of this sitting bird as sign of spring.

They are shy, not especially willing to be seen. That's not hard to accomplish if you locate your nest at the top of a tree on an island. In the past they've been visible from the west side of Stowe Lake. Right now, I only glimpse them from the east side, especially from larger island in the center of the lake.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Democratic convention to be held in Philly


Good to know the prime criterion for selecting a site for ritual enactment of democratic politics is the ability to keep the people out.

The prospect of setting up a security zone in the largely residential area around the Barclays Center [in Brooklyn] put off party officials.

NYT

I have no dog in the convention siting fight and I trust the people of the east coast will respond to any siting, but the terms of discussion seem worth noting.

The good news is that we'll likely get commentary from Philly during the event from Field Negro.

Friday cat blogging

No, I will not be your Valentine.

Maybe you'll be less funny looking if I scrunch over like this.

What are you doing here?

All encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Here we go again ...


The Prez has asked Congress for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). The good news is that he concedes that it might exceed his powers to go on shooting people up around the world based on the panicked resolution that Congress passed in 2001. The bad news is that he wants to go on shooting people up around the world. (And he is not ready to repeal the old AUMF, just in case it might come in handy.)

If we have learned anything since that old AUMF, it would be that if we decide to go shooting people up, we ought to know what we are trying to accomplish by doing so. Also whether shooting people up is a plausible route to whatever that goal is -- but that's an advanced question. A couple of days ago, my friend Sarah Lazare asked some of right questions at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Do we really think that the U.S. military operation against ISIS will bring about a good outcome for the people of Iraq and Syria, or for U.S. society? Is there any evidence from the more than 13 years of the so-called “War on Terror” that U.S. military intervention in the Middle East brings anything but death, displacement, destabilization, and poverty to the people whose homes have been transformed into battlefields?

The answer to these questions must be a resounding “No.”

... More than 13 years on, there is no evidence that the “War on Terror” has accomplished its stated, if amorphous, goal: to weed out terrorism (defined to exclude atrocities committed by the U.S. and allied states, of course). According to the Global Terrorism Index released by the Institute for Economics and Peace, global terrorist incidents have climbed dramatically since the onset of the War on Terror. In 2000, there were 1,500 terrorist incidents. By 2013, this number had climbed to 10,000. People in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria suffer the most, the index notes. ...

Go read the whole article -- it is to the point.

So what to do? I've just learned about a new book that might have some promising suggestions: Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle In Iraq. If Iraqis can keep trying to make peace and justice amidst the carnage we've left them with, we can at least try.

And at this moment, sign those petitions to Congress. It would be healthy to demand debate on whether we want to be tromping around in other peoples' countries for once. Here at two:

Peace Action

Win Without War


Yes, they'll probably send you email for the rest of your life (or your email's life) but that's a small price to pay. You might not even mind if they pass you on to more activist groups ... This isn't going to stop until we stop it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Somebody asked some Afghans ...

I first became conscious of Carlotta Gall's reporting from Afghanistan for the New York Times in 2003 when she broke the story that U.S. military medical authorities had labeled the death while in custody of a detainee named Dilwar a "homicide." She was the rare foreign reporter who seemed to assume that the journalist's job was to find out what it meant to Afghans to be invaded and then occupied by U.S. and NATO forces.

Here's that story again in The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014. On hearing that a prisoner had died in U.S. custody, Gall went looking to understand more.

When I visited his family in Yakubi in February, Dilwar's brother, Shahpoor, showed me a death certificate they had been given along with the body. The certificate was in English, and the family did not understand fully what it said. It was dated December 13, 2002, and was signed at the bottom by Major Elizabeth A. Rouse, a pathologist from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology based in Washington, D.C., and medical examiner Lieutenant Colonel Kathleen M. Ingwersen from the Army Medical Corps based in Landstuhl, Germany.

It gave the circumstances of death: "Decedent was found unresponsive in his cell while in custody." Under "Cause of death" was typed, "Blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease." Mode of death, it stated, was "homicide."

Dilwar was a young taxi driver picked up by mistake; he had no part in resisting U.S. forces. His story is told in the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.

Gall lived in Afghanistan from 2001 through last year. She's a Brit whose father had reported from Afghanistan and who had worked herself in Chechnya and Bosnia. She likes Afghans. Her explanation of why she wrote this book:

[The conflict/occupation] would become America's longest overt war. Thirteen years later, there is no swift resolution in sight, and support at home has waned. Few Americans seem to care anymore about Afghanistan, and I decided owed it to all those caught up in the maelstrom of Afghanistan to put down a record of events as I had seen them from the ground.

In Gall's view, the arc of the U.S. Afghanistan war begins with most Afghans welcoming help in throwing off Taliban rule; through neglect, failure and corruption as the U.S. turned its attention to Iraq; the Petraeus/McChrystal "surge" under Obama which Gall portrays as succeeding in the Pashtun heartland from whence the Taliban originated; through U.S. disengagement and the Kabul government's weakness, pointing to an uncertain future. Looming over this entire bloody trajectory, in Gall's view is the unceasing determination of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to manipulate Afghanistan by funding, training and inciting Afghan Islamists. Pakistan was the true enemy of Afghan peace and security; only in those sporadic episodes when U.S. administrations pressured Pakistan's governments to curb the militants did Afghanistan enjoy relative peace and development.

There are many other schools of thought about the NATO/US Afghanistan adventure; perhaps the one most familiar to readers of this blog is that the U.S. never decided what its objective was in mucking about in this strange, distant, peripheral hornet's nest of a place and consequently accomplished little except death and destruction. Gall has another view, one informed by extensive discussion with many sorts of Afghans. The book is fascinating on that level.

A Western reader naturally wonders how a woman reporter managed to function so broadly in such a conservative religious environment. Gall explains:

Most Afghan and Pakistani houses have separate rooms for entertaining guests and holding meetings. The guest room often has its own entrance and is designed to allow visitors to be entertained without disturbing the sanctity of the women's quarters. Many Afghan and Pakistani families, especially the conservative tribal and religious ones, still continue the practice of purdah. Women only mix with their extended family and do not meet unrelated men. ...

As a foreigner I was exempt from such rules. I had little difficulty working as a woman in Afghanistan and Pakistan where hospitality is a much-honored custom, and I often had the bonus of being invited into the inner sanctum to visit the women of the family.

... It is a strictly honored custom that no one enters an Afghan's home without being invited, and no man unrelated to the family enters the women's quarters. This becomes second nature to anyone living in Pakistan and Afghanistan, yet the readiness of foreign soldiers to violate this cherished custom in their search for militants, kicking down doors in house-to-house raids and searching women's quarters, became one of the most upsetting issues for Afghans across the country.

The American and NATO forces violated a code that could have worked in their favor: when you are invited into someone's home, you are under the protection of your host. I felt no fear going to interview a Taliban commander in the warren of Quetta's [Pakistan] back streets. I knew and trusted my host, who had organized the meeting. He would make sure I came to no harm.

In Gall's view, U.S. forces sacrificed their chance at a cooperative relationship with Afghans by killing too many ordinary civilians, whether through mistaken application of their overwhelming firepower or out of blatant (racist?) indifference to Afghan life. She reports a chilling story:

One day an Afghan I knew and trusted told me a story he had never dared tell anyone, even his closest family. He had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military for several years.

One night he had accompanied U.S. special operations commandos on a raid. Helicopters dropped off the team a mile or so from their target village, and they hiked in silence to its edge. The unit split up, and the interpreter went with a group of four men to a house in the center of the village. Two men were in front of him and two behind, armed with American assault weapons with silencers attached. They moved without noise, communicating with hand signals. They kicked in the door of the house and entered a room.

A gas lamp was burning very low but enough for the interpreter to see the astonished faces of a young couple in their twenties as they leapt up from their bed on the floor. "Why? Why are you shooting?" the man asked. The Americans did not answer. They crouched and shot them both. They fired four or five rounds, the silencers making a dull "tick, tick" sound. As the woman fell, she let out a dying gasp. A child sleeping beside them began to cry.

The Americans moved straight on to the next room. The translator began to shake. This time he did not enter the room but stopped at the door. He saw four people by the lamplight. A grandmother stood, her head uncovered, and asked, "What's happening? Why?" Three teenagers, a boy and two girls, were cowering on the floor, wordless, trying to hide among their bedclothes. The Americans did not speak. They fired two or three rounds. The translator did not see who was shot. He was never asked to translate anything. "You have to wait until they ask. If you say anything, or translate anything, they say 'Shut up, motherfucker, or I'll shoot you.'"

Gall also describes the atrocities U.S. soldiers experienced from Taliban ambushes.

One Humvee had made it out with survivors, but three men were dead at the scene and two more were missing. Search parties scoured the area for the rest of the day. Just before dark they came across the remains of one of the men. He had been dragged nearly a mile from the ambush site, and his body had been mutilated. His arms had been cut off, and someone had tried to carve out his heart. The search went on through the next day, but the units only ever found parts of the other soldier.

... The mutilation of victims, which was not often revealed to the public, was a particular horror for the men serving in Afghanistan, a sign of the brutalizing effects of the war. It was a grim burden for those who encountered it and led to acts of retaliation on both sides.

Gall is not hopeful about Afghanistan's future.

... after thirteen years, a trillion dollars spent, 120,000 foreign troops deployed at the height, and tens of thousands of lives lost, the fundamentals of Afghanistan's predicament remain the same: a weak state, prey to the ambitions of its neighbors and extremist Islamists. ...

... The cost in lives to reach this unfinished state had been painfully high. There is no complete count of how many Afghans have died since the American intervention began in October 2001. My own rough estimate places it between 50,000 and 70,000 Afghans. By the end of 2013, over 3,400 foreign soldiers have died in the campaign, 2,301 of them American.

Civilian deaths in the war had been running between two and three thousand a year since 2006. Casualties among Afghan security forces have been between one and two thousand a year, and rising, as their forces have grown and they have taken up the frontline fighting.

Thousands of young Afghan and Pakistani men have died in the ranks of the Taliban, too, many of them villagers and madrassa students, used as so much cheap cannon fodder. They are referred to as "potato soldiers" by their Pakistani recruiters.

This is not a hopeful book. Whether or we agree with Gall's take on the geopolitical situation, we can be glad that someone from the Western media bothered to listen so closely to so many Afghans.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Terror enforcing racial and gender hierachies

Today the New York Times featured a map showing where lynchings took place in the South between 1877 and 1950. The accompanying article explains that the map is a product of a report and project from the Montgomery AL based Equal Justice Initiative. EJI aims to erect markers reminding us of these "racial terror lynchings," just as they have previously marked locations of pre-emancipation slave markets.

EJI director Bryan Stevenson made what he considers a crucial point:
... these brutal deaths were not about administering popular justice, but terrorizing a community.

“Many of these lynchings were not executing people for crimes but executing people for violating the racial hierarchy,” he said, meaning offenses such as bumping up against a white woman or wearing an Army uniform.

But, he continued, even when a major crime was alleged, the refusal to grant a black man a trial — despite the justice system’s near certain outcome — and the public extravagance of a lynching were clearly intended as a message to other African-Americans.
***
We're fooling ourselves if we assume that killings meant to enforce hierarchies happen only in the South or only in the distant past. Now as then, the victims are almost always of people of color, overwhelmingly Blacks -- but these days they are also usually persons who are considered to break the gender rules. As recently as 1985 here in liberal northern California, Timothy Charles Lee , a Black gay man was hung by a strap near the Concord BART station. Local police ruled his death a suicide, though two men were arrested for a stabbing while wearing Ku Klux Klan robes in the town the same night. I wonder if Concord's gay community has put up a marker?

Today in San Francisco, 48 Hills reports, the LGBT Center issued a report documenting ongoing public violence experienced especially by transgendered people of color. The housing crunch leads to more homelessness and more people stuck in living situations that are not safe.
**68% of the community has experienced physical violence, 48% sexual violence, 81% harassment — and a full one-third all three. (For transgender people, those numbers jump 17%.)

**Transgender community members are seven times more likely than non-transgender people to feel unsafe in everyday settings: 60% of transgender Latinas feel unsafe walking around during the day.
The truth of these fears is demonstrated by last week's murder of transgender woman Taja de Jesus in the Bayview district.
Transwomen of color staged a die-in on the steps of San Francisco City Hall before going into raise issues of violence and safety before the Board of Supervisors.

Several hundred allies gathered round.
This remains a society that defaults to terror to enforce social conformity, to keep those who have "always" made the rules on top.

Too true ...

Monday, February 09, 2015

Drifting into the next war in Ukraine?


The U.S. is currently party to several wars in the greater Middle East -- against ISIS, against (someone) in Yemen, against (someone) in Somalia -- and probably some more in that area. We've indicated we'd like to stick a toe in against Boko Haram, but so far the Nigerian government is resistant. We aren't really out of Afghanistan, though the remaining U.S. sacrificial targets are ordered to keep their heads down.

We make war on the cheap these days: we infiltrate our spooks and/or mercenary contract killers; we blast the unlucky (and occasionally guilty) with drones; we only show the country's colors when these little wars pull in the full panoply of bombers and cruise missiles.

And now the usual suspects -- John McCain, various other neocons and apparently Obama's nominee to be War (Defense) Secretary Ashton Carter -- think throwing advanced U.S. arms to the Ukrainian government in Kiev would be a great idea.

Sensible people keep trying to explain to our more foolish rulers why this is stupid (in addition to pointing toward a criminal escalation of human misery). Here's University of Chicago international relations professor John J. Mearsheimer in the New York Times:

... the United States cannot win an arms race with Russia over Ukraine and thereby ensure Russia’s defeat on the battlefield.

Proponents of arming Ukraine have a second line of argument. The key to success, they maintain, is not to defeat Russia militarily, but to raise the costs of fighting to the point where Mr. Putin will cave. The pain will supposedly compel Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and allow it to join the European Union and NATO and become an ally of the West.

This coercive strategy is also unlikely to work, no matter how much punishment the West inflicts. What advocates of arming Ukraine fail to understand is that Russian leaders believe their country’s core strategic interests are at stake in Ukraine; they are unlikely to give ground, even if it means absorbing huge costs.

Great powers react harshly when distant rivals project military power into their neighborhood, much less attempt to make a country on their border an ally. ...

Yeah. Think how we'd react if some European power tried to arm Cuba against us ... how long has getting over that one taken?

And here's Stephen M. Walt from Harvard pointing out that jumping further into this conflict, in addition to amounting to poking a hornet's nest with nukes, is a recipe for failure and humiliation:

Ukraine’s fate is much more important to Moscow than it is to us, which means that Putin and Russia will be willing to pay a bigger price to achieve their aims than we will. The balance of resolve as well as the local balance of power strongly favors Moscow in this conflict. Before starting down an escalatory path, therefore, Americans should ask themselves just how far they are willing to go. If Moscow has more options, is willing to endure more pain, and run more risks than we are, then it makes no sense to begin a competition in resolve we are unlikely to win. And no, that doesn’t show the West is irresolute, craven, or spineless; it simply means Ukraine is a vital strategic interest for Russia but not for us

Among others who know better can be included the Germans.

The German foreign minister [Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier] recalled that a Canadian colleague at a NATO meeting last summer had asked whether Russia should be seen as “a friend, partner, enemy or opponent to us.”

“Perhaps,” Mr. Steinmeier said, “this is easier to answer when you are further away from the conflict region. Our experience in Europe — in good times or bad — is that Russia remains our neighbor.”

This would be a great moment for President Obama to apply his most sophisticated policy principle: "Don't do stupid stuff!"
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