Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Residues of campaigns past


In this nasty electoral season, I'm pondering the observations of two smart, decent men who've lived through similar electoral travesties.

First, here's Charles Blow, recollecting the contest between Democrat Edwin Edwards (the corrupt old "crook") and David Duke (former Grand Wizard of the KKK) for Louisiana Governor in 1991.

... In the end, Edwards won with a coalition of blacks and affluent, “business-oriented conservatives” in a record turnout for a state gubernatorial general election, but Duke did win the majority of the white vote.

Though he didn’t win, Duke’s imprint on the state was real. As The Times reported in 2014: “Two decades later, much of his campaign has merged with the political mainstream here, and rather than a bad memory from the past, Mr. Duke remains a window into some of the murkier currents in the state’s politics, where Republicans have sought and eventually won Mr. Duke’s voters, while turning their back on him.”

Whether or not Trump loses in November to “crooked Hillary,” as he has dubbed her, he may well be an important part of the future of his party. He has given his Republican supporters permission to vocalize their anti-otherness rage, and that will not easily be undone.

As a Louisiana boy experiencing a confounding sense of déjà vu, let me assure you: There is no way to un-cook the gumbo.

Then I came across this blog post from Scot Nakagawa, an experienced justice advocate from Oregon. In 1992, a "Christian" right wing group proposed an "Abnormal Behaviors Initiative" to embed anti-gay discrimination in the state constitution. Against initial polling and conventional wisdom, this measure was defeated by a path-breaking campaign whose elements Nakagawa summarizes: 1) opponents convinced voters the measure was extreme, "went too far;" 2) LGBT people like him threw themselves heart and soul into the campaign; and 3) allies came out in support, forging new relations in the struggle. He celebrates that victory, but strives to bring the lessons of this experience to bear on the horrid morass of racist, misogynist bigotry that is the Trump eruption.

We need to defeat the bigoted, fear-mongering positions that Trump has built his campaign on because, win or lose, those arguments will live on after the election. By becoming the presumptive GOP nominee, he’s made those arguments legitimate in the context of national politics, at least for now. ...

... On election day in 1992 I broke down into tears at the news that Ballot Measure 9 was rejected by Oregon voters. I felt like my community had said, we got your back. ... [But] the measure still won 43.53 percent of the vote. ... That number, 43.53 percent, more than four in ten in support of naked, vicious bigotry, reminded us that the fight is never over. ...

Platforms for progressive activism exist now that might never have been created if not for the thousands of people who came forward in 1992, people from every walk of life including farm workers, unionists, Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, Arab American, and diverse faith community leaders, and the many other ordinary people who came to our defense even as the mainstream LGBTQ community failed at times to provide the warmest welcome.

Allies play a key role in every struggle, and Oregon has truly struggled through years of being targeted by vigilante white supremacists and right wing evangelical groups. In 1992 we saw the many targets of these groups begin to come together.

The battles that have been fought on so many issues since then have taught many in Oregon’s progressive community that solidarity is not a me for you thing, but a we for us thing. It begins with understanding that democracy is the best defense against those who would prey on us, and there is no democracy unless it includes all of us.

The fight is never over. You gotta love the fight, but in order to do that, you gotta love the people. This year, the targets of right wing bigotry need some love. Maybe enough of that love will help us find our way from me for you to we for us.

It's going to be a long electoral season. But hard won fights too can leave their residues. And those can be very good indeed.

Monday, May 30, 2016

When you go to war, people die


For this Memorial Day, here are some thoughts from J. Kael Weston who served the U.S. State Department at the UN and deployed as a political advisor alongside U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He discussed his book, The Mirror Test, with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. During his Iraq deployment, his decision to send Marines to guard Iraqi polling places in Anbar province had the consequence that 31 young men were killed in a helicopter crash. He will mourn these soldiers for the rest of his life.

WESTON: I think that war refocuses you on right and wrong wars. And I'm not anti-war, but I'm anti-wrong-war. And I feel that Iraq met that standard of being a wrong war. ...

GROSS: ... And since Memorial Day is coming up, I'd like to hear what Memorial Day means to you and why you chose to make those visits on a Memorial Day weekend?

WESTON: It means we need to take very seriously not just the weekend of when we remember our dead - there's a memorial in South Boston for Vietnam dead that says if you forget my death, only then will I have died in vain. And I think that's the cleanest, most powerful message that should apply to every war, whether a right war or a wrong war.

So remembering the cost of war, remembering the dead, I think, is the role, as citizens, that we have. I also think there's a responsibility and an obligation, really, to think hard over Memorial Day weekend about who our commanders in chief are. I vote based on that profile - which person, male, female, Republican, Democrat, is going to be the commander in chief that our troops deserve and need, especially at a time when these two wars go on and on and on.

And so I think Memorial Day is reflection, reckoning but also responsibility. And I think citizens shouldn't just do the barbecue or go shopping at the sale or go to the beach. We should think hard about, you know, when you go to war, people die. And is that person making the ultimate decision worthy of that sacrifice?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Summing up Obama: revisiting Rev. Wright and the race speech


Since we're enduring an election, I'm giving a lot of attention to 538 Politics, the site where Nate Silver has landed his "data journalism" under ESPN auspices. Silver's choice of conglomerate overlord is appropriate; much of 538's coverage reads like ephemeral sports trivia. But occasionally they produce fascinating insights bringing to bear the sort of stats mojo in which they specialize.

In this vein, I want to recommend a podcast and documentary video looking back to the 2008 campaign, Inside The Five-Day Stretch When Obama Found His Voice On Race. This tells the story of the moment in that campaign when major media spotlighted some of Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright's sermons which were not complimentary about U.S. national pretensions to global moral preeminence. Obama responded with his More Perfect Union speech in Philadelphia and commentators declared that he'd managed to push the racial camel through eye of the public's needle about his potential presidency.

The 538 gang, assisted by senior writer Farai Chideya, have produced a fascinating look back at whether, in fact, that moment in the campaign really deserves to have been seen as the turning point many of us thought it was at the time. On simple data grounds, they suspect not.

Harry Enten: This is the funny thing about studying events in real time — it’s difficult to disentangle one thing from another. For instance, John McCain had his largest lead of the campaign against Obama right around the time of the controversy, but was that because of Wright or because McCain clinched the nomination around the same time? I honestly don’t know.

farai: I also think we in the media sometimes think we’re more influential than we are. Not everyone watches wall-to-wall politics coverage. And network news ratings have been declining for years. So although this was a huge firestorm in the media, I also wonder how deeply it saturated the electorate. ...

harry: To Farai’s point, a CBS News poll taken during the controversy found that 28 percent had heard a lot about the Rev. Wright’s statements. That compares to 23 percent who had heard nothing at all about it. Most had heard some, not much or nothing at all.

So, outside the media, most people had either already formed their opinions of Obama, for good or ill, or weren't listening. Yet, they still find much to be learned from this episode:

natesilver: It showed us a little bit about how Obama stayed cool under pressure instead of wetting the bed. ...

Micah Cohen: … the response to Wright was an early sign that there would be a not insignificant group of Americans who would traffic in these race-freighted “controversies” regarding Obama, right?

farai: First off, there has never been a moment in American history when race didn’t matter … just more and less contentious moments. ...nonetheless, once Obama was elected, there was a period of racial detente, followed by a backlash. A 2010 Gallup poll found 13 percent of Americans said they were greatly worried about race relations; today that figure is 35 percent. ...

Mike Fletcher: And let’s face it, the clips of Rev. Wright’s most inflammatory sermons played into a fear narrative. If the question of whether or not Obama wore a flag pin was news, this was certainly going to be a running story. In a perfect world, it would have been presented in the context of black church traditions, but …

harry: What’s interesting here that gets lost now and may get lost to a younger generation is that this election was a pretty big freaking deal. ...Obama ... was not only likely to be the first non-white major party nominee, but he also had a very good shot at the presidency. And then here comes a story that plays in to the worst fears of a certain segment of white voters, who saw Wright as radical on race and thought maybe he could be offering advice to the next president. The fact that voters saw through that and trusted Obama was a turning point that I’m not sure would have been accomplished 15 years earlier, when a majority of Americans still didn’t believe in interracial marriage.

My strictly anecdotal memories of these events are naturally very different; having long been exposed to the Black theology of liberation via Dr. James Cone, Wright's views were unsurprising. But I certainly was anxious -- would white people freak out? The smooth competence Obama displayed in defusing this moment convinced me of his political gifts -- and left me bemused and frustrated when he couldn't seem to summon such capacity at many later moments in his presidency.

This podcast is an early entry in a "Summing Up" genre that we're going to see a lot of as Barack Obama leaves office. What did the rise and incumbency of this extraordinary figure mean, if anything enduring? I expect to write many entries about these items here, some less approving than this one.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

San Francisco discontents

The tourist with the camera may think he's capturing a manifestation of a worthy working class cause in front of City Hall here in Left Coast City.

Sadly, not so. The tableau was brought to you by a Carpenters Union local on behalf of real estate developers who object to city regulations requiring more construction of affordable housing units. Talk about being in bed with the bosses; I guess these carpenters can still afford beds -- probably somewhere else.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Californians have a chance to Do Something


A little over a year ago, it is undisputed that Dylann Roof murdered nine worshippers in Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church. This week, the Attorney General announced she would ask for the death penalty at his trial.

Ta-Nehisi Coates responded to this Department of Justice announcement:

... if nonviolence isn’t always the answer, [Dr.] King reminds us to work for a world where it is. Part of that work is recognizing when our government can credibly endorse King’s example. Sparing the life of Dylann Roof would be such an instance—one more credible than the usual sanctimonious homilies delivered in his name. If the families of Roof's victims can find the grace of forgiveness within themselves; if the president can praise them for it; if the public can be awed by it—then why can't the Department of Justice act in the spirit of that grace and resist the impulse to kill?

Perhaps because some part of us believes in nonviolence not as an ideal worth striving for, but as a fairy tale passed on to the politically weak. The past two years have seen countless invocations of nonviolence to shame unruly protestors into order. Such invocations are rarely made to shame police officers who choke men to death over cigarettes and are sent back out onto the beat. ...

Moreover, killing Roof does absolutely nothing to ameliorate the conditions that brought him into being in the first place. The hammer of criminal justice is the preferred tool of a society that has run out of ideas. In this sense, Roof is little more than a human sacrifice to The Gods of Doing Nothing. ...

This fall, Californians will have the opportunity to Do Something. Justice that Works has put a measure on the November ballot replacing death sentences with a maximum penalty of life without parole. This ain't perfect, but it's a start. Let's start.

Friday cat blogging

Morty says "Scratch my belly. I probably won't grab you with my claws." I'm seldom fooled, whereupon he looks a little silly.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

They've got your number ...

or if not, they want to give you one. At Mother Jones there's a terrific Pro Publica report on a ranking system widely used in jails and courts to predict which persons hauled in by law enforcement are likely to re-offend. It will surprise no one who has been paying attention that these "risk assessments" seem to routinely finger Black people as more potentially dangerous than other people.

The practice is becoming ever more common.

Rating a defendant's risk of future crime is often done in conjunction with an evaluation of a defendant's rehabilitation needs. The Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections now encourages the use of such combined assessments at every stage of the criminal justice process. And a landmark sentencing reform bill currently pending in Congress would mandate the use of such assessments in federal prisons.

A company called Northpointe peddles its scoring tool to many jurisdictions. It's rankings seem to routinely rank Blacks as a potential danger to the community.

Northpointe's software is among the most widely used assessment tools in the country. The company does not publicly disclose the calculations used to arrive at defendants' risk scores, so it is not possible for either defendants or the public to see what might be driving the disparity. ...

Northpointe's core product is a set of scores derived from 137 questions that are either answered by defendants or pulled from criminal records. Race is not one of the questions. The survey asks defendants such things as: "Was one of your parents ever sent to jail or prison?" "How many of your friends/acquaintances are taking drugs illegally?" and "How often did you get in fights while at school?" The questionnaire also asks people to agree or disagree with statements such as "A hungry person has a right to steal" and "If people make me angry or lose my temper, I can be dangerous."

It seems pretty obvious what is going in this scoring: a person receives a lower risk number to the extent that he/she provides answers that approximate those of a white middle class suburbanite. This risk assessment testing follows the pattern set by "intelligence testing" -- IQ measurements. As I've explored previously, IQ tests were developed to prove that Southern and Eastern European immigrants were inferior to northern European whites. Later they shored up racial assumptions:

Robert Yerkes, a president of the American Psychological Association, got a chance to test the I.Q. of soldiers drafted for World War I and labelled "89% of negroes" as "feeble-minded." The content of his tests, which essentially measured familiarity with the mores and artifacts of upper middle class U.S. culture in his era, have been described acidly as a "kind of early 20th century Trivial Pursuit."

Nowadays, we're locking people up on the basis of this commercialized pseudoscience.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Upgrade hell


If, like me, you cringe every time you get an upgrade nudge from your laptop or your phone, you are not alone. Yes, often, upgrading software and operating systems seems to break as much as it improves.

But we have the federal government's predicament as a horrible example of what happens when cost, inertia, and complex systems leave our technological infrastructure unimproved over time.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government is spending about three-fourths of its technology budget maintaining aging computer systems, including platforms more than 50 years old in vital areas from nuclear weapons to Social Security. One still uses floppy disks.

... The Defense Department's Strategic Automated Command and Control System, which is used to send and receive emergency action messages to U.S. nuclear forces. The system is running on a 1970s IBM computing platform, and still uses 8-inch floppy disks to store data. "Replacement parts for the system are difficult to find because they are now obsolete," GAO said. The Pentagon is initiating a full replacement and says the floppy disks should be gone by the end of next year. The entire upgrade will take longer.

... Social Security systems that are used to determine eligibility and estimate benefits, about 31 years old. Some use a programming language called COBOL, dating to the late 1950s and early 1960s. "Most of the employees who developed these systems are ready to retire and the agency will lose their collective knowledge," the report said. "Training new employees to maintain the older systems takes a lot of time." Social Security has no plans to replace the entire system, but is eliminating and upgrading older and costlier components. It is also rehiring retirees who know the technology.

There's much more at the link.

I'll try to remember this every time I resist a prompt to upgrade. I can learn to do things technological a new way -- yes, I can -- yes, I can... But don't ask me to be happy about it. My tech is a tool, not a life.

Time for a "left love child"


Tarso Ramos, executive director of the essential think tank Political Research Associates, proposes a left response to the Donald Trump phenomenon which we would all do well to internalize.

Beyond Trump: Disrupt, Defuse, Compete
... the racism that once helped to build the White middle class has for decades been strategically redeployed by the Right to undermine public support for democratic institutions and antipoverty programs. The result: falling real wages and accelerated income and wealth inequality even among Whites. Simply put, racism is destroying the American middle and working classes.

But that story is not told clearly, loudly, or often enough. Most liberal discussion of the economy addresses race, if at all, in terms of disproportionate economic hardship. And much of the current national discussion about racism only addresses jobs and the economy in order to pivot away from the realities of racism. What we need is a synthesis.

As Heather McGhee and Ian Haney-López have argued, “The progressive movement should expand from a vision of racism as violence done solely to people of color to include a conception of racism as a political weapon wielded by elites against the 99 percent, nonwhite and white alike.” Call it the love child of Black Lives Matter and Occupy. Let’s make it clear that racism is not a viable vehicle for economic advancement for the growing White precariat. ...

Recent movement eruptions have called out what's wrong (Occupy) and that it will take stubborn self-love that's both smart and principled (Black Lives Matter) to change those things. The Donald makes sitting on the sidelines unacceptable.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Too many hours in Logan Airport at Boston yesterday

The food was bad. The wifi was nonexistent. But the souvenir shop saw commercial potential in the national clown show.

Monday, May 23, 2016

For leaders of losing campaigns: on doing the right thing


What are the ethical obligations on the leadership of a political campaign to level with fervent supporters when/if they become certain the campaign is going to lose? Those supporters are the life blood of the entire enterprise. We're not only talking donors here; we're also talking about activists who give their time, their energy and their love to meaningful campaigns. These are gifts that are not to be scorned.

Yet sometimes the leaders who organize and promote all this energy have good objective knowledge that they cannot prevail. What do they owe their people?

I have had far too much experience of this situation. Here's one of my bottom lines: You are never obligated to say straight up to the media that you know you can't win. They'll want you to. I've had a microphone pushed in my face on election eve, essentially asking me to provide upbeat sentiments in a losing cause and I've complied. I'm not obligated to help the journalists get their story, though you should not outright lie to them.

On the other hand, you do owe it to your core supporters to prepare them for the blow. If the campaign was worth doing, the candidate worth electing, the measure worth passing or defeating, their commitment is the most valuable product of the campaign.

Your approach to this obligation may differ, depending on what your objective was from the beginning.

Sometimes you've known throughout that you were playing defense. For example, in the 1990s, California voted repeatedly on ballot measures which aimed in various ways to stem the changing demographic tide that was rapidly making us a "majority minority" state: restrictions on services to immigrants, ending affirmative action, preventing bilingual education, mass youth incarceration. Many white voters couldn't get enough of these measures and they were the people voting. Until more of the emerging majority of people of color and younger whites came into the electorate, these were going to pass. And they did. In those fights, responsible leadership mobilized communities to fight back at the ballot box in addition to expressing moral outrage. Campaigners knew they wouldn't win -- but they could learn to fight in this arena as well as in the communities and thereby help turn the tide. These campaigns were no time for pretending to ungrounded hopes; instead what mattered was to cultivate real hopes for real change over time.

Many campaigns are a closer ethical call for their leadership than this kind. Suppose you are working for a candidate or a measure that began the electoral season trying to make a point, but not expecting to win outright. But then the campaign went well, enthusiasm mounted, volunteers seemed to come out of the woodwork, it all proceeded so smoothly ... maybe you could win after all? If you are paying attention to your fundamentals -- the political context, maybe polls, the other side's assets -- your analytical brain tells you the miracle is not going to happen. But you are surrounded by eager hopeful people who begin to think victory is in sight. I've experienced this with candidates who've put their hearts on the line in a losing cause. The only ethical statement I've found to make to my own people at that point is to reiterate that, if everything were to break just perfectly, we might sneak through to a victory. But that is going to take everyone doing their part in a disciplined way and working for the best outcome possible. At the very least, let's not leave anything in the tank. This way, when you fail as you know you must, your people can at least be proud they did their all in the most effective fashion possible. You owe them this experience of efficacy.

The worst situation is when you chose the fight thinking you were going to win, then find yourself caught in an electoral battle in which your best understanding of the data tells you that you will lose. This happens to candidates and sometimes the affirmative side of ballot measures too often. It's a brutal situation. Ethical action requires going back to basics: your campaign's most important asset is your supporters. Lead them through the process, but never, never, never neglect to affirm and thank them for the gift of their hearts. They aren't getting paid; you are. You may want to engage in recriminations born of dashed hopes, but that is a luxury responsible leaders do not wallow in.

Nobody does this stuff perfectly. But good leaders can try. And, besides, sometimes your campaign wins and then you probably know that's coming also!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mountain hazards

There's a much viewed video floating around the net that you may have seen -- a man being blown about by 175 kilometer per hour (109 mph) winds at the summit of New Hampshire's 6,288 foot high Mt. Washington on May 16. If you've missed it, here it is.
Outside magazine seized on the occasion of its popularity to publish a hardy perennial story about the number of people this little mountain kills regularly.

Why does such a small mountain kill so many people? One reason is obviously the extreme weather. “Mount Washington sits at the intersection of several major stormtracks,” explains Weather Observer Tom Padham. He's stationed at the mountain’s summit, and gave us a tour of his weather station. The jet stream carries nearly every storm moving west-to-east, and southwest-to-northeast across the country, right over Mount Washington. There, they intersect with weather systems moving south-to-north, up the Atlantic coast. ...

... During the summer, when risk of avalanches and icefalls abates, danger to hikers persist. The trails themselves—including the popular Tuckerman Ravine Trail—are strewn with loose, basketball-size rocks. Practically the entire trail is one big tripping hazard, just waiting to twist an ankle, and, if that happens, you won’t be able to walk off the trail under your own power. ...

Close enough to the northeast urban conurbation that a summit can be had in a day trip from Boston, or an overnight from New York, the mountain offers some of the best, and most easily-accessible hiking and skiing in the region. 250,000 people are said to visit each year. Doing that is as easy as pulling into the parking lot, and hitting the trailhead. There’s warning signs, there’s stories, and there’s even guides you can hire, but most people are content just to head out for a walk, and see what happens; ignorant of the weather, the terrain, and the dangers. It’s tempting to say that the government should step in, and require permits, or better patrol the trails, but it’s also easy to conclude that if someone is going to set out on a mountain notorious for its death-rate and extreme weather in flip flops, that they’d find a way to die elsewhere if this hike wasn’t available. 

My mother enjoyed telling the story of how she was almost the victim of this attitude. As a young girl, she spent several happy summers at a girls camp in Vermont where she learned the pleasures and rigors of camping and hiking in New England. But her parents decided that her summers ought to be more purposeful: one year she was packed off to a coastal camp where the girls were supposed to practice their French speaking skills. The counselors were inexperienced young women from Europe having a summer adventure in the wilds of America. "They had no idea how to run a camp!" recalled Mother.

These counselors took it into their heads to lead their charges to climb Mt. Washington. As Mother recalled the adventure: "They had no maps. The fog came in, we couldn't find the trail. Soon we were just wandering around, wet and miserable in the dark." Mother and her mates made the group sit down, cover up as best they could with the few garments they'd brought along, and not wander through a long, cold night. Finally in the morning the party was able to stumble down the mountain, cold but not harmed.

The incident was enough to keep her parents from sending her back to this "improving" camp. She never forgot to respect mountains afterward. Her French speaking never amounted to much either.

Here's a photo of the young women of mother's group at Camp Beau Rivage in the summer of 1920. She's in the center of the back row.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Saturday scenes and scenery: sunrise running on the Vineyard

This scene has awaited me at 5:15 am most mornings for the last two weeks when I fit in a run before my ailing friend is awake.

The sun's light is so fresh at dawn.

Most of the trees have not yet leafed out, but a few are in full flower.

The true wild life -- white tail deer, skunks, scared cottontail rabbits -- don't hang around to be photographed by the lumbering human. But the sheep are curious.

The island's wild turkeys seem to have no qualms about holding their ground in the middle of roads.

Friday, May 20, 2016

NY Times fail

The New York Times duly headlines the forced resignation of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr today. Nice that they notice the doings on the far left coast, I guess. But apparently their reporter has no sources more contemporary than former Mayor Willie Brown who left office in 2004 and his tame preacher sidekick, the Rev. Amos Brown.

Get a grip Timesman ... there are plenty of Black activists in San Francisco with more immediate, informed commentary on the rogue police department. And if you were paying attention, you'd know that the SFPD is just as trigger happy when encountering Latinos in the gentrifying Mission as Blacks in the Bayview.

Friday cat blogging

I might hope that Morty was looking out the window waiting for me to come home. But I know all too well that he's really hoping to draw the pit bull from back yard into another frenzy of rejection.

The thing about (some) dogs is that they can be lured into the same teasing trap over and over and over again ... "why won't you play with me?"

Thursday, May 19, 2016

San Francisco's ineffectual mayor is "very uneasy"

A 27 year old Black woman is dead, shot by his police department in the Bayview this morning. She was driving a car they identified as stolen. When chased, she seems to have crashed the car. First accounts do not suggest that she did anything to threaten officers. The story will undoubtedly expand and may shift when investigated. In the absence of criminal charges against the shooters, it is impossible to tell which accounts of these shootings are truthful. This is the fifth shooting of a "suspect" of color who was in no position to harm officers in the last two years.

SFPD chief, Greg Suhr, will be called up upon again to perform his role as community punching bag for his trigger happy cops. The picture is from his last such performance, after the police killed Luis Gongoro Pat in April.

UPDATE: Suhr resigns. Lee claimed credit -- but would not promise a nationwide search for a professional replacement. Kudos to all who put pressure on the city. But we can't stop pushing.

Sun energy from automotive waste land

Cronig's Market in West Tisbury, Mass., is building a solar panel array over its parking lot. When completed, in addition to feeding the electric power grid, each supporting post will carry a plug-in charging station for electric vehicles.

So long as customers will be arriving in cars -- and it is hard to envision any other future out here in country -- this seems a good use of an expanse of asphalt.

Massachusetts seems to have quite an array of incentives for such facilities.

It sure would be great to see this become a common feature of parking lots across the country.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

improbable, but true

A little over 20 years ago, I worked with a gay man who was run out of Kentucky liberal politics because of his sexual orientation. Now this.

Pessimism is easy; hope is hard but it wins


If we want more victories, those of us who are progressive need to celebrate the wins (always partial but still real) that we pull off, while we press on for more and better. This seems obvious but ...

Instead we trap ourselves in gloom. Timothy Burke, a professor in History at Swarthmore, acerbically describes how this works in academia:

There is a particular kind of left position, a habitus that is sociologically and emotionally local to intellectuals, that amounts in its way to a particular kind of anti-politics machine. It’s a perspective that ends up with its nose pressed against the glass, looking in at actually-existing political struggles with a mixture of regret, desire and resignation.

Move #1: Things are worse now. But they were always worse.
Move #2: No specific thing is good now, because the whole system is bad.
Move #3: It’s not fair to ask people how to get from here to a totalizing transformation of the systems we live under, because this is just a strategy used to belittle particular reforms or strategies in the present.
4. It’s futile to do anything, but why are you just sitting around?

If that's too abstract, try this description from one of my favorite sports writers(!), Gregg Easterbrook. The gloom around us is pervasive.

... optimism itself has stopped being respectable. Pessimism is now the mainstream, with optimists viewed as Pollyannas. If you don’t think everything is awful, you don’t understand the situation!

Easterbrook thinks our apocalyptic gloom is a social sickness. The Republican presidential pretenders, led by the presumptive nominee, bellowed through a competition to proclaim how awful our condition is. Meanwhile Bernie says things are so bad only a "revolution" (his sensible social democratic one) will save us. Lots of polls show most of us think somehow we're on the wrong track.

But people will only struggle to make change when they believe their efforts will indeed win them better lives. If we want to change the world, we can't wallow. We have to find enough hope to keep on keeping on whether to rein in racist cops, or win a living wage, or turn the country away from imperial military adventures.

Let's listen to that observant football writer again:

Though candidates on the right are full of fire and brimstone this year, the trend away from optimism is most pronounced among liberals. A century ago Progressives were the optimists, believing society could be improved, while conservatism saw the end-times approaching. Today progressive thought embraces Judgment Day, too. Climate change, inequality and racial tension are viewed not as the next round of problems to be solved, but as proof that the United States is horrible.

And yet developing the postindustrial economy — while addressing issues such as inequality, greenhouse emissions and the condition of public schools — will require optimism. Pessimists think in terms of rear-guard actions to turn back the clock. Optimists understand that where the nation has faults, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

... The lack of optimism in contemporary liberal and centrist thinking opens the door to Trump-style demagogy, since if the country really is going to hell, we do indeed need walls. And because optimism has lost its standing in American public opinion, past reforms — among them environmental protection, anti-discrimination initiatives, income security for seniors, auto and aviation safety, interconnected global economics, improved policing and yes, Obamacare — don’t get credit for the good they have accomplished.

In almost every case, reform has made America a better place, with fewer unintended consequences and lower transaction costs than expected. This is the strongest argument for the next round of reforms. The argument is better made in positive terms — which is why we need a revival of optimism.

Belief in better possibilities isn't enough to win, but we don't win without such an animating belief. Pessimism is easy; hope is hard, but it enables change.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Street propaganda

For the next few weeks, I'll be participating in a MOOC (massive open online course) from the University of Nottingham in Britain. The subject is Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life. Let's see what these academics come up with; if this proves interesting to me, I'll comment here.

Meanwhile here are some examples of street propaganda from one of the precincts I've photographed for Walking San Francisco. Click on any of these images to enlarge.

Someone thinks pasting Post-It note size messages on poles is the way to spread a message.

What do I know? This individual may be right.

Clearly, there's a particular bone being picked here. The anonymous author (not good for building confidence when spewing opinions if you are not willing to put your name on them) seems to have an idée fixe about the nature of contemporary life. Not saying those opinions are wrong, but I can question if this is the way to deliver them convincingly. And a some design assistance might command more respect ... or not.

Monday, May 16, 2016

When is an election not an election?


Walter Shapiro has covered decades of primaries. This year those primaries have once again exposed messy contradictions in the process.

For all its faults, the 2016 campaign has one shimmering achievement: The presidential race has identified a form of representative democracy that arouses more bipartisan hatred than the United States Congress.

Because in many states we go to the same polling place we'll go to in November and vote with the same machines, we think of primaries as just another election that for some unknown reason is held at a weird time of year. Most of us don't bother to vote, since this isn't the real election. But it is just an election, isn't it?

Well, no. Presidential primaries are "intra-party deliberations" by which political parties chose their candidates in the general (November) election. Though it looks like they are part of our governing system, they aren't (although in most locations state governments pay for them and use them for "non-partisan" balloting for some offices.)

It's when we think of primaries as just another majoritarian election that their peculiarities stand out. In fact, the presidential primaries are a messy sequence of accreted practice, a hodgepodge deriving from various historical periods. The direction of the developing candidate selection process is generally toward offering the option of universal participation -- but the system is full of holes and pitfalls. I'm just going to comment briefly on a few of the systems that various states and the two parties have used this year. There's been a lot of clarifying commentary and the season is not over yet!
  • Caucuses: What could be more "democratic" (small "d") than neighbors getting together in a high school gym to compare candidates and press for their choice of candidate? Well -- almost anything, according to Josh Marshall who maintains that caucus processes are the most effective voter suppression method in politics today. Participation is way lower than in primary elections; people who can't give two hours of an evening to the process, such as parents and many workers, are disenfranchised, as are folks who fear they can't figure it out in front of their neighbors. More people vote in states with primary ballot systems and voters have a clearer understanding of what they are doing.
  • Closed primaries: Because the New York State primary unexpectedly took place before nominees had been decided by earlier states, the strict rule requiring potential voters to have signed up with a party preference months in advance came under a spotlight. The rule excluded some number of independents who expected to be able to vote in the presidential primary. Most states have more lenient rules, or open primaries, or simply no party registration at all, but New York's system came into being for a democratic (small "d") reason. Unlike most states, New York has several viable small parties -- Working Families, Greens, etc -- that have electoral influence. Without some such provision, they fear the Dems and GOPers could "steal" their nominations with a relatively few last minute party switchers who vote on their line for the major party candidates.
  • Super delegates: Hey, if we get to vote for our presidential candidate choices, how come there are so-called "super-delegates" who get to vote at party conventions without having to face any voters? Both parties have these, 712 for the Dems, 437 for the GOPers. They consist of elected officials like governors and congresscritters, and people who run the party apparatus like chairs of state committees, etc. The argument for including them with special status in the nomination process is that they are the people who keep the parties going when politics is not front and center of popular attention. Whenever a nomination contest is close, the side with less support tries to round them up; but since this is a deeply majoritarian country, such efforts are likely to fail. I guess this year's messy process should teach us to "never say never" to any possible outcome, but I have some sympathy with the idea that the people who do the day to day party work should get a role.
  • Top two primary: Fortunately this abomination doesn't extend to the presidential contest, though we have it for all state voting in California. Washington does this too. If we had it for President, we'd probably get a ballot in November with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and no GOPer on it. If Alabama used it, the choices would probably be Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. How anyone could think this is a good process tweak, I can't imagine. It actively and intentionally suppresses minority parties.
The political scientist Julia Azari has been writing thoughtful commentary on the presidential primary process throughout this season.

One of the reasons advocates for human rights and other freedoms tend to also favor open political processes is that we assume good institutions will choose leaders who will protect freedom and justice. Open elections are certainly better in this regard. But they're not a guarantee that parties and candidates who rely on bigoted appeals or talk about curtailing freedoms won't win sometimes.

This is especially important when we talk about American institutions in historical context. ... The old convention system, with its brokers and geographic organization, was more pluralistic — it was easier, under the pre-reform convention system, to ensure that a party nominee was acceptable to most factions within a party. As we are now learning, the current primary system allows a candidate to be nominated with a plurality of voters if no strong opponent emerges.

But here's the thing: While these old institutions were far better at avoiding a conundrum in which a party nominates a candidate that many of its members don't really like, they were hardly a bulwark against failures of substantive democracy. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with American history can point to at least a few instances of racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

... the lesson of the 2016 nomination season is that procedural democracy cannot be counted on to protect substantive democratic values at all times. Leaders and ordinary citizens have to actually face up to the difficult questions about race, gender, and other forms of inequality, about the human tendency to form groups and be awful to each other, and about the history of doing so that lurks beneath the surface of so many democracies.

The entire article is worth taking the time for, as is her earlier musing focused less on the GOP nomination of an extra-Party demagogue and more on the experience of Sanders partisans in this season.
***
Much as flying to Massachusetts feels as if I'd suddenly dropped into a different phase of spring, it also feels as if I'm in a different phase of the political season. Here the TV advertising deluge has long come and gone. Partisan passions, in full flood some weeks back, have receded. The Presidential contest is faraway -- important, perhaps scary, but somewhere else. Meanwhile, in the California I left behind, core partisans were just warming up for the June 7 crescendo.

There is much to criticize about the length of our presidential candidate selection process. But one national cataclysmic election day is plenty for one year. We are probably better from the seasonal variations and respites. Or so I suspect.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Social goods and individual goods

The Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm, looked into how people think about pornography in US society. The distress their findings caused the study's conservative religious sponsors is well-illustrated in this graphic.
Their respondents rank most all the options they were offered as more immoral than viewing porn! In the accompanying verbiage, the Barna authors offer a plausible picture of why this is:
"While it may seem crazy that younger generations see not recycling as a greater evil than watching pornography, it’s also true that not recycling—as well as most of the other activities ranked above pornography—has a societal impact,” points out [Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna Group.] “Watching pornography, on the other hand, is perceived by many as simply an individual choice. Affecting no one but me. ..."
The emerging Millennial generation is often described as more socially concerned than many of their predecessors. Well good for them. They face the task of creating the social cohesion needed by a diverse society to solve massive social problems. Glad to see they have their heads screwed on properly.

The question posed for me by Barna's graphic representation of their findings, is why so dismissive of the moral implications of recycling? Recycling may seem trendy and trivial, but it is an attempt to conform personal behavior to the common good -- pretty much an unalloyed positive moral impulse. What's not to like in this finding?

I'm not a fan of many values in much porn, but this isn't about that. It is about the choice many young people make to assign greater moral weight to social structures than to individual behaviors. That orientation is becoming pervasive and may be life preserving in our circumstances.

H/t to The Lead for the Barna link.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Saturday scenes and scenery: spring flowers

A quick trip to rural New England from northern California in mid-May feels as if I'd gone back a season.

My mother-in-law calls these determined little blooms pushing through cracks in the terrace Johnny Jump Ups. According to the link, they are natives of Spain and Pyrenees. From fairly high up I suspect as they've insinuated themselves in a climate that is not balmy.

One thing for sure: the free range chickens in these parts don't need no Easter egg dye.

Friday, May 13, 2016

It's a big, complicated world, especially for women

A few years ago, I had the privilege of joining in an all-women's trekking trip in Nepal. We didn't go any higher than 12,700 feet or climb any mountain. But we did walk in the Sherpa region of the Khumbu Valley just below Mount Everest. It was high enough and rough enough to give me great respect for and considerable trepidation about those high places.

Our leader was Lhakpa Diki Sherpa pictured here. She was obviously a very esteemed athlete, the Nepalese women's mountain running champion. She had represented her country in several European races. We naturally gasped in her wake, though she simply led us carefully and competently. It was hard to suss out just what her relationship was to the porters and other guides (male) with the group. She was shy when speaking perfectly adequate English.

Her ambition, if something better didn't come along as a consequence of her athletic prowess, was to go to the capital in Kathmandu and study bookkeeping/accounting so she could always have a job. It seemed a small bore ambition for such an exceptional woman, but it was what she could see ahead.

I thought about Lhapka Diki when I read the extraordinary story in Outside of the first Nepalese woman to summit Everest and make it down alive. Lhakpa Sherpa (Sherpa names are limited) went back and climbed the big rock five more times. Yet today, she's an obscure in-home health care worker and 7-Eleven cashier in Hartford, Connecticut, raising her two children as a single woman.

Notions about women's roles, the strange and often ugly conjunction between Sherpa talent for heights and Western mountaineers who depend on the Sherpas, the Nepalese culture, and global migration make Lhakpa Sherpa's story a window on our times. Highly recommended.

When I travel, I try to remember that I am not culturally equipped to see the whole of what is going on. My interaction with Lhakpa Diki was of that sort.

Friday cat blogging

Emerson shows his inner panther to a visitor. Though long, lanky, and given to exploring every unfamiliar nook and corner, really he's just a lover boy.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Yet another primary election: some San Francisco choices

For many San Franciscans, yet another primary election means the arrival of a weighty hunk of newsprint. It doesn't have to be that way and the online version is actually pretty well designed by the standards of a ballot pamphlet.

Sure -- by now we all pretty much know where we stand on Bernie and Hillary. But what about all the other local contests? A friend asked me for a cheat sheet, so here goes.

The story in U.S. Senate race is Attorney General Kamala Harris, the endorsed Democrat versus ??? for the November ballot. ??? will likely turn out to be Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, also a Democrat. This is a consequence of the crazy top two primary system California has stuck itself with -- and the fact that the California GOP has pretty well collapsed at the state level. I support Harris as slightly more progressive than Sanchez, though I don't expect much.

The significant local office on the ballot is CA State Senate, District 11 (east side of the city mostly.) That's the seat Mark Leno is term-limited out of. That contest pits Supervisor Jane Kim v. Supervisor Scott Wiener. Kim has become a stronger and stronger supporter of affordable housing, tenant rights and firing Police Chief Suhr. Wiener never met a real estate profiteer or developer he didn't love. Because of the top two primary nonsense, we'll have to vote on this contest again in November.

The other local legislative offices don't much matter. The incumbents are going to win with little opposition in November, whether we like 'em or not. There's a judge race too. I don't think we should be electing judges and I know nothing about these people, so no comment.

Weirdly, some of San Franciscans most important votes will come in what I think of as the "Student Council" races, the contests for membership in the Democratic County Central Committee. This body gets to make Democratic Party endorsements in the November election; having them make progressive choices can really help get us better Supervisors and state legislators. For the last couple of years, the real estate interests, tech companies and developers have managed to take control of the committee -- after all, who bothers to vote on the "Student Council"? Well, we have to if we want better local office holders. So, I'll list here some progressive choices, courtesy of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.

SF Democratic County Central Committee, Assembly District 17:
Alysabeth Alexander
Tom Ammiano
John Burton
David Campos
Petra DeJesus
Bevan Dufty
Jon Gollinger
Pratima Gupta
Frances Hsieh
Jane Kim
Rafael Mandelman
Sophie Maxwell
Aaron Peskin
Cindy Wu


SF Democratic County Central Committee, Assembly District 19:
Keith Baraka
Brigitte Davila
Sandra Lee Fewer
Hene Kelly
Leah LaCroix
Eric Mar
Gabriel Medina
Myrna Melgar
Norman Yee


This election's batch of local propositions are unexciting, except that Prop C needs a big YES vote to remind the powers-that-be they must get moving to fix the housing shortage. It may not accomplish a lot, but it is a start.

The other props have only token opposition from fringe folks so I imagine they'll all pass, even Prop D from the Supervisors calling for automatic investigations of police shootings. Wait for the November ballot for more fireworks over housing, homelessness, and our trigger happy cops.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

And some people think kids have dumb ideas


Great. Let's have open season on gender nonconforming students in high school bathrooms by encouraging girls to carry pepper spray.

“Depending on how the courts rule on the bathroom issues, it may be a pretty valuable tool to have on the female students if they go to the bathroom, not knowing who may come in,” [Rowan-Salisbury school (NC) Board member Chuck Hughes] said.

Salisbury Post

We can only hope the courts allow the Department of Justice to stop any federal funds these sadly deceived adults are receiving.

Coming apart at an accelerating rate

Think of it as a tightly woven ball of yarn that is gradually, under centrifugal forces, coming unwound. I find this visualization of global temperature increases quite scary.
I understand that the Celsius scale is how science thinks about temperature, but I am convinced that part of why people in the United States have such a hard time thinking abstractly about human induced climate change is that we think in Fahrenheit. Just for reference, 1.5 degrees Celsius equals 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit; 2 degrees C means 3.6 F. The metric system, including the C scale, is used by all the earth except the 3 percent located in the United States.

Both systems date from the early 18th century, but the C system was included in the metric system in 1790. English speaking countries mostly held out for Fahrenheit until the 20th century, but the United Kingdom led a shift to C in 1965. Congress passed a law in 1975 that would have encouraged a transition to the world standard, but since it was voluntary, and our right-wing friends didn't truck with no imported measuring systems, the attempt crashed under Reagan. Thanks, Ron and the Reps -- setting back science however they can.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

History for pleasure and mind expansion

Many people (most?) read fiction when they want a little escapism. I read sweeping histories of times and places about which I know little as a break from the US and modern European tomes I take more seriously. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Cambridge University classics scholar Mary Beard filled that bill perfectly.

The initials SPQR were ancient Romans' own abbreviation for the "Senate and People of Rome" -- their label for the obscure town that became an empire. Rather than writing a chronological story, Beard weaves together contemporary sources in which Romans recorded what sort of polity they thought they were building, from the time when Rome was an unprepossessing village with a founding myth of about heroes raised by a wolf through 212 CE when an emperor declared all free residents of a domain encompassing the whole Mediterranean world and beyond were to be "citizens" of Rome.

Beard is not a reverent writer. For example, the emperor Caligula, insofar as his name comes down to us, is remembered as a cruel sadist and an extravagant pervert. This author reveals that the name "Caligula" was a childish nickname, akin to "Bootikins." More careful subjects (reigned 37-41 CE) would have addressed him as Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

She has a wonderful gift for helping us understand how events may have looked to contemporaries. She refers to the expansion of Roman rule from one small city to encompass the entire Italian peninsula (fourth century BCE) as "Rome's Great Leap Forward." And then she qualifies:

... the Romans did not plan to conquer and control Italy. No Roman cabal in the fourth century BCE sat down with a map, plotting a land grab in the territorial way that we associate with imperialist nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For a start, simple as it sounds, they had no maps. What this implies for how they, or any other "pre-cartographic" people, conceived the world around them, or just over their horizons, is one of history's great mysteries. I have tended to write of the spread of Roman power through the peninsula of Italy, but no one knows how many -- or, realistically, how few -- Romans at this date thought of their homeland as part of a peninsula in the way we picture it. A rudimentary version of the idea is perhaps implied by references in literature of the second century BCE to the Adriatic as the Upper Sea and the Tyrrhenian as the Lower Sea, but notably this is on a different orientation from ours, east-west, rather than north-south.

Go ahead, accept this opportunity to let your mind be blown.

The book is full of such tidbits. Who knew that in ancient Roman cities, built much as Mediterranean cities still are in something like "apartment blocks" on narrow streets, the well-off would have lived at the bottom and the poor in the upper stories. Why? Because the great urban danger was fire. Smoke rises; the poor lived over comfortable people's kitchens and had little chance of getting out if a conflagration occurred -- which it often did.

SPQR is fun history and good for mind expanding.

Mary Beard writes a blog named A Don's Life which is as idiosyncratic and charming as her historical writing. Brits know Beard as a fixture on the BBC and as a cheerfully undaunted older woman participating in multiple media.

Monday, May 09, 2016

"Art in the service of political power"

Marin County residents Tom and Lilka Breton opened a Museum of International Propaganda in San Anselmo last Saturday. The venture displays their eclectic and fascinating collection of visual artifacts, mostly 20th century, that meet their criteria for the label "propaganda."

I'll let them explain what they mean, from a poster that introduces the display:

What is Propaganda
Propaganda is the calculated manipulation of information designed to shape public opinion and behavior to predetermined ends, as desired by the propagandist. It is usually emotional and repetitive, either designed to increase enthusiasm for a proposed utopian world or to escalate rage and hatred of a designated enemy, often a religion, an economic or political system, a race or a special group. Propaganda, in its essence, is art in the service of political power. ... The best sign that propaganda has succeeded is when the people who faithfully toe the propaganda line actually believe they are acting this way of their own free will.

Other country's propaganda tends to evoke either amusement (as the heroic Kims above might inspire) or repulsion and terror, as for example, this Nazi German SS-Death's Head ring.

Many regimes have an image of women that reinforces state power. Here's a fine late Stalinist Soviet example.

This Women's Suffrage poster from the pre-World War I Pankhurst movement looks quite benign ... until you remember these ladies went in for burning politician's houses, smashing windows and assaulting policemen ...

Wars evoke denunciations: This Cuban poster (accurately) convicts Richard Nixon of slaughter in Cambodia and Laos ...
The Spanish Republic denounced the fascist bombing of Madrid in 1937 with images of broken children. In general, most cultures at war are far more willing to show graphic pictures of victims than US media consumers are accustomed to.

This image from 1988 pictures both the Kremlin and Washington as vampire bats supplying bombs (by way of Saddam Hussein's Iraq) to murder peaceful Iranians. By the standards of war propaganda, it is quite attractive.

War propaganda from the United States is notable for its racist content. From 1917, German Kaiser Wilhelm as a black ape??? Apparently that's how someone thought to mobilize the US masses.

In 1941, the Japanese enemy becomes an invading buck-toothed rat ...

This strange collection will be open Wednesdays through Sunday; admission is free. Definitely worth a visit.

Click on the pictures for larger images.
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