Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Arenas of denial

This is a testing time.

When commentators talk about “denialism” in Trump’s presidency, they tend to mean denial that climate change is real and human-caused. But Trumpian denialism can stand for something much broader: a refusal to see the facts that tie people together so powerfully and inconveniently. These things include the history of American inequality, the perennial presence in our natural life of migration and undocumented labor, the decline today of relative American power. You could distill it by saying that denialism is the ethos that refuses to see how the world is deeply plural at every scale, how it draws people inexorably into uncertainty and potential conflict, how it puts us at odds.

The denial comes not because the denialist cannot see this, but because he does see it, not because he doesn’t believe others are there, but because he feels their presence so acutely, fears they will make claims on him, fears they will get power over him and take what he has. ...

Jedediah Purdy

Fear paralyses and forecloses. Fear isolates. Fear is bleak lonliness.

We are as a culture moving on to a future with more people and more voices and more possibilities. Some people are being left behind, not because the future is intolerant of them but because they are intolerant of this future.

Rebecca Solnit

What a bleak prospect. Fear is an empty road to nowhere. We have no choice but to discover courage and to go forward together.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Elect Jacky Rosen to the Senate

Long before she was a software developer, she was a waitress. Now that's the sort of experience Nevada needs in the U.S. Senate.

After yesterday's #TreasonSummit, we can tweet and howl and denounce -- but above all, we can DO something. Our best chance of turning this around -- and there's no guarantee it will work -- is to replace every elected Republican enabler of the Traitor White House.

To that end, after Labor Day, E.P. and I will be working in Nevada for a couple of months to replace a weathervane Republican Senator.

We're fortunate. We are free to go where we have a chance of doing the most good. So we will. Everyone needs to do what they can to have hope of having a decent country in which to struggle another day for more freedom and more justice.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Words for the day

California is different. Why?

I've been slow to write about State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future because its subject matter is almost too close to me. One of sociologist Manual Pastor's key assertions describes my life, my professional career, if a succession of electoral campaigns, written insights, and organizing efforts can be called a career. (A strategy memo I wrote is quoted in this and Pastor relies heavily on Dan Hosang's Racial Propositions to which I contributed much material.)

Pastor describes California's climb out of a broken political framework built on white fragility and tax revolt. He contends the story cannot be written without emphasizing that something was brewing beyond establishment institutions.

Demography played a role -- a higher share of people of color helped tilt the state left ... The economy played a role as well ... Shifts in the political rules of the game have been essential ...

... organizers did not assume that demography itself would bring change; movement builders were intentional about amplifying the voice of the new majority. The state has become a hotbed of movements for decent wages, immigrant rights, racial equity and environmental justice. ... the state's ability to achieve fiscal balance with new taxes on the wealthy was actually an idea prompted by the movement activists who dragged the political establishment left ...

Omitting movements from the picture -- and focusing just on a septuagenarian governor or even the economic and political rules of the game -- will leave you with a story that is one step short. Policy change does not always start in the halls of the state or local legislatures, but rather in the streets, workplaces and voting booths where power is contested. ... understanding the strategic choices of California's organizers is critical to understanding the evolution of the state and can help others in the United States understand the need for and nature of grass roots work in an era of reaction.

Yes, indeed. And if that seems obscure, read this book. I'm not going to go into the movement aspect of this further here. Pastor provides a multitude of reasons to think that California is about two decades ahead of much of the country at constructing a better society and future. We face many challenges, but we've laboriously built at least some of the prerequisites for people-powered equity and sustainability.

Despite having lived so much of this intimately, there were elements of this story that I found novel and had to question. Pastor documents how the shift in California's wealth creation from agricultural and southern California to Silicon Valley and San Francisco was a boost to our progressive political culture.

Silicon Valley has long embedded an interesting internal contradiction: its competitive risk takers are frequently connected, partly through venture capital firms and partly because of mobility between business enterprises, and often see themselves in a sort of collective ecosystem that allows for individual success. ... [The "ecosystem" in various formations] sought to coalesce with other public and private actors to push for affordable housing, mass transit opportunities, green space, and other social and environmental infrastructure. One of the reasons for the unusual business support for extensive social serving infrastructure ... was the idea that these were factors key to the quality of life to attract and secure the loyalties of the high-skilled workers key to the new economy.

Well, maybe. Here in tech-impacted San Francisco, it's a little hard to applaud Silicon Valley's commitment to, say, affordable housing. But he's probably on to something in that, minimally, tech moguls inhabited a wider world than California agriculture barons or real estate/sprawl developers. And northern California plutocrats try to survive and thrive amidst a hornet's nest of community, environmental, and labor organizations which win their own impact on the culture of their environment.

As a statewide campaign organizer, one of the difficulties and oddities of state politics since the early 1990s has been that, although 60 percent or more of the people live in the south, nearly all major statewide elected officials -- governors, senators, even legislative leaders -- are from the north. Pastor does not directly address this. I always used to wonder: Los Angeles has the numbers -- why don't Angelenos just take over? The southland certainly has always had some of the most innovative community, worker, and union formations; Pastor describes them well. But the north goes on batting way above its weight. On this topic I find convincing some thoughts from a 2016 Mercury News article:

“If you ask a voter in Los Angeles, ‘Who’s your Assembly member?’ they’ll say, ‘What’s an Assembly member?’” [political consultant Bob Mulholland] said. “But if you ask ‘What’s Lindsay Lohan up to?’ they’ll know all about it.”

Bay Area voters are on the opposite end of the spectrum, said Mulholland, a Chico resident. “If you go door-to-door in San Jose or San Francisco or Oakland, whether it’s rent control or a legislative election, they’ll actually know something.”

...[San Francisco’s] compactness has helped foster a culture of grass-roots political engagement and networking that “much more closely resembles Boston or Chicago than Los Angeles or San Diego,” said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Unruh Institute of Politics.

One other side note on Pastor's description the California progressive ecosystem: he gives enlightened philanthropy big props for supporting our many para-political organizations. He's probably telling a kind of truth. But I can testify that through much of the 1990s and 2000s, winning any kind of foundation support for building voter engagement in poor communities of color was a miserable experience of confronting incomprehension and parsimony. (I'm retired. /snark)

One oddity of States of Resistance is that Prop. 54 (2003) appears nowhere in the narrative. That feels important, even though Prop. 54 was the ultimate outlier in the history of California's "racial propositions" -- initiative measures passed by a fearful majority white electorate that aimed to reduce the emerging clout of immigrants, African Americans, young people of color, and speakers of Spanish. It would have prevented the state from recording or collection information about racial outcomes of any governmental activity, pretty well guaranteeing institutional racism run amuck. And on this one, the emerging California majority won big, 64-36 percent. Weirdly, it was the only initiative on the ballot in the gubernatorial recall election that dumped Democrat Gray Davis and gifted us with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Since Pastor doesn't tell you his opinion of why this wonderful out-of-pattern result was achieved on Prop. 54, I'll give you mine. (I worked against Prop. 54 in a non-leadership position.) This was the first statewide racial proposition on which grassroots, funders, and policy organizations showed they'd learned the lessons of all the brutal losses of the 1990s and formed a cooperative, sophisticated coalition that could work to deliver the most persuasive, poll tested messaging to the appropriate voters. Ten years of brutal failure began to pay off. Moreover, this was the first of the racialized initiative campaigns in which organized labor was willing to put some (still small) funding into community efforts to get out grassroots voters. This was a change from the decade of the 1990s when labor political directors seemed sometimes to snicker at the idea that community groups could reach people that unions could not. By 2003, we had all learned a lot. It's too bad that Pastor didn't include the Prop. 54 experience in his account of how a new progressive coalition laid the ground work for our present state of resistance.

In the 1990s, the introductory book to read about California was Peter Schrag's Paradise Lost. In the 2000s, the book was Peter Schrag's California: America's High-Stakes Experiment. In this decade, Manual Pastor has picked up the California ball and runs with it.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Freedom is a forever struggle

Katia Cardenal sang for her country, her people, and for the earth at La Pena in Berkeley last night to a packed house of Nicaraguans and friends. Banners listing the names of victims of the government's current violence against its own people hung on the stage.

Nicaragua is in trouble and danger, as are we at home. Yet Nicaraguans dance to celebrate. The demand of the peoples for justice, freedom, dignity and peace is never more than temporarily set aside or crushed; it changes form and breaks out again. Few know that better than our Central American neighbors.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Saturday sights: teach the children well

Making my rounds, I've noticed that displays of children's books that are neither fantasies (nothing against a good fantasy) or saccharin are turning up in store windows.

There's one role model.

And here more than one are offered.

One of my favorite authors has contributed to the genre.

There must be a market in these times. Not all these pics were snapped in San Francisco, by the way.

Friday, July 13, 2018

How many stolen children remain to be reunited?

The child whose cries we all heard thanks to the reporting of ProPublica has been reconnected with her mother.

Dude wants to be a conquering eagle. More like a flightless chicken.


As the President continues his antics abroad, I'm reminded of some observations about the dumb bird we've loosed in the global china shop -- written last May by John Feffer of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

It’s not just unilateralism, where Washington acts alone and allies be damned. Nor is it merely unipolarism, in which the United States targets all hegemonic challengers in an effort to preserve its position as the world’s dominant military and economic power.

Let’s coin a new term: unileaderism.

According to unileaderism, only the U.S. president makes foreign policy decisions of any import. ... Unileaderism, at least as it’s embodied by Donald Trump, is a philosophy bound up entirely in the personal quirks of the president himself. Instead of strategy, there are only tactics: wheedling, bluffing, threatening. It’s like playing tennis against someone with John McEnroe’s legendary temper and will to win, but few if any of his actual skills.

Unileaderism may well be the logical endpoint for a country that has used unilateralism to preserve its unipolarism. And Trump is certainly the product of a particular tendency within the U.S. political culture that rejects liberalism and multilateralism.

But it goes beyond that. In its rejection of strategy in favor of tactics, Trumpism is a repudiation of geopolitics altogether. Trumpism isn’t a new kind of opening in the chess game of international relations. The president, out of rage and stupidity and arrogance, has simply picked up the board with all of its pieces and flung the whole thing against the wall. He’s playing a different game altogether.

Like most good U.S. lefties and critics of our wanton wars, I have long believed that U.S. imperial pretensions have passed their sell-by date and begun to stink. Despite considerable timidity when confronted by a population that likes chanting "We're Number One" and "foreign policy experts" confident of U.S. virtue, the previous incumbent POTUS seemed to know his job was winding down global empire. You learn something when, unlike so many of us, you have been educated abroad, even for a short time. A military reform school doesn't impart much; nor does a decorative B.A. in Business.

The rest of the world just isn't going to put up with us (that's U.S.) forever. Empire is over and the U.S. will have to learn to live in the world that is.

Trump is both easily conned and ignorant, acting the part of King Canute, raving against the oncoming ocean waves. Empire is not drifting toward a soft landing.

Friday cat blogging

This is not Morty, but rather someone with a family resemblance inside a very dirty window.

Encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

It's the names! Some family history

When I started thinking about the glorious variety of names carried by contemporary U.S. citizens and residents, I realized a side trip into my own forebears was warranted.

Many of my ancestors' names would seem mighty foreign to my contemporaries. What's a Gamaliel? The name is Biblical, naturally among those hearty settler Protestants; Gamaliel appears in the Book of Acts as a good guy among the religious authorities of his day who didn't want to condemn the Jesus' followers to death. The particular Gamaliel whose cemetery monument I've posted about actually had an additional Biblical middle name which also sounds foreign. He was also a Cyrus. The only Cyrus I know in my circles is of Iranian/Korean-American origin. Some delightful world!

Another ancestor was an Asaph. What's an Asaph? Again, this is derived from the Bible: there are three named Asaphs in the Hebrew Bible, of whom the most prominent is identified as the author of several Psalms of David.
Asaph's last name, Bemis, may be of Greek derivation, or maybe be a corruption of the English surname Beamus. In contemporary usage, Bemis is a company that makes toilet fixtures.

America marches on.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

It's the names!

Way back in 2008 I wrote the story of a progressive white friend's interior struggle to understand her own hesitations about then-Senator Barack Obama's presidential run. Finally she blurted out: "It's the names. I felt it when I watched Michelle's speech and his daughters came on stage. They were called something I can't pronounce." Being the good soul and justice warrior she is, she rapidly learned how to pronounce "Barack," and "Sasha," and "Malia." I suspect she would hardly remember her discomfort today.

But I remember, because that phrase -- "it's the names!" -- has become one of my touchstones in this dark era. A segment of white people fear they are being erased and look to Trump to Make America White Again. But I look at bylines and mentions in U.S. media every day and rejoice that our everyday names have irreparably changed and we now live in a wider world amid a wider national family.

For a few days, I grabbed a small selection of names that would have been strange and foreign to my parents' generation. (A little more behind each link.) Vivek Ranadive. Duke Tran. Ishaan Tharoor. Malkia Amala Cyril. Seung Min Kim. Latona Giwa. Taurean C. Sanderlin. Atossa Araxia Abrahamian. Rustem Kazazi. Karthik Nemmani. Yphtach Lelkes. I could pull hundreds more, just from my regular reading.

Trump and the GOPers stumble over this reality. Kris Kobach (perhaps a German-origin name?) -- Secretary of State of Kansas and inventor of numerous stratagems to prevent people of color and other Democrats from voting -- fell on his face when he tried to convince a federal judge that many non-citizens were polluting his state's elections. He produced an "expert witness" to explain how they had identifed these improper voters.

[Kobach's expert Jesse Richman] simply flagged people with “foreign”-sounding names, although he was inconsistent in his execution. As Talking Points Memo reported, “two respondents with the last name Lopez were coded as foreign, and three Lopezes were not.”

On the sixth day of the trial, [ACLU lawyer Dale] Ho read a series of names and asked Richman if he would label them as foreign-sounding. When he came to the name Carlos Murguia, Richman said he probably would flag it as foreign. Ho responded that Carlos Murguia was a federal judge in that very courthouse in Kansas City.

Ooops.

The exponentially increasing number of names we bear in this country is one of our national joys and strengths. I'll give the last word to Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozado, whose Latinx name seems conventional to most of us in the U.S. Southwest.

The American experiment is not just worth the fight — it is the fight. With passion always strained, the pursuit of prosperity, freedom and belonging is an endless battle, an enterprise in equal measures exhausting and exhilarating.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

California election prospects


The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) is trying to make the governor's race between Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and business man John Cox interesting. Good luck with that. Given the disrepute of the Republicans here on the Left Coast, the relevant question is probably whether the GOPer can break 40 percent. I'd guess it will be a close call.

According to the Secretary of State:

Democrats now make up 44.4 percent of California’s 19 million registered voters, with no-party-preference voters at 25.5 percent and Republicans at 25.1 percent.

Most of those "no-party-preference voters" are young, city dwellers, and often from the communities of color. If they vote -- and Republicans keep giving them reasons to turn out in defense of their communities and their futures -- they lean Democratic, however reluctantly.

PPIC polling meanwhile finds a 10 point gap among likely voters, favoring leadership that pushes back against the Trump administration. No wonder Gavin is running as Mr. Resistance. I don't trust my former mayor's leadership, but he'll make the right noises. That we must have.
Though PPIC finds that overall we want push back, in their poll independents are more evenly divided. I wonder if that will hold up through further rounds of child-snatching?

A wrinkle in 2018 is that California is in the midst of a transition to all-mail elections, in which every registered voter will be mailed a ballot and the number of polling places and drop-off points for election day voting are cut back. Five counties tried this in the June primary:

Compared to 2014, Napa, Nevada and Sacramento counties had a 10 to 12 percent increase in voter turnout this year. Two were outliers: Madera’s turnout increased 8 percent, and San Mateo’s shot up 17 percent.

Let’s put that into perspective. Voter turnout in the 2014 primary was dismally low, so it didn’t take much to outdo that year’s turnout with 37.6 percent of registered voters casting ballots. ...

... San Mateo was one of a few counties that tested out parts of the new model, mailing ballots to every registered voter during a local election in 2015. As a result, last month’s primary voters and the city knew what to expect.

I worked briefly on that 2015 election and I think this conclusion is exactly right. Voters had to learn anew how to vote -- and then many rejoiced to get the task done in their homes in advance. Other counties, except Los Angeles, can opt-in to the universal mail-in ballot system in coming elections. This procedural change comes on top of the existing no-excuse "absentee for all" option which meant that 11.5 million ballots were mailed to primary voters across the state. Election Day as the focus of voting is receding.

Monday, July 09, 2018

For my running friends ... a Senate candidate from our tribe

Beto O’Rourke is running to replace Ted Cruz. Literally. ...

... O’Rourke explains to me the origins of this novel campaign event, which has him running several miles under the Texas sun, stopping in the middle to take questions and lingering at the end to pose for selfies. “Some sadistic member of our team,” he recalls, “was like, ‘So we’re doing like six town halls a day in six different counties. We’re driving hundreds of miles every day, we’re visiting all 254 counties. What more could we do? Ah, get up earlier and have running town halls.’”

Politico

O’Rourke is a plausible challenger in a Texas perhaps not quite ready to turn purple, but inching toward a multi-party future in which ethnic, economic, and political diversity makes it more like other prosperous areas of the country.

The Politico story is fun and includes a much better video of Beto running which I didn't embed because I didn't trust it would play on this blog. Enjoy.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Yet another Trump regime atrocity


If they don't survive infancy, those children from "shit-hole" countries will not make it to the border. To prop up the profits of wealthy first world vendors of baby formula, the Trump administration is trying to undermine cooperative work for better health across the globe.

Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times reports that a resolution affirming what decades of research has proved, that breast feeding is safer and better for babies than commercial processed formula products, was set to glide through the World Health Assembly. That is, until U.S. reps started throwing their weight around for the benefit of corporate behemoths like Abbott Laboratories and Nestle.

American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.

When that failed, they turned to threats, according to diplomats and government officials who took part in the discussions. Ecuador, which had planned to introduce the measure, was the first to find itself in the cross hairs.

The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced.

Ecuador is depending on U.S. aid at present because it fears the failing Columbian state on its border. Poor nations in Africa and Latin America feared to step up for the resolution amid U.S. threats. In the end the resolution was presented -- and passed with only minor nods to the baby food industry demands. Russia stepped up to sponsor it, despite being the site of significant recent Nestle investment.

... the Americans did not threaten them.

... The $70 billion industry, which is dominated by a handful of American and European companies, has seen sales flatten in wealthy countries in recent years, as more women embrace breast-feeding. Overall, global sales are expected to rise by 4 percent in 2018, according to Euromonitor, with most of that growth occurring in developing nations.

If these children can't survive infancy, they'll never show up at the border, right?

"Whether I'm 15 or 100, I'm going to be myself."

To close out what has felt like a week long Independence week, here's a worthy take-down of some limiting social expectations. Enjoy.

Via my good friend Ronni at Time Goes By, a good place to drop in for perspective on aging.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Running wear and tear tangent

I use my feet hard. I'm prone to nasty seasons of plantar fasciitis. I'm also prone to black toenails from the pounding. My feet have grown to a men's size 12 after more than 30 years of fairly diligent running. Finding shoes that don't hurt and possibly help is a challenge. Two years ago, I chanced upon a shoe that served as well as anything I've ever worn, the first iteration of the HokaOneOne Challenger. Since shoes routinely are "improved" every year, ceasing to fit, I snapped up four pairs. Last week I sadly retired pair Number III (shown on the left) and broke out Number IV, the last.

Number III had nearly 500 miles on it. I flatten a shoe; the trails have done a job on the tread.

Now I'll have search for a modern replacement. First stop will be the Challenger's fourth iteration, but I won't be surprised if a few false attempts deposit me with a different shoe company. Shoe obsolescence is infuriating. Just when someone builds a good one, it disappears.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Friday cat blogging

So here's a tale. When we got back from the border two weeks ago, Morty seemed withdrawn. And, notably, his eyes looked oversized, like a Keene painting if you've ever seen such a thing. When we shined a light in them, there was no response.

So off to the vet we all three trooped, Morty in his box, E.P. to carry, comfort and cajole, and the driver. And pretty soon the verdict came in: Morty had outrageously high blood pressure, so high his retinas had detached. He was blind, not seeing. Fortunately there was a pill he'd have to be given daily for the rest of his life for the blood pressure. But he was blind.

So every day we gave him his pill, and the blood pressure came right down to an acceptable cat level (top number 140) -- but Morty still moped and stared into space. And then, a couple of days ago, this. At least in some lights, his eyes are functioning more normally. Can cats heal their detached retinas? Maybe.

He's certainly more adept at fighting his daily pill. Perhaps the old boy is going to be with us a little longer.

14 month old boy separated from parents at the border ...

and that's not the worst of it.
As Therese Patricia Okoumou says, that's what "this monster" does.

Resist and protect much.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

John Adams on why we are suckers for men with gold toilets

Yesterday, in addition to marking U.S. independence from George III, was the 192nd anniversary of the death of John Adams. The second president of the United States was a Massachusetts lawyer, an instigator and signer of the Declaration, the chief diplomatic representative in Europe of the upstart republic during the Revolutionary War, and not a very competent politician. During his presidency, he urged executive rule against a fractious Congress and is tarred with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts restricting citizenship and penalizing dissident speech. Civil libertarians then and now consider these laws abominations. At a moment when the new country was developing its politics, Adams lacked the essential knack of making friends and coalitions.

But Adams was also different from the more aristocratic gentleman founders, never owning slaves nor enjoying the financial security of commercial wealth or a grand plantation. Perhaps in consequence, he had a sharp eye for how men of wealth maintained their advantages in a democratic republic. According to historian Luke Mayville:

Adams drew on the moral psychology of Adam Smith to describe how public admiration of wealth, much like public admiration of royalty, could be a potent source of political power. ...The political power of wealth, he insisted, could not be fully appreciated without understanding its roots in public sentiments. Though it was true that oligarchic power derived in large part from more tangible sources, such as social connections and relations of material dependency, Adams insisted that “there is a degree of admiration, abstracted from all dependence, obligation, expectation, or even acquaintance, which accompanies splendid wealth, insures some respect, and bestows some influence.”

Adams did not deny the importance of the purchase of political influence by money. It was “a natural and unchangeable inconvenience in all popular elections,” he wrote in Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, “that he who has the deepest purse, or the fewest scruples about using it, will generally prevail.”

But Adams also traced the influence of wealth to the deep admiration for the rich felt by the public and to the insatiable appetite for that same admiration possessed by society’s most ambitious. It was the grandeur of wealth, and not merely its purchasing power, that accounted for its immense political influence. ... ... Adams warned that “the distinction of property will have more influence than all the rest in commercial countries, if it is not rivalled by some other distinction.”

***
Adams also had a pleasantly humane notion of what all that struggle to found a new polity was for.

"I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have the liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine."

I feel certain his fiercely competent and independent wife Abigail reminded him to remember his daughters as well as sons.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The only flag I need on the nation's birthday

Knowing that the USofA has not always been good -- in fact has been a horror show of genocide, slavery, exploitation and murder for many -- let us recommit to that "new birth of freedom" which shimmers as a tantalizing alternative possibility to be pursued with all our lives and strength.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

I.C.E. in San Francisco got a visit Monday

A human wall of resistance activists stretched around the downtown stone block that houses Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as Department of Justice immigration courts.

We're sick of this shit, but not half so sick as those locked away by the federal child-snatchers.

Kids get it.

To steal a slogan, more and more of us in the resistance are learning this is about "changing the human race into the human family."

Northern California is not a religious place. In fact, it's the most secular region of the country. But there is something about the horror of how the U.S. government is treating desperate migrants that calls forth ancient moral injunctions that still underlie the culture. Not for everyone, but for more than we might have expected. When push comes to shove ... keep on.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Long suffering Russians

There's something deeply broken in Russian society. That simple minded statement is what I've taken away from reading a series of books about Russia recently: Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoir of survival and devastation during Stalin's Terror in the 1930s; Peter Pomerantsev's vertigo-inducing Surreal Heart of the New Russia; and Svetlana Alexievich's Nobel Literature prize-winning collection of mini-interviews with post-Soviet citizens.

Russian/American journalist Masha Gessen's National Book Award winning The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia is another contribution on the same theme. She chronicles Russian political and social experience through stories of the lives of seven individuals between the 1980s when the Soviet regime was dissolving amid its own contradictions and failures through the 2010s when Putin was seizing increasingly unchallengeable power. For U.S. readers who have struggled with Russian naming conventions in those hard-to-follow Russian novels we were supposed to read in school, she provides a wonderfully helpful introductory explanation of how she uses these forms; you don't have to get lost in the names here.

Gessen ties the trajectories of her individuals together through describing the ongoing research of pioneering post-Soviet pollster and sociologist Lev Gudkov, a student of communist Russia's father of indigenous sociology, Yuri Levada. (Putin eventually drove Levada out of the institute he founded where Gudkov also worked.) Levada had propounded the notion that the Soviet system had indeed made possible the emergence of a New Man: Homo Sovieticus.

The system had bred him over the course of decades by rewarding obedience, conformity and subservience. ... The Soviet state was the ultimate parent: it fed, clothed, housed and educated its citizens; it gave him a job and gave his life meaning. It rewarded him for doing good and punished him for doing wrong, no matter how small the transgression.

It also taught its citizens to live inside "double-think" -- at once permanently victimized by encircling capitalist enemies and also a conquering heroic empire which had defeated Germany in the 1940s and was standing up against an aggressive America. In the late 1980s, Levada expected Homo Sovieticus to die off after the Soviet state failed.

But in the 1990s, Gudkov's polling showed that Homo Sovieticus was making a comeback. A complete economic crash, oligarchic privatization that amounted to theft of the USSR's industry and farms, the peeling off of non-Russian minorities into their own states -- all of this led Russians to yearn for renewed stability and order.

Now Russians were distinctly tired of thinking of themselves, and their country, as inferior. So what did they see as the innate positive qualities of Russians? This open question elicited, on the basis of 2,957 surveys, three leading qualities: "open," "simple," and "patient." The ideal Russian, it seemed was a person without qualities. It was clear to Gudkov that this was the blank mirror of the hostile and violent regimes under which Russians had long lived. ...

... Homo Sovieticus was not going anywhere: there was no clear evidence that this sociological type was less prevalent among young people than in their parent's generation. Homo Sovieticus's central trait -- double-think -- was in full display across age groups. ... A majority of respondents agreed with the following statement: "Over the seventy-five years of the Soviet regime our people have become different from the people of the West, and it is too late to change that." A slightly larger majority agreed with the statement "Sooner or later Russia will follow the path that is common for all civilized countries." Most people agreed with both statements at the same time, and that that they did seemed to affirm the former, and made the latter seem vanishingly unlikely.

Living with these unresolved contradictions made Russians ready to give Vladimir Putin 80 percent approval ratings when another economic crash in 1998 was short lived and the new strongman promised decisive action against Chechen terrorists. By 1999, 58 percent of Russians wanted to go back to how things were before Gorbachov loosened the regime's controls in 1985; 26 percent believed Stalin's rule had been good for the country. Nostalgia ruled.

By the early 2000s, Gudkov believed he was seeing in Putin's rule something he called "pseudo-totalitarianism." The same bureaucrats ruled; mass media were state controlled; the secret police had changed its name but not its powers. Neither reliable rule of law nor an independent judiciary had emerged. Education was militarized and the state determined the distribution of goods.

One thing was certain: this regime was not going to develop into a functioning democracy. In fact, it did not seem capable of developing at all. It probably could not re-create the old systems of terror and complete mobilization. Its sole purpose ... was to stay afloat, to maintain just enough inertia. In this its main resource was the Russian citizen weaned on generations of doublethink ...: the Homo Sovieticus.

As the Putin regime moved closer to being a recognizable totalitarian state in the 2010s, Gudkov developed a theory that Russia's periodic popular eruptions, whether in 1990 or in subsequent repeated mass protests against elections devoid of choices, were a feature serving to revitalze an unchanging system.

This was Gudkov's depressing, and he had to admit, radical idea: the last century could be viewed as a continuity, with periodic bumps of "aborted modernization" and the society he had been studying his entire adult life had stayed essentially the same. What made this idea radical was that no one wanted to hear it.

Perhaps it is proof that merely compiling the truth doesn't set people free since all this sociological theory and data exists without discernible impact on the country's development. Dictators don't have to hide their scat anymore, it seems.

The heart of Gessen's book is not these sociological observations I summarized crudely here, but the stories of particular individuals. Her subjects are city people, educated, relatively privileged, middle and upper middle class in our terms. They are not Russia's bottom dwellers. (Alexievich goes deep in that stratum.) I found them by turns interesting, repellent, and attractive and you probably would as well. None of these lives are easy; but then, even the most idealistic didn't expect life to be easy.

One of Gessen's people, Lyosha, is a young gay man trying to make a life as a professor of gender studies at a provincial university. It's a tough road, but he makes something of a go of it until Putin's regime realizes it can create an aggressive xenophobic Russian patriotism by inciting mass hatred of queers. U.S.-based homophobes from an outfit called the World Congress of Families (listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) assist Russia's homegrown anti-gay zealots. Lyosha becomes first an object of suspicion during a national pedophilia panic, then a prospective target of bashers and murderers. He emigrates.

Some reviewers, including Francis Fukuyama in the Times, imply that Gessen -- a lesbian who decamped to New York to protect her children -- is making too much of the role of gay bashing in Putin's consolidating his regime. Actually, I am grateful that Gessen shows so vividly that violence and bigotry derived from fear of gender fluidity can be a very potent instrument in a dictator's arsenal. Not every society would be so subject to this particular intra-community wedge as contemporary Russia, but violent gender terrors are potent inflammatory agents. This is not some piddling minor issue; we should not look away.

Marina Arutyunyan, a Russian psychoanalyst, came to believe that nearly all her clients should be understood as suffering ongoing trauma. Gessen lets her sum up.

Most of her clients craved "stability," whatever that meant. It had all been too much for them for years. ... When the first constraints began snapping back into place, to the beat of the "stability" drum, they had felt calmer.... [A client with a small business] had a strong sense -- she got signals -- that she should be cultivating connections and giving bribes, but she did not know how and, more to the point, she felt strongly that she should not. The signals she was getting about what was right came into conflict with her own inner sense of what was right. If only the law was clear and permanent and applied to all equality ... It was the oldest trick in the book -- a constant state of low-level dread made people easy to control, because it robbed them of the sense they could control anything themselves. This was not the sort of anxiety that moved people to action and accomplishment. This was the sort of anxiety that exceeded human capacity.

... The whole country felt helpless. ... What options did this frightening country offer its intolerably anxious citizens? They could curl up into total passivity, or they could join a whole that was greater than they were. ... they could rejoice alongside other citizens that Crimea was "theirs." ... Paranoia offered a measure of comfort: at least it placed the source of overwhelming anxiety securely outside the person and even the country. It was a great relief to belong, and to entrust authority to someone stronger. ... One could belong, but one could never feel in control.

As I say so often, the remedy for helplessness is action. Do something to build power and community. Resist and protect much.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Reminders from a higher authority

Seen outside the West County Detention Center in Richmond, CA where several hundred migrants in ICE custody are imprisoned on any given day. Fifteen hundred or so demonstrators rallied yesterday as part of the national Families Belong Together protests.

Religious groups have been expressing their solidarity at the jail for months. "We usually get about 100 people," one regular explained. Yesterday there were a heartening number more ...

It was a hot day; the Trump/GOPer family separation atrocity made us hotter.

In the Trump era, resistance is a family affair.

In this crowd, the question is not just whether people will remember to vote, but which campaign they'll be working on. If we do it right, the people are still the higher authority.
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