Thursday, March 31, 2005

Don't Privatize Social Security

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While the wingnuts were going bonkers to protect the dead, about 1500 of us were rallying for the living in San Francisco today. The target was the Charles Schwab office in the Financial district. Schwab is a major Bush supporter and the brokerage firm stands to gain if Bush gets away with putting workers' financial security into the casino of the stock market.

Since it was Cesar Chavez day in California, many unionized workers were able to attend, along with many senior citizens.

While passing out lealets for the California Nurses Association demonstration against Schwarzenegger, I was interrogated by an AP reporter. Darned if he didn't use my comments as his lead.

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This was one of those days I love San Francisco.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Democracy still denied

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The "Democracy Denied in Iraq" counter on the right side of this page reads 59 today, 59 days since the election that was supposed to fix everything.

And the headline in the Washington Post reads "Effort to Form Iraqi Government Collapses." I guess the counter is likely to be around for a while longer. Maybe a long while.

The swirling stories change daily. Religious and ethnic conflict is preventing the formation of a government. Or concerns over past crimes of the Ba'ath or Allawi eras. Or over who gets to control the oil. Or over who is too corrupt.

It is easy for the Post to caricature today's aborted session of the Assembly:

" 'Why don't you give us the details of what is going on in this democratic process?" said the robed lawmaker, whose identity was not discernible from a television feed that was journalists' only access to the session.

"What shall we tell those who sacrificed their lives in the 30th of January?" lawmaker Hussein Sadr, whose own bloc has been linked to this week's latest delay, asked the assembly.

"Speed up!" Sadr said.

Assembly leaders abruptly ordered news cameras out of the hall after 22 minutes.

For the Iraqi public, television broadcasts of what was only the second session of their new parliament snapped to black, then went to a Saddam Hussein-era-style tape of a popular singer warbling an Iraqi national anthem.

But the real story is clear, if we'll just look. US administrator Paul Bremer set conditions for the formation of an Iraqi government in the Transitional Administrative Law that ensure that the elected majority cannot rule. The requirement for two-thirds of the Assembly to elect the Prime Minister is a recipe for stalemate.

And stalemate ensures the failure of the new government. Already, what passes for Iraqi government has been in limbo for two months; bureaucracies give up on working, waiting for news about who the new boss will be. The TAL requires this new government to write a constitution by August, something that becomes less likely by the day.

What indeed will the people who risked their lives to vote on January 30 think? Probably exactly what they feared already: the US occupiers had no intention of returning Iraq to its people and no plan to leave, ever.

Krugman's nightmares

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Today Paul Krugman's New York Times column asserted: "it can happen here."

He lists what he sees as sign of it:

  1. One thing that's going on is a climate of fear for those who try to enforce laws that religious extremists oppose.

  2. Another thing that's going on is the rise of politicians willing to violate the spirit of the law, if not yet the letter, to cater to the religious right.

  3. 31 percent of teachers surveyed by the National Science Teachers Association feel pressured to present creationism-related material in the classroom.

  4. There is a nationwide trend toward "conscience" or "refusal" legislation. Laws in Illinois and Mississippi already allow doctors and other health providers to deny virtually any procedure to any patient. Again, think of how such laws expose doctors to pressure and intimidation.

And he shares where he thinks it is leading:

America isn't yet a place where liberal politicians, and even conservatives who aren't sufficiently hard-line, fear assassination. But unless moderates take a stand against the growing power of domestic extremists, it can happen here.

Funny. We have different nightmares. I've always been more afraid of the power of the state to swoop up opponents and to terrorize communities where resistance might grow, than of the danger to politicians. But Krugman has a point: if this country is to function as any kind of democracy, politicians have to be able to act without fear of bodily harm from vigilantes, however much hatred they may inspire. When those limits are breached, it is indeed happening.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Help Nurses toss Arnold an anvil

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In the immortal words of political consultant James Carville, "when your opponent is in trouble, toss him an anvil."

The San Francisco Chronicle's snotty political columnists call it Muscle Sag. The Governator's poll numbers are sinking, 10 points in the last month. They write: "after months of being up against the ropes, a newly reignited Democratic Party and labor movement are smelling blood in the water."

On April 5 at 6 p.m., nurses, students, teachers, parents, firefighters and people who care about public health, education and justice will rally at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco (600 Stockton at California) outside one of Schwarzenegger's fund raisers for fat cats. YOU ARE INVITED!

Arnold's popularity problem appears to be threefold:
-- He's now being seen as just another partisan politician.
-- His "girlie men" name calling is beginning to be seen as the same old political bickering he promised to end.
-- His "reforms" aren't connecting with voters.
"The idea of merit pay for teachers is, at best, split with voters," said one Democratic consultant who has seen the numbers. "The pension reform is at under 50 percent, and no one really cares about redistricting.

Full disclosure: I've been hired by the California Nurses Association to help build this rally. How about that for fun?

You can download a pdf flyer for the rally at the CNA website.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Now they are after our lawyer…


Thomas Burke represents my partner and me in our odyssey with the US government's "No Fly List." Now he has joined the club. Airlines tell him he is on the "terrorist watch list." Tom, we're sorry if we'd dragged you into a crazed wonderland we've come to know too well.

"From the TSA's perspective, the screening is just one of the many new layers of increased security that are designed to thwart terrorist activity. The inconvenience is regrettable, but a price that society has to pay for security. And for national security reasons, the FBI and other government agencies responsible for supplying names to the lists will not divulge the criteria they use. They say that would amount to tipping their hands to the terrorists.

"'People on the lists are known threats to civil aviation or suspected threats,' says Amy Von Walter, a TSA spokeswoman."

Burke makes the same complaint we do: "The underlying danger is not that Tom Burke can no longer get a boarding pass to get on an airline," says the First Amendment lawyer. "It's that the Tom Burkes in the world may forever more be associated [with the terrorist watch list]."

In August 2002, my partner and I were stopped and detained at the San Francisco airport and told we were on the "FBI no fly list." Although we were eventually able to fly, the experience was distressing even to long time political activists.

Since the TSA wouldn't (or couldn't) tell us how our names got on their list, we sued.

In October 2004, the government released some documents about the "no fly" list that revealed a picture of great uncertainty and embarrassing inefficiency in compiling agencies. Once your name gets on this list, an event that seems pretty random, there seems to be no formal process to remove anyone, nor any guarantee that some agency here or abroad may not carry on for years with the notion that you pose a threat.

The next hearing in our lawsuit is currently scheduled for April 22. If this thing ever gets finished, now we'll have to agitate to get Tom off the list. Stay tuned…

Evoking the fallen

This week the American Friends Service Committee's Eyes Wide Open exhibit on the human cost of the Iraq war was on display in San Francisco Civic Center. There was not much to say; there was much about which to weep. As of March 26, 2005, 1528 US soldiers had died in Bush's war.





And their relatives have to live on with the pain, anger and grief of this waste of lives.
nadiapassionsquare! Nadia McCaffrey's son Patrick was killed June 22, 2004 in Iraq. He was a weekend soldier with the California National Guard, and never thought that he would be deployed to combat. Nadia McCaffrey went on Global Exchange's trip to the Jordan and Iraq border at the start of 2005 with the Families for Peace delegation which delivered over $650,000 of medical and humanitarian aid for the thousands of refugees, mostly women and children, made homeless by the U.S. attack on Falluja.

Of course many more Iraqis than US troops have been killed in the Iraq war. The US military refuses to count how many.


Organizers created a labyrinth whose paths were outlined by civilian shoes, so that visitors to the exhibit could walk meditatively among the reminders of the fallen.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Good Friday, 2005

jesusof the fence!
This makeshift crucifix just outside a fence was the backdrop today for a Good Friday commemoration called "Rolling away the stone of empire: a service of worship and witness" at the Livermore Nuclear Weapons Lab in California.

About 200 people took part in prayers and then processed to the gates of the lab where some 30 or so volunteers crossed a line and were arrested.

Ched Myers of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in Los Angeles preached to the crowd. A long-time social change activist, he is a board member and past contributing editor of Sojourners magazine and a leader of the American Friends Service Committee.

Familiar friends EPF!

Those who were choosing to risk arrest at the gates of the lab were given stoles. Others were asked to sign those stoles to signal our community, even when the arrests would break our fellowship.

The gathered people actively recalled Fr. Bill O'Donnell whose life long witness for peace, justice and good cheer ended unexpectedly last December. Fr. Bill ¡Presente!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Good Women of the Times, part 2

Yes, the reporters in the New York Times whose work most speaks to me are women. Not that there aren't male reporters whose work I admire: Eric Lichtblau on the Justice Department beat comes to mind, perhaps because he interviewed me about our "no fly list" case. His stuff is solid, workmanlike, and that's a complement, given the sloppy repeating of transparent official fictions that too often passes for journalism. (Think one of my least favorite women reporters, Judith Miller, for example.) But Nina Bernstein and today's subject give the news a precisely detailed, visual, and humane vitality that few others match.

sengupta Somini Sengupta

While Bernstein delves into the dark corners of welfare offices in Queens, Sengupta travels the world. Since I've noticed her work, she's has reported from West Africa, Iraq and now South Asia. Considering the long route that led her to the Times, perhaps that should not be surprising:

Somini Sengupta was born in born in Calcutta, India. She lived in midwestern Canada for three short years, then was raised mostly in Southern California. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 1988 with B.A. in English and Development Studies.

Sengupta worked as a radio producer, a cocktail waitress, and as a community organizer for a few years before joining the Metpro minority training program at the Los Angeles Times in the summer of 1992. She was employed at Newsday on Long Island for two years and came to the New York Times metro section in October 1995. She served as West Africa bureau chief based in Dakar, Senegal, until moved to New Delhi in early 2005.

Sengupta's reporting from Iraq caught my eye because it highlighted how living with the horrendous mess the US has made there feels to ordinary Iraqis. In the summer of 2004, one of her stories was headlined "In Iraq, the Most Coveted Item is Now a Passport." This story not only reports the frustration and anger of Iraqis who hope to emigrate to escape daily violence and chaos under occupation, but also the quiet desperation of young people whose only hope of employment is abroad. Just as poor South Asians and Filipinos brave the dangers of Iraq to take menial jobs for the conquerors, Iraqis are attracted to brokers who claim to offer jobs in Malaysia.

That promise brought three friends, all trained in Iraqi universities to teach Arabic, to the passport line this morning. One of them, Sami Jabbar, 29, was almost certain he would receive a two-year contract on a timber plantation in Malaysia. It would be his first trip out of Iraq.…

The company making the arrangements for Mr. Jabbar has already arranged to send 750 men from Nasariya, its chief, Abdul Rasoul Hussein, said in an interview in his office. In August, an additional 700 Baghdadis, all men in their 20's, are scheduled to be shipped off to Malaysia. Most are to be hired as loggers and drivers.

"If we found work here, we wouldn't be leaving," said Mr. Jabbar's friend, Sabah Abdul Hussein.

Brave as her reporting from Iraq seems, I found her accounts of West Africa even more audacious. Sengupta actually seemed to believe that her calling as a journalist was to communicate to ignorant readers in the United States what was behind the complex civil war in the Ivory Coast. For example, this article certainly helped me get a sense of the deadly social stew resulting from residual French meddling in its former colony mixed with indigenous greed for property and local concern for "pure bloodlines."

Now that Sengupta is in South Asia, she again is giving us a picture that mixes sociological analysis with telling detail. In Pakistan Is Booming Since 9/11, at Least for the Well-Off, she introduces readers to one of the boom's beneficiaries:

Umar Sheikh, 31, British-born, New York-trained and married to a woman from New Jersey, long dreamed of running his own restaurant. London was too expensive. New York was too risky. Karachi seemed just right.

His gamble, in this restive port city better known for its religious radicals than its ravioli, has worked so far. Limoncello, Mr. Sheikh's cozy Italian-inspired fine dining spot with lemon-colored walls and a kebab-free menu that features arugula and Norwegian salmon, is thriving.

… The well-off, at least, are living extremely well. …"I'm getting a lot of corporate heads, a lot of nouveau riche, people who come from abroad who are not necessarily wealthy but are educated about cuisine," said Mr. Sheikh, the son of Pakistani immigrants to Britain. "People want high-end products."

For some reporters, the emergence of Pakistani "yuppies" might have been enough, but Sengupta makes sure her readers know that there are other Pakistanis for whom the boom means little.

Kaneez Gazar, a housemaid in her 40's who came to Karachi to escape the grinding poverty of her own village, offered a smile when asked about her country's economic growth. "We earn, we eat," is how she put it.

Between her own earnings and those of her two daughters, also housemaids, the family brings in about $100 a month. Half of that goes to rent. The prices of sugar and butter have gone up. She must buy water from a private tanker. With her heart ailment and her daughter's chronic cough, there are medical bills to pay. Hanging over her head is a $420 debt for an older daughter's wedding.

Still, she says, life in Karachi has meant a measure of dignity. "At least I'm feeding myself," she said. "At least we get clothes and shoes."

It is Pakistan's deeply stratified society that makes some analysts skeptical of how and when the spoils at the top will filter down to those among the 150 million Pakistanis who still barely scrape by. A study last December by the Social Policy and Development Center, a Karachi-based research institute, reported that of every rupee of economic growth, 34 percent went to the richest 10 percent of the population, and only 3 percent to the poorest 10 percent.

This is the kind of reporting that makes checking out the Times every morning worthwhile.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Good Women of the Times, part 1

Every morning I read the New York Times online. I know, this is asking for morning apoplexy, but the practice has become a habit since 9/11 and I can't seem to stop. Actually I mostly skim the headlines and the two sentence descriptions of articles and figure I can skip them. But there are a few bylines that ensure I'll stop for a look.
bernstein_ninaNina Bernstein
Nina Bernstein is a journalist I've read avidly since the 90s when I was working to preserve some shreds of "welfare" from Bill Clinton's "Welfare Reform." In her 2001 book The Lost Children of Wilder Bernstein told hard truths about a foster care system that destroys many families and children as well as saving some. Publisher's Weekly described the tale:

In this first-rate investigation, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein explores the genesis and aftermath of the landmark 1973 legal case filed by young ACLU attorney Marcia Lowry against the New York State foster-care system. Known as Wilder for its 14-year-old African-American plaintiff, Shirley "Pinky" Wilder, the suit claimed Jewish and Catholic child welfare services had a lock on foster care funding and placements. … Bernstein illuminates broader social issues through the story of Shirley; Lamont, the son she bore at 14; and Lamont's young son--all graduates of New York's hellish child welfare system. …

It took 25 years and many more lawsuits before the reforms mandated by Wilder began to be realized. In the interim, Lamont endured the same excruciating experiences his mother had suffered, including physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, witnessing the deaths of other children in foster care and losing his own child to the foster care system. A crack addict, Shirley died of AIDS at 40. Despite these horrors, the book ends with the hopeful postscript that Lamont's son currently lives with his mother, Kisha, and visits his now self-supporting father on weekends. @ 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Bernstein stuck with the foster care story for years, while moving from a job at Newsday to one at the New York Times. And she stuck with the evolving story of the welfare "deform" long after most people in the US thought that saga was over. In 2000 she broke the story of how New York City's notion of job readiness for former welfare recipients was to train them to be telephone psychics.

The city's welfare department has been recruiting welfare recipients to work from home as telephone psychics since April. …

Clairvoyance is not among the qualifications listed on the city's recruitment flier. Any public assistance recipient with a high school equivalency degree, "a caring and compassionate personality" and the ability "to read, write and speak English" can qualify for Psychic Network's "minimum starting salary of $10 per hour, plus bonuses," the flier says. Those interested are asked to call Business Link, a division of the city's Human Resources Administration that finds and trains workers from the welfare rolls, and to sign up for a group screening session.

"What if I'm not a psychic?" a caller to Business Link asked.

"They'll train you," the city employee who answered the telephone replied. Ms. Reinecke said that applicants were trained to read tarot cards by a representative from Psychic Network at the city's Business Link office on West 34th Street.

More recently Bernstein has been digging through the accounts of people swept up and detained in the post 9/11 panic about immigrant "terrorists." In 2004, she tracked down Nepalese former detainee Purna Raj Bajracharya who fell under suspicion for making a "tourist video" of Queens office buildings and a pizzeria where he'd worked. Though quickly cleared by the FBI, he "spent almost three months in a 6-by-9-foot cell kept lighted 24 hours a day."

He said he was stripped naked in the federal jail. "I was manhandled and treated badly," he said, becoming agitated. "I was very, very embarrassed even to look around, because I was naked.…

On Dec. 6, in a secret hearing room in the prison, [Ms. Cassin, his legal aid attorney,] said, she watched him carried in by three burly officers of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, shackled so completely that he could not move. "He's tiny," she said. "His feet didn't even touch the floor.…"

Ms. Cassin said she pleaded with the prison doctor to put him in the general prison population, but the doctor said he was crying so much he would cause a riot.

After three months, Bajracharya was shipped, shackled, to Nepal, cleared of any wrongdoing except overstaying his visa.

In 2005, Bernstein has been writing about the fate of asylum seekers, refugees the US promises under international law to admit to the country, if they claim a "well founded fear of persecution." The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an agency created by Congress in 1998, reported that such people are treated like criminals.

In 2003, 5,585 men and 1,015 women seeking asylum were jailed. …Severe psychological damage is among the effects of throwing people seeking refuge together with criminals in "stark conditions," the report said, describing 24-hour lights, chained walks to go eat, no privacy even to use the toilet and little chance to exercise outdoors. Detainees are allowed to work but paid $1 a day.

Five of the 19 detention centers examined had mental health staff, and none had guards trained to work with victims of torture or repression. In most places the treatment for those considered suicidal was solitary confinement. A footnote pointed out that isolation was "likely to exacerbate depression," not prevent suicide.

"The whole detention system is there to break you down further," one former detainee told interviewers in the report. "You are not even allowed to cry. If you do, they take you to isolation."

Since Bernstein wrote this story, the House has passed a whole new set of hoops designed to further discourage people fleeing persecution from coming to the US. Then House leaders attached the law to the "must pass" spending bill for Iraq and tsunami aid.

Next time you see Nina Bernstein's byline, remember to take a look. The story is sure to be important, human and well told.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Glacier going, going, almost gone…

The volcanic crater at the summit of Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain, as it has not been seen before in 11,000 years. The snow and glaciers that have crowned it in all that time are melting and by 2020 are likely to have disappeared completely.

This image by Alex Majoli appears in a new book NORTHSOUTHEASTWESTa 360 degree view of climate change being sold for the benefit of The Climate Group, a leadership coalition of organizations committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

For a picture showing the shrinkage of the glacial coverage of the mountain over time, check out this.

I thought it might be fun to display some pictures of what those sublimating glaciers look like when you stand next to them near 19,000 feet above sea level. The glaciers lie around a huge crater plateau; the actual summit is on the edge of the rim. Below is kind of the ant's eye view, in contrast to the giant's view above.

12:26 - glacier end from above! copy
Looking down on a scrap of glacier

12:26 - reusch crater copy
Reusch Crater up close; it still smells of sulfur

12:27 - ice field, from summit, surreal! copy
One of the remaining vast glacial walls as seen from the actual summit, 600 feet above the plain where the crater lies.

A Failed Generational Leadership Transition

Mission Housing Development Corporation (MHDC) and Valencia Gardens

Eric Quezada, formerly of MHDC resident services,
speaks to "Save Mission Housing" press conference, March 21, 2005

On March 21, 2005, the new Valencia Gardens housing complex in San Francisco had its official groundbreaking. Anyone who has seen the site knows that foundations have been going in for weeks, but this was the day for the dignitaries to show themselves in this rough neighborhood. Valencia Garden’s 248 sub-standard low-income units are about to be replaced with 260 new low-income apartments, thanks to the unique partnership between a locally-based, non-profit developer Mission Housing Development Corporation (MHDC) and the Valencia Gardens Resident’s Council. Unlike many federally funded "improvements" to aging public housing that amount to schemes to remove poor people, this development partnership means that the folks who lived in the decayed old project will get first chance at coming back to new homes.

This seems like a happy story and we can hope that it will continue to be. But as was reported by the San Francisco Bay Guardian of March 8, 2005, "about a year ago, the nonprofit Mission Housing Development Corp. … abruptly decided to shift its basic mission and focus. Instead of concentrating on building permanently affordable housing for low-income people, the board of directors decided, the MHDC would start looking into joint ventures with for-profit developers and looking toward building higher-end housing for people who could afford to buy their own homes."

Over the last year, two thirds of the MHDC staff have been fired or quit. According to former workers who are represented by SEIU Local 790, the MHDC Board "has also eliminated services at almost all MHDC family buildings, systematically dismantling the community-empowerment services model for which MHDC was respected. They have squandered community resources on P.R. consultants, attorney fees, and management perks. They have engaged in aggressive anti-labor practices including outsourcing union jobs to consultants and temps, hiring private investigators to interrogate staff, and creating a hostile work-environment by harassing staff with guards."

Former staff and North Mission community members fear that the MHDC Board may not deliver the services promised to the residents of Valencia Gardens.

What happened to MHDC? I believe that MHDC fell victim to a failed generational transition of a sort that is afflicting many contemporary non-profit community organizations.

Back in the early 70s there were in the Mission many brave Chicano and other Latino guys (and some less visible Chicanas and Latinas too) who had had enough of being treated as brown working scum by the white establishment of San Francisco. They organized; they protested police brutality; they founded community organizations. MHDC was one of those organizations. Because it was how such things were done and because it was how you got grants, both from private foundations and sometimes the government, their community organization took the form of a non-profit; they needed a board, so the founders were the board.

Time went on and the pioneer founders turned out to be successful people who had a lot of skills that enabled them to make a success of themselves in business and government. Many of them stopped living in the Mission; they'd made it against great odds -- why shouldn't they raise their families in a nice suburb? Meanwhile the organization they had founded prospered and began to be run day to day by professional staff who had the expertise to jump the financial hoops necessary to create low-income housing in the 'hood -- but who also were starting out in life, often lived in the Mission and had a vision of empowering the diverse residents.

But the MHDC organizational structure, the primitive non-profit, had never evolved with the organization. The same good old boys were still the Board. And they thought of MHDC as their show, though they no longer worked there. And when politics in San Francisco pushed them out of the center of the action with a change of mayors, it seemed just and normal to them that they should go back to running "their" organization. There was a lot of money floating around in the housing development world; without necessarily being venal, they couldn't see why after their years of "service to the community" (after being pioneers) they shouldn't get a piece of the action, or at least a well-paid consultant's job. They also saw nothing wrong with moving the mission of MHDC toward building housing that would become privately owned; after all, wasn't that what they'd done when they succeeded in the US?

Meanwhile the professional MHDC staff responded to organizational growth by unionizing. And they began to agitate for term limits on the Board and resident representation in organizational governance. The Board looked on these demands as an attempted coup in "their" organization -- and began to get rid of the "troublemakers." The funders, including the City of San Francisco, looked at the turmoil at MHDC and turned off the taps. And now the wonderful new Valencia Gardens may be something of an orphan in a neighborhood rapidly gentrifying but without one of the historic pillars of community leadership.

The Board at MHDC are (like this blogger) Boomers. As insurgent youth, they broke new ground for their communities by fighting for civil rights and community empowerment. They are proud that they pried open opportunities that their families had never had before. They easily delude themselves that they are still those insurgent youths. And they have no model for gracefully allowing those who come after them to take over leadership. Insofar as their models would have been older US radicals, they followed no models, because McCarthyism had ensured that there was no visible older radical generation. And insofar as their models were immigrants, the dynamism of contemporary US society tore them away from their parents' ways as they seized a new space for themselves in the new country.

We Boomers have to give up the pretense of youth and let new generations lead. We're done as leaders, though we still know things that can be very useful to those who follow. MHDC is not at all unusual in foundering on the rock of generational transition, far too many community organizations have similar troubles. How do we make this necessary process go more smoothly?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Democracy in Iraq hobbled


What do I mean, "Democracy denied in Iraq" for a changing number of days on the right side of this page. I mean the US has managed to give Iraq a "democracy" that looks something like a jerry-built children's bike hobbled with training wheels.

Think about this for a moment. On January 30, with worldwide fanfare, trumpeted with all possible volume by the world's news purveyors, millions of Iraqis cast ballots for a new government -- and millions of other Iraqis didn't. The event was wildly contradictory. For security reasons, the whole country was locked down and driving prohibited for several days. US occupation forces stood by to blow away any visible resistance. Meanwhile newly enfranchised Shias and Kurds mobbed polling places, proudly displaying their ink-marked fingers. Sunni Arabs mostly stayed home, if anyone dared open their polling places in insurgent controlled areas.

Then it took weeks to count all those votes. Weeks. Iraqis and some around the world wondered what was happening. Finally it was announced that the list brought together by Shia religious leaders had won a narrow, but clear, majority of the 275 seats in a new Transitional Assembly.

Now in any normal parliamentary system, the party that wins a majority gets to form a government, name a prime minister, and start ruling. But the US-written Transitional Law sets up lots more hurdles for the Iraqis to jump through before they get self-rule. First they have to set up a "presidency council" endorsed by two thirds rather than a majority of the representatives. Then that council gets to elect a prime minister.

Not surprisingly, the majority Shia list is now having to scramble to make a coalition with Kurds to move toward getting a government in place. And that's not easy because they have genuinely different interests. So there is stalemate. And still no Iraqi government.

The stalemate is NOT the Iraqis doing. It should bear the label "Made in the USA."

"A second Tsunami in the making…"


Gihan Perera is an old acquaintance, currently visiting his country of origin, Sri Lanka. He is chronicling his current visit to the coastal village his people came from at his blog.

Some of his descriptions are devastating:

We headed toward Galle and the office of the Southern Fisheries Solidarity office. We did not travel far before we encountered amazing destruction. Just before Hikaduwa, in an area called Thelawatta, began a never ending campground. Literally, the entire area looked like an American national park campground. What appeared to be campground facilities were the foundations of what used to be homes. Thousands upon thousands of them all down Galle road. The only thing that remained were fragments of homes and churches with huge holes through brick walls, or just a brick wall, but mostly just brick remnants. I would say it was like a war zone, but there was little debris for the amount of destruction. The sea had taken that too. It looked more like a giant coral reef along a sea bed. Every once in a while people like fish would come out of the walls, behind which they are still living.

But bad as the tsunami was, the Sri Lankan government's push for tourist development is about to make the lives of the survivors even worse. Telling the traumatized people that another wave will certainly come soon, fisherpeople are forced to move inland.

In their place, tourist hotels will be built on the beaches. Gihan again:

It is a massive plastic reconstruction. The plan forces fishermen and entire communities to move out and make way for modern superhighways, shopping centers, and mega hotels.

It is a disaster.…Those who suffered the most are again being washed away. And it won't work. The coastal areas are already experiencing a tremendous population increase and heavy land pressures as more and more people are displaced from farming lands in the interior. This policy will result in nothing but squatter zones along the tourist belt and a never-ending process of trying to bulldoze them.

And OUR aid we've donated is going toward the forced removals:

What’s worse, the scheme is being funded by YOUR generositiy. All the international aid organizations are being forced to funnel their money and programs through the Sri Lankan government. All the good people who thought they were giving their money to help directly effected communities, may actually be helping to displace them.

The least we can do is demand that our government and the charities to which we contributed not add to human misery in Sri Lanka.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

"No rational purpose for limiting marriage to opposite-sex partners"


I am supposed to have views on gay marriage. After all, I am a lesbian, happily partnered for 25 years – and my ex and her partner are plaintiffs on one of the lawsuits working their way through the California courts.

On an interim basis, we won one yesterday. A local judge, a Catholic and a Republican at that, concluded that “No rational purpose exists for limiting marriage in this state to opposite-sex partners.” Frankly, well duuh! And there was more: the prohibition “cannot be justified simply because such constitutional violation has become traditional.” So this will get appealed and opponents will howl and maybe some more states will pass bans on gay marriage.

I certainly applaud the lawyers and the plaintiffs and even the gay marriage campaigners who pushed into the public consciousness the massive inequities under which our “illegal” partnerships suffer. It actually is legally difficult and expensive to protect your joint life when you can’t get married -- think no health insurance and rapacious relatives who want to steal your property from your partner when you die.

But I have a hard time putting this issue in the foreground of my concerns, even as a lesbian. The problems visible gay folks have getting employed worry me a lot more. The danger of getting bashed by a bigot also remains real. Then there is what still happens to gay kids: thrown out by their crazy fundamentalist families, they wander to the streets of San Francisco and end up hooking and shooting dope. Now there is something to worry about!

The US federal budget (a pre-primer)
and its religious critics

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, presiding bishop, The Episcopal Church, (left)
and the Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Yeah, the US budget. Do I go to sleep now or maybe I should take up watching paint dry?

And yet, and yet … people are going to live or die because of what the Congresscritters and White House conservative ideologues to get away with.

Here’s a handy guide to the process by which Congress writes one of these every year. The important thing to know is that they try, by April 15, to pass something called a “Budget Resolution.” This sets out the general plan for the actual budget. There’s a big fight over it, but things can change a lot in the next phases.

After the Budget Resolution, comes “Reconciliation.” This can mean some simple tinkering to make sure that general plan really fits with the facts – or it can be where tax cuts get proposed and programs get cut to the bone. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warns that the Republicans intend slip in making President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy permanent in this part of the process. And this is when they can decide how many people will lose their Medicaid to make up the funding gap caused by the tax cuts. Nitty gritty stuff. Reconciliation usually takes from May to August, sometimes longer.

Finally they get to the “Appropriations” phase. None of the foregoing ensures that any money is going anywhere. From September through December, Congress brings up and passes the various departmental appropriation bills, usually combined into great blockbuster monstrosities with something for everyone. These constitute the actual Federal Budget for the year ahead. The result is impenetrably complicated and ill-understood by most Congresspeople voting on it, because nobody could know all of it. If Congress can’t get it done on time, they pass “continuing resolutions” that keep money flowing to programs until they sort it out.

The process gives enormous power to Congressional leadership (all conservative Republicans) who can decide when elements will be voted on and what can be slipped in under the radar. The Democrats will do well if they can at least bring the worst budget decisions into the public light and force the Republicans to retract a very few of them.

So what are they going to do to us in this year’s budget? Well, we won’t hear about the spending they plan to do on their war in Iraq. That’s "outside the budget," a “supplemental” appropriation. Nice, huh?

But the general picture looks to include making the Bush tax cuts for rich people permanent and slashing programs for low income people from Medicaid to CHIP (children’s health plan) to the EITC (earned income tax credit). That last one is particularly vile – it would amount to a tax increase on the poorest earners.

It is not surprising that the Republican budget plan has mainline Protestant religious leaders denouncing it.

"Like many Americans, we read our daily newspaper through the lens of faith, and when we see injustice, it is our duty to say so.… The 2006 Federal Budget that President Bush has sent to Capitol Hill is unjust. … According to the White House's own numbers, this budget would move 300,000 people off food stamps in the next five years. It would cut the funds that allow 300,000 children to receive day care. It would reduce funding for Medicaid by $45 billion over the next ten years, and this at a time when 45 million Americans-the highest level on record-are already without health insurance.

…Some contend that works of mercy are not the business of the government but of private citizens. But in what other area of our national life do we formulate policies uninformed by our deepest values?

Some contend that with the proper support faith-based charities will step forward to fill the gap created by the government's retreat. But this flies in the face of the lessons that we, as religious leaders, have learned first hand. Our churches operate thousands of charities from the parochial to the international. Believe us when we tell you that neither we, nor our Evangelical brothers and sisters, nor our friends of other faiths have anywhere near the resources to turn back the rising tide of poverty in this country.

Nice to have the values guys (don’t seem to be any women among the leaders cited) on board for justice!

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Revenge = Death

092901grief grief sign

On March 11, the first anniversary of the terrible train bombing in Madrid which killed 191 and injured another 1900, I found this quote from a Spaniard describing what she felt after the attack.

"I saw people gathering in the streets, asking for justice, not revenge. We don't want another Guantanamo, we don't want a war, just the terrorists to be taken to court with all the constitutional guarantees. Because we are a democracy."

This year's Madrid international conference on terrorism (little reported in the US) featured speaker after speaker making the same point:
Javier Solana, EU foreign policy coordinator and former head of NATO, said respect for democracy had to be paramount. "In the struggle against terrorism we should be the first to uphold democratic values. It would be our first defeat if we resort to the methods of the terrorists."
Club of Madrid chief and former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said states must not take a the-end-justifies-the-means approach. "One can resort to the use of force if it is necessary -- but it must strictly adhere to international law."
Mary Robinson, a former Irish president and former UN high commissioner for refugees, warned of "a knock-on effect of a lowering of (democratic) standards" by some countries.
Even George Soros, the billionaire US financier, told Spanish radio station Cadena Ser, "The attitude of creating innocent victims creates terrorists. It's as simple as that. [The Bush Administration has] violated international law by using torture."

These are not modern or novel insights: the ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, called a "good emperor" for his temperate rule, advised "To refrain from imitation is the best revenge."

So what is it about contemporary US culture and society that makes us prey to leaders who responded to 9/11 by letting "loose the dogs of war?" (Yes, Shakespeare was talking about revenge too.)

Can it really be too many John Wayne movies? Surely our romantic enthusiasm for superheros is part of it. And surely another factor is that the people of this land have not suffered the reality of war in our own backyard for well over 100 years; we do not share the experiential wisdom of most peoples that almost any fate is preferable to war.

But above all, so far, our institutions have not been up to the task of restraining our lawless emotions. We were hurt, dramatically, on 9/11 and somebody has to suffer. We don't feel that legal responses, cooperation with allies, locking up terrorists, trying them, and imprisoning them up would be enough to satisfy our desire for revenge.

Can a complex and heavily armed society survive in which the rule of law is not felt good enough to govern our interactions? Much of what we consider the progress of human history has been about channeling our conflicts into non-violent institutions. We seem unable to remember that. Yes, we are cursed with elected rulers goading us to act on our base emotions; and we have chosen to reward them.

But if we actually want to survive as a species, letting ourselves be ruled by our hatreds and fears won't help us. The rest of the world seems bent on quarantining the dangerous US monster; those of us within the beast must strive as long as it takes to reshackle the lawless beast we've loosed.

Here's another solid piece of folk wisdom: While seeking revenge, dig two graves -- one for yourself.

Surrounded by random violence,
ordinary Iraqis risk their lives daily


I'm going to try not to litter the web with posts of others people's articles about which I have nothing useful to say. But sometimes the horror is so great I just have to shout from the rooftops.

Here's an account of what it is to live in Baghdad under US occupation from Patrick Quinn of AP:

When Adnan Shalaal left his job at the Sheraton Hotel on Friday afternoon, he went from being a valued employee and father of three to a statistic on a police blotter -- one of dozens recorded daily in one of the world's most dangerous cities.
Shalaal and his three young children inadvertently drove through a shootout between insurgents and police. The 30-year-old hotel administrator was shot in the head, his blood and brains splattering over the youngsters. His children were unharmed, but Shalaal was not expected to survive.
By day or night, Baghdad has become a cacophony of automatic weapons fire, explosions and sudden death, its citizens living in constant fear of being shot by insurgents or the security forces meant to protect them.…
On Haifa Street, rocket-propelled grenades sometimes fly through traffic. Rashid Street is a favorite for roadside bombers near the Tigris River.
And then there's Sadoun Street, once teeming with Western hotels and home to Firdous Square -- the landmark roundabout in central Baghdad where Iraqis toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein.
In the two years since Hussein's ouster, Sadoun Street has become an avenue of blast walls -- thick concrete slabs 6 to 12 feet high -- that protect government buildings and hotels now home to the few Western contractors and journalists who remain.…
Shalaal left the Sheraton with his two sons, aged 3 and 6, and his 12-year-old daughter. As he turned on Sadoun Street, gunmen in a white SUV passed between his car and the hotel regularly targeted by insurgents. Windows on the SUV rolled down and the firing began, with guards joining in almost reflexively.
Shalaal never made it down the tunnel of flying lead.
"He'll be forgotten in five minutes," one man murmured in Arabic after looking at Shalaal's bullet-riddled white compact car. "That's Iraq today."

Reading this, all I can do is ask myself what I am doing to stop this? What are any of us doing?

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Demographic conundrum for the GOP


On the one hand, what age group is most likely to think privatizing Social Security is a bad idea?

Hmm, looks like the oldsters, according to the Pew Center for the People and the Press. In February 2005, fully 58 percent of people over 65 oppose Bush's "personal" accounts. Moreover 68 percent of opponents of the plan insist vehemently they are not about the change their minds. So traveling the country stumping for private accounts is not the most obvious way to lure and keep the allegiance of older voters.

Meanwhile, what age group is most likely to support offering marriage rights to same sex couples? Well in Massachusetts where everyone has to think this through because it is the law, those 18-39 youngsters actually come down for equal rights. According to an April 2003 Boston Globe/WBZ poll:

"It shows that young people in Massachusetts are far more likely to favor marriage for gays than are older residents. Among those between 18 and 39 years old, 62 percent supported legalizing same-sex marriage, and 33 percent opposed it. For those between 40 and 64 years of age, 53 percent voiced support, while 42 percent said they opposed legalizing gay marriages. Those over 65 had the strongest opposition, with 69 percent against it, and 21 percent in favor."

Stumping for a Constitutional amendment to outlaw gay unions isn't too attractive to the young.

It is probably not a good idea to incite enmity from both ends of the age spectrum at once. While I have huge respect for the cunning of Republican media manipulators, President Lincoln's dictum may begin to apply here: "You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time - but you can't fool all the people all of the time."

Friday, March 11, 2005

What's she doing in Nicaragua?


AP says: Spc. Tammy Steen, a soldier with the U.S. Army's Southern Command participates in inauguration ceremonies for 'New Horizons 2005' in Villanueva, Nicaragua, about 125 miles north of the capitol, Managua.. The Americans are helping to build a school and a medical clinic as a part of the program, New Horizons 2005. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

A nun friend working in Nicaragua reports: "We've run into the US Army in our mountains, supposedly building clinics and schools, but we wonder why they are fully armed. Some were friendly (the younger ones from Utah), but the older one I spoke with kept tight lips and said he couldn't answer my questions. He did say he liked Honduras better, where he had been for a number of years, which immediately put up warning flags for me."

Right wing hatchet man, columnist Robert Novak says:

The Sandinistas, the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary party repeatedly rejected by Nicaraguan voters, are on the verge of accomplishing what U.S. officials call a "golpe technico" (technical coup), stripping President Enrique Bolanos of power.
It is no isolated event restricted to a small Central American country. The Sandinistas have a rich and powerful ally in Hugo Chavez, the Marxist president of Venezuela.…
The Venezuelan is spreading his influence through Latin America more effectively than his friend and ally, Cuban President Fidel Castro, ever did.…
The return of the Sandinistas 15 years after the voters of Nicaragua dismissed them comes at a time when the anti-American, anti-capitalist Chavez is arming Venezuela.…
Leftist presidents in Brazil and Chile turn a blind eye to the Bolivarian Revolution. The situation goes virtually unnoticed on Capitol Hill. …
President Bush hardly ever mentions Latin America, but Rice brings a voice to the Cabinet that appreciates the infection spreading throughout America's backyard.

Let's hope the Administration has so much on its plate in the Middle East that they don't get around to doing more damage south of the border.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The sun never sets on the USofA…

praying men meets taylor

Recently 30 Somali workers at Dell Computer's Nashville plant were fired because they were inadequately socialized to imitate machines. Or, as Abdi H. Nuur put it, " They told us that we cannot pray at sunset. They told us that we would have to wait for our break.'' He said he explained that while some of Islam's five daily prayer times are somewhat flexible, the sunset prayer is not. Nor does the sun set at the same time every day. The changing schedule created by heavenly bodies was more than Dell could handle, so the workers had to go.

The system of management that the Muslim Somalis ran afoul of is called "Taylorism" in this country. (Interestingly, elsewhere it is often called "Fordism" after the automaker.) In 1911 Frederick W. Taylor laid out The Principles of Scientific Management:

• Develop a "science" for every job, including rules of motion, standardized work implements, and proper working conditions.
• Carefully select workers with the right abilities for the job.
• Carefully train these workers to do the job, and give them proper incentives to cooperate with the job "science."
• Support these workers by planning their work and by smoothing the way as they go about their jobs.

Or in others words, carefully script every possible movement for the worker and try to make the worker believe this regimentation is for his/her own good, not the employer's profit.

This didn't work so well with the Somalis. They hung on to a culture and set of values incompatible with Mr. Taylor's "science."

Yahya Sadowski, a political economist who is an Associate Professor of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut has written an excellent article, Six Ideas for Improving Western Coverage of Islam. One of his suggestions might have helped Dell understand its employees priorities:

We too often focus on the fact that Muslims follow Islam, and forget the fact that they live in Third World countries whose problems and opportunities are very different from our own. One of the easiest ways to correct for this is to learn about the wider context of life among people who live in societies that are neither industrial, nor democratic, nor modern. A peasant in the West Bank has much more in common with a campesino in Guatemala than he does with an American farmer or even an urban Jerusalemite.

Yes, those Somalis insist on noticing the sun rises and the sun sets, even in the UsofA.

UPDATE:Dell has figured out that the company looks bad in this. They are claiming it was all a misunderstand and they aim to resolve the matter 'beneficially' for the workers. Good. Of great interest in the same story, and perhaps a causative factor, is the information that Nashville has received 5000 Somali immigrants in the past decade.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Now we have Astroturf revolutions?

voting Feb_cover

Sometime in the mid-1990s I was asked to speak at a conference on immigration issues. The audience consisted of non-profit immigration policy advocates, grassroots immigrant organizing groups, and their funders, reps from some of the big foundations, including Ford and George Soros' Open Society Institute. I was supposed to talk about immigrants and elections.

First I spent a morning listening to other presenters. Now the rule at these dog and pony shows, when funders are present, is that everyone is accomplishing great things. So I heard a litany of tales (probably true, but likely exaggerated) about wonderful policy changes by city councils and about how little community organizations took on the man and won.

Then I got up. I waved a copy of Campaigns and Elections magazine and asked: "How many of you read this? How many of you have heard of this?" It came as no surprise that no one had.

Campaigns and Elections is the professional journal of electoral consultants, data vendors, election paraphernalia hucksters, and nowadays internet solutions purveyors. It is not about partisanship; it is about how to make a buck off the US form of democracy. And though much of it is lightweight back slapping and in-group self-congratulation, it does contain occasional useful tips on how to win elections. So I read it. Regularly. And if the kind of authentic grassroots organizations I was talking to want to win, they need to be aware of the world of Campaigns and Elections as well.

Ever wondered what election consultants do in the off-season? After all, even when there are no candidates to sell to the public, there is office overhead and salaries to pay. Very often they sell clients what they call "grassroots lobbying." Less kindly, those of us who actually organize people (instead of money) call this "Astroturf."

When all those well meaning non-profit advocacy groups I was talking to go to press their case with their city council or their congressperson, more and more they find themselves up against Astroturf opponents: phony "organizations" often with no more real existence than a mail drop (such as a political consultant's office) and some big donations from businesses or other deep pocket interests who need a little manufactured populist credibility for their issues.

Recently a particularly egregious scam of this nature came to light in California. State legislators were besieged by an outfit calling itself "California Senior Action Network" that supported pro-business positions, including weakening a bill that aimed to stop financial abuse of elders. Yes, this was an Astroturf group, set us with contributions of tens of thousands of dollars from trade groups for the building industry and real estate, and an insurer, 21st Century Insurance. But the scam was particularly notable because it had usurped the name of a well-known grassroots coalition representing 30,000 older people, the Senior Action Network of San Francisco. And the story just gets better:

Among the people said to be involved with the California Senior Action Network is Bruce Young, a former state assemblyman who was sent to federal prison in the 1980s after being convicted of failing to report personal income and laundering campaign contributions. …

"It's deliberately concocted to appear as though they're a statewide version of us," said David Grant, the director of health policy for the San Francisco-based Senior Action Network. "It couldn't be worse from our point of view. It's completely the opposite of anything Senior Action Network stands for."

The San Francisco group's executive director, Bruce Livingston, sent a letter to state Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez on Thursday asking him and members of the lower house not to mistake the two groups. "We will not and have never acted at the behest of business interests or corporate donors," the letter said.

So okay, there are a lot of phony, consultant-enriching Astroturf organizations on the loose, but what has that got to do with the "revolutions" in the title?

US political consultants have gone international, plying their trade of elections for profit throughout the world. In a sense this is simply the privatization of what we've known for years that the CIA was doing covertly: making sure that forces allied with US interests had whatever they needed to win. Still, it is a little disconcerting to find a prominent article in the February Campaigns and Elections on how a US political consultancy played an important role in Ukraine's "Orange Revolution." Aristotle International, the consulting firm involved, proudly describes itself as a "bipartisan company [that] supplies strategic and public affairs technology to elected officials, political parties and Fortune 1000 companies worldwide."

Lucrative work I'm sure, but not much like democracy or revolution.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Traveling while Muslim

Niagara Falls International Peace Bridge;
photo courtesy of Border Station Center presentation photos

This is a "yes, it can happen here" post -- "it" meaning bigotry and discrimination, not liberation. Ruben Navarrette, a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, tells the story:

"…the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred. After that, polls showed that solid majorities of Americans -- including many African Americans and Latinos who, frankly, should know better -- felt that it was OK to subject some of their fellow Americans to heightened scrutiny based on little more than their ethnicity or national origin.

It is at the bottom of that slippery slope that we find the disturbing story of the dozens of Muslim Americans who were interrogated, fingerprinted and detained for more than four hours at the U.S.-Canadian border in late December. These were U.S. citizens and residents of the U.S. who were heading home from an Islamic conference in Toronto.

Those plans hit a snag at border checkpoints in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, N.Y. … In an experience that one of the Muslim Americans detained called "degrading, humiliating and dishonorable," Border Patrol agents pulled them aside for questioning. When the travelers asked why they were being grilled, they were ignored and not given any explanation.

Their offense? It was probably nothing more complex than this: traveling while Muslim.

As U.S. citizens who had done nothing wrong, these Muslim-Americans were entitled to one right above all others -- the right to be left alone. Whenever they hear stories like this, Americans can't afford to just shrug them off. Instead they should feel outrage, concern and maybe even a little embarrassment. …

Those detained included Karema Atassi, her husband, Tamer Osman, and their 7-month-old son Ismail. Atassi says that all three of them were held from 11:30 p.m. until 4:30 the next morning. All are U.S. citizens.

Apparently someone thought these people looked like terrorists. It's a good thing that I never became a Border Patrol agent. I would have mistaken them for a family trying to make their way home after a long day and what turned into an even longer night.

We accept our authorities casually discarding the rule of law for their own arbitrary, often racist, hunches because we are afraid. Sure, the 9/11 attacks left us shocked and confused to discover we had real, ruthless enemies. However our current fearfulness is only partially a rational response to 9/11 -- it is also a toxic waste product of the many convoluted pains of contemporary US life.

Scared by 9/11 and also feeling pushed around by the boss? -- take revenge on some Muslims. Scared by 9/11 and feeling life is a series of incomprehensible bureaucratic hurdles set up by the health insurance company, the 401(k) agent, and the tax preparer? -- cut out all the procedural niceties and push some Muslims around. Scared by 9/11 and not able to get your child into the better school nearby? -- make sure no raghead is going to get what your child can't.

Unscrupulous politicians thrive on our fear. If we're fixated on enemies, we're all the more likely to hang on to our known authorities -- we've proved it, we re-elected Bush. And since we are all looking under our beds and across our borders for the terrorists we're encouraged to fear, we're easy marks for the theft of Social Security, the plunder of our natural heritage, the destruction of public services and education.

After all, we can blame it on the Muslims -- few, different, and powerless in this country. Do we, powerless, mean-spirited, and acquiescent, really want to live out this ugly script?

To honor international women's day…

violence against women
take action against violence against women.

Amnesty International provides many opportunities for immediate communication with abusive authorities who threaten womens' lives.

Mexico: Lydia Cacho Ribeiro and Other Human Rights Defenders Under Threat
Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, president of the Women's Assistance Center (CIAM), and staff at three CIAM shelters around Mexico, have received multiple death threats as a result of their work to protect the rights of women and girls. The threats are reportedly from men whose wives and/or children found refuge from domestic violence at the shelter and want them to return home.

Iraq: Disappearance of Huda Hafez Ahmad al-'Azawi's, Businesswoman
At 4 a.m. on February 17, US soldiers and members of the Iraqi National Guard forced their way into the house of Huda Hafez Ahmad al-'Azawi, a businesswoman in Baghdad. They handcuffed and blindfolded her, and beat, handcuffed and blindfolded her two daughters, Nura aged 15 and Sarah aged 20. Her whereabouts are unknown and Amnesty International is concerned for her safety.

Kosovo: Rights of Trafficked Girls
Since the July 1999 deployment of an international peacekeeping force to Kosovo and the establishment of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission (UNMIK), Kosovo has become a major destination country for women and girls trafficked into forced prostitution. It has been estimated that many hundreds of women and girls have been trafficked, including some as young as 12 years old.

From birth to death, in times of peace as well as war, women face discrimination and violence at the hands of the state, the community and the family. Every year, millions of women are raped by partners, relatives, friends and strangers, by employers and colleagues, security officials and soldiers. Women are the overwhelming majority of victims from violence inflicted in the home. During armed conflicts, violence against women is often used as a weapon of war, in order to dehumanize the women themselves, or to persecute the community to which they belong.

However, violence against women is never normal, legal or acceptable and should never be tolerated or justified. It's time to recognize that violence against women is a global human rights scandal that affects us all. You can help by clicking on the alerts above.

Monday, March 07, 2005

It's a big world out there…

create your own visited countries map

Countries in red are where I've been. Better get going before the US dollar collapses.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Trapped on the Dumb Growth Path


The most dangerous mode of transportation in the United State is walking according to a report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project. I assume that includes my favorite mode of locomotion: running. (Certainly on many occasions passersby have thought my dogged jog was a walk; so goes aging.)

When you get into the statistics, the findings about the dangers of perambulation are quite striking:

• In 2003, 4,827 Americans died while crossing the street, walking to school or work, going to a bus stop, or strolling to the grocery, among other daily activities. Although only 8.6 percent of all trips are made on foot, 11.4 percent of all traffic deaths are pedestrians.

• Senior citizens, African-American and Latino pedestrians suffer a fatality rate well in excess of the population at large. In particular, African-Americans make up 19 percent of pedestrian deaths, even though they represent just 12.7 percent of the total population.

• And the danger is getting greater, not less. The Orlando (FL) metropolitan area, which has seen an increase in pedestrian death rate of more than 117 percent in the last ten years, ranks as the most dangerous area today, as well as the place where danger increased most in the last 10 years.

What's going on here?

According to Paul Farmer of the American Planning Association, "Mean streets are produced by dumb growth… too much growth continues to be both dumb and unsafe."

We're making ourselves extensions of our cars, rather than using our cars to free us. According to the report, "Automobile-oriented transportation networks are sometimes so seamless that commuters can go directly from the garages of their homes to the basements in their worksites without so much as a short walk."

What about the rest of the world?

Europeans are also very concerned about rising pedestrian death tolls. About 8,000 pedestrians and cyclists are killed and a further 300,000 injured in the EU each year in road accidents. So what do they do? Call for redesign of cars so that people who are hit at speeds less than 40km (25 mph) will be less likely to be killed.

European Enterprise Commissioner Erkki Liikanen commented in 2003: "This proposal will ensure that vehicles are designed with the safety of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users in mind. I am pleased that the automotive industry has already committed itself to meeting the safety requirements…"

Sure isn't the UsofA! The automakers would be fighting these requirements for all they are worth -- and most of us couldn't imagine walking anywhere anyway.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Thinking about Lebanon


Let's be blunt here. I don't know squat about Lebanon. But recent events -- the gory assassination of a former Prime Minister, bluster from the Bush administration and most European countries that Syria should withdraw its troops from the country, Lebanese people demonstrating against Syria in the capitol -- all this tells me that if I want to preserve my self image as a serious, critical consumer of news, I've got to invent a quick crash course on Lebanon.

So here are a few steps I've come up with. I hope others will add additional ideas in the comments.

1. I've written my Lebanese friend in Beirut. Yes, I am ahead of most folks in the USofA because I have such a friend. I've known her for over 20 years since I interviewed her when she was in the US as a refugee from the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of 1982. But I have NOT asked her to explain the political situation to me. First off, I don't think I have the background to understand what she'd be likely to tell me. And more important, I've learned not to question folks living in insecure countries about politics. They are the experts on what is safe for them to say. If they volunteer political commentary, then I get it. If they are silent, they may well be smart. (I got an answer from my friend with some vague condemnation of both Hairiri and Syria, but I don't have the background to understand her cryptic comments.)

2. I've tried to remember what I've read about Lebanon. I seem to have two relevant books in the house, both way out of date. The fact that I have kept them means I thought they were pretty good when I read them.

Tabitha Petran, The Struggle over Lebanon seems to be a Marxist history of wars in Lebanon from the colonial period through the mid-80s. Feels dated.

Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation , most recently reissued in 2002. I read this just last year and cannot recommend it too highly. Fisk hates war and brutality and he has seen a lot of it. He writes a panoramic account of modern Lebanese history, including very few heroes and a lot of villains. I look it over quickly to remind myself of the contents, knowing that it is almost 700 dense pages.

3. Now I'm ready for the news accounts. As a general rule, I don't trust the US mainstream media about anything that happens outside the US. This isn't 100 percent justified, but the exceptions are few. So I go first to foreign sources, then work back to the US ones. On Lebanon, I started with the BBC. They seemed to be cheerleading for the demonstrators in Martyrs Square, fitting the whole thing into the same frame as recent events in Ukraine. That doesn't feel trustworthy. When news about an unfamiliar place feels completely familiar, I assume that the purveyors of the news are forcing events into their own familiar preconceptions. Sometimes that may be right, but usually it obscures more than it reveals.

4. And so, it is on to web-based commentators, some blogs, some more formal. I already have a few places to start looking because the same sites that comment on Iraq developments seem ready to claim knowledge of Lebanon.

Juan Cole has a long Lebanon post. I know it is not his area of specialization (that's matters Shi'ite) but it is a start.

Just World News by Helena Cobban who lived in Lebanon is carefully not trying to read more into the situation than she knows.

Jonathan Edelstein has taken on the truly gargantuan task of offering 'Lebanese Politics for Beginners', here, here and and here.

The comments on these point to other possible sources and competing perspectives.

A round of this now I'm ready to go back to the mainstream media, British and US, and try to follow developments.

So this is the order I use to try to meet the challenge of understanding a completely new place/development in the news.
1. Friends
2. Books already read
3. Mainstream foreign media
4. Web commentary
5. Mainstream media in the US
There is something to be learned from all of them -- and I still don't know squat about Lebanon. But it looks like I'll have to try if I am to be informed.

UPDATE: Sunday, March 6, 2005: Today's Lebanon headline from the BBC is Syria pullback 'to start Monday. Today's Lebanon headline in my local paper's print edition "Syrian leader rejects troop pullout." Lebanon resides in the eye of the beholder, but at least I have some resources for sorting it out.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Focus group follies

or playing on the other side of the one-way mirror


A couple of days ago, out of the blue, I got a call from a market research firm asking me to participate in a focus group being organized for Pacific Gas and Electric, my local utility monopoly. Since they were paying and I'm not working regularly, this was a no-brainer -- I jumped at the chance for $100 for 2 hours!

Now there were a few things I didn't tell them -- after all, they didn't ask. When working on political campaigns, I've been a consumer of focus group data, designed questions for facilitators, watched tapes of focus groups and read transcripts of focus group sessions.

Above all, I've seen the effect of focus group data on politically naïve candidates and campaign committees. A skilled focus group facilitator can get people to spill their gut reactions to messages. And what ordinary US people feel about issues and politicians isn't pretty. An awful lot of people suffer chronically from a feeling they've been robbed, that someone else is getting what they should get, that no authority is to be trusted -- they are deeply disaffected from what we political junkies consider the normal stuff of political life. Candidates and committees wilt when confronted with these grievances in their focus groups.

What PG&E got from its focus group:

We were 12 middle class looking people, 2 African Americans, 10 whites (no Latinos or Asians so missing some 40% of the people in this city), only 1 apparently under 40, at least 3 retired people and one lady who acted drunk or drugged and kept blithering on, off topic. Our leader was "Steve," mid-40s, trimmed beard and sports shirt, resolutely cheerful, and as the evening went on, a little frayed around the edges.

We all started out being polite, careful. I can't know what others were thinking, but I assume we were all hoping to be vocal enough to be recruited for this again, but not so outspoken as to get nixed by the marketing company. PG&E was testing whether they could sell us "green" power at premium rates. Now PG&E is not popular in California; the company was part of the 'energy crisis' scam that enriched Enron and got Gray Davis booted. Moreover, it went through "bankruptcy" but somehow it is still the utility monopoly and we all pay higher bills. Once folks got going on PG&E, the group was venomous. It is not clear that most could ever be persuaded that PG&E wasn't somehow conning us.

Dumping on a big corporate monopoly and knowing it is at least potentially watching was fun! Getting paid for it was even better.

So what?

But putting on my political campaign hat again, what do I think the focus group proved, really? Truthfully, not much. PG&E learned again what they undoubtedly already know: they are hated. PG&E will somehow market "green" power -- they pretty much have to under state regulations. The focus group data will do is exactly what it often does in political campaigns: throw the purchaser back on the creativity and ideas of the marketing (or political) consultant who designed the process. I've long suspected that consultants use the animosity revealed in focus groups to make their clients feel dependent on them. You are not about to fire the only people who don't hate you.

Meanwhile, I'd certainly enjoy being paid to come back and bash a corporation again!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Captain America? No, not here

captain-america wallpaper

However twisted my language may become, I am not going to use American to refer to persons who live in (and may or may not be citizens of) the United States. Can't do it. Since working with folks from Central America, hijacking the name of the whole continent for one country, admittedly very big and powerful, just doesn't work for me any more.

According to the Meriam-Webster OnLine dictionary , "America" is the geographical name of "either continent (N. America or S. America) of the western hemisphere."

So where do we, the US, get off claiming all of it?

The Wikipedia explains how the English language reinforces our US-centric assumptions:

People who live in the Americas are sometimes referred to as being American, although the word American is used much more commonly in English to refer to a citizen of the United States of America. The Spanish language uses norteamericano ("North American") or estadounidense (literally "United Statesian") when referring to U.S. citizens, and the French language sometimes accepts états-unien (états-unienne for women). In Portuguese, people born in United States of America are mostly termed norteamericano instead of americano – while estadounidense is rarely used – and almost exclusively as an ideological statement that the term American shouldn't be reserved only for the people of the USA. On the other hand, Mexico is properly the "United Mexican States" (Estados Unidos Mexicanos).

English is not adequate here; can we help it evolve so as not to co-opt or exclude our neighbors?