Thursday, April 28, 2005

Judicial Justice presented by MoveOn PAC

From the San Francisco "Judicial Justice" event, April 27, 2005

On April 22, there was yet another MoveOn email in my inbox. MoveOn PAC wrote: "Radical Republicans are hoping to seize absolute power to appoint Supreme Court justices who favor right-wing, corporate-biased interests over the rest of us. …We only have a few days to stop the Republican leadership from making changes that would turn back the clock on generations of progress!" They asked readers to act, so I signed up to participate in a local rally. I care about stopping Republican undermining of the rule of law -- and I am a student of political organizing. Here was a chance to see what email organizing, one flavor of what is sometimes called the "netroots movement," could really do.

Overall, I would say the rally was a success. Though what follows includes a lot of suggestions for doing something like this better, in five days, mostly by email, a group of people new to one another, without much meaningful institutional backing, managed to put on an event which left at least this participant exhilarated rather than just tired! That's not bad.

Purpose of the event

One holds one of these things for a variety of reasons. Let's look at some:
1) We aim to effect policy, legislation, something being done by politicians somewhere. Because MoveOn PAC was making a nationwide call, they had to be somewhat vague about purpose (see quotation above.) Some people in some locations are represented by Senators whose position on the radical Republican plan to end the filibuster and pack the courts is not set in stone; the purpose of rallies in those states is totally clear: swing those votes! Most people know how their Senators would vote on the nuclear option. So what are the rest of us doing?

2) When lots of people are willing to act for a principle, their action shows some force. That's why these things are called "demonstrations." Politicians are put on notice that something is stirring; participants get to feel their power together. At the rally, more than one participant remarked on how good it felt to "do something." Now thinking literally, it is hard to think of standing around with signs on a street corner as "doing something" but we need that feeling and by calling these events, MoveOn gave it to us.

3) Participation in an event increases "buy-in," identification with the sponsoring organization. Maybe, but I am not so sure this happened in this case. We hear from MoveOn all the time. We're glad it is there, chipping away in the political wasteland. But though MoveOn brought us to the event, I don't know if it got the credit, emotionally. I suspect that went to the "host" who emailed us or to ourselves for "doing something." I could be wrong on this; obviously this is just a guess.


The call was for a "host" (interesting title, more reminiscent of a house party than a rally) to select a location in front of a courthouse or Federal building and "invite" participants. And for this one, Liz DeLong bravely did! The MoveOn plan promised to funnel volunteers to her, to provide themes, and to count on the creativity and capacity of attendees for the rest.

In our case, following MoveOn's advice, Liz picked the front of the Federal Court Building at Seventh Street and Mission. It was not an easy rally site. Though the sidewalks are 20 feet wide, we were all going to have to stretch out for some hundreds of feet on two very busy streets at rush hour. The plan for the rally called for no amplified sound, so no permit. Great idea, but this is San Francisco -- within a couple of days Liz had 900 people signed up to come and a couple of bullhorns. Not an organizer's dream exactly. In the event we had 400-500 attendees, very loud conditions because of being stretched out and drowned out by traffic, and no speeches that could be heard. I am not sure this mattered much to people; MoveOn's complicated plan for selecting participant speakers was just impossible, so a few people just talked to a few attendees with the bullhorn. Perhaps, if MoveOn PAC suggests again that people hold rallies without sound, they should also suggest that numbers be limited to 250 sign-ups (figuring a 50 percent "flake factor," that gives 125, about the maximum who can really hear a bullhorn.)

To anyone who has ever planned a rally, what was notably lacking in this was a sponsoring organization. Yes, MoveOn provided a FAQ. But usually for a rally to happen, some set of people with some experience of each other and some accountability to each other have to plan together. This had NO institutional backers. Fortunately, Alec from Democracy Action, took charge of finding monitors and provided a lot of signs. The Alliance for Justice brought their Save Phil the Filibuster campaign. Some heavy weights of the Democratic Party activist scene, including Howard Wallace and Jane Morrison, came as individuals. But mostly this worked because the people who came (median age probably 55 and many older; nearly all white; voters all) knew the ropes.


Here's where I really would fault MoveOn. A clear, widely disseminated message makes a rally more than just a pleasant couple of hours for a few people who attend. Frankly, the MoveOn plan didn't help with this at all. Their message was diffuse. Especially when an issue is convoluted, as preserving the filibuster to prevent rightwing judicial appointments necessarily is, your message has to cut through the complications, even if it oversimplifies and therefore feels unsatisfactory. For this purpose, probably the best thing MoveOn provided were a couple of simple chants such as "Save our courts!" and "Our Rights! Our Courts!" We used them and nonetheless tourists came across the street to ask the very safe appearing middle class crowd, "what is this all about?" You have to treat the media as if it were those tourists; reporters are hurried, ill-informed and a little lazy, just like most of us. Your message has to be so simple they can't miss it. And you need press packets and flyers to spoon feed your message to reporters; to my knowledge (could be wrong) MoveOn didn't provide these.

The least helpful of MoveOn's suggestions was for signs. They rightly understood that most people don't have a printer that will spit out something larger than letter size paper -- but there is no point in helping people to make letter size signs; no passerby can read them. And the signs should carry the rally message, not something cute. MoveOn had some notion we could pretend the Republicans were keeping us out of federal buildings by carrying "Keep Out" and "Right Wing Only" signs -- this is so convoluted I can't even explain it. See the picture below.
Fortunately, between Democracy Action and your blogger, we were able to make and borrow enough large, clear signs to somewhat unify the message.
This was a little more what was needed. However, I do note that we had NO print media coverage locally that I have been able to Google -- we made it too hard for reporters to understand what we were about, I think.

Still, this was a solid, much needed contribution to the push back against one party rule in Washington. Thanks to MoveOn for calling it and to all the people who worked so quickly and responsibly to put it on!

Book meme


Chris over at Marching Orders passed me the "Book Meme" the other day, a sort of blog chain letter. Here are my answers. Possibly the most interesting part of this was finding folks to pass it on to.

1. You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be?
A confession -- literate as I think I am, I never read Fahrenheit 451. Catch 22 either, for that matter. What kind of Boomer am I?

So I'll guess -- what book do I want to risk being burned to preserve? I think today I'd say Adrienne Rich's Your Native Land, Your Life for the poem North American Time which begins:

When my dreams showed signs
of becoming
politically correct
no unruly images
escaping beyond border
when walking in the street I found my
themes cut out for me
knew what I would not report
for fear of enemies' usage
then I began to wonder

Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill

We move but our words stand
become responsible
and this is verbal privilege

2. Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
Hmm -- this could be embarrassing. No, not so much for who I have a crush on, but because I don't usually read much fiction.

How about this? Both Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night, the most romantic book I know.

3. The last book you bought is?
A Spirit Loose in the World by Father Benedict Reid, OSB, the story of an abbot's sabbatical driving around the US in a camper van. I bought this as part of a fundraiser for my parish thinking I was doing a duty. Instead I was acquiring a pleasure and a small exposure to some wisdom.

4. What are you currently reading?
Besides the abbot, I have the usual pile of partially read books and magazines, on my side of the bed. Currently, besides various New Yorkers, Outsides, and Trail Runners, I'm reading George Lakoff, Thomas Frank, Dorothy Solle, and Arundhati Roy.

5. Five books you would take to a deserted island?
Guess that means what would I want to read over and over. I'm giving special credit for l-o-o-ng books. A few ideas:
The Space Trilogy by CS Lewis, even though I find the last volume, That Hideous Strength, homophobic.
Blanche Wiesen Cook's two volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt 1884-1933 and 1933-1938
Odd as this may seem to many, The Bible. Despite the atrocities committed in the name of Scripture, that is one rich book.
And a short one, Prison Notes by Barbara Deming, an account of being jailed in Albany, Georgia for attempting an interracial march in 1964. A classic of non-violent literature by a seer whose lesbianism kept her from being recognized as the inspirational progressive leader she was.
And finally, just to remind me of how creative we really are: Sabotage in the American Workplace: Anecdotes of Dissatisfaction, Mischief and Revenge. The guy who worked in the mail room at the Heritage Foundation, throwing incoming checks in the garbage, is one of my heroes.

6. Who are you going to pass this (questionnaire) to and why?
Because all these people write/create interesting things and aren't on every blogroll in the sphere!

Leila: Dove's Eye View
Karen Anne Mitchell: Free Taiyiha
TCF: ThatColoredFellasWeblog
Ginger: The Hackenblog
Irene: Café Lang

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The silence of the bought off

philanthropy 2-1
We learn charity young

In case you wondered, foundations are slime. Or more descriptively, like most other organisms, their real purpose is their own survival and propagation, regardless of what lofty "mission" they may claim.

According to the New York Times on Sunday, April 24:

Charities stand to lose roughly $10 billion a year if the federal estate tax is repealed permanently, according to a study conducted by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute. That is roughly the equivalent of all the grants made by the country's 82 largest foundations in 2003.

But while nonprofit groups have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last year lobbying Congress against imposing tougher regulations on them, on this issue they have been silent. . . .

"About two weeks ago, when we sent out an alert on this, I got some very, very vociferous disagreement from large organizations on the charity side and foundations," [said Diana Aviv, president of the Independent Sector, a large trade association representing charities and foundations.] "People went out of their way to tell me that while they liked my leadership, on this issue I was just dead wrong."

The reason? No one wants to alienate the wealthy donors and board members who would benefit from a repeal.

An awful of the money going into non-profits and philanthropy in this country has nothing to do with the donor wanting the help the needy. Our tax code encourages giving to charity by lowering donors' taxes.

Charity is not much of a tax dodge for ordinary people though. That money you give as "Tax Deductible" doesn't count for anything unless you itemize deductions on your tax return. Even if you do itemize, you only "may deduct contributions representing up to 50% of [your] adjusted gross income." (By the way, corporations get to deduct ALL of what they give.) Even though this is not worth huge amounts to most of us, a lot of us think that somehow money we give that is "tax deductible' is more authentically charitable than money we just give because someone needs it. How about that for a bit of internalized nonsense?

For the really rich, there is another occasion for philanthropy:

The estate tax includes unlimited deductions for charitable giving as a way of helping shield families from inheritance taxes. Eliminating the tax would also eliminate the need for the tax shelter.

After Congress began a temporary and gradual rollback of the tax early in President Bush's first term, there was a $2.8 billion decline in bequests to philanthropies from 2002 to 2003. Critics point to that drop as evidence of the impact that repeal would have on giving. "It was the first decline in bequests since 1998," said Jeff Krehely, deputy director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

When it comes to the big money, we get the charity the rich want to pay for. And their philanthropic playthings, the foundations, know they better shut up about equity and take the handout they can get.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Liberal Democrat posters




These posters have been used by the Liberal Democrats to promote their party in the May 5 British election. They would seem to violate the first law of branding, by featuring the guy they want to beat instead of their own leader. Unhappily, Charles Kennedy, the Liberal leader, seems unable to avoid falling over his own feet, verbally at least, so all the LibDems can do is run against the unpopular and untrustworthy Tony Blair.

And that Tony Blair, or at least his Labour party, seems set to win the election convincingly because you can't beat something with nothing -- and, fortunately, the immigrant-bashing, Europe-hating Conservatives are less than nothing.

Something is broken when political systems throw up choices that are not choices, pursuing aims that majorities don't share. Hmm -- where else have we seen that?

Monday, April 25, 2005

Mexico City marches for democracy


Lopez Obrador
Ariel Gutiérrez Vivanco foto

A friend, a teacher in Mexico City writes about yesterday's huge march in support of Andres Manuel López Obrador, the mayor of the city and a likely candidate for President of the country in 2006. The government of present President Vicente Fox is trying to pin a criminal charge of abuse of power on López, an offense that would remove him from office and prevent him running in the election next year.

We walked 9 kilometers in three and a half hours surrounded by hundreds of people. (This was the biggest march in recent Mexican history.) The federal government says 120,000 but we were more than one million people! Fox was very naive and tried to get López out of the race by accusing him of violating the law because he did not stop constructing a road on expropriated land when a judge ordered him to do so. He stopped the work eleven months later. On April 7, the legislative body removed his "immunity from prosecution" and now a judge has been asked to judge and sentence him. Depending on how all that works out he will or will not be able to participate in the 2006 election.

The march was the most popular march I have been in my whole life. There were political parties and political organizations of course, but at least 50 percent of the march was very poor people who have benefited from Obrador's social programs. They were not organized or brought there by anybody -- they just came because of their belief that this man represents them. The march era en silencio [was silent] so people wrote their consignas [slogans] on pieces of paper and cardboard. The people's passion is the real reason the government, the rich people and many middle class "educated" people are very scared of López Obrador. They think he is the Mexican version of Hugo Chavez [President of Venezuela.] Some of us think he is closer to Lula [President of Brazil].

His politics around gender and gay issues are not good enough for me. He is better than the revolucionarios centroamericanos [Central American revolutionaries of the 1980s] but very similar. A gay political analyst says it's a class issue.

I marched along with Arce and Lolys, who are moms of Paula, a 3 year old awesome girl who sat on our shoulders the whole march waving her flag and saying she had come to see "el posimo pesidente" ["the next president" in baby talk] There was a contingent of "feministas agraviadas" [angry feminists] whose message was "por la libertad de decir sobre nuestros cuerpos y nuestros gobiernos". ["Freedom to choose for own bodies and to elect our government."] I thought that was very advanced. Unfortunately that group wasn't very large.

There were lots of kids and teenagers walking along their parents. Babies had signs that said "cuando sea grande quiero ser un Sr. López". ["When I grow up, I want to be like Senor López ."] Hundreds of old people came, insisting, "no one brought us by force." López Obrador has a special program for people over 70 who receive a pension or bonus for 700 pesos each month and for many people it is the only money they have.

How can this worker from a poor state with leftist ideas become president of this country? It's very exciting. I don't think he can win the presidency but he has certainly created a mass movement that nobody else had done in this country since [President] Cardenas nationalized the oil industry [in 1938.]

To undermine him the government refers to him as Senor López instead of el jefe de gobierno [mayor of Mexico's Federal District.] Yesterday one of the few chants we did shout was "todos somos López". [We are all López!]

This is very empowering but also very scary for most Mexicans who are not used to this kind of power.

For a relatively balanced North American article on López, see "Poverty has fueled presidential hopeful" by S. Lynne Walker.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Belated Earth Day quiz

Looking at the citycropped
Heather and smog overlooking San Francisco

I don't love Earth Day. I'm enough of an organizer that I expect calls for collective action to be pointed at a "target" whose actions can be changed so as to improve social conditions. Earth Day doesn't fit that model. Though I can easily, daily, envision many ways that our human created social arrangements are making the planet unlivable, I don't feel Earth Day does much to help us come to grips with that. I suspect the observance of being a corporate shell game, distracting us from environmental rape.

As well, in general, I don't believe in personal solutions to social problems. Yes, we are all responsible -- but the systemic configurations that create social havoc are so much more significant in causing misery and degredation that I usually think our personal efforts to conform our lives to visions of sustainability and justice just confirm our powerlessness.

But, but, but -- it doesn't hurt to confront the facts. So I want to share this interactive quiz that will show you how many Earths it would take to sustain your everyday level of consumption if the same standard of living were available to all people (presumably without technological advances as yet unknown.) My lifestyle, which I think of as relatively simple, would require 5.4 Earths to sustain, if all humans were able to live as I do. (For some information on how the quiz calculates these matters, go here.)

Thanks to Ethan Vesely-Flad of The Witness for pointing me to this quiz.

Update on "no fly list" lawsuit

On Friday, April 22, my partner and I hauled ourselves down to federal court to watch arguments in our lawsuit, brought by the ACLU and cooperating attorneys, demanding that the Transportation Safety Administration and the FBI explain the "no fly list." In August, 2002, the two of us were told at the airport that we were on the "FBI no fly list," detained by San Francisco police, and subjected to special search procedures. We've sporadically had various kinds of special scrutiny at airports after this episode. Meanwhile, the lawsuit has been bumping along in the courts since April 2003. Several times the judge scolded the government for not turning over relevant documents.
Last fall the TSA released 300 pages, heavily blacked out, that showed that the administration of this list of persons thought to be a danger to aviation was haphazard and subjective. The ACLU went back to court, asking that the government provide legal justification for blacking out most information about the list -- blanket claims of national security aren't good enough to justify sticking labels on people

Friday's hearing didn't produce anything startling. Judge Charles Breyer seemed to be having attorneys for both sides appear so that he could ask them a few more questions.

He asked Tom Burke, our lawyer, whether we had flown since the initial incident -- Tom said yes, but the question gave him a chance to tell the court that the TSA is admitting that the list has now grown from 16 names in September 2001 to some 31,000 names now. Tom then pointed out that in March, his own name had turned up on the "terrorist watch list!"

The judge then asked the government to explain why they had blacked out the names of the mid-level bureaucrats who compile the list. He asked whether the government had considered whether "the public has the right to know who is doing the public's business." The TSA lawyer claimed "national security."

Later Burke suggested what government lawyers might be trying to hide:

Burke pointed to a February 2003 FBI e-mail first released last October. It read: "Criteria are confidential but involve things passengers might do which also might be things a terrorist would do, e.g., pray to Allah right before the flight that you might have 90 virgins in heaven."

Burke argued, even if the specific e-mail was only an insensitive joke, the public has the right to know who wrote the e-mail. Both the sender and recipient had been redacted.

Judge Breyer will be issuing his final opinion on what the government must disclose about the no fly list sometime in the next few months.

In view of right wing attacks on federal judges, it was interesting to spend a morning watching one work. Our case came up last on the mornings' docket, so we got to watch Breyer in action. He seemed quite devoted to discerning what law might apply in the cases before him and extremely knowledgeable about the facts of each case. In one case he admonished an attorney to give him a legal argument, insisting: "you can't just come in here and talk to me as if I were Judge Judy." On the other hand, in two cases plaintiffs were acting as their own attorneys (yikes!); he was very careful to make sure they really understood what motions they had to file and what procedures they had to follow. His patience was impressive.

One attorney attempted to plead his client's ignorance of one of the judge's earlier findings and consequent lack of a responsibility to comply. Breyer was stern: "you are bound by an order of this court -- that is the way it was last summer when I made the order; that was the rule when these matters happened; that is how it has been for 200 years."

I wouldn't want to try to make wingnut arguments in Judge Breyer's court -- and at the same time I am confident that in our case he will do his best to do justice to both plaintiffs and the government. Very impressive guy.

UPDATE [12/02/2005]: The lawsuit ended inconclusively. Judge Breyer made the government produce more and more documents that it didn't want to reveal, ascertained that we were able to fly normally, and finally ruled that it might endanger "national security" to require that they tell us completely why we turned up on their list. Other cases with other plaintiffs continue.

Friday, April 22, 2005


Sculpture "Made in China"by Sui Jianguo,
currently on display at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum

Relegation is a wonderful concept used by sports leagues in much of the world to keep league play interesting. For example, in English football (soccer in the USA), each year the bottom three teams are relegated to a lower division, while the top teams of the lower division are promoted to the top league. The terror of being dropped down a step gives bottom ranking teams something play for at the end of the season.

Now of course I wouldn't like the results at the moment if the NFL had such a system. My 49ers would be consigned to the WAC and out local team would be USC, or, best case, Cal.

But that is not what this is about. This is about a very thought provoking article by Gwynne Dyer, an independent Canadian journalist. His thesis is that the US's seemingly incompetent, flailing and aggressive neoconservative foreign policy gurus are exhibiting the normal behavior of leaders of a great power facing relegation.

And they all know that the days of the United States as the world's sole superpower are numbered.

They must know it. They cannot be unaware of the statistics the rest of us know: a Chinese economy that has been growing over twice as fast as the US economy for almost two decades now, and an Indian economy that has been growing at around twice the US rate for almost a decade already. And they surely understand the magic of compound interest. . . .

Seeing the United States reduced to only one great power among others cannot be a prospect that appeals to American strategic thinkers of a traditional bent-so what is their grand strategy for averting it?

. . . Paramount powers facing relegation always have one, although it rarely stays the same for long and it never, ever works. . . .

People who search for a long-term strategy in neo-conservative policies invariably end up thinking there is none, but that's because they are looking for coherence. They expect too much. When strategists are confronted with an insoluble problem, they generally try to solve it anyway, and they are not above using irrational assumptions to stick the bits of rational analysis together.

Read Dyer's short article for more. It is certainly worth thinking about.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Making sure our borders are secure


About a month ago, I wrote Traveling while Muslim, a story of how Western New Yorkers who attended a conference in Toronto on Islam were harassed by the US Border Patrol and Homeland Security on their return.

Today Muslims detained in this episode filed a federal lawsuit.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Five Muslim-Americans who were fingerprinted, searched and held as long as 6 1/2 hours by U.S. border agents upon their return from a religious conference in Canada filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Department of Homeland Security.

The suit in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn charges the government violated the group's constitutional rights to practice religion and against unlawful searches.

"This lawsuit is not about money damages, but about vindicating individual rights, the rights of Muslim-Americans to be treated as Americans according to American values and law," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The conference these people attended was not some obscure secretive event; the mayor of Toronto and the Ontario premier, Dalton McGuinty, addressed its sessions.

But apparently the idea of religous freedom for Muslims was lost on US authorities. According to the Buffalo News, court papers describe a spokeswoman for Homeland Security as saying "Conferences such as the one that these 34 individuals just left in Toronto may be used by terrorist organizations to promote terrorist activities."

The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages, but rather to stop border agents from detaining, interrogating, fingerprinting and photographing Muslim-Americans just because they are returning from religious conferences. It also asks that all fingerprints and photos either be returned to the five people or destroyed.

This story broke my heart because the porous character of the US-Canadian border in the Buffalo and Niagara Falls area was one of the delights of my childhood. Canada was the most ordinary of day trips; heck, Canada was a place I swam to across the Niagara River as a teenager. As recently as 1998 I crossed the border to run along the Canadian side before dawn with not a thought in the world. No longer.

Today tourism promoters for the town of Lockport, New York, post an entire web page of advice on how to have an easy crossing. Some tidbits:

Expect delays at all border crossings due to increased security. Now, more than ever, it is recommended that travelers follow the cautions on this page, especially in regard to giving straight, no-nonsense answers at the borders. Those heading into Canada may get radio updates in their cars, within about 10 miles of Niagara Falls, by tuning to the special FM station at 105.1 MHz. ...If you have a Passport, bring it, even though it is still not a requirement for US and Canadian citizens crossing the border.

This same page gives the news that, not content to question travelers at bridges, "the United State Border Patrol hopes to begin soon the installation of four, low-light cameras spaced at approximately even intervals along the Niagara River between the city of Niagara Falls (atop Wrobel Towers' subsidized apartments) and Fort Niagara. The remote-control, rotating cameras will be high enough above the Niagara Gorge to provide several miles of observational territory. Their purpose is to spot illegal border crossings and to save the cost of border patrol agents staking out long stretches of the US-Canadian border along the Niagara River."

This area of the Niagara River is a deep gorge carved by the rushing river which has just passed over Niagara Falls and which flows swiftly down to Lake Ontario. It seems an unlikely place for illegal crossings, but we can't be too sure, can we?

Arnold unraveling. . . attacks immigration


Yesterday, the Governator lost it -- or possibly showed his true colors. According to the LA Times:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday urged that the U.S. "close the borders" to combat illegal immigration, though an aide quickly clarified his comment, explaining that the governor merely wants the borders better policed.

Before he finished speaking, his press secretary, Margita Thompson, hurried over to reporters to explain that the governor meant to say that the nation's borders should be more tightly patrolled, not closed.

What was he thinking? (Bet Thompson wondered that too.) This line of argument is suicide for Republicans in California. Sure, it can win them short-term victories. Pete Wilson famously used it in his re-election campaign in 1994, running notorious anti-immigrant commercials showing shadowy hordes climbing fences, with a voice-over "they just keep on coming."

And in 1998, state Republicans got their comeuppance. Latinos naturalized and registered in record numbers, as Democrats. Moderate white voters were repelled by politicians who exacerbated racial tensions -- and the Republicans lost every statewide office and the legislature by wide margins. Nothing showed any sign of ending Democratic state dominance until Arnold put himself forward as a "moderate" who would put his Terminator skills to work shaking up a corrupt state government. The majority of the Californians didn't stop being Democrats as they showed in 2004, but they liked the Arnold image.

Arnold seems bent on throwing away his moderate image. First he went after nurses, teachers, police and firefighters -- now he is telling Latinos, who are the largest ethnic group in California and most of whom have relatives on both sides of the border, that they are somehow not welcome, not proper US residents. This is a pretty crazy assertion from a guy "whose past is shadowed by questions about whether he worked without a proper visa when he first came to the United States in 1968" according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Immigrant advocates have been quick to denounce Schwarzenegger.

Maria Blanco, of the San Francisco-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, said the governor's "pandering" rhetoric to anti-immigrant forces will make it harder for any compromise solution on such a divisive issue.

"He continues to shoot from the hip, which is really becoming a liability for him. This is another step to the right. Because of that, we're really getting polarized again."

Blanco said Schwarzenegger's tone Tuesday was far different from the respectful, positive way he praised immigrants when he sought office during the 2003 recall campaign.

And Democrats have been quick to take advantage of the Governator's remark:

Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said, "He's become an Austrian Minuteman now. … It's very sad to see that someone with that capacity to lead and to govern is resorting to that."

There are many places in the US where Schwarzenegger's remark would be the norm, but here in California, already a majority "minority" (non-white) state, this stuff is poison.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Irreverent first reflections


Nasty and brutish we know…perhaps the best we can hope for is short.

Karl Rahner, Hans Kung and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger all die on the same day, and go to meet St. Peter to know their fate.

St. Peter approaches the three of them, and tells them that he will interview each of them to discuss their views on various issues.

He then points at Rahner and says "Karl! In my office..." After 4 hours, the door opens, and Rahner comes stumbling out of St. Peter's office. He is highly distraught, and is mumbling things like "Oh God, that was the hardest thing I've ever done! How could I have been so wrong! So sorry...never knew..." He stumbles off into Heaven, a testament to the mercy of Our God.

St. Peter follows him out, and sticks his finger in Kung's direction and "Hans! You're next..." After 8 hours, the door opens, and Kung comes out, barely able to stand. He is near collapse with weakness and a crushed spirit. He , too, is mumbling things like "Oh God, that was the hardest thing I've ever done! How could I have been so wrong! So sorry...never knew..." He stumbles off into Heaven, a testament to the mercy of Our God.

Lastly, St. Peter, emerging from his office, says to Cardinal Ratzinger, "Joseph, your turn." TWELVE HOURS LATER, St. Peter stumbles out the door, apparently exhausted, saying "Oh God, that's the hardest thing I've ever done..."

Monday, April 18, 2005

Nawal el Saadawi
. . .she just keeps on defying oppression

withsaasawi1984 copy
I see one of my favorite rabble-rousers is at it again; today Al Jazeera reports that Egyptian authorities stopped Dr. Saadawi, who wants to challenge President Hosni Mubarak in upcoming elections, from holding a free speech forum in her native village. "What threat could be posed if I hold a meeting with my fellow villagers?" she said to "Free elections cannot be held without freedom of speech and an effective mechanism to arrange meetings and forums."

Dr. Saadawi has been making trouble for a long time, according to a biographer.

[She] was born in 1931 in Kafr Tahla, a small village outside of Cairo. El Saadawi was raised in a large household with eight brothers and sisters. . . . [Her] father insisted that all of his children be educated. El Saadawi describes her mother as "a potential revolutionary whose ambition was buried in her marriage." Her mother died when she was 25, and her father shortly thereafter, both unable to witness the incredible accomplishments their daughter went on to make.

…Saadawi attended the University of Cairo and graduated in 1955 with a degree in psychiatry. After completing her education, El Saadawi practiced psychiatry and eventually rose to become Egypt's Director of Public Health. El Saadawi met her husband, Sherif Hetata, also a doctor, while working in the Ministry of Health, where the two shared an office together. …

During the 1970s, Dr. Saadawi began writing on women's rights and sexuality and rapidly found herself viewed as an enemy of the Egyptian state and therefore unemployed. Her books from this period, all originally published in Arabic, include Women and Sex, The Hidden Face of Eve, and a novel sympathetically depicting the rage of an oppressed peasant murderer, Woman at Point Zero. The murderer in the novel refuses clemency from authorities she indicts for making her life impossible, announcing "I prefer to die for a crime I have committed rather than to die for one of the crimes you have committed."

In 1981, Anwar Sadat (one of those "moderate" dictators the US props up in Middle Eastern countries) rounded up and imprisoned a mixed lot of 1500 of his opponents, including Saadawi. Her account of this jailing, Memoirs from the Women's Prison is a classic work of prison resistance literature, beginning with the terrifying knock at the door and the uncertainty of not knowing what would be done to her, continuing with the arbitrary brutality of being locked up, turning then to the unexpected sisterhood that developed between Islamist, Communist and modernist women all jailed together, and finally release after Sadat's assassination by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. After her release she started the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association "to rally Arab women behind the slogans 'Consciousness and Knowledge' and 'Unveiling the Mind.'"

In 1984, along with my partner and co-editor, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Saadawi for a US feminist publication. We thought we were hip, sophisticated US lesbians; Saadawi bowled us over with her audacity: "what's this about lesbians criticizing bi-sexuals?" was her first question to us. Then she went on to describe her experience of clitoridectomy at age six -- to describe the horror of hearing her own mother's voice among the shadowy robed figures who were mutilating her.

Saadawi was always a woman without an easy place in Egyptian society. Her village origins gave her a realistic perspective on a peasantry that urban Egyptian leftists too often romanticized. They would assert that since peasant women didn't wear veils, they must be liberated. Nonsense, said Saadawi, they are unveiled so they can work in the fields twelve hours a day. "The peasant woman is the slave of the slave." At the same time that she opposed Islamic fundamentalists as enemies of genuine liberation; she insisted that Israel and the US encouraged fundamentalism because nationalist democracy would overthrow their dominance of the region. We now have lots more evidence for this than we had then.

In the years since 1984, Saadawi has periodically received death threats from Islamists in Egypt, has taught at many universities around the world, and continued to speak for liberation of Arab women and Middle Eastern societies. She took part in a women's peace delegation to Iraq just before the first Gulf War and, as president of the Arab Women's International Solidarity Association, denounced the US's current invasion and occupation. The women thought there was a lot of blame to go around:

Arab governments are the metal shield that has permitted George Bush to dominate our region, to use military bases in the war, to hold back the men and women whose struggle can contribute to defeating the policies of the war mongering few.

In 2001, an Islamist lawyer brought a court case against her, claiming that she had transgressed against Islamic law, and so should be declared divorced from her husband, Sherif Hetata, who is an approving partner in her work for Arab women. International support helped convince the Egyptian government to throw out the case and the pair has since worked for abolition of the law of hisba, religious law governing domestic relations.

Though I doubt the Egyptian state will let her run, Dr. Saadawi would certainly make a ground breaking President. Actually, she'd make an equally groundbreaking President here. Maybe we should think about recruiting her if Arnold Schwarzenegger's fans succeed in removing the Constitutional requirement that US Presidents be born in the USA.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Disillusionment and resistance
ICHH, part 5

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), author
Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin

The historical setting in which Sinclair Lewis' It Can’t Happen Here takes place is very different from the one in which we live today. Our economy is not in collapse, leaving millions unemployed and starving. (At least not yet -- there are some disturbing omens, such as a growing gulf between rich and poor, out of sight oil prices coupled with an insane balance of payments deficit, and a steeply declining dollar, but the world may conspire to pull the US through.) In Lewis' time European fascism was on the march and the US ruling class, with less reasoned evidence, saw Soviet Communism as also an aggressive challenger.

We do live with far too many parallels -- we too suffer from noxious media that inflame populist passions against the rule of law, from racism and xenophobia (now aimed particularly at those other Semites, those perceived to be A-rabs), and from unscrupulous corporate profiteers and politicians who think that they can hold on to power by manipulating the baser passions of some of the people -- and who may learn that their "dupes" own them.

But history does not repeat itself and novels shouldn't be asked to predict reality. What lingers after reading ICHH is how acutely Lewis observes and describes human character traits that persist under extreme stress.

For example, this unsettling passage:

Under a tyranny, most friends are a liability. One quarter of them turn "reasonable" and become your enemies, one quarter are afraid to stop and speak and one quarter are killed and you die with them. But the blessed final quarter keep you alive.

He is merely saying that we are not all heroes. Most of the time that doesn't matter. When push comes to shove, it does, a great deal, but that doesn't change who we are. Painful, but I think true and better to admit it than to pretend otherwise.

Or this, a reflection by his reluctant protagonist on life's meaninglessness under the insurgent fascist Corpo state:

Day on day he waited. So much of a revolution for so many people is nothing but waiting. That is one reason why tourists rarely see anything but contentment in a crushed population. Waiting, and its brother death, seem so contented.

Lewis' view of human frailty was too unstinting to allow him to suggest an easy overthrow of the monstrosity whose rise he imagined. But he gives his unenthusiastically resisting protagonist these meditations on why fighting back matters. Doremus Jessup is a newspaper editor; his resistance begins with illicit writings:

Their feeble pamphlets, their smearily printed newspaper, seemed futile against the enormous blare of Corpo propaganda. It seemed worse than futile, it seemed insane, to risk martyrdom in a world where Fascists persecuted Communists, Communists persecuted Social–Democrats, Social–Democrats persecuted everybody who would stand for it; where "Aryans" who looked like Jews persecuted Jews who looked like Aryans and Jews persecuted their debtors; where every statesman and clergyman praised Peace and brightly asserted that the only way to get Peace was to get ready for War.

What conceivable reason could one have for seeking after righteousness in a world which so hated righteousness? Why do anything except eat and read and make love and provide for sleep that should be secure against disturbance by armed policemen?

He never did find any particularly good reason. He simply went on.

I'm with Lewis. When all else fails, keeping on keeping on is what makes us human -- that and the fact that we never know how any story ends until it is over.

Sometimes we do win one


This is a "YES, it can happen here!" -- something good, that is. I've got some new heros.

Merry Stephens was named Teacher of the Year in Bloomberg, Texas in 2004 and Coach of the Year in three out of five years in her tenure as head coach of the Lady Wildcats basketball team, but suddenly all that no longer mattered. . . . Stephens is a lesbian, and school district officials decided she needed to go.

[The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National Education Association/Texas State Teacher's Association] negotiated a settlement agreement on behalf of Stephens. . . . The school district agreed to pay Stephens for the last two years of her contract [amounting to $100,000.]

For most of my life, this story would have been impossible. My elementary school gym teacher was a lesbian I'm sure, but everyone carefully didn't ask questions about "Miss Wesp." My elementary school music teacher lived with another woman teacher for 30 years; again nobody asked.

But that was in a private school in a big city and these women came from known middle class families -- they were at least somewhat protected from any nosy bigots by their fathers' class status.

But Stephens lived in another world, in one of the reddest of red states, where bigoted pseudo-Christianity is a force.

In 1999, Stephens, who grew up in a small town in Arkansas, started coaching at the Bloomburg Independent School District, which is only one building, kindergarten through 12th grade, and last year had 264 students.

The next year, she moved from nearby Longview into Bloomburg, about 25 miles south of Texarkana, Tex. Most townspeople work at the paper mill a few miles away, in oil fields and in the chicken-raising and logging industries. Downtown is a three-block strip of neglected and abandoned buildings. . . .

Stephens learned quickly that everyone in town was interested in everyone else's business.

"They'd test me to try to figure out if I was a lesbian or not," she said. "They'd ask if I had a boyfriend or if I wanted one. I lied because I knew it would be career suicide to admit anything." In 2000, Stephens moved in with Sheila Dunlap, the school's bus driver and a teacher's aide. …

Some parents of Stephens's players wanted her gone. Craig Hale, who owns an oil company, said he does not want a lesbian teaching his children and possibly influencing the way they think. His daughter, Kaitlyn Cornelius, played for Stephens last season and said she felt uncomfortable around the coach, though she said Stephens never did anything inappropriate.

"I had nothing against her as a person," Hale said, but if he stood up for "one lesbian" that would mean he was "for them adopting kids, and my morals and the Bible doesn't allow that."

Three sisters on last year's team - Amy, Amber and April Medina - said that Stephens was a great coach and that they did not mind that she was a lesbian, though they never knew she was, for sure.

After the last basketball season, Stephens resigned as coach and took a full-time teaching job at the school. While 25 girls played basketball at Bloomburg in the 2003-4 season, only seven ended up on this season's team. Many quit because Coach Stephens was gone. . . .

Since leaving their school jobs, Stephens and Dunlap, who live in a spacious log house on nine acres, have started a concession business selling fruit drinks at fairs. They are still the talk of the town, especially because the school board election is coming up, pitting candidates who were pro-Coach Stephens against those who opposed her.

"There have been many times that I wanted to quit coaching because of the scrutiny and pressure of being what people wanted me to be," said Stephens, who said she may coach again somewhere. "So in a strange way, I'm glad this all happened. I can be who I really am now."

You go girl!! Do it for Miss Wesp and all the others who led cramped lives because telling the truth would have set them up to be ruined. Do it for everyone in California who fought the Briggs Initiative in 1979, a measure that would have outlawed allowing gay people to teach. Sometimes we do win one.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Brutal Violence
ICHH, part 4

KKK in Washington in 1925

KKK marching in DC in 1925

The defining characteristic of Sinclair Lewis' fictional fascist USA is brutal violence directed against any opposition and against scapegoats.

In It Can't Happen Here, frustrated, angry men (and a few token women) who have lost their livelihoods because of economic dislocation and who have lost their hope in conventional politics because Roosevelt's Democrats elected in 1932 didn't deliver, turn to a demagogue for hope. Organized first as the League of Forgotten Men by Bishop Prang, these morph into "Minute Men." And in the crucial turning point of the novel, they discover how much they enjoy killing.

New President Buzz Windrip announces immediately after his inauguration that he will rule without Congress and imprisons those Congressmen who resist.

The recalcitrant Congressmen had been penned in the District Jail. Toward it, in the winter evening, marched a mob that was noisily mutinous toward the Windrip for whom so many of them had voted. Among the mob buzzed hundreds of Negroes, armed with knives and old pistols, for one of the kidnapped Congressmen was a Negro from Georgia, the first colored Georgian to hold high office since carpetbagger days.

Surrounding the jail, behind machine guns, the rebels found a few Regulars, many police, and a horde of Minute Men, but at these last they jeered, calling them "Minnie Mouses" and "tin soldiers" and "mama's boys.". . . Half-a-dozen policemen with guns and night sticks, trying to push back the van of the mob, were buried under a human surf and came up grotesquely battered and ununiformed--those who ever did come up again. There were two shots; and one Minute Man slumped to the jail steps, another stood ludicrously holding a wrist that spurted blood.

The Minute Men--why, they said to themselves, they'd never meant to be soldiers anyway--just wanted to have some fun marching! … That instant, from a powerful loudspeaker in a lower window of the jail brayed the voice of President Berzelius Windrip:

. . ."I tell you that you are, ever since yesterday noon, the highest lords of the land--the aristocracy--the makers of the new America of freedom and justice. Boys! I need you! Help me--help me to help you! Stand fast! Anybody tries to block you--give the swine the point of your bayonet!"

A machine-gunner M.M., who had listened reverently, let loose. The mob began to drop, and into the backs of the wounded as they went staggering away the M.M. infantry, running, poked their bayonets. Such a juicy squash it made, and the fugitives looked so amazed, so funny, as they tumbled in grotesque heaps!

The M.M.'s hadn't, in dreary hours of bayonet drill, known this would be such sport.

Windrip's USA becomes a vicious prison of random violence, lethal to Jews and Blacks, dangerous to any who cross the newly empowered angry M.M.s.

Every moment everyone felt fear, nameless and omnipresent. They were as jumpy as men in a plague district. Any sudden sound, any unexplained footstep, any unfamiliar script on an envelope, made them startle; and for months they never felt secure enough to let themselves go, in complete sleep. And with the coming of fear went out their pride.

Lewis may have written a preachy, unfashionably engaged novel that disappoints admirers of literature, but in passages such as these he uses all his gifts to describe all too familiar human behaviors.

Contemporary US society certainly has some echoes of Lewis' fictional dystopia. We suffer from an ample supply of angry white men who feel that somehow they aren't getting their due -- pollster Stanley Greenberg calls them the "F-You Boys" and estimates they make up 13 percent of the population as well as a significant part of the Republican base. And we have contemporary Minutemen playing vigilante on the US border with Mexico, holding off the Brown hordes. (By the way, Lewis' fascist USA invades Mexico to keep up its martial spirit when enthusiasm for the Windrip's Corpo state begins to wane.) But we also live in a country where an Eric Rudolph (the abortion clinic and Olympic bomber) does go to jail and we execute a Timothy McVeigh -- political violence with impunity is not yet the order of the day.

The main locus of violence in US society today is far from the F-You boys and our home grown fascists. Whole communities, mostly Black and brown, are war zones, where young people are brutalized and can't count on growing up. Recently a 16-year old girl randomly cut the throat of a retired white woman in an upscale Berkeley neighborhood. The local media went berserk -- how could such a thing happen? San Francisco Chronicle columnists Joan Ryan wrote a column delving more deeply into the crime:

Walter Jackson, an assistant district attorney in the Alameda County juvenile department, is prosecuting the case. Susan Walsh works on the other side of the aisle; she is in charge of the public defenders in the juvenile department. They agree that the most unsettling aspect of this case is the fact we think it is unusual. Or that we think it has anything to do with evil.

The only thing unusual about this case, they say, is its location. There hasn't been a violent attack in that Berkeley neighborhood for as long as anyone can remember. But this girl seems like so many of the low-income, neglected, mentally ill kids Jackson and Walsh see every day.

"If you sat in Juvenile Court, you would see tragic stories just like this one every day,'' Walsh said.

Certainly we have to fear the violent posturing of the wingnut faction of the Republican right, but also this society must find a way to help these children growing up in circumstances where order and law are a joke.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Want to vote in the British election?

Actually, even thinking about US elections is just about enough for me, but some clever folks have created a quiz that gives you a chance to see how you'd probably vote on May 5 if you were a citizen of the UK.

Brits vote for parties that put out pretty detailed "election manifestos" (platforms in US diction). So voters have some idea what the parties stand for. The incumbent ruling party, led by Tony Blair, is Labour, no longer a union or socialist party, but still making claims on working class support. Labour is opposed by Conservatives (what they sound like), the UK Independence Party (anti-European and immigrant bashing), Greens, and Liberal Democrats (liberals who were against the Iraq war.) I don't know as much as I would want to make a decision based on the domestic issues. But if I were there, I know I'd have thought Britain should have taken its nose out of Bush's butt and joined Europe against the war. My results, and a link that you can use to take the quiz, appear below.

Who Should You Vote For?

Who should I vote for?

Your expected outcome:

Liberal Democrat

Your actual outcome:

Labour -40     
Conservative -57     
     Liberal Democrat 88
UK Independence Party -21     
     Green 46

You should vote: Liberal Democrat

The LibDems take a strong stand against tax cuts and a strong one in favour of public services: they would make long-term residential care for the elderly free across the UK, and scrap university tuition fees. They are in favour of a ban on smoking in public places, but would relax laws on cannabis. They propose to change vehicle taxation to be based on usage rather than ownership.

Take the test at Who Should You Vote For

By the way, Labour is expected to win because apparently Liberal Democrats are simply not a believable party of government. This is so even though majorities 1) oppose Labour's support for Bush's war and 2) don't trust Tony Blair to tell them the truth. Perhaps we in the States can be grateful that others can find themselves as frustrated with their political choices as we do.

That old time religion ain't good enough anymore
ICHH, part 3


Father Coughlin first took to the airwaves in 1926, broadcasting weekly sermons over the radio. By the early 1930s the content of his broadcasts had shifted from theology to economics and politics. Just as the rest of the nation was obsessed by matters economic and political in the aftermath of the Depression, so too was Father Coughlin.

He began as an early Roosevelt supporter, coining a famous expression, that the nation's choice was between "Roosevelt or ruin." Later in the 1930s he turned against FDR and became one of the president's harshest critics. His program of "social justice" was a very radical challenge to unbridled capitalism and to many of the political institutions of his day.

A modern writer, Donald Warren, describes Coughlin as an ardent anti-Communist who backed the fascist regimes of both Hitler and Mussolini, but is probably best-remembered for his anti-Semitic tirades. He labels him "the father of hate radio."

In Sinclair Lewis' novel, a Fr. Coughlin-like "religious" broadcaster not only promotes the presidential candidacy of the fascist Senator Buzz Windrip, but also, through his organized followers, provides the muscle to go with his drive to power.

The rival to Senator Windrip in public reverence was a political titan who seemed to have no itch for office—the Reverend Paul Peter Prang, of Persepolis, Indiana, Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a man perhaps ten years older than Windrip. His weekly radio address, at 2 P.M. every Saturday, was to millions the very oracle of God. So supernatural was this voice from the air that for it men delayed their golf, and women even postponed their Saturday afternoon contract bridge.. . .

To the pioneer Father Coughlin, Bishop Paul Peter Prang was as the Ford V-8 to the Model A.. . .

No man in history has ever had such an audience as Bishop Prang, nor so much apparent power. When he demanded that his auditors telegraph their congressmen to vote on a bill as he, Prang, ex cathedra and alone, without any college of cardinals, had been inspired to believe they ought to vote, then fifty thousand people would telephone, or drive through back-hill mud, to the nearest telegraph office and in His name give their commands to the government. ...

There was a theory around some place that Prang was only the humble voice of his vast organization, "The League of Forgotten Men." It was universally believed to have (though no firm of chartered accountants had yet examined its rolls) twenty-seven million members. ...Hither and yon, Bishop Prang, not as the still small voice of God but in lofty person, addressed audiences of twenty thousand persons at a time, in the larger cities all over the country, speaking in huge halls meant for prize-fighting, in cinema palaces, in armories, in baseball parks, in circus tents, while after the meetings his brisk assistants accepted membership applications and dues for the League of Forgotten Men. When his timid detractors hinted that this was all very romantic, very jolly and picturesque, but not particularly dignified, and Bishop Prang answered, "My Master delighted to speak in whatever vulgar assembly would listen to Him," no one dared answer him, "But you aren’t your Master—not yet."

Scary stuff in a time when we have a House Majority leader telling the Washington Times that an "out of control" judiciary has imposed "a separation of church and state that's nowhere in the Constitution." This stuff keeps on coming back.

Poignant, at least for me, is Lewis's picture of US Christianity providing no defense whatever against aggressive fascism. As repression takes hold in the protagonist Doremus Jessup's small Vermont town, he visits the local Episcopal Church. The well-known prayers merely saddened him:

The lovely, familiar old ritual seemed meaningless to him now, with no more pertinence to a life menaced by Buzz Windrip and his Minute Men, no more comfort for having lost his own deep pride in being an American, than a stage revival of an equally lovely and familiar Elizabethan play. ...However exalted [the priest] himself might be, most of the congregation were Yorkshire pudding. ...the whole place smelled to Doremus of stale muffins.

I have to wonder, has "mainstream" Protestantism any more moral authority or backbone than the class-bound, conventional Christianity Lewis portrays here?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Tax time: rip offs and private enterprise

IRS recruiting ad

Today I did my taxes -- neither at the absolute last minute, nor in a timely fashion. But I'm done with them. I will owe very little and I know a little more about what I did with money last year than I did yesterday. So it goes.

For a couple of weeks I've been collecting material about US taxation and the way our finances work generally. In addition to obvious corruption and corporate rip offs, what keeps coming up is how the tax system is designed to help the usual suspects, the already rich, get the most out of everybody else.

First some representative samples of corruption and rip offs assembled by the Institute for Southern Studies:

Percent that state income tax collected from corporations has dropped since 1989: 40
Amount of federal revenue lost yearly due to corporate offshore tax havens: $255 billion
Amount lost from corporations underreporting their income: $30 billion
Of 275 largest corporations, number that didn't pay any taxes at least on year between 2001 and 2003: 82
Amount of spending the Pentagon admits it cannot account for: $2.3 trillion
Amount this represents for every person in the United States: $8,000
Amount that Halliburton is known to have overcharged the government on one of its Iraq contracts: $212 million
Amount of federal money earmarked for Wal-Mart in 2005 transportation bill to widen the road to their headquarters: $37 million
Number of hours it takes for Wal-Mart to make $37 million in profits: 31

But even more outrageous to me is the overwhelming evidence that the tax system directly channels yet more money from the working poor to the owners of finance companies.

Consider those refund anticipation loans enthusiastically offered by tax preparers to their strapped clients. They offer an immediate advance against your refund that they just calculated for you. Hard to resist? You bet! Not a good idea though and one that particularly fleeces racial minorities and the poor.

You've seen the ads. Simply sign a form with your tax preparer when filing your taxes, pay a fee and walk out with up to $5,000 cash against your coming refund check.

What you may not notice is the exorbitant annual percentage rate on that loan. But consumer groups have. They say these short-term, high-interest loans prey on the very people who can least afford them.

… tax preparers are by no means the only refund-loan vendors.

Car dealers have applied anticipated refunds toward auto down payments, joining check-cashing services, retailers, Internet sites and tax-software companies in promoting the loans as tax-season incentives to get more business. …

"Yes, it seems like a small amount of money and it would be if this were a one- or two-year loan, but it's not. It's a 10-day loan. That makes all the difference in the world."

Just how do refund loan lenders get away with the high interest rates? Major tax preparers circumvent state usury rate caps by partnering with banks chartered in states such as South Dakota and Delaware that have no caps.

The folks who are most vulnerable to getting ripped off by these loans are folks who need to use commercial tax preparers in order to take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC is the largest federal poverty assistance program; the IRS makes it darn hard to get without sophisticated tax preparation however. EITC filers don't owe any taxes; they worked hard and have a refund coming; and they are by definition poor enough so the prospect of immediate money is hard to resist.

A National Consumer Law Center study estimates that refund loans drained about $324 million from the EITC program in 2002. Based on national averages, an EITC borrower could expect to pay $267 in fees for refund loan, electronic filing, check cashing and tax preparation fees to obtain a $1,600 refund.…

"There is no evidence that Congress has any concern about the entire area of predatory financial services that strips wealth from their constituents that can least afford to lose any money to the sharks," says [Jean Ann Fox, Comsumer Federation of America director of consumer protection.] "The IRS has a huge incentive to cast a blind eye to what is going on in the refund loan market."

I guess this is just run of the mill privatization. It is not enough for the feds to take our money; they have to make sure that some private enterprise gets its cut too.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Lord what fools these mortals be. . .*
ICHH, part 2


On October 27, 1936, It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, opened simultaneously in twenty-one theaters in seventeen states. The Los Angeles Yiddish production, pictured here, featured Morris Weisman as "Buzz" Windrip. Federal Theatre Project Collection

For those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, at least in the north and west, US fascists seemed pretty darn remote, even quaint. Of course there were segregationists clubbing freedom riders and blowing up kids in churches, but that seemed another country and certainly against the law of the land. There was a nutcase named George Lincoln Rockwell who paraded around with swastika armbands. But threatening fascists were figures of European history, monsters our parents' generation had defeated in World War II.

Sinclair Lewis's novel springs from a premise that certainly would have seemed far-fetched in those days: a demagogic fascist senator, one Buzz Windrip, wins the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency in 1936, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt fails to find solutions to the economic and social distress caused by the Great Depression. (This certainly seems wildly farfetched today as we know Roosevelt swept 46 states in that year; however, before opinion polls, progressives really feared that attacks by right wing demagogues might sweep him from office. One of the best accounts of this period I know of is the second volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, The Defining Years, 1933-1938.)

Roosevelt, in horror, bolts the Democrats to form the Jeffersonian Party, splitting the opposition to Windrip with the Republicans. The US majority rallies to the man who promises everything to everyone (except for Jews and Negroes) and fascism is voted into office.

Lewis's description of the emotionally charged political environment rings too many bells for my comfort:

The conspicuous fault of the Jeffersonian Party, like the personal fault of [its candidate], was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for the peppery sensations associated, usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates, but with baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whisky, angelic orchestras soaring down from the full moon, fear of death when an automobile teeters above a canyon, thirst in a desert and quenching it with spring water -- all the primitive sensations they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.

The rest of the novel catalogues the horrors perpetrated by the fascist regime so blithely elected.

Lewis ends his novel, still bemoaning the ignorance of the people in general. After terrible atrocities, some revolted, but the revolt stalled:

. . .because in the America, which had so warmly praised itself for its "widespread popular free education," there had been so very little education, widespread, popular, free, or anything else, that most people did not know what they wanted -- indeed knew about so few things to want at all.

There had been plenty of schoolrooms; there had been lacking only literate teachers and eager pupils and school boards who regarded teaching as a profession worthy of as much honor and pay as insurance-selling or embalming or waiting on table. Most Americans had learned in school that God had supplanted the Jews as chosen people by the Americans, and this time done the job much better, so that we were the richest, kindest, and cleverest nation living; that depressions were but passing headaches and that labor unions must not concern themselves with anything except higher wages and shorter hours and, above all, must not set up an ugly class struggle by combining politically; that, though foreigners tried to make a bogus mystery of them, politics were really so simple that any village attorney or any clerk in the office of a metropolitan sheriff was quite adequately trained for them. . . .

I have to admit that this description depresses me: arrogant nationalism, anti-intellectualism, and failure to grasp and act on our own economic interests seem still among our country's besetting sins. I know most teachers try hard to impart something more, but through emphasis on testing rote learning and "starving the beast," we more and more make our schools places of confinement for the young, rather than arenas in which they learn to exercise independent thought.

*A Midsummer Night's Dream

Sunday, April 10, 2005

It Can't Happen Here (ICHH) by Sinclair Lewis, part 1


Okay, having appropriated Lewis' title for my blog theme, I've read his novel. I found it plenty rich enough so that this will be the first of a series of posts bouncing off it. It Can't Happen Here is a scary fable of homegrown US fascism overwhelming the US political system in the context of the Depression 1930s.

Sinclair Lewis had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the 1920s; his fiction so honored satirized the bumptious, shallow middle class in the United States. During the Depression of the 1930s, he had intimate reason to understand the rise of fascism in Europe, as his wife, Dorothy Thompson, had worked as a correspondent in Berlin during Hitler's rise to power. In 1935 he responded to the fascist potential he saw around him by dashing off this novel, which quickly became a bestseller; it was also widely produced as a play by the Federal Theatre Project.

Interestingly, apparently I'm confessing my crassness and naiveté by thinking highly of this book. Literary critics are pretty dismissive of ICHH. Robert E. Fleming of the University of New Mexico calls it "artistically inferior." David Neiwert of Orcinus whose writing on contemporary fascist tendencies I'll be visiting in these posts, calls ICHH "one of his weakest works; it lacks most of the human detail and probing realism of his greatest novels."

Most oddly, Michael Meyer, the professor of English who thought the book important enough to write the introduction to the 2005 Signet paperback edition, puts us on notice that many reviewers "complained about the novel's loose melodramatic plot, flat and even corny characters, weak clichéd dialogue, padded political discourse, awkward sentimentality, and heavy handed satire and irony…"

Why so dismissive? I think this book scares the beegeesus out of anyone who is seriously considering whether US fascism is possible or likely. None of us want to admit that we do have to raise the question. Lewis can't answer it for us; he's dead. But the question, "can it happen here?" is all too live.

Demographic facts on the ground

Israel-Palestine mourners

When populations change, previously dominant populations can find themselves under pressure to share power. They can respond gracefully to manage change or repressively to impede demographic realities from being mirrored in political power. Or both.

In California in the US, white voters spent the 1990s erecting barriers to the emerging majority of people of color with initiatives that aimed to exclude undocumented immigrants from social services and to end affirmative action for previously disadvantaged groups. Though all concede the state now has a majority of people of color, and Latino politicians are a growing fraction of state legislators, nativist fears still animate whites on many issues, such as requiring driver's licenses and insurance from undocumented drivers.

Where European colonial powers drew national boundaries for other people's countries, changes in the relative size of groups in the resulting populations have led to all kinds of tensions. The US is now riding out under its occupation the rising of numerically dominant Shi'a Iraqis against the British-favored Sunnis who ran the place after decolonization. French colonialists left Lebanon with a rigid confessional government structure based on a 1932 census that has nothing to do with present demographic reality. Lebanese fought a civil war from 1975-1990 over who was really in charge; observers watch fearfully to see whether today's Lebanese politicians can create a more genuinely representative structure after Syria leaves the country.

But the really scary place where demographic realities point to unavoidable change is Israel/Palestine. The U.S. State Department's Country Reports On Human Rights Practices, 2004, hidden among thousands of words, reports that the population of the Palestinian occupied territories and Israel proper for the first time shows a Palestinian majority.

The figures are:

Jewish -- 5,200,000 -- 48%

Palestinian -- 5,337,185 -- 49.3%

Other Minorities -- 290,000 -- 2.7%

Total -- 10,827,185 -- 100%

No wonder Sharon wants to get out of Gaza; Israel needs to shed Palestinians as fast as possible if it is to continue to promote itself as a representative democracy. US media have not noted this development, but they are not known their probing coverage of Israeli/Palestinian realities.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

I've joined a new movement


My Unitarian Jihad Name is: Sister Bomb Throwing Rabblerouser of Compassion.

Get yours
Click on "appeal to name assignment committee" to see choices.

We are Unitarian Jihad! We can strike without warning. Pockets of reasonableness and harmony will appear as if from nowhere! Nice people will run the government again! There will be coffee and cookies in the Gandhi Room after the revolution.

Thanks to Jon Carroll and Bill Humphries.



We grow them at home.

ATLANTA, April 8 - Eric Robert Rudolph, the former fugitive who evaded capture in the North Carolina mountains for more than five years, has agreed to plead guilty to bombings that killed two people and injured more than 150 others at abortion clinics and at the 1996 Olympics here, the Department of Justice said on Friday.…

Mr. Rudolph, who moved with his family from Florida to North Carolina after his father died when he was a teenager, became emblematic of a link between white supremacists, antigovernment sentiment and the anti-abortion movement. In ninth grade he wrote an essay arguing that the Holocaust never happened. For a time in his teenage years, his mother took him to Missouri to live with a religious sect called Christian Identity, which opposes abortion, homosexuality and interracial marriage.

We create conditions that draw terrorists to Iraq.

GHARAF, Iraq -- Over the loudspeakers set up in this small town in a backwater of southern Iraq, the commands came in staccato bursts. "Forward!" a man clad in black shouted to the militiamen. "March!"…

"Wherever America is present, then there is terrorism," Saadi said. "When they ask the terrorists why they're here, they say we came to fight America. If America leaves, there would be no terrorism. Terrorism would leave with it."

I could try to write something cheery about all this, and later today I may, but right now I am going to run over green hillsides and give thanks for being able to move and breathe in another spring.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Is this "terrorism" or assimilation gone sour?

Artist Deborah Kelly, 2003

One of my favorite reporters, Nina Bernstein of the New York Times, has turned a spotlight on yet another case in which fear, confusion, and racial/cultural ignorance have swept up immigrant children as threats to national security.

Two 16-year-old girls from New York City were arrested last month and charged with immigration violations after the F.B.I. asserted that they intended to become suicide bombers… the F.B.I. believed the girls presented "an imminent threat to the security of the United States based upon evidence that they plan to be suicide bombers."

Even "government officials" doubt this case has any substance.

"There are doubts about these claims, and no evidence has been found that such a plot was in the works," said the government official in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case involves a pending legal matter. A senior law enforcement official in New York voiced the same doubts.

Parents of one of the girls apparently went to the police because they were having trouble dealing with their daughter, a fairly common event when immigrant parents confront US-acculturated children. That encounter led them into a Kafkaesque maze.

Police detectives, and then federal immigration agents, searched her belongings and confiscated her computer and the essays that she had written as part of a home schooling program, according to the family. One essay concerned suicide. The family maintained that the essay asserted that suicide is against Islamic law, but it led investigators to question her sharply about her political beliefs.… The mother said her daughter would be schooled at home and was seeking a high school equivalency degree because of conflicts between her Islamic dress code - a full veil - and the school's dress code.

According to the family, the detectives, who had no warrant, searched the house and the teenager's belongings. …

Last night, a 20-year-old woman friend of the Bangladeshi teenager said she had known the young woman for three years and was close to her. Told of the allegations, she responded in disbelief, "That's crazy."

Maybe not crazy -- just par for the course these fear-ridden days.

Update -- More from NYT, April 8

The father, a Bangladeshi watch salesman who describes himself as far more devoted to American education than to prayer after 13 years as an immigrant illegally in the United States, said he pushed for his daughter to return to public school.

Then last fall, the daughter he also describes as loving Bollywood soap operas and shopping with girlfriends startled him and her mother by seeking their approval to marry a young American Muslim man they had never met and whom she barely knew. The father refused the marriage overtures, which were made by the young man's father in a call from Michigan. A few months later, when the teenager stayed out overnight for the first time, the father, fearing an elopement, went to the police for help.

It is a decision he regrets deeply.

Next thing the family knew, federal agents we rumaging through the teenager's bedroom!

The story about the second girl is even more bizarre:

Little is known about the second 16-year-old. The mother of the Bangladeshi girl, conveying her daughter's account, said the two girls met for the first time at 26 Federal Plaza after her daughter's arrest. But when the other girl, a Guinean who was facing deportation with her family, noticed her daughter's veil, she gave her a traditional Muslim greeting, and federal agents seemed to think they were friends. The second girl ended up in the Pennsylvania detention center, too.

It gets worse. These young women are in a legal black hole.

There are no firm time limits on immigration detention, so the burden is on the girls to prove that they are not potential suicide bombers, rather than on the government to prove they are.…

The girls have no right to a court-appointed lawyer, and according to the government document that described the Guinean girl, her family had not retained one.

The Bangladeshi girl's father, who sells cheap watches wholesale and, he said, earns less than $16,000 a year, hired a New York immigration lawyer for $2,500. But the lawyer declined to attend her first hearing, according to a motion he filed seeking to handle the matter "telephonically," because of "time constraints."

They are seeking another lawyer.

Land of the free and the home of the brave, huh?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

More women taken hostage in Iraq


If you were to do a Google search for "women hostages in Iraq" there are thousands of entries. Chinese women taken; Italian women taken -- these by "insurgents," that catch-all name for various Iraqi nationalists, outraged Islamists, bandits, and general plug-uglies.

But today, "women hostages in Iraq" brings up a new category of hostage taking: a Reuters story by Michael Georgy titled "US Probes Whether Troops Hold Iraq Women 'Hostage'".

Arkan Mukhlif al-Batawi has accused U.S. troops of taking his mother and sister hostage after raiding the family home on Saturday. He claimed:

[T]he women had been arrested to try to pressure him and his brothers Muhammad and Saddam to surrender themselves to U.S. troops who suspect them of insurgent attacks.

A handwritten note in Arabic at the house read: "Be a man Muhammad Mukhlif and give yourself up and then we will release your sisters. Otherwise they will spend a long time in detention." It was signed "Bandit 6," apparently U.S. army code, possibly designating a company commander.…

When Reuters called a mobile phone number left on the note, an American who said he was a soldier appeared to be aware of Batawi's accusation but declined further comment.…

Neighbors interviewed around Batawi's villa in the capital's Sunni Arab suburb of Taji corroborated his account.

They said U.S. troops accompanied by Iraqi police had arrested Batawi's 65-year-old mother and a sister who is 35, and had told locals through an interpreter that the women would be freed only once the brothers surrendered themselves.

The US Army promises to "investigate thoroughly" as the title of the Reuters story indicates.

Eventually the Iraqis will throw the US out, whether by attrition or by popular insurrection. In the meantime, our impotent Army piles insult on outrage, flailing against enemies it cannot understand or defeat.