Monday, October 31, 2005

Are we here yet?

"The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. …"

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 166-73 of They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1955, 1966 by the University of Chicago.

Let's see, the Preznit just appointed to the Supreme Court a guy who, according to Think Progress:
  • thinks states should have the right to force women to have unwanted children;
  • would allow employers to make (their favorite) race a condition for employment;
  • would permit disability-based discrimination;
  • thinks Congress can't mandate a right for employees to take unpaid leave to care for a loved one;
  • supports strip searches of persons not named in a warrant, including a 10 year old girl;
  • has ignored settled law to rule against protections for immigrants.
Charming gentleman.

It still looks like a liberal democratic country, but is it?

Bishop Gene Robinson speaks at St. John the Evangelist

Yesterday Bishop Eugene V. Robinson of New Hampshire presided over the Eucharist at my little no-count Episcopal parish in San Francisco's Mission District. Bishop Robinson is the "gay bishop," the person whose election and confirmation is the proclaimed casus belli that is exposing strains within the worldwide Anglican Communion. (I think there is a lot more to this conflict; the best primer on the issues I know of appears here.)

After the service, Bishop Robinson talked for nearly an hour with members and friends gathered to meet him. Some points:
  • by supporting gay inclusion, the Episcopal Church is putting its life on the line for the first time since the Civil Rights movement. [Though I know plenty of Black and Brown people who would question whether more than a tiny handful of white religious folks put lives on the line then, I believe Robinson is right that our homophobic conservatives take the decision of the ECUSA to fully include gays as a life and death issue. And what are churches for if not life and death issues?]
  • the intense homophobia of some parts of the Church is a form of misogyny, of a piece with opposition to women's priestly leadership;
  • if Episcopalians really care about being in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Global South, we can work to ensure that the ECUSA honors its verbal commitment to the U.N. Millenium Goals by committing at least .07 percent of all budgets to this work;
  • churches ultimately need to get out of the business of marrying people for the state -- they should stick to blessing people's relationships before God. We need new language which separates the form of relationship that legally regulates childcare responsibilities and inheritance ("marriage"?) from a relationship blessed by a religious community ("matrimony"?) The confusion of the two makes the question of "gay marriage" that much more volatile and impedes achievement of full gay civil rights.
Bishop Robinson was warm, wise, sometimes funny, and tough at the same time. If we get a new Bishop here in the Diocese of California (we're in a search and election process now) anywhere near as inspiring, we'll be very fortunate indeed.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Precinct walk against Gov. Arnold:
a photo essay

I spent yesterday afternoon going door to door in Oakland with two young women from Californians from Justice (CFJ)* urging infrequent voters to turn down Arnold's initiatives as well as Prop. 73, a measure that requires parental notification before youth exercise their abortion right.

Oakland is friendly territory -- the question here is not whether folks will oppose the Governor's power grab, but whether they will vote at all. Several people said they were not going to vote: "My vote doesn't count; they put Bush back in." My young friend begged these people to go out again: "I'm only 17 and I can't vote. Don't let Arnold take the money for the schools." At least one citizen promised she'd turn out one more time.

Precinct walks happen because people sign up.

Walkers are trained on their goals.

Walkers are trained about the propositions.

The group listened attentively.

Here's what we handed out.

This woman had an absentee ballot. After talking with the young women for awhile, she said she'd be sure to mail it in.

She voted for Arnold in the recall; but not again: "He's bad for the Mexicans!"

This voter was a teacher who wanted to talk.

When you walk a precinct, you have to keep track of your lists.

And when you bring your lists back, organizers check over the results.

After all that walking around, it is easy to feel at little glazed over.

*Full disclosure: I worked for CFJ in 1995-6 and again in 2003. The group describes itself as "a 10 year old statewide grassroots organization working to empower communities that have been pushed to the margins of the political process. We bring people of color, young people, and poor people together by leading large-scale community education efforts, training a new generation of grassroots civil rights leaders, and mobilizing public support for major public policy change in California."

Friday, October 28, 2005

We can do better: "Quake copters may be grounded"

A father and son wait to board a helicopter to Islamabad. © UNHCR/B.Baloch

As winter closes in, survivors of the October 8 Pakistan earthquake are in danger of freezing to death without help from the world.

Aid workers are scrambling to supply the millions of Pakistanis who have no food, water, shelter or medicine in the freezing temperatures of the Himalayas. Workers have resorted to rafts and pack mules to reach them, but helicopters, though costly, have proven the most useful.

"When the money runs out, the choppers stay on the ground and that's what's going to start happening in the next couple of days," said Robert Smith, financial expert at the United Nations' leading disaster-relief body, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (Reuters AlertNet)

The earthquake is believed to have killed 55,000 people; among natural disasters in the last hundred years, that makes this event one of worst ten.

And aid is simply not getting through.

Marc Joolen, Medicins Sans Frontieres's Operations Coordinator, flew over … to get some perspective on how much relief work had been done at the southern end of the quake's death zone in Pakistani Kashmir….

"It's crap -- there are hardly any tents distributed so far," he says as the helicopter swoops over ridge after ridge dotted with sloping tin roofs atop the rubble of caved-in walls that used to be houses. "It seems the higher you go the worse it gets…"

In places people run out waving white handkerchiefs, hoping the helicopter will bring salvation. Joolen tells the pilot not to go any closer for fear of blowing away the cotton and plastic sheets the destitute villagers are using for makeshift shelter. (MSF)

And potential donor countries just are not rising to the need. Pledges have been made for long term reconstruction, but people's needs are not getting support. Jo Leadbeater, Oxfam's Head of Advocacy, insists "we needed 30 times more than they pledged."

Not surprisingly some countries are doing more than others. Oxfam has created an interesting chart showing how much governments have pledged, as a percentage what their fair share of the UN's estimate of need suggests, according to each country's wealth. (Available as a pdf here.) Several countries have promised more than their fair share: Sweden (298%); Luxembourg (211%); Netherlands (135%); Denmark (119%). Others are contributing respectably: Canada (90%); Norway (84%); United Kingdom (79%); and Australia (63%). And some very rich countries have responded pitifully: Japan (16%); Germany (14%); the United States (9%); and France (0%).

Individuals who can do their little bit have numerous good agencies to choose from. Some of my favorites:

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Observations: Seven U.S. cities in 16 days

DC view

The view out the window was often the same: derricks raising virtually identical new concrete and steel buildings. Clearly there are parts of this economy that are booming. If you spend your life in this bubble, you barely see the other parts, which may explain why the devastated Black New Orleans was such a shock and even why we re-elected President Nincompoop.

What follows are some completely personal and probably ignorant observations mostly from second class business hotels while traveling for work:

Baltimore Inner Harbor: a boom town of rather conventional tourist attractions including a Hard Rock Café in a former brick power generating station. Last summer I saw a modern mall in the Monteflores section of Lima, Peru; I'm not sure a deaf visitor from another planet could tell the difference from this one in Baltimore. Perhaps the monster painted crabs are what distinguish the Maryland city.

Washington, DC, 12th and K Streets: more construction -- and a 7 AM picket line outside protesting the use of non-union construction labor. Here, as in Baltimore, it was impossible to walk a block from the hotel without running into a sidewalk diverted into the street for construction. L'Enfant's wide boulevards do make DC a city in which traffic moves comparatively well; all the construction impediments seem minimally disruptive.

Chicago: Medical District Marriott: No derricks here, just lovely yellow and gold autumn leaves. I'm enough of a Californian to forget that this is what we should expect from deciduous trees in October. Construction however is going strong here as well -- on the highway system. It took me an hour to get out of the city because of roadwork.

On the road across Indiana and Michigan: this was great day to be part of middle-American culture, stuck in traffic with Notre Dame football fans (and a smattering of USC boosters in stretch limos) on the way to South Bend; then fighting my way through Ann Arbor just as Michigan kicked off against Penn State.

Detroit Renaissance Center: Surrealistic glass and steel hotel and office building, 80 stories high, General Motors' headquarters, across the river from a Windsor, Ontario casino. The tunnel under the Detroit River from Canada surfaces here. The only reason I don't see a construction crane out the window is that my view is limited to the river; nextdoor one rises from an empty lot.

It took me about an hour and a half to get into this city, thanks to repairs on Interstate 96. The time spent on surface streets showed the classic devastation I expect in rustbelt African American areas: boarded up storefronts in tired looking two story brick buildings; streets empty except around liquor stores; stagnation and sadness. Oh and a couple of monumental megachurches -- those pastors build, whatever else they do.

The downtown is absolutely dead; nothing open on weekends, and though thousands must be employed in these glittering towers, no small business that would serve the weekday workers either. Renaissance Center is an epic monument to failed city planning. The hotel echoes the general failure in ways that are almost comic: even the coffee pots don't work and room service doesn't answer its phone.

Cleveland, OH, Public Square: after Detroit, downtown Cleveland seems clean and bustling, but I really get a sense of prosperity here when I venture to a suburban shopping mall. They have rich people here. And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next to the lake. They also have poor Black residents in the older sections and an astonishing number of cold, gray, sometimes ornate late 19th and early 20th century stone churches. Here's one with a mammoth modern hospital rising next to it.

Cincinnati, OH: Another downtown that has lost its work-a-day reasons for being and seeks to live off conventions and sports. In contrast to Detroit though, it seemed at least that weekend to succeed: the Pittsburgh Steelers were in town to play the Cincinnati Bengals and their fans with them. There were some awfully deflated local tigers when when their champions faltered badly. In autumn, all depends on football?

Louisville, KY: Another downtown hoping for tourists, but somehow, though smaller, seeming more healthy than Cincinnati. An old waterfront street is being rehabbed as an arts district. The incoming tourists for the week were thousands of high school aged Future Farmers of America giving the place young life. Or perhaps I was just influenced by the extraordinary sunrise I glimpsed over a modern bit of skyline.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Blog toys I didn't resist

A clever student of business has come up with a formula to quantity what a blog is worth in cash. Frankly, I think his result for this blog proves the formula is flawed; while I enjoy writing here, I'm pretty sure this has no monetary value. FWIW:

My blog is worth $14,113.50.
How much is your blog worth?

Another site offers a questionnaire that promises to answer the question "What famous leader are you?" This was not something I'd asked myself; I figure I am myself. However I took the thing and got the result below -- three times on three different days, so at least this test yields replicable results.

I'm sure I'd be more comfortable with a result that named a woman. And much as I respect Gandhi's very effective use of culturally appropriate non-violent struggle against British imperialism, his practice as an old, married man of sleeping next to naked virgins in order to test his self-control leaves him not entirely admirable in my book. I mean, I share my bed not only with my partner but also with an encroaching, indignant feline -- but somehow that is in a different category.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Two thousand US deaths in Iraq evoke a violation of Godwin's Law*

I was at a meeting tonight about the need for a movement for universal health care in this country. Many good and useful things were said; information and inspiration was taken.

Finally people broke up in small groups and began chewing over stories. Eventually someone said it: "I'm still not over the last election. Sometimes I just think something is wrong with the people of this country . . . I can sort of understand how they could elect [sic] Bush the first time, but to do it again…" Yes, I've heard that before, a lot.

I came home to read that the 2000th US death has happened in Iraq. Quite literally, only God knows how many Iraqis have been killed in the plague of death our country has released there.

How indeed can the people of the US continue our silent complicity in this crime? This week I am looking for answers in Milton Mayer's classic 1955 study They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. A US Jew who had worked with Quakers, Mayer really wanted to know what made very ordinary men tick under the Nazi regime. (This was not a time that much noted women.) He packed up his family and lived for a year in a small German town, getting to know ten self-identified former Nazi "little men." The book is their story.

Here is a passage from Mayer that speaks chillingly about why those Nazis clung to their leader:

None of my ten friends, even today, ascribes moral evil to Hitler, although most of them think (after the fact) that he made fatal strategic mistakes which even they themselves might have made at the time….

Having fixed our faith in a father-figure … we must keep it fixed until inexcusable fault (and what fault of a father…is inexcusable?) crushes it at once and completely. This figure represents our own best selves; it is what we ourselves want to be and, through identification, are. To abandon it for anything less than crushing evidence of inexcusable fault is self-incrimination, and of one's best, unrealized self. Thus Hitler was betrayed by his subordinates and the little Nazis with him. They may hate Bormann and Goebbels .… They may hate Himmler…. But they may not hate Hitler or themselves.

As the Iraq war claims the 2000th US death and we sit on the edge of indictments of Bush's subordinates for actions they took to defend their criminal war, we can only hope that a majority of the people of this country do not feel the need to cling to the faulty father-figure they've made.

*Godwin's Law is an internet convention ruling out further discussion when someone brings up Hitler. Wikipedia.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Morning Retch: Racial Profiling in Katrina's aftermath

According to Janet Murguia, of the National Council of La Raza in an oped in today's Washington Post: "The Wall Street Journal reported early this month that 'police and the U.S. Marshals Service swept into a Red Cross shelter for hurricane refugees [in Long Beach, Miss.]. They blocked the parking lot and exits and demanded identification from about 60 people who looked Hispanic, including some pulled out of the shower and bathroom, according to witnesses.'" They aimed to deport "illegal" hurricane evacuees.

What in the world is "looked Hispanic?" That's a category in the Marshals' fevered brains. Maybe they thought they'd find folks lazing around under broad brim hats?

In fact, among others, they found "at least one shelter manager, a former Marine and a Vietnam veteran who happened to be Hispanic. …[He] was also temporarily detained and screened."

The U.S. Keystone Cops would be funny, if they weren't messing with people whose lives had already been blown to bits. Murguia makes a point for all of us:

If there were an outbreak of communicable disease in Katrina's wake -- which is not unthinkable under the circumstances -- the last thing you want to do is convince a segment of the nation's largest minority that the government is not a safe source of preventive care and treatment. If, God forbid, the next crisis involves a biological weapon or an influenza outbreak, the government has just undermined its ability to keep us all safe. Lives are on the line, and not just the lives of the immigrants we too often find expendable.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Dr. Paul Farmer: moral irritant?

Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health, at his clinic in Cange, Haiti, in a scene from "A Closer Walk," an exploration of the social meaning of the AIDS epidemic. Photo by Worldwide Documentaries, Inc.

Dr. Paul Farmer believes that it is duty of doctors to serve sick people -- all of them, everywhere, though he has assumed a particular burden of affection and care for the poor of impoverished central Haiti. Tracy Kidder's Mountains beyond Mountains chronicles
  • Farmer's hands-on doctoring of patients;
  • Partners in Health, the organization he and his friends created to give support to his projects and eventually other medical initiatives;
  • Farmer's influential academic work in medical anthropology and as a professor at Harvard;
  • and the enormous impact he has had on world health policy, convincing dubious authorities and funders that the poor, including those carrying resistant TB and HIV, deserve all the care modern medicine can offer them.
Farmer's example of devotion to principle is so admirable, so extraordinarily self-sacrificing and efficacious, that he is more than a little hard to take for mere mortals. The extraordinary accomplishment of Kidder's book is to make this difficultly admirable individual more attractive than frightening.

Farmer makes no bones that there is a cost to doing right by the poor:

White liberals "think all the world's problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don't believe that. There is a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It is what separates us from roaches."

At the core of Farmer's belief system is "the preferential option for the poor," a phrase and an idea derived from Catholic liberation theology as articulated by Latin American bishops at Medellin, Columbia in 1968. Liberation theology asserts that the world's wealthy, a category that includes most everyone who has enough to eat, a roof over our heads, the ability to read and a stable political environment owe the poor some of our food, shelter, education and respect. "Sin" is not some individual failing, but rather lives in systems in which a few profit without protest from the enforced misery of others. For those who enjoy wealth, sharing is a hard demand and few of us can live up to it. Farmer comes very close, sacrificing comfort, time, and family life for his patients and his vision of world health.

The folks who work with him know though, that not everyone can be Farmer.

Jim Yong Kim, his collaborator, insists "Paul is a model of what should be done. He is not a model how it has to be done. … Let's make sure people are inspired by him. …But … if the poor have to wait for a lot of people like Paul to come along before they get good health care, they are totally fucked."

Farmer himself explains: "I didn't say you should do what I do. I just said these things should be done!"

Perhaps this indifference to others' reactions to his person is the key to Farmer's extraordinary ability to get resources and care for people who have nothing. Farmer is apparently wonderfully focused on results, not on what people think of him. Yet Kidder is also able to convey the warmth and generosity with which Farmer meets all those who fall into his category of "patients" -- a category into which he welcomes just about anyone, including the privileged, who might have need of medical care. In the end, Kidder convinces me that Farmer burns not only with anger at the systemic injustice which condemns Haitians and others to poverty and disease, but also with a love for the well-being of all people that transforms that anger into service. Not a bad model to emulate, even if most of us can't quite pull it off.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Gov. Arnold runs away from his ads

I've been out of California for 10 days, but the Governator has been right with me. Nearly every time I opened an LA Times article on the web, I saw the ad pictured above. Today the same paper tells me the steady diet of "all Arnold, all the time" is over.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked TV stations Friday to remove ads that feature him making a personal appeal to California voters — an acknowledgment, analysts said, that one of the world's most recognized figures has become a weak salesman for his own agenda.

An avid pitchman his entire adult life — selling everything from gym bags to action movies — Schwarzenegger nevertheless now will rely on "ordinary" supporters to promote his four Nov. 8 ballot initiatives in ads, his campaign said.

I can't say I'll miss him. Nor, apparently will other Californians.

The Preznit had to miss him yesterday though -- if there is one pol less popular in California than Arnold, it is Bush. So our anxious governor snubbed Bush's trip to the Reagan library.

It is clear which way the wind is blowing -- so long as enough Californians vote on November 8.

Friday, October 21, 2005

How many deaths will it take til we know that too many people have died?

As we approach the milestone 2000th US casualty in our war on Iraq, United for Peace and Justice urges us to organize rallies and vigils for the day after that death is announced. A worthy idea; I hope there are thousands of vigils demanding peace now.

NPR's "All Things Considered," in its evolving role as government propaganda organ for the educated, preemptively deflected UFPJ's slant on the milestone by puffing the work of Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a site that very diligently catalogues US dead and prides itself on its connections with their grieving relatives.

But come on -- the people who dying in droves are the Iraqis. They suffered and died under Saddam Hussein as well as under the US-supported sanctions regime that starved their efforts to rebuild after the first Gulf War. But they used to have a more or less functioning country that supported a fairly predictable life.

Now everyone in the place is subject to arbitrary attack by various criminal gangs, some wearing the uniforms of the US Army, some the uniforms of "Iraqi government" security forces, some the plainclothes of the insurgents, some the armor of religious or ethnic fanaticism, some killing for grudges, some killing for money.

The Canadian Broadcasting Company tackled the question of Iraqi deaths and came up with muddled, partial numbers:

Civilian deaths estimated from various sources (Since March 20, 2003)

• Civilian Iraq deaths: 26,661 to 30,018 (as of Oct. 21, 2005)(Source: Iraq Body Count )
• Civilian Iraq deaths: 12,000 (Source: Official estimate from Iraqi interior ministry March 20, 2003-June 2, 2005)
• Iraqi civilian or religious officials assassinated: 52 (Source: Official estimate from Iraqi interior ministry March 20, 2003-June 2, 2005)
Other estimates are far higher.

Journalist Robert Fisk wrote in August, 2005 that all too often Iraqis simply hurry to bury the dead and no one counts them. The article reports the Baghdad mortuary received 1100 bodies in July and that no one knows who many were or why they were killed. He reports that the British Medical Journal The Lancet "concluded that at least 100,000 civilians had lost their lives in the first 18 months after the invasion - more than half of them women and children killed in air strikes. The figures were based on a survey of 1,000 households across Iraq." How many more have died since? We just don't know.

But like every one of those 2000 US soldiers, every one of those dead Iraqis was someone's child, someone's partner, someone's relative. When we hit that nice round 2000, let's try to keep in mind the thousands whose names we do not know.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Actually they all just hate women

Apparently the US military can't get the Taliban in Afghanistan to come out and fight them. The talibs hide among the population when confronted with superior force. (Anybody remember reading about how the poorly equipped American revolutionaries were so much smarter than the Redcoats because they sniped from behind trees while the Brits expected them to engage in direct battle?)

So the US forces desecrate bodies and burn them. And then they insult the Taliban.

An embedded Australian photojournalist Stephen Dupont reports (as picked up by the NY Times):

[US forces broadcast] taunts, which were delivered in the local language by American forces on the scene, a soldier identified as Sgt. Jim Baker, said: "You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to come down and retrieve the bodies. This just proves you are the lady boys we always believed you to be."…

Then a second soldier, who was not identified, chimes in singling out several mullahs by name: "Your time in Afghanistan is short. You attack and run away like women. You call yourself Talibs but you are a disgrace to the Muslim religion and you bring shame upon your family. Come and fight like men instead of the cowardly dogs you are."

… Mr. Dupont explained that the American soldiers had been trying to bait the Taliban fighters to shoot at them. "They want the Taliban to fight them because they can't find them otherwise."

That's right -- come get killed rather than be compared to a woman.

The Australian video interview with Dupont who captured all this on film is pretty interesting. He portrays most of the the US soldiers who burned bodies as frustrated, but also kind of simple-minded: "it didn't mean much to them." Once he got permission to embed with the US unit, they didn't seem to hide anything from him (in contrast to Australian troops who do their best to keep their activities invisible.) The older psych-ops units did at least have a rationale for their behavior.

The usual -- woman-hatred.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Morning Retch: Lower income students just as smart, but less educated

While House Republicans are working to cut $50 billion from programs that help the poor so they can give it to their rich buddies as tax cuts, rising college tuition costs are rapidly working to ensure the poor stay poor.

It is pretty simple, according to a report in the LA Times:

[Students] from families with the highest income and education levels finished college at more than double the rate of high-scoring students from the lowest socioeconomic grouping.

Sandy Baum, a College Board analyst, said the data showed that college completion increasingly was "not about academic preparation; it's about money."…

Citing federal statistics, Baum said the consequences of rising costs and family resources could be seen in the lives of students who scored highly on mathematics exams as eighth-graders in 1988.

Within the lowest socioeconomic sample, 75% of the high-scoring eighth-graders eventually enrolled in college, but 29% had earned college degrees eight years after high school graduation. Ninety-nine percent of high-scoring eighth-graders within the highest socioeconomic sample attended college, with 74% earning degrees. High scorers in the middle two socioeconomic groups entered college at a 91% rate, with 47% earning degrees.

Those who have, get.

One way they get is by way of "merit scholarships" which tend to go to students who would go to college anyway, rather than to students in the most financial need.

The Sarchasm explains that the colleges are not raising tuition to throw money at faculty salaries.

Believe you me, these tuition increases aren't paying for 3 month European sabbatical tours for rich faculty members.

My hard working "freeway-flying" professorial partner would agree.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Give backs v. Health Care Now!

On October 17, the United Auto Workers Union agreed to give in the General Motors' claim that it would go bankrupt if it kept on paying for all the health care it had promised its workers. Business reporters are crowing over the deal. Here's a sample from the union busting Detroit Free Press:

The fallout from Monday's deal will be felt by every Michigan schoolteacher, municipal worker or other employee whose wage-and-benefit package was modeled on the auto industry contracts of yesteryear. Say goodbye to the paternalistic employer that promised cradle-to-grave security.

Some predict that getting the rank and file to go along will be a tough sell for the UAW leadership:

"Why pick on a retired person with a fixed income?" asks David Shaw, 58, who worked in hourly and salaried jobs during 31 years at GM's Baltimore truck and bus plant. Shaw says, "GM has done a poor job in their management ... and because of their failure to do well in the market, they're claiming our costs are hurting them."

Still most expect the giveback agreement to pass when the union votes; workers fear that GM is really sinking and will sacrifice to keep their jobs.

The same day I had the privilege of attending a meeting in Dearborn, MI, put on by the Coalition for Health Care NOW! CHCNOW! promotes "a universal, single payer health care system with leadership from the labor movement in coalition with community organizations." They are close to Rep. John Conyers, advocating for his U.S. Health Insurance Act, H.R. 676. (Conyers was scheduled to speak but bowed out at the last minute to be in DC.) Speaker after speaker hammered away against for-profit, commoditized health care and for a system that keeps "Everybody in; nobody out." Years of analysis, strategizing, organizing and devotion to prinicple reside in this coalition. And no one was kidding themselves that this fight would be easy; ironically, the meeting was held in a UAW hall.

Here are some pictures.

It was a good sized crowd, 200 or more.

Not everyone was an old hand.

Sone folks were out of a different labor tradition; these good people fed us dinner.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Morning Retch: Why so few Arabic speakers?

Actually this was yesterday morning, but the article in question is too important to miss.

If you were to take a guess, how many fluent Arabic speakers would you think the US State Department had working for it? According to Jennifer Bremer, the answer is 27. Twenty seven individuals who can communicate with any nuance in the part of the world that we've made an arena for a conflict that threatens our economy and international prestige!

Bremer describes the Byzantine bureaucratic classifications and budgetary constraints that ensure, four years after 9/11, that this shortage is not going to be remedied any time soon. If you want a peek into how the permanent Foreign Service works, the article is worth a full read.

But she skips lightly over what is probably the real source of the shortage: very few competent Arab-Americans want to be the face and voice of US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Strong disincentives, from poor pay to tight budgets and widespread Arab American doubts regarding U.S. Mideast policy, stand in the way of a rapid buildup in Arab American diplomats.

Maybe Arabic speakers know something the policy makers who run the diplomatic service don't: US policy toward Arab countries, particularly support for the worst impulses of the lawless Israeli state and of dictatorial regimes with oil, is simply not viable. Smart Arab Americans have better things to do than front for arrogance and oppression. And while they are at it, they have to fend off, over and over, the racist suspicion too often directed at them by their neighbors in this country. No wonder the State Department can't recruit.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Missionaries at work: what is to be done?

Left: Charmaine Fenstermacher ; Right: Maquiritare boy, NTM photo

The Los Angeles Times reported today that an outfit named New Tribes Mission has been attacked by populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"They gather sensitive and strategic information and are exploiting the Indians," the Venezuelan leader was quoted as saying during a visit to indigenous communities in the plains of southern Venezuela.

Not surprisingly, New Tribes describes its mission quite differently:

[New Tribes] missionaries evangelize people groups who have had no access to the Gospel, translate the Scriptures into their language, and plant a church.

"People groups" seems to be New Tribes language for indigenous or Fourth World peoples.

Meanwhile in the US, BPNews headlined: "Volunteer’s query to Muslim family yields positive response." Charmaine Fenstermacher "is still amazed at the encounter God gave to her."

While feeding Hurricane Katrina evacuees with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Fenstermacher held on to a few Christian tracts, looking for suitable subjects to give them to. Most of the people they served were not good candidates for her evangelism, already born-again Christians. But when a Muslim family turned up in the food line and complained that their community had not helped them, Fenstermacher was moved to ask: "do you know Jesus?" A brief conversation ensued, ending with Fenstermacher joining them in "a prayer of salvation."

Two stories, both of Christians carrying their faith to people of very different cultures. I find myself thinking about them in the context of Saltyvicar's fascinating quicky historical survey of Protestantism in the US. He concludes that by the 1960s, the liberal mainstream churches had made peace with the fact that the US was not a Christian nation, that people of other faiths (or none) had both full rights and moral legitimacy. The liberal Christians opted for service rather than hegemony and simply brushed aside their evangelical Christian siblings who were not then inclined to contest the public sphere. Liberal Protestantism took on the opinion that "that missions were inherently patronizing."

These two stories seem to me to make the case for that opinion. The New Tribes folks do seem to make for more than fly-by-night connections with the people they evangelize; their international teams have worked in Venezuela since 1946, translating the Bible into five indigenous languages. There must to be some respect for the indigenous people there. But it is very hard to imagine how importing foreign technologies, culture, and diseases as well as a novel belief system can be anything but destructive to a poor, isolated population who presumably suffer already from being outside the dominant Venezuelan culture. New Tribes may not be working directly for the CIA as Chavez charges, but it is very hard to see how evangelizing the indigenous will do anything except break down the feeble defenses these people have against an encroaching, exploiting modern world.

The case of the Muslims prayed over in the Baptist food line is also troubling. Perhaps the experience of being uprooted yet surviving Katrina really had shaken the traditional faith of these evacuees -- but does anyone have the right to leap into that breach and seek to fill it with their own deepest convictions? Sure, those of us who are Christians believe deeply that we've been fortunate enough to learn something magical about the possibility of love in the world. And we do want to share. But that very good thing we've found teaches us that power over others is not the way. Food line conversions reek of force to me. So too do the quite common conversions of migrants to the faith practices of their new countries, something that may have been going on here.

And yet -- who is to deny that, for some individuals, acquiring the faith of the missionaries may genuinely help them have a better life, whether in the remote jungles of Venezuela or in this country? If poverty forces an indigenous tribesman into migrant labor outside his region, Christian faith may be both personally sustaining and improve his "cultural literacy." The Muslim family may have an easier time in this country as Christians -- or may discover that US racial lines at present don't evaporate along with individual convictions.

Globalization means we all rub up against each other more. No one's culture is immune from encroachments by neighboring cultures. Even here in the "sole superpower," we are fast becoming a multilingual nation, kicking and screaming. People create their individual peace in this stew by finding a shifting equilibrium between the shared culture in which they live and the beliefs they adopt more or less individually and consciously.

Somehow we have to ensure freedom for all the peddlers of deeply held beliefs to put out their wares -- and at the same time, prevent anyone from being able to force another to their way of thinking. People of good will (and good faith) certainly have a right, and possibly a duty, to share our experience of the power of love and justice. However, Christians have, I think, a special responsibility to forgo even the appearance of coercion, since we've been top dogs in much of the world for the last millennium or so, wiping out many pre-existing cultures in the name of our God of love. We can do better than either of the stories that brought on this rumination.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Reflections on Republican thugs, past and present

Once upon a time, I was young and earnest and a messenger who carried small packages and letters from office to office on foot in San Francisco's financial district. This material would now mostly go by email or fax, but in the early 1970s it moved with me.

I liked the job. It was easy. San Francisco was a new city to me and this work offered an opportunity to explore its alleys and cul-de-sacs. Some days I would ride in ornate 1920s elevators to leave envelopes under doors on corridors with marble floors. Occasionally I would get to deliver something to an organization whose work I supported; I particularly remember going to the "Save the Redwoods League." (There were more redwoods to save then.)

In those days we still had two real newspapers daily, the Chronicle in the morning and the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner in the afternoon. As I wandered around, I would read the headlines in newspaper boxes. The papers printed several editions a day -- sometimes the lead headline would change twice or more in an afternoon. And those headlines were the medium through which I took in the Watergate investigation that led, finally, to the resignation of President Nixon.

The particulars of the Administration's malfeasance seemed to me too complex to follow. I knew the U.S. war on Vietnam was wrong, an immoral, unjustified invasion of somebody else's country, and corrosive to our own country. I knew Nixon was a crook -- all mildly countercultural young people knew that. But the ins and outs of the Watergate, the legal issues, the actual (very bland) grounds for moving toward impeachment, were more than I could take in. Watergate came and went as a blur, though I never doubted that Nixon had led a cabal that had done something very wrong.

Several years later, I did read enough book length descriptions of the sequence of Watergate events to get a deeper picture of the unraveling of the Nixon presidency.

This past month many in the liberal blogosphere have been fixated on the Valerie Plame affair, following each twist and turn with bated breath. Emptywheel has been doing a brilliant job of this at The Next Hurrah, for example. The quality of concentrated work that folks churned out is amazing. I've tried to read it, but I keep recalling that young person I was during Watergate. This too is something about which I don't want to get too caught up in the play by play.

Whatever legalities the thuggish enforcers of Republican Party discipline have tripped over, what matters is that they acted to prop up lies promoting an unnecessary war that has killed many thousands of Iraqis and a few thousand of the disposable cannon fodder sent by the invaders. Perhaps the prosecutor will nail them for some legal faux pas. But in the end, what matters is that they are criminals, guilty of crimes against U.S. democracy, against the people of Iraq, and against the hopes of humanity.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Take a trip to Pete's Pond

Good things should be shared. If you find yourself wishing you were somewhere else, you might want to try a quick broadband trip to Botswana to watch live wild animals at their watering hole.

National Geographic magazine has installed a Wildcam in the remote Mashatu Game Reserve. As I write this (at nearly 11 PM Central Daylight time) sunrise is coming to Botswana. Bushes that appeared as gray shapes half an hour ago are taking on color; dawn is breaking. Soon the animals will come to drink.

Arriving in this area in 1985 to conduct a leopard research project as a graduate student from South Africa’s University of Pretoria, Pete Le Roux, quickly realized that poachers were decimating the animal population. So he built a pond, a watering hole well away from the overpopulated (with humans) Limpopo River. Now the area is being incorporated as a much larger wildlife corridor, the Limpopo/Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area that takes in parts of South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and is slightly larger than Rhode Island. Areas like this are the best chance big creatures have for survival in Africa, pressured as they are by desperately poor human populations.

Oh, here comes a mother elephant and two calves.

Putting up the Wildcam was a considerable technical feat. It uses a dedicated satellite link to send its high quality video. And getting the computer connected was not the only challenge:

A curious creature, however, could interrupt all the electronic wizardry. The perimeter of the array is fortified with high-strength wire and electrified fencing, while the computer and camera apparatus are secured in tight cabinetry. It’s harmless to the wildlife and discourages their attempts to get in. But even with protection, anything can happen. “You have to animal- and insect-proof everything,” says Cameron Murie, [resident techie]. “Otherwise, it’s a real problem. In this place if you get a bug in the system, it really is a bug.”

Now the elephants have taken to eating the bushes. I guess the spring shoots are tasty.

It is getting lighter now. Here is a whole herd of some kind of deer-like creatures. Maybe a kind of impala? They seem quite comfortable all crowded together.

Got to stop this; I'm going to bed. You can take a trip with the Wildcam here. According to the sponsors, the camera will be up until December 8.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Paranoia strikes deep...

I'm on the road for work -- and today picked up a rental car I'll be driving all over the U.S. upper mid-west. The car -- a truly conventional seven passenger mini-van fit for a soccer mom -- came with National Car Rental's brochure "Tips for Safer Driving."

The thing reads as if I were traveling in a war zone; maybe they think I'm driving to Beirut? Here's a sampling of what they urge me to remember:

Lock up! Always lock your doors and keep your windows up when driving.

No free rides! Never pick up hitchhikers….

Park in well-lit areas. Bright light! Make the extra effort to park in illuminated lots. When returning to your parked car, keep your keys in your hands and check the back seat before opening the doors. As soon as you get in your car, lock your doors. It can't hurt to play it safe.

Use common sense. Your personal belongings are not worth physical harm, so don't resist in the face of danger.

Get directions. Use the National map. Only ask for directions from a law enforcement officer or at a well-lit populated business. DO NOT pull over to the side of the road to study your map….

Don't stop! If another motorist tries to tell you something is wrong with your car, do not stop until you see a gas station or well-populated area to check the vehicle. And do not assist anyone with a disabled car. Just drive to a well-lit area and call the police for them.

Despite what National Car Rental says, I'm afraid I do think it can hurt to "play it safe." Are we really such frightened people that we can't drive with the windows open or help others?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Earthquake relief: we're tired and scared

Earthquake survivor living in temporary housing.
Photo: CWS Pakistan/Afghanistan

This is sad, but perhaps just natural. Today the Washington Post tells us that "Charities Report Low Donations for Quake Victims."

Nonprofit relief organizations say donations are coming in much more slowly than after the tsunami or Katrina. For example, online donations to the international relief group CARE's South Asia earthquake fund are 10 percent of what they were at the same point after the tsunami, a spokesman said.

The American Red Cross also said the pace of giving for earthquake relief is far slower then it was after Katrina or the tsunami. Tens of millions of dollars poured in within a week of the earlier disasters, said spokeswoman Carrie Martin. But so far, the Red Cross has collected only $45,000 for South Asia quake victims.

Agencies and charity researchers say "donor fatigue" might be part of the problem. The third major disaster within a year simply is not registering with Americans as strongly as did the previous two.

Not surprisingly, the one community that has rushed to help has been US residents with South East Asian origins; Muslim Americans, currently obseving the holy month of Ramadan, have been especially generous, quickly pledging millions of dollars.

But a pall of unease accompanies the relief fundraising in that community. Just a couple of weeks ago Business Week reported that Islamic donors remain "spooked" by US government surveillance that conflates charitable international giving with aid to terrorism.

"Charities are in the position of being guilty until proven innocent," board chair Dr. Laila Al-Marayati of KinderUSA says. "Our donors are afraid…."

Since September 11 federal authorities have frozen the assets of five Islamic charities in the U.S., including three of the largest, for alleged links to terrorist groups -- in effect, shutting the groups down…. Nevertheless, as the U.S. marks the fourth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, none of the investigations has been resolved. The charities' assets remain frozen.

This situation is sure to chill efforts by South East Asians in this county to help earthquake victims.

Fortunately, there are things we can do as US citizens to help. We can pressure our government to contribute on a massive scale to earthquake relief. Write your senators and the President by clicking here.

And we can also contribute to the various charities helping quake victims. I channeled my contribution through Church World Service, a non-denominational Christian relief agency with 50 years of experience working in Pakistan. Doctors Without Borders is a reliable secular group with strong ties to the area.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Restoring the rights of ex-prisoners:
a challenge to communities of faith

This is a shameless plug for a new project launched by a good friend. Rima Veseley-Flad has worked with folks in prison off and on for many years. She currently teaches part-time in a college-level program at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, N.Y. That work led her to understand that even when people are released, especially Black and Latino people, they still don't get a fair shake.

So Veseley-Flad has founded ICARE, an Interfaith Coalition of Advocates for Reentry and Employment "to eliminate barriers to reentry by leading a Restoration of Rights campaign in the Restorative Justice tradition."

What's the problem? Even when prisoners do it all right, study hard, and play by the rules, they still can't catch a break. Veseley-Flad describes an example of how it goes:

Jose … achieved a master's degree in prison and trained in building maintenance in the prison construction shop. Upon release, he was hired to work in social services at the Red Cross but was shunned once they discovered his prison record.

Daily discrimination became too much to bear, and he took every step needed to start his own construction business. However, the Department of Consumer Affairs rejected his application. Although he achieved high marks in courses run by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, submitted letters of support from the Red Cross and his parole officer, and explained the circumstances of his crime in detail, he received a form letter listing the factors that were taken into consideration. He was banned from applying for a license for five years.

ICARE will work with religious congregations on the outside to advocate for removal of the obstacles that prevent ex-offenders from re-entering society.

The project has generated a long and detailed list of laws and bureaucratic norms that ensure that the ex-prisoners never quite rejoin the human family. Veseley-Flad aspires to teach congregations how the system works against people and how to advocate for "restorative justice" instead of the present punitive norm.

In an article about her vision of justice Veseley-Flad wrote:

As people of faith inspired by the legacy of our role in the civil rights movement, we must wake up to the reality unfolding before our eyes. This is our civil rights issue. We cannot commit to Restorative Justice without committing to Restoration of Rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated clearly the result of discriminatory laws: "[Being a Negro] means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple." In the twenty-first century, people of color in impoverished communities have their legs cut off through poverty, unemployment, and discrimination. With inadequate legal resources and minimum sentence drug laws, African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants of color are imprisoned with lengthy sentences. When home in the community, they are discriminated against because of their imprisonment….

We have enormous political power as communities of faith. As we welcome formerly incarcerated persons into our communities, we must also advocate to revoke discriminatory laws that are a modern-day version of Black Codes.

New Yorkers especially, check this work out.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Progressive magazine

You want frustration -- try being stuck on a transcontinental flight that has to make an unscheduled stop to pump out the heads. The good that came from this odd day locked in a tightly packed plastic box with a lot of none at all contented fellow cattle was that I read the October issue of The Progressive magazine from cover to cover.

I find it is too easy to take this old faithful print publication for granted -- a monthly cannot be timely; it is not slick, and neither is it highbrow. But sometimes it manages to be very thoughtful. Some provocative articles held my attention today:
  • Our Al Qaeda Problem -- Sasha Abramsky challenges the left to propose a way of understanding Bin Laden's fanatic movement that goes beyond being anti-imperialist in relation to the West, but still advocates for a democratic alternative to anyone's theocracy. I agree we have work to do, though I have many quibbles with Abramsky. Worth pondering.
  • a Randall Robinson interview -- the founder of TransAfrica tells why he has given up on the U.S., explains why African Americans need and deserve reparations, and slams Colin Powell and Condi Rice.
  • a thoughtful review of new books on the death penalty, questioning whether the abolition movement should lean on showing that innocent persons are sometimes sentenced to execution.
It was nice to be reminded that there are thoughtful print pubs struggling on while so many of us turn to the Internet.