Friday, September 29, 2006

Carter family out for Jack in Nevada

Yesterday the Jimmy Carter family rallied for Carter's son, the Democratic Nevada Senate candidate Jack Carter. On the campus of the University of Nevada in Reno, some 800-1000 people sweltered in the sun waiting for the former president and his son to address an audience that seemed largely students and staff. Gotta give it to them; they were prompt. Good thing -- for some reason organizers thought the way to appease the waiting crowd was to play 1960s music: Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. What's with that?

Naturally, you can't hold an event like this without a small parade of University dignitaries, student leaders, and local Democrats. There was even a Congressional candidate whose website trumpets the fact that you can't tell from her issue positions that she is a Republican. Oh well.

Since a former president headlined the event, there was a lot of "security" or at least visible police and Secret Service presence.

The indomitable Sarah Carter (Jack Carter's blogger daughter) pitched us to sign up at her dad's MySpace. Campaign workers did a creditable job of signing up the audience to work on electing the candidate.

The former president looked damn good for 81. He hammered the Bushies on a wide range of policies:
  • launching a pre-emptive war in Iraq that is "wrong"
  • abandoning U.S. commitment to nuclear non-proliferation
  • refusing to engage in talks with countries the Administration labels potential nuclear proliferators. Carter said North Korea probably has 7-12 nuclear weapons, a harder estimate than I had heard.
  • abandoning any effort to force a peaceful solution between Israel and Palestinians
  • getting their oil company buddies to manipulate gas prices to help Republicans in this election
  • and ceding any claim by this country to moral high ground. "I am embarrassed to see the American government convicted in world opinion of human rights abuses, of practicing torture."

Jack Carter impressed me as a decent, intelligent man and a diligent candidate. He wanted us to know that the incumbent Republican, John Ensign, voted with the Bush regime 96 percent of the time. Carter's signature line goes:

The incumbent represents Washington in Nevada; I'll represent Nevada in Washington.

He called the Iraq war a "catastrophe" while hitting a libertarian note on gun ownership and personal privacy.

Carter is unabashedly a Democrat. One of the more interesting points in his speech was his account of meeting a rancher who told him "you don't seem like a Democrat." Experiences like this led Carter to muse on how Democrats in general have simply ceded rural areas to the other guys -- if Dems don't show themselves to people outside the cities, Republicans get to define Dems as monsters with two heads.

This was a great story; it is great that the candidate understood this point; I am not sure the candidate should be telling it to a large audience as this gives the media an angle from which to reduce their stories to campaign tactics and horse race trivia.

I wasn't in Nevada to see Jack Carter, but I am glad I did. The political people I met in my travels say his campaign is in trouble. Specifically, it sometimes fails to get the candidate to venues where he is supposed to meet and greet. That's the hallmark of an under-resourced effort. If you are attracted by a guy who'll go out to rural areas and talk about values, this guy fits the bill. With little else going for him against an entrenched Republican, he is making this campaign be about the Carter family and retail politics. If you like that approach, consider dropping something at his donation page.

September 28, 2006

When all is said and done, history will not be kind. We have sent a message to the rest of the world today that America is no longer the beacon for Liberty and the Rule of Law. By not forcefully opposing the "Military Commissions" legislation the Dems will be judged by future generations as complicit in legalizing dictatorship in America.

Right now its about "disappearing" the Maher Arar's. It wont hit home until Uncle Joe has disappeared in the gulag.

Our experiment in constitutional democracy that began in 1776 died today at the hands of our very own elected representatives. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ben Franklin and all those great souls who gave so much for the birth of this nation weep today. It will be a long, hard road to get it back. Dictators do not give up power that easily!

ab initio

The historian in me has to mention that those "great souls" committed great crimes against freedom of their own -- but this catches my feeling and understanding of what a country captured by irrational fear has become.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

W.H. Auden, September 1, 1939

I am heartily sick of quoting Auden on the occasions when my country commits crimes against humanity.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Residue of a fundraising scheme past

In 1987, the Golden Gate Bridge across the entrance to San Francisco Bay was 50 years old. The region threw a big party and sponsored a "Bridgewalk" that drew some 300,000 people whose weight "flattened the normal arch of the bridge at midspan" and scared them pretty thoroughly. (I was glad I didn't go.)

As part of the anniversary, a brick walkway on the city side began life as a fundraiser.

Initially, prices for the bricks were $32 for a basic brick with a name inscribed, $43 for a message brick, $54 for a signature brick, and $75 for logo/captioned brick. In August 1988, several prices were raised: $35 for a basic brick, $49 for a message brick, and $59 for a signature brick. The brick program was implemented in March 1988 and 7,416 bricks were sold.

And the bricks have endured. Here are some:

Since people get married in the shadow of the bridge, that one seems appropriate.

The folks who built the bridge must have been so proud!

Oh gosh, here's a brick for an acquaintance who is now gone.

A few bricks I can't read, though they may be very meaningful.

And some I can read, but have no idea what they mean.

Restrictions on speech

Free speech or urban blight?

I guess the antiwar newspaper I've been distributing is getting out there. One of the odd consequences of offering print propaganda free to volunteer users is that you have no idea what they'll do with it. Occasionally they send stories. I've particularly enjoyed hearing from the distributor who always passes out the paper to immigrant push cart vendors at outdoor concerts with the Spanish side folded out. Then there are several who make a practice of leaving papers on buses and subways.

Since we shipped out the new issue of War Times, we gotten back the first of a genre of aggrieved notices we've seen before. This communication is from a Southern California trailer park:

Your publication was distributed throughout our private mobile home community without written permission from the ownership or management of the property.

You or your associates are NOT authorized to distribute material on private property without express permission of the ownership.

We have no way of knowing who is putting out the paper, so we don't respond.

The trailer park does have the law on its side. In general, it is illegal to do something on somebody else's property without their permission (though California makes a limited exception for private land that serves as a public venue such as a shopping mall and possibly for college dorms).

Even though they may overstep the law, I can't get too distressed if our activist enthusiasts push the limits a little. Between privatization of what once was public space (as in gated communities) and restrictions in the name of preventing "visual clutter" (such as laws against putting flyers on utility polls or under wipers on parked cars), the arenas we have for expressing unpopular opinions are narrowing. As in so many areas, if we don't use what we have, we'll lose even that -- and if we exercise what venues we can for destabilizing speech, we will win more space. That's how the world works. Moreover, what could be more essential to a democratic culture than people reaching out to share their concerns with their neighbors?

Just today we got a request for papers -- "Please send me 225 copies to distribute in my apartment complex..." I wonder if we'll hear from his landlord.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Outsourcing the "grassroots"

Sociologist Dana R. Fisher has written a miniscule book (or perhaps a hardcover magazine article) with a long title, Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America. The "grassroots" in the title refers to the paid canvassers fielded by contracting firms who raise money for big liberal advocacy outfits, including major environmental (Sierra Club), public interest (Save the Children) and gay rights (Human Rights Campaign) groups. In the 2004 election cycle, the Democratic National Committee hired this existing canvassing infrastructure to compensate for the atrophy of party-run field operations capacity.

Fisher compiled extensive research data -- interviews with 115 canvassers at six regional offices of one large canvass company in 2003 and with half of the same people a year later. Some observations on her main points -- my paraphrases are in bold face.

Paid election field operations are ineffective. Sometimes. Fisher's critics, including Heather Booth who helped develop the canvass model, point out that when it comes to getting out the vote, there can be lots of methods used concurrently. I think Booth is right, if, IF, there is coordination. From what I saw on the ground in 2004 in New Mexico, paid canvassing added extra wrinkles to an already chaotic mix. National 527 committees were desperate for canvassers and offered pretty good money to attract recruits. Naturally, local campaigns saw their potential volunteers follow the money -- even though they were turning out the same voters! Running field operations at scale is an endeavor something like the Normandy invasion -- progressives don't begin to have the needed management capacity. It is not surprising that the DNC turned to the canvass companies; they have more of that expertise than most. Unlike Fisher, what I'd emphasize fixing in this area is our ability to manage at scale.

The canvass model slights local organizing and creates donors, not activists, especially local activists. Absolutely true. The canvass model is not organizing. It is resource extraction. Fisher got a Democratic operative to admit one of the dirty truths of the U.S. liberal establishment:

None of these organizations can actually produce two bodies...when they need to.

Anyone who has ever had responsibility for a GOTV effort learned that a long time ago. Almost without exception, there is no there there after you get the endorsement from progressive advocacy groups. If you need to run a human intensive field operation, you are going to have to do your own recruiting or reach out to organizations outside the usual liberal universe. It can be educational.

The canvass model drives canvassers out of progressive politics. It probably does, but we need to figure out how to avoid having it do so. Every political and advocacy campaign I've ever worked for or run has exploited its lowest rung workers; most such campaigns have also treated those workers as easily replaceable, interchangeable cogs. These faults seem to be a function of putting up a temporary operation on a significant scale. But while the first is probably unavoidable, the second can be at least partially overcome.

That is, there'll never be enough money to pay the doorknockers a fair wage, but you can use the campaign as a school for future political engagement. Sure, most of what bottom-rung workers do will continue to be repetitive and unpleasant -- and have to be scripted to be effective. Democracy works poorly in the heat of a campaign battle. But from a movement building perspective, it is vital to invest in teaching those who stick around something about the issues the campaign is working for and a great deal about why their work is organized in such a seemingly machine-like way. After the campaign, we must evaluate whether we hit our numerical goals. But we must also harvest what the workers learned from doing the work. And the workers themselves need a way to contribute what they learned to a broader movement. Since every campaign sees twice as many carping critics and peddlers of impossible ideas than workers, it is hard to retain the mind set that the workers learn anything useful working the doors -- but they do. We lose it at our peril.

Fisher focuses on the motivation of the canvassers, their desire to "make a difference." I'm more interested in the demographic profile that emerges from a close examination of her book. Off in a metaphorical corner, I found this:

Although I observed a diverse group of people -- from different backgrounds, races and ages -- come through the door, those who achieved staff status during the summer 2003 canvass were not particularly diverse: 84 percent white, and many said they lived with their parents...

Now wait a minute -- if that description holds, canvassers are simply not the people a resurgent progressive movement needs to have out there, representing us. The core of our future progressive movement is Black, Brown, queer, low-income, and frequently single female heads of households. Meanwhile, the canvass model utilizes predominantly well meaning, privileged white young people. At root, that's what is wrong with the canvass model as a form for our politics. No wonder there were problems with using this set of well-meaning folks to get out our vote.

Politics that makes change will only be done by people who believe their lives depend on it. It can't be just a summer job (though people may need to be paid) -- it has to be about survival.

Folks who become canvass management do assume that mind-set and the maniacal work habits that go with it. Wouldn't it be great if they turned their accumulated expertise toward developing a mass model for mobilizing the people who really are the progressive core, not just for picking off low hanging donor fruit?

Monday, September 25, 2006

And for the U.S. consumer...

There's our moral obtuseness that allows us to debate torture -- then there is our imperviousness to realities beyond our borders.

I'm a sucker for a story in a picture. The illustration to the left is such a clear image of what U.S. society values that I cannot resist recycling it from Rising Hegemon, via The Left Coaster.

I assume the cover design for the United States is a smart market choice, that the Newsweek powers-that-be know what sells where.

I suppose it might be worth the trouble to let them know that the internet creates a global fishbowl. Phone number for Newsweek switchboard: 212-445-4000; Hours Tue-Sat, after 10 a.m., EDT.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Signs of the Season
Politics in the 'hood

Politics dominated the scene in San Francisco's Mission District yesterday -- Nicaraguan politics. Nicaraguans are choosing a president on November 5. Supporters of this candidate were working the corner for this highly qualified individual:

Before entering the political sphere, Mr. Montealegre worked on the board of directors of several Nicaraguan financial institutions. He lived in exile in the United States during the decade of Sandanista rule in Nicaragua. During that time, he was the Vice President of the Banking Investment Group of Shearson Lehman Hutton before forming his own private financial advisory company, Montealegre & Co. Prior to his exile, he was a manager of the BANIC Corporation and an Assistant Director of the Central Bank of Nicaragua.

Mr. Montealegre completed his higher education in the United States, receiving his MBA with a focus in Finance and Strategic Planning from Harvard University in 1978, and his BS in Economics from Brown University in 1976.

This fine specimen of the international neo-colonial elite is battling Daniel Ortega, once the leader of the Sandinista insurrection against peonage and dictatorship, now thought by many to be just another corrupt Central American politician. The U.S. could probably purchase the former rebel, but instead prefers the home-raised, technocratic variant. Don't know what stake Mission district folks have in this, but apparently Montealegre's people have troops here -- not perhaps surprising since the U.S. is this candidate's base.
Meanwhile there was other political activity in the intersection. Unfortunately my most important sighting was so fleeting that I missed photographing it: a volunteer wearing a T-shirt reading "today we march -- tomorrow we vote" setting off to knock on doors with a clip board full of voter registration forms. It will take time, but the focus of politics in this neighborhood will change. Check out the windows of the nearest bookstore:

The title of the book reads (roughly, but realistically translated) Citizenship: how to ace your interview with the US citizenship authorities.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Past becomes present

Sixteenth century waterboard technique. See Charlie Whitaker for a full description.

Apparently next week our elected representatives will enshrine a torture regime as law of the land. The Washington Post sermonizes:

...if the legislation is passed in the form agreed on yesterday[,] Mr. Bush will go down in history for his embrace of torture...

Actually what is happening is much worse than that. Those in Congress who vote for this measure place themselves in the category of those who, too "respectable" to be members of the Nazi Party themselves, nonetheless enabled the Nazis. And we the people become complicit, if we allow them to continue to lead us.

What can we do? Above all else, we can let those with power know that we know what they are doing. The enablers do it, in part, because they trust that we'll look away. This process of the destruction of humane values proceeds not only because very evil men choose to steer the state there, but also because we cannot bear to see it. We must not look away; we are going to have to live the result.

Last night my parish showed the film Romero as a fundraiser for a mission trip some members are taking to El Salvador. It is worth seeing and contemplating. In the movie, the actor Raul Julia portrays the gradual transformation that occurred in Oscar Romero as he, repeatedly, chose to look unblinkingly at what was being done to poor people around him. Choosing to see reality, the Archbishop used his platform to speak truth. His truth became an irritant to the powerful, so they killed him in March 1980. Poor people today throughout the American hemisphere still assert the power of his example and their own dignity in the chant: "Oscar Romero, Presente!"

We're not seeing people snatched from their homes never to be seen again -- yet. We are not finding broken tortured bodies in our streets -- yet. (Though we've brought that condition to most of Iraq and parts of Afghanistan.) We (especially if "we" are not Black, or Muslim, or Brown, or poor, or new immigrants) still enjoy something of a system of law, some remedy for official misconduct. But this week "our representatives" intend to establish a shadow world for persons declared "detainees," in which literally anything can be done with impunity. Do we dare look at what is being done? Do we dare look away?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Look who does the work

Chronicle photo by Michael Maloney

This morning our broadband connection was not working, so I read the paper. Maybe I should do that more often. Sports columnist Scott Osler offered a story that catches the human reality of our immigrant-dependent society.

Since this is a golf story and it is not about Tiger Woods, I better give some background. The subject might be a little obscure to most of us. Probably the last woman golfer to make an impression on the public imagination was Babe Didrikson half a century ago. Anyway, there is a "Ladies Professional Golf Association" and the players play a daunting tournament schedule like the male pros -- just without much notice or nearly the money the men get.

Lorena Ochoa, a Mexican national, is this year's leading money winner on the LPGA tour. You may never have heard of her, but apparently those invisible phantoms who manicure greens so that others can recreate all know about her:

They are proud of Lorena. And she of them. When Ochoa showed up at Blackhawk on Monday for a practice round, "All of them (the workers) were waiting for me and watching me play," she said.

They call out to her as she passes. "You can do it, Lorena!" They ask her, "Have you seen the course? It's in good shape; we've been working hard to keep it in shape."...

To give back some of that love, Ochoa will drop in on her compadres this morning at the golf course maintenance shed. It's something she does at many tournaments, gets together with the crew and shakes hands with the guys with the dirt under their fingernails....

Mexico, population 102 million, has only about 18,000 golfers. Because of the nation's socioeconomics, it's not likely that Ochoa's LPGA success will set off a boom in Mexican golf at the grass-roots level. But she definitely is a role model and a national hero.

Unlike our home grown products of privilege, Ochoa at least remembers that someone must be doing the work. You have to wonder, have some in the U.S. treated her with the same disdain they would display toward on the greenskeepers?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

International Peace Day on the Golden Gate Bridge

This morning Code Pink greeted rush hour traffic coming into San Francisco waving hands in the "V" peace sign. The forty or so marchers were barred from carrying any kind of banner, but they did a good job of catching the attention of passing drivers with no props but their pink presence and their enthusiasm.

On the San Francisco end of the bridge, police checked out each walker for illegal signs.

Protesters demanded to know "why?"

But soon enough, marchers made it out onto the bridge.

Most responses were friendly, despite the protesters' motorcycle escort. Quite a few big rig drivers leaned on their klaxons and waved "thumbs up."

Though some protestors brought out signs from under their clothes and police response snarled traffic slightly, most of the marchers' effect came simply from placing a mass of pink people in an unexpected place. In a season when I'm reviewing political signs, I have to say congratulations to Code Pink for creating a pretty recognizable brand simply by repeating a color. That's messaging that works.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Darfur relief as "ethical shower"

Demonstrators chant slogans and hold placards in Sudan's capital Khartoum, September 20, 2006. Thousands of Sudanese marched on the U.S. embassy in Khartoum to protest against Western pressure on Sudan to accept 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers in war-torn Darfur. REUTERS/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH

I don't get Darfur. No -- I don't mean that I don't believe that hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of human beings have been uprooted and may die because of conflict there. No -- I don't mean that I don't understand that the Sudanese government is a villainous party to the situation. And no, certainly, I don't mean that I believe the world should simply leave these people to their fate.

But the Darfur campaign in the United States doesn't feel right. For one thing, one of its biggest boosters is Mr. Invade and Torture himself, Pres. GWB. And over in the U.K., the sanctimonious poodle Tony Blair is right out there in front. And when I look at the organizational members of the Save Darfur coalition, the list, in addition the usual suspects, is full of outfits whose commitment to humanitarian action on behalf of the suffering regularly disappears when the suffering are afflicted by the United States or Israel.

Today Alertnet pointed me to an article by Jonathan Steele that appeared in the U.K. Guardian entitled " Sorry George Clooney, but the last thing Darfur needs is western troops."

Steele goes right to the question of whether the Darfur horror is "genocide" under international law:

Groups in the west have long campaigned to have the government in Khartoum replaced. In the US the Christian right and some of Israel's friends portray it as an Islamic fundamentalist regime. Human rights activists raise the issue of slavery to suggest that Arab raiders, supported by the government, are routinely abducting Africans from the south to use as human chattel. The Clinton administration listed Sudan as a terrorist-supporting state because Osama bin Laden once lived there.

Against this background it was always going to be hard to expect fair reporting when civil war broke out in Darfur three years ago. The complex grievances that set farmers against nomads was covered with a simplistic template of Arab versus African, even though the region was crisscrossed with tribal and local rivalries that put some villages on the government's side and others against it....

In most wars, governments spin and the media (at least sometimes) seek the truth. Darfur reversed the trend: the media spun while governments were more sophisticated. In spite of efforts to describe the killing in Darfur as genocide, neither the UN nor the EU went along with this description. It was not because of moral myopia, but because they understood the difference between a brutal civil war and a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. Darfur is not Rwanda. Only the US accepted the genocide description, though this seemed a concession to domestic lobbies rather than a matter of conviction. Washington never followed through with the forcible intervention in Darfur that international law requires once a finding of genocide is made.

Steele believes the best action in a bad situation is for the United Nations to prop up the existing African Union force in the region in order to save as many lives as possible and try to get the parties back to the negotiating table.

I don't know if this a "right" description, but it feels more authentic than the campaign for intervention that some in this country and elsewhere are mounting.

The Darfur campaign reminds me of a little local political squabble I was involved in a few years ago. The city had just come off a heated mayoral election in which downtown money, developers and city unions broke every rule of ethical campaigning in the book to keep business as usual in the saddle and crush a progressive challenge. Lots of nominally progressive politicians and people had found themselves institutionally bound to play on the conservative side of the fence during that fight. They found the experience extremely unsettling. When the election was over, they needed a new campaign to recover their own belief in their "progressive" credentials. Fortunately, the city confronted an initiative aimed at criminalizing homelessness. For the wobbling "progressives," this was a no-brainer. All the forces feeling dirty from the mayoral race rushed off to defeat the homelessness measure.

It was a fun campaign -- essentially we could get anything we needed from some very prominent people. We defeated this mean-spirited measure easily. And those movers and shakers got their "ethical shower."

I'm pretty sure the Darfur campaign is working the same way for some of its loudest adherents. Guess if their ethical shower saves some Darfurians, that's something to be glad of.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Signs of the season reviewed:
Volunteer military on the ropes

Handbills are a dying political form. Outside of the decayed streets of inner cities, you'll seldom see a wall of posters advertising concerts, help wanted, garage sales, and political candidates. We like our malls, roadways and suburbs as antiseptic as possible -- no messy flapping paper.

So I was greatly surprised while delivering antiwar newspapers in a working class suburb to see the amateurish flyer above pasted along the pillars of an underpass. Sgt. Tuttle must have been at his wits end trying to make his quota of cannon fodder. The young people he is chasing are reluctant.

What is he promising?
  • Money: an enlistment bonus. You can read it on his poster. He doesn't tell you what ABC News reports: the promised $40,000 usually turns out to be around $5000 for the average recruit. Besides, the bonus is more like a loan than a bonus. If the military decides you didn't perform to expectations, you have to pay it back.
  • Counter-recruiters warn that money for college is also a fake. "Very few -- 1 in 20 -- actually qualify for as much as $70,000. Actually, the maximum you can get from the GI Bill is $36,144. In order to qualify for the extra money you have to score in the upper half of the ASVAB and be willing to sign up for very specific jobs -- jobs that are the hardest for the military to fill. ...The amount most will receive is $0 ... Sixty-five percent of all participants in the GI Bill never receive any money for college."
  • In the fine print, Sgt. Tuttle promises "training to succeed in today's highly competitive job market." Trouble is, most jobs in the military either are no use in civilian life or pay for shit. If a recruit gets trained as a Food Service Operations Specialist, maybe (s)he'll be ready to work for McDonalds.
Okay, so it is easy to take apart the lies in Sgt. Tuttle's slightly pathetic flyer. In all probability, he was assigned the job of recruiting against his own will and he's being pushed hard. The BBC watched some recruiters at work:

"Pressure is always there. It's the army, it's your mission, and they drill that into you every day," he added. ...

With less than four days to go, Sgt 1st Class Arnold still needed one more recruit to meet his goal of signing up two new soldiers.

If he fails, he will have to attend a punitive counseling session in his own time on a Saturday. If he fails often, it can hurt his chances for promotion.

Sgt. Tuttle's problem, illustrated by this flyer, is the war itself. We know we've been lied to; we know we've destroyed Iraq for no cause we can believe in; the soldiers more and more know they are being sent to die with neither reason nor popular support. A volunteer military collapses under these conditions. Nick Turse of TomDispatch recalls

In the latter half of the Vietnam War, as the breakdown was occurring, American troops began to scrawl "UUUU" on their helmet liners -- an abbreviation that stood for "the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful." The U.S. ground forces of 2007 and beyond, fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other war du jour may increasingly resemble the collapsing military of the Vietnam War....

For the peoples of the world, a U.S. military constrained by the war's futility may be a good thing, but being in it sure will be hard on those caught in recruiters' schemes.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Constitution Day

Did you know that today is a federal holiday? Neither did I, until my partner, the graduate student, got this email:

This communication in recognition of Constitution Day is brought to you by the Financial Aid Office. In May 2005, the United States Congress passed a law requiring that institutions receiving Federal funding are required to provide activities pertaining to the United States Constitution on September 17 of each year. A significant number of students of the consortium receive federal financial assistance in the forms of federal student aid. This communication is offered in support of meeting the requirements of the federal law.

Well what do you know?

A miniscule amount of research turned up the information that the date marks the occasion in 1787 when members of the Constitutional Convention signed off on their handiwork. The holiday was the brainchild of Senator Robert Byrd. It explicitly does not call for granting time off to government employees, but does require that schools teach the Constitution.

Presumably Byrd, in his persona of traditionalist wise elder, intended by legislating this date to comment on our present rulers' evident disdain for our governing document.

My partner's institution picked up that ball and ran with it, telling her:

Senator Byrd... offered the bill in the belief that if students understood the Constitution and Bill of Rights, they would do more to defend and protect them.

What have we come to when recalling the Bill of Rights is a subversive activity? Apparently it is.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

On being a polling subject

George Gallup was the father of modern political research.

I got polled tonight. This isn't unusual -- we get polling calls to this household quite often. Certainly at least once an election cycle, usually more than once.

Since most people complain they have never been polled, I have to wonder why. I think there are several factors to lead to my getting a lot of these calls.

Foremost, I'm willing to talk to pollsters and market researchers. I'm curious about them. Hell, I've even once filled out one of those Arbitron rating radio diaries, though none of the alternative and NPR stations I listen to are even covered in the ratings. I suspect the willingness to answer questions at all makes me a desirable call and gets me in calling pools, given that more and more people won't respond to surveys.

Second, I am a reliable voter. I always cast a ballot. So, to gauge election opinon, I'm in the group you do need to measure -- just as I am in the last group that any candidate should bother to target with persuasion calls.

(Neither of the factors above should lead to inclusion in a polling pool according to most descriptions of randomized selection methodology, but I am convinced they do.)

Thirdly, I answer my landline in the evening. That's more and more a rarity, like landlines themselves.

Finally, I suspect we have an inordinate number of polls here in San Francisco. In particular, local political consultants have proved that they can both win and defeat local ballot measures if they have the right attitudinal data about down-ballot voters. Campaigns know they need that information and they pay to get it.

As in many polling calls I get, the interviewer tonight was only marginally up to the job. This one could at least read the script and sounded as if she had heard of the subject matter, a school bond measure. She didn't have to ask me my favorable or unfavorable opinion of local politicians. These questions usually trip up the interviewers since they've seldom been taught how to pronounce any of the names. Pollsters, listen up: Interviewers who can't even pretend they know what they are talking about drive down response rates. Who wants to talk to someone who seems not to understand what you are saying?

I sometimes wonder whether I can rightly participate in these polls since I work in politics. I answer the qualifying questions honestly: No, I am not an officeholder, don't currently work for one, nor do I work in media. I do teach community groups how to survive and thrive in the electoral arena, but that is too rare a vocation to be caught by most questions.

As far as I could make out, tonight's poll aimed to find effective counter arguments to a proposed $450 million school bond to be issued to pay for building improvements, replacement of portable classrooms, upgrading bathrooms, and other worthy infrastructure improvements. Sounds good, but there are powerful arguments against it, including that we, the voters, authorized borrowing for similar projects only five years ago and that the school system has a less then stellar record of fiscal controls. If opponents throw enough money at a smart campaign, I suspect they may keep the measure from getting the 55 percent it would require to pass.

Polling me didn't help them much. I'm exactly the demographic they presumably hope to sway: an older white homeowner with no kids in school. But I listened to the arguments and will still vote for it. Sure, the schools are inefficient, but they are made worse by being continually strapped for basic amenities. It will be interesting to see what sort of persuasion mail I get over the next few weeks. I wonder which of the opposing arguments polled best?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Legalizing impunity

I learned the meaning of "impunity" from my work with Central and Latin Americans, usually persons made refugees by their own criminal governments that were supported by mine. The organization Derechos describes the concept:

Impunity. Perhaps no word defines the experiences of Latin America as well as this one. Lack of punishment, of investigation, of justice. The possiblity [sic] of committing crimes - from common robberies to rape, torture, murders - without having to face, much less suffer, any punishment. And therefore, the implicit aproval [sic] of the morality of these crimes. Forgiving and forgetting without remembering - or remembering too well, but not caring - that what is forgotten will be repeated. As thus what is done without any punishment, can be repeated without fear.

Our president is now seeking to make impunity for torturers the law of the land. To judge by his press conference on Friday, some of the hired help must have been afraid they might eventually be prosecuted; Bush wants the Congress to make torture safe for its perpetrators.

As usual, Billmon nails what is at stake in the current pulling and hauling over legalizing torture:

What will be on the table then is the question of whether a nation as powerful and potentially dangerous to others as America (the proverbial bull in the china shop) can survive on brute force alone -- without moral legitimacy or political prestige, without true allies (save for the world's other leper regimes) and without "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."...

What this amounts to ... is the final decommissioning of the myth of American exceptionalism -- once one of the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Without it, we're just another paranoid empire obsessed with our own security and willing to tell any lie or repudiate any self-proclaimed principle if we think it will make us even slightly safer.

Hat tip to Mahablog for pointing to the press conference video.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Friday Cat blogging
Meet Ripley

Yes, that is a cat.

She's friendly. You can visit her at Borderlands Books in San Francisco.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

California's Exclusive Electorate

This morning's screaming front page headline in the San Francisco Chronicle read:
California's Growing Diversity Doesn't Extend to the Ballot Box.

I'm tempted to respond, yeah -- what else is new? After all, I put out the following in 1995 (using the previous year's figures) while developing a plan for a campaign against an initiative to outlaw affirmation action:

The California electorate (that fraction of the population which is eligible to be registered, is registered, and votes) is very different from the demographic picture presented by the state’s residents as a whole. For example, 14 percent of voters were between 18 and 29 years old, while actually 28% of Californians are in that age range. Only 14% of the electorate had household incomes of less than $20,000, compared to 26% of state households. Fully 50% of the voters were college graduates, as opposed to 20% of Californians over 18. Most strikingly, and saliently for the purposes of discussing the anti-affirmative action vote, though nearly half the state’s residents are members of the various communities of color, the electorate in 1994 was 81% white.

From that perspective, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study just released documents progress. By its reckoning, the segment of the electorate that is not white has jumped from 19 percent to 28 percent in the intervening years, while concurrently the state changed from roughly 52 percent white to more like 46 percent. Still, the PPIC paper once again amply demonstrates that the California electorate is out of phase with the population.

Where the PPIC study shines is in the attitudinal data integrated with the simple demographic facts. I tend to be skeptical of the notion that non-voters' attitudes are significantly different from voters' opinions, except possibly on such divisive hot button topics as the series of "white fright" wedge measures (anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative action, anti-bilingual education) the state endured in the 1990s. But this study homes in on economic attitudes, demonstrating clearly that non-voters would be willing to reopen the debate that pits taxation against public services and lean toward the latter. They would even overturn the destructive sacred cow of California politics, Prop. 13. This 1978 initiative freezes property taxes for long time homeowners, making the resources available to local governments dependent on the state government's also precarious fiscal health.

Before reading this study, I was unaware that most new voters register "decline to state" rather than choosing a political party.

Political party membership has also declined over the past 16 years. The percentage of California adults registered as major party voters has dropped from 54 percent to 43 percent.... For the first time in modern California history, the majority of adults do not belong to one of the major parties.

This is not the case in the street level voter registration drives I see; most canvassers come home with a substantial majority of Democrats. Evidently other forms of registration including motor voter and mail-in don't have the same results.

This survey doesn't explore why new voters are choosing "decline to state." I can speculate based on a combination of anecdote and experience:
  • Some new citizens don't want to risk public affiliation with a "side." They want to keep their heads down.
  • Because of extreme gerrymandering, almost no state legislative seats or Congressional seats are competitive. Local elections in many jurisdictions are non-partisan. Voters consequently have little sense that party identification means much, except perhaps in Presidential primaries.
  • Candidates, whether responding to voter preference or out of timidity, seldom emphasize their party. If the standard bearers don't think party is important, why should the voters?
  • Local party structures are close to non-existent in most areas so they aren't out there bringing in party-identified voters. A great deal of the registration funding and work that does exist passes through non-profit organizations that are precluded by law from encouraging party affiliation.
The overall message of the PPIC study is that democratic (small d) government is at risk when the electorate is so very unrepresentative and different from the population as a whole. That seems very right. The remedies proposed -- streamlined citizenship procedures, easier registration, more prosperity, better education -- seem improbable. The study mentions but does not emphasize one of the profound disincentives to most efforts to increase voter participation:

Growth and change in the electorate could initially result in more political instability, as elected officials, candidates, parties, and initiative campaigns reach out to a larger, more diverse, less partisan, and unpredictable electorate.

That is, all players in the current system have at least some incentive to keep the unrepresentative, but well understood, electorate that we have. The people likely to need and want structural change aren't voting. Changing that is a long project, the work of a political generation, not a four year election cycle.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Signs of the Season reviewed:
Krissy Keefer for Congress

(Second in a series. Part 1 here.)
Now that's a heck of a political sign, even by San Francisco standards. Krissy Keefer does not leave you in any doubt where she stands. She has an agenda and she's not shy about sharing it. And she is committed to this campaign:

... I am running for Congress as if my life depended on it. In fact, I think it does.

The sign is actually pretty good at something too many candidates flunk: it screams the name voters need to remember. A surprising number of candidates neglect to sell their name in this city where all politicians are called by their first names.

On the other hand, the figure firing the slingshot pretty well captures the reality of this campaign. Keefer, a dancer, choreographer and progressive activist, can't be running to win -- she is running to take her shots at the incumbent. She is the Green candidate in Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi's district.

While the rest of the country thinks of Pelosi as a raving leftist, we, her constituents, find her depressingly timid about the war and the President's law-breaking. Many of us hold a grudge against her for making the Presidio national recreation area into a profit turning "public-private" partnership.

So some of us will vote for Keefer to send a feeble message to our Congresswoman that we'd like a little more faithful representation. I will. We'd love to see the Democrats take over Congress, but we also want more from them than we expect to get. Voting for Keefer is a symbolic way of saying this. If she campaigns energetically, Keefer might get as much as 15 percent of the vote. That would beat the Republican's tally in 2004; that year's sacrificial elephant got 12 percent.

What should have happened in this district was an energetic challenge by an antiwar leader to Pelosi in the Democratic Party primary. Such a challenger wouldn't have knocked off Nancy, but the campaign would have made the point where it needs to be made. The Democrats we get are the Democrats we, the people, kick into shape.

Third parties simply can't be done in our political system. And the Greens don't cut it for me; I don't trust them to act as a party rather than as a vehicle for ambitious, but ungrounded individualists. (Last time I wrote something like this Michael-David Sasson wrote a thoughtful rebuttal that more people might want to take a look at.)

So this year, it is Keefer for Congress for me -- and I treasure this "in your face" sign.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A No-Nonsense Guide to Islam

During the politicized anniversary of 9/11 just past, U.S. Muslims once again had to perform ritual self-abasement, denying that they are terrorists and asserting that, in the words of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Executive Director Nihad Awad:

"Al-Qaida does not speak for Islam or for the vast majority of Muslims worldwide who want to live in peace with their neighbors, practice their faith in freedom and raise their children in societies based on justice and mutual respect."

The No-Nonsense Guide to Islam by Merryl Wyn Davies and Zia Sardar aims to make the same point by dispelling some of the conventional ignorance about Islam so commonplace in Europe and the United States.

The authors are British Muslims. Davies is a writer and anthropologist and a former producer of religious programs for the BBC. Sardar is a writer, broadcaster, and cultural critic. They are co-authors of the British best seller, Why Do People Hate America?

Davies and Sardar do a good job of communicating the elementary basics of Islam as a belief system and offer a solid once-over-lightly of its history and culture. In a language familiar to Christians, they seem to be calling for a kind of "reformation" within Islam, both through going back to the roots and by adapting to the times. If there is one thing that no outsider should attempt to comment on, it is whether such a reformation is called for or possible. That's Muslims' business.

But Davies and Sardar set themselves another difficult task: they want to fill the gulf of incomprehension that opens up when people from historically Christian-dominant societies, ask:

What is the "real Islam"?

When confronted with the reality of terrorist attacks or the authoritarianism so evident in Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia or the Sudan, or the oppression of women in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, Muslims have tended, conventionally, to point towards history. "Just look at our glorious history to see what real Islam is all about," they say....

The trouble is that all this is history. It is far temporally and in temperament from contemporary Islam.

Now this problem is, or should be, a familiar disjunction between the religious ideals and lived reality.

It reminds me of the enormous gulf between the early, precarious Jesus community, described in the Gospels and the Book of Acts, and the Christian church since it became the imperial religion under the late Roman Empire. From the latter came everything from Crusades, to witch burnings, to modern day murders of abortion doctors.

It reminds me that today a state which insists on its Jewish character "defends" Jews by firing one million cluster bombs into populated areas of Lebanon.

Faiths that exercise temporal power seem to risk becoming morally and intellectually ossified. Islam is not alone in this. Its embattled defenders in Western lands have a lot in common with believers of other stripes. If only we could all recall that whatever we call our Ultimate Concern, that concern is greater than guns or governments....

Monday, September 11, 2006

Heroes of 9/11

The timorous reaction of the great mass of people in the United States to the 9/11 attacks is depressing. Are we really such sheep that a murderous piece of theater is enough to corral the whole herd of us off into authoritarian barbarism? Too often the answer seems to be "yes."

But the detritus of 9/11 has produced a few heroes. One of mine is Glenn Greenwald. Formerly a politically apathetic constitutional lawyer, he watched the Bush regime subvert the rule of law and sought to mobilize resistance, first through his blog, Unclaimed Territory, then in a little book titled How Would a Patriot Act?

If you've ever wanted to see a simple, cogent explanation of how extreme an attack our current regime is making on the rule of law, Glenn will tell you. And he doesn't stop with moaning and groaning. In his lawyerly way, he aims to move people. A sample of his call to action:

Ultimately, people will get the government they deserve. ... We now have a president who is claiming the power to break our laws and to act without any checks of any kind from the Congress, the courts, or the citizens. ...

Whether we will become a country in which the president can exercise unlimited power -- whether we will fundamentally change the type of nation that we are -- will be determined exclusively by whether we allow this behavior to continue.

Preach it, Glenn.

Sometimes I have quibbles with Greenwald. He holds on to what seems to me an exaggerated faith that the U.S. "liberties" he defends have always been available to all -- lots of people, many of them of color, would contest that. He also lets himself get drawn into controversy with the propaganda hacks of fascism who don’t even deserve refutation. And he at present seems to be accepting too readily the Bush regime's assertion that Iran is our next mortal enemy.

But Greenwald is refreshing because he is not afraid to claim the ground of moral principle for those who would restore the rule of law. His turn to activism in the face of tyranny is an example of post-9/11 heroism we could use more of.

Tony Blair in Lebanon

A protester is carried away by security officers as she interrupts a joint news conference held by Lebanon's Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair at Saniora's offices in downtown Beirut, Monday, Sept. 11, 2006. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Guess she didn't want a guy who colluded in killing 1000 of her fellow citizens and smashing their homes to dust as an honored guest in her country.

A sister of Code Pink?

Remembering 9/11:
It matters that Bush lied

Parade Magazine is not your highbrow media. A lot of us probably think of it as waste paper, a colorful piece of the Sunday newspaper we throw away, along with the supermarket ads and (maybe) the comics.

Today, Parade ran a personal story by a retired New York City cop who lost a son who was working on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11. As I post this, the picture above appears on the Parade site but the link there to the full article is broken.

Wilton Sekzer wanted revenge. He asked U.S. military in Iraq to write his son's name on a bomb: "In loving Memory of Jason Sekzer." They did, on a 2000 pound guided projectile, and sent him pictures. He collected the pictures and felt he had done something.

Then he got a shock:

Months later, I was watching TV when President Bush came on and said he didn't know why people connected Iraq to 9/11. He said: "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11th [attacks.]" I said, "What did he just say?" I mean, I almost jumped out of my chair. I said, "What the hell is he talking about? What the hell did we go in there for? If Saddam didn't have anything to do with 9/11, then why did we go in there?"

I'm from the old school. Certain people walk on water. The President of the United States is one of them. It's a terrible thing if someone like me can't trust his President. ...

I feel that the government exploited my feelings of patriotism. But I was so insane with wanting to get even, I was willing to believe anything.

...I should never have put my son's name on the bomb. Am I sorry? No, because I acted under the conditions at that time. Was it wrong? Yeah, it was wrong. But I didn't know that.

It's not easy to be calm when you lose your child. You want revenge. When people heard my story, I got a lot of emails. One guy wrote: "What about the other fathers whose sons were killed by that bomb?" You know what? He was a right to say that, because we were lied to. And if I found out the bomb killed innocent people, I'd feel terrible that I put my son's name on it.

Once Mr. Sekzer realized that the bomb was not the memorial he wanted for his son, he persuaded the City of New York to name a street for Jason. He writes:

The bomb was a reaction to anger. The street sign will be here forever. Two different categories.

Activists owe it to the Wilton Sekzer's of the world to keeping demanding truth from our rulers.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Our vast obliviousness

The face of fear?

The Canadian Globe and Mail has marked the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a list of "50 Changes, 5 Years After." This item grabbed me:

56 per cent
U.S. voters in a recent poll who picked the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a historical event more significant than the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Our notorious national historical amnesia strikes again. Apparently out rulers have convinced a majority of us that a bunch of smart religious fanatics who managed a theatrical murder of thousands are more dangerous than Hitler's Germany and the expansionist Japanese empire that killed millions. We don't remember fears past.

We don't remember that anyone over 25 lived much of their life in a world in which we had to fear nuclear annihilation by the thousands of warheads of unimaginable power aimed at us by the Soviet Union -- and aimed by our government at them in turn. We don't remember fears past.

And we have no consciousness that twice in its short history, this nation almost didn't make it at all. Anyone looking at the balance of forces in 1776 would have expected Washington and friends to be hanged as criminal insurgents. In 1860, there was no certainty at all that there would be a single Union five years later. (Maybe there wasn't?) We don't remember fears past.

We live within a "vast American obliviousness that shrouds in a kind of Gothic mist everything that happened before last Tuesday," according to social commentator Katha Pollit. This insistent ignorant innocence might be charming, if corrupt leaders didn't use it to warp us into a nation that tromps though the world like a petulant rogue child. Are we capable of adulthood? It won't come easily. It is very comfortable to live as spoiled children.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Friday Cat Blogging: Beirut cat

A stray cat is covered in oil at Dalia Bay in Beirut. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times,Aug 23, 2006.)

In the the land of cats, Israeli bombing of coastal oil tanks has loosed black sludge that pollutes two thirds of the coast.

I wonder if she tried to lick it off? I wonder if she lived?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Signs of the season reviewed:
Re-elect Bevan?

First of a planned series on campaign paraphernalia.

This is a pretty low key election year in San Francisco. Mostly we've got incumbents planning coronations and other politicos going through campaign motions while scoping out their avenues for advancement when term limits kick in.

One of the fun things about San Francisco elections is that we believe in signs. Since we don't have lawns, we do window signs in quantity and signs on sticks taped to poles (in conformity with a sensible local ordinance which ensures that the clutter goes away afterwards.)

When I teach folks how to work on elections, I describe signs as "useful trinkets" -- something field staff should demand because trinkets reinforce the enthusiasm of your supporters. (Other parts of the campaign willl scoff at you and steal your budget for trinkets if you don't fight.) Signs, buttons, and bumper stickers aren't for changing minds. Trinkets promise your side that you've got the elusive, but invaluable "momentum."

Mostly I advocate simplicity in signs: text with one message, usually the candidate's name, and no frills but a recognizable design. Choose one, stick to it, and hammer.

Sometimes candidates attempt more and that's risky. Today's example shows why: what in the world was Bevan Dufty thinking portraying himself as a cockeyed computer monitor? Dufty is a "moderate" (that means pro-landlord) gay supervisor, an incumbent, likely cruising to victory. He used the same goofy sign image last time.

This time he has a straight woman opponent, Alix Rosenthal, running marginally to his left with backing from the tenant's union and some environmental groups. If I lived in the district (I live nearby) I'd vote for her, if only because I couldn't resist a candidate who proclaims " I want to keep San Francisco weird." Now that's okay with me -- the issue was whether to shut down the Castro district's annual Halloween party and free-for-all because too many straight outsiders come and pee in alleys. This impedes gentrification.

Yes, that's one of Bevan's ideas. You get the picture. Maybe Dufty likes his sign because it looks a little like him? Dufty photo courtesy of SFPartyParty.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The uses of printed materials in political organizing

Sounds like a boring topic, huh? Well, maybe, but since I am spending this week setting up several hundred volunteers all over the country to distribute an anti-war newspaper, it's what I am thinking about. (Want some free peace papers? Give me a holler. For more info, look here.)

That there should be any question about whether using print materials in grass roots organizing is valuable seems a very contemporary question. From the invention of the printing press and moveable type until very recently, political organizers' first thought was to get their pitch on paper, whether through a broadside, a handbill, or a pamphlet. Think Tom Paine.

But contemporary learning styles have shifted to emphasize audio and video, while at the same time internet communications deluge most of us with more to read than we can possibly consume. And novice organizers, often, don't think of using printed materials to help them in their work -- it gets beaten into them that they must talk with people, make contact, sign them up. Seldom do they get taught how to use paper to help the organizing.

One of the volunteers distributing the anti-war paper, an experienced organizer, said to me the other day: "I really like working with print media." So do I -- here's why:
  • Distributing a printed piece about your candidate, program or campaign gives you legitimacy. If the piece doesn't look sloppy or completely ugly, the recipient registers, minimally, that you are serious enough to try to make your case. That's a start.
  • A display of multiple lit pieces can make you look positively authoritative when staffing a table at an event.
  • Using a printed piece, guarantees that your own campaign personnel, staff and volunteers, have at least some exposure to a unified message. Whether anyone reads or repeats it is another question.
  • A printed piece can be used to convey to a particular constituency that you care about them. For example, as I pointed out yesterday, Democrats blew an opportunity by not leafleting the immigrant Labor Day march about Phil Angelides' candidacy. A flier for someone else's event, especially a flier in the language of the people you want to reach, sends a powerful signal that you care about the people to whom you hand it.
  • One of the anti-war newspaper volunteers summed a lot of this up for me today: "Often it is tough enough to pull together a weekly anti-war action without having to be conversational and concise. The paper, War Times, is very useful for back filling some of my social dysfunction."
Are there downsides to using print materials? Sure. Producing good lit pieces is hard -- if you have to do it all, when you've finally got the flier out, it is easy to feel you've accomplished something, when in fact you've only broken the ice for the real organizing. Volunteers sent out to staff a table with a great lit supply will stand behind that table and never talk to anyone unless you push them. And any experienced organizer will tell you that most volunteers would rather do all-day lit drops on doorsteps than spend a couple of hours actually knocking on doors and talking with their peers. Effective grassroots organizing does require interaction, conversation. But that is no reason not to help yourself with persuasive print materials.