Sunday, December 30, 2007

The making of presidents

Finally the long run up to the selection of 2008 Presidential nominees moves to the decision phase on Thursday. It surely feels like time.

As it happens I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a gripping work of popular biography. This isn't history that seeks to uncover the social and economic forces that drive human actions and societies; rather Goodwin writes out of the "great men" school of historical narrative, focusing on the inclinations and foibles of people near the center of power. Politicians make engaging characters in this kind of story, none more so than the complex and appealing Lincoln. The result is fascinating, though not deep.

It is interesting to think about the current campaign season in the light of Goodwin's description of how Lincoln won the Republican nomination and then the election of 1860.
  • Realignment: I subscribe to the idea that contemporary demographic trends favor a long term shift toward a progressive majority. But 1860 was unequivocally the real thing, real realignment. The pre-existing political parties were splitting and reforming under the party names we know today, all over the issues of the federal union and of slavery. The old Whig party literally disappeared. Four men representing fragmentary and regional parties vied for the Presidency. Lincoln's northern Republicans, committed to preventing the spread of slavery to the territories but not abolition, commanded a plurality of votes, though nothing like a national majority. Pushed to the sidelines by "serious" politicians, even in Lincoln's party, abolitionists (and the slaves themselves) accused the "respectable" men of politics of moral turpitude. That sure reminds me of progressive forces today.
  • Nomination by smart blurring: Lincoln won the Republican nomination, not by overwhelming his rivals, but by making himself a majority's second choice while more prominent leaders knocked each other out. His political operatives flattered and cajoled to line up second ballot commitments. They took advantage of the convention's location in Lincoln's home state of Illinois to pack the galleries with his supporters, in part by counterfeiting entrance tickets. (Done that myself once. The effect was awesome and shocking to our opponents.) When "the rail splitter" won the nod, many members of his own party had no idea what the undistinguished one term Congressman stood for. I suspect all current candidates would love to be able to run from such an undefined position.
  • A candidacy evading definition: Lincoln did not go out on the campaign trail once nominated. He stayed in Springfield, Illinois, letting politicians and journalists come to him, quizzing visitors on developments in their home states, and writing an endless stream of letters. Other Republicans traveled about the country speaking for him. In that time of frightening turmoil, with the South on the verge of breaking up the country in order to keep its slave economy, voters easily came to believe that this little known man stood for whatever it was that they hoped for -- and Lincoln was careful not to disabuse them of their confidence. Again, our contemporary candidates do their best to run that sort of campaign, letting voters pour their hopes into vaguely defined vessels.
  • Swift-boating, 1860 style: Because Lincoln used his lack of sharp definition to such good effect in attracting northern voters, he was very subject to being defined by his enemies, especially in the South where the Republican had no campaign. (Hard to imagine isn't it? -- the Republicans as the party of progress, of opposition to slavery, shut out of the South.) Democrats in the South successfully portrayed the unknown candidate as a sort of rampaging Yankee werewolf, a threat to their civilization, their women and their property. Goodwin remarks that the Northern Republicans were literally unaware of what a threatening figure Lincoln's enemies had defined him as in the South and so were taken by surprise at the quick break with the federal Union with which the deep South greeted his election.
  • An unknown in office: for all the sound and fury of the 1860 campaign, voters didn't know who they were getting until the man was tested by events. We don't either, though we think we do after the exhaustive and mostly simply exhausting tedium of a campaign. George W turned out to be much worse than even his opponents expected; could any of the Dems we are now offered turn out better than seems likely? We don't know.
Not that I imagine it will matter by February 8 when California holds its primary, but I will almost certainly be voting for the unknown quantity named John Edwards when the time comes. It feels extremely odd, but like every serious progressive I know, I find myself going with the Southern white guy instead of the woman or the Black guy. Edwards' populism seems marginally the best of an unsatisfactory lot, so there's my lesser evil choice for this round.

Chris Bowers writing at Open Left catches my relationship to our Democratic choices very succinctly:

... even if Edwards is just pandering, praise friggin' Jeebus that we finally scored a conversion with such a prominent Democrat. Isn't that exactly what we have been trying to do with Democrats? If progressive activists aren't happy that one of the six people who still has a shot at being our next President caved to our pressure on a wide swath of both policy and rhetoric, then what was the point of engaging in all of that activist pressure in the first place?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Doing journalism in Iraq

We in the United States hear that our military has won a great victory and that Iraq is more peaceful. Let us hope there is more truth than political expediency to those reports. We broke the place, we're the problem, any easing of the immediate fear of death and destruction for ordinary Iraqis is good news.

But what sort of society have we wrought in their country? There's a tidbit of reporting by the Iraqi journalist Jenan at Inside Iraq that casts all too much light on conditions in "pacified" Baghdad. Less than perfect English is preserved from the original, though I've added some punctuation.

One week ago, we started work of the end year story that we share the work together. Sunni journalist took the Sunni neighborhoods and Shiite journalist took the Shiite neighborhoods. I was excite to do this story. I had to visit one family in each of mine neighborhood, I mean the Shiite majority neighborhood. But when I started my trip to do my job I faced so many difficulties not because the fears of the militias or terrorist.The difficulty was that most people feel afraid from the journalist and they deal with them as spies who work to serve the interest of their enemies. ...

New Baghdad [is] one of the mixed neighborhoods so to get more benefit for our story I should talk to Christian person to ask him or her about the security in the neighborhood. As usual I couldn’t stop oneone in the street to talk to because this thing can be done only in Democrat countrie not Iraq. So I phoned my Christian friend who guided me to her grandmother to interview her.

When I talked to the old lady, I felt that the woman was doubtful about my intention. I hardly convince her that my story talks about the changes that happened in Iraq through 2007. Then I talked to her about many stuff in her neighborhood. She was very kind and generous woman and she was very accurate in her describtion for her neighborhood, she showed me a perfect image about her neighborhood.

Next day my friend phoned me to ask about the kind of conversation that I took part with her grandmother.

"it was about the security situation in the neighborhood" I answered.

She said, "my grandmother doesn’t feel comfortable she is afraid that conversation will bring troubles for her"

"Why? she did not say anything may cause troubles" I replied.

"Please Jenan don’t use this conversation in your story…. That what my grandmother wants"

"Ok dear I will not, don’t worry". Oh God why people are terrified from journalists. We try to help our country by showing the truth no more, no less. ...they afraid may we hurt them if we publish their opinion about what is happening in Iraq.

They've learned, under the dictator and amid the chaotic violence we've brought. Who's been driven mad, the interviewee, the journalist, or those of us who peer into the fishbowl at them? What are we going to do about it?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Public space

The day before Christmas, the California Supreme Court gave the people of this state a very special present. It issued a decision reaffirming that mall owners cannot prevent free speech on their property. Writing for the 4-3 majority, Justice Carlos R. Moreno asserted that

"a shopping mall is a public forum in which persons may reasonably exercise their right to free speech."

The case at issue involved union members asking mall customers to boycott a store within the facility. The court decided that malls may regulate speech and behavior to prevent disruption (and they do rather rigidly), but they cannot discriminate between speech they like and speech they oppose, such as calls for a boycott of a tenant. This finding upheld a 1979 California ruling that protects some speech on mall property

Not surprisingly, the dissenting judges thought the right of property owners to control what they own should trump citizens' free speech.

According to the L A Times,

Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law professor at UCLA, said California and a few other states back free speech at large malls on the theory that they function as modern-day town squares.

"That's where people congregate these days, and that's where it's important that free speech be protected," he said.

Volokh and the court are right, if we hope to preserve a culture of democracy -- small "d". Preserving some public entitlement to free speech in privately owned, public used, spaces is much like the fight to protect "net neutrality", the regulations preventing telecommunications carriers from playing favorites among those who use their pipes.

Very few states are as supportive of free speech in malls as California. For example, in 2006, a New York court severely limited protests by antiwar activists outside a mall which housed a military recruiting station. The judge agreed that the recruiting station was a government facility and so a proper target of protected speech -- but nonetheless limited protests. Protesters could demonstrate on Saturdays, from noon to 2 p.m., and only on the sidewalk outside the glass-fronted mall. Otherwise commerce had to be protected from disruption.

Different states approach the issue from different angles, while the Federal courts come down hard on the side of property:

Federal courts have held that the U.S. Constitution provides no public assembly rights in privately owned shopping centers. But state courts are allowed to adopt greater protection for free speech on private property.

Five states -- California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington -- have held that the government may require mall owners to permit some political activity in common areas of the mall.

The California and Washington decisions relied on public-referendum laws, in which proposed laws can be put on the ballot if enough signatures are collected. ...

Massachusetts allows political candidates to collect signatures in malls. New Jersey and Colorado allow people to leaflet on societal issues.

Extending free speech access as much as possible onto private land used for public functions is as important a cause as maintaining the openness of the internet. In most of our car-centered, sidewalk-free suburban, exurban and semi-urban settings, private venues are the only public spaces.

The photo at the head of this post shows the corridors of the Serramonte Shopping Center in Daly City. I spent many a weekend in its parking lots and corridors in the early 1970s alerting customers that a grocery store inside was selling grapes picked by non-union farm labor. Mall security personnel were sometimes quite threatening, but we'd haul out copies of the then-current law allowing our speech and politely push the envelope. As I think about it, pushing the envelope in quasi-public spaces seems a good practice for democrats -- small "d".

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Twas the day after Christmas ...

The San Francisco Mission District must be one of the few un-mallified shopping districts left in the U.S. Oh, we have a few chain outlets -- a McDonalds, some shoe vendors, and every cell phone service provider in the world. But most of our stores and restaurants are locally owned, small, and idiosyncratic. Out early this morning, I noted several approaches to the day after...

Anna's Linens crams a stock worthy of a Bed, Bath and Beyond into a two floor showroom (except everything costs at least one third less.) Most of the customers and clerks are Latino. And the store was eager to capture Christmas cash.

Meanwhile, around the corner, the torta (Mexican sandwich) shop figured the proprietors needed their own holiday -- see you in January, folks.

Down the block, the Chinese fish market offered personal service in two languages, not something I could find in a mall, I don't think.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

O little town of Bethlehem, 2007

The writing on Bethlehem’s wall: A Palestinian boy looks at a dove painted by British 'guerrilla' artist Banksy on the wall dividing Bethlehem on the West Bank. Amar Awad/Reuters

The number of Christian pilgrims visiting Bethlehem was a major story in mainstream media over the last 48 hours. Most of those puff pieces, at least the ones in the U.S., didn't include details like these from London Times Online:

Tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world descended on Bethlehem yesterday, encouraged by the recent Middle East peace talks and lull in violence. ...

Those gathered outside the Church of the Nativity included American tourists with Santa hats, Japanese pilgrims in silk robes and faux white beards, and Palestinian Scouts in Scottish kilts. ...

In his homily delivered at Midnight Mass, the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, delivered a politically charged appeal for peace and love in the city of Bethlehem — and independence for the Palestinian people.

“This land of God cannot be for some a land of life and for others a land of death, exclusion, occupation, or political imprisonment,” said Patriarch Michael, the first Palestinian to hold his position.

Patriarch Michael could only enter Bethlehem after passing through a massive steel gate in Israel’s separation barrier. Israeli mounted policemen escorted him, in his flowing magenta robe, to the gate, and border police clanged it shut behind him.

For something of the flavor of the experience of passing through the Israeli Wall daily, watch the You-Tube below:


And at least around Bethlehem, some pass through the Wall. Not so for most Palestinians caught in the giant prison that is Israeli-encircled Gaza.

20th of December 2007–Gaza
It is Eid ALADHA Eve; Xmas is so close, Happy Eid, Merry Xmas and Happy New Year

The siege against Gaza has completed its six months 1.5 million of population are not allowed to travel outside Gaza, ...

In Gaza today our stories are the stories of loss of hope lack of just realistic political solution, poverty, despair, unsafe streets irregular power, lack of clean water, all sorts of frustrations. increasing percentage of children who suffer of posttraumatic disorders, desperate women and men increasing of domestic violence, hungry kids in the streets, increasing number of children laborers, increasing number of school leavers, lack of proper environment for children upbringing etc……..

in the middle of all that Israeli military operations are continuous ongoing practice, 20 Palestinians at least were killed last wee , many were injured in military incursions and air [raids] in different areas of the Gaza Strip. ...

Xmas time is so close, from Gaza I send my love... I ask you while celebrating and rejoicing, not to forget us in Gaza. ...

When it is late, it is not acceptable for the world to say: WE DID NOT KNOW WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN GAZA!

Mona Elfarra
From Gaza, with Love
December 20, 2007

Urban Christmas lights

Generally, I think of community Christmas light displays on many houses of a street as a suburban phenomenon. But there's a lovely block near my house in the Mission where neighbors drape their houses in creative fashion.

Also the trees...

And their windows.

And their mini front yards.

Out of very little, at least one house creates a more ambitious illusion. Three angles follow.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Terror prosecution or legal sham?

Suppose you were acquitted of a crime? A jury found you innocent -- wouldn't you figure you'd get to go home? Not so for the unfortunate Lyglenson Lemorin, a legal U.S. resident originally from Haiti, who was cleared by a jury of "terrorism" charges in Miami a couple of weeks ago. The government swooped the man up and dumped him in a deportation holding facility in Lumpkin, Georgia. Apparently under the Patriot Act, a finding of innocence means nothing to immigration authorities.

Lemorin was one of seven "aspirational terrorists" who the government charged with hoping to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. The government informant who offered to assist them with "the plot" failed to convince a jury that these guys had enough smarts to walk and chew gum at the same time. A jury couldn't reach a verdict on six of them; the government plans to try again.

The group's only link to ''terrorists'' was an FBI informant paid $80,000 to pose as an al Qaeda contact. The group was so hapless that it couldn't afford boots and relied on the informant for cash and guidance.

Miami Herald editorial,
December 24, 2007

Several scary elements stand out about this bizarre parody of criminal process.
  • A federal judge feared the government was trying to stack the deck against the remaining defendants by deporting Lemorin before he could be called as a witness to their claim of government entrapment.
  • Though the judge ordered that Lemorin not be deported precipitously (for what crime one wonders), the same judge extended a gag order on prosecutors and defense lawyers involved with the other six men to cover attorneys and advocates representing the "innocent" man. Immigration advocates, who had protested Lemorin's continued detention, are no longer commenting, apparently in consequence of the order.
  • The judge has also ordered that names of past and potential jurors in this case be kept not only from the press, but also from prosecutors and defense lawyers. AP, 12/21/07
Legal experts believe that what will happen to the remaining defendants will turn on what subset of "their peers" end up on the new jury.

University of Miami law professor Bruce Winick says "the [second] trial will depend on jury selection -- that's such an important part of the case."

"Here we had an interracial jury [in the first trial] that understands what goes down in the 'hood," he said. ...

Miami Herald,
December 15, 2007

That is, unless the next jury includes people who understand how very removed from the mainstream some of our poorer and less educated fellow citizens live, these guys could get sent away for a long time. Will the legal system find a jury that can imagine the lives of these guys? Imagining such an outcome is a stretch. Let's hope this episode does not end up added to the catalog of such shameful blots on the U.S. legal system as the prosecutions of the
Scottsboro Boys and the Jena Six.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas caroling on Castro Street

On Saturday, members of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist took over the corner of 18th Street and Castro, San Francisco's gay downtown, to invite folks to join us in Christmas worship services and festivities. We had a lot of fun.

In general folks were friendly. I've done inviting at this location for Easter services and folks aren't always so glad to see us. After all, gay and straight, they tend to be folks who figure Christians hate them. But apparently most folks like Christmas, so this time of year they are more forgiving.

This passerby was a Wiccan, generally a broadminded lot. I always meet leftist friends here. This time I had one come by who said he'd join up if we could find him a husband -- but he wasn't impressed by the cast we'd assembled. He doesn’t know who he's missing ...

Parish musician Charles Rus led his motley choir in carols.

I didn't think we sounded half bad, but I'm no judge of music.

Any reader interested in meeting some of these carolers in person, check out the St. John the Evangelist calendar.
For whatever it is worth to the readers of this blog, I should report that I've recently taken a job as national field organizer for Claiming the Blessing. This outfit is a coalition that includes many groups (the one with the most members and national infrastructure is Integrity) that work for full inclusion and equality for LGBT people in the Episcopal Church. I'm tired of letting people define Christianity who are more concerned with what some of us do with our plumbing than with who our nation and economic system starves and who we choose to kill. There's no Good News to share if all we have to offer is a dose of damnation. God promises justice for the oppressed and joy for all -- we can do better than we have been doing.

For a gay, secular take on the struggle within the Episcopal Church, see Teresa Morrison in the Advocate.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Solstice -- Advent -- the promise of light

Yesterday those of us in the Northern Hemisphere passed that wonderful moment when the days once again start to get longer. Thank goodness for more light! I hate getting up between 6 and 6:30 am in pitch dark. I hate finishing runs in gathering dusk at 5 pm. More light please! (And condolences to my friends in the South; the inversion of the seasons tied to a Northern hemisphere calendar creates what seem to Northerners incongruities: when we spent a season in Cape Town, friends regaled us with tales of going to the beach for New Years.)

In the Christian year, we're completing the season of Advent, the season of yearning for the Light personified, incarnated, by the Christ child.

The "Christmas season" -- the annual consumption orgy during which we are urged to root for healthy sales records -- teases that yearning, most unsatisfactorily.

The longer I live, the more I believe we humans are creatures that carry within us a yearning for something greater than our personal ease and comfort.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, while insisting on his disbelief in all religion, describes the sensation the season can awaken, if we attend to it.

I think it has to do with yearning and loss and beauty and hope. ... And the beauty makes us cry, which is as it should be.

A couple of weeks ago in the Episcopal church where I worship we sang Psalm 72 in a version that I think comes from the New Zealand Prayer Book. Verse 3 perfectly captures that seasonal yearning as I feel it, imploring

Let the mountains bring forth peace for the people;
and the hills prosperity with justice.

That's the yearning the lives in me, surfacing more consciously each year as we wait for the light. The harsh and beautiful mountain in Lebanon pictured at the head of this post is perhaps one of the scenes the psalmist had in mind when writing the petition.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Friday Cat Blogging

Some cats work for their living.

Not Billie.

He goes in for being beautiful...

and having his belly tickled.

Until he bites.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Muslims in U.S. political process

The Muslim Student Association at UC Berkeley registered voters in 2004. Blaire Baily/Daily Californian

Recently a sociologist at UC-Irvine, Jen'nan Ghazal Read, looked into Muslim-American political activity. Her review of various sources led her to conclude that, when it comes to engaging with the political process,

"Muslim immigrants are not any different from earlier immigrant groups who came to America –- they are motivated by the same desire to integrate and achieve a better way of life," Ghazal Read said.

"So what this means in terms of their political involvement is that the same things that dictate your average American's political attitudes and behaviors –- socioeconomic status, marital status, race/ethnicity, age, gender and so on –- dictate their attitude and behaviors."

Still she unearthed some interesting tidbits:
  • 26 percent of Muslim Americans have incomes of $75,000 or higher, compared with 28 percent of non-Muslims.
  • Muslim American women are more likely then Muslim American men to affiliate with the Democratic Party (36 percent compared to 26 percent) and less likely to affiliate with the Republican Party (12 percent compared to 21 percent).
  • 43 percent of Muslim Americans believe religion should influence politics, compared to 54 percent of U.S. Christians.
  • Muslim Americans are registered to vote at higher rates than the national average, a significant statistic considering that many are immigrants to the U.S
While trying to grasp the significance of this data, I decided to find out how many Muslims -- immigrants, citizens, foreign born, native, etc. -- lived in the United States. I was a little surprised to learn that I had wandered into a minefield.

Because, by law, the U.S. Census does not collect data on religious affiliations, all figures given for the number of adherents to various religions in this country are estimates based figures offered by religious bodies and on demographic guesswork. When it comes to the number of U.S. Muslims, since the religion doesn't have any central authorities, there is no central place to get a number. Immigration authorities also do not (officially anyway) keep data on religious affiliation. Not all Arab or South Asian newcomers are Muslim; many are Christian or, among South Asians, Hindu. On the other hand, migrants from Europe are sometimes Muslims.

Further complicating arriving at a count, immigrant Muslim communities had had only a distant relationship with African American Muslim communities. In fact, the percentage of U.S. Muslims who are African American is another contested number -- estimates range from 24 to 30 percent of the total number, whatever that is.

Moreover, in the backwash of right winger's enthusiasm for lighting up an anti-Muslim "clash of civilizations," counting U.S. Muslims has become a political issue. Muslim civil rights organizations attack a study funded by the American Jewish Committee that in 2001 came up with the number 1.8 million. They say it was designed to minimize their influence. The Islamophobe Daniel Pipes apparently cites this one. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Dr. Sayyid Syeed, secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) have insisted that there are 6-8 million U.S. Muslims. And many individual Muslims, in the post-9/11 security panic, just want to keep their heads down.

Regardless of what the real number may be, in U.S. politics what matters is that Muslims, like many other interest groups, are participating in ever greater numbers in the political process. Some stories of that participation are collected here. With time and effort, that means the country will have to take some account of their views.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Uruguay sends a message

The torturers don't always prevail forever.

Montevideo, Uruguay: A living woman's hand emerges from the ground during events to celebrate the opening of the Memory Museum, symbolising the people disappeared during the 1973-1985 military dictatorship. Photograph: Marcelo Hernandez/AP

This item from Monday's news isn't likely to make much of a ripple in North America, but it should.

A former Uruguayan dictator was arrested on Monday and charged with secretly transferring political prisoners who later disappeared and are presumed dead, a prosecutor said.

Gregorio Alvarez, a former army general, led Uruguay from 1981 until 1985, when the country returned to democracy after 12 years of military rule. ...


Why should we care about Alvarez being locked up? Alvarez's arrest is the equivalent of what many of us devoutly hope will happen someday, even if it takes 20 years: some court will haul George W. Bush and Don Rumsfeld in to stand trial for turning the United States into a torture state. (We'll assume that by then the Dick will have gone on to his Maker.)

The story of how Uruguay lost its democracy and suffered 12 years under dictatorship is little remembered here, though U.S. covert national security operatives certainly had a role in this horror story. According to Human Rights Watch, Uruguay under its generals was "a society which, in the late 1970s, had the highest ratio of political prisoners to population in the world, where torture was practiced at a highly sophisticated level, for months or years on certain prisoners." Even when the generals returned the country to civilian rule, for many years most people were eager to put an ugly part of the past behind them. But what was done in Uruguay under the dictatorship, and the fact that even three decades later some perpetrators are finally being brought to court, should matter to anyone horrified by the current ascendancy of the torture regime in the United States.

Lawrence Weschler chronicled the Uruguayan story in A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers. The book's narrative ends
in 1989 with Uruguayans voting down an attempt to overturn amnesty for torturers including Alvarez. It is extraordinarily detailed, thoughtful and terrifying.

Under the guise of fighting Communism, the Uruguayan military overthrew their politicians in 1973 and imposed a system of classifying all citizens.

...the military authorities assigned each and every Uruguayan citizen one of three classifications, the designation being stamped into his or her files at the central archive. "A" citizens were politically trustworthy and hence could be employed by the state (the country's principle employer), could travel freely, and were extended certain minimal freedoms. "B" citizens were deemed ideologically suspect and hence could be employed privately but not by the state (tens of thousands were sacked); their travel privileges were severely limited and they faced continuous petty (and sometimes not so petty) harassment by the security services. "C" citizens weren't citizens: they were pariahs pure and simple; they'd been utterly stripped of their rights and even the possibility of employment... . And the point was that anyone at any time could find himself reclassified as "C" -- because after all, they [the rulers] knew everything.

Couldn't happen here, could it? That's a long topic, but I'll just note that our "Homeland Security" spooks are working with academics to develop software to conduct "sentiment analysis" on written material. They say this project is meant to understand the foreign press, but since we know they grab up all the electronic communications they can capture, one wonders. Apparently they also assign all travelers a "risk assessment" score. Hmmm....

Weschler interviewed one of the generals' thousands of victims, Dr. Liber Mandressi.

"All of us were hooded all the time," he recalled. "And all of us were tortured for days on end, without even being interrogated at first. There must have been a hundred fifty, two hundred people there; you could hear breathing, coughing, moaning -- we weren't allowed to talk to each other ...

Eventually they'd take us in for their interrogations -- beatings, shocks, submarino [waterboarding] immersions. They weren't really after any information. They knew everything already, had everybody's name. It was just a part of the process. Once I became aware that a seven-year-old boy had been brought in and was being forced to witness his parents being tortured. "

Those who survived this treatment -- and it was so carefully calibrated that most did survive -- ended up in Libertad [yeah, they called it that] Prison. There, psychologists helped the military continue mental destruction of their captives. Weschler writes:

The regime at Libertad ... was more subtle. Major A. Maciel, who was a director of Libertad, observed at one point, regarding the prisoners under his charge, "We didn't get rid of them when we had the chance, and one day we'll have to let them go, so we'll have to take advantage of the time we have left to drive them mad."

...[An] International Red Cross delegation noted in its report, "The implementation of every sanction is connected with a violation of the rules. The problem, however, is that such rules undergo daily changes, so that sanctions are never predictable. Every privilege many suddenly become a crime and therefore give rise to a sanction."

When civilian rule was restored in 1985, Libertad was closed down. The price the generals extracted from civil society for returning to their bases was an amnesty from any legal sanction for anything done under their rule. Over tremendous odds, former prisoners and their families forced a nationwide up or down vote on maintaining this amnesty in 1989 -- and lost the vote because the majority still feared above all that "the Fascism" might return or simply wanted to look forward, not back. That is, those who sought to expose and punish the torturers were rejected by their own people after it was all "over."

The torturers must have thought they were off the hook forever. That is what is inspiring about the news of the arrest and charges against Gregorio Alvarez, now an old man.

The tortured and their supporters never gave up. They continued to demand that crimes against them and against humanity be exposed. We need to learn their lesson well: never give up.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A momentarily loquacious Feinstein

I think Senator Feinstein is worried. So far, in the last two days I have received six copies of her defensive email about FISA legislation, now postponed, that would retroactively legalize cooperation from telecommunications companies with Bush administration spooks spying on us, U.S. persons. As thousands of constituents have been shouting, the "oversight" the likes of Feinstein promise in their bill amounts to a blank check for warrantless wiretapping of just about everyone. She writes:

I am keeping an open mind to whether some other legislative approach besides immunity [for telecommunication companies] would be best.

Rest assured that I will make every effort to ensure that new FISA legislation will protect the privacy rights of all Americans without restricting the intelligence community's ability to protect us from attack.

Actually, "rest" is the last thing we need. We need a lot more hollering in opposition to the administration, along with its Democratic enablers, subverting our expectation that our privacy is protected unless the government can show why it shouldn't be. We need a lot more demanding that our government should be subject to the rule of law, not making up the rules as it goes along for its convenience.

Meanwhile, the Dems are apparently going to give Bush anything he wants to keep the occupation of Iraq going. More hollering required. Feinstein doesn't yet even answer on the war.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Just was polled ...

Looks like we may face a vote on a $195 parcel tax for the San Francisco schools in June.

Since California voters have made it nearly impossible for the legislature or local governments to raise the tax revenue needed for the services we want, parcel taxes are a common expedient used by school boards to keep our education system alive, especially in years like the coming one when state contributions to school funding will likely be cut to balance the state budget. The California School Finance website explains:

California law allows school districts to assess parcel taxes on local residents if they can secure a two-thirds approval from voters. Parcel taxes are a ... flat fee on each parcel rather than on the assessed value of property. [This is a way around property tax limitations we have passed by initiative.] The ballot proposal prepared by the school district governing board describes the purpose the money will be used for.

[Through 2006], 210 school districts out of nearly 1,000 have even attempted to pass a parcel tax, but some districts have passed multiple levies. ... [A] disproportionate number of these elections have been in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition, about 90 percent of the elections were held in districts that were below the state average of 49 percent low-income students. A common explanation for this is that wealthier communities are either better able or more willing to tax themselves to improve their schools. Just five districts that have passed parcel taxes since 2000 -- all in the Bay Area -- serve a higher-than-average proportion of low income students.

That is, the requirement for a two thirds vote for approval from an electorate that skews older and without children in the home makes passing a parcel tax very hard. Economically comfortable voters have been more willing to tax themselves.

Making school boards repeatedly go to the polls begging for money and requiring them to win 66 percent in order to do their jobs is no way to educate future Californians.

The arguments tested by the pollster interviewing me tonight were conventional. On the "yes" side, the line went that good teachers make for good schools and we need to pay teachers better if we want to attract and retain the best. Against this was suggested the (to me silly) notion that more money doesn't make for better schools. Also I was reminded that the SFUSD hasn't always managed its funds well. That last has some truth behind it and will probably play well in some quarters. It is going to be tough selling this tax, especially if voters feel the economy is hurting, as seems likely.

Some campaign -- Leno? Migden? -- tossed a question on the end of the poll about the June primary for the State Senate seat.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Responding to the harm done by our rulers

The photo above and the story below both come from the Collateral Repair Project, which describes itself as "an attempt to respond to harm caused by one's government by collaborating with injured persons and communities." Working with Iraqis who were themselves displaced by the U.S. invasion, CRP supports human scale assistance to a few of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis now stranded in Jordan. These folks may be physically safe, but they have no income and live in fear of being deported back to death in Iraq. This is one family's story.

Um and Abu Shahed [the mother and father of son Shahed] left Iraq in March of 2005. They have 2 children, a boy age 5 and a 1/2 in kindergarten and a girl in 3rd grade. They pay 130 dinars per month rent and have no source of income other than small amounts their parents are sometimes able to send from Iraq. Abu Shahed is afraid to seek work in Amman for fear of being arrested and deported back to Iraq, a certain death sentence for him.

Um Shahed was a college administrator in Baghdad prior to the invasion. She is a seamstress, and also a professional cook and wants to be part of the Collateral Repair Project cook book project. Their daughter wants to be a teacher and smiles, openly proud, when she tells us that she has the highest grades in her class. The boy, just 5 1⁄2, already knows what he wants to be when he grows up: "a painter" he says without hesitation.

Abu Shahed worked for American forces as a translator in a police academy from July 2004 to February 2005, when insurgents issued a threat to his wife, telling her "this curse has to be removed ". "We had just purchased a small house near my parents," Abu Shahed tells us, "in the area of Baghdad that was a popular, thriving shopping area." After the death threat delivered to Um Shahed, "we were seeing armed, masked men posted on our street, watching our house and decided it was time to leave." Had they asked for American protection, he adds, his whole family would have become targets for the militia. "They would have all been killed. So I quit my job, sold the car and most of our possessions" he says. "We had money, but it is all gone now."

He describes his once thriving neighborhood in Baghdad as a ghost town since the Americans walled it in. "People came from all over Baghdad to shop for specialty foods and items." Sunni and Shia lived side by side and, as is common throughout Iraq, inter-married. Most of the shops are closed now, and only people who live in the area can enter through the checkpoints." He remembers saying prior to the American invasion "I would have welcomed the devil" to be rid of Sadaam" ...

To read more reports from a U.S. team that recently visited Amman, go here.

The U.S. certainly hasn't been taking any serious responsibility for the human tragedy on-going inside and outside Iraq. In July according to the Washington Post, the U.S had admitted only 133 Iraqis applying for visas to come here over the previous 9 months, despite promising to take in at least 7000 by September. And 7000 itself amounts to nothing, given that the United Nations estimates that 2 million Iraqis have fled their county. Most are in Syria and Jordan, both poor countries that fear being overwhelmed by the influx.

For a personal account of an Iraqi's flight to Syria, check out Riverbend at Baghdad Burning.

In the summer of 2006, the delegation I was part of to Amman and Damascus met with Faiza who is now one of the main collaborators in the Collateral Repair project. In this "season of sharing" please consider a gift to this very personal humanitarian intervention. You can click on the picture of Faiza on the blog's sidebar or on this link.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

"Uniter" brings opposites together

Click on picture to see larger version.

One wonders whether the owners of this vehicle spotted in San Francisco talk about the Democratic presidential primary choices. At least they have one evident point of agreement.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Nurses rally for a contract and to save their hospital

The Mission District community was out in force at St. Luke's Hospital this afternoon. Sutter Health -- doing business locally as California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) -- has refused since last spring to negotiate a contract with their nurses who are represented by the California Nurses Association (CNA). So for the last two days nurses have struck and picketed the hospital chain's 13 local facilities.

Nurse Jane Sandoval leads chants. The St. Luke's nurses face an even greater theat than most of Sutter's employees: Sutter wants to shut the community hospital down altogether, shifting all of its facilities north of Market Street to the whiter, more affluent side of San Francisco.

A spirited group of nurses and community members said a loud "no" to these plans today.

Connie Ford from the Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) and the San Francisco Labor Council brought greetings. Neighborhood leaders and politicians were out in force.

Eric Quesada, executive director of Dolores Street Community Services and a candidate for District 9 supervisor, is a long time Mission activist.

Assemblyman Mark Leno, embroiled in a primary run against incumbent State Senator Carol Migden, is making the rounds of events like this. Good for him. Let these candidates compete at supporting their constituents who need this hospital, the only place besides County General that treats uninsured San Franciscans.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi made a rousing speech.

Several speakers reminded listeners that Sutter hopes, and expects, that if they talk nice for a few months and chip away at services at St. Luke's, we'll forget our outrage and go away. Sutter has got this wrong -- the neighborhood needs St. Luke's and will fight long and hard to keep it open.

The struggle to keep the hospital open lives online at Save St. Lukes. Check in there often.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

California is different

At least it seems our state is different. We have learned some things about living with our neighbors since Republican Governor Pete Wilson exploited racial panic in the 1990s. The latest Public Policy Institute of California statewide survey of opinion has some interesting findings.

Item: the nativists may be loud, but they are not close to a majority.

Most state residents (61 percent) and half of likely voters (51 percent) think immigrants are a benefit to California because of their hard work and job skills, while fewer (32 percent residents, 42 percent likely voters) say they are a burden because they use public services. The belief that immigrants benefit the state has become more widespread over the past decade (from 46 percent in April 1998 to 61 percent today).

One contentious policy issue today is how to handle illegal immigrants who have been living and working in the United States for at least two years. A strong majority of California residents (72 percent) and 63 percent of likely voters believe these immigrants should be given a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status. Twenty-four percent of residents and 32 percent of likely voters believe these immigrants should be deported back to their native countries.

This state has been adding population by in-migration for a long time. Like other states, we can get caught up in an immigration panic -- but at overall we know better and don't want to go there again as we did in the past. The rest of the country has not yet caught up on this.

Item: California also seems to be a little ahead on the Iraq war: we want out now, if not yesterday.

A majority of residents (60 percent) believe the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible, while 35 percent believe troops should be kept in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. ... Californians are pessimistic about the war's outcome: Six in 10 residents and likely voters (59 percent each) believe the U.S. goal of achieving victory in Iraq is no longer possible.

Peace movement activists need to devise tactics around the good news that it is not the people who are prolonging the U.S. occupation of Iraq -- it is politicians of both parties who are stonewalling popular majorities in favor of a U.S. pullout.

President Scrooge and some seasonal heroes

Is it Christmas yet?

Today, while Pres. George W. Scrooge was vetoing health insurance for 10 million poor children, Congress took up a truly important matter: a resolution recognizing the " importance of Christmas and the Christian faith."

Only nine lawmakers, all Democrats, had the guts to vote against this radical right loyalty test. They were:
  • Jim McDermott-WA
  • Gary Ackerman-NY
  • Yvette Clarke-NY
  • Barbara Lee-CA
  • Pete Stark-CA
  • Lynn Woolsey-CA
  • Diana DeGette-CO
  • Alcee Hastings-FL
  • Bobby Scott-VA
The final tally on the resolution was 372-9 (50 members were MIA for the vote.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Buffalo thrice

Back side of Buffalo's magnificent art-deco city hall.

Mark Goldman has chewed over the same ground three times. In 1983, he published High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York. In 1990, he followed up with City on the Lake: The Challenge of Change in Buffalo, New York. And this year, he has added City on the Edge: Buffalo, New York.

As you may have guessed, Goldman is a Buffalonian. So am I by birth, though I haven't lived in the city for 40 years. But until 1999 I visited regularly because my folks lived there and I traveled back through just last spring. Like Goldman, I've spent much of my life asking myself, what's wrong with Buffalo? How could a city which was one of the nation's most prosperous, forward looking metropolises in 1900 become a prime example of urban hopelessness one hundred years later?

High Hopes is pretty much a straight history of major historical landmarks over the first seven decades of the 20th Century. Approaching the end of that period, Goldman is using chapter titles like "The Fear of Outsiders and Radicals" and "Praying for a Miracle" to describe the mood of the city. Buffalo had lost its main industries, its role as a transshipment point, and an increasing fraction of its population to rising suburbs.

City on the Lake is a far more positive look at the city; it describes how white Buffalo tried to come to terms with African American demands for inclusion in the admittedly segregated public schools in the 1980s. For a time courageous Catholic local leaders responded imaginatively and somewhat successfully. Racial tensions, continued deindustrialization and poor political leadership didn't help. But Goldman emerged from the decade cautiously hopeful.

City on the Edge goes over much of the same terrain again reaching through the depressing 1990s to the present. By 2000, the city's population fell below 300,000 for the first time since 1900. Goldman highlights downtown's obsession with accommodating autos to the detriment of communities. He reports that "the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, in what they said was the most comprehensive survey ever done, ranked Buffalo and New Orleans as the two worst run cities in the nation." Like most urban school systems, the public schools provide a snapshot of who was left in town: "the poor, the blacks and the Hispanics."

You don't write exhaustive, intelligent histories of a place if you don't care. Goldman cares about Buffalo. Although the city's history over the last half century comes across in his telling as bleak beyond relief, he reaches out for hope.

At the turn of the [21st] century, Buffalo did not need to be rebuilt; it needed to be healed. Its people needed comfort and reassurance that somehow something would be done to restore the root systems of their daily lives, which been weakened so badly by the effects of the past fifty years. ...Certainly history had been rough on Buffalo, and so much had been lost: neighborhoods, downtown, people, jobs, schools, elm trees, sidewalks, front porches, and all of those comforting qualities that are associated with the city as it was in the days before cars, suburbs, television, street crime, broken schools, and broken promises. ...

Community exists in the space where history and hope meet, where an awareness of the past and a belief in the future inspire people to identify with a place and dedicate themselves to its improvement. ...

That's an almost un-American idea, that community lives in a place and time dimension, that people might find each other in caring for a place. Much of our lives are organized around the illusion that unique places and particular moments don't matter; our settings are interchangeable. Try visiting any mall -- just like any other mall -- if you doubt this. For novelty we construct faux-historical, replica, buildings, clean, unweathered. Goldman's love of Buffalo seems an unhappy anachronism in our culture.

Yet as our unsustainable resource extraction economy trashes the planet, perhaps we'll learn that cherishing places can be an engine of community -- and that community trumps having, having, having more. A long shot, but what else is there?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Why I will not vote for Hillary Clinton

Right on time it has started coming: campaign mail from candidate Hillary Clinton. It's a nice 16-page 4-color brochure. Since I'm a Democratic California "permanent absentee" -- and female, over 60, and single as far as the government is concerned -- I must be in the Clinton's target demographic. So why am I so sure she won't get my vote in the February primary?

For a long time, I let myself slide on this question. Not liking Clinton was reflexive. The company she keeps is unsavory. Her chief strategist is the odious Mark Penn, who made his political chops encouraging President Bill to throw poor women under the onrushing train wreck called "welfare reform." Penn also specializes in union busting and lobbying for energy companies. Besides, unlike many Democrats, I don't look back fondly to Bill's term; long before he derailed any meaningful policy agenda because he couldn't keep his dick in his pants, he was willing to trash Black people to pacify a white audience (see Bill's Sister Souljah moment) and to prove his toughness by presiding over the execution of a retarded criminal. I'm no Bill fan.

A post by "eriposte" at The Left Coaster reminded me that my picture of Senator Clinton fit all too well with several narratives that hostile males, especially conservative ones, commonly throw at powerful women -- and anyone crazy enough to want to be President is certainly ambitious and potent in some ways.

1. Strong woman meets powerful, insecure men.
There has always been a glass ceiling for women. ... Breaking the ceiling can be a challenging exercise even for strong and accomplished women because of insecure men in positions of power who cannot deal with them. Women sometimes have to do a lot more and appear stronger than a man in a comparable position to command the same amount of respect or achieve the same career success. Yet, women who do even the exact same things that most men do are sometimes portrayed negatively despite and because of that.

According to this portrayal, when a man does it, it is a sign of self-confidence, vision, and strength of character but when a woman does it, it is the opposite - she's labeled cold, harsh, calculating, overbearing, or non-feminine. The reason I'm bringing this up is that Senator Clinton has long been portrayed in the media as having a somewhat cold or calculating persona who would do anything to stay in power ...

2. Strong woman meets the vast and powerful Republican misinformation machine.
... Soon after former President Bill Clinton and then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in D.C., Clinton-hatred became the de facto operating philosophy of the self-crowned media elite in the country. ...The result was that Sen. Clinton was dealt a double-whammy. She was in the unfortunate position of:

* Being a strong woman detested by powerful, sometimes insecure, often conservative men in Congress, and
* Being irrationally hated by the even more insecure charlatans occupying powerful positions in the media ...

All of this rings true. Of course Clinton is a tough cookie and that is not an adequate reason to critique her.

If I'm to be principled in my distaste for her candidacy, my distrust has be about what she (not her husband) stands for. And on some issues I care about, she is as good as the competition and maybe better. Her version of health care provided through insurance profiteers seems more plausible than Obama's, though not as good as Edward's. She seems solidly opposed to torture.

However, on Iraq and U.S. empire, she is just not believable. After all, though she says she'll end the war, she also plans

a reduced military force there to fight Al Qaeda, deter Iranian aggression, protect the Kurds and possibly support the Iraqi military.

New York Times,
March 15, 2007

She voted in favor of Bush's designation of part of the Iranian armed forces as "terrorists," precisely the sort of meaningless school yard taunting passed off as foreign policy that any serious leader would avoid. If that's not triangulation -- weaseling with people's lives for political gain -- I don't know what is.

Yet there is an appeal to the idea of a woman president. Gennifer Flowers, who once had an affair with Bill Clinton, feels it.

The one-time other woman in Hillary Clinton's life says she's considering casting her vote for the former first lady.

"I can't help but want to support my own gender, and she's as experienced as any of the others, except maybe Joe Biden," Gennifer Flowers said in a recent phone interview from her home in Las Vegas.

Flowers said she is still undecided about whom to vote for, supports abortion rights and long has wanted to see a woman in the White House.

Las Vegas Review Journal,
December 7, 2007
Las Vegas Gleaner.

But that wise woman, Molly Ivins, shortly before she died last year, perfectly expressed the opposite thought which dictates finally that I cannot vote for Clinton in the primary.

Enough. Enough triangulation, calculation and equivocation. Enough clever straddling, enough not offending anyone ... Sen. Clinton is apparently incapable of taking a clear stand on the war in Iraq, and that alone is enough to disqualify her.

Oh yeah -- if she's the nominee, I'll probably vote for her in November 2008. But I'm not going to work for this one. There are better things to do in a general election than work for another bad President.