Saturday, June 30, 2007


"We do not want America to represent torture. ..."

Forty-nine of 140 high school "presidential scholars" brought to the White House for a photo op thought that message was important enough to break protocol and carry to the President.

Of course there was an instigator. Folks in this country like to pretend that acts of conscience are innocent, spur of the moment, spontaneous reactions to circumstances but they seldom are. Birmingham bus boycott instigator Rosa Parks didn't just get tired one day -- she was part of a group of African Americans who had studied together how they might win some basic rights. Acts of protest almost always involve organizers who have learned to actualize their values and who invite others to join them.

The instigator of this recent tiny interruption of White House political theater was a young woman, recently graduated from Wellesley High in Massachusetts, named Mari Oye. Oye explains:

"I really felt l could not just go down and smile for the camera and not say anything," she said in an interview yesterday at her home. "There are some things that are more important than the decorum of protocol."...

Oye, 18 , said her Quaker background has greatly influenced her activism, teaching her "to follow the course of what is right."...

Oye was encouraged to speak up at the White House by her mother, Willa Michener, who regrets that when she was a presidential scholar in 1968, she did not tell President Lyndon B. Johnson about her opposition to the Vietnam War. ...

Oye said her activism was also influenced by her grandparents on her father's side, who were in internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Her grandfather, George Oye, died this spring and she mentioned his experiences in the brief conversation with the president about the letter, she said.

"My grandfather was not angry or bitter after the internment, but he came out with a strong sense of wanting to help people," she said. ...

"With all the pain and suffering that happens around the world right now, it would have been extremely inappropriate not to use the opportunity to make a difference."

Just goes to show, kids can learn good values from their families. You'll be glad to know that a US Department of Education spokeswoman said the students who signed the letter would not be stripped of their scholar titles.

A movie

I saw one of my infrequent movies yesterday, one I'd been curious about since reading reviews: The Last King of Scotland. Forest Whitaker gives a brilliant, gripping performance as the mad, maniacal, man-child dictator Idi Amin. One of the truly nasty effluvia thrown up by the confluence of brutal European colonialism and the rapid decay traditional cultures tossed into the contemporary world, Amin seized power in Uganda in 1971. He is believed to have murdered some 300,000 of his own people. In 1979, Tanzania, under the leadership of one of the African continent's true heros, Julius Nyerere, finally deposed Amin -- who lived out a comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia.

Amin/Whitaker's brilliant characterization is undermined by being set in counterpoint to a foolish, shallow, selfish twit of a young Scottish doctor who views Africa as a place to play, a stage set in which he can fuck any available female. "Dr. Garrigan" lost me in the opening scenes and never got my sympathy back, undermining the moral complexity of the movie. I guess we in Western audiences had to have a white guy to feel drawn into the horror of Amin's madness. Garrigan predictably fails a series of moral tests, but his fate remains the center of the movie.

Good review by someone who knows a lot more about films than I -- also good comments -- here.

The film only had a limited U.S. release but is readily available on DVD. Definitely worth seeing despite flaws; see it for Forest Whitaker and the Ugandan scenery. Maybe it is an age thing, but I always found those long haired 70s white men on the make repulsive.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Road trip

I've doing some driving in the middle of the country over the last few weeks. I thought you might be interested in how gas prices are running there -- and on the coasts.

Just for reference, I captured this set of prices around the corner from my house in San Francisco. On the rare occasions I buy gas I don't actually pay this much. It is possible to find gas for 20 or 30 cents less. But there are many stations in this range; I wonder why anyone buys at them? I wonder why the existence of cheaper stations doesn't force these prices down?

Lexington, Kentucky. Out there in horse country, gas looks pretty cheap to me. Cigarettes too, but who cares to asphyxiate themselves?

Zanesville, Ohio. Still below the magic $3.00 figure.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Still looking low. The first commercially successful oil well the country was drilled in this state in 1859. Until 1901 when oil was found in Texas, Pennsylvania was responsible for over half the world's oil production. Think of it, we've been only been hooked on the black gooey stuff for less than 150 years. That gives me a kind of hope.

Buffalo, New York. Prices creeping up.

Chilmark, Massachusetts. Okay, this is on an offshore island, but the price sure shows a coastal jump. Prices on the mainland are 40 cents lower or so, still higher than in the Midwest locations.

We don't get our petroleum much from within the U.S. -- so why are far inland prices so much cheaper? Inquiring minds want to know....

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mangled labor journalism

I'm reading the print edition of the New York Times this week; otherwise I would have missed this interesting example of how the mainstream media misreports labor union activity, if they report it at all. And the author of this example would almost certainly claim to be trying to be supportive of labor!

David Leonhardts's column "Worthy Goal of Flawed Bill: Aiding Unions" purports to be something of a correction to a previous flawed column in which he had been ignorant the reality that it took union militancy in 1949, not the government-imposed wage freeze of World War II, to push big companies into providing their workers with pensions and health insurance. As far as I know, the way he tells the story today gives credit where credit is due.

But then he mangles the contemporary story of the defeat by filibuster yesterday of the Employee Free Choice Act, organized labor's main legislative goal. He retails corporate talking points, claiming that the card check system for certifying that workers want a union would deny them a secret ballot. According to Dean Baker at The American Prospect, workers can be organized without an election right now if the employer agrees to card check (a few do) -- and the proposed law would permit 40 percent of workers to demand a secret ballot, making it darn hard to intimidate them. So much for that point, Leonhardt's premise.

But no, Leonhardt knows who knows best:

"The current system has been working well for a long time," Jason Straczewski, a lobbyist at the National Association of Manufacturers, told me.

I'm sure this guy does think the system works just fine.

What is really surreal is Leonhardt's picture of what goes on when workers try to organize.

Over the last generation, companies have become far more aggressive about keeping out unions. They have required workers to attend antiunion talks, darkly warned that unions lead to lower pay and lost jobs and, as Wal-Mart Stores has done, sometimes closed entire departments or stores in the wake of unionization drives.

Yeah -- and that's not the half. "Aggressive" doesn't begin to describe what companies will do to prevent their workers from organizing. How about "vicious"? Just a few examples from San Francisco area labor fights that I've seen lately. If you are a low wage worker who wants to get together with other workers to win better conditions and a living wage:
  • Corporations hide who really employs you behind a smokescreen of labor contracting, so the boss which issues your check is some anonymous firm, not the giant high tech corporation on whose grounds you work.
  • If you aren't scared yet, they fire you for demanding that wages and hours law be enforced.
Then, if the union can afford it and thinks the fight matters, the whole thing will be litigated for five years and mostly Republican appointees will say "screw you -- who are you to think you have rights against big business?" Even if you do win, the companies just don't pay.

That's real life Mr. Leonhardt (more likely a quivering kitten, I suspect). If unions are "an antagonistic relic of an industrial economy," it is because the antagonistic rich, who you point out have taken home pretty much all the gains in U.S. wealth for the last twenty-five years, want to take it all. You give a sort of muddled endorsement of the idea that unions might be a good thing to level the playing field, but you get the substance of the fight over the Employee Free Choice Act all wrong.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Threat Level Orange:
We must all be very afraid

The other day my partner rode the ferry from Wood Hole, Mass. to Martha's Vineyard, with this running along side. She reports:

There were two of them. The one on the port side had the gun, but the one on the other side was unarmed. Guess they thought we were safe in open water. According to the Vineyard Gazette, they're paid for with federal DHS funds. I just laughed, but a serious gentleman said to me, "Actually I find their vigilance reassuring."

Wonder how he felt when they abandoned us about a third of the way across the sound?

Today I took the same boat trip and was a little disappointed not to have the same escort. Maybe the other day some fancy Republican was aboard. Or maybe Alan Dershowitz, torture apologist and excuser of Scooter Libby's obstruction of justice. Dershowitz summers on the Vineyard.

Your tax dollars at work...

Monday, June 25, 2007

Immigration: beyond demonstrating the human face

As the corpse that begs for a stake in it -- the "immigration reform compromise" -- comes up for a vote to reconsider in the Senate tomorrow, I want to get serious about how progressives might think about immigration.

Last week I had a chance to hear a discussion of migration issues between Gerald Lenoir of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and Brandon Smith of Global Labor Strategies.

Both men emphasized that the immigration rights movement, through the May Day marches and such projects as the Dreams Train, had done a good job of putting a human face on migrants. Far more of us have become conscious of the low-wage workers who ubiquitously clean our toilets, pick our crops and repair our roofs. But we have a lot more to consider before we'll be able to win humane, equitable immigration policies.

Lenoir ran down the frames the right wing has put on immigration. They have made the discussion one of:
  • National security. They treat anyone black or brown who crosses the border as a threat -- and then use small scale, but brutal, raids on undocumented communities nationwide to make their case that the danger is everywhere;
  • White supremacy. Bill O'Reilly has actually said on Fox that "white male culture" is at stake;
  • "Our jobs" are being stolen. African Americans, in particular, should feel very afraid.
Lenoir proposes three alternative frames that might enable progressives to talk about immigration, especially among African Americans.
  • Instead of a national security state, we need a human security state. The purpose of government needs to be, not obsessively constraining our freedoms out of fear of enemies, but enabling us all to live free lives. Remember that old promise about "freedom from fear..."
  • Racial equity needs to be one of our society's highest goals. We have to struggle against all forms of racism; African Americans have historically led that fight, but today they need to broaden their vision beyond a simple black/white frame.
  • Globalization is creating a new context for all of us. Past gains by African Americans are being eroded by the export of manufacturing jobs, just as NAFTA destroyed Mexican farming and forced thousands to come north.
Lenoir made the important point that the peace movement -- the movement against Bush's wars -- should be right there with the immigrant rights movements as both are contesting the imposition of an authoritarian national security state. That alliance is certainly not there yet. The immigrant rights movement also needs to become more aware of and sensitive to the history of African Americans in this country.

Smith spoke to the reality that low wage migrants do constitute the present workforce in some industries that used to be bastions of the white working class, such as fishing where he worked (and I can add in construction where I have worked.) The charge that the jobs are no longer there for some white folks is not a lie -- but it is not so much the jobs that have gone missing as that employers are no longer willing, or able, to pay living wages. All of this is a consequence of global capital's relentless pursuit of the highest possible profits achieved by pushing all the non-rich into a race to the bottom. According to Smith,

"Immigration is the proxy for anxiety over globalization."

Here I'm speaking for myself, though I doubt either speaker would disagree. Perhaps fortunately, though the Democratic party shows little spine or imagination in dealing with migration issues, the Republican party is truly killing itself over immigration. The debate brings all its hidden racist trolls into the light, while its corporate poohbahs drool over "reform" as a chance to import slave labor. Nobody is satisfied; everyone goes away mad.

It seems unlikely that the weakened Bush administration will be able to push through much beyond some more money for Haliburton and other profiteers to further militarize the borders. But the strains brought about by global capital's rapacious exploitation of all vulnerable labor will continue to afflict us for years to come unless the peoples of the world can get together to rein the system in.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Berea College's Christian utopianism

I have to admit that, until taking part in a meeting there last week, I'd never noticed Berea College. I should have. The place is fascinating.

This small liberal arts college in southeastern Kentucky looks like a conventional fantasy of an educational institution.

It is amply supplied with brick Federalist buildings.

We stayed at the Boone Tavern, just the sort of nicely appointed hostelry a college likes to have to entertain parents. The rooms were furnished in a "country inn" theme -- not where you'd expect to hold a meeting of community organizations working to empower low-income people, largely of color.

But I couldn't help noticing the banners with this motto hanging everywhere -- and the flyers about Berea College placed in every corner of the inn.

It turns out that Berea comes out of a strand of the 19th century U.S. utopian tradition, an Appalachian abolitionism. According to the college's web site:

...the Rev. John G. Fee started a one-room school in 1855 that eventually would become Berea College. Fee, a native of Bracken County, Ky., was a scholar of strong moral character, dedication, determination and great faith. He believed in a school that would be an advocate of equality and excellence in education for men and women of all races.

During the Civil War, Fee was run out the area by pro-slavery sympathizers but returned in 1865. The first class numbered 187, 96 black students and 91 whites. The school continued as an integrated island in the increasingly segregated South until Kentucky outlawed mixed race schools in 1904. Berea lost a Supreme Court case trying to win exemption from this state law and so was an all-white institution until 1950. But its trustees raised funds during that period to found Lincoln Institute near Louisville for Black students.

Berea's contemporary policies are as amazing as its history. Drawing from Appalachia, Berea students all qualify for financial aid -- and pay no tuition as the school subsidizes every entrant. Berea students graduate without debts. They all work at college jobs 10-15 hours a week while carrying a full load, "to demonstrate that labor, mental and manual, has dignity as well as utility." The young woman who acted as a bellhop, bringing my luggage upstairs for me, proudly explained that, yes, she was a college student!

Looking into Berea's materials, the part I found most challenging is the assertion of a "Christian Identity." At a time and in a region where calling oneself a Christian frequently means adopting right wing bigotry, Berea has re-examined its Christian character as recently as 2002 and asserted its progressive understanding of its historic faith. They write "Berea College welcomes all who accept Berea College’s core values of impartial love and service to others, whatever their culture, faith or philosophy."

Yet the same reappraisal also outlines some of the tensions that go with being an explicitly Christian college with a strongly progressive, even radical, tradition.

The Preamble to Berea’s Great Commitments [statement of its mission] begins, “Berea College, founded by ardent abolitionists and radical reformers, continues today as an educational institution still firmly rooted in its historic purpose ‘to promote the cause of Christ.’ ” The question arises, “Does one have to be a Christian to promote the cause of Christ?” Berea’s historical record says no. ... Throughout its history, Bereans have encouraged and challenged one another, whatever their personal faith or philosophy, to commit themselves to a cause that is consonant with Berea’s core values ... and which its Christian members might express as the cause of Christ.

To be Christian and welcoming to all is Berea College’s tradition. We must acknowledge that, while Berea College is a diverse community, many if not most of those who learn and work at Berea College identify themselves as Christians. Yet even Christians here do not share a common understanding of what that designation means. Berea College strives to be a place where people with various Christian interpretations, different religious traditions, and no religious tradition work together in support of Berea’s Great Commitments.

Over the past century, various leaders of the College have applied the College’s inclusive scriptural foundation and spirit to their expanding world and welcomed those whose beliefs were consistent with the Christian gospel of impartial love. Therefore, Berea College today affirms its inclusive Christian tradition even as it respects the traditions of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus as well as other world faiths.

Bereans have always struggled to express this inclusive Christian tradition in the midst of divergent views. We will not ignore our differences, but rather seek to understand each other honestly and respectfully, and together create a climate where anyone can openly discuss what they believe without fear of sanction.

Obviously, visiting a place for a couple of days doesn't yield much evidence whether that place lives up to its ideals. I have no clue whether Berea, so grounded in a particular Christian counter-culture, is somewhere that works for any students who are not Christian. Maybe such students go elsewhere. Or maybe they are quietly uncomfortable, but take the bad with the considerable good on offer.

There's clearly a lot to like about a school so committed to making it possible for poor students in a poor region to get a very good education -- and there's a lot to wonder about for those of us who have come to believe that grounding in secular assumptions is the only way a diverse society "can all get along."

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Iraq: U.S. soldier says no more

Once a war goes sour, the unthinkable starts to happen.

An U.S. active duty combat soldier has refused further duty while still stationed in Baghdad. According to the Courage to Resist website:

On June 19, Army Spc Eleon “Eli” Israel put himself at great personal risk by making the courageous decision to refuse further participation in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The 26-year-old from Arlington, Virginia told his command that he will no longer be a combatant in this illegal, unjustified war. Eli believes that the U.S. government used the attacks of September 11, 2001 as a pretense to invade Iraq and that “we are now violating the people of this country (Iraq) in ways that we would never accept on our own soil.”

Israel is a a member of VB Bravo Company, 1-149 Infantry of the Kentucky Army National Guard. He urged supporters to contact Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell because he feared what the Army might do to him:

Please rally whoever you can, call whoever you can, bring as much attention to this as you can. I have no doubt that the military will bury me and hide the whole situation if they can. I'm in big trouble. I'm in the middle of Iraq, surrounded by people who are not on my side. Please help me. Please contact whoever you can, and tell them who I am, so I don't ‘disappear.’ ...

I have been in Iraq for over a year. I have served in combat. I have been awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, for my actions in Combat. I have been recommended for other medals, that I will now probably never see (nor do I want)....

It would have been a lot "easier" for me to simply keep doing combat missions for a couple more weeks, and be done with things. Moral convictions are not based on timing or convenience, and I thank all of you for your being here for me now.

Before making the decision to apply for immediate conscientious objector status, Israel wrote out his observations of the war on a MySpace blog. Sites like his are probably what moved the military to ban MySpace from their networks. Some of his thoughts:

I want you all to know, that most of us that are over here, came to Iraq, with the very best of intentions, and really thought that the Iraqi people wanted us here. Now that I'm here, I realize that they want to work it out themselves, and I know we should respect that.

One guy lies about the reason for sending me to Iraq, and then tries to keep me here even after he's caught. Another guy actually believes that we can make up reasons as we go, and still wants to believe the original lie. The third guy realizes it was a lie, but thinks it's the people who were told the lie—and who paid the greatest price for it (those wearing uniforms)—that should be blamed for not making the lie out to be "OK" in the end. This war is and was lost, but not by the military. ...

I'm attune[d] enough to know that even the kindest Iraqi families that manage a "wave" to me as I pass by (when not done in fear), do it because my smile lets them know that I'm only doing my job, and that I'll try my best not to let my weapons of war hit their children when I have to defend myself that day.

The Iraq Veterans Against the War Legal Defense Fund supports soldiers who refuse to participate in the war.

Patriotic relic

Now there's a critter I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.

The city of Pittsburgh is very proud of the seven visits George Washington paid to the western Pennsylvania region, most of them as an officer for the British during the North American offshoot of the Seven Years War between France and England in the period 1753-1760.

In 2003, Barbara Anderson created the George Washasaurus as part of a public art exhibition of 100 "dinosaurs" sprinkled around town. The creature is currently on display at the wonderful Senator John Heinz History Center.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

What "truly motivates" George W. Bush?

In a post yesterday Glenn Greenwald tried to combat the reductionist impulse that sweepingly dismisses George W. Bush simply a corporate tool or simply Evil -- thereby avoiding any attempt at nuanced understanding of the social circumstances that enabled the conservative coup of which Bush is the visible manifestation.

What interested me even more was the question posed by the title of Greenwald's post: What "truly motivates" George W. Bush? The amount of angst that many have been willing to devote to thinking about that question bespeaks a charming innocence. It seems that many of us are honestly stunned that a president could so glaringly depart from what we thought were the country's shared values: honesty in government; the rule of law, not men; government responsibility to step in when localities cannot do it all; some measure of fairness and justice.

It is easy to say that these are all idealistic fantasies -- that belief in their reality is a symptom of comfortable self-deception among the relatively privileged. And that would be true in much of the country's history -- particularly in our treatment of the poor and of various people of color. But those "quaint" values also express some of the best of the country's potential.

So I think it is also a symptom of social health that people keep asking that bewildered question: "what 'truly motivates' George W. Bush?"

Rural people; rural voters

This week I had the privilege of hearing Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies talk about their recent poll which shows gains for Democrats in areas where George W. was "the man" in 2004. The Iraq war is a close and personal nightmare for rural people who have sent their children off to fight it. Increasingly they don't like what they see. But even more interesting than the polling data (available from the website) was Davis' broader take on the place of rural life in U.S. reality and mythology.

According to Davis, notions of country life and country people remain important mythic features of the national psyche, even though only 20 percent of us now live in rural areas (about the same percentage that live in cores of cities, interestingly.) On the one hand, we imagine that somewhere there is an unspoiled utopia where simple, hard working people, the soul of the nation, lead good lives working the land. (In truth, only 2 percent of the U.S. population farms.) On the other hand, we believe that the country is full of ignorant, drunken, incestuous rednecks that civilization has passed by. Of course both images are cartoons, but they haunt us.

Far more U.S. people than live in the country still feel an attachment to an ancestral rural heritage. Their involvement with those feelings of attachment to and repulsion from rural life sometimes drives their political choices.

In reality, much of the countryside is simply poor. Of the 200 poorest counties in the United States, 195 are rural. The countryside is 8 percent less racially diverse the rest of the country -- and the poorest of those poor counties are the ones with most people of color.

The dominant medium for spreading information in the country is radio -- folks drive a lot. The country format holds the largest fraction of the dial, closely followed by Christian broadcasting. Both these radio forms deliver a constant diet of right wing "news," mostly without contradiction from any alternative viewpoints. This immersion in right wing viewpoints helps explain why rural voters give their allegiance to politicians who trumpet conservative wedge issues at the same time those same politicians pursue policies that let coal companies, energy companies and agribusiness trample the economic well-being of their constituents.

Half of all rural households are headed by women. These women are some of the least likely people anywhere to vote -- if they did vote, the Democrats would rapidly do much better in rural areas.

Country people know they are on the wrong end of a lot of other people's notions. Davis reported that their polling showed two almost universal characteristics of rural thought:
  • people were convinced that the media never portrays them accurately;
  • people easily slipped into blaming themselves for whatever they thought was wrong in their circumstances. They've been convinced whatever happens to them, it is their own fault.
Davis believes that Democrats consistently fail to give rural people the kind of visual and emotional cues that would make them feel they could respond with trust. Phony as it is, George W. really did get props for being a "brush cutting guy." He is reassuring because you can be sure he doesn't blame himself, just what folks who do blame themselves too often want in a leader. Too many Democratic politicians come across as snobbish desk jockeys, the kind of people who reinforce feelings of self-blame in country people.

Davis hammered at a political maxim I've long thought was true for most everyone:

"The most overrated thing in politics is 'issues.'"

Politics is about feeling "in the club."

Being "in the club" means getting signals from leaders that they can be trusted. Most of us don't feel we have to follow every nuance of policy or every byway of every issue -- we want politicians who will find the right expert to do that. We want politicians who we trust will try to enact policies for the common good.

Unfortunately in this diverse nation, it is hard for any leader to give symbolic cues signaling worthiness for trust to many differing groups at the same time. Davis argues that for a long time Democrats haven't even tried to deliver cues that would appeal to rural voters and have suffered the consequences by losing the rural vote. But can Democratic politicians give those cues and reassure the people of the inner cities that they too will be aided and respected, and reassure the harried suburban middle class that nobody is going to subvert their quality of life to take care of city people and country people?

It is no surprise that most politicians just try to pick enough segments of the population to build a majority. They offer that segment the right emotional cues to reassure them this is "their club." They implicitly promise "I'm like you -- or at least I'll respect you." We look at them and wonder, not surprisingly, can they be trusted? It's a rare pol who can convincingly promise "you too are inside the club" across the cultural and economic lines that divide us.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Carole Migden is no antiwar leader

Last week I was walking down Union Street when I noticed the billboard above. I have to admit I laughed out loud. Carole Migden has been a fixture of San Francisco politics for twenty-five years -- and she never did anything so lacking in class as associate with the rabble in the antiwar movement. She's long been known as a pol who "doesn't do rallies." Now she's being challenged for her State Senate seat by Assemblyman Mark Leno and all of a sudden she claims to be out in front of the antiwar effort? What a crock!

It did seem appropriate that I saw this improbable billboard on upscale, white Union Street -- not anyone's idea of a hotbed of San Francisco antiwar activity, though I'm sure Union Street folks join most everyone else in opposing the war. Maybe folks over there are the only ones likely to believe such an unlikely claim?

I'm not hostile to Carole -- she had the chutzpah to run for office when being a lesbian and a politician was a tough row to hoe. She took shit -- and gave it back very satisfactorily. She's smarter than most of the ambitious nincompoops who occupy pubic office and mostly votes okay on progressive issues. But a movement leader, she's not. She'll "lead" just as far as aroused constituents make her and then go back to more comfortable turf with the "successful" (rich) people she'd rather hang with.

I'm not the only one who sees Migden as rude in her dealings with people she doesn't think are important. Dennis Kelly of the teacher's union told the L.A. Times:

"San Francisco politicians are almost all good politically," he said. "But there's a matter of how you go about your business and treat people, and that's where Carole Migden has really fallen down."

And I'm not the only one who was taken aback by the absurd idea of Migden "leading" anyone against the war. Today Paul Hogarth in Beyond Chron enumerated the many California lawmakers who stood up against the war long before a January 2007 resolution Migden sponsored -- one also sponsored by her challenger Mark Leno.

I'm still persuadable in the State Senate race, but this piece of phony advertising didn't do Migden any good with me.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Canada gets own no fly list today

As of today, Canadian authorities are ordering airlines to bar prospective passengers included on a new Canadian no fly list. This amounts to a list of persons considered "too dangerous to fly and too innocent to arrest" according to David Lyon, a Queen's University expert on surveillance and privacy issues. Not surprisingly, people who fear they might be mistakenly included on such a list are worried.
Civil-rights activist Itrath Syed : "I think the issue here is if people are being suspected of something, then they should be charged. ...If there is not enough evidence to charge someone, what is the evidence then to deny someone the right to mobility? If you're going to be on the list, you should be told and told why, so you would have a chance to do something about it."

Vancouver lawyer Zool Suleman expressed concern that certain individuals could be included in the list based on either their ethnic or religious affiliations. "When you are now starting to compile a no-fly list, there is a serious possibility of a mistake getting compounded over and over again. ...Somebody gets profiled for the wrong reasons, of which race is one of the criteria. Then this no-fly list could be shared with other countries. All of a sudden, someone could be in trouble for no other reason other than they are from the wrong community group or perhaps they had coffee with the wrong person or they know somebody who might be involved in security-sensitive matters."

The Straight, June 7, 2007
Vancouver, B.C.

Yes, these Canadians have been watching the no fly charade south of their border -- they know the pitfalls. But they haven't been able to resist pressure to ape the security theater we're unhappily accustomed to in the States.

They have created a Kafkaesque procedure should persons wish to try to get their name removed.

A committee of Transport Canada, RCMP and CSIS officials will re-assess the list every 30 days. Individuals can also appeal their inclusion on the list to an "Office of Reconsideration," which is now recruiting staff.

Independent experts such as former judges will review the individual's presence on the list. But the Transport minister will ultimately decide if a person stays on the list, and the recommendation of the independent experts will not be shared with the individual.

Critics question whether such a system gives individuals a fair chance to challenge the government. "You don't know what to answer, you don't know what to explain," said Bloc Quebecois MP Serge Menard.

Ottawa Citizen, March 2, 2007

And get this --

Anyone considered a threat will be prevented from boarding any domestic or foreign airline flying to, from or within Canada. Despite having its own no-fly list, Canada will still rely on the U.S. list, which is known for sometimes naming the wrong person.

Toronto Star, June 6, 2007

So Canada is not so much initiating a new program as engaging in independence-of-Washington theater coupled with security theater.

Photo of Itrath Syed from The Straight. Al Yassini from CTV News.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

San Francisco mayoral poll

I just got polled. Somebody is willing to spend good money to find out if Gavin Newsome could face a serious challenge to his reelection in November. Don't I wish --though so far no serious candidate has surfaced.

The interviewer tested my sentiments toward Newsome (pretty, but empty; a front for big developers); Tony Hall (ferget it!); Matt Gonzalez (prima donna who quit when he found his way blocked), and Art Agnos (hmmmm. ...)

Truth be told, I was one of the shortsighted people who helped set things up for that idiot Frank Jordan to become mayor by working for Angela Alioto when Agnos ran for reelection in 1991. This was a dumb move, though I got some interesting electoral experience out of it. But that year's free-for-all (crazy Dick Hongisto was in it too) paved the way for imbecility under Jordan, who paved the way for urban racketeering under Willie Brown, who paved the way for pretty boy glitz under Newsome. Meanwhile the city costs more and more to live in and we limp along.

Agnos is a decent guy who'd care about the ordinary people of the city. The poll tested whether we were still mad at him about the homeless encampment that took over much of Civic Center at the end of this term. I'm not mad at him about that. I wasn't then (but they didn't ask me that.)

Doubt if Agnos will run. Why would anyone want to be mayor of a major city? The problems are intractable if you are actually trying to solve them and multiple constituencies are always mad at you.

If Agnos runs, I'll certainly vote for him.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

"It's going to be an absolute zoo!"

I've just finished reading Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Robinson by Elizabeth Adams, the proprietor of the blog The Cassandra Papers. The Robinson biography is a gentle, kind story of this warm man's life, family and New Hampshire context, pretty much the antithesis of the fiery diatribes and impassioned defenses the election and consecration of the Anglican world's first gay bishop evoked. I recommend it highly for those interested in the person as well as "the issue."

But I'm not going to write about that. Rather, I want to take up one of Adams' subplots: the extraordinarily effective communications work done for the bishop and the Diocese of New Hampshire by consultant Mike Barwell. It has been obvious to anyone paying attention that the media dealt reasonably sympathetically with a subject (a religious election with a gay theme) about which they could have been expected to be both ignorant and pruriently sensationalist. I've worked with gay candidates running for office. I've seen the mainstream media obsess about sexuality issues, even when who people love is completely peripheral to the story. In Robinson's case, his gay identity actually was the trigger for the story, so managing to keep the media more or less reasonable was a great accomplishment.

Anyone likely to have to deal with media in a heated situation can learn from what Adams reports of Barwell's work:
  • Start early and be ready for fireworks. Before Robinson was even nominated, Barwell asked the committee:

    "If Gene is nominated, what are your preparations for anything from nasty phone calls to bomb threats? What are you going to say to people? How are you going to answer the phone? What do you do if someone makes a threat? Have you notified the police? What statement does the diocese have about why it would nominate Gene? ,,, All those things had to be developed from scratch."

  • Do help the press get the story. Well before the actual election, Barwell registered and credentialed the press -- and gave them background on the unfamiliar process by which Episcopalians choose bishops. On most matters outside the most familiar daily experience, reporters need help to get up to speed. They have to report far too many stories to be experts on the stuff that is usually most important to people inside the story. Help them!

    "What I could do was provide enough background information for the media to ask intelligent questions, but I would not be quoted directly. This helped people and made them look good when they went into a press conference or went in to ask a question. ...And we built friendships that way. There was a lot of trust that evolved and the trust was returned."

  • If the subject of the story is an engaging person, give the media access to the person. Barwell was fortunate that Bishop Robinson likes to talk with people, so he was a great interview subject. The communications consultant was able to screen requests and enable most reporters to get a one on one with the bishop.
  • Though they aimed to make Robinson available, "we didn't want to turn it into a media circus." Barwell was reactive to reporters, not proactive. If Robinson's elevation was at all a circus, it was because of the appetite of the media, not choices by the bishop or diocese.
  • Interact with reporters as individuals; keep them from acting like a herd. Robinson didn't do big press conferences -- he gave interviews instead. Barwell said: "It's less confrontational, because the press can't feed off each other -- there's just you and the reporter."
  • Stay calm; stick to your plan. Barwell reports: "the one thing I think I brought to the process ... was the ability to stay calm -- not to panic, to have a plan, to stay calm in the middle of chaos, and to be non-anxious..." The press remains more measured if you can model that for them.
  • Accept that you can't completely stay on message. Things happen and people act in ways you can't anticipate, even in so well-ordered and ritualistic an environment as the The Episcopal Church. Know that, in Barwell's words "of course, you can control a story like that just so far."
There's insight here for anyone working a campaign on a hot issue. And a good story!

Convenience voting

Polling place in Tracy, CA, November 2006. Will places like this go the way of the horse?

A recent post caused some discussion on and off line about absentee voting. It seemed useful to expand on the topic.

"Convenience voting" is what people who study elections call all the varied systems by which we now vote prior to Election Day. These include vote by mail (universal in Oregon, though the state provides Election Day drop off points for ballots); no excuse "absentee voting" (in California some 20-30 percent of the electorate are on "permanent absentee" lists, automatically receiving their ballots by mail); and "early voting sites," polling places open before the Election Day ("in 2004, 60 percent of those who voted in New Mexico had done so by early or absentee voting." Free New Mexican.)

Some facts about convenience voting are well documented. [pdf]
  • the availability of this option increases turnout, but only slightly;
  • this slight increase in turnout comes from among voters who already accustomed to vote;
  • early voting systems are notably unsuccessful in turning out new, unlikely, potential voters;
  • voters like convenience voting.

"Forcing voters to go to the polls to cast their ballots is an antiquated, outdated, absurd practice," says Oren Spiegler, a Pennsylvania voter.

Wall Street Journal
October 20, 2006

What convenience voting means to campaigns is less certain. We are currently getting stories about how presidential campaigns are planning for California's huge number of "permanent absentees." Many of these people could vote before the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary.

[California] will mail out some three million absentee ballots for the Feb. 5 primary starting on Jan. 7 (overseas and military voters from California will get their ballots in mid-December). Each presidential campaign will have to decide whether it is worth the money to try to reach these voters by mail, radio, television or door-to-door canvassing, a huge expense in a state the size of California.

New York Times
May 27, 2007
[sub. wall, sorry]

I first saw large scale convenience voting efforts by a campaign in 1994. Kathleen Brown, daughter of Governor Pat, sister of Governor Jerry, was running for ... Governor of California. Incumbent Republican Pete Wilson fired up our state's latent anti-immigrant xenophobia and came from behind to beat her (despite thereby trashing the Republican brand with the folks who are California's future and handing the party apparatus over to some wacky rightwingers.)

Brown's strategist, San Francisco consultant Clint Reilly, believed that she could beat the tide by investing in an unprecedented campaign to win absentee votes. The campaign would hire huge numbers of field staff who would recruit even greater numbers of volunteers who would bring in vast numbers of absentee votes and pull victory from the jaws of defeat. Didn't happen. They couldn't find enough staff and the pressure to get numbers was so unrelenting and unrealistic that staff quit. The difficult process of tracking a potential vote through 1) an "absentee request" to country voting officials, 2) then verifying that the ballot was mailed to the voter, 3) then making sure the voter returned the ballot, 4) then removing the voter from the list "to be worked" was more than the campaign proved able to keep up with. By Election Day, Brown headquarters were depressing, empty caverns where busy workers should have been.

The capacity of elections officials and campaigns to track who has voted "early" in real time is much greater today. But convenience voting still mesmerizes and confounds campaign strategists -- and is an arena of enduring mythology. For a sample from 2006, see this glowing report of a Republican absentee push -- an effort that met and exceeded it goals, but didn't win in Michigan in a Democratic year.

Researchers agree:

early voting reforms increase candidate uncertainty and raises candidate costs.

Paul Gronke, Reed College [pdf]

Democratic campaigns often get exercised because Republicans have historically been better at collecting early votes than Democrats. It is not hard to see where the disparity comes from -- historically Republican campaigns have enjoyed a money advantage and have been working a more steady base vote than Democrats. I've often been told: "if we have 40 percent of the absentees, our Democratic candidate will win." And this has been true. But the lesson I take from this is not necessarily that Democrats should try to compete on the Republicans' turf by making more convenience voters. We should work on how better to compete on our own turf, among our wide swath of potential, but less frequent, Democratic voters who need different, more personal, contacts to get them out.

Consultants like to say that bringing in absentee votes "puts them in the bank." Once people have voted, they can't be swayed by last minute ads or scandals -- and campaigns no longer have to work to turn them out. This may occasionally play a role in victory -- but margins have to be pretty tight before a last minute revelation can change the result. However, this consideration might encourage presidential campaigns that can afford it to work California hard in the later part of 2007 -- if the state's huge primary can be partially completed before any shocks to frontrunners to come out of Iowa and New Hampshire, this will be a great advantage. Expect lots of Clinton mail and maybe something from Obama next fall if you are a Democratic permanent absentee California voter.

Karl Kurtz at The Thicket states the structural objection that some raise to convenience voting:

it eliminates the notion of a national civic convocation of the American people on election day...

Though there is probably no way to stem the tide on this, I think progressive electoral strategists have to take this thinking very seriously. We are chronically trying to encourage a habit of voting among groups -- new citizens, young people, poor people -- who need support and encouragement to participate. Insofar as voting is a private thing you do by yourself in your home, folks who aren't accustomed to it are less likely to get around to it. Isolation can breed alienation from participation. Community reinforcement helps turn out infrequent voters.

Doing the community's business of citizenship is not something to live out alone. Community organizations need to experiment with ways to make voting a more collective experience. Of course every person's ballot is secret, but voting need not be so lonely as convenience systems tend to make it. Some experiments have included group classes in using new voting systems (such as when touch screens have replaced punch card ballots) and picnics followed by group walks to early voting sites. Finding ways to increase the sense of community, as well as of convenience, is a winning strategy, and a necessity, for progressive electoral organizers.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Workers v. Woodfin Suites update

The struggle of workers at Emeryville's Woodfin Suites Hotel for a living wage and a measure of respect has taken some wild twists and turns in the last few days. I've written about this previously here, here, and here.

Like much of the "hospitality industry" this hotel keeps up its profit margin up by paying low wages to immigrant workers to do the dirty stuff. The city of Emeryville, collectively, said "enough already," in 2005, and passed a living wage ordinance. The hotel unsuccessfully contested the law in court; workers brought a class action lawsuit for back pay. All of a sudden, the hotel began to question the workers' immigration status, citing problems with their Social Security numbers.

In December the Woodfin laid off 21 housekeepers and other workers claiming irregularities in their documents, but a judge granted an injunction that sent them back to their jobs while their lawsuit was pending. On April 27 the hotel fired 12 workers; 38 supporters including a state Assemblyperson and local elected officials were arrested in a protest of the firings on May 3.

New developments in the last few day:
  • According to Joseph Plaster in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, it was no accident that immigration authorities became interested in the legal status of the Woodfin workers. It turns out that the office of U.S. Representative Brian Bilbray (he's the Republican lobbyist who won convicted felon Duke Cunningham's old Congressional seat) went to bat for the hotel with the head of the Immigration and Customs Inspection (ICE). Woodfin Suites president Samuel Hardage lives in Bilbray's San Diego district and donated $4200 to Bilbray in 2006. He's also a well connected conservative donor who raised over $100,000 for George W. Longstanding ICE policies say the agency should not intervene in workplaces where a labor dispute is going on, though it is certainly no surprise that under Bush the agency violates its own rules for a friend.
  • Meanwhile today the city of Emeryville released the result of its own investigation into whether Woodfin had complied with the local living wage law. The city had held up issuing an operating permit for the hotel pending this investigation. Emeryville will now issue the permit, but only when Woodfin pays back-wages to 47 housekeepers, penalties to the city for noncompliance and enforcement, and a permit fee. The penalties would amount to some $32,000. This is getting costly for Woodfin -- and besides the penalties, they must also be running up some huge legal bills.
Do these developments mean the fight is over? Not by a long shot. Though Emeryville voters played by the rules and set fair labor standards for their town, a well-connected individual and his greedy corporation are determined to find a way to evade or reshape the rules in their favor. Immigrant workers with the grit and determination to stand up for their rights weren't in their plan. I expect there will be more

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Presidential qualifications, take two

New York City artists, Fall 2001

Back in January, I posted the question that is most important in determining my attitude toward the entrants in the 2008 Presidential horse race: If (when) the U.S. is hit by another terrorist attack, which candidate will be most able to keep retaliation/revenge within somewhat proportional limits?

This morning I was thrilled to see that a trio of Democratic senior "wise men" had raised the issue of intelligent response to a terrorist nuclear attack on the U.S. in a New York Times oped. "William J. Perry, a professor at Stanford, and Ashton B. Carter, a professor at Harvard, were, respectively, the secretary and an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. Michael M. May, also a professor at Stanford, is a former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory." It was nice to see they don't think the smart response would be to start shooting from the hip.

After cataloguing some communications and relief measures a government that could get anything done would perform, they suggest:

The United States government, probably convened somewhere outside Washington by the day after, would be urgently trying to trace the source of the bombs. No doubt, the trail would lead back to some government -- Russia, Pakistan, North Korea or other countries with nuclear arsenals or advanced nuclear power programs -- because even the most sophisticated terrorist groups cannot make plutonium or enrich their own uranium; they would need to get their weapons or fissile materials from a government.

The temptation would be to retaliate against that government. But that state might not even be aware that its bombs were stolen or sold, let alone have deliberately provided them to terrorists. Retaliating against Russia or Pakistan would therefore be counterproductive. Their cooperation would be needed to find out who got the bombs and how many there were, and to put an end to the campaign of nuclear terrorism. It is important to continue to develop the ability to trace any bomb by analyzing its residues. Any government that did not cooperate in the search should, of course, face possible retaliation.

... Contingency plans for the day after a nuclear blast should demonstrate to Americans that all three branches of government can work in unison and under the Constitution to respond to the crisis and prevent further destruction.

Sage advice -- would any of the Presidential hopefuls dare heed it?

The Republicans are currently competing at thumping their chests, so they aren't even worth considering.

Among the Democrats, after six months of looking them over, my top bet for exercising restraint would be Richardson. As far as foreign affairs go, he seems to live in the real world (though of course aiming to perpetuate U.S. dominance.) On domestic matters he is not attractive, but I think he knows he doesn't want to blow the planet to kingdom come.

If Gore were a candidate, I think he might pass my test -- he's accustomed to think beyond costs, benefits, and immediate gratification.

As for Obama, he emanates caution to the point of timidity -- a reason I don't much like him in most respects, but a character trait that might prevent massive human misery in this situation.

Edwards still seems hung up on making up for lack of experience by proving he's committed to a strong military. There are some good ideas in the speech linked there. But they don't speak to my concerns.

And Clinton doesn't seem trustworthy in this regard -- she's awfully smart and tough -- but doesn't come across as wise or thoughtful. She might grow in the job. Others have.

What do readers think? Who among the field seems most able not to go to war when under intense pressure to start throwing bombs?
See also Terrance's thoughts about why this is a country so prone to warlike impulses in "The Myth of a Bush Recovery," part 1, part 2, and very especially, part 3. These essays also appeared at Booman Tribune.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The authenticity test

An organizer explains a problem. She's doing a good job, but more is required.

The other day I had a conversation with a woman who'd been hired to mobilize neighbors to campaign to save a community hospital from a big nasty health profiteer. In this instance, she was mobilizing me. I was, naturally, wary. Being organized into a campaign means adding more responsibilities to an already over-full life. She was new in town and running into resistance. Having carried on her end of the conversation more than once, I was sympathetic.

Pretty soon, I got to hear her side of the story: coming from smaller places, some in the old rust belt, she found San Francisco incomprehensible. "I just don't know what gets people moving here...." she mourned.

"Yeah," says I. "They'll come out for what they feel as limits on their ability to be themselves, like feeling disrespected, having dogs, or not being allowed to dance late at night -- but not about the bedrock stuff: jobs, housing, healthcare."

"You got it," she replied.

I thought about this conversation this morning when while reading Paul Krugman's latest column [sub. wall, sorry]. He reported:

A recent Associated Press analysis of the political scene asked: “Can you fake authenticity? Probably not, but it might be worth a try.”

Krugman is hammering away at the right wing scam that has made conventional wisdom of the silly notion that you can't work to alleviate poverty unless you are poor. Go, Paul -- the idea can't stand the slightest examination. And I'm coming to believe that John Edwards deserves better.

My conversation with the organizer, in its way, is about another facet of the same issue. In this city, the truly poor are burdened with housing costs that often suck up fifty percent of their income, as well as an extremely costly general environment. They are hard to organize because they are working, and caring for children, and working, and caring for children, and working....

There are folks who can be organized who are a rung or two up the economic ladder -- not well off at all, but urban dwellers by choice who make the city their home because it offers them a chance to be themselves. Most of them need the same stuff the truly poor need: a living wage, affordable housing, access to health care. But having spent their whole lives deconstructing marketing pitches, often rejecting some facets of conventional expectations, and finding a place in which to express their sense of themselves, they are allergic to appeals that don't validate their cherished individuality. And in this city, a great many of these folks are gay, and for them (us), all that goes double.

This makes people here as demanding of a promise of "authenticity," on their terms, as the folks Krugman points to who are being conned by lobbyist/actor Fred Thompson with his rented used pick-up truck and jeans. Or as New Yorkers who aren't going to support a Red Sox fan!

Krugman is right, as far as he goes, with this suggestion:

Why not evaluate candidates’ policy proposals, rather than their authenticity? And if there are reasons to doubt a candidate’s sincerity, spell them out.

No doubt about it, that would help. But campaigners usually recognize that for many, perhaps most of us, there's a step that comes first, before we'll even listen to the policy prescriptions.

That step: we all want to feel that this is a candidacy (or my organizer's case, this is a campaign) in which, if I get involved, I won't be dissed for who I am. For people of color, for gay folks, that's usually obvious -- even though lots of quite well meaning campaigns don't know how to send that signal. The phony "authenticity" Krugman is talking is the same phenomenon writ large.

Some thoughts:
  • The internets are speeding fragmentation of cultural markers. This began with cable TV; we don't all look to the same cultural sources. More and more niche expressions of personal identity become possible all the time. This is both opportunity for smart candidates who can recruit authentic messengers to reach into these geographically dispersed pockets of personal identity -- and something of a threat, since dispersed messengers may get "off message." Get used to it.
  • Smart campaigns listen to the folks they want to organize. Obvious of course, but how many of us feel listened to by politicians or campaigners? When we aren't listened to, we're on our guard -- and it become hard to pass the authenticity test.
  • Faking it has limits. Bill Clinton could get away with playing the sax on TV because he really is that kind of ham. Most pols just make fools of themselves.
Our wealthy culture more and more makes discerning the difference between identities for sale (identities that make the sale) and finding "our true selves" the bedrock skill for living a humane life. Politicians fake authenticity at their peril. Next thing they know, they'll get slammed with a cheap parody on YouTube. Fun times.