Monday, June 30, 2008

Stories from work ...

Mohammad at KABOBfest reports on his friend Salah's first day at a new job.

Today was my first day at Jiffy Lube. Being a trainee, they still have not gotten around to making me a shirt with my name on it. I go in to find I only have 2 options of which shirt i wear, the two names being Raul and Juan David. Being a fan of hyphenated and multiple word first names, i said "sure, i can pull off a Juan David." its almost perfect, the combination of a common spanish name and a common white name. It turned out to be the best decision of my life.

Some notes/quotes throughout the day:

Me: Hi. Im sal... Juan David welcome to Jiffy Lube. can i take your car in for signature service?
Customer: As long as it doesn't smell like spic when i come back


Me: hi welcome to jiffy lube. are you here today for our signature service?
Customer (extremely surprised): Why yes i am...
Me: well then if you'll just pull the hood latch, ill drive your car in and get started.
Customer: you can speak english... and drive stick??!?

Go read the rest to find out why Salah thinks he made a great choice of shirts.

Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran...

Sy Hersh on what our regime is doing now...

It does make it damn hard to believe in any of this democracy stuff. Who told any of these guys (and a few gals, Ms. Pelosi) that we wanted another war? Who? Not we the people, last I noticed.

New England fisheries and the democratic process

Last week Andrew Rosenberg who teaches marine sciences at the University of New Hampshire delivered a chilling message: good democratic processes are working, not only to prevent some socialistic regulator from destroying the fishing industry, but also to ensure that fish stocks cannot be preserved under the related pressures of overfishing and climate change. Democracy is working; sustainability is suffering. Local fishing communities are going to experience undesired changes and there is not much that can be done to stop the process.

At least that's what I made of Rosenberg's talk in Chilmark, Mass., sponsored by the Menemsha Fisheries Development Fund. Since he's a very smart guy with a background the pulling and hauling that is resource management at the National Marine Fisheries Service, he used much more cautious language. He avoided the word "regulate" with great care and effort, focusing on the benefits of various policies rather than the constraints they create. But this hard summation seems to have been the nub of it.

I took a few notes on his conclusions which I'll share here, amplified with direct quotations from an article in Nature [.pdf] to which he referred during his talk.
  • It's time to stop engaging with arguments about whether fishery declines (to as low as 5 percent of 19th century populations in some species) have happened because of overfishing or global warming. The decline in fish stocks is real. The unwillingness of scientists to overspeculate about causation impedes remedial action: "Uncertainty undermines political will in environmental decision making. ... Emphasizing what we don't know often drowns out what we do know."
  • Both fish populations and the fishing industry will react to regulation rapidly; we can help the fish recover their numbers by measures such as limiting days fishing and closing some areas, but the fishing industry and recreational anglers will adapt to regulation to maximize what they can take.
  • Rigid, complex regulations merely create incentives for fishermen to develop ways to observe letter of the law while skirting its intent. And aroused fishermen will excel at using the democratic process to protect themselves.

    Political decision making inevitably leans towards minimizing the impacts of policies on those constituents who are most affected. The public cares about the general outcome, such as saving whales, but individuals are unlikely to change their political view or support a public official because of local issues such as catch quotas or protected areas; fishermen will because the issue is immediate and vital to them.

  • The flush days when fish off New England and Georges Bank seemed unlimited are never going to return. Whether because of decimation of fish populations or because of regulation to make catches of fish sustainable, fishing operations and the communities that have lived around fishing will contract and consolidate.
That last point is the sad reality for the good people of the little port of Menemsha whose concern for their fishing economy prompted the lecture series. See this article, for a cogent account of their fears that Menemsha will succumb to "the tide that has transformed working harbors along the East Coast into upscale marinas."

So why in the world am I writing about fish and fishing here? I don't know from fish! But I do know that the problems caused by the ability of constituencies with very particular needs to overwhelm the general welfare are going to be the challenge of representative democracy as the globe faces climate change. And if we don't want authoritarian answers -- like, for example, China's one child policy -- we are going to have to come up with solutions that somehow hear all, yet satisfy many. If we don’t, we'll live with outcomes that satisfy no one.

Some of the working fishing fleet in Menemsha harbor.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Obama: a dyke's eye view

In honor of Gay Pride weekend, I'm going to try to convey how Senator Obama comes off to this older dyke. I do not expect this post to be popular.

This is not a substantive policy post. Obama is as good on gay rights as we can (yet) expect any national candidate to be. It is not on his other policy stances either -- he's good on lots of issues like making college more accessible to all, full of shit on FISA and the Fourth Amendment, and elusive on the war. But he's a 1000 percent better than the alternative. I'll be working to get him elected.

No, this is about how he feels to me in the realm where we queers are popularly supposed to reside -- the realm of sexual energy, animal magnetism. And on that level I find Obama troubling. Let's see if I can explain why.

No President in my lifetime has struck me as having any great allure. Ike was granddaddy. Kennedy lost me when the Boston accent popped out of his mouth (my pure prejudice). Nixon looked like he had a rod up his butt and didn't like it. Ford and Carter were blurs. Reagan was a phony B movie actor -- I actually saw him up close in 1966 wearing stage makeup while playing Governor among student protestors. Daddy Bush was what preppy guys grow up to be. Clinton always reminded me of Leisure Suit Larry; turned out I wasn't far wrong. Bush Junior is a type I've seen a lot when running road races: talented enough to make it to the front of the middle of the older men's rankings; dumb enough to think that moderate prowess justifies strutting like a little peacock. (There are lots of running guys, talented and not so, who enjoy encouraging the less talented runners, unlike these turds.)

Obama's something else again. He reeks charisma, sexual energy. The Bag posted the image above from the Obama-Clinton rally at/for Unity. Click on it to see the picture full size. (Use your brower's "Back" button to finish reading this post.) The Bag comments:

What it well captures is exactly what's going on now, which is a courtship process.

Well, yes, that is Obama's style. He romances his supporters, and the merely curious, and uses his charm which is at root sexual, to sweep us off our feet.

The energy is wonderful, vital, enveloping. There's an element of dominance in it, as there is in most (all?) sexual coupling. He's courteous; this is not bullying, it is sheer energy. It is strong, beautiful -- and I don't trust it.

Perhaps that's partly because I'm a dyke -- I don't want that energy projected at me from a man, even one I like. Perhaps it is because I'm old (older at least) -- I've seen too many instances of people doing dumb things in pursuit of passion.

But also, I wonder -- does he think he can turn on the Obama charm and bring his detractors to his side? I'm sure he has more than once. But how real is that for a President? What will he do when it doesn't work? How will he govern? Will he be a deflated balloon when charm fails? Or will he find other ways of being in the world that don't depend on personal charismatic salesmanship?

We hope we get to find out.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Adjusting to changes

(My most recent "Gay and Gray" column is up at Time Goes By. Here's how it begins. Drop by over there to participate in the experiment I propose in conclusion.)

It's a strange and wonderful time to be gay. And it can seem a particularly strange time if you're an elder. Most of us who are over 60 lived at least some part of our lives in semi-voluntary invisibility or, if we chose to allow our sexual orientation to show, feared rejection and stigma.

Yes, there has been an LGBT civil rights movement since the 1950s, a movement that gained momentum in the 1960s and never looked back. Lots of us "came out." But it wasn't easy. As recently as 2004, eleven states voted to ban same sex marriages -- and in 2006, seven more followed. Then this spring the California Supreme Court ruled that forbidding same sex marriages was illegal discrimination within that state.

And all of a sudden, popular opinion seems to have taken a discontinuous leap. A Gallup-USAToday poll published June 3 reports that nationally 63 percent of us believe that "government should not regulate whether gays and lesbians can marry the people they choose, a survey finds." As far as a majority is concerned, gay marriage (and presumably a responsible gay life) is on its way to being seen as a self-evident individual privacy right.

There are still holdouts of course -- and for an elder, the Gallup-USAToday picture is uncomfortable: approval of same sex marriage wins "among all ages except 65 and older: [among younger groups, the results are] 18 to 29 (79%), 30 to 49 (65%), 50 to 64% (62%) and 65 and older (44%)." Our age peers are finding change harder than the younger set. The social attitudes of our generation are being pushed aside. Anna Quindlen writes in Newsweek:

The opposition is aging out.

Is this really because, as a group, older people have a harder time dealing with the unfamiliar? Perhaps. But I am sure the answer is more nuanced than just that we are bunch of stick-in-the-muds.

Continued here...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Day of Support for Victims of Torture

Perhaps appropriately, today torture enablers John Yoo (former Bush Justice department lawyer) and David Addington (Dick Cheney's right hand man) finally had to answer a few questions from a Congressional committee.

There were some macabre moments:

[Representative John] Conyers asked Yoo if the president could order a prisoner buried alive, or order a detainee's children tortured. "There are a number of things I don't believe an American president would ever order," Yoo said. [Rep. Jerrold] Nadler observed that Yoo dodged the question of whether, under his 2002 memo, a president could order such activities.

Compare these guys to what the United Nations said last year about the International Day of Support for Vicitms of Torture.

Torture is one of the most profound human rights abuses, taking a terrible toll on millions of individuals and their families. Rape, blows to the soles of the feet, suffocation in water, burns, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, shaking and beating are commonly used by torturers to break down an individual's personality. As terrible as the physical wounds are, the psychological and emotional scars are usually the most devastating and the most difficult to repair. Many torture survivors suffer recurring nightmares and flashbacks. They withdraw from family, school and work and feel a loss of trust.

"Today the United Nations appeals to all governments and members of civil society to take action to defeat torture and torturers everywhere", [said] UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "This is a day on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable. This is an occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable", he said.

Representative Nadler summed up the unspeakable posture of the United States at the conclusion of the Yoo/Addington hearing.

"It does not go too far to say the reputation of our nation as the leading exponent of human rights and human dignity [sic] have been besmirched by this administration," Nadler said.

A bowling interlude

Last Saturday, LaBouleNY sponsored the 2008 Hery Open petanque tournament in Manhattan's Bryant Park. I don't know a thing about the game, also called boule, (it's a French import vaguely related to bowling or bocce) but my New York host is an enthusiast, so we watched these master athletes and I took photos.

The point is to throw or roll metal balls as close as possible to a little wooden ball (here red) on a hard dirt surface.

Players size up their shots.

Team mates offer coaching about placement.

Sometime the best shot flies through the air, often knocking away an opponent's ball. (By the way, this gentleman was one of the tournament winners. )

There can be a good deal of body-English in the delivery ...

... as well as careful study of the slightly uneven surface of the court.

The sponsoring organization summarized: "A perfect day for petanque."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

This is not how campaigns work

These days, one of my regular pleasures is visiting FiveThirtyEight, a blog using the tagline, "Electoral Projections Done Right." Think a baseball stats obsessive, a lover of numerical minutia, turned loose on the Presidential race and you get the idea. Plus Nate (the stat guy) has brought in a campaign wonk, Sean, one of whose posts, The Voter File, is an invaluable beginner level exposition of what campaign databases are all about.

This is a blog I respect a lot. So I was astonished to read this misguided analysis at 538 this morning.

If you're the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and you've got a few extra dollars to throw around, where do you put them? Into the Louisiana race, where John N. Kennedy is challenging your incumbent Mary Landrieu? Or somewhere like Kentucky, where Bruce Lunsford is trying to knock off Mitch McConnell?

The obvious answer would seem to be: "whichever race is closer". But I'm not sure if it's that simple. The reason is that there is a much bigger difference ideologically between McConnell and Lunsford (who is actually fairly progressive and would become a reliable Democratic vote on issues like health care) than there is between Kennedy and Landrieu (who is not a reliable vote on much of anything). So in terms of the actual, long-run mechanics of getting the legislation you want passed, the stakes could easily be twice as high in Kentucky as they are in Louisiana.

The equation would be a little different, of course, if control of the chamber were in doubt. But since it probably isn't in this cycle, Democrats have to move beyond being obsessed with the seat count and treating all wins as being equal. Some really do count more than others.

If I were looking for a perfect illustration of the difference between what campaigns look like to the people that make them happen and to low-information voters, this would qualify.

Let's pull out what's wrong here.
  • Campaigns aren't about building a majority for a policy like health care; they are about winning for a particular candidate in a particular location under particular circumstances. I could wish that ideology mattered, but once the nominee is selected, ideological appeals only matter if they help get the candidate 50 percent plus 1 from the electorate. Sometimes they are popular with voters; it’s the polled popularity, not the good positions, that attract cash to candidates who espouse good positions.
  • Short version of the same thought: campaigns aren't about "the long run" -- they are one of the ultimate forms of "live for today."
  • The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) exists to maintain the existing leadership in power. Part of that means defending the incumbents who put in the current leadership; those incumbents are sure to look more valuable to the DSCC than any challenger.
  • Some challengers do get support. They get support because, if elected, they can be trusted to support the existing leadership of the DSCC. Sometimes other variables may trump this imperative, but the guys doling out the cash never completely forget it.
  • Of course the seat count matters. Current DSCC leadership will be evaluated by how many seats they win, not by who the new Senators are.
Most of this is ugly. Some of it is wrong, especially the foreshortened time horizon. We all suffer for it.

But it does us no good to pretend campaigns work some other way -- in fact, illusions about this get in the way of figuring out how to turn the campaign mechanism to better ends.

Very obviously, the time to push candidates on matters ideological is in primaries. Since the Democratic party is becoming a mobilized base many of whose members feel their interests are poorly represented by their leaders, expect to see more primary challenges to incumbents who aren't listening to their constituents.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"Some turkeys just turn bad ..."

Was one of these Tom? Wild Martha's Vineyard turkeys in the woods.

A tangled tale of a belligerent bird, bewildered police, baby equipment, and battery on a public employee unfolded recently in the wilds of Chilmark, Mass. Not to be missed.

This Iraqi death WILL be marked

Yasser Salihee, father of Danya

In light of yesterday's New York Times report that U.S. TV network newscasts have devoted all of 181 minutes to coverage of Iraq this year, it seems right to share this determined tribute and promise from one of the Iraqi journalists who writes for McClatchy in Baghdad.

Three years ago an American soldier shot and killed our late colleague Yasser Salihee, a physician and a father of one lovely girl, on Friday June 24, 2005. ...

Your friends and colleagues never forgot you and will not.

Every week we survive death. Every week we lose another friend or a relative.

Every one in this country lost a dear friend or a brother or a father or a mother or maybe all the family.

I've been in so many places Yasser, I saw many die. I saw children, women and men were killed by terrorists or troops and we will keep trying to tell their stories.

If we die my friend we will be dying telling the truth, telling the people what really happens here.

Your death gave us the will to continue telling the world that people here die for no guilt but trying to go home or to work.


In 2007, Mike Drummond of the Charlotte Observer described what he learned about Salihee's death.

Salihee, [was] a medical doctor in addition to working as a translator and the bureau's special correspondent.... [he was] shot in the brain by an American sniper, although details remain sketchy.

A staffer here tells me he was driving toward a checkpoint, down a street marked as a no-go zone. The "marker" was a brick placed in the middle of the road. A piece of debris.

He adds that this danger, the poorly marked checkpoint, is not uncommon.

Sahar Issa, [another McClatchy journalist], says she nearly met Salihee's fate. She and her son took a turn down a street "marked" as a no-go zone. Iraqi forces opened fire on her car. She failed to see the marker -- a milk carton placed at the corner.

There's no news in these stories worth sharing with a U.S. audience according to commercial news priorities. Have to get back to the important stories -- Heather Locklear's depression, Britney Spears' custody dispute and other vital matters.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Opposition as higher loyalty

Maybe it is time to start an Obama clock: how long will it take for progressive activists to start acting as a loyal opposition to a Democratic President?

Matt Stoller sets a bench mark:

It took three months for the liberal internet space to flip on the Democratic Congress in 2006; we'll see how long that process takes for President Obama.

These musing may seem premature before we vote the guy in, but I take it as a mark of a maturing activist sector to see us wondering this in late June, five months before the election.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Left fringe musings on torture and war crimes

Criminals? As yet not tried in a court of law ...

Now I know what I am: according to columnist Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times, I am member of "the lacy left fringe of American politics" because I'd like to see criminal trials of leaders who have made widespread torture of prisoners a feature in their permanent war. He knows better:

Part of the hysteria over [hearings] that you see in places like the Wall Street Journal editorial pages stems from an anxiety that congressional inquiries, like that of Levin's committee, will lead to indictments and possibly even war crimes trials for officials who participated in the administration's deliberations over torture and the treatment of prisoners. ...

...actually pursuing them would be a profound -- even tragic -- mistake. Our political system works as smoothly as it does, in part, because we've never criminalized differences over policy. Since Andrew Jackson's time, our electoral victors celebrate by throwing the losers out of work -- not into jail cells.

The Bush administration has been wretchedly mistaken in its conception of executive power, deceitful in its push for war with Iraq and appalling in its scheming to make torture an instrument of state power. But a healthy democracy punishes policy mistakes, however egregious, and seeks redress for its societal wounds, however deep, at the ballot box and not in the prisoner's dock.

This is a conclusion that Rutten can only arrive at by assuming that justifying torture is just a "policy" argument, not a question of law. He clams to be repudiating torture, but he sweeps under the rug the little matter of treaty obligations and the pre-Bush Universal Code of Military Justice, as well as numerous constitutional impediments to cruel treatment of persons without legal process. The memos of a Yoo and obfuscations of a Gonzales are all a "no fault" intellectual exercise, if a misguided one, in Rutten's world.

It is simply not true that lawless behavior in pursuit of policy objectives has no history of being punished in our country. In the Watergate era, Presidential advisors H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman did stand in the dock and end up in prison for conspiracy and obstruction of justice committed to enhance Richard Nixon's power. One of Bush/Cheney's stooges, Lewis Libby, would be doing time now after being convicted of highhandedly violating the law, if the present President had not given him a "get out of jail free" card. There's plenty of history of executive lawbreakers being tried and convicted.

And the evident crimes of the current lot dwarf the legalistic grounds on which prosecutors have been able to get convictions of previous generations of wrongdoing U.S. politicians. An aggressive war of choice, dishonestly entered upon ... that's Nuremberg territory, conduct that led to the execution of the German general staff in 1946.

If Rutten weren't in the business of justifying the unjustifiable, he could have made reference to a much more interesting case against war crimes trials that is emerging within the community of human rights advocates, especially those concerned with Africa. In the U.S. blogosphere, Helena Cobban, has written from this perspective. A recent column from the Canadian Globe and Mail gives the flavor of the argument.

JOHANNESBURG — In the first, electric days after Robert Mugabe lost the opening round of Zimbabwe's presidential election, it seemed as though he might simply accept defeat and step down. ...He opened secret negotiations with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on a deal that would guarantee his party a share of power, provide him with a peaceful retirement and, crucially, make him immune to prosecution for crimes committed during his long and troubled tenure.

The MDC was amenable, and a tentative optimism took hold of Zimbabwe. But then, six days after the March 29 vote, Mr. Mugabe emerged from a long meeting with his "politburo" in Harare, vowing to fight a run-off election and saying he'd soon be sworn in for a sixth straight term. ...

"The Old Man is staying," a senior member of his ZANU-PF party told The Globe and Mail, "because I'm not ending up in The Hague."

That is, Zimbabwe is now suffering through another violent election which Mugabe will win by whatever vicious means are necessary because of the developing practice of bringing particularly violent African kleptocrats before international criminal courts. The article goes on to cite the prosecution of Charles Taylor for his instigation of the Sierra Leone civil war (that's the one where in addition to rape, the combatants went in for cutting off the limbs of children) and the international court in Arusha, Tanzania, that can't seem to move against Rwandan perpetrators of genocide. In Uganda, critics of human rights law enforcement say that indictments are prolonging Joseph Kony's vicious insurgency. The Globe and Mail author, Stephanie Nolen, says that Africans have a different solution for their evil doers.

When people survey the civilians of northern Uganda, those who have lived through the war for more than a generation, justice barely registers as a priority. They want peace. Prosecution is also fine -- until it starts getting in the way.

When nearly 3,000 Ugandans were polled by the International Centre for Transitional Justice last year, they listed their top priorities as peace, health care, education for their children and the ability to farm their land. A mere 3 per cent chose justice. Asked what should be done with those responsible for major human-rights abuses, more than half said they wanted "forgiveness, reconciliation, or reintegration for LRA leaders." Just 22 per cent said they wanted them tried, and, if convicted, sent to prison. Asked if they favoured peace with amnesty or peace with trials, 80 per cent of respondents chose peace with amnesty.

"What constitutes justice for people is not necessarily prosecution," says Moses Okello, a Kampala-based expert in international human-rights law. ... "We're not saying that accountability is not important, but it can also take the form of taking responsibility for the livelihood of the families of the aggrieved."

I'd have to listen to a lot more Africans before I felt entirely comfortable with the argument presented here. I don't want to be party to any idea that there is one standard of justice suitable to be applied to first world wrongdoers and another for the poor societies of Africa. But there is also a plausible argument here for peace first, then, perhaps much later and less rigorously, justice.

So what about our own Bushite evildoers? Those injured -- Iraqis, Afghans, miscellaneous Arabs, millions of U.S. citizens who expected Constitutional liberties -- never got due process. And most of them -- and most of us -- do simply want the nightmare over with. But then, the U.S. perps should get trials. Maybe we, the angry left fringe, are wrongly convicting them without trial. Bringing the Bush perps into court is a worthy long term struggle and one I can work for.

But here's where I can go along with Rutten and the African skeptics: I don't care so much whether they go to jail. What matters is to permanently get these authoritarians out of U.S. politics. The leading criminals of the Bush era got their start with Nixon, pressed on to take roles in Reagan's Iran-Contra shenanigans, and crept back into power with the Bush/Cheney regime. They are repeat offenders against the rule of law.

During the 1980s, like many U.S. progressives, I put a lot of work into supporting Central American populist governments that the U.S. called "communist." One of the bravest, smartest acts of the insurgent Nicaraguan Sandinistas in 1979 when they chased out their U.S.-backed dictator was to let his private army, the Guardia Nacional, run away over the borders. These were not nice people. The GN had raped, tortured and murdered wantonly under their protector. But the Sandinistas knew that the country was small, that every individual GN man was someone's uncle or even brother, that nothing would be gained by vengeance. So they let them go -- and that act launched a Sandinista era full of hope.

Trouble was, the GN survivors were not permanently outside Nicaraguan politics. Because the U.S. wanted to ensure the independent populists in power couldn't succeed, the C.I.A got to work recruiting the forces of the former dictator to trash the schools and clinics built by the Sandinistas. Pretty soon Nicaragua was back at war; war wore folks out and the U.S. had a great victory over a bunch of poor peasants who thought they should govern their own country.

So, however we do it, some people's activity and influence need to be permanently excluded from the U.S. political stage. As of now, it looks like a Democratic "alternative" will win big this November. That's good.

The recent vote on the FISA bill suggests that some of the Democrats we'll have in power if that happens are already shaping their votes to try to avoid revealing their complicity in the Bush regime's lawlessness. That's not good, but better that their complicity shows. These Democrats need to go, permanently, too.

The struggle ahead is long. But again, a look at some history: with the complicity and encouragement of Henry Kissinger, another U.S. war criminal, General Pinochet overthrew, killed and tortured Chilean democracy on the other September 11 -- in 1973. He remained in power as a military dictator until 1990. Chileans only got him out with a promise of amnesty, of impunity, for the Chilean military. That is, the society cut a deal -- go away and we won't prosecute your crimes. Yet opponents kept up the demand for some kind of justice and by 2006, Pinochet died at 91 while under house arrest as a result of multiple indictments for his crimes.

White people haven't had to try to sustain that kind of long, disillusioning struggle for a modicum of unsatisfactory justice in this country. As that sentence implies, African Americans have done little else. Are the rest of us ready to take up the long struggle? Is there anything else to do?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Hungry for Change" bake sale

On the day it was announced that Move-On is closing down its associated 527 committee, Move-On's people were out in force, selling cookies.

So-called "527 committees" (it's an IRS thing) can legally raise big donations for political ads. Move-On had a 527 arm in the 2004 campaign, mothballed it in 2005, and is counting on the small donation gravy train for political work that the internet organization pioneered, and Senator Obama has perfected.

So the bake sales, and other small donor fund raising gambits, will go on.

This one along the waterfront in New York's Riverside Park was kind of sweet. Most of the contributors lived in one Manhattan building -- they had gotten to know each other through their Move-On activities.

They were not particularly happy with their candidate today. They think Obama could have done more to repudiate Bush's new FISA authority and against warrantless wiretapping.

But they were having a good time in the sun, including this daughter-mother pair.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Of tortoises and kings

Apparently Senator Obama has opted for the rule of men -- he hopes that means him -- above the rule of law. Trusting soul, he. The FISA law he will not work to impede entrusts unchecked power to the executive to decide who is dangerous and who has rights.

As Senator Russ Feingold, a less trusting soul, immediately explained about the Bush approved bill, this is "not a compromise but a capitulation."

Trusting souls we if we look to Democrats to safeguard liberties. They won't. At root, they don't believe that any significant number of their base cares enough to make them uncomfortable when they go along to get along. They trust their white skins and their money ensure their privilege. This seems rather stupid, but one of the features of privilege long-enjoyed is stupidity. An animal without predators ceases to be wary like those poor Galapagos tortoises that stick their necks out to meet humans.

But this is not new. What's new is the number of aroused people who raised almost $300,000 over the internet in a few days to run ads in our "leaders" home districts. At the moment, we're just flapping in the wind. But there's the possibility in that sort of outrage to get organized if people will dig in for a long slog.

Ad to be published in Democratic Constitution Shredder's Steny Hoyer's district tomorrow.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A lesson in accountability:
Apology from Obama

They were attracted to his message of diversity and unity, but two Muslim women who went to Barack Obama's rally at Joe Louis Arena on Monday went home feeling left out.

They were barred from prime seats behind the stage because of their traditional Muslim head scarves, after campaign volunteers had invited their non-Muslim friends to the seats.

Detroit Free Press,
June 19, 2008

But then...

Barack Obama personally apologized over the phone today to the two Muslim women from Michigan who were barred from sitting next to him during a campaign rally because they wore Islamic headscarves.

Obama spoke over the phone to Shimaa Abdelfadeel and apologized to her...Obama left a voicemail for the other woman, Hebba Aref, 25, a Bloomfield Hills resident...

Detroit Free Press,
June 19, 2008

That's getting action from a politician when he needs you. Got to stay on top of these guys when they run for office.

The local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations publicized the insult to the two women.

Imperial pretensions

Don't you get the feeling that some of our authoritarians wish they could still pull off this routine? So much more impressive than riding a mountain bike...

So butch...

accompanied by his nearly naked Black servant ...

along with his captive Indian chief ...

who seems to be wearing a skirt.

Oh for the days of President Teddy Roosevelt, 1901-09, and yet another imperial pinnacle.

Early 20th century statuary is embarrassing. This sits in front of the Museum of Natural History (planetarium and dinosaurs) on Central Park West in New York.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Raw racism, Republican style

This button apparently was a hot item at the Texas Republican convention.

Most of us work hard at constructing lives where we don't meet unreconstructed racists, unless perhaps they are family. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone talked with some of the sparse McCain crowd on the night Obama clinched the nomination. He got an earful.

Immediately after his speech in New Orleans, a pair of sweet-looking old ladies put down their McCain signs long enough to fill me in on why they're here. "I tell you," says one, "if Michelle Obama really doesn't like it here in America, I'd be very pleased to raise the money to send her back to Africa."

The diminutive and smiling old lady's friend leans over. "That's going a little too far, dear."

"Too far?" says the first. "Farrakhan is saying they were brought here against their will, and their bodies are still feeding the sharks at the bottom of the sea! I mean, really!"

"OK, sharks still eating bodies," I say, writing it all down. "Could I have your name, ma'am?"

"Janice Berg," says the first old lady. "And lest you think I'm Jewish, the name comes from Norway. Berg is 'mountain' in Norwegian. I'm part German, part French myself."

A few paces away, I catch up with a man named Ron Saucier and a woman who would only identify herself as Mary. Ron says his problem with Obama is the integrity thing. "He exaggerates too much," Ron says. "He's not honest."

"OK," I say. "What does he exaggerate about?"

"Well, like that time he was saying he had a white mother and a white grandmother," he says.

I ask him how this is an exaggeration.

"Well, he was saying . . ." he begins. "As if that qualifies him to . . ."

Despite my repeated prodding, Ron seems unable or unwilling to say aloud exactly what he means. Finally, his friend Mary, a grave-looking blonde with fierce anger lines around her eyes, jumps in, points a finger and blurts out one of the all-time man-on-the-street quotes.

"Look, you either are or you aren't," she says.

"And he aren't," Ron says, nodding with relief.

This election will certainly reveal how many of this sort there still are -- and how much of the country has moved on. We may still condone systemic racism, but we sure don't, mostly, let it all hang out there like that.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Torture day at the U.S. Senate

This picture from a U.S. court martial file, drawn by military polygraph examiner George Chigi III, shows how Afghan detainee Dilawar was shackled by his wrists to the ceiling of an isolation cell at Bagram Air Base before being beaten to death in December 2002

The Senate Armed Services Committee today delved into the topic: How Did the Department of Defense Decide to Authorize Torture, Cruel Treatment, and Violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice? The linked article by Marty Lederman gives a good summary of what documents released by the committee revealed. It seems clear that, despite much wrangling by military and government lawyers -- some principled, some whoring to please the powerful -- the guys at the top, the Preznit, Cheney, Addington, Rumsfeld, Feith, Wolfowitz, Cambone and so forth, all really thought that the executive could dispense with law in time of war. After all, another small potatoes whoring lawyer, John Yoo, had written a rationale for such overthrow of the rule of law. Who cared about a bunch of JAGs and bureaucrats?

The hearing was actually interesting, despite frequent stone walling. C-Span offers it here. Spencer Ackerman provided ongoing highlights at The Washington Independent. Emptywheel live blogged the testimony. Here's a snippet from low level military lawyer Diane Beaver who observed (and approved) the torture program at Guantanamo:

[Beaver:] ... If you had these reviews, these safeguards, I believed in my colleagues from the intelligence community. That's why I believe there was no violation of the law at Gitmo. Detainees were beaten to death at Bagram.

[Senator Claire McCaskill, D-MO:] It's a sad day in this hearing room when we say at least they weren't beaten to death.

Ready to vomit yet?

But seriously, why were U.S, authorities so very eager to torture their prisoners? Sure, there were probably some sickos in the military and clandestine intelligence ranks who got off on slamming around "enemies." And I don't think there is any doubt that ordinary soldiers thought they were getting revenge for 9/11. A recent McClatchy news report quotes former guards at the U.S. prison facility at Bagram in Afghanistan as saying just that: "they routinely beat their prisoners to retaliate for al Qaida's 9-11 attacks."

But what about the comfortable men in suits in their Washington offices who were so enthusiastic about ordering torture? Lederman, in the article cited above, says

In late 2002, interrogators at GTMO were growing increasingly frustrated ...

They wanted "actionable intelligence" and they weren't getting it.

But again, why did they think that even the tiny fraction of the unfortunate Afghans and other Muslims they had swept up across the Middle East who actually had any connection with terrorism could supply them any useful information? Al-Qaida was obviously dangerously competent; they'd have compartmentalized any information they had and, if a member of their network was captured, made sure to change their plans and behavior. Any serious reflection made it obvious that there was not likely to be much that any captive knew that would be helpful to the U.S.

So why did our rulers need to trash U.S. law and our treaty commitments to encourage, even order, their underlings to torture? I can't make out any motive except a kind of primitive racist incredulity. I think, behind the civilized veneer, our rulers' musings must have worked something like this: A bunch of uncivilized rag heads have pulled off an unimaginably successful attack on a symbol of U.S. world power. This was just not possible. They must have some secret organizational formula, some magic. They won't tell us. Maybe we can beat it out of them....

Who are the primitives?

Monday, June 16, 2008

WWKIP in Central Park

I'm not a knitter myself, but I'm partnered with an avid one, so I got a close look at World Wide Knit in Public (WWKIP) Day in Central Park in New York on Saturday. What's that, you ask? Perhaps a karass, the fingers of a Cat's Cradle.

But I should let a knitter explain:

World Wide Knit in Public Day was started in 2005 by Danielle Landes. It began as a way for knitters to come together and enjoy each other's company. Knitting is such a solitary act that it's easy to knit alone somewhere and sink into your work without thinking about all the other knitters out there. Neighbors could spend all their lives never knowing that the other knits. This a specific day to get out of your house and go to a local event (with your knitting in tow) just for you and people like you. Who knows you might even bump into your neighbor! Consider this a spark, to ignite a fire; getting all of the closeted knitters out into fresh air. About WWKIP

Yes -- they sit there and knit.

And converse with each other.

Some wisely brought chairs.

Most seemed to be having a great time.

Host Anne-Marie of Sit'n'Knit raffled off knitting goodies. I'm told that's a scale for weighing yarn.

The winner was thrilled.

WWKIP comes around annually. Look out for it in your neighborhood.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Of religious voters and Bishop Robinson's Storm

The U.S. electorate is an awful lot of people -- 130 million or maybe even more will vote in November 2008. Changes in the shape and behavior of such a large group don't occur easily. When I cite the news that the average age of a Democratic primary voter has decreased for about 52 in 2004 to 49 in 2008, it doesn't seem like a huge movement. But the change is large -- we're looking a different people voting, and, given what we know about generational opinions, people voting differently.

There's also been a fascinating shift in the political affiliation of at least some religious people. According to a study by the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College available for download here, changes are afoot in the political behavior of mainline Protestants. Everybody knows that (white) Evangelical Protestants have become the grassroots of the Republican Party over the last generation. Roman Catholics have tended to vote Democratic and still do, though less solidly.

Mainline Protestants -- those traditional denominations including Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and others that were the home of "respectable" U.S. religiosity throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century -- have made a major move in their affiliation in the last decade. Despite declining prominence, their adherents are still 25 percent of the electorate. These churches used be where solid bourgeois Republicans worshiped. As recently as 1992, 50 percent of these people identified as Republican as opposed to 32 percent Democratic. Not this year:

But, in 2008, Mainline Protestants are for the first time since at least the beginning of the New Deal more Democratic than Republican in their partisan identifications (46 percent to 37 percent, respectively).

Like the declining age of the electorate, apparently a small shift, but involving many voters.

The study goes on to pull out just who these mainliners are that are moving to a new party inclination. It uses the categories "traditionalists," "modernists" (I interpret that as ecclesiastical liberals) and "centrists" (all those movable moderates who usually avoid church controversies.)

... traditionalists remain almost as heavily Republican in 2008 as they did in 2004, while modernist Mainline Protestants continue to be heavily Democratic in their partisan identifications. However, there has been a large shift to the Democratic Party among centrist Mainline Protestants, as centrist mainliners went from being Republican in their partisan identifications in 2004 (46 percent Republican to 33 Democratic) to being Democratic in 2008 (28 percent Republican to 52 percent Democratic).

Good news for Democrats; what does it mean in their internal church politics, I wonder?

I was thinking about this while reading Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson's new book, In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God. This is not an earthshaking volume, though Robinson has undoubtedly been much shaken about on the ecclesiastical roller coaster ride he's endured since becoming Anglican-land's first openly gay Bishop. I'd call the book more sensible, calming, thoughtful and love-filled. You gotta like the guy (full disclosure, I have met him.)

Robinson was an early endorser of Senator Obama; he's from New Hampshire, so he got an early look. He has this to say about Christians and political participation:

I believe all Christians should get involved in politics. Just as "liturgy" is the worshipful work of the people, so is "politics" the work of the polis, the people, the body politic. As people in the world, Christians must assume their rightful role in helping shape the choices we make as a nation, as citizens of the world. ...We'll disagree of course on which candidates and approaches best speak to [our] issues; there's nothing wrong or fearful about that. We'll prefer different economic and diplomatic strategies, and the candidates who propose them; nothing wrong with that either. And then, as good citizens, we'll support and respect the will of the majority. That is what is great -- even miraculous -- about democracy.

I am drawn to the part about supporting and respecting the will of the majority. We don't trust each other to do that. We have reason to fear we'll be manipulated, our passions stirred, by politicians of every stamp. Granting respect to well-meaning folks with whom I disagree is hard; for example, I know I can't give respect to the result of the election of 2000. And I'm not over it. I cannot concede that the court-determined outcome was well-meaning or democratic.

But in a larger frame, Robinson is right -- unless most of us can find a way to agree to disagree without throwing out the other side, in our churches or in our democracy, our communities won't work. That's a tough message, so quietly stated as to sound simply clichéd. But can we do it?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A 1950s Father's Day

Thanks to my deceased father, I have no trouble with being a Father's Day skeptic. Mine suspected that the day was designed to sell something and he wanted none of it!

I suspect he had a point. A friend remembers celebrating the day in the 1950s by giving this item to her dad:

What's this?

Oh, a stand for reading the morning paper...

or shutting out the little wife, perhaps?

Some humor doesn't wear well.

Of candidates and computers

Months ago, Yahoo News asked Republican presidential hopefuls, "Mac or PC?" Huckabee, Paul, and Romney answered the question (though Romney straddled the computer divide as he was wont to do on contentious issues, suggesting he might switch from PC to Mac.)

John McCain demanded his own category. When it comes to using a computer, McCain said: "I'm an illiterate. I have to rely on my wife for all the assistance I can get."

You can see him explain this here.

Aside from highlighting in yet another arena McCain's dependence on his young, rich wife, the Republican's answer tells me he hasn't had a real job in some 25 years. Or rather, instead of a more ordinary job, his employment has been playing the role of "McCain." The part has had shifting themes and sometimes he ad-libs rather badly. But constructing an electable persona for himself -- part-hero, part kindly grand-dad -- has been his job so long he's out of touch with how people not playing a part all the time live.

I don't find the idea of putting someone in the Presidency who is out of touch with the most ordinary work and leisure experiences of most of us a very good idea. But mostly, I think the fact that a person so removed from conventional experience can get nominated points to one of the contradictions of our deformed democracy: the skills a candidate needs to run for office are nearly completely different than the skills an officeholder needs to govern.

Running for office is about putting across a convincing personal image and story that voters find attractive. That is, about acting, posturing, even if benignly. Governing, when successful, is about persuading the intractable parts of a huge, very unwieldy structure to work together to attain common ends that possibly benefit the common good or at least don't capsize the ship of state.

When I've served as a political consultant, I've been frustrated and infuriated by politicians who don't understand that, in campaign season, their policies matter a lot less than their role playing as The Candidate. Yes, they have to run around, and attend events, and shake hands, and pay attention to people that probably bore them -- that’s the job of a candidate.

McCain's ignorance of personal computers suggests he has been playing the "McCain" role non-stop for a long time. Apparently there weren't any breaks during which he acted like the rest of us -- perhaps researched something he needed to know or sent an email to his children. I find that slightly scary -- in a league with George Bush the Elder not ever having seen a scanner in a supermarket check out line in 1992.

One more reason to prefer Senator Obama; that guy has written books using computers, for goodness sakes.

H/t to Time Goes By.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Empire slightly impeded by Constitution

Justice Antonin Scalia -- a smart guy who uses his brain in the service of empire

Today's Supreme Court decision, ruling that Guantanamo prisoners (after six years of incarceration and torture) have the right to demand that the government show some reason to hold them (that's what habeas corpus means roughly translated from the legalese) is unequivocally a Good Thing.

And some of what the 5-4 judgment (authoritarian partisans dissenting) said was satisfying:

Even though the two political branches -- the President and Congress -- had agreed to take away the detainees' habeas rights, Kennedy said those branches do not have "the power to switch the Constitution on or off at will."


... because the Government chose to detain these prisoners at GTMO for the very purpose of avoiding a judicial check on the legality of the detentions, the Court will ensure that the constitutional guarantee extends to the naval base. Or as Gerry Neuman and Harold Koh put it in their amicus brief in Rasul: "The U.S. government should not be permitted to evade judicial scrutiny by transporting [prisoners] to Guantanamo instead of Puerto Rico."

Marty Lederman

Dick Cheney's hunting buddy, Justice Scalia, predictably waved the bloody shirt in dissent, predicting that Americans would get killed if these prisoners were allowed minimal legal rights.

Scalia would have been more intellectually honest -- I know, I know -- had he simply stated what he undoubtedly thinks: that the rules need to be thrown out and all power given to the political-military branches because the rules don't work anymore. But perhaps what is most risible in his dissent is his undying solicitude for Cuban sovereignty, this from a man who no doubt still remembers the Maine and whose deepest sentiments align with Noam Chomsky's observation that the US government acts as if it owned the world.

From that perspective the thrust of today's ruling is crystal clear: Very well, but in that case the Constitution will dog the government to the ends of the earth if need be.

"Occasional Observer"
Comment at Balkinization

Though I am not a lawyer, this does seem to be the nub of it. Bush/Cheney/Addington/Yoo claim unhindered power to do anything they please, anywhere in the world. They assert world empire. They do their best to keep the U.S. population in a panic that "excuses" any little excesses like (losing) wars of conquest. They've run, at least momentarily, into a judicial determination that if empire extends throughout the world, they must contend with (some, minor) legal process throughout the world.

It's a step. A baby step.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

An Iraqi view of Syria

Iraqi taxi entering Syria. "May God protect our country." Ulrike Putz photo. Der Spiegel

This report is from Ahmad Fadam, an Iraqi journalist working for the New York Times in Baghdad who recently passed through the neighboring country.

After spending three weeks in Syria with my family, I can say that it was a very strange feeling to be in that country. It is so similar to what Iraq used to be when Saddam was president -- the same order, the same political system and of course the same government and Baath party slogans, like to stand against the colonists and Zionism and liberating Palestine, which I used to hate. ...

A cab driver named Abu Zaki said to me: "We used to hate Bashar al-Assad, we used to hate having the son sitting on the chair and ruling after his father [Hafez al-Assad] but after what we saw happening in Iraq, we started thinking 'We don’t want to be in the same situation as you, and thank God we are not.'"

So what happened to Iraqi[s] was in the interest of the Arab rulers hated by their people.

This means that if what happened to Iraq had happened instead to some other Arab country, then maybe Saddam would still be alive. The Iraqis would have said that bad is better than worse, and accepted what they had. They would have said that dictatorship is not so bad after all.

So much for Bush's excellent adventure in democracy promotion. Fadam writes lots more about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees now in Syria. Their condition sounds a lot like what we heard in Damascus two years ago. Go read it all.

H/t for Syria Comment for pointing to this.