Thursday, July 31, 2008

TSA shifts blame to airlines

For several years, this blog tracked Transportation Security Administration (TSA) doings closely. (See No Fly Follies on the blog sidebar.) After all, I'd had my own rather dramatic brush with security theater as practiced during U.S. air travel.

In the past year everyone has been writing about it. No terrorists are impeded, but absurdities pile up. In just the last month, it took an act of Congress to get Nelson Mandela off the list. A CNN reporter tries to shed some light and gets hassled by "security." The ACLU has pointed out the famous list is now up 1,000,000 names. It's not just the elite media that have taken notice. The Muskogee Phoenix points out that implies there 133.3 people from the Oklahoma town of 40,000 on the list.

But today's news from USA Today surpasses previous heights of surrealism.

Airlines may face fines over mistaken terrorist IDs
WASHINGTON — The Transportation Security Administration is threatening to fine airlines up to $25,000 when they erroneously tell passengers they are on a terrorist watch list. ...

Airlines compare passenger names to government watch lists before a flight. When airlines find an apparent match, passengers cannot print a boarding pass at home or at airport kiosks and must go to an airline check-in counter with ID to show they are not a suspected terrorist. ...

"We will not tolerate anyone saying to a member of the public that you're on a watch list," [TSA Director Kip] Hawley told the House aviation subcommittee. "That undercuts the credibility of the system."

The mind reels. They create a list (and won't really tell anyone how they assemble it.) They demand the airlines enforce their list. Then they threaten the airlines with fines if the airlines tell people they've been snared by the list.

That's some mighty public, transparent ass-covering Mr. Hawley.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Now that's talking...

WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama told House Democrats on Tuesday that as president he would order his attorney general to scour White House executive orders and expunge any that "trample on liberty," several lawmakers said.

July 30, 2008

I don't exactly believe it. The charms of available executive authority are very great. But he's set a standard for us to hold him to.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lyndon Johnson, the Senate, and the people

When I've had occasional episodes of waxing enthusiastic about the Democratic Party no longer needing the South to assemble Congressional majorities, a wise friend has calmly reminded me -- "yes, but remember the Senate."

His point is that the framers of the Constitution created in the Senate a body that is profoundly anti-democratic, if we take the standard of democracy to be "one person, one vote." Moreover, it is a body whose own rules enable a few determined Senators to prevent a majority from getting anything done. Karl Kurtz reports that Donald Ritchie, an historian of the Senate, explained it this way:

the Senate is not a majoritarian body in a variety of ways. He pointed out that the 10 largest states are home to over half the population of the country, but they have only 20 of 100 votes in the Senate. He said that the requirement for 60 votes to shut off debate means that any controversial issue requires votes from both political parties in order to pass. This has become more difficult as the parties have polarized and there is greater unity within party caucuses. Partly because of the super-majority requirement, the Senate does the bulk of its business by unanimous consent. This results in giving both individual members (who can block unanimous consent) and the minority party (who can block the closure of debate) significant power in the Senate.

We've certainly seen plenty of failure to get anything done since the Democrats won a majority in 2006 and Harry Reid took over as Majority Leader. The Senate is an intentionally constructed logjam waiting to damn up the flow of majority demands.

Though the events chronicled in this massive volume took place half a century ago, Robert A. Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate paints a picture of a Senate not so different from Harry Reid's. When Johnson got there in 1950, he walked into a chamber in which a Southern Democratic caucus abetted by conservative Republicans blocked all progressive legislation, including the entire social program of the Truman administration. Above all this alliance had blocked any move to ensure African American civil rights for some seventy years.

Johnson did what no one in the current Democratic Senate seems to have any capacity or desire to do: he worked the system and the Senators to accumulate the power to move legislation through this most difficult body. Most of what he wanted to move was decidedly not liberal legislation: he thrived on deregulating natural gas and protecting tax breaks for oil companies.

Before Johnson took over the office in 1952, being the party leader of a Senate caucus was a thankless recipe for failure. Senators could not be herded; seniority ruled and determined minorities could stymie any unwelcome measure. Minority and majority leaders had little power and got blamed by all factions. Johnson managed through skillful cajolery, flattery and strategic bullying to get his Democrats moving in relative unison on many matters. So despite being in opposition to the wildly popular President Dwight Eisenhower, his Senate retained its pre-eminent role in government. And Johnson proved that a tough Senate leader could lead the place.

But Johnson's trajectory also shows that even the most seemingly autocratic and backward leader can be persuaded to use his power for progressive ends if powerful enough democratic forces are mobilized. In the mid-50s, Johnson had the Senate eating out of his majority leading hand -- but he wanted to be President. And a bruising failed attempt to win the Democratic nomination in 1956 taught him that unless he could make some measure of peace with liberals, he didn't have a chance on the national stage.

So in 1957, he set out to get some kind of civil rights bill passed. And he got a civil rights bill. The legislation was a pitiful baby step, but Johnson had showed that a Texan with all the prejudices of the South, a man who routinely got his own way in all things legislative, could be forced, in the service of his ambition, to go exactly where he didn't want to go.

This is a lesson worth internalizing. The most ambitious pols may look like the toughest nuts for progressives to crack, but they are also the ones most likely to respond to organized, unrelenting, committed popular pressures. Unlike the time-servers and the merely venal ones, they need popular approval, at least periodically.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Afghanistan is not the "good war"

Kudos to Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange and Code Pink for calling out the peace movement for neglecting Afghanistan.

in Afghanistan the peace movement has been missing in action. This has come back to hit us in the face during Barack Obama’s Middle East trip, where he called for sending 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan. John McCain, not to be one-upped in putting our young men and women in harm’s way, is also calling for an escalation of the Afghan war.

In either possible future administration, folks who want the U.S. out of the empire business are going to have to improve our understanding of and demands about U.S. military moves in Central Asia. That's where the war is going.

Ever the historian, I find it worth thinking about how we, peace movement folks, got the point of being so poorly prepared for the struggle ahead.
  • Though peace-oriented folks may not have agreed, the majority in the U.S. and around the world never looked on the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of the Taliban as a "war of choice." Though the Taliban offered to give up Bin Laden if the U.S. produced evidence against him, the United Nations and world opinion considered their overthrow a legitimate response to 9/11.
  • For many in the U.S. and elsewhere, the Taliban seemed more genuinely an incarnation of evil than Saddam Hussein. Saddam was just a garden variety brutal dictator of a sort frequently tolerated or even lionized by U.S. foreign policy; the Taliban were seemed exotic fanatics, uniquely vicious to high art (the Bamiyan Buddhas) and their own women.
  • The doings of Bushco and the struggle against their authoritarian agenda for our country monopolized our attention. Above all, when they made Iraq the centerpiece of their new order, we also focused there.
Enough already. We need to turn our attention back to Afghanistan.

This should not be impossible. There's a section of elite opinion (here's Brzezinski) that thinks the empire blew its chances in Afghanistan early on and that further involvement will only mean more dead Afghans and NATO troops for no one's benefit. He hopes maybe the West can bribe local warlords to settle down and cut back on the opium trade.

Moreover Europe would love to get out. The EU doesn't thrive on war.

The peace movement needs to work on getting the message out that all this war in Afghanistan doesn't really have a strategic goal. What do we think we are doing there? Is it anything that anyone should have to die for?

The U.S. may still have a legitimate interest in capturing Osama Bin Laden. 9/11 was a crime. But he's in Pakistan anyway.

The peace movement needs to raise, over and over again, what is the Afghan war for? We can't be satisfied with platitudes and there is no sign we are doing any good for the suffering population there. Time to stop.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Security" goons oust older lesbian from HRC dinner

Last night the Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRC) held a fundraising dinner in San Francisco. Many local activists consider HRC a Washington Beltway outfit that rakes in liberal LGBT donations, but which betrayed part of its constituency last fall. HRC agreed then to exclude from proposed employment discrimination legislation (known as ENDA) protections for people whose gender presentation is not conventional. That is, HRC adopted the stance that it is fine to be gay -- but just don't be too queer. And certainly don't expect legal protection if you are transgender or gender-transgressive.

For more on the controversy, see this article by San Francisco Pride at Work, an LGBT labor organization.

Greatly to the credit of most San Francisco LGBT activists and even the city's progressive political establishment, civil rights for only some of the community does not win a lot of local friends. And so the HRC dinner was greeted with a boycott and, outside the hotel, a "Left Out Party: A Genderful Gala." The HRC's original keynote speaker, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villagraigosa, withdrew on learning of the protest.

My friend Catherine Cusic, a 63 year old lesbian activist who is currently a vice-president of the Harvey Milk Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Democratic Club, figured that some people attending the dinner might not know what the controversy was about. So she bought a ticket and attended the dinner. She describes what happened to her:

Around 7:00 I sat at table #72 (which was in the back row). My table had a few nice men who asked me what the issue was about ENDA. They really didn't know.

I listened to [speaker] Diego Sanchez’s speech. During [HRC Executive Director]Joe Solomonese’s talk I left my seat and walked towards the tables in front of me with the intent of distributing printed materials. At this point 2-3 large men accosted me. I don’t remember their exact words but I quietly said that I had bought a ticket and had the right to be there. I began to place printed material on a table when I was grabbed roughly by at least 2 men (who I think were behind me). One of them put my right arm in an armlock behind my back and up and bent my right wrist with tremendous force. I was also held by both arms (with force enough around both upper arms that I had bruises within 20 minutes).

At some point I was knocked to the ground and dragged out of the dining area into the outer room where they lifted me to my feet but did not let go. I then said to them: "let me go, I will leave." (We were walking to a stairwell). They did not let go and dragged me off my feet again and down the stairs to the exit on Post street.

I have huge bruises on my arms and a shoulder that feels like it was half pulled out of its socket. Years ago I was thrown out of the St Francis by SFPD and they didn't hurt me at all. These are a company of private goons hired by Human Rights Campaign to police their event.

Still in some shock from her treatment, Cusic is exploring whether private security guards can be charged with assault.

Those who fought have their day

The Iraq Paper Scissors project held an open house at the West Tisbury Grange Hall on Martha's Vineyard yesterday. We were only able to drop by for a minute, but it was heartening to see the range of activities by and for Iraq veterans who need healing as well as to protest the ongoing war.

The project grew out of vet Drew Cameron's long experience of paper making. After his tour of duty and discharge from the Army, he had the idea of making the fabric his uniform into paper.

One day, Cameron put on his Army uniform for the first time since he left the military and began to cut it off his body. "My heart started beating fast," he reports. "It felt both wrong and liberating. I started ripping it off. The purpose was to make a complete transformation." ...

Somewhere along the way, it occurred to Cameron and Matott to turn the uniform into paper... Cameron gathered seven young veterans at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., where they cut a uniform (donated by a Marine who had worn it in Iraq) into small pieces, cooked it, beat it into pulp, and formed it into sheets of artist-quality paper.

Then they started to make art, some on video, some as drawings, some as collage.

Here is one of the products on view yesterday.

Detail from the piece above.

This vet artist was fascinated with flags.

Outside Iraq Veterans Against the War purveyed the merchandise of protest.

While yet further outside, the Martha's Vineyard Peace Council set up the Eyes Wide Open display of boots memorializing fallen Massachusetts soldiers.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A reporter's take on the Court

For three decades, Linda Greenhouse reported on the U.S. Supreme Court for the New York Times. A week after retiring from that post to go on to Yale Law School, she spoke about the court at the Chilmark Library on Martha's Vineyard.

The event was standing room only -- those who had attended both were pleased to conclude that Greenhouse had proved even a bigger draw than Professor Alan Dershowitz advocating for U.S. torture several weeks before.

It hadn't required retirement for attentive consumers of news to discover that Greenhouse had some sensible opinions about what she was covering. Back in 2006, NPR reported some remarks from a speech.

The government, Ms. Greenhouse [charged], "turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world -- [such as] the U.S. Congress."

She also observed a "sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism. To say that these last few years have been dispiriting is an understatement."

For this candor, she got a reprimand from the New York Times Public Editor. The Times doesn't seem to mind reporters who pimp for C.I.A. assets, but doesn't look kindly on remarking the Emperor's nakedness.

In her Chilmark talk, Greenhouse amplified some of the themes she had explored in a review article and for readers of a Times blog.
  • On "preference drift": In the blog discussion, she endorsed the suggestion from political scientists that new justices whose previous experience had been outside the beltway -- in the executive, and especially the Department of Justice -- were more likely to change their opinions than Washington insiders. In the talk, she suggested that she could see differences between George W. Bush appointees John Roberts and Samuel Alito that suggested they might have slightly difference trajectories as justices. Roberts, coming out of the Reagan and Bush I Justice Departments, "thinks like an advocate, as if he still had a case to win." Alito is a very conservative figure, but he seems to think more like the judge he was previously and, she thinks, might be more likely to change somewhat in office.
  • On "swing" Justice Anthony Kennedy: She finds him a little mystifying, she wrote in her article.

    Speaking personally, it's hard to reconcile his capacious understanding of the human condition in his majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 gay rights case, with the patronizing and counter-factual attitude toward women that suffuses his majority opinion in Gonzales v. Carhart, last year's so-called partial-birth abortion case.

    At Chilmark, she added that Kennedy is "not as deep as he thinks he is." He can be "a rigid, categorical thinker." Nonetheless, she reminded the audience that Kennedy is the Justice we got instead of Robert Bork and thus he has made an important difference in the Court's stances over the last 20 years.
  • On the court and evolving public opinion. In her article, she described the interplay of the people and the ultimate arbiter of legality this way:

    The court can only do so much. It can lead, but the country does not necessarily follow.

    In fact, it is most often the Supreme Court that is the follower. It ratifies or consolidates change rather than propelling it, although in the midst of heated debate over a major case, it can often appear otherwise. ... I’m simply offering my empirical observation that the court lives in constant dialogue with other institutions, formal and informal, and that when it strays too far outside the existing political or social consensus, the result is a palpable tension both inside and outside the court.

    In her blog responses and her talk, she pointed to the trajectory of rulings on the Guantanamo cases as showing the back and forth between branches of government that informs the court's rulings. She was not willing to say that the foot dragging and jurisdiction shifting practiced by the Bush administration in "security" cases amounted to any kind of Constitutional or "rule of law" crisis. If the Guantanamo inmates believed in law and justice (which they probably don't), they might beg to differ.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Ready for healing?

This morning I read a sensible protest about the contemporary U.S. political culture from Todd Gitlin:

Political so-called leadership blusters on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and purveys fear on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. For eight years now, the country has found this moral cowardice acceptable. It's enough to make you believe that the nation is in a fever of individual self-seeking, a miasma of moral default, as long as its political leaders fear to say ringingly today that we are not afraid.

He's ready to be over this -- so am I.

Last night I saw amazing evidence that we needn't be mired in post 9/11 bluster, bombast and bullshit forever. Would you believe it is possible to write a successful light comedy about how the family of an executive who escaped the World Trade Center lurches toward putting their lives back together? Deborah Zoe Laufer has done just that in "End Days," currently being produced at the Vineyard Playhouse. Here's a plot summary.

Sixteen year old Rachel Stein is having a bad year. Her father hasn’t changed out of his pajamas since 9/11. Her mother has begun a close, personal relationship with Jesus. Her new neighbor, a sixteen-year-old Elvis impersonator, has fallen for her hard. And the Apocalypse is coming Wednesday. Her only hope is that Stephen Hawking will save them all.

This isn't high art and probably wouldn't survive deep thought, but it is laugh-out-loud funny. We're beginning to heal, if we are willing.

Holding up pretty well...

My latest "Gay and Gray" column discusses this book over at Time Goes By. Lots has changed since 1982 -- and some things remain constant.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Intelligence in presidents

Good to know these folks were out for Obama's Berlin speech, reminding him of people's expectations.

A vivid memory from 1993: I was commuting across the Bay Bridge, listening to a new President deliver his first State of the Union address. He was very impressive. He obviously understood the policy implications of every topic he touched on. After a senile Reagan and a tongue-tied Bush, his obvious intelligence and competence was luminous.

I said to myself: "I'm going to hate this guy."

Why you may ask to did I have this reaction to Bill Clinton? Because the 1992 campaign with its theatrical execution of a retarded Arkansas prisoner, its staged Sister Souljah moment, had convinced me that, glad as I was to have a Democrat in the White House, this one had no political morals. And without principle, brains make a ruler worse, not better.

This morning I read with interest this from M.J. Rosenberg at TPM Café.

I think I have read every word Barack Obama uttered on his visits to Israel and Palestine and I'm struck by his ability to navigate this tricky issue with such dexterity. ...

So what's Obama's secret? He's smart. He reads. He knows his sh*t. ...

I just talked to a friend who saw Obama in Israel. I asked him what his friends in the Israeli media are saying. "What are they saying? They are saying that he's the next President. And they think he's the smartest American politician they have seen yet."

Now Rosenberg is an over-the-top Obama partisan and after the last seven years the ability to walk and chew gum is enough to make a presidential aspirant look like a step up -- but Obama does seem, like that last Democrat, to be genuinely smart. (That Israelis are so enamored of him doesn't bode well to me for any justice in that part of the world, but we'll see.)

Again -- here's a tidbit from the hortatory speech in Berlin today, also genuinely smart.

If we could create NATO to face down the Soviet Union, we can join in a new and global partnership to dismantle the [terror] networks that have struck in Madrid and Amman; in London and Bali; in Washington and New York.

The smart bit is inserting the one almost respectable (not grossly authoritarian or plutocratic) Middle Eastern ally in the list of states needing to partner against terrorists. A staffer may have come up with it, but Obama was smart enough to put it in without hitting a false note.

So am I going to hate this smart Democrat? Depends on what he does with power. He has shown in the FISA fight that the issues raised by the national surveillance state are not very important to him. I don't trust him to put people before empire, though he clearly has some sense that U.S. hegemony is running into limits. There will be massive financial constraints on what he can accomplish domestically. He seems to understand that climate change is real and threatening.

But no, though I easily trust him, Obama's obvious smarts don't horrify me. This is a novel feeling about a potential president and it is very pleasant.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The backwash of war crimes endures

The arrest of Radovan Karadzic yesterday seems both a belated nod toward justice (wonder if aggressive warriors Bush and Cheney are noticing?) and yet another indication of how tortuous progress toward an international rule of law necessarily is. Karadzic was the leader of the Bosnian Serbs 1992-1995 during their all-too-effective attempt to "ethnically cleanse" Bosnia of Muslims and Croats. He has been a fugitive from a war crimes indictment by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia ever since.

I have to confess that I pretty much didn't do the work during the 1990s to try to understand the vicious wars that followed on the break up of Yugoslavia. I had good excuses. I was busy working against a series of populist racist initiatives in California and against Bill Clinton's choice to tear up the federal safety net for poor mothers in the name of "welfare reform." Moreover I was guilty of an intellectual fault I'm sometimes too eager to point out in others: I had worked hard to understand a series of U.S. imperial adventures in Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America. The ongoing Balkan horror story was about white Europeans and didn't seem to be directly something the U.S. had brought about -- my paradigms for looking at events didn't fit. I'd have to learn a lot of new, hard stuff to make any sense of these events. I looked away instead.

An Obama administration is likely to be full of people whose paradigms were formed looking at the failings and (few) successes of international response to the Balkan disaster. Adviser Samantha Power is the most prominent example. If we want to know what they are likely to champion, those of use who attend to U.S. international behavior would be wise to study the history of 1990s.

To that end, I've been reading Elizabeth Neuffer's The Key to My Neighbor's House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda. I would highly recommend this approachable, human, journalistic account of the 1990's two most horrific genocides. (Did I really just write that sentence?) Neuffer had the guts to go where the killing was fresh and an ability to get people to tell her the abominable things they had survived. She also sympathetically reported on the stumbling efforts of create courts to bring perpetrators to justice -- and the search for reconciliation that would somehow reconstitute societies blown apart by violence. No big conclusions here -- but lots to mull over. She wrote, explaining why she had presevered in writing about these horrors:

That tyrants are punished, that societies heal, that individuals find justice are the responsibilities of us all -- in order that they not become our fate.

Elizabeth Neuffer became one of the early civilian casualties of the current U.S. war on Iraq when, while reporting for the Boston Globe near Samarra in May 2003, the car in which she was riding struck a guardrail and turned over.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It's a big country

Today, after nearly a year of logging my running/trudging mileage at the National Health Survey out of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I finally made it out of Kentucky. My route is the black line on the map above. In 1084 miles, I've only crossed two states, but I'm chugging along.

It will probably take me about three more years make it across the country, though hopefully only a few weeks to cross Illinois.

Every few weeks I change the little picture of my recent location on the sidebar here. The Health Survey's photos run to bucolic -- and hot looking, as if they were all taken at mid-summer. Summer or winter, I try to keep going...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Leaving the sinking ship US Occupation

That was mosque before a U.S. air strike in June. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg, New York Times

Under vigorous pressure from U.S. journalists and some military officers, the government finally has a program to facilitate immigration visas for Iraqis whose life expectancy in their home country has been shortened by their work for the occupiers. Apparently we aren't going to leave them all to be slaughtered when we finally pull up stakes.

Early June, the American Embassy in Baghdad met with bureau managers of the U.S.-based companies who work in Iraq and have Iraqi employees, especially the media outlets, to tell them about the new resettlement program.

Some of these managers didn't tell their employers about this program, fearing their offices will be empty, while others did....

Now the majority of the Iraqi [employees] are applying for this program whatever they are, from drivers to guards to cooks and senior employ[ee]s, while others are still reluctant including me as I fear to end up as a taxi driver or worker at a fuel station or vendor at a store...but still mulling it.

This fever is really frightening some American companies especially those who depend a lot on Iraqis and that has forced some of these managers to spread rumors in their offices that the one who applies for this program will be eligible to be dismissed when they find an alternative for him because his company will no longer count on him....

Baghdad's Kassakhoon,
July 12, 2008

There's a picture of whatever shreds of mutual trust exist fraying before wary eyes. It looks like most of the people in these positions will do anything they can to get out before the end of Bush's "time horizon," Obama's "timeline for withdrawal," or "al-Maliki's "sometime in 2010." It's not exactly people crowding onto the last choppers out of Saigon, but the prudent are making their getaways. Poor Iraq.

Scenes from the Aquinnah Music Festival

Martha's Vineyard has a new community radio station, WVVY, 93.7 fm. In need of funds and fun, what better way to raise a little scratch than hold a day long show featuring local bands?

The crowd under Aquinnah lighthouse was spread thin in the natural ampitheater, but happy to be there.

Island bluesman Maynard Silva died three days earlier and the festival became his memorial.

The Joel Zoss trio looked a lot like many in the audience -- some of us have been around awhile.

So had the announcer.

There were some younger specimens.

And plenty of playful human art.

Dancing below the stage.

Hoop -- where are you going with that child?

Pooped at last. Time to go home...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Some people aren't supposed to vote

Guess these folks were too good at registering new citizens.

The county [Santa Clara in California] registered 3,140 new voters at naturalization ceremonies in the four months before the new policy went into effect, but only 557 new voters registered in the four months since. Registrars signed up as many as 65 percent of new citizens before the change, but just 8 percent registered at the most recent ceremony in June.

San Jose Mercury News,
July 19, 2008

And what was the change? Instead of giving the citizens-to-be their registration cards before the ceremony, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services decided the papers must be withheld until afterwards -- and then the new citizens should be rushed out of the building.

Before the policy was changed, the new citizens were shown a video about how to fill out the cards and used the down time during the ceremony to get it done.

Citizenship and Immigration Services has come up with two explanations for its restrictive policy change. First they said they were responding to a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security that required the new procedure. Local employees said there had been "a memo" from Washington. They also claimed logistical problems because the venue for the swearing in has to accommodate three ceremonies a day.

Perhaps what really worries someone is this:

... because of the huge jump in the number of citizenship applications last year, the agency expects to naturalize - in Santa Clara County - as many as 10,000 new citizens in special ceremonies in August.

New citizen voters do change the electorate.

Looking ahead to "after Bush"

Lots of well-known progressive bloggers are at Netroots Nation in Austin today. Good for them. Some of us couldn't make it. Nate Silver of Fivethirtyeight makes an interesting observation.

The focus is more on long-term organization and party-building, House and Senate races, and governance if and when Obama takes office [than on the Presidential race].

Good. Having watched the Democrats in Congress flounder since 2006, we need to be organizing ourselves about these matters now.

My friend Brendan Smith and his writing buddy Jeremy Brecher have contributed to thinking about "after" in a new Nation article laying out nine reasons to investigate war crimes. Their reasons are worth remarking. Here they are with my comments [in brackets.]

Here are nine reasons why we must not let bygones be bygones:

1. World peace cannot be achieved without human rights and accountability.

According to Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunals, "The ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, which are inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is to make statesmen responsible to law." Moving in that direction will be impossible unless such responsibility applies to the statesmen of the world's most powerful countries, and above all the world's sole superpower... [First we have to convince the people of the United States that peace itself is a good, devoutly to be wished for, and worked for. One of the lessons of the Bush regime is that too many of us don't know this. We haven't had a war on our soil, except to seize Indian land, since the 1860s. The awful, but more theatrical than materially damaging, attacks of 9/11 were enough to throw us for a loop. Most of the world has more immediate experience of war and knows viscerally that peace is a value to cherished and nourished.]

2. The rule of law is central to our democracy.

Most Americans believe that even the highest officials are bound by law. ... [Powerful people always think that doesn't apply to them; they are special exceptions. Societies work when the powerful are wrong. This one is not currently working.]

3. We must not allow precedents to be set that promote war crimes.

Executive action unchallenged by Congress changes the way our law is interpreted. According to Robert Borosage, writing for Huffington Post, "If Bush's extreme assertions of power are not challenged by the Congress, they end up not simply creating new law, they could end up rewriting the Constitution itself." [Hey, aren't we supposed to use the amendment procedure to change the Constitution?]

4. We must restore the principles of democracy to our government.

The claim that the President, as commander-in-chief, can exercise the unlimited powers of a king or dictator strikes at the very heart of our democracy. ... Countries like Chile can attest that the restoration of democracy and the rule of law requires more than voting a new party into office -- it requires a rejection of impunity for the criminal acts of government officials. [We're not electing a warrior general this fall. We're electing a politician who represents and in good times leads us in ways that serve the country. Generals are employees of the country. Presidents are employees and leaders of free people. When they get uppity and ignore the people, they should get tossed.]

5. We must forestall an imperialist resurgence.

When they are out of office, the advocates of imperial expansion and global domination have proven brilliant at lying in wait to undermine and destroy their opponents. ... [I am very concerned with this principle. They need to be locked up or at least permanently excluded from legitimate politics.]

6. We must have national consensus on the real reasons for the Bush Administration's failures.

[Otherwise they'll be selling the stab in the back crap as long as they live. And they hang around -- they still think they would have won in Vietnam except the American people failed them.]

7. We must restore America's damaged reputation abroad.

...To establish international legitimacy, we must demonstrate that we are capable of holding our leaders to account. [Obama seems a natural for the role of restoring US reputation -- but he'll need some substance, not just glitz.]

8. We must lay the basis for major change in US foreign policy.

...The American people must understand why international cooperation rather than pursuit of global domination is necessary to their own security. And other countries must be convinced that we really mean it. [Tough stuff. We actually might get the first part if only because our once globally dominant economy no longer delivers. But will the rest of the world put up with us?]

9. We must deter future US war crimes.

The specter of more war crimes haunts our future. Rumors continue to circulate about an American or American-backed Israeli attack on Iran. ... Holding war criminals accountable will require placing the long-term well-being of our country and the world ahead of short-term political advantage. [When we were wealthy and powerful enough, we sometimes understood that honey beats vinegar hands down. Think the Marshall plan. Even, think AIDS funding for Africa. If this country wants positive roles to play, it can find them.]

These writers are pointing to an uphill struggle that serious progressives are going to have to wage come 2009, whoever gets elected. Another Nation writer, Ari Melber, reports from Netroots Nation that holding the criminals accountable is not much on the agenda of at least some Obama advisers.

Cass Sunstein, an adviser to Barack Obama from the University of Chicago Law School, cautioned against prosecuting criminal conduct from the current Administration. Prosecuting government officials risks a "cycle" of criminalizing public service, he argued, and Democrats should avoid replicating retributive efforts like the impeachment of President Clinton -- or even the "slight appearance" of it.

Oh yeah, the "take it off the table" route. But all is not hopeless. Not long after Melber posted that, Sunstein got back to him:

Update: Sunstein emailed to emphasize that he also said and believes that "egregious crimes should not be ignored."

In general, "our leaders" are better at remembering that they are supposed to enforce the law when we keep banging away at them to do their jobs. Lots of work ahead.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The economy and the peace movement

Yesterday a McClatchy News headline screamed: "Just in time for Obama, economy becomes Issue No. 1."

This week, 53 percent of Americans ranked the economy their top concern heading into the election, while 16 percent ranked Iraq their chief worry, according to a national survey by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. In May 2007, the priorities were the opposite, with 57 percent naming Iraq the top issue and 5 percent naming the economy.

The focus of the story was on how the shift in public concern is supposed to aid the Democrat. And it may.

But I have to wonder whether this is a misreading of the results. What if most people in the United States, vividly aware as we are of the painful mess our economy is in, blame a good part of the economic pain on the war? This was certainly true in April. A CBS News poll asked, "How much has the Iraq war contributed to U.S. economic problems?" Fully 67 percent answered "a lot." By and large, it looks as if the U.S. people believe the war is a big part of why gas, food, and even imported Wal-Mart plastic goods cost more. They may not understand what pushing the country into ever deeper debt for the good of the Republican plutocratic base has done to the value of our money, but they know something big has been done wrong and the war is at the center of the mess.

Tom Hayden just put out a good essay on how all this interacts with the election. For the elite imperial consensus, citizen awareness that we've been had creates a "crisis of democracy," both in occupied Iraq and in the United States.

... the electorates in both countries are threatening to topple the principle warmakers at the ballot box.

Such a popular democratic outcome is intolerable to al-Maliki's circle, to the Pentagon, to the Republicans to neo-conservatives, and apparently unthinkable to the mainstream media. ...

The most that can be expected at this stage are November electoral mandates for peace and a speedy withdrawal from both American and Iraqi voters. This will not be easy, despite the peace majorities entrenched in both countries.

I think Hayden has nailed this. It's going to be hard to get our guy to follow through with his withdrawal promise. On the other hand, the underlying understanding the people at large have -- the knowledge that empire on a global scale is no longer affordable -- is right. So a President Obama will be pushed back by reality to scale down faraway wars.

Every iteration of a peace movement in my lifetime has tried to tell the U.S. people that our wars undermined their economic wellbeing. For all our efforts, it has always been a hard message to sell. Getting it required making connections that were too remote from daily life. I don't think we've sold it much better in the context of the Iraq war, but it seems that people more and more do "get it," no thanks to the peace movement.

Reality bites. Hard.

Flushing of the effluent of 43

It's nice to know I'll have something positive to vote on this November. Thanks to the efforts of the Presidential Memorial Commission of San Francisco, I'll be able to recommend renaming the building pictured here.

Yes we did! The San Francisco Department of Elections has qualified our initiative to rename the sewage plant in honor of George W Bush for the Nov 4th general election.

San Francisco Republicans are usually described in news coverage as "embarrassed" by the measure. But we don't really have many Republicans -- something like 13 percent of city voters at last count.

San Francisco is is changing. High land values and sky-high housing costs are driving out folks with children and many of the people who do the ordinary work. But I don't think San Francisco yet contains enough people who want the city to be taken seriously to defeat this. I could be wrong.

Maybe while we're at it, we could propose Nicaraguans name this one in their country after Ronnald Reagan?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Think you've seen it all in campaigns?

This just has to be the most creative campaign gambit I've ever seen. And one of the most enjoyable. Click on the picture above and enjoy. Entirely work-safe.

H/t Daniel De Groot.

Pictures of security

Though it is currently 80 degrees warm here, this is what security looks like in the country.

The other accommodation we're making way out here to current imperatives is "thinking like it is still World War II." That means responding to contemporary gas prices by carefully planning trips to town to maximize the number of errands that can be done on one go. Simple, but something all of us will do more in an energy-scarce future.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

That New Yorker cover
"My gut squirmed"

From a comment at Michelle Obama Watch:

When I saw that picture, and the pulp-style branding of Mrs. Obama, I had an uncomfortable visceral reaction. Literally, my gut squirmed. It was painful. This is the reaction that the artist should have had or had and foolishly stifled with the words “Well I’m fighting these perceptions with this work so it’s okay.”

This “work of art” is the product of an adult who has lost touch with their intuition, dare I say their emotional humanity. The world is a cold set of 1’s and 0’s of right and wrong, missing the heart.

They figure, “Well because my intentions are good, this isn’t harmful - you see I’m actually making fun of this sort of mentality.” But they don’t get that they are adding to a landscape already glutted with harmful caricatures and stereotypes and ignorant responses without adding to the dialogue.

I wonder whether people like artist Barry Blitt who drew this thing and considers it "satire" ever realize that idle "cleverness" reinforcing hateful narratives injures real human beings?

Sure, the Obamas presumably have hides like rhinos -- anyone fool enough to run for ruler of the empire has to. But the stereotypes used to demean them here have real world consequences everyday for African Americans and U.S. Muslims, consequences like assaults, police harassment and worse.
Local note: the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial cartoonist goes to bat for his fellow "artist" in an oped today. Here's his lede:

"I don't get it." Along with "that's not funny" and "there has been a fatwa declared against you," they are the words any cartoonist least wants to hear.

I can only assume Tom Meyer wants people to think the Obamas are closet Muslims, religious terrorists. This isn't just cool snark. It is vicious racism.

Monday, July 14, 2008

What happened at Postville

There is nothing obscure about this document -- I downloaded it from a link [pdf] within a New York Times editorial. I offer excerpts here so that a few more of us cannot claim we do not know this is happening.

Then began the saddest procession I have ever witnessed, which the public would never see, because cameras were not allowed past the perimeter of the compound (only a few journalists came to court the following days, notepad in hand). Driven single-file in groups of 10, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, chains dragging as they shuffled through, the slaughterhouse workers were brought in for arraignment, sat and listened through headsets to the interpreted initial appearance, before marching out again to be bused to different county jails, only to make room for the next row of 10. They appeared to be uniformly no more than 5 ft. tall, mostly illiterate Guatemalan peasants with Mayan last names, some being relatives (various Tajtaj, Xicay, Sajché, Sologüí...), some in tears; others with faces of worry, fear, and embarrassment. They all spoke Spanish, a few rather laboriously. It dawned on me that, aside from their Guatemalan or Mexican nationality, which was imposed on their people after Independence, they too were Native Americans, in shackles. They stood out in stark racial contrast with the rest of us as they started their slow penguin march across the makeshift court.

The author of this account, Erik Camayd-Freixas, has served for 23 years as a certified Spanish interpreter for federal courts. He teaches interpretation at Florida International University. In May he was called upon to translate in proceedings subsequent to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on Agriprocessors Inc, the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse and meat packing plant located in the town of Postville, Iowa. The raid rocked the town of some 2300.

At the local high school, only three of the 15 Latino students came back on Tuesday, while at the elementary and middle school, 120 of the 363 children were absent. In the following days the principal went around town on the school bus and gathered 70 students after convincing the parents to let them come back to school; 50 remained unaccounted for. Some American parents complained that their children were traumatized by the sudden disappearance of so many of their school friends. The principal reported the same reaction in the classrooms, saying that for the children it was as if ten of their classmates had suddenly died.

Because what he participated in seemed such a mockery of justice clothed in the appearance of legality, he chose to make public a 14 page account of what happened in Postville.

Later in the day, three groups of women were brought, shackled in the same manner. One of them, whose husband was also arrested, was released to care for her children, ages two and five, uncertain of their whereabouts. Several men and women were weeping, but two women were particularly grief stricken. One of them was sobbing and would repeatedly struggle to bring a sleeve to her nose, but her wrists shackled around her waist simply would not reach; so she just dripped until she was taken away with the rest. The other one, a Ukrainian woman, was held and arraigned separately when a Russian telephonic interpreter came on. She spoke softly into a cellular phone, while the interpreter told her story in English over the speakerphone. Her young daughter, gravely ill, had lost her hair and was too weak to walk. She had taken her to Moscow and Kiev but to no avail. She was told her child needed an operation or would soon die. She had come to America to work and raise the money to save her daughter back in Ukraine.

The workers picked up in the raid were indeed undocumented. Many had bought false Social Security cards from unscrupulous fixers in the U.S. If they were lucky, the numbers were just made up. But nearly 300 were unlucky enough to be using numbers that belonged to someone else. They were charged with felony identity theft and got the full treatment.

The client, a Guatemalan peasant afraid for his family, spent most of that time weeping at our table, in a corner of the crowded jailhouse visiting room. How did he come here from Guatemala? "I walked." What? "I walked for a month and ten days until I crossed the river." We understood immediately how desperate his family's situation was. He crossed alone, met other immigrants, and hitched a truck ride to Dallas, then Postville, where he heard there was sure work. He slept in an apartment hallway with other immigrants until employed. He had scarcely been working a couple of months when he was arrested. Maybe he was lucky: another man who began that Monday had only been working for 20 minutes.

The identity theft charges were a hammer that forced the arrested workers to plea down to 5 month jail sentences. The charges would not have held up if they had fought them as no actual theft was intended or performed. But fighting the charges would have meant waiting around in jail for 2 years while their families starved.

"Knowingly" and "intent" are necessary elements of the charges, but most of the clients we interviewed did not even know what a Social Security number was or what purpose it served. This worker simply had the papers filled out for him at the plant, since he could not read or write Spanish, let alone English. But the lawyer still had to advise him that pleading guilty was in his best interest. He was unable to make a decision. "You all do and undo," he said. "So you can do whatever you want with me." To him we were part of the system keeping him from being deported back to his country, where his children, wife, mother, and sister depended on him. He was their sole support and did not know how they were going to make it with him in jail for 5 months. None of the "options" really mattered to him. Caught between despair and hopelessness, he just wept. He had failed his family, and was devastated. I went for some napkins, but he refused them. I offered him a cup of soda, which he superstitiously declined, saying it could be "poisoned." His Native American spirit was broken and he could no longer think.

Even the judges were trapped into confirming injustice.

It works like this. By handing down the inflated charge of "aggravated identity theft," which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 2 years in prison, the government forced the defendants into pleading guilty to the lesser charge and accepting 5 months in jail. Clearly, without the inflated charge, the government had no bargaining leverage, because the lesser charge by itself, using a false Social Security number, carries only a discretionary sentence of 0- 6 months. The judges would be free to impose sentence within those guidelines, depending on the circumstances of each case and any prior record. Virtually all the defendants would have received only probation and been immediately deported. In fact, the government's offer at the higher end of the guidelines (one month shy of the maximum sentence) was indeed no bargain. What is worse, the inflated charge, via the binding 11(C)(1)(c) Plea Agreement, reduced the judges to mere bureaucrats, pronouncing the same litany over and over for the record in order to legalize the proceedings, but having absolutely no discretion or decision-making power.

All the arrested worker knew was that they had been caught up in a cruel web of punishment. Neither they nor their lawyers had any wiggle room. Effectively, ICE legal tactics made undocumented work itself a crime, though no statute does this.

But with the promise of faster deportation, their ignorance of the legal system, and the limited opportunity to consult with counsel before arraignment, all the workers, without exception, were led to waive their 5th Amendment right to grand jury indictment on felony charges. Waiting for a grand jury meant months in jail on an immigration detainer, without the possibility of bail. So the attorneys could not recommend it as a defense strategy. Similarly, defendants have the right to a status hearing before a judge, to determine probable cause, within ten days of arraignment, but their Plea Agreement offer from the government was only good for seven days. Passing it up, meant risking 2 years in jail. As a result, the frivolous charge of identity theft was assured never to undergo the judicial test of probable cause. Not only were defendants and judges bound to accept the Plea Agreement, there was also absolutely no defense strategy available to counsel. Once the inflated charge was handed down, all the pieces fell into place like a row of dominoes.

Why this determination from ICE to make undocumented labor a crime? Can you say the survival instinct of a burgeoning bureaucratic police force?

Never before has illegal immigration been criminalized in this fashion. It is no longer enough to deport them: we first have to put them in chains. At first sight it may seem absurd to take productive workers and keep them in jail at taxpayers' expense. But the economics and politics of the matter are quite different from such rational assumptions. ... ICE is under enormous pressure to turn out statistical figures that might justify a fair utilization of its capabilities, resources, and ballooning budget. For example, the Report boasts 102,777 cases "eliminated" from the fugitive alien population in FY07, "quadrupling" the previous year's number, only to admit a page later that 73,284 were "resolved" by simply "taking those cases off the books" after determining that they "no longer met the definition of an ICE fugitive" (4-5). De facto, the rationale is: we have the excess capability; we are already paying for it; ergo, use it we must.

Erik Camayd-Freixas believes he saw an early battle in a "New War" -- the merger of the "war on terror" with a "war on migrants," all lawless, all profoundly anti-democratic.

Furthermore, by virtue of its magnitude and methods, ICE's New War is unabashedly the aggressive deployment of its own brand of immigration reform, without congressional approval. "In FY07, as the debate over comprehensive immigration reform moved to the forefront of the national stage, ICE expanded upon the ongoing effort to re-invent immigration enforcement for the 21st century" (3). In recent years, DHS has repeatedly been accused of overstepping its authority. The reply is always the same: if we limit what DHS/ICE can do, we have to accept a greater risk of terrorism. Thus, by painting the war on immigration as inseparable from the war on terror, the same expediency would supposedly apply to both. Yet, only for ICE are these agendas codependent: the war on immigration depends politically on the war on terror, which, as we saw earlier, depends economically on the war on immigration. This type of no-exit circular thinking is commonly known as a "doctrine." In this case, it is an undemocratic doctrine of expediency, at the core of a police agency, whose power hinges on its ability to capitalize on public fear. Opportunistically raised by DHS, the sad specter of 9/11 has come back to haunt illegal workers and their local communities across the USA.

Those of us who are citizens need to decide if we'll tolerate such a republic of fear.