Sunday, November 30, 2008

In election campaigns,
there's no private space
(except in the ballot box)

Someone named Richard Raddon who worked as director of the Los Angeles Film Festival gave $1500 to the campaign to pass Prop. 8, the state constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage. Not surprisingly, a lot of people thought robbing others of their rights was rotten behavior and said so, forcefully, both to his employer, Film Independent, and to Mr. Raddon. After some pulling and hauling, Mr. Raddon has resigned from his job.

He is distressed that people thought his contribution to the initiative campaign should expose him to public criticism. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, he issued what strikes me as a very naïve statement:

I have always held the belief that all people, no matter race, religion or sexual orientation, are entitled to equal rights. As many know, I consider myself a devout and faithful Mormon. I prefer to keep the details around my contribution through my church a private matter. ...

The first sentence is simply nonsense -- he contributed to legally mandating inequality; he can't, except as dissimulation, to claim otherwise. The second sentence raises additional issues about how we have chosen to preserve democratic rights in campaigns.

What got Mr. Raddon in trouble was campaign finance law that forces disclosure of who gives money to election campaigns. This is a profoundly progressive legal concept, though its implementation can be cumbersome. If rich people could throw money at campaigns without any disclosure, we'd have no idea which interests were buying a megaphone. If Raddon had wanted to finance private education courses for Mormons and others about the evils he apparently thinks arise from same-sex marriage, very likely nobody would have been the wiser and therefore, nobody would have complained. But he chose to intervene with a non-trivial sum in a fight over public policy in the arena of electoral democracy. I'm inclined to feel, if he can't take the heat, he should have stayed out of the kitchen.

But he and his supporters don't see it that way. One of the board members of film festival complained:

"Someone has lost his job and possibly his livelihood because of privately held religious beliefs. I think the organization was ready to tough this out, but Rich ultimately decided it wasn't worth the cost. ..."

Again, that first statement is literally untrue, though the speaker doesn't seem to realize it. Giving money to a political campaign is a public act. Enlisting the state to enforce one's "privately held religious beliefs" is a public act. You may be able to do it, but don't expect to walk away without having the people on the wrong end of your new law mad at you. You have engaged in public conduct and may have to weather public disapproval.

I also note Mr. Raddon describes his donation to the "yes on 8" forces as being given "through my church." This may be a figure of speech - or it may be literal. His church is also subject to campaign disclosure law. According to the New York Times, the Mormons are being investigated about whether they disclosed their participation in the campaign properly. Note -- there was nothing wrong with their participating -- but California law requires churches as well as individuals to take public responsibility for what they do with money to influence elections. Churches have every right to advocate in the public sphere for what they believe in -- and, if they choose to try to enforce their values beyond the voluntary circle of their membership, face the wrath of those who don't share their values.

Mr. Raddon found himself particularly vulnerable to pressure from those hurt by what he chose to do with his money because he worked in the public cultural sphere. For a lot of people, public culture functions as various churches, with various beliefs, function for their members: as the arena where deep values and commitments are explored. I'm a little surprised Raddon didn't know that people around him might have serious conflicts with his values. Thinking that he could weather the likely storm seems almost willfully deaf to the probable consequences of his action in his environment.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

False fears, real dangers

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research nails the economic illiteracy that fears an unbalanced national budget more than a stalled national economy. And in the process, he explains why future generations should be more afraid of current penny pinching than of the Feds taking on more debt to get the country moving again.

In terms of burdens on future generations -- people have to get over the lunacy that this is somehow measured by the debt. Suppose we sold off all the government's property and retired the debt. Have we made our children better off? How about if we spend nothing on infrastructure and education for 20 years so that we can pay off the debt. Are our children better off? We hand future generations the entire economy, society, and natural environment. The notion that generational equity is in any way captured by the size of the national debt is lunacy.

... the value of private assets also affects the burden placed on future generations. If the stock market is valued at $20 trillion rather than $10 trillion (for the same set of assets), then the return for people buying into the market will be only half as great on average. This would be the same as if we taxed all their earnings by 50 percent, and then imposed ordinary income taxes on the remaining 50 percent.

If our kids somehow would rather get a much lower return on their retirement income and pay twice as much for their housing in order to save a few dollars on their taxes, then we have obviously failed to give them a decent education.

TPM Media

My emphasis. Is this so hard?

A trio of sea creatures

Perhaps it is inevitable the creatures of the sea would hold a strong place in the imaginations of people located on a small, gray island in the Atlantic. Here are three observed yesterday.

Seems an odd name for a shark.

And an odd image for a bumper sticker.

While this monster has grown up to be someone's dinner.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hunger and gratitude

There was a touching story in Thursday's New York Times about the aftermath of a successful lawsuit against Clinton/Guiliani practices nearly a decade ago that reduced welfare costs in New York City through strategic incompetence. Back in 1996, when the federal welfare reform Clinton acquiesced to kicked in, New York State punted as many recipients as possible to Social Security Disability because, unlike the other programs, SSDI had no time limits.

But, along the way, the same folks were illegally dropped from the federal food stamp program. Eventually a nonprofit law firm sued on behalf of numerous eligible individuals in 2002. They won (the case was apparently open and shut) and this fall, back food stamp payments have been turning up in recipients' electronic accounts. (Bet they had printed books when this started.) All this came as a surprise to most folks who suddenly got more food purchasing power.

What's striking about this story is twofold: the enormity of need and the generosity of those who got back payments.

Monica Ryan ordinarily gets by on the munificent sum of $107/month in food assistance. Ms. Harris, a named plaintif in the suit, has been feeding a family on $176/month.

So what did recipients who suddenly found hundreds of dollars of back payments in their accounts do with their unexpected bounty? The ones described by the Times shared the wealth.

[Ms. Ryan] is planning on buying a turkey to share with her son, something she had not done in two years because, she said, "it takes half the monthly allowance to buy the groceries for that one meal."

... Luis Rosario, 52, who lives in the Bronx with his mother, received $2,333, because he was cut off in 1999 and was just put back in the program.

He said he would use the money to make a Thanksgiving meal of roast pork and turkey for his sister, daughters and grandchildren.

And, he said, he would also take care of Christmas, too. "We usually go to my sister in New Jersey, but she was laid off," Mr. Rosario said, "so this year we are going to take care of everyone."

It is a sentiment that would sit well with Abdelkader Louali, who also lives in the Bronx and got a payout of $550. With that money Mr. Louali, who lives alone, purchased some shrimp as a treat, and he also bought $64 in food for neighbors who were in need.

It was a special pleasure to him, he said, to finally be the one who had enough to share with others. "I have $100 left," he said, "but it is the holidays and I would give it away. You see, my refrigerator is already full."

Friday critter blogging

The inspiration for Michelle Obama's striking (unfortunate?) election night dress revealed itself to me this morning, crawling across a road in Chilmark, Mass.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thankgiving for two who stood for hope

Thirty years ago today, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was murdered. He was killed for being an uppity fag by a former colleague who found his theatrical presence in the legislative body an offense against the natural order.

Harvey fought his way into public office against the wishes of an entrenched Democratic establishment by building a progressive coalition that brought together unlikely partners including Teamsters, firefighters and an emergent gay community. Above all, he overcame divisions by making himself a messenger for hope.

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant [condemning gay people] in television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us's will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.

Harvey Milk


I was reminded of this speech when reading a recent New York Times article by Ron Susskind about Barack Obama's decision to jump into the Presidential contest.

It was Michelle, Axelrod remembers, who stopped the show. "You need to ask yourself, Why do you want to do this?" she said directly. "What are hoping to uniquely accomplish, Barack?”

Obama sat quietly for a moment, and everyone waited. "This I know: When I raise my hand and take that oath of office, I think the world will look at us differently," he said. "And millions of kids across this country will look at themselves differently."

The new biopic Milk opened today. I haven't seen it yet, but my friends who were directly part of these events mostly applaud, while noting that Cleve Jones has managed to erase his political rival and Milk's successor at City Hall, Harry Britt. That's politics for you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving table talk for gays and friends

I no longer recognize marriage. It’s a new thing I'm trying.

Turns out it's fun.

Yesterday I called a woman's spouse her boyfriend.

She says, correcting me, "He's my husband."

"Oh," I say, "I no longer recognize marriage."

The impact is obvious. I tried it on a man who has been in a relationship for years,

"How’s your longtime companion, Jill?"

"She's my wife!"

"Yeah, well, my beliefs don't recognize marriage."

Fun. And instant, eyebrow-raising recognition.

Tom Ackerman,
Religion Dispatches

Do read the whole thing. In the aftermath of Prop. 8, the result might be quite bracing.

H/t Meteor Blades at Daily Kos.

Canadians snared by no fly list

Last September, this blog reported on a Canadian citizen who had been stranded in Khartoum, Sudan and subjected to torture by local authorities, then been prevented from flying home by a U.S.-instigated placement on a no fly list.

More details have dribbled out in Canada where journalists tend to be energetic about exposing government abuses. According to the Toronto Globe and Mail,

Although ministers told the House of Commons last spring that Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen, had received full consular assistance, the documents show a senior Foreign Affairs official explicitly ordered Canadian diplomats in Khartoum to stay away from the interrogation by U.S. agents.

"Mission staff should not accompany Abdelrazik to his interview with the FBI," ordered Sean Robertson in a secret cable to the Canadian embassy in Khartoum on April 3, 2007. ... When faced with interrogation by Sudanese and FBI agents, Mr. Abdelrazik feared he would again be imprisoned and tortured in Sudan's notorious jails and pleaded for a Canadian diplomat to accompany him to the interrogation. Although ordered to stay away, they did offer to telephone him afterward. When they did, there was no answer, according to government documents in possession of The Globe and Mail.

More than a month later, the diplomats told Ottawa that the U.S. FBI agents had warned Mr. Abdelrazik he would never see Canada again unless he implicated others as al-Qaeda operatives. If he doesn't co-operate fully, "he will never return to Canada," the FBI agents told him, according to a Canadian embassy official who reported back to Ottawa after debriefing Mr. Abdelrazik... Since The Globe first published details of his years in enforced limbo last April, Mr. Abdelrazik has been allowed to live inside the Canadian embassy in Khartoum, but the government has so far failed to give him any of the assistance required to allow him to return to Canada, most recently refusing to issue him emergency travel documents when an airline was willing to flout the U.S. no-fly ban and issue him a ticket to Montreal.

The Canadian newspaper is doing its best to embarrass the Canadian government for its complicity with the U.S. spook network. There is a lively consciousness in Canada of the torture of Mahar Arar, set in motion by the U.S., and eventually indemnified by Canadians to the tune of C$10.5 million.

Another recent case turned up by Canadian papers is less frightening, but only marginally so. According to the Victoria Times Colonist (great name for a paper!):

Glenda Hutton, 66, of Courtenay has never been arrested, doesn't have a criminal record and over a long career as a school secretary never caused anyone trouble.

So it's perplexing just how her name turned up on a U.S. no-fly list, but there it is. ... She first learned something was wrong in October 2007 when she was delayed at the Air Canada check-in counter at Comox from boarding a flight to Calgary.

... a month later she was flagged when trying to board a Japan Airlines flight to Thailand. "They said they could get me out of Canada but feared for my safety once I got to Bangkok, Thailand," Hutton said. The couple decided to stay home and sort the mess out. Japan Airlines refunded their tickets. ...

Hutton was on a Canadian no-fly list but her name has been removed. She's convinced that her name remains on a U.S. list. "Air Canada told me that there was someone else in the world with my name who is a very, very bad person," Hutton said.

Hutton's case, and the Abdelrazik one, illustrate the profound danger of these enormous lists of "suspect persons" circulating around the globe. Maybe, if we're lucky, we can enforce the rules of criminal procedure in our home countries. But databases tend to be full of errors, nearly eternal and widely used. They don't catch terrorists, but they endanger more and more of us.

One would hope that that the incoming Obama administration would clear out the useless, abusive mire of "no fly list" and "watch list" regulation that is airline security theater. I know, they have to "prove" they are "tough" on security issues. But can't they replace stupid and inept with smart? Doing so would involve stepping back from making air travel a quagmire of confusion, complexity, and criminal abuse.

The TSA morass is close to pure waste at a time when the U.S. requires every dollar to rebuild our economy. Mr. Obama -- have you got the guts to zero out the TSA? Probably not, but we can at least hope for reform.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gas prices

For some obscure reason, San Francisco has much higher gas prices than most of the country. If you drive inland 50 miles, you'll pay significantly less than in this port city. I'm sure dealers sell at what the market will bear, but the premium we pay has always seemed mysterious.

After last summer, I never thought I'd see this again:

The pump announced that the fuel might contain ethanol.

I haven't seen that before in California. I suspect this is more a subsidy for corn producers than an effort to save oil, but I don't know for sure. Some people definitely don't like ethanol in their gas.

Anyway, the total for the fill-up was gratifying. I drive very little, so my last fill up three weeks ago was at something like $2.36 a gallon.

When I went by later, the price of regular was down to $1.95. Guess I should have waited...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Snark punditry: what to write about now that the election is over

Bobby Jindal (l); John Thune

What will the lazy pajama clad hippies of the blogs write about now that the election is over? Should we worry that we'll lack material? I don't think so.

I'm avoiding the temptation to bloviate about what the various appointments Obama might be making might mean. Is he betraying his promises of change -- is he really backing off restoring the rule of law, exiting Iraq, or whatever? I was wrong about Obama's trajectory several times during the campaign and see no reason to jump on the guy until he actually acts in some way that offends my sense of what he stands for and the country deserves. So none of that (yet) from me.

What the Republicans will do now that they are revealed to be a shrunken regional party of religious reactionaries and racists is a slightly more attractive topic. But I’m actually better at analyzing what "my side" (loosely) of the partisan fence is doing than opining about the incomprehensible antics of the other side.

Still -- blogs are thirsty critters...

Apparently Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post's Fix blog faced the same void last week. He gets paid to write this stuff, so he filled a column with a list of "Ten Republicans To Watch." I'm not going to resist following his good example here: what follows are some not particularly informed or serious comments on his choices -- the text is Cillizza's; the responses in italics are mine.

10. Steve Poizner: Poizner, the Insurance Commissioner of California, has an early head-start on being the Republican nominee for governor in 2010. Well, I guess. There are no other Republican state office holders. But California is a bluer and bluer state -- this Californian wouldn't bet on the latest white Republican millionaire. Anyone else remember Michael Huffington? Now if he were a B movie actor ...

9. Haley Barbour:... Remember that before he became governor of Mississippi in 2003, Barbour was one of the leading political operatives in the country and has tentacles (and acolytes) all over the country. I thought Haley was some guy who named a comet?

8. Jon Huntsman Jr.: ... Huntsman won re-election earlier this month with 78 percent (granted it was in ruby red Utah) ... Huntsman is a Mormon, however... That's a big "however." And not only for the reason Cillizza alludes to, that the fundamentalist Christianist part of the Republican base think Mormons are hell-bound heathens. Mormons just acquired some umpteen million gay enemies on account of the church's leadership of the fight to reinstate discrimination against gays in California. Not a good bunch to pick a fight with if you want influence in cities or anywhere outside the shrinking confines of the culture of the middle-income nuclear family.

7. Eric Cantor: The Virginia Republican's unfettered rise through the ranks of House leadership continued earlier this week when he was elected Minority Whip ... Is the House too small a perch from which to become a national figure? Yes. And, as Cillizza mentions, he's Jewish. No base to draw on there. As with African Americans, Jewish voters have little history of supporting their talking dogs -- I mean Republicans.

6. Mark Sanford: South Carolina's Sanford is the newly elected chair of the Republican Governors Association, a useful job through which to raise one's national profile. I thought Sanford was a Democratic Governor from North Carolina, but apparently that one died in 1998. Are most prominent politicians in the Carolinas named Sanford?

5. Bob McDonnell: McDonnell, Virginia's attorney general, will be the Republican standard-bearer in the Commonwealth's gubernatorial race in 2009. ... If he wins, it will be seen as a sign that the Republican party is alive and well and living in Virginia. They need a sign alright, having lost the last two gubernatorial races and both Senate seats. Maybe the corpse really is dead?

4. Mitch Daniels: Even as Obama was pulling off a stunning win in the Hoosier State at the presidential level, Daniels was cruising to reelection by 18 points. At the end of the campaign, Daniels pledged in a television ad that he would never run for another office ... Not usually the prelude to influence in government, but what do I know?

3. Mitt Romney: Discount the former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate at your own peril. Romney has three big things going for him: he is, by almost anyone's account, an expert on the American economy; he is incredibly ambitious and will work harder than almost anyone to make sure his voice is heard; and he has immense personal wealth and a willingness to spend it. Cillizza again gets only part of Romney's Mormonism problem -- but what I want to know is, by whose account is Romney "an expert on the American economy"? No one I've heard from. Yeah, he's been a mediocre governor who balanced a budget with tax increases and fees voted in by Democrats, a former management consultant, and is the son of a failed presidential candidate who was the CEO of a failed car company. He gets credit for running a troubled Winter Olympics without leaving the host state (Utah) bankrupt. Actually a rather thin resume. But he does seem to like campaigning for office and is already up and running for 2012.

2. John Thune: The South Dakota Senator is incredibly well positioned to emerge as the telegenic voice of the Obama opposition. Cillizza may have a live one here. South Dakota, best known by many of us for repeatedly proposing and voting down absolute (and unconstitutional) bans on abortions, seems a small base from which to storm the country. But what do I know?

1. Bobby Jindal: There is NO hotter commodity in the Republican party these days than Jindal. Jindal is the rare candidate who both reformers and establishment types find appealing, and as a 37-year-old Indian American he is -- literally and figuratively -- the sort of new face the party is pining for. Unless leopards change their spots, I'd be a little surprised if the GOP base was pining for a Brown guy. But if they were shallow enough to think that Sarah Palin would win over Hillary Clinton-supporting Democrats, they might be stupid enough to think Jindal would give them a boost in communities of color. It would be interesting to see how the country reacted to his enthusiasm for exorcisms to fight demons. Somehow I suspect that sort of thing goes better down by the Bayou than in most of the country. But, as in all this snark punditry exercise, I could be completely wrong.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

When do generals revolt?

General de Gaulle (l.) in 1962; General Salan who was tried for OAS attempts to kill de Gaulle. (r.)

The ever observant Tom Engelhardt notes that the U.S. military is all set to drag its feet in response to President-elect Obama's plan to get out of Iraq.

This week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen - the man president-elect Barack Obama plans to call into the Oval Office as soon as he arrives - wheeled it into place and launched it like a missile aimed at the heart of Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan for US combat troops in Iraq. It may not sound like much, but believe me, it is. The chairman simply said, "We have 150,000 troops in Iraq right now. We have lots of bases. We have an awful lot of equipment that's there. And so we would have to look at all of that tied to, obviously, the conditions that are there, literally the security conditions ... Clearly, we'd want to be able to do it safely." Getting it all out safely, he estimated, would take at least "two to three years".

For those who needed further clarification, the Wall Street Journal's Yochi J Dreazen spelled it out, "In recent interviews, two high-ranking officers stated flatly that it would be logistically impossible to dismantle dozens of large US bases there and withdraw the 150,000 troops now in Iraq so quickly. The officers said it would take close to three years for a full withdrawal and could take longer if the fighting resumed as American forces left the country."

Engelhart focuses on the remarkable amount of equipment -- of stuff -- the U.S. military in Iraq have imported and now seek to protect. But it is interesting to read about this military opposition to civilian policy in the light of Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace about which I wrote several days ago. That war between metropolitan France and insurgent nationalist Muslim Algerians led to the overthrow of one democratic, modern European government (France 1958) and its final days severely threatened the successor government of General Charles de Gaulle.

When professional generals find themselves loosing miserable colonial wars, they have sometimes turned against the civilian authorities at home. Such episodes have been fortunately few in U.S. history. But not non-existent. When General Douglas MacArthur challenged President Truman's authority while commanding in the Korean conflict in 1951, if the political class had not rallied strongly behind Presidential authority, MacArthur might have created a dangerous domestic fascist force. Robert A. Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography provides a vivid account of just how threatening these events were to Constitutional rule.

Because of the consistency of this pattern, it is worth looking at what Horne outlines as the circumstances that brought the French Army fighting the doomed war in Algeria into broad, though not universal, terrorist revolt against its own country and leaders.

He documents the mindset that the French Army brought to the Algerian war (1954-1962) in a chapter titled "Why We Must Win". He asserts that there was

a certain peculiar determination with the regular French Army that [the war] should not be lost. This determination did not entirely spring from a belief in the sanctity of the presence francaise [continued colonial rule] -- still less from any kindred feeling for the pieds noir [European settler population] -- and to understand it one needs to recall sympathetically the recent history of the French army. ...the 1940 debacle [collapse before the invading German forces] ...a nagging complex about its inferior role alongside the vast British and American war machines imposed on it by 1940. Then followed the catastrophe of Dien Bien Phu [defeat by nationalist Vietnamese forces in 1954]; the most humiliating defeat sufferd by any Western power since the Second World War and, in its context, as humiliating as 1940 to French army sensibilities in that the victors had been despised 'colonials' and 'little yellow men'.

But the French army in Algeria, despite terrible carnage, was defeated, if not militarily, in that nothing it could do would destroy the nationalist impulse that underlay the insurgency. In fact, every military "success" won through such means as torture and mass internment made for more Algerians determined to win independence.

In 1958, elements of the army along with the European settlers in Algeria were able to bring down the democratic Fourth French Republic, a dismally incompetent central government. But when the successor so much wanted by the same forces, General Charles de Gaulle who created a president-dominated Fifth Republic, decided in 1962 that France needed to cut its losses in Algeria, segments of the army moved into open revolt. Under the name of the Organisation de l'Armée Secrète (OAS), they bombed civilian targets and assassinated opponents ruthlessly, including numerous attacks on President de Gaulle himself. Horne offers an historical explanation of how such a complete disaffection from civilian rule had come about:

Since the execution of Louis XIV in 1793, the French army had been subject to the First Republic, the Directory, the Consulate, the first Empire, the First and Second Restorations, the "Bourgeois Monarchy" of Louis Phillipe, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, the Commune, the Third Republic, Petain's Vichy and de Gaulle's Free French Committee, the Fourth Republic, and now the Fifth Republic. Each change of regime had contributed fresh divisions within the army, and added new confusion as to where loyalties were ultimately due. ...

Now no individual had to live through all that messy history, but it does seem unsurprising that some confusion about where authority properly belonged might have developed.

Does any of this have any analogy in contemporary U.S. experience? Yes and no. Some thoughts:
  • Since Gulf War I, the U.S. military has been commanded by civilian leadership that did not universally command its respect. Clinton was a disreputable philandering draft dodger. George W. Bush and his minions were cranks who threw out the smartest military thinking (Powell doctrine), outsourced military functions to crony capitalists (the contractors), ground up its vaunted military in a war without a defined end point (Iraq), dishonored officers by ordering them to torture, and can't even run a functional Veterans Administration to serve the survivors.
  • The U.S. military not only lost a bitter colonial war in Vietnam three decades ago, it is now losing such a war in Iraq. So far, a pretense of a dignified possibility of withdrawal from Iraq remains; it does seem ironic though that a conqueror has to negotiate with the conquered to get out. The face-saving could collapse.
  • And scarcely on the media radar screen yet nonetheless a fact, U.S. forces are enmeshed in an equally hopeless war in Afghanistan, a war which an otherwise more realistic new President now plans to escalate
This catalogue of stresses on the U.S. military does not lead me to predict we'll be seeing any outright turning on the civilian government such as France weathered while losing Algeria. But it doesn't hurt to be aware of the unthinkable.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I'm so glad I did that 29 years ago

Click on the picture to learn more. H/t Matthew Yglesias who got it from Ezra Klein. Incestuous, this blogging stuff.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Another war that went very wrong indeed ...

For the last couple of weeks, off and on, I've been reading A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 by Alistair Horne. It's monumental, over 600 pages of exhaustive detail about a viciously brutal war between European France and its long time colony, Muslim Algeria. The New York Review of Books reissued this 1977 classic in 2006 because it seemed timely in the context of a U.S. invasion of a Muslim, Arabic-speaking, country that had set off a tenacious resistance and a murderous spate of bombings of civilian targets.

By resorting wholesale to torture to find and kill Algerian independence fighters (whose hands were not clean of atrocity themselves), the France of that era violated its understanding of its own deepest values. Horne writes no people has torture been more abhorrent, morally and philosophically, especially following their own hideous experiences from 1940 to 1944. As an instrument of state, torture was expressly abolished by the French Revolution. .... Article 303 of the French Penal Code ... actually imposed the death penalty on anyone practicing torture.

But under the stress of a vicious colonial war, the historical inhibition broke down. As early in the war as 1955, a civil servant named Wuilluame produced a rationale for just a little torture.

The water and electricity methods, provided they are carefully used, are said to produce a shock which is more psychological than physical and therefore does not constitute excessive cruelty.

John Yoo, David Addington and Dick Cheney would have loved this guy. Here's an account of what the French did with their version of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

The most favored method of torture was the gegene, an army signals magneto from which electrodes could be fastened to the various parts of the human body. It was simple and left no traces. ... [Henri] Alleg, a European Jew whose family had settled in Algeria during the Second World War ...[reported] of his first exposure to the gegene, with electrodes merely attached to his ear and finger, he says: "A flash of lightning exploded next to my ear and felt my heart racing in my breast." ...Next the electrodes were placed in his mouth: "my jaws were soldered to the electrode by the current, and it was impossible for me to to unlock my teeth, no matter what effort I made. My eyes, under spasmed lids, were crossed with images of fire, and geometric luminous patterns flashed in front of them."

Alleg was a European and he lived. Many did not. A French enlisted man who found himself assigned to torture duty reported

"All day, through the floor boards, we heard their hoarse cries, like those of animals being slowly put to death. Sometimes I think I can still hear them ...All these men disappeared."

Very gradually, the people of France proper began to understand what their young men were doing in Algeria. Their horrified reaction was part of what brought down the French Fourth Republic in 1958, set the stage for the disaffected army in the colony to revolt against Parisian authority in 1962, and finally led to a rushed withdrawal from the African colony.

Alistaire Horne wrote a preface to the 2006 edition explicitly drawing out the commonalities with the U.S. experience in Iraq. In particular, he wrote about the result of France's resort to torture against its implacable foes.

In the Algerian War what led -- probably more than any other single factor -- to the ultimate defeat of the French was the realization, in France and the world at large, that methods of interrogation were being used that have been condemned under the Nazi Occupation. ...Because of the slowness of communication in the 1950 and 1960s, it took a year or more for the message about abuses perpetrated in Algeria to sink in. Now, with the Internet and al-Jazeera, one set of photos from Abu Ghraib is enough to inflame hatred across the Islamic world against the West, providing excuses for all the beheadings and atrocities carried out by al-Qaeda. ...[France and the world] learned in Algeria, that torture should never, never, never be resorted to by any Western society.

We didn't learn. At the request of some U.S military officers, Horne sent a copy of his massive study to then Secretary of Defense (War-Making) Donald Rumsfeld -- and was brushed off with a curt note.

I tend to absorb my history by reading, but there's a simpler, if not easier, way to expose oneself to some of this story: Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film, Battle of Algiers, is available on DVD.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Two businesses in trouble ...

Poor San Francisco Chronicle. On a day when New York Times headlines read "Detroit Chiefs Plead for Aid, to Little Avail" and "Unsold Foreign Cars Hogging Space at a California Port", the local paper arrived wrapped as shown above.

A gay agenda

Although President-elect Obama opposed Prop. 8 (not very loudly, but that may have been the California "No" campaign's fault), he doesn't support same-sex marriage. And that's too bad, as legal gay civil marriage is almost certain to win in time, despite recent setbacks.

But for any discouraged LGBT activist, the laundry list of measures leading to equality that he does support according to the transition website is no less than breathtaking after years of surviving rule by Republicans who hyped ignorance and bigotry. Here's an abbreviated list of those planks:
  • Expand Hate Crimes Statutes: ... Barack Obama [has] cosponsored legislation that would expand federal jurisdiction to include violent hate crimes perpetrated because of race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical disability.
  • Fight Workplace Discrimination: Barack Obama supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and believes that our anti-discrimination employment laws should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Support Full Civil Unions and Federal Rights for LGBT Couples: Barack Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples. Obama also believes we need to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and enact legislation that would ensure that the 1,100+ federal legal rights and benefits currently provided on the basis of marital status are extended to same-sex couples in civil unions and other legally-recognized unions.
  • Oppose a Constitutional Ban on Same-Sex Marriage.
  • Repeal Don't Ask-Don't Tell: The key test for military service should be patriotism, a sense of duty, and a willingness to serve. Discrimination should be prohibited.
  • Expand Adoption Rights: we must ensure adoption rights for all couples and individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation.
  • Promote AIDS Prevention: Obama will support common sense approaches including age-appropriate sex education that includes information about contraception, combating infection within our prison population through education and contraception, and distributing contraceptives through our public health system. Obama also supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users.
  • Empower Women to Prevent HIV/AIDS: Barack Obama introduced the Microbicide Development Act, which will accelerate the development of products that empower women in the battle against AIDS. Microbicides are a class of products currently under development that women apply topically to prevent transmission of HIV and other infections.
Not for the first time, reading this list gives me an astonished awareness that somehow we've elected a President who lives in the same world I live in. I wish he dared get on board with same-sex marriage. I know that we won't actually win all of this unless we can generate the political pressure to keep these issues front and center. But what a list!

I say a prayer for that man's safety. People get killed for being half this sane.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The change many workers need

About 300 people supported workers at the Woodfin Suites Hotel by joining in a spirited labor-community march to an Emeryville City Council meeting Monday night.

The story of these housekeepers and room cleaners is depressingly simple. In 2005, by a ballot initiative, the town adopted a living wage ordinance for hospitality industry workers. In 2006, the Woodfin tried to escape paying the mandated wage by questioning the workers' right to work in the U.S. -- something management had never previously cared about. A year later, Emeryville had investigated the business, ordered the hotel to pay up, and gone to court to force compliance. Last April, an Alameda County judge upheld the living wage law. The city again ordered the Woodfin to pay up. No money has been forthcoming, so once again workers and friends tromped back to the Emeryville Council.

And the hotel keeps stalling.

This story points up some of the "change we need" to push for as the new regime takes over in Washington.
  • Workers need to be able to form unions and bargain with their employers without fear of losing their jobs. That means better appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, but even more it means Congress passing the Employee Free Choice Act and President Obama signing it. This will be a hard fight, but nothing could help more to ensure that the people who do the work get their fair share of the American dream.
  • We need a fair immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship for the millions of workers, already here, who contribute so much of the labor in hospitality, food service, construction and food processing. So long as they subsist in a legal twilight, they will be exploited and abused. The immigration fight is even harder than the labor law reform fight.
Only when we get such reforms will little community marches like this one cease to be necessary.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Prop. 8: what sort of setback?

What kind of setback does passage of Prop. 8, banning same-sex marriage in California, imply? In this long post I'm going to hold Prop. 8 up against four historical precedents and see what I can tease out.

Prop. 8's passage might show that same-sex marriage is as deeply contested a social issue as is a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. This is certainly what Prop. 8's proponents, especially the Mormon Church and the Roman Catholic Church, hope to make of gay marriage.

And there are some parallels. Like gay marriage in California, a woman's right to choose to abort a fetus that can't live on its own derives from a court ruling. Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, followed years of agitation for removal of legal restrictions on abortion; the emerging women's movement argued that the state had no business forcing women to bear and take responsibility for unwanted children. California liberalized its law in 1967; New York soon followed. The Roe decision rather suddenly catapulted the whole country, not just the liberalizing coasts, into the era of women making choices about pregnancy. Those who feel deeply that abortion is culpable murder have felt victimized by a society gone inexplicably mad ever since -- and have fought a desperate rearguard action with strategies ranging from murder and clinic bombings to legal chipping away at Roe. The U.S. mainstream has remained stubbornly unwilling to criminalize abortion, but still queasy about the practice.

Politicians ride this social unease on all sides for various ends. When Roe was decided, Protestant Evangelicals were not central to the anti-abortion forces; the grass roots of the anti-choice folks were Roman Catholics. (Kristin Luker's mid-80s research cited here.) But it proved politically advantageous to conservatives turning fundamentalists into the shock troops of reaction to pump up the abortion issue. Today, though Catholic bishops fulminate and sometimes deny communion to pro-choice politicians, they no longer sway the votes of anti-choice Catholics, as Obama's Catholic margins show. The number of abortions among white teenagers are way down from the 1980; but one in three U.S. women will have an abortion in her lifetime, 60 percent after bearing a previous child. As a society, we remain morally conflicted about abortion, but with Obama's election, we are unlikely to see courts that will outlaw it. And the last 30 years have shown majorities won't allow it to be outlawed by legislative action either.

The assertion that gay marriage is a moral evil that would somehow undermine "the family" is opponents' strongest card -- because real, wildly diverse, families in the U.S. are under tremendous stress. In fact, we've just seen an election in which President-elect Obama's margin was in some sense anchored by people who are actively parents with young children at home -- just those whose family units are under the most stress. The fact that we now have a party running the government that understands its role as making it easier for all families to thrive only bodes well for future acceptance of gay families that want the equal rights and social supports. It's hard to portray people who just want to live what are considered normal, moral lives as evil incarnate.

For all the fond hopes of the proponents of Prop. 8, same-sex marriage simply doesn't raise the moral qualms and passions that abortion does -- on this issue, the question of whether same-sex marriage is a moral problem is strictly a generational question. Younger people can't get their minds around the notion that this is a true evil. There's just no base for growing a fight against same-sex marriage as a passionate crusade, even among otherwise conservative young people.

A majority of young white evangelical Christians support legal recognition of civil unions or marriage for same-sex couples. Fifty-eight percent of young white evangelicals support some form of legal recognition of civil unions or marriage for same-sex couples; a quarter (26 percent) support the full right for same-sex couples to marry. White evangelicals over age 30 are less supportive: forty-six percent favor some legal recognition, but only 9 percent of older white evangelicals favor full marriage rights.

Religion and Ethics Weekly,
September, 2008

Perhaps the passage of Prop. 8 signals a repulsion against gay marriage akin to that which fueled resistance to desegregation of public accommodations? Within the memory of some of us, many white people in this country claimed a right not to have to sit near Black people in restaurants or on buses (the short-hop airlines of that era.) The idea of such proximity was unbearable to them. African American civil rights protesters and a few allies pushed for universal equal access to such public services through the 1950s and 60s at great personal cost in beatings and deaths -- and in 1964 Congress got around to outlawing segregation. Now the kind of social segregation that was the norm in those days is simply unimaginable.

I raise this point because this kind of resistance is what those of us who support gay marriage are positing when we charge our opponents with homophobia. Supporters of Prop. 8 are quick to disavow homophobia -- why they claim to have gay friends and co-workers! If true, not for long as numerous post-election stories corroborate.

People who are gay know when we are running into "the ick factor." Our society is uneasy about sexuality and gender issues. It must be somebody's fault that human sexuality is so unpredictable, irrational, wonderful and dangerous. Blame gay people -- we are in charge of being scapegoats for sexuality's ills at the same time we're sometimes secretly envied for living outside the rules. Normalizing us by letting us marry raises tremendous anxiety among some people. The proponents of Prop. 8 may not personally be revolted by contact with gay people -- but they are tickling a social itch that is common enough and they should be held responsible for what they unleash.

Will irrational homophobia be enough to stop gay marriage? I don't think so. Like the kind of racism that is expressed in avoiding social contact in public settings, this sort of bigotry can be legislated out of existence -- or at least out of social acceptance. And it can be combated with alternative images. No wonder all those gay weddings were so threatening -- my God, the homos are just people, many of them with children, and grandparents, and ordinary homes, and jobs!

Segregation in public accommodations was overturned when agitation by the oppressed group made it no longer worth the while of the authorities to maintain it. This is what the on-the-streets element of an energized gay movement is good for. And we've sure been out there since November 4, in numbers and energy that probably surprised many who managed the No on Prop. 8 campaign.

Is the Prop. 8 setback akin to what happened with Prop. S. in San Francisco in 1989? This one is obscure, but relevant. In May 1989 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed by a vote of 9-0 and Mayor Art Agnos signed a domestic partnership ordinance. Gay couples who registered would be granted some pretty pathetic recognition, in particular the right to visit a sick partner who was hospitalized. Remember, this was at the height of the AIDS plague. Local rightwing churches successfully gathered enough signatures to put the ordinance to a referendum, an up or down vote of the city's people. All of a sudden, the gay community had to defend the new law.

My perspective on what ensued is very personal -- I worked as the grass roots organizer for the "Yes on S" (yes on the domestic partnership law) campaign. The community at large had not been agitating for this new status -- LGBT people hardly knew what the law meant. Many gay men feared that domestic partnership would stick them with their dying lover's debts. (It wouldn't have.) Gay folks didn't trust the city; in the midst of the campaign, San Francisco police went wild on demonstrators in the Castro neighborhood, locking up hundreds and beating enough so that brutality lawsuits continued for years. In all my years of campaigning, I have never had such a hard time mobilizing volunteers. We frequently had a 100 percent flake rate. None of the 25 or so people who had promised to work would show up to canvass, week after week.

Just as "Yes on S" began to get a little community traction (traction we needed to mobilize San Francisco's liberals to vote for the novel measure), the Loma Prieta earthquake threw all of us for a loop -- literally, tiles felt in the campaign office as we huddled under desks. The electorate's mood turned sour. On Election Day, we lost narrowly. In the light of Prop. 8, it is interesting to read how the New York Times reported this defeat for a gay rights measure.

Church groups called the measure a ''bizarre social experiment'' and an attack on the family that would erode traditional values. Opponents also argued that it paved the way for extending health and pension benefits to unmarried couples, potentially costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.

The Roman Catholic Church distributed 25,000 leaflets challenging the measure.

''The story here is the hidden power of church groups to affect an election like this,'' said Dick Pabich, the measure's campaign manager. The measure was defeated by fewer than 2,000 votes in a surprisingly high turnout.

Sound familiar?

So San Francisco's domestic partnership ordinance was repealed by popular vote -- and the gay community woke up, decided it had been dissed, and decided it wanted domestic partnership very much indeed. The very next year, a determined citywide campaign passed a slightly better domestic partnership law by initiative. Opponents attempted repeal in 1991 -- but there was no going back.

Clearly gay marriage in 2008 had a much wider gay constituency than that first domestic partnership law ever had -- lots of gay people have put years into creating the context that led to last May's California Supreme Court decision that legalized our unions. But during the Prop. 8 campaign, enthusiasm for defending marriage was far from automatic or universal within the gay world. There was still, I think, something of a generational divide that mirrors the generational divide in the vote. Younger gays think our right to marry should be self-evident; many older gays often think marrying is something the other kind of people who hate us do, an oppressive artifact of social arrangements that control women and property. This kind of gay person certainly voted against Prop. 8, but it wasn't their big issue.

However, none of us like getting beat. Especially we don't like getting beat by out-of-state religious forces who lie about us to win. As Emily commented on a previous article on this blog:

I feel personally alienated after getting something I didn't really know I wanted, loved once I had it, and now see [it] taken away.

There are a lot of us nationwide having those feelings -- and that reaction will fuel a much more energetic and sophisticated gay advocacy effort than we had in the No on Prop. 8 campaign. I would be willing to bet that this will have been the last time that the forces of religious reaction win an anti-gay vote in a true-blue state. As with San Francisco's first domestic partnership law, even this time, we enjoyed the support of most of the state's political establishment (including both the Governator and DiFi!), the major media outlets, and even significant parts of the faith communities. Barring social collapse brought on by economic collapse, that coalition wins over time.

But will Prop. 8 go the way of Prop. 187? Prop. 187 (1994) was white California voters' vehicle for expressing their fear of ongoing immigration, particularly Mexican immigration. It denied state funded health care and education to undocumented immigrants and their children. It passed by a roughly 60-40 statewide vote.

And it was essentially illegal -- a state attempt to meddle in federal immigration policy, put on the ballot to help a Republican governor increase his turnout. Federal courts slapped most of it down, to the huge distress of the majority that voted for it. Some parts crawled back into federal immigration law, but Prop. 187 died forever when a Democratic governor in 1998 stopped defending it. (Republicans also lost any chance at the Latino vote for a decade... nice to see some comeuppance for this kind of cynical racism.)

The legal challenge to Prop. 8 may prevail. I am not a lawyer, but rather to my surprise it sounds plausible. (I didn't think there was much hope for the challenges to Prop. 187 back then.) If that happens, the fight will turn to whether gay marriage opponents want to threaten the California Supreme Court justices. There is a precedent for that too, unhappily. In 1986, death penalty hard liners successfully persuaded the state's voters to remove Chief Justice Rose Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin. The judges had killed an inadequate number of people, always a touchy subject in this pro-death penalty state.

If the Court tosses Prop. 8, the energized gay movement must put its weight into defending the justices who vote with us. That's a tough project; a determined minority that can mobilize its voters (the anti-gay religious sector qualifies for that description I think) can make hay on such a down-ballot question. But if it goes that way, we -- LGBT people -- will owe.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Scenes from Stop H8 rally: San Francisco City Hall

The police apparently told reporters there were 7500 of us protesting Prop. 8 at this venue, among 300 cities nationwide yesterday. For once, I agree with the police numbers, assuming you count all the shifts.

First came the young and eager, nearly as many straight as gay, protesting what seems to them an abominable, inexplicable travesty. Why would anyone oppose marriage for any who want it?


Some seemed simply sweet.

And yes, dogs too protest Prop. 8.

My friends from LAGAI-Queer Insurrection, who've been on the barricades for human liberation since before some of the crowd were born turned up later. Old time queers don't do 10:30 am Saturday rallies.

The crowd agreed that religious bigotry was problem, but cheered Rev. Penny Nixon of Metropolitan Community Church when she warned according to the SF Chronicle:

"We put salt on everyone's wounds when we scapegoat and place blame. We cannot speak about each other in this way. It will kill us."

I can't claim I heard her say that. The sound system was inadequate to the size of the gathering, so the rally had the character of a slightly aimless mill-in on the lawn.

This woman agreed with Rev. Penny.

This gentleman's sign made me wonder: did bigotry begin to lose the high ground when children began to be raised by Sesame Street? Might be.

On the way home on BART (the subway), I ran into these guys. I asked what church they were with -- they replied "no group." But they liked the sign and were thrilled when someone gave it to them.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Just say NO to preventive detention

Prisoner at Guantanamo. REUTERS/Brennan Linsley/Pool.

President-elect Obama faces difficult options for dealing with the Guantanamo prison camp. As in so many areas, the Bush administration is bequeathing Obama a problem it created and couldn't or wouldn't solve.

Most of the unfortunates locked up in our Caribbean gulag were there by mistake -- vague associates of vaguely shadowy characters in societies we didn't understand -- or simply folks sold to a credulous U.S. military by bounty hunters. We released a lot of these and they come out severely damaged. A new report from the International Human Rights Law Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law based on post-release interviews details what was done to them:

Over half of the study respondents who discussed their interrogation sessions at Guantánamo (31 of 55) characterized them as "abusive." Detainees reported being subjected to short shackling, stress positions, prolonged solitary confinement, and exposure to extreme temperatures, loud music, and strobe lights for extended periods—often simultaneously. The authors conclude that the cumulative impact of these methods, especially over time, constitutes cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment and, in some cases, rises to the level of torture.

Those were the Guantanamo prisoners the Bushies let out. They are still holding the ones they think actually may have committed a crime -- the same ones they tortured so horribly that the evidence against them would never be usable in any court but one of their kangaroo military commissions.

William Glaberson reports in the New York Times on the arguments in the Obama camp about what do with these people. If ordinary U.S. law were applied, most would walk because of government misconduct. Some, including honorable legal experts who have opposed Guantanamo, want Congress to pass a preventive detention law that would authorize holding people accused of terrorism connections who the state could not convict in ordinary courts.

But, if it could be passed, does the new President want to use his political capital to evade the historic tradition of the primacy of established law? What kind of signal would a new preventive detention law send to a world desperately hoping Obama signals a new sort of U.S. behavior? Glaberson opines:

In the end, the Obama administration may conclude that it is simply not feasible to seek a new preventive detention measure. Doing so could portray the new administration as following in the footsteps of President Bush, surely an unlikely goal as Mr. Obama sorts through his options.

Once again, it is up to we the people to rub in the reality that law-evading detentions have to cease being public policy if our vaunted "freedom" means anything.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Historical note on legislating discrimination in California

Back in 1964, California voters pondered a constitutional amendment. After long debate, the legislature in Sacramento had approved a measure the previous year to outlaw discrimination by race or creed in housing sales and rentals. Governor Pat Brown had signed the law. Residential segregation was now illegal.

The California Real Estate Association quickly gathered up signatures to repeal "open housing" -- their measure became Proposition 14.

In 1964, like most of the country, Californians repudiated right wing Republican Barry Goldwater in the Presidential election. On the same ballot, voters passed Proposition 14 with a 65 percent share. They liked their "right to segregate" and wanted to keep it.

Despite the will of the voters, Proposition 14 did not stand. Very practically, the feds cut off all housing funds for California. And eventually the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the measure violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing equal protection of the law to all citizens.

The argument over Prop. 8 is an argument over whether gay people will have full, equal citizenship -- or the constrained, half-baked citizenship that some religious traditions would confine us to.

Kermit Roosevelt, in the Christian Science Monitor, takes a very lucid look at the legal context in which lawsuits against Prop. 8 are now being pursued. He argues that in U.S. experience, expansions of rights to new classes of persons have always begun facing majority opposition -- that is why successive struggles to assert full human rights have been necessary. If the persons asserting equality can whittle away at the majority against them enough to make their asserted right more "controversial" than "unthinkable" -- but still not yet universally accepted -- courts step in to protect what has functionally become a recognized minority. As this point, a majority could still repudiate the minority's rights by a majority vote -- but at the federal level, U.S. Constitution makes it very cumbersome to do that. (Note, there is no federal anti-gay marriage amendment.) The lawsuits argue that the California Constitution doesn't allow this either, requiring not the ballot measure procedure we've just witnessed, but the much harder "revision" procedure to take away rights. We'll see.

Do read the complete Roosevelt article -- it makes some basic issues extremely clear. H/t to Rev. Susan Russell for the reference.