Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A year's progress

For the last 17 months, I've been "running" across the country. The quotation marks are meant to convey two meanings.
  • As I've aged, I've become so very slow that calling what I do "running" is a courtesy rather than an fact. An unbiased observer might label my gait "fast walking." Or even just "walking." But I can't see myself, so I'll call it "running" til I can't do it anymore.
  • My "running" distance is virtual. Following the Transamerica Bicycle Route, I've progressed to the 1534 mile mark, within sight of Kansas. I added 1069 miles this year, not a bad total for a year with so much travel. At this rate, I'll get to the Pacific Ocean in about 2 and half more years.
A view of where I've got to (more or less up to date) lives at the bottom of the right hand sidebar.

What to do with the Guantanamo prisoners?

In this photo, reviewed by US military officials, a detainee, name and facial identification not permitted, is transported by Navy personnel into a building within the grounds of the maximum security prison at Camp Delta 2 & 3, at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba, REUTERS/Brennan Linsley/Pool

The German newspaper Der Spiegel interviewed an Obama advisor about what is likely to happen to the people currently locked up at Guantanamo.

Bruce Riedel is a Brookings Institution guy, a CIA veteran, and an advisor since April 2007 on South Asia and terrorism. He called the prison "a very costly mistake" and reiterated the new administration's intent to close it down.

But, asked about efforts to persuade European countries to take custody of some the detainees, he revealed more about what kind of "mistake" he, and presumably the new administration, considers the prison to have been. Among the prisoners are several with Chinese nationality who cannot be returned to China because the US believes they would be abused. He hopes a European country will take them -- but he issues a warning as well.

SPIEGEL: Are you thinking of any particular group that Europe could accept?

Riedel: The Chinese prisoners would be particularly suitable. They cannot go back to China, and they are not as serious a threat as others -- for example, the Yemenis.

SPIEGEL: Do you really consider the Chinese inmates at all dangerous?

Riedel: No matter how dangerous these people were when they came to Guantanamo, after six or seven years in prison, they have a very serious motive for revenge. ... It is a very difficult business finding a place for those people. In the end, even the Bush administration thought along those lines. But we have some very dangerous people here, made more dangerous by six years in prison. We cannot simply let them go, but it gets more and more difficult to legally hold them. ... [Emphasis added.]

Our rulers' gulag has made monsters, possibly in reality, certainly in the nightmares of officialdom.

It is good to see this...

Demonstrators walk near President-elect Barack Obama's vacation residence in Kailua, Hawaii, on Dec. 30, 2008.(Kent Nishimura/Bloomberg News)

Holding signs urging Obama to take a new approach to Middle East policy, the protesters gathered early in the morning just beyond the security perimeter of Obama's estate, hoping the president-elect would see them when he left for his traditional morning workout. But as of 9:20 a.m. Hawaii time, Obama had not left his residence.

It was the first time protesters had gathered outside Obama's vacation home during this trip. The activists represented several groups, including Veterans for Peace. They told a pool of reporters traveling with Obama that they want the incoming administration to make a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories a top priority, especially given the current strife in the Gaza Strip.

Ann Wright, 62, a retired Army colonel from Honolulu, wore a T-shirt that read, "We will not be silent." She carried a sign that said: "Change U.S. foreign policy. Yes we can."

Washington Post

The new President will indeed be tested.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Napolitano likes high tech oversight

Surveillance cameras loom over 24th Street and Mission in San Francisco.

Obama's pick for "homeland security" honcho (replacing that Nazi nomenclature would be a change I could believe in!) likes getting folks on camera. As governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano apparently seldom met a technical "fix" she didn't like.

According to USA Today, she

  • Pushed state police to use cameras that scan license plates of moving cars to find vehicles that are stolen or linked to a criminal suspect.
  • Promoted "face-identification" technology that could help surveillance cameras find wanted people by comparing someone's face with a photo database of suspects.
The Arizona ACLU found her worrisome:

"She sees technology as the panacea of all our law enforcement problems and immigration issues," said Alessandra Soler Meetze, head of Arizona's American Civil Liberties Union chapter. "It's like she's embracing these technologies without taking the time to appreciate the privacy implications."

... "She's going to have a lot more money to play with" for technology, Meetze said.

I guess we can expect more sensors implanted along our borders. Are we fencing someone out -- or fencing ourselves in?

This sign accompanies the Mission district cameras. In this town, we remain ambivalent about surveillance.

Monday, December 29, 2008

San Franciscans protest Israeli attack on Gaza

The San Francisco Bay Area has a substantial number of people who have cut through the conventional propaganda and respond to the Israeli assault on imprisoned Gazans as the atrocity it is.

Quite a few of us, several hundred at one point, turned out for a protest on Market Street this evening.

It's hard to believe that doing this does any good ...

but not doing it might well be worse.

We practice the theater of mourning.

Women in Black come equipped with the same, sane, sensible demands that have always pertained.

As the bombs fall, there's no way to get Gaza off our minds.

Sunday, December 28, 2008



Gideon Levy writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz ...

The neighborhood bully strikes again
Within the span of a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, the IDF sowed death and destruction on a scale that the Qassam rockets never approached in all their years, and Operation "Cast Lead" is only in its infancy.

Once again, Israel's violent responses, even if there is justification for them, exceed all proportion and cross every red line of humaneness, morality, international law and wisdom. What began yesterday in Gaza is a war crime and the foolishness of a country. ...

The pictures that flooded television screens around the world yesterday showed a parade of corpses and wounded being loaded into and unloaded from the trunks of private cars that transported them to the only hospital in Gaza worthy of being called a hospital. Perhaps we once again need to remember that we are dealing with a wretched, battered strip of land, most of whose population consists of the children of refugees who have endured inhumane tribulations. ...

Hezbollah was not weakened as a result of the Second Lebanon War; to the contrary. Hamas will not be weakened due to the Gaza war; to the contrary. In a short time, after the parade of corpses and wounded ends, we will arrive at a fresh cease-fire, as occurred after Lebanon, exactly like the one that could have been forged without this superfluous war.

In the meantime, let us now let the IDF win, as they say. A hero against the weak, it bombed dozens of targets from the air yesterday, and the pictures of blood and fire are designed to show Israelis, Arabs and the entire world that the neighborhood bully's strength has yet to wane. When the bully is on a rampage, nobody can stop him.

Bullies commonly strike out when they fear their power is waning.

Summing up

Some things are beyond -- or perhaps below -- funny.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sanitary crimes against humanity

The Palestinians refuse to cooperate in their own eradication, so they must be annihilated. The Israelis are doing their best to accomplish it. The American people pay for it.

Laila El-Haddad got through to her parents in Gaza city center.

My mother was in the Red Crescent Society clinic at the time of the initial wave of attacks, where she works part-time as a pediatrician. Behind the clinic was one of the police centers that was leveled. She said she broke down at first, the sheer proximity of the attacks having shaken her from the inside out. After she got a hold of herself, they took to treating injured victims of the attack, before they transferred them to Shifa hospital.

...the Israeli war planes attacked people and locations all around them. Over 50 "targets"by 60 warplanes, read the headlines in Haaretz. And over 200 Palestinians killed. Like a game, if you say it enough times, it does not sound real anymore. Like a dare. 50 targets, 60 warplanes, 200 people. All very sanitary. Very cool. Neatly packaged; war in a gift-box. ...

The rains of death continue in Gaza.

And it will all seem, in the end of the day, that they are somehow a response to [Palestinian] rocket attacks [on Israel.] As though the [everyday] situation were not only acceptable -- but normal, in the absence of such attacks. The warden improves the living conditions now and then, in varying degrees of relatively, but the prison doors remain sealed. And so when there are 20 hours of power outages in a row, the prisoners wish that they were only 8; or 10; and dream of the days of 4.

Like our rulers, they do it because they can.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Barack Obama ... and Harry Truman??

I'm reading a lot of U.S. history these days, mostly because I listen to audiobooks while exercising and history provides some of the more interesting available offerings. Recently I finished Robert Dallek's Harry S. Truman.

This is not a major biography -- rather it is a sort of once-over-a-life-lightly, close to the level of the Random House Landmark Books of my childhood. That's not exactly a slam; these titles provided a grounding in the basics without which it is hard to make anything of the past. Dallek's Truman does just that - provides a grounding in the events of a period which we forget to our peril.

So when I noticed this in Salon this morning, Dallek helped me fill in some context:

In a new USA TODAY/Gallup poll, a sample of 1,008 Americans picked president-elect Barack Obama as the man they admire most. No president-elect has topped the poll since war hero Dwight Eisenhower 56 years ago.

Another way of stating that would be that when Harry S. Truman left office in 1952, he had disapproval ratings that only George W. Bush has managed to equal since. National relief combined with enthusiasm for a replacement was the overwhelming sentiment.

Both Truman and Bush left office owning the blame for wars that the U.S public had decided were hopeless sinkholes devoid of purpose. I am hopeful that the U.S. really will exit Iraq, mostly because the Iraqis want us out and schemes to stay will become unsustainable. But there's that other war, the one both the Bush administration and most others took their eyes off: Afghanistan.

As the new guy comes in, the media have begun to focus on the forgotten war and the news is ugly. Here's an L.A. Times sample. The Karzai government that Western invaders helped launch is corrupt, feeble, illegitimate in Afghan eyes because it cannot provide security. NATO allies who got stuck with providing troops by the Bush crew want no more of it. U.S. air raids kill civilians repeatedly. And the Taliban is doing what the invaders can't do; controlling the roads and countryside. That is, Afghanistan is just as FUBAR as Iraq, the only difference being that most people in the U.S. haven't had their eyes on that ball.

So why has Barack Obama persisted in promising that he'll fix the Afghan war? He's clearly smart enough to recognize a shitpile when he sees one. In part, there are some real U.S. interests in that part of the world. It would be gratifying to catch or kill Osama Bin Laden and buddies. Pakistan and India are nuclear powers -- encouraging them not to drift into a war of annihilation over Kashmir is a no-brainer.

But it seems likely that a major impetus for Obama to focus on "winning" in Afghanistan has been to prove that Democrats can be tough guys. Ever since Truman, one of the basic Republican memes has been that Democrats flunk the warrior test. On Truman's watch, Democrats "lost China" to the Commies, Democrats "ceded" Eastern Europe to Stalin, Democrats saw the Soviet Union break the Western nuclear monopoly, and Democrats kept competent liberals in government jobs rather than hounding them out as Communists.

For Obama to really change paradigms in U.S. politics, he needs to find a way to wind down the Afghan war without setting lose the meme of Democratic weakness so firmly cemented in place since Truman. "Winning in Afghanistan" -- whatever that means -- looks to be out of reach. Can we find a way to live with, and moderate, tensions we cannot dominate alongside other emerging powers? The single-superpower empire is untenable; can Obama lead the country into a different paradigm?

If not, those approval ratings are not likely to hold up.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Adequate food as a human right

In this season of feasting, many of us try to make sure that people who are down and out have something to eat. It's the least we can do. Above, donations to the San Francisco Food Bank contributed by shoppers at a local Safeway.

But last November 24, U.S. representatives at the United Nations sang a different tune. The proceedings of a Human Rights Working Group of the General Assembly report:

By a vote of 180 in favour to 1 against (United States) and no abstentions, the Committee also approved a resolution on the right to food, by which the Assembly would "consider it intolerable" that more than 6 million children still died every year from hunger-related illness before their fifth birthday, and that the number of undernourished people had grown to about 923 million worldwide, at the same time that the planet could produce enough food to feed 12 billion people, or twice the world's present population.

This seems an unexceptional sentiment, but the United States could not join the international consensus.

The United States felt that the attainment of the "right to adequate food" or the "right to be free from hunger" was a goal that should be realized progressively. The current resolution contained numerous objectionable provisions, including inaccurate textual descriptions of underlying rights. The United States was the largest food donor in the world of international humanitarian food aid and it would continue to work towards providing food security to all. In the future, he expressed hope that the co-sponsors would work to address his delegation's concerns, so the United States could join other countries in adopting the draft.

Huh? Diplomat speak for "don't you dare say adequate food is a human right, you might lessen our agribusiness profits"? Or maybe just objection that Cuba suggested the resolution? Or perhaps, concern that Isreal is using food as a weapon, strangling imports to Gaza? Though Israel itself voted for this one.

Only the United States held back in lonely opposition to the notion that eating is a human right.

H/t Newshoggers. I could find no news coverage of this vote aside from the United Nations report linked above.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Dog Version of the Twelve Days of Christmas

Jojo, who lives behind our house with her besotted human attendant, has gone to the Tahoe snows for Christmas. She appears to be having a good time.

I think she would approve of this from Kirkepiscatoid.

"On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Twelve punt possums,
Eleven rawhide chewys,
Ten rabbits hopping,
Nine snakes a-slithering,
Eight trees for peeing,
Seven stuffed critters,
Six dog biscuits,
Five neutered vets!
Four big bones,
Three cat turds,
Two slow squirrels,
and a collar to keep away fleas!"

Christmas: second chances for all, now!

I'm not sure I know what to make of this, but there it is.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Warren won't scab over ...

I had promised myself to let the matter rest, but Derrick Z. Johnson's current column in the Boston Globe is a keeper.

... here is Obama exercising terrible judgment on someone who just got done injecting anti-gay ideology into politics in the biggest state in the nation. It is nice that Warren and many evangelicals are increasingly involved in the environment and global poverty. But it seems that Obama is having a little PJSD here, as in Post Jeremiah Stress Disorder. Having nearly had his campaign destroyed by the tapes of his former pastor Jeremiah Wright blasting America as a hopelessly racist nation, Obama seems compelled to close his eyes to one of the most powerful forms of conservative-driven bigotry left in this country.

Obama earned an outpouring of support from gay and lesbian voters, even though his personal stand on gay marriage was standard political fare, stopping at civil unions. Gay advocacy groups praised how he included them rhetorically in speech after speech. Now, a month before that great day that could bring all Americans together unlike any in the nation's history, Obama has gone out of his way to pick someone for the invocation who is not even close to being a pastor for all Americans.

Of course, Jackson lives in Massachusetts where gay marriage is simply a fact of life and the wingers are having to get over it. Jackson himself has always been a strong voice human equality.

Also of some interest is Nate Silver's observation that on LGBT equality, the passion has shifted to progressive side in the wake of the Prop. 8 defeat.

One reason that cultural issues like abortion have been successful rallying points for Republicans is because such issues tend to beget an asymmetry of passion. While a majority of the country supports abortion rights under most circumstances, the average pro-lifer is probably more engaged by the issue than the average pro-choicer, thereby enabling the 45 percent to outweigh the 55 percent under certain conditions.

That may still be the case for abortion, where public opinion has been static for many years. But it may no longer be the case on gay rights. Just who is on what side of the 55/45 split depends on what question you're asking -- a majority of the public now supports civil unions, although not yet gay marriage. That's beside the point, though; what I think the Warren dust-up reveals is that the left is now willing to raise at least as much ruckus about the issue as the right.

Nice going folks. After all, Stonewall was a riot ...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Endings and organic cat litter

My next-door neighbors are being evicted. They have lived in their apartments for a long time -- must be over 20 years. We've been here 16 years and they were already long timers on the block when we got here.

This isn't about the current recession/depression. (We need a word for what we are experiencing; I've seen "Econolypse", but my partner says that won't do because it is hard to figure out how to pronounce it.) This isn't about people losing their jobs or getting sick or failing to pay the rent.

It's about the reality that the six unit building in which they have lived isn't making as much money for its owners as perhaps it could. Or at least as it could have about 18 months ago when this process was started. Now, who knows what a run-down pre-1900 building is worth in the current real estate environment?

My friends are being thrown out under the Ellis Act, a California State law designed to exempt owners from the city's rent control rules. Here's how the San Francisco Tenants Union explains it:

The "Ellis Act" ... is a state law which says that landlords have the unconditional right to evict tenants to "go out of business." For an Ellis eviction, the landlord must remove all of the units in the building from the rental market, i.e., the landlord must evict all the tenants and can not single out one tenant (with low rent) and/or remove just one unit from the rental market. When a landlord invokes the Ellis Act, the apartments can not be re-rented, except at the same rent the evicted tenant was paying, for five years following the evictions. While there are restrictions on ever re-renting the units, there are no such restrictions on converting them to ownership units (e.g., tenancies in common or condos).

So, presumably, some day, we're going to have condos next door. Or the owners could tear it down and build something else, but even that couldn't include market rate rental units for five years.

The current economic situation may come back to wallop this owner. It's hard to imagine an investor getting into speculative development of this building at the present time.

Since I like my neighbors, I'm not much worried about the problems that the landlord may have bought himself. I'm just sad to see good folks pushed out of their homes. Fortunately, they do seem to have contrived places to go, more out of the city than not. They've been dismantling their homes for months, very gradually. They've had several huge garage sales. Now they are down to the bitter end.

So we get calls: "Do you want a ladder?" Not really, we have several. "Do you want some shutters?" No, no need for shutters. "How about a chest of drawers?" No, no room.

"How about an old, small hibachi?" Finally, it seemed only polite to take something as friends break up a life's patterns. Okay, on the hibachi.

The true bitter end is the garden. They had put over 20 years of work into making the backyard bloom with flowers and organic vegetables. "Do you want these flowers?" "Do you want some fruit trees?" Well no, we don't have place or enough light for fruit trees. We finally took some potted irises that may bloom in the spring.

Today the true end: "do you want some sacks of gravel?" Oh, okay. We've just put in a garden path over here, we might be able to use it. Finally, "do you want some organic cat litter?" Doubt if our finicky feline will accept it, but how could I say no?

We've reached a point at which the only way we can express our sorrow over our friends' departure is to take their leavings.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Solstice football post

Tis the season ... of non-stop football, in addition to many more important things like more light, the lights of Hanukkah, and the birth of Light.

And so, a couple of quick football thoughts in anticipation of the bounty of TV-watching to come:

This fall I've been slowly savoring an inherited copy of Roy Blount Jr.'s story of living among the 1973 Pittsburgh Steelers, About Three Bricks Shy of a Load. What a gem of a book if you like football! Back then, before TV contracts had set cash flowing through the game to the present extent, players were unambiguously just the working stiffs in a grimly brutal public entertainment. Think something closer to Extreme Fighting than juvenile zillionaires like Alex Smith and whiners like TO.

Blount is at his best when he got the players talking about race. The white author was particularly close to black Steeler Mel Blount -- they joked that the sportswriter's ancestors had likely owned the cornerback's people. Author Blount noted the "small" indignities blacks encountered -- while white player were mobbed for public appearances, in 1973 after four years, Mel Blount had held one autograph session.

Player Blount took racism as just one more fact of life:

"When I was growing up...I really wasn't aware of what life was all about. Went to an all-black school, always worked for my daddy, competed with black athletes. My whole world was black until I got into pro football. And then I realized that things I was told in college were true. ...If you want to compete in white society, you've got to be twice as good. Can't ever take anything for granted. You got to deal with reality. Being an athlete, I have that knack for meeting a challenge."

I have no way of knowing whether contemporary athletes -- not the superstars, the grunts -- are able to be so matter of fact about their profession. Do pick up a copy of this fascinating book if you run across one.

Meanwhile, guess what's next on the chopping block? Our sports circuses are not immune to a national economic bread shortage. NPR's Planet Money has a good run down of the effect of the recession/depression on professional sports. Here's the NFL story, not by any means the worst of it:

National Football League
After promotional gambits like holding games overseas, the league recently cut 150 of its staff of 1,100. The tight credit markets have encumbered teams' efforts to raise financing for new stadiums. The 2009 Super Bowl will look very different from its recent predecessors: historically big spender General Motors has not purchased ad slots. On the upside, career sites and have added commercials.

They didn't choose to investigate the effect on big time college football. I fear those delightful boondoggles may survive long after many students lose educational opportunity. On the more general picture:

The failures in the financial services industry have left a constellation of team sponsorships in limbo. Retail banks Washington Mutual and Wachovia, acquired in distress by JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, respectively, sponsored a total of 14 MLB, NBA and NFL teams, as well as a host of events and tournaments. It is still unclear whether the acquirers, who have their own sponsorships, will continue the relationships.

Sports teams have historically done well during bear markets: "It's like booze and movies," notes sports banker John Moag. "Psychologically, people do not want to give it up." However, with Americans' credit cards at their limits and mortgage payments piling up, going to the game may become another expense to cut.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Why LGBT people are pissed about Rick Warren

Four men beat and raped a woman and left her naked on a central Richmond street last weekend, punctuating their 45-minute attack with comments that made clear why they chose her as their victim — she is a lesbian, police said. ...

"I've lost sleep over this. I am sickened," said police Chief Chris Magnus. "While every sexual assault is a terrible crime, this particular case is especially horrific because multiple individuals acted together in the commission of this assault, and because of the hate-crime aspect." ...

Throughout the attack the men, all strangers to the victim, made comments about her sexual orientation, police said. They also took her wallet and keys, which they used to open her car.

Contra Costa Times
December 19, 2008

Oh I know, "Pastor" Rick doesn't encourage this sort of thing. But he teaches his sheep that gays are "unnatural", "immature", perhaps pedophiles.

All the sheep (or their male offspring) have to be is dumb and testosterone-poisoned and this is what you get.

A President of all the people doesn't condone the vilification and objectification of anyone. He just doesn't. There's not any wiggle room there. Inviting Rick Warren to pray at the inauguration amounts to condoning hate.
I cross posted this at Daily Kos. Obviously it is not as nuanced as some of my posts. Dkos is not a nuanced environment and, mostly, I don't attempt to participate there. But this is a time when jumping into the mosh pit feels worth it.

Obama's Warren invitation is painful -- yet presents an opportunity to pound into a broader circle of liberal allies how mere "symbolism" can be deadly to LGBT people.

As an adherent of a very different sort of faithful Christianity, I am the more pained that Warren misrepresents God as a sort of demon who obsesses over a little list of who is naughty and nice. But my outrage about that is just wallowing in self-pity. God can take care of Herself; Warren's shallow theology is not my problem.

On the other hand, Warren's political influence is my fight.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Worth pondering...

The Pew polling people have chimed in on President Bush's trajectory in the polls over his tenure.

The chart below is worth looking at. They asked the one word that captured respondent's impressions of Bush's presidency. Look what rose to the top and what sank to the bottom over the last four years.

We're collectively ready for a huge sigh of relief.

Friday Cat Blogging

Encountering this, I have to admit my inner eight year old thinks of turning on the water. Then my adult thinks better of it -- too much disapproval already...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama can prove he's not anti-gay

President-elect Obama insists that, despite the Warren invitation,

I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans ...

Would he like to prove it?

How about announcing that when he takes office, he'll sign the UN declaration calling for worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality? The Bush Administration has refused to back the measure.

US balks at backing condemnation of anti-gay laws

UNITED NATIONS - Alone among major Western nations, the United States refused to sign a declaration presented Thursday at the United Nations ...

In all, 66 of the U.N.'s 192 member countries signed the nonbinding declaration - which backers called a historic step to push the General Assembly to deal more forthrightly with any-gay discrimination. More than 70 U.N. members outlaw homosexuality, and in several of them homosexual acts can be punished by execution. ...

According to some of the declaration's backers, U.S. officials expressed concern in private talks that some parts of the declaration might be problematic in committing the federal government on matters that fall under state jurisdiction. In numerous states, landlords and private employers are allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation; on the federal level, gays are not allowed to serve openly in the military.

Associated Press,
December 18, 2008

No surprise that the Bush administration is weaseling about discrimination -- but how about it, Mr. President Change We Can Believe In?

This could happen to you

If your partner takes up spinning and knitting socks, your light fixtures could begin to look like this.

Of course, if you are lucky, you might end up wearing this. Not a bad trade off during a winter when we're trying to keep the thermostat down.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wright was right

It always seemed to me that Rev. Jeremiah Wright, President-elect Obama's outspoken former pastor, made a lot of sense. Oh, not the stuff about AIDS being an invention of U.S. spooks -- but certainly his response to 9/11.

"You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you."

Apparently he's right about his former parishioner as well:

"Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls."

Washington Post,
April 28. 2008

What else can I think of the President-elect when he gives that religious huckster Rick Warren the job of praying open his inauguration? I guess I could think that Obama really does think gay people are scum, but that seems unlikely -- he's smart and sophisticated. So he must just think we're expendable.

Warren is not only a professional homophobe who cut a video full of ignorant ahistorical bullshit about the Bible and history to urge support for Prop. 8 -- he's also a right wing nut. He claims to object to torture, but recently told Beliefnet that he never got around to raising the issue with his buddy George W. Bush. He recently agreed on TV with the idea that the U.S. should "take out" the annoying President of Iran. Some man of God this guy!

Yeah -- that other annoying pastor, Jeremiah Wright, might have had a right idea. He claimed to have said to Obama:

'If you get elected, November the 5th, I'm coming after you, because you'll be representing a government whose policies grind under people.'

Sounds about right to me. Obama will be as a good a president as aroused people make him be -- not one whit better.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Obama's threatened next war?

Tony Karon of Time magazine and Rootless Cosmopolitan explains what's going on with Iran and what Iran wants from the U.S. in terms simple enough for most of us.

The problem is rooted in the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, whose signatories, of which Iran is one, are allowed to develop nuclear energy technology, including uranium enrichment, for the production of energy; but much of that peaceful technology can also provide the essential infrastructure of a nuclear weapons program. The dividing line between legitimate and illegitimate use of the technology, under the NPT, is established by monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). To date, all of the uranium enrichment activities at the centre of the Iran nuclear dispute have occurred under IAEA monitoring, and the UN agency has certified that all materials are accounted for and are kept under IAEA seal, and that none has been enriched above the permitted level of five per cent.

So the claim by the hawks that Iran has enough material for one nuclear bomb is a little misleading: if it spent another year or so feeding its low-enriched uranium through its centrifuges to attain weapons-grade enrichment, it would have enough material for a bomb -- but it could only do this by breaking with the NPT, kicking out the IAEA inspectors and unsealing the stored uranium, thereby alerting the world to its intentions.


Nations typically pursue nuclear capability as the ultimate guarantor of their survival, because they deter any enemy from using conventional or nuclear military superiority to eliminate a regime. And if Iran were to seek nuclear weapons capability, a sober analysis suggests that its aim would be to assure its own survival rather than to initiate a suicidal exchange with any other nation.

So when Mr Obama talks about "carrots" being offered to Iran, just like Mr Bush he confines himself to economic incentives: "They could benefit from a more open economy and being part of the international economic system," he has said. But Iran's key concern would be to secure its regime from overthrow by outside intervention, and to win recognition of its role as a regional strategic power.

The National

During the campaign, Obama was bellicose about Iran. This makes the Israel lobby happy, but otherwise makes no sense at all. Fear of enemies is what drives the very Iranian programs the U.S. and the European Union are trying to limit.

The Obama guy is smart, but even smart guys sometimes box themselves in. I doubt very much that most of us really want to be stuck in Obama's Iran war box. Together, can we all get out?

Obama's inherited wars

It doesn't matter what Bush tries to say -- he can even appear graceful ducking a shoe and it doesn't help:

Americans are more upbeat about U.S. prospects in Iraq than at any time in the past five years, but nearly two-thirds continue to believe the war is not worth fighting and 70 percent say President-elect Barack Obama should fulfill his campaign promise to withdraw U.S. forces from the country within 16 months, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Meanwhile, most Americans support the war in Afghanistan and a slim majority said the conflict there is essential to battling global terrorism, the poll found. Yet, a majority of Americans also believe that the U.S. military action there has been unsuccessful.

Obama's going to have to be a miracle worker to keep U.S. perceptions of Afghanistan from slipping into the same dread category where Iraq lives -- a miserable failure to be flushed quickly down the memory hole. I see no reason to believe he can do that. Afghans living under air strikes and under U.S.-supported warlords are not into helping him

Meanwhile, denunciation of the Bush legacy gets more blunt. Matt Yglesias hammers home the unwelcome truth:

The harsh reality is that this [Iraq] was not a noble undertaking done for good reasons. It was a criminal enterprise launched by madmen cheered on by a chorus of fools and cowards. And it's seen as such by virtually everyone all around the world -- including but by no means limited to the Arab world. But it's impolitic to point this out in the United States, and it's clear that even a president-elect who had the wisdom not to be suckered in by the War Fever of 2002 has no intention of really acting to marginalize the bad actors. Which, I think, makes sense for his political objectives. [I'm not so sure that will work.] But if Americans want to play a constructive role in world affairs, it's vitally important for us to get in touch with the reality of what the past eight years of US foreign policy have been and how they're seen and understood by people who aren't stirred by the shibboleths of American patriotism.

I'm also not so sure about that "playing a constructive role" stuff. But we'll be playing some role, so we might as well strive for constructive.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Gas prices again

And I thought $1.99 was a breakthrough the week before Thanksgiving! Wonder if they'll be up or down in 3 weeks or so when I fill again... Wonder if the low prices are encouraging people to drive more.

I am sure this dip is helping people who have to drive.

Ponderous pontificating

I found this repellent.

Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches
"It's a wonderful time, a great evangelistic opportunity for us," said the Rev. A. R. Bernard, founder and senior pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York's largest evangelical congregation, where regulars are arriving earlier to get a seat. "When people are shaken to the core, it can open doors."

New York Times,
December 13, 2008

The glowing enthusiasm this gentleman expresses reminded me of "revolutionaries" who have sometimes preached that the grinding horrors of the capitalist system had to get worse before the working class would finally get itself together to revolt and overthrow the bastards.

Delight in the misfortunes of others is a most unattractive sentiment.

I was reminded of this while reading what I consider the best discussion I've seen of the recent terrorist horrors at Mumbai in the Asia Times. Arundhati Roy writes of Hindu-Muslim animosity in India:

Terrorism is a heartless ideology, and like most ideologies that have their eye on the big picture, individuals don't figure in their calculations except as collateral damage.

It has always been a part of, and often even the aim of, terrorist strategy to exacerbate a bad situation in order to expose hidden fault lines. The blood of "martyrs" irrigates terrorism. Hindu terrorists need dead Hindus, communist terrorists need dead proletarians, Islamist terrorists need dead Muslims.

Certainly the evangelical gentleman in Brooklyn isn't in the same league with violent terrorists, but treating the particular pain (in this case recession-induced) of individuals as opportunity for a greater good is all too familiar.

This reminds me not to do the same thing in reference to my own political opponents. It would be easy to enjoy the humiliation of scandal-beset Republicans, for example, more than is good for me. (Bad for me, not them!)

The project has to be to build up, not to tear down. And along the way, we have to value each person.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Obama for America 2.0: Change is coming

Or is it? Yesterday I attended one of the 4200 or so post-election meetings pulled together by the Obama campaign. I came away thrilled with the enthusiasm so many folks share about staying active in some way -- and with many questions. I'm sure I'm not alone in the latter; very likely the hard working organizers who put the event together are mulling their own questions.

Called by San Francisco Volunteers for Obama, this was no cozy little house meeting. Something like 100 people crowded a large hall loaned by SEIU Local 1021. Like others among the inevitably small sample of Obama events I saw in San Francisco, Reno and Denver, this one was well more than half female, predominantly white, with a small and visible minority of people of color, notably African Americans.

Organizer Tara Schubert called us to order. Happily, like the campaign as a whole, this was an efficient meeting with a clear agenda. The plan was share what San Francisco and California volunteers accomplished, break into small groups in which we talked about what we hoped to see from the Obama administration, bring together and rank (as much as possible) what the small groups thought were priorities, and then plan an activity in service to our communities to take place before the inauguration. All this was to be done in two hours -- and we stuck to the time! Gotta love it.

San Francisco leaders shared some numbers -- 10 million calls from California between August and Election Day; 300000 calls from San Francisco during the GOTV period; 110,000 new registrations in Nevada with help from California; and all with only 12 paid staff in the Golden State.

London Breed reported what it had been like for a Californian to go work in Ohio. She was stunned by what she saw:

"They allow people to live in places that look like they should be condemned. We're sure lucky to live in California.

"We met people who just didn't believe their vote matter. But we visited them so many times, they just gave up and invited us in; they finally wanted to vote."

I did have to wonder whether she has ever canvassed in parts of Oakland.

Then we broke into small groups to talk about what issues we cared about.

Everyone got a chance to be heard.

Scribes recorded what people cared about.

A few comments on this process: at least in my group, people found describing what they might want challenging. Hardly anyone offered any specifics that had policy meanings. Instead they named buzzwords like "global warming" or "healthcare" rather than "reducing CO2 emissions" or perhaps "universal health insurance" or "a single payer health system." In this, volunteers are probably just like the electorate at large: they want the government to fix what they perceive as problems -- they count on leaders to know how. This is fine, if people accurately perceive what are the nation's most important problems and if leaders are choosing good solutions. It is a big problem with democratic governance if those two qualifications are not met, as I would argue they have not been in recent memory.

In my group, I suggested that the Obama administration should work to reinforce the structural props of a progressive democracy -- and that one of those would be enacting the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that would make it easier for workers to organize unions without being bullied by employers. This was received in a friendly manner -- but it was clear that it had no resonance with the people in my group. The idea that workers might need unions and that unions made for progressive voting just wasn't present for these Obama volunteers. A friend in a different group had the same experience when offering the same suggestion.

I found the absence of consciousness around this issue the more strange because we had been welcomed to the hall by SEIU organizer Margot Reed who had made an explicit pitch for support for EFCA.

Folks' indifference to unions confirmed what I also observed on the Colorado campaign: an extraordinary percentage of Obama volunteers were/are middle class people, politically active for the first time, with the kind of skills that make them successes in their jobs and which, given free reign to achieve campaign goals, make for astonishing creativity. What they don't have is very developed political ideas. Will they learn more about the hard policy choices facing their country under an Obama administration? Time will tell. One of the best things about Obama is that, because his is a master of verbal communication, he tries to explain issues to people. That's fine as long as the issues and frames he chooses don't exclude important choices people might prefer. We'll see.

After the small groups, the whole returned to see where our priorities had fallen. The photo above is the resulting visual representation of the result. A quick look points up what for me and several others I spoke with was the great fault of the meeting: organizers had people express their concerns within the messaging categories of the campaign. But this emphatically did not catch some of the energy in the room.

Perhaps most importantly, if you wanted to end the Iraq war, your concern was categorized as "National Security." Now that form of flipping the argument is (marginally) okay as a tactic in a campaign in which a Democrat has to reassure sporadic voters that he is tough enough to protect the country. But the kind of people who work for Obama deserve more plain speaking: we want out of Iraq. In San Francisco, many of us want a lot more than that -- slashing the military budget and turning the cash to domestic needs, for example.

Likewise many of us don't want "energy independence" (a myth) so much as "to stick it to the oil polluters." But the way the discussion was structured precluded bringing those opinions out.

Perhaps most telling was this result (pictured) of the discussions: the meeting simply blanked on the concerns of the low wage working class with poverty and immigration. Now we do know that even in this very special year these folks don't vote much. So U.S. politicians have usually been able to take them for granted. But I am very concerned by a movement in which they are pushed to the edge of awareness, barely represented at all. That won't work.
At the end of our meeting, we were given a hand out which listed the goals reached by a meeting of Obama organizers from around the country that had been held in Chicago. Here's the list, apparently what is expected to come out of all this.

1. Organize support for legislation at all levels of government. This includes pushing President Obama's agenda and it also includes organizing around state and local laws/initiatives.

2. Build grassroots electoral strength at all levels, and train and develop grassroots leaders to organize and serve in their communities.

3. Be an organ of two-way communication between the White House and the grassroots, so that each knows and repons to the priorities of the other.

4. Launch a national, grassroots-driven renewal of civic engagement, again at both the local and national levels.

Fine with me -- but the question remains open, for what ends? I intend to stay involved in this process, and to stay hopeful. But I also intend to keep asking questions.

To find out for yourself what's going on, visit My Barack Obama.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bashing Bill Ayers misses the point

Bill Ayers -- the "unrepentant terrorist" Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of "palling around with" -- is flaking his book, Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist. Damn, the guy turns out to be a real true blue American -- rendered involuntarily notorious, he is out to profit from his current 15 minutes of fame.

Suddenly he's everywhere, in the New York Times, on Hardball with Chris Matthews (interesting clip), even has his own blog (not much content).

I've been fascinated by the vehement reactions to the guy in much of the progressive blogosphere, often at sites I frequent and by writers whose work I usually appreciate. Some samples:

To me, though, he's just a shallow rich kid who took himself and his revolutionary rhetoric much too seriously, helped inspire people to do things that got them killed, and helped to discredit the anti-war movement and the left as a whole.

He has done enough harm already. Now he should do the decent thing and leave us in peace.

Obsidian Wings

He could have done so many things to make this world a better place: organize peaceful anti-war rallies and sit-ins, set up a grassroots campaign to influence public opinion on the war, raise funds to help wounded Vietnamese civilians, advocate the outlawing of Agent Orange to Congress, just to name a few things off the top of my head.

But no, those things weren't glamorous enough.

So instead, he chose to use counterproductive violence and turn off many Americans from the anti-war movement. It really was all about him and about wanting to live an exciting life at the expense of others.

Comment on Obsidian Wings post

I do enjoy reading people who lived in the 60s as they ever so patiently explain that those of us born later cannot possibly hope to understand what life was like back then. Imagine, a whole generation of unique and precious snowflakes whose life experiences transcended that of the mere mortals that came before and after them! Surely, the world has never known a generation of young people who watched helpless as their government engaged in a pointless slaughter of innocents in a far off land. I can't even imagine what it must be like to live in the United States while the US military was busying itself destroying a society across the globe.

Comment on Obsidian Wings post

Okay, I hear you. Ayers infuriates because his methods of protesting the Vietnam war back in 1970 were ineffective, dangerous and stupid, because he's an old guy who still thinks the stuff he did way back when is worth thinking about, because he's a white guy who came from privilege so that when the government blew his prosecution, he could find a second chance to become a useful citizen. Yes I know, lots of people wouldn't get that knd of second chance. All those are plausible gripes, but why the venom?

Because Ayers' history was, for a short season, a danger to Obama? Maybe.

Like Ayers, I lived through the experience of seemingly endless, fruitless protest against a morally insupportable, murderous war that killed several million Vietnamese and 50000 U.S. soldiers. I marched; I petitioned; I tabled; I worked for a local candidate trying to replace a pro-war congressman; I worked for a Senatorial candidate to try to get a better Senate. When Ayers' folks were setting bombs, I thought they were nuts, morally bankrupt, self-aggrandizing, and very unhelpful to stopping the war. Exposure to folks from that set sent me scuttling out of that part of the antiwar movement to learn draft counseling and later to work to support deserters. (By the early 70s there were lots of deserters.)

But I understood then and I understand now where they were coming from. U.S. democracy simply wasn't working. The enormous difference between the experience of the last decade and of the Vietnam era was that Vietnam was the Democratic Party's war. Democratic "moderates" only wanted "victory" in Southeast Asia, perhaps to install their puppet government in Vietnam. Republicans wanted to nuke Hanoi and maybe Russia and China. The political establishment had no room for the antiwar dissent that was becoming the majority position by 1968 -- under pressure from their sitting President who had made the war his own, Democrats in that election nominated the candidate most identified with continuing the war. The system seemed frozen and invulnerable.

Perhaps because I'm older and can take a longer view, perhaps because the U.S. is objectively less all-powerful than back then, the last decade has never seemed so completely stuck. The Bush/Cheney regime has certainly done more damage to our country than that era's leaders did. Right after 9/11, those rulers seemed untouchable. For me, probably the nadir was the fall of 2004 when the country returned Bush to office -- after the looting that destroyed a prostrate Iraq while the U.S. shirked its responsibility, after the lies about WMD, and after the unveiling of the torture system at Abu Ghraib.

Yet the country never felt so locked down and impervious to dissent as the mid-60s felt to many of us. Organizing Democrats to create a pole in opposition to the Bush/Cheney project seemed not just possible, but perhaps even a route to some real change. The internet opened new possibilities to go with the old, human labor-intensive organizing methods. Now we'll get to find out if we were right about that possibility of change.

As for Ayers, I can't see getting so pissed off about him. His crimes of idealism gone very sour can't really be weighed equally with the big crime he confronted. The big crime -- what our government was doing in our name -- was the real crime then and it's the real crime now. It is still up to us to stop it, to fix that government, and to heal whatever can be healed. Ayers might even be helpful, now, in that work. Give the guy a rest ...