Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Remembering Walter Kerrell

A wall of the office at 36 East 1st. Street where Walter worked in the early 1970s. Photo by Jon Erikson.

This morning I learned by way of Frank Cordero's email list (he's at the Desmoines Catholic Worker) that Walter Kerrell had died. I remember Walter as a central figure at the New York Catholic Worker house in the early 1970s, anchoring a chaotic office, keeping some order among the cantankerous crew who hand labeled 80,000 copies of the newspaper for mailing right outside his door, ever ready to talk with newcomers, especially good looking young men. He did like the cute guys.

For a place whose essence was the practice of hospitality, the Catholic Worker movement's "mother house" wasn't a particularly easy place for a newcomer. I think that happens in a community practicing inclusive, radical hospitality. After you've lived for a while amid an endless flow of the needy and the eager, you don't let the latest arrivals get to know you lightly. What's the point? Some are leeches or frauds; even the nice ones will go away. Everyone in such places shuts down to some extent. But some seem to have a special calling for welcoming newcomers. He could be gruff, but Walter was one of those.

I don't really know much about him. He was of Jewish origin, and when I knew him, not any kind of practicing Christian that I could see. This wasn't unusual; many of us in the community weren't Catholic and many of those who were Christians were not demonstratively pious. On the other hand, there were also a good number of the extremely publically devout. Walter had worked at the house for at least 10 years. He lived away from the house, showing up every morning, disappearing before dinner. Gradually, I learned he was an artist, a painter.

Eventually I hung around long enough to get invited to dinner at Walter's apartment. I remember good food -- and the most wonderful collection of painted masks made from the dried shells of horseshoe crabs. These were readily available on the beaches of Staten Island in those days. They may still be -- apparenty these primeval arthropods are not considered endangered, though their population is shrinking.

It's hard to know quite why Walter let me into his life a little bit. After all, I was a girl, not the sort of community passerby he usually became more than superficially acquainted with. Perhaps I was okay because very butch and quite obviously a lesbian, little as I wanted anyone to notice. It would be a few more years before I understood that God really meant it when She declared her creation "good" -- and that meant even me.

I took off for California in 1973 and spent several years in the Catholic Worker community that launched the Martin de Porres House of Hospitality. Sometime in mid-decade Walter turned up there along with another fixture of the New York CW, an unemployed and probably unemployable actor, Mark Samara. They were clearly looking for the freewheeling gay culture San Francisco was famous for, but their older, artistic East Village queen style didn't mesh successfully with the beautiful young hippie masculinity then ascendant. I'm sure they seemed a couple of leering old trolls.

That was the last I saw of Walter. Googling today, I discovered a memoir that reports:

... Walter retired from the Worker and went out of his way to avoid it. The organization aroused fierce loyalty and fierce antagonism, sometimes in the same person.

That certainly sounds right. Walter wasn't alone in ending up making a painful break with a community he had given so much to. It happened a lot in those years.

The barely hidden secret of that First Street Catholic Worker community in the 1970s was that it was full of gay people. None of them, of us, were "out" in the contemporary meaning of that term, even if it was generally known that a particular individual was homosexual. Certainly being happily gay and happily Christian was unthinkable -- you were supposed to choose between the way you loved humans and the way you loved God. This mandatory false choice made for a lot of very confused people, quite a number of whom were working out their inner conflicts in the relatively accepting refuge of the Catholic Worker. Meanwhile gay liberation and radical lesbian feminism were flowering all around us, freeing many who'd been forced to put up with living partial lives. Some of these angrily repudiated the Catholic Worker when they were able to become their full selves. Dorothy Day was hurt by these breaks without being judgmental of individuals.

I suspect Walter Kerrell made such a break sometime in the late 1970s. He was a good person and kind to many wanderers in the big city, including me.

Monday, March 30, 2009


Yesterday, literally, she was just a green stalk.
Today this.

Soon, this will be a blooming Bird of Paradise.
bird on the way.jpg
Sadly, we'll probably only get to enjoy her for a day. There's a thief in the neighborhood who sneaks into the yard and cuts these. We suspect her of peddling them to local restaurants.


I'm peeved. I was one of the some 67000 people who watched (some) of the President's online town hall responding to citizen questions last Thursday. I'd even submitted some questions, not that I thought they'd come up. It is obvious that this question process privileges the first 10 questions asked, so long as those are broadly about genuine popular concerns.

And I thought the President did very well what he does best: show he's informed, thoughtful, articulate and smart. You know, the opposite of the last resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

So why am I peeved? Because media coverage of the event has been mostly about Obama's slick put down of the pot people. Here's a specimen from Salon:

"I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation," Obama said, as Bernstein laughed over in the corner of the room. "And I don't know what this says about the online audience, but I just want -- I don't want people to think that -- this was a fairly popular question; we want to make sure that it was answered. The answer is, no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy."

Blowing the question off with a joke probably irritated legalization activists more than ignoring their organized campaign would have, but it did mean the town hall was assured of at least one groundbreaking moment: For the first time ever, the president of the United States called his own supporters a bunch of stoners.

Very cute reporting. Some such scores are a little too easy, so I'm peeved at both reporter and President.

I'm also peeved at the supporters of marijuana legalization for voting questions up in nearly every category in a forum supposed to be about our crashing economy. I can hardly fault them for being organized, but can I ask them to have a little sense of proportion? Apparently not. This is exactly how I've seen them act in community organizations as well, as the most singled-minded among single-issue campaigners.

And they've won -- I feel forced to ask myself, do I want to see marijuana legalized? This is a question I've hardly thought about in the last 30 years. Like any normal person of my generation I smoked for a few years -- like most, I also eventually stopped and got on with life. Nothing very terrible, nor anything very wonderful, came of my exposure to pot.

Recently a politician I respect, and count as a friend, proposed that California legalize and tax marijuana to help the state's ailing budget. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano is no dummy and he's a truthteller: grass is after all the state's largest cash agricultural crop. Why should the drug dealers get all the profits?

And there is real harm that comes of keeping marijuana illegal -- see for example this horror story. Even some drug court judges have decided that prohibition is corrosive of law enforcement.

So when I think about it, I find myself saying "yes, let's make pot legal -- nothing too terrible will happen. Heck, alcohol and tobacco cause more trouble."

I suspect that readers of this blog are probably much like me -- not folks who think often about legalization. So what DO you think, if you think about it?

Update: Mark Kleiman makes the case that marijuana is NOT California's biggest crop and I'm willing to believe him. I'm not sure that changes the discussion.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Prisoner
or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair

Is it possible make an upbeat film about Uday Hussein, torture, invasion and occupation, brutal interrogations, a U.S. soldier turned jailer, and an Iraqi journalist? Some Brits have done it. Yunus is a marvelously resilient individual.

He also never omits to remind the viewer that Iraq is his country, belongs to the Iraqis.

Improbable and worth renting.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour 2009

We did this. At least if you can call turning off all the lights and watching a DVD on a laptop doing it. More explanation here.

I have mixed feelings. It's great to be part of many people around the globe doing something, but I fear it creates a granfalloon. Oh well...

Respectably Queer

There's something about the movement for gay and lesbian rights that inspires great two-word book titles. Almost fifteen years ago Urvashi Vaid offered Virtual Equality. That book chronicled the growth of professional gay advocacy centered in Washington -- and its limits as increased access under the Clinton administration failed to produce either equality or political power for LGBT people.

Around the same time, Andrew Sullivan came along with Virtually Normal which argued that gay folks could achieve equality if we'd just get married and kill for peace like everyone else. Contemporary gay political activity certainly follows this line. (Sullivan is a much more interesting and subtle thinker than I've suggested in that catty description -- try reading his interesting if sometimes infuriating blog, for a smidgen of Sullivan.)

Now along comes Jane Ward with Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations. Great title, interesting topic. In the early part of this decade, Ward did "participant research" at three Los Angeles LGBT institutions: Christopher Street West which puts on a West Hollywood-based Gay Pride celebration; the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, a social service behemoth; and Bienestar, an HIV/AIDS nonprofit that came out of the Latina(o) gay community. In each case, she takes us beneath the surface of institutions that aren't actually doing very well at living with the differences among the folks who make them up and the people in communities they relate to.

At Christopher Street West, contemporary expectations had moved on and left the founders of this annual community party behind. It's grassroots board was clueless about how to play the game of representing themselves as involving a range of racial and gender communities in order to win the support of corporations and local governments. They just wanted a good party. Younger gay professionals who knew the new rules quite easily pushed the old timers aside. It is not clear from Ward's account whether the working class board members really objected to being ousted as the scale of the project seemed to have gotten away from them.

At the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, the game of demonstrating the institution's "diversity" to funders was paramount. An informant described the place's culture as "corporate." Though many (most?) of the staff at the time of Ward's observation were people of color, the center continued to be thought of as "white and male" by its public. It imposed a stilted "Diversity Day" on staff without beginning to satisfy the urgent hope among people of color that it should "just do it" by serving their communities.

At Bienestar, changes in the community (and funding sources) left the institution's Latina foremothers out in the cold. The organization evolved out of a gay and lesbian Latina(o) group under the stress of the AIDS crisis. Lesbians had been at the center of the predecessor group, but when Bienestar became a channel for AIDS services for Latin gay men, their interests and needs ceased to be central. Ward describes the awkward attempt many AIDS organizations around the country made to sell funders on AIDS prevention for lesbians -- but in truth, unless we were shooting drugs, we weren't much at risk. During Ward's observation period, lesbian staff tried to reassert themselves within the organization, but this was a losing cause.

Unfortunately, Ward originally wrote this as a dissertation. As a consequence the stories she has to tell are encumbered with a review of "diversity" literature and a not very convincing theoretical framework that obscures more than it reveals about the institutions whose hidden structures she plumbed. She probably needed all this stuff for academic credibility; she'd have had a better book without most of it.

As a participant in lesbian and feminist efforts over the last 35 years to create multi-racial and multi-class institutions, I know there are some fascinating stories to be told about how places like these found themselves such suckers for the kind of mechanical and unsatisfying "diversity" projects that Ward describes. But the flavor of how we got there isn't to be found in academic theorizing -- this is the stuff of personal histories, particularly of how women of color demanded that white women stop fooling themselves about how different histories determined different meanings and outcomes -- and how, whatever we've got, it's everyone's pie.

Perhaps in the future, having established her academic credentials, Ward can do some further investigation. She has certainly proved she knows where to look.

Trying times for nonprofits

A lot of nonprofit organizations I know of, including some I love, dodged a bullet this week when Republican Senator Jim DeMint's amendment to the new "Serve America Act" was defeated. DeMint wanted to "prohibit 'advocacy' groups or groups co-located with advocacy groups from receiving any assistance" under the new federal program. The Alliance for Justice sounded the alarm. At a minimum, this rule would have forced some larger nonprofits to choose between providing services to people in need and "advocating" for them.

In addition to groups directly affected, DeMint's distinction between "advocacy" nonprofits and others could have harmed lots of much smaller entities if this had gotten into law. Just about everyone who is developing a progressive community program runs at least some their work through nonprofit (501c3) channels. This is legal; nine times out of ten, they really do have to do "education" (a legitimate charitable activity) in order to develop their concepts and create a constituency for them. Singling out a special category of suspect nonprofits that do "advocacy" would be a recipe for trouble.

Since donors, as individuals and through foundations, want the tax benefits to themselves of their recipients' nonprofit status, DeMint was aiming to delegitimize a lot of projects he doesn't approve of. The donors would almost certainly have done his dirty work for him if they feared for their "charitable" bennies.

Gotta like that President Obama thinks there should be a little more charity in charitable giving. From the Washington Post's account of last Tuesday's press conference:

Obama made clear that he thinks affluent Americans have not been doing their fair share as he defended his plan to shrink tax deductions for wealthy taxpayers' charitable contributions and mortgage interest payments.

"If it's really a charitable contribution, I'm assuming that [smaller tax savings] shouldn't be a determining factor as to whether you're giving that $100 to the homeless shelter down the street," he said. "I think it is a realistic way for us to raise some revenue from people who benefited enormously over the last several years. It's not going to cripple them; they'll still be well-to-do. And ultimately, if we're going to tackle the serious problems that we've got, then in some cases those who are more fortunate are going to have to pay a little bit more."

The WaPo neglected to mention that the President hopes to use the additional revenues from slightly reducing the charitable giving tax benefit to earners over $250,000 to help pay for universal health care for all.

Something I want to get back to before it drifts down the forgetery -- about ten days ago the New York Times reported on a study about online giving to charitable organizations. Apparently the behavior of folks who give via the internet frustrates fundraisers.

"Online giving is higher than offline giving, and the demographics of online givers are more attractive -- better educated, higher income," said Tobias Smith, director of online communications at CARE, which took part in the study and works on issues faced by poor women. "But how you get people to routinely give online is a nut no one has yet cracked." ...

"People are asking us all the time why we don't reduce mailing costs and save paper with online fund-raising, but the simple fact is that people come online to give a gift once and don't repeat," said Jennifer Tierney, development director at Doctors Without Borders in New York, which took part in the study.

Yes, they've pointed out exactly why I like to give online. I can decide to what organization I want to send some money, find it, and give -- rather than respond to whatever the requisite quantity of badgering asks it takes at any given moment to get me over the hump of resistance. The sense of choosing my own time to donate is empowering.

But of course this donor driven pattern of giving doesn't help the organization to make a budget.

I'm a little surprised that a follow up email barrage is not as effective as direct mail in getting repeat donors. After all, I've spent years (and some dollars) on the Move-On list, not to mention Obama for America. At least for me, email works, probably better than snail mail begging letters which I no longer even open.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Obama's war
Some thoughts on solidarity

So Obama's gone and got his own war now. Not a good thing. Where's that exit strategy, Mr. President? Unlike policy-bemused insiders, Rachel Maddow cuts to the heart of what's wrong with Obama's Afghanistan moves. Here's what she hoped for:

"War is destructive. The idea that you can do something constructive with war is becoming this facile, dangerous, intellectually lax political interpretation of military counter-insurgency theory. I want to hear him say that doesn't work. That war is never constructive. I think liberals, even, are drifting toward that. It's become the new liberal hawkishness and I don't want him to be a hawk."

He couldn't quite rise to that challenge. Democrats still believe they have to prove they are butch when it comes to foreign enemies.

Naturally the militarist Max Boot (wouldn't you think the guy would be ashamed to flaunt that name?) thinks Obama got it right.

The new Afghanistan policy that President Obama unveiled at the White House today was pretty much all that supporters of the war effort could have asked for, and probably pretty similar to what a President McCain would have decided on.

I don't know if I'd quite go that far; I'd assume that McCain would have implemented a similar policy with maximum venality and stupidity while the Obama-ites know they can't afford that.

The most appealing argument for ongoing U.S. engagement in Afghanistan came today from Sarah Chayes, the former NPR reporter who has helped establish a soap making cooperative in Kandahar since the U.S. invasion. She reports the dashed hopes of Afghans she works with:

... when Obama said recently that there were no plans on tap to "rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy," or when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the aim wasn't to create "some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there," my colleagues were listening. Such formulations have the effect on Afghans of a cold shower.

She recounts how Bush and Rumsfeld ran their Afghan project on the cheap, buying cooperative client warlords whose greed and violence undercut the Karzai government which itself degenerated into corruption and drug running. Not surprisingly, Afghans began to wish for the austere "security" the Taliban promised.

Chayes' plaint is very like that of Ahmed Rashid in Descent into Chaos. The invaders have proved not to care about their promises of development and democracy. We're going to hear a lot of this. The Afghans who have the education and inclination to talk to us are precisely the members of a nascent "middle class" who begin to visualize life in a modern world. In Pakistan, there really is such a bourgeoisie -- they've been fighting to reinstate the fired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. They desparately want to rise above the corruption of the tribally-aligned political parties. They do wish, despite years of hard experience to the contrary, that U.S. meddling in Central Asia would help them come into their own.

It's not going to happen. The hard truth is that peoples have to find their own way. Individuals and private groups of citizens from other countries can and should help, but foreign governments can't jump start healthy social processes in other people's countries. We need global solidarity -- but it will have to be of the people to people sort, not mediated by the U.S. Marines.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What's Obama doing to get U.S out of Afghanistan?

Glimpses of President Obama's Afghanistan strategy are leaking out -- apparently we'll get a fuller picture tomorrow. Marc Ambinder, who seems to have good sources, reports that he's sending a smaller number of troops than the military had been pushing for -- and calling them "trainers." It also looks like he's emphasizing cooperation with neighboring countries -- and that includes Iran. And he's talking counter-terrorism rather than counter-insurgency. That latter is contemporary shorthand for U.S. occupation; the former at least puts widely acknowledged U.S. interests -- we don't want these countries harboring people who would attack us -- in the forefront. Still these moves take ownership of and escalate a failed war.

Ambinder focuses on Washington's discontent with Hamid Karzai, the sitting President of Afghanistan, and Asif Ali Zardari, the President of Pakistan.

Reading that makes me hope that Obama has learned his Vietnam era history, even though he wants us to move beyond that era. In the later stages of our Southeast Asian adventure, the U.S. was playing mix and match implanting illegitimate local strongmen not only in Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia. None of that did anything but kill and immiserate more people. Let's hope Obama declines to get involved in trying to "fix" Afghan and Pakistani politics -- that's a recipe for generational war and hatred. (See also Descent into Chaos.)

In the pulling and hauling among folks trying to influence Obama's Afghanistan choices, there have been a few interesting contributions. By far the most cogent that I've seen came from one Dan Simpson, a retired career diplomat who once served as Ambassador to Somalia. He stated his rather dire conclusions in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Bottom line: The United States is not going to get matters in Pakistan under control.

Rest of the bottom line: If the United States can't get matters in Pakistan under control -- and as even Mr. Obama's own special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, has said, the problems in the two countries are inextricably linked -- Mr. Obama's escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan by adding thousands more U.S. troops simply is not going to work.

If it is not going to work, there is no reason to pursue it, spending more of our money and blood.

For the peace movement, regardless of what the President says tomorrow, he's already uttered the most important words he can say about Afghanistan:

"There's got to be an exit strategy. There's got to be a sense that this is not a perpetual drift."

BBC News

Unless he's prepared to repudiate that, he's given us a standard by which to measure U.S. involvement in Afghanistan: how does it lead to getting us out? That's really the only question left to answer -- the rest of "policy" is interim fluff, best ignored as deadly obfuscation.

Let's keep asking: What's the President doing to get us out of Afghanistan today?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ask the Prez your questions

Hey, she's using a Mac in this White House photo.

I don't know whether this does any good, but it is fun. I've just been over at the White House website throwing some questions into a frothing mix of citizen opinion about the economy. The "Open for Questions" link will accept queries until 9:30 am EDT Thursday, March 27. At 11:30 am tomorrow, the President will answer some. Here are the ones I submitted:

Financial Stability
"There used to be a notion called "usury" -- the immoral practice of charging (excessive) interest. Why are there no current legal limits on what credit card companies and lenders can charge? How about passing some?"

Health Care Reform
"I have a friend who is often hospitalized for chronic illness: AIDS and Crones. Then he is put out on the street with prescriptions but not the meds he needs. He ends up re-hospitalized. Can you cut out these bureaucratic screw ups? Death comes next."

"How can the people help push reluctant Congress people to fund health care, education and energy innovation?"

As we saw during the transition when the Obama folks did a similar experiment, the marijuana legalization folks are out in force. I've seen that in real world organizations too. Many of us, though sympathetic, do have other issues.

Who knows, you may have a better shot at getting answered than all those big shot newspaper reporters who are so peeved that Obama didn't call on them last night. They are annoyed that he called on no-count outfits like "Ebony magazine, Stars and Stripes, Univision, and Agence France-Presse." The dude is good at the small changes we need. Big ones will be harder.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Interesting pushback against Obama-nomics

There's lots of angst among the scribblers and chatterers that the administration isn't intervening forcefully enough to end the financial-banking aspect of the current economic crisis. My recent experience collecting pledges to support the Obama budget showed me that folks still have a lot of trust. But Wall Street insiders seem to still get richer; the rest of us feel confused and suspect we are being screwed. People are hurting.

A group called A New Way Forward thinks it is time for folks to take to the streets and make some demands on the powers that be. Their program is pretty simple.

NATIONALIZE: Experts agree on the means -- Insolvent banks that are too big to fail must incur a temporary FDIC intervention - no more blank check taxpayer handouts.

REORGANIZE: Current CEOs and board members must be removed and bonuses wiped out. The financial elite must share in the cost of what they have caused.

DECENTRALIZE: Banks must be broken up and sold back to the private market with new antitrust rules in place-- new banks, managed by new people. Any bank that's "too big to fail" means that it's too big for a free market to function.

Big bankers ruined our economy and now they are gaming the political system so they can profit even more off the crisis they caused. They must be stopped.

On April 11th, 2009, the public will come out in cities across the country to express their frustration and disapproval with how our elected officials have handled the economic crisis. No one has been left unscathed; this protest is yours.

About 20 cities have protests listed so far. Are we ready for viral protests about financial shenanigans?

This one may face some resistance because it is set for Easter weekend; this may not be a Christian country, but an awful lot of people and businesses veg out that weekend.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Petulant plutocrats

The banks' message [to the administration]: If you want our help to get credit flowing again to consumers and businesses, stop the rush to penalize our bonuses.

Wall Street Journal,
March 24, 2009

Isn't that behavior usually referred to as criminal extortion?

This is fun

LogoThere are
people with my name in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Iraq after six years

Laith writes from Baghdad:

Before 1979, Iraq was one of the best Arabic countries, people used to live a very good life. We used to have the best goods, the best factories and the best services but with the coming of Saddam to the presidency chair in 1979, everything changed. ...

When the US military started what they called Operation Iraq Freedom, I really felt so happy for one thing. I thought Iraq would be free again and we would have real government with politicians who really care about Iraq future and its people. I had a real big hope that services will be the best again and we would live happily again. I never thought that we would start killing each other for the sake of some strangers or to kidnap each other for money but I was completely wrong. I was sure that the American administration had planned very well for the stage after the war but I was wrong again. Nothing really changed in Iraq after six years. ...

I have to admit that after six years of the invasion, ALL MY DREAMS HAD GONE WITH THE WIND.

Collecting pledges with OFA

Because I'm a curious codger, I participated in this weekend's Organizing for America (OFA) project and collected signatures on a pledge to support the President's budget. I certainly do support his emphasis on education funding, a more sustainable energy policy and the need for universal health care, though I'd do more, more expensively, than he has proposed. But Obama's what we've got and we need him to be able to forge ahead on these priorities, so I'm happy to help.

The pledge form is non-specific. It certainly doesn't overwhelm anyone with policy details. It reads

I support President Obama's bold approach to renewing America's economy.

I will ask friends, family and neighbors to pledge their support for this plan.

My only criticism is that trying to make it easy for the folks doing data entry by putting each pledge on a single page mostly consisting of little boxes cedes the excitement you can get out of having a series of people sign on a list on the same page. That kind of form gives people a sense they are adhering to a movement.

Because I'm hobbled at the moment, I didn't go door to door, but rather collected pledges at our house party for World Water Day and then at church. The folks I signed up could be categorized as pretty politically sophisticated. If an election were a week away, you'd have a chance of getting them to do a little volunteer work. Not one of them suggested that Obama was failing because AIG profiteers got big bonuses or because Secretary of the Treasury Geithner's plan for the financial sector is too management friendly.

Folks seemed to recognize that Obama has inherited a colossal mess -- and are willing to give his efforts the benefit of the doubt. There was no sense whatever that in New York Times columnist Frank Rich's phrase, Obama is facing a "Katrina moment." We may eventually sour on the guy, but for now, the small sample I talked with aren't there or even very worried.

Maybe David Axelrod was right in his somewhat infamous pronouncement:

"People are not sitting around their kitchen tables thinking about [bonuses paid to insiders at bankrupt] AIG..."

Bonus: this O.F.A. pledge collection training video [7:36] is as good an example of volunteer training for a mass mobilization as I've ever seen.

World Water Day 2009

Last night a bunch of us got together to watch the film FLOW: For the Love of Water. The documentary asks "Can anyone really own water?"

Of course the usual suspects, the rapacious corporations that want to turn all human life into a source of profit, indeed intend to own the water. And in many places they do -- or try to. The film documents popular struggles over water in South Africa, India, Bolivia, and Michigan. The film's website provides a wide but not exhaustive list of organizations through which to get involved. Many of us last night have been involved through El Porvenir which works in rural Nicaragua. (More Nicaragua water stories here.)

World Water Day, marked annually on March 22, was called for by the United Nations to raise the visibility of water issues. A commenter from Nepal warns on the UN website: "the third world war will be about water."

In some ways, water is one of the world's easy populist issues. Very few of us are major stockholders in Nestle or the other water profiteers. We retain a pre-modern instinct that water is both life itself and a common good. Water as commodity is still strange -- well, maybe not to legions of gym-oriented, water bottle toting fitness fanatics, but to most of us. Reviving the common good culture about water seems within reach of determined campaigners.

Here in California, a desert made fertile by irrigation, we're going to forcibly discover that access to water is what has made the state work -- and that this access is in danger. Energy Secretary Steven Chu believes global warming, unless slowed, is going upset our equilibrium. First we'll see more droughts. Then

"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen," he told the Los Angeles Times in his first interview since taking the post. "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going."

U.K. Guardian,
February 4, 2009

Are we capable of imagining that much change? It's tough -- the same human historical memory that helps us understand that water is a common good makes it hard for us to apprehend that we might be making the planet into a very much less habitable place.

Friday, March 20, 2009


David Milliband is the U.K. Foreign Secretary. That doesn't mean he is not an idiot. Check out his assessment of the state of his country's (and ours) engagement in Afghanistan.

"It is not true that the Taleban are overwhelming our forces because in any conventional encounter they lose."

The same could have been said (and actually was) said about a certain bunch of uncooperative colonials back in the 1775-1783 era.

Imperial occupiers don't win against determined local foes unless they (and their citizens) are willing to murder indiscriminately, pour vast armies into the project, and stay indefinitely. The U.S-U.K. alliance has shown some willingness to do the first, usually from the air. There is no sign that people in either country will indefinitely support a long war of attrition and occupation against people who fight because they have nothing to lose.

The Afghanistan project is FUBAR -- fowled up beyond all recognition. The question is not whether the U.S. will get out -- but when. It's the business of engaged people to hasten that day by educating ourselves about this war and creating political pressure for an end.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Six years of Iraq war
with a pinch of class war

It was busy this noon in downtown San Francisco. Peace protesters reminded us that the U.S. assault on and occupation of Iraq is six years old today.

And we have to stand against future warmaking.

But we still try to hope another way is possible.

Down Montgomery Street, SEIU had turned out a small group of workers in front of Wells Fargo bank to speak for the Employee Free Choice Act and against bank bailouts.

"They get bailed out; we get pushed out" went the chant as workers marched over to the plaza in front of where the giant bloodsucking insurance company AIG has its offices.

Back at the peace demonstration, protesters had blocked Market Street. Police added to the congestion and methodically took them off to be cited.

One Code Pink protester displayed the perfect all purpose sign for the day.

I live in a good city where people try to take control of their lives despite the ravages of a ruthless economic system and its imperial pretensions.

San Francisco Chronicle on the ropes

On Tuesday I attended a strange event at San Francisco's main library billed as "A Conversation about the Chronicle," put on by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the event itself wasn't so strange -- but the fact that this adjective comes to mind when I think back over it says something about my relationship to the Chronicle. From the tenor of the discussion, I'm clearly not alone in reacting ambivalently to the newspaper's probable immanent demise.

There was an enormous panel -- all folks who in one way or another do or teach journalism. On this occasion, in two hours, many only got to say a few sentences. All were lit for TV broadcast. Rose Aguilar and Hana Baba from KALW moderated the proceedings and concurrent radio broadcast.

The crowd filled most seats, though not all were not raptly attentive.

So what did the panel have to say about the future of the local newspaper? Neil Henry of the UC Journalism school thinks one thing is clear: people are not now and won't be in the future buying newsprint publications.

Carl Hall from the Chroncle's unit of the California Media Workers Guild -- that is, the guy who has been having to negotiate with the Hearst Corporation -- urged "journalism should fight for itself." He pointed to the example of In Denver Times, a subscription daily put up on the web by former staffers of the now defunct Rocky Mountain News.

Dina Ibrahim, a professor of broadcast arts at SFSU, tried to point out that most people get whatever news they get from television. No one rose to that truth bait.

Left to right: Hana Baba standing, Ibrahim, Henry (Tom Murphy behind), Hall

Bruce Brugmann, owner, seer and non-union autocrat of the Bay Guardian, says that he's discovered the delights of blogging. He likes its speed. He also thinks we should fight to save the Chronicle. I didn't get quite why. Fortunately he's got an editorial in his paper here that outlines his opinion.

From the audience, a speaker pointed out that many parts of the San Francisco community feel that the Chronicle has left them. Somehow their concerns aren't there, there's "a giant disconnect" from the city as many live in it. He thinks it is an issue of class.

Ricardo Sandoval, assistant city editor of the Sacramento Bee, insisted that there is a market for coverage of the people newspapers usually ignore, for example immigrant communities. After all, for all the "crisis" of newspapers, 50 million people in this country do buy papers, so there's a big market somewhere! He said the Sac Bee is solvent.

Sandoval, Hana Baba and Martin Reynolds from the Oakland Tribune,

There were hopeful voices. David Weir, who co-founded the Center for Investigative Reporting in 1977, asserted that the newspaper "crisis" is just a small aspect of universal changes now happening, technological, social, and ecological. He has 'no fear for the future of journalism." Representatives of The Public Press and Spot.us confidently believe that new models of news delivery are here.

I don't think anyone on the panel felt they'd exhausted what they had to say. If you are really a glutton for punishment, the Media Workers Guild site has a link to the video of the event.

So what to do I think about the Chron's likely demise? Lots of things, no more coherent than this event:
  • It's always been a terrible paper, sensational rather than informative. I was stunned by how shallow it was when I first read it in 1965 -- and I am still often astonished.
  • On the other hand, balancing this out, it used to have a pleasantly idiosyncratic light touch: Herb Caen, of course, but also Art Hoppe.
  • Every once in a while, even in recent years, it committed some real journalism. These days it is proud of exposing athletes on steroids, but it should be more proud of its war coverage from Afghanistan and Iraq in the early days of those wars when most of the U.S. press was less searching.
  • It's local political advocacy has consistently favored the downtown profiteers who thrive on financial bubbles and who make life tough for mere working stiffs.
  • I love having its archives on line.
  • Mostly I think management has not been imaginative enough to run with change; they could figure out how to sell whatever it is people want if they weren't so wedded to an old model. But that's hard. Likely they'll cut their losses, possibly sell to some media entity that will gut the paper further and also fail, hundreds of people will lose jobs, and San Francisco will be a web and freebie paper town.
Then we'll all figure out how to get whatever news it is we really want. That part, I'm less concerned about.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

We still don't get it

From the New York Times yesterday, an article reports on administration officials negotiating with European Union functionaries:

Jacques Barrot, a European Union vice president who led the delegation, said the Europeans had made it clear that to accept detainees, European countries would need complete information on the prisoners. “Otherwise we cannot accept that responsibility,” he said. ...

The Obama administration has said that about 60 detainees who cannot be returned to their home countries for humanitarian or other reasons could be resettled in Europe, but some European officials have expressed concerns about possible security risks and about whether American intelligence agencies will share complete information about the prisoners.

I read things like this and wonder what makes anyone think U.S. intelligence agencies have complete or any meaningful information about the prisoners?

Today Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to General Colin Powell when Powell was George W.'s Secretary of State, confirms this in the context of an informed and impassioned effort to distance his former boss from the torture regime:

There are several dimensions to the debate over the U.S. prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that the media have largely missed and, thus, of which the American people are almost completely unaware. For that matter, few within the government who were not directly involved are aware either.

The first of these is the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the U.S. operations there. Simply stated, no meaningful attempt at discrimination was made in-country by competent officials, civilian or military, as to who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation. ...

The second dimension that is largely unreported is that several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.

But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror and these leaders already had black marks enough: the dead in a field in Pennsylvania, in the ashes of the Pentagon, and in the ruins of the World Trade Towers. They were not about to admit to their further errors at Guantanamo Bay. ...

Do read the whole thing. Wilkerson is wroth.

And Wilkerson doesn't even mention the "black prisons" the Obama administration seems intent on maintain out of sight at Bagram in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It does little good to close Guantanamo if the underlying edifice of law-free detention still stands.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Theme of the day

Does this head roll next?

Perhaps Congress will spit out a tax on bonuses paid to financial wizards who are sucking at the public teat. Or hold hearings. Or something. Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic has an interesting take on the situation:

I don't know whether these gestures will mollify the public. If they do, then there wasn't really a populist backlash to begin with. If they don't, and the well of anger is deep, then I think President Obama will be granted collective permission to change the economic structure of this country in ways that we can't yet comprehend.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Afghanistan teach-in

With President Obama gearing up to make the U.S. war in Afghanistan "his war," it looks like we've got to do this again: tonight I attended a small "teach-in" about Afghanistan put on by the Berkeley Stop the War Coalition.

When President Bush went haring off in 2003 on his mission to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and grab Iraq's oil reserves, most of the U.S. peace movement went right along with him, taking our eyes off the mess we'd made in Afghanistan. It was tempting to do so -- Afghanistan was even more foreign and incomprehensible than Iraq. The place really had harbored Bin Laden, and far too many of our fellow citizens thought we had a right to take our revenge for 9/11 there. And Afghanistan became, out of necessity, the one area where Bush practiced a kind of multilateralism, bringing in NATO forces to replace the army that moved on to Iraq. So we looked away.

Now the peace movement will have to make up for its inattention. In all likelihood some combination of Afghan resistance, cost in a time of economic hardship, and regional power politics will eventually drive the U.S. from Afghanistan, just as similar forces are driving the U.S. from Iraq. But in this country, as we have in relation to Iraq, we must develop a peace constituency that keeps reminding our rulers that we want our occupations ended. We may not be able to force their hand, but we remain an important irritant in the gears of empire.

And so, it's time to educate ourselves about Afghanistan. There's a lot to learn. Tonight's speaker, Sonali Kolhatkar, of radio station KPFK's "Uprising," described the 30 years war that has washed over this remote central Asian country. Russians, Afghan Communists, U.S.-, Saudi-, and Pakistani-funded mujahedeen, drug lords, war lords, tribal militias, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, the U.S. Army, and NATO troops have all fought their way through its villages and towns since 1979. There's not much left to blow up, but there are still 32 million people trying to stay alive.

Kolhatkar draws hope from Afghan women, victims of the horrors that war has inflicted on their society, but also political actors who are demanding peace and security. In the book she co-authored with James Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan, she urges us not to stereotype these women. They are tough survivors. She asked us to learn the story of Malalai Joya, who spoke out against warlords while serving in parliament, about the Afghan Women's Mission, and to support Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). That last organization has a clear position on the war for the U.S. peace movement to ponder:

Neither the U.S., nor Jihadis and Taliban! Long Live the Struggle of Independent and Democratic forces of Afghanistan!

The existence of strong Afghan women's organizations, however much pushed off stage by decades of war, should give the U.S. peace movement somewhere to stand in opposing prolonged and escalated U.S. occupation there. One of the struggles of the peace movement since 9/11 has been that the indigenous forces fighting the U.S. in the countries we invaded were not anyone we wanted to support. The enemy of our enemy (our own country's imperial ambitions) couldn't be our friend. But Afghan women who want a peaceful country back are a force the U.S. peace movement can unequivocally support.

We have work to do.

This hurts

Mural in Leon, Nicargua

Headline: UN expert: North Korea commits widespread torture

Thought: well, that's one place in the world where the U.S. probably did not train the torturers...

Yes, I'm bitter sometimes.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Obama as "War President"

Mark Danner writes in the New York Review of Books about the leaked report of the International Committee of the Red Cross that describes in chilling detail how the United States under the Bush regime tortured 14 captured Islamist detainees. He says:

Extensive leaks to the press, from both officials supportive of and critical of the "alternative set of procedures," undermined what was supposed to be a highly secret program; those leaks, in large part a product of the great controversy the program provoked within the national security bureaucracy, eventually helped make it unsustainable.

What makes Danner think it became "unsustainable?"

Yes, we have another President who says "we do not torture" -- but we've heard that before. We've also seen a series of statements from the new administration that claim to back off Bush-era atrocities: there's an intent to close Guantanamo, a promise not to eviscerate laws duly passed by Congress with "signing statements," a promise of government transparency. Yet next to the nice words, the Obama regime maintains the U.S. "dark prison" at Bagram in Afghanistan, issues its own signing statements expressing an intent to buck Congressional mandates, and relies on a "state secrets" privilege to prevent judicial inquiries into the lawless rendition program that snatches up suspects around the globe and sometimes consigns them to torture.

After a couple of months, a pattern has emerged in Obama's actions: we are offered cosmetic reforms in Glenn Greenwald's excellent phrase followed by functional continuation of law-free executive power. Those of us who believe that this country should be a constitutional system of laws, not an executive monarch, still have our work cut out for us -- and this ruler is a better salesman than the last one.

The root of this assertion of unlimited extralegal executive power is that the Obama administration has adopted the same false premise that the Bush regime offered after 9/11: that the United States is "at war." What we are living is not a war. In 2001 we suffered a terrible crime -- and we made the choice to use the blunt instrument that came easily to hand and crush somebody with our bloated military. That power proved only capable of destruction, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Reconstruction proved beyond its capacities.

And though many of our troops and vast numbers of Iraqis and Afghans were maimed and died, the results were still not "wars" in any meaningful sense. A war -- especially one with any pretense to be called "just" -- is a life and death struggle between states and (in the modern era) their peoples. No terrorist threat actually endangered the ongoing life of the United States in 2001 -- none endangers it today. Even a nuclear attack in a U.S. city wouldn't endanger the country's continued existence. What we face is a technologically sophisticated international criminal gang, not a war.

The Obama administration probably actually knows that. It certainly knows that the wars it inherited from Bush are losing propositions. U.S. politics, including our society's pervasive acquiescence in macho militarism, will make it hard for Obama to resist being a "War President". He has sent that extra 17,000 troops to Afghanistan and he'll likely send more, even though most other countries involved and our own smartest intelligence services and think tanks doubt there's "a victory" to be won with more soldiers.

The "war" that isn't a war threatens to deform and overwhelm Obama's administration as surely as it brought low his unlamented predecessor. Unless he can extricate the country from its belligerent occupations and its fixation on military dominance, his domestic initiatives will be frustrated and subsumed in vainly trying to project a waning power.

So far, we see yet another individual in office who feels the need to exercise law-free power as a War President.

Not addressed to me

Because I'm always interested in electoral behavior, I've just read Andrew Gelman's Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.

Gelman provides a summary of the book's aim in his conclusion; he's out to refute a journalistic misconception.

We wrote this book as a corrective to what we see as persistent confusion about class in the American electoral process. On the one hand, it is natural to personify states -- to see Democrats winning rich states and to then assume that this implies that rich people now vote Democratic. In fact this is only true for a handful of rich states -- ironically, precisely those states where national journalists are likely to live.

Suburban Montgomery County is a Democratic stronghold -- but so is rural south Texas. ...

I get the point, but not being a journalist, but rather an electoral practitioner, it would never occur to me to make the assumption Gelman is critiquing. After all, there's usually readily available data about actual voting outcomes in particular geographical areas that have knowable socio-economic characteristics. I wouldn't dream of designing a campaign anywhere without digging into those patterns.

If you need it proved that rich people mostly vote Republican, but more so in poor states, this book does a good job. If you want data to suggest that richer people have somewhat more internally coherent political opinions and so are more like most journalists than are poorer people whose ideas look like a hodgepodge to their better off fellow citizens, that story is here. (That one, most people who have canvassed voters a bit could tell you.)

I guess I'm not the audience for this book. It proves, quite thoroughly, things I can't use.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Chronicle impersonates cat box liner

If the San Francisco Chronicle is going to print crap like that pictured above, it is hard to give a damn whether it survives its economic difficulties.

That headline is quite simply a Chamber of Commerce talking point against of the subject of the article. The substance is actually well captured in first sentences:

Washington - -- When Rep. George Miller of Martinez this week introduced "card check" legislation that would make it much easier for workers to organize, he plunged the Obama administration into a fight that has the potential to rival former President Bill Clinton's gays-in-the-military controversy.

Few issues raise more hackles on the right than this one. The Employee Free Choice Act is the bête noire of businesses, who say it would eliminate secret ballots in union elections.

An honest headline writer might have written something like "Labor measure introduced; angers big business". But no. Instead the Chron repeated what its own reporter called the arguments of "the right."

Interestingly, on the online version here, they've cleaned up the headline to read, "'Card check' labor bill stirs controversy". Much better.
Chronicle workers voted the inevitable today, okaying the concessions that will lead to 150 people losing jobs while those who remain see seniority gutted, longer work weeks and less benefits.

The Chron is almost certain to go under anyway; the model of selling advertisers the eyes of readers of print media is dying. Complaining about this is like complaining that monkish copyists, the fellows who produced those lovely illuminated manuscripts, were done in by the printing press. Technology has upended how people get information -- but the new modes have only increased demand. Some way will be found to profitably meet that demand; that's one of the rare functions I do trust the market to accomplish.