Sunday, January 31, 2010

What do we know and who knows it

On learning that Pew Research says only 26 percent of U.S. citizens know that it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster and thus enable the Senate to end debate and vote on a bill, I did what I often do when I want to get a slant on popular opinion: I asked my partner what she thought her students knew about this. She teaches college freshman at a moderately selective private college. Her young people seem a plausible slice of smart young people.

"Easy," she replied. "They all saw 'How a Bill Becomes a Law' in high school." Here's a YouTube version of this high school classic. [3:01]

Note there is no mention in this of the filibuster or other undemocratic aspects of legislative procedure -- no wonder folks don't know how Senate procedure is stifling democratic (small "d") government.

The Pew Survey linked to above is interesting. Only 32 percent of us know that every single Republican voted against health care reform. You can take the quiz yourself and see how well you line up with the general public.
Meanwhile, the progressive blogosphere is a agog because President Obama visited the Republican Congressional caucus meeting on Friday, took policy questions, and swatted the dim-witted drivel the Republicans offered out of the park -- all live on TV. Transcript is here. Here's the video. [85:56]

Here's an idea: how about something a little more demanding for our brilliant leader? It would be great to see whether he could interact so intelligently with people who have a little more intellectual heft. The President should go on live TV with a panel of folks who actually know something about health care reform and take a shot at explaining why the strangely contorted half-measures that Congress has come close to passing is good for us. Some suggestions for the panel:
  • Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) who has introduced health care reforms in 27 sessions of Congress;
  • Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) who champions drug importation to create price pressure on the pharmaceutical industry;
  • T. R. Reid, a journalist who has studied health care around the world;
  • Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Blogosphere health policy journalists who've done the work of helping hapless Democrats explain what they've come up with may be somewhat compromised, but Jonathan Cohn and Ezra Klein would make smart moderators.

Now that's a TV show I'd tune in to. I think this President might be up to it. But, unlike the Party of No, these folks would require him to work to make his points if they weren't too cowed.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
Bethany Center Senior Housing murals

San Francisco's Mission District has a lot of murals. My pick for the most original blend of building with art are the ones on the undistinguished boxy apartment block that is Bethany Center Senior Housing. I don't know anything about this place except what is on the website -- but I love it that they say they want to be more than "a reliable landlord." In San Francisco, a reliable landlord is a marvelous thing!

It would be pretty cool to live behind a window with this figure on its outside.

Or this very San Franciscan snapshot of another time.

This fellow could easily be a current resident.

They are having almost too good a time!

At ground level, artist Dan Fontes painted a ticket window in an exit alcove along with his credits. He called this enormous project "¡Salud!"

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bill Clinton and his historian

The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President is an oddity. The respected historian Taylor Branch (Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63) knew Bill and Hillary Clinton from way back in the trenches of George McGovern's ill-fated Presidential run. They weren't close, but there was trust. So when Clinton wanted to record real time accounts of his presidency for posterity (and his memoirs), Branch agreed to act as the interviewer in a secret oral history project. Over nearly 80 sessions, Branch prodded and encouraged the President to expound on what he was doing and what he cared about. Clinton kept the tapes (hidden away in a sock drawer from prying lawyers as the Republican's legal witch hunt against him increased in intensity), but after each round of talk, Branch made his own notes on Clinton's musings. This is the book Branch has made from those notes.

For me, reading this amounted to catching up on a decade in which I paid little attention to Washington. California was fighting, via ballot initiatives, over how to live through the transition from a majority white state into its multi-racial reality. There was lots of local work to do. I retained only three strong impressions of the Clinton presidency: 1) that many progressive friends were overly hopeful in 1992 and much disillusioned soon thereafter; 2) that Clinton was willing to gash the safety net for poor women and children by signing a Republican "welfare reform"; and 3) that the guy squandered his term because he couldn't keep his dick in his pants. Obviously I was not a Clinton fan.

This book did give me a more nuanced and somewhat more appreciative sense of Clinton. I do politics. Even if I don't much like them, I respect people who can engage in political struggles with clear sight and without personal rancor -- idealism is essential, but passions need balance or will turn sour. How could I not warm to a guy of whom Branch concludes:

He loved politics so much that he could speak almost fondly of his own defeats. ... He wanted to deal with the politics, win, lose or draw, because he loved it. He loved being with the people who hated him!

Those are qualities we need in a President, plus a self-confident maturity that Clinton didn't have. The current one might even be so well-balanced as to be a little scary.

Mostly during the 1990s, I ignored Washington's foreign activities. Like most folks my age, I was a little confused about the implications of the sudden collapse of my lifetime's permanent U.S. enemy, the whole Soviet bloc. And I don't think I was alone; actually, I think official policy was nearly as adrift as we the citizens. Certainly we didn't get any "peace dividend" -- remember that hope?

Consequently, I found this book interesting for its accounts of that decade's turmoil in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and especially Haiti, a country that gets more attention than it would have otherwise because Branch had a friendly acquaintance with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Clinton believed he took huge political risks when he restored Aristide to (a constrained) power after generals had overthrown him. His advisors and opinion polls wanted no U.S. involvement:

[General Colin] Powell was telling him that Haiti was a worthless, miserable country, governable only by the military...He explained to me that national polls had favored a U.S. invasion of Haiti briefly ... when thousands of desperate Haitians were washing up on the shores of Florida. ...The Coast Guard started diverting refugees to Guantanamo. People had cared about the refugees because they were black, and now they don't care because Haiti is black. "We've got racism working against us instead of for us," the president fumed. ...

I have to wonder whether we'll see a replay of this over the next few years -- or perhaps this is a slightly different nation. Meanwhile, it bodes well that Clinton (and Mrs. Clinton) are deeply involved again in Haitian relief.

Branch's book lags at times; it is very long and, like the conversations themselves, not tightly constructed. Many people will not be so indulgent of Clinton's weaknesses as Branch became. But it seems an honorable contribution to history's first draft.

Howard Zinn: thinking about Obama and our dreams

At Historians against War conference, 2006

Our job is not to give him a blank check or simply be cheerleaders. It was good that we were cheerleaders while he was running for office, but it's not good to be cheerleaders now. Because we want the country to go beyond where it has been in the past. We want to make a clean break from what it has been in the past. ...

Some people might say, "Well, what do you expect?" And the answer is that we expect a lot.

People say, "What, are you a dreamer?" And the answer is, yes, we're dreamers. We want it all. We want a peaceful world. We want an egalitarian world. We don't want war. We don't want capitalism. We want a decent society.

We better hold on to that dream -- because if we don't, we’ll sink closer and closer to this reality that we have, and that we don't want.

Alternet, May 2009

The activist historian, who managed to somehow mesh unflinching integrity with hope, will be missed.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama as jovial national daddy

I took in the State of the Union speech with the good folks of Organizing for America at Everett and Jones in downtown Oakland. The barbecue joint and music club is a grand community institution where the Obama campaign worked out of the back room for months. I can't imagine a more pleasant setting in which to watch an event I wasn't much looking forward to.

A lot of folks simply seemed to be having a good time, perhaps remembering endless hours of hard work during 2008.

Once Obama got going, he had this audience's attention.

I have plenty of criticisms. A spending freeze that omits the military part of the budget from scrutiny is nonsense. Obama's rationale for the "entitlement commission" he's determined to set up by executive order repeated a common falsehood: it is simply false that Social Security spending is out of control; SS costs as a percentage of GDP are pretty much flat. Medicare and Medicaid costs are skyrocketing -- mostly because U.S. providers insist on being paid twice what doctors and hospitals get in the rest of the world while insurers skim off their profits. You can't blame that on sick people. And I wish he didn't feel he had to talk tough about the remote "threat" of an Iranian bomb, a notion refuted by numerous CIA threat assessments.

And there was a lot to like too. The education section, helping students be less burdened by loans and aiding community colleges, pointed in great directions. It was good to hear him reiterate that he'll continue to wind down the Iraq occupation and begin some withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011. His advisers have been nowhere near so clear on that. What's not to like about making lobbyists disclose all their contacts with Congress; that will cause fits all over K Street -- it's burdensome and will drag a lot of dirt into the light should it ever happen. He even managed to sound hopeful about health care reform, more or less.

The best of the speech was its informal authority. He talked to these Congresscritters (and the Supreme Court) like the fractious first graders they act like. And they took it. They have to -- he's not personally cowed by them; he's willing to talk with them; it's clear they can't figure out how to handle him. He gave nice props to the House for passing the hard stuff it has tackled this year -- and by implication told the Senators they sucked, all with a lovely smile.

It was a pleasure to watch Joe Biden enjoying himself. It was a pleasure to see Nancy Pelosi simply enjoying his takedown of her silly brood -- I am often very critical of her as my Congresswoman, but she sure seems to be good at the role of Speaker that she so much sought.

I didn't expect to come away from the SOTU anything but mad and discouraged, but I was wrong. Just maybe, with enough popular pressure, Obama's presidency doesn't have to be a complete flop. All those happy people at Everett and Jones deserve more than a feckless failure.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Make a road where there is no road

Partners in Health was working in Haiti long before there was an earthquake. And Partners in Health will be there long after the TV cameras leave. PiH employs 11000 mostly local workers around the world, in 4000 in Haiti.

Poor people around the world, including this country, need access to health care that is well within the capacity of medical knowledge. The obstacles to provision of health care, around the world as well as in our own country, are social, not technical. We can work for health care for all here; we can help others work for health care for all in their own countries. It's called solidarity, an old fashioned virtue.

Video [2:30] from Boston Globe.

Great Blue Heron

When the storms stopped for a moment, this fellow showed himself in Golden Gate Park. Yes, that is a Great Blue -- he folded his neck when I pulled out my camera, masquerading as a Night Heron.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Obama's lovely little war

These people simply have no idea what they are doing -- except killing more people.

Obama slides into political imbecility

You may have heard this morning that the President intends to announce a budget "freeze" on discretionary spending -- not counting "security."

The Economist, not exactly a socialist rag, remarks:

If it weren't enough that the proposal treats voters as children and a serious problem as a political football to be kicked around, the president's plan also appears to endanger an economy that hasn't meaningfully raised employment in over a decade and it solidifies defence spending as the untouchable budget category, when in fact it should be anything but.

While administration flunkies try to tell us they'll only make smart cuts to "wasteful" programs, the largest item in the "wasteful" column is untouchable. In fact,'s worth noting that 30,000 additional troops in Afghanistan will cost $17 billion in 2011, almost exactly what is being cut from the budget by this maneuver.

Tim Fernholz, TAPPED

It was hard to imagine that any Democrat could govern as badly as the Bush regime, but we are rapidly getting there.

Managing an empire in decline is hard, maybe impossible, but our politicians of both parties are finding an endless supply of ways to make things worse. We the people are in for a very tough ride.

Health care reform shorts:
Get on with it, already

In today's email from my Congresscritter Nancy Pelosi, I was glad to see this:

[In the last session of Congress,] the House and Senate both passed landmark health insurance reform legislation that will lower costs to consumers, preserve and provide choice of doctors and health plans, ensure peace of mind that coverage can't be delayed or denied, and expand access to affordable health coverage for millions of Americans. I look forward to sending a final bill that meets these core principles of health insurance reform to the President's desk as soon as possible.

The contours of how to move on are totally obvious: compromise and fix as much as of the accumulated dreck in the existing Senate bill as possible through an amending reconciliation measure requiring only 50 votes. Then the House passes the existing Senate bill with the reconciliation amendments. No obstructing Republicans need be involved.

Democrats look like champions, not chumps.

How complicated is that? Everyone needs to call their Democratic reps and demand action.

And let's stop blaming the screaming Left for the difficulties getting this done. When the Left screams, it is because people are dying for lack of health care and fear (or fact) of bankruptcy. Progressives have compromised away single payer, and medicare for all, and the public option for next to nothing. If this crashes, it is not their fault. And it need not crash.

I don't know the original source of the graphic on this post. It came to me passed around in email, possibly in union circles.

Monday, January 25, 2010

One person, one vote fantasy

This map shows what dividing the country into 50 states based on roughly equal populations of about 5-6 million people while retaining some respect for existing boundaries could look like. Click on the map for a larger view. Such an arrangement would give us a Senate -- still with the two representatives for each state -- in which every Senator represented roughly the same number of people. If we are serious about the idea that each citizen's vote should give that citizen equal representation, we'd need to move to something like this. The map is the work of Fake is the new real; by way of James Fallows.

Alternatively, we could simply decide as a country that retaining the Senate is so grossly undemocratic (small "d") that it should be done away with altogether. Think how much less we could spend on elections -- and how much fairer our democracy would be to all its citizens. Californians should be especially attracted to such a solution. As Harold Meyerson wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times,

When the Constitution was adopted in 1787, the representational disparities inherent in a system that accords all states the same number of senators had yet to reach absurd proportions. In the 1790 census, there were 11 Virginians (residents of the largest state) for every one Rhode Islander (residents of the smallest). Today, there are 68 Californians for every resident of Wyoming. Constitutionally, Californians are the most underrepresented Americans in the Senate by a large margin.

Obviously neither redrawing the states nor abolishing the Senate are likely reforms. But the Constitution mandates an anti-democratic legislative body that turns itself into a further impediment to democratic governance by adhering to voluntarily adopted rules that render it a useless logjam.

Something is going to have to give. Getting the Senate to work -- or getting rid of it -- has become a necessity if the U.S. government wants to continue to claim to be democratic. Do we have the political creativity and the gumption to solve this democratic impasse?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Nominate an exemplary citizen

The morning after the Massachusetts election debacle, I got one of those emails those of us who've continued with Organizing for America (OFA) are peppered with. It came in the name of Michelle Obama; they want nominees for the Presidential Citizen's Medal:

This year, the President will be looking for several qualities in the special few he honors: people who have demonstrated a commitment to service in their own community or in communities farther from home; who have helped their country or their fellow citizens through one or more extraordinary acts; whose service relates to a long-term or persistent problem; or whose service has had a sustained impact on others’ lives and provided inspiration for others to serve ...

Here's the video invitation [1:43] that went with the email:

Not feeling that the White House had been doing all it could for the country, I decided I would send a nomination. Here's what I wrote:

Van Jones has bounced through more identities, all seeking the common good as he understood it at the time, than most of us even contemplate.

Raised in Jackson, TN, he graduated from University of Tennessee at Martin in 1986.

After internships at several southern newspapers, he went on to Yale Law School where he responded to that elite, white environment by entering a Black nationalist phase in which he called upon his community to improve itself.

In 1992 he came to San Francisco to intern at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, saw injustice in prosecutions of young people arrested during protests when police assailants of Rodney King were let off the hook for the beating, and became a convinced leftist campaigner for all victims of injustice. His work against police brutality became Police Watch, which morphed into the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which spawned the "Books Not Bars" campaign to reduce youth incarceration.

Seeing the planet under threat from human-induced climate change and poor communities in need of stable, good paying jobs, Jones threw himself into Green for All, an environmental justice effort to offer employment fixing the problem to people who need jobs to make a better life in their communities.

Jones is also a deeply spiritual person and an enthusiastic father.

Jones served briefly in the President's administration working on environmental policy until the Right smeared him over the ordinary detritus of life campaigning for justice.

Somehow I don't think they'll select my friend Van. But he seemed an inspiring example of exemplary citizenship.

You can make your own nominations until January 28 at this site.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Message to Democratic politicians

How about this for a Super Bowl ad? [1:01] Sexist, but on point.

Via Salon.

Saturday scenes and scenery:
Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Two weeks ago, on a morning that drew out the surfers, the ocean looked like this. This is cold California; they wear wetsuits.

This past week, at a rare interval between squalls, the ocean looked more like this.

Or this.

I took that last one from the edge of the southbound lane of the Great Highway between Sloat Blvd. and Fort Funston, a stretch of road that has since been closed until further notice because the ocean is undermining it.

Ah, an El Niño winter. Less than an hour later I was caught out running in a windwhipped thundersquall.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Money in politics

So yesterday the Supreme Court decided that corporations have a right to buy as many politicians as their cash flow allows in the interest of "free speech."

Here's how the good, honest government advocates at Common Cause responded:

"The Roberts Court today made a bad situation worse," said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. "This decision allows Wall Street to tap its vast corporate profits to drown out the voice of the public in our democracy."

I don't doubt he's describing the real world. But it may surprise readers of this blog to hear that I also am no particular fan of campaign finance reform as it has usually existed.

I work in campaigns. Campaigns require money. Campaigns that anyone beyond the candidates gives a damn about attract money. Campaign finance law sets the rules for how that money will flow and be disclosed. Since there must and will be a money flow, campaigns then devote themselves to finding a way to do with whatever money might be available what they think they need to do without egregiously breaking the law. Campaigns become a full employment project for finance lawyers, accountants and other experts. Well-financed campaigns figure out how to get around the regulatory maze created by "reform." Outsider campaigns are far more likely to get dinged for sloppy reporting or lack of financial creativity. Does that help achieve democratic equity?

This video discussion of the Supreme Court's decision is much longer -- 22:45 -- than I usually post on this blog. And it is utterly worth watching in full. Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken has nuanced thoughts on issues of money and free speech. If she's right, the decision will almost certainly increase outright corruption in the form of lobbyists "ingratiating" themselves with office holders. But she also has some notions for a progressive fightback that I think we need to listen to. If the latest gift from George W. Bush's Supremes has you scared and pissed off, please watch this and think about it.

OFA: left high and dry?

According to Ari Melber's report Year One of Organizing for America: The Permanent Field Campaign in a Digital Age, the preponderance of the work the 13 million folks on Obama's email list have participated in over the past year has been supporting, without legislative specifics or targeting, ill-defined "health care reform." This has been fully 44 percent of all OFA did. (Internal community maintenance came in as the next most frequent ask; I've got a future post on that aspect of OFA.)

The high water mark of citizen-initiated contribution to OFA's healthcare reform work was probably Eric Hurt's video ad that won an OFA contest from among over 1000 entries. Hurt went for the gut. His raw message is just as true today as it was in November when David Plouffe announced its win.

Melber outlines the contradictions the OFA project is trying to surmount. Here's the core:

OFA's legislative posture -- not whether it runs a permanent field campaign, but who the program targets -- cuts across most of the issues facing the organization. The permanent campaign may be less controversial .., if it is primarily waged on behalf of established allies. In turn, however, it becomes less effective when the most pivotal members of Congress receive the least contact and pressure from Obama supporters. And it may be less sustainable, if volunteers conclude that their primary role is to reinforce and thank incumbent allies, rather than actually change the pressure dynamics or voting patterns in Congress.

There was certainly pushback from members who wanted more targeted efforts -- I saw some in meetings I attended. Here's a story from someone writing as "mminka," unusual perhaps in its sophistication, but not unrepresentative what more experienced political activists have felt in OFA.

I worked with OFA on this cause and I liked my group but they were politically soft, and the leadership was also. For example, I suggested we do 'die-ins' where we could all fall down dead in large numbers around the houses or offices of representatives who were opposing reform, to dramatize the stakes in way that anyone, even a reporter, could understand.

They just did not understand what I was talking about. This was too dramatic and extreme for them. They chose to do supportive action, like helping out the Food Bank, to spread vague, generic good will.

And so what happened? The direct and dramatic expression of principal [sic] was ceded to the right - from Obama on down.

Melber, rightly I think, points out that for many (most?) folks who have stuck with OFA,

supporters are interested in the campaign connection to Obama as a person, rather than the agenda-oriented content.

They want to go on feeling that inspiration they reveled in during the competition of the 2008 campaign. And while they may not be very well-informed about policy or governance, they are definitely ready to be "fired up."

I have to wonder what's going to be left of OFA if Democratic politicians, scared chickenshit by losing one Massachusetts election, walk away from health care reform? Not good. And since OFA invested not at all in teaching its troops how the process works, none of Democratic Congresspeople's process excuses are going mean a damn thing to the troops. I imagine they'll feel a bit dumped.

Yet today President Obama, the charismatic figure who pulled them into being, offered nothing more than letting the "dust settle" on the issue he called them to work on. Not very "fired up," that. Yes. activists are likely feeling hung out to dry.

My latest OFA email asked me to organize a State of the Union viewing session for next Wednesday. Can Obama hold these folks? Guess he's going to try.

OFA volunteers got to replicate the work that most of them know best last week in the Massachusetts election, trying to drive turnout for Coakley. Despite making some million or more calls, obviously they didn't ride to the rescue -- nor could they have been expected to. Field can amplify an otherwise successful campaign -- maybe picking up a percentage point or so -- but not replace a feeble campaign. I believe the research that finds long distance phone calling as of doubtful utility.

In fact, I more and more suspect that mobilizing a large volunteer base, in itself, is what gives a campaign momentum as much or more than the work volunteers accomplish. The campaign gets the benefit of the ripple effect from all those volunteers' social networks and that is a boost of some importance. If anyone had that in Massachusetts, it was Brown.

I've written repeatedly about my experience with OFA on this blog; here's a list of OFA posts:
Obama for America is coming, Day of Service, Collecting support pledges, OFA: listening and learning, Health care and playing defense, Health care reform pressure.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Looking at the horror

One year ago, President Obama said he'd close the Guantanamo prison camp within a year. He hasn't.

Nor has his Justice Department been willing to even investigate, much less prosecute or punish, people who committed the crimes of torture and murder of prisoners. In fact, the new administration is now party to the cover-up, eager to hush up what was done by agents of the U.S. government. In general, U.S. media just want to forget about it.

So do most of us -- who wants to think about horrible things, even if true? We'd rather forget things like this implausible official story of the deaths in 2006 of three inmates in separate cells.

According to the NCIS documents, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.

...The fact that at least two of the prisoners also had cloth masks affixed to their faces, presumably to prevent the expulsion of the rags from their mouths, went unremarked by the NCIS ...

Great work, NCIS -- you'll never make it on the TV series.

Scott Horton of Harpers has just published credible accounts from U.S. military personnel then serving at Guantanamo that make it seem far more likely that these guys were pulled out of the cellblocks, taken to a mysterious out building staffed by mysterious "other" personnel -- and came back as corpses. The bodies of the men -- who had been cleared of terrorist connections -- were eventually returned to their relatives (minus their necks) and the relatives say they showed signs of torture.

The Obama Justice Department considers past investigations quite adequate. I write about this here to urge anyone reading this to go read Horton's meticulously researched story -- you aren't going to hear about it from U.S. media.

You aren't going to hear this one either.

It is not hot stabbing pain that Omar Deghayes remembers from the day a Guantanamo guard blinded him, but the cool sen­sation of fingers being stabbed deep into his eyeballs. He had joined other prisoners in protesting against a new humiliation – inmates ­being forced to take off their trousers and walk round in their pants – and a group of guards had entered his cell to punish him. He was held down and bound with chains.

"I didn't realise what was going on until the guy had pushed his fingers ­inside my eyes and I could feel the coldness of his fingers. Then I realised he was trying to gouge out my eyes," Deghayes says. He wanted to scream in agony, but was determined not to give his torturers the satisfaction. Then the officer standing over him instructed the eye-stabber to push harder. "When he pulled his hands out, I remember I couldn't see anything – I'd lost sight completely in both eyes." Deghayes was dumped in a cell, fluid streaming from his eyes.

The sight in his left eye returned over the following days, but he is still blind in his right eye.

The Guardian, U.K. 1/21/2010

The Guardian is a mainstream newspaper in Britain. The world is hearing about Mr. Deghayes, but not people in this disgraced country. Actually Deghayes' story is quite inspiring -- go read that one to0.

And over the next few days, at least join Amnesty International in a campaign for a U.S. Torture Commission to bring these things to light. That's not enough -- but it's one thing we can and must do to repudiate our country's offenses against human life and dignity.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Democrats' Massachusetts debacle

Boston Globe

With Scott Brown having won, Democrats will have the same Senate margin they had this time last year, 59 votes. We all now know that the Senate has chosen to adopt procedures that hamstring it. So Democrats will have to get tougher and smarter if they want to get anything done. I don't believe even the Senate can be tied up forever by a minority IF the majority actually wants to do anything. The Dems problem is that it is not clear they'd rather do anything more than posturing in divergent directions. No wonder there is an enthusiasm gap.

Losing a Massachusetts statewide election to a Republican wouldn't be quite such a shock if folks remembered more of the state's political history. Though Kennedys owned the turf, the state elected Republican governors from 1991 through 2007. Obviously there is a Republican base there.

I haven't worked politically in Massachusetts since walking precincts for Fr. Robert Drinan in 1970, but a contentious post from Al Giordano today rings true for me as a political junkie who observes the Commonwealth frequently.

Truth is, Massachusetts' reputation as a progressive electoral bastion – dating back to 1972 when it was the only state to support Democrat George McGovern against President Richard Nixon (leading to a plethora of bumper-stickers that said, "Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts") – is undeserved. ... Its capital city of Boston is the most segregated major city, racially speaking, perhaps in the United States. (And it was the Far North bastion of opposition to public school integration long after the Deep South had stepped into the future.)

Which is why Governor Deval Patrick's 2006 gubernatorial triumph was a big step forward for the Bay State electorate.

But the Massachusetts Democratic primary [base] electorate is one inordinately influenced by State House hacks in one corner and politically-correct practitioners of "identity politics" activism and such in the other, and regularly in the dysfunctional push-and-shove between the two, the Massachusetts Democratic Party falls so out of touch with the public that it takes a big electoral hit.

I might put that a little more generously: Massachusetts often feels as if it had two Democratic parties. One is traditional, white, Catholic, and working class, at least culturally. These folks gave Hilary Clinton her huge victory in the 2008 primary in the state. The other Democratic party is more urban, black and brown, gay and also catches up the mostly white "cultural creatives" who tend cluster in educational centers and technology hubs. Neither set much likes "dumb wars," the former because their kids get killed in them, the latter because they reject U.S. imperial over-reach. Sometimes these folks get going in the same direction; then they overwhelm the exurban, mostly white, mostly libertarian-oriented Republicans.

Though Barack Obama had no trouble blasting to victory in Massachusetts in November 2008, the state's configuration of Democratic factions is not his essential coalition. Bush's dismal record of failure, the economic implosion, and a national yearning for change made his big win possible
for Obama -- as I wrote two years ago --

... to birth a national coalition ... which doesn't quite have a secure demographic base, though such a base seems visible on the horizon.

Today in Massachusetts the stress points in that coalition showed themselves again. Coakley won in Boston and the parts of Western Mass where she should have won, but not by as much as she needed. Very likely the fissures in the Democratic coalition will show up again nationally next November unless the White House political operation can figure out how to put Humpty Dumpy together again. It's a tough job, since Humpty Dumpty is only barely out of the fetal stage.
Coakley seems to have been lousy at the business of running for office -- but much as they'd like it, that shouldn't get the President and Democratic leaders off the hook for this loss. Coakley's pollster, Celinda Lake is almost certainly right about the underlying dynamic:

"If Scott Brown wins tonight he'll win because he became the change-oriented candidate. Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it. And right now they think they've got economic policies for Washington that are delivering more for banks than Main Street."

... Lake said that the problem for Democrats is that voters are blaming them for the nation's poor economic conditions. "2010 is fast turning out to be a blame election and I think that either we are going to characterize who deserves the blame - whether that's banks and lobbyists and people who still want to hold on to national Republican economic strategies - or we're going to get the blame. And that's a very different tone than, often, the administration is comfortable with," she said.

The feeling among voters, said Lake, is that Washington prioritizes Wall Street over Main Street and that, despite Coakley's credentials as a state attorney general who has taken on and beaten Wall Street banks, sending her to Washington would not make a difference. "On the eve of the election, Martha Coakley had a 21-point advantage over Scott Brown on who would fight Wall Street and deliver for Main Street. But it didn't predict to the vote, because voters thought, even if they sent her down here that it wouldn't happen. ...Voters are voting for change and we have to go back to that change message. And we have to deliver on change, especially an economic policy that serves working people."

If the White House decides to understand its weakness as pushing too hard too fast (as mainstream media and the Republicans will push them to) expect a blood bath for Democrats in November. Obama got to office by selling a vision of dynamic movement forward; his coalition is fragile when mired in inactivity. It just barely exists on its best days. It's still trying to be born, to come into its own. It withers when left to lie around, waiting for politicians and political fights formed in a different U.S. era to get themselves moving.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Winter wildlife

The seasonal rains have finally come to San Francisco. During a break in the drenching torents, I took a run around Lake Merced. The native fauna had come out.



After jumping over the slow moving slugs, I came upon this fellow.



The bird was remarkably calm about being approached by a human with a camera phone.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Mass. Senate election: how long is the winner's term?

Since it took me some time to find an answer to this, I figure others might be interested. The winner of tomorrow's election will be in office through 2012, completing Ted Kennedy's term that began in 2006. So think of this as close to a three-year Senate term.

I hope Martha Coakley wins. Her weakness reminds me of California Democratic party leaders, ineffectual and insipid. Andrew Sullivan speaks for me on this:

The Republican party right now is largely bonkers. The Democratic party is a lily-livered hackfest of mediocrity.

And I'm no independent. I work politically as a Democrat, believing progressives have to work through what avenues are available to us. But a politics that fails either to engage ordinary people's pains or to inspire their hopes kills democracy.

Should Coakley lose, expect the Democrats in the Senate to become more interested in breaking down the anti-majoritarian features of that body a year sooner than they would have otherwise.

We need a revolution of values ...

Dr. King speaking to some DFHs (dirty f--king hippies) in California 42 years ago [10:42]:

Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but he is a molder of consensus.

And on some positions
cowardice asks the question is it safe
expediency asks the question is it politic
vanity asks the question is it popular
but conscience asks the question is it right?

And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.

Can human society live with such people? Can it live without them?

MARTIN LUTHER KING AT SANTA RITA produced by Colin Edwards.
RECORDED: Santa Rita, California, 14 Jan. 1968.
BROADCAST: KPFA, 15 Jan. 1968. (23 min.)BB1460 Pacifica Radio Archives.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Woodfin workers still keeping on ... and on

Supporters of workers denied their lawful pay were outside the Emeryville Woodfin Suites Hotel again Saturday morning delivering a "wake-up call" from a colorful picket line. Inside, members of the Institute of Management Consultants were holding a conference.

The hotel has been ordered by Superior Court Judge Steven Brick to pay some $200,000 in back wages to workers to bring the hotel into line with the East Bay city's living wage ordinance passed by referendum in 2005. Instead of complying, the hotel has tried to sic immigration authorities on the housekeepers it refuses to pay, tried and failed to overturn the law in the courts, and just days ago presented the city of Emeryville with a preposterous bill for $500,000 in legal fees for the litigation it has repeatedly lost.


The East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy which was instrumental in passing the original wage ordinance has organized a boycott in supporter the workers.

The ongoing struggle at the Woodfin points up again two reforms that the 2008 Democratic campaign seemed to promise -- and which so far have gotten no action from Obama and the Congress:
  • Labor law reform that would put some teeth into worker's theoretical right to form a union to bargain for them. As it stands, existing labor law is so weak that companies can simply treat any costs of violating standards or firing labor sympathizers as a minor cost of doing a profitable business.
  • Fair immigration reform that would bring undocumented workers out of the anxious shadows via a formal path to legalization. Huge numbers of the low wage work force are currently undocumented and employers find that a benefit as most dare not complain about any abuses they suffer in the workplace. The whole society suffers when millions of workers cannot complain when mistreated by their bosses.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
Patagonian flora & fauna

In general, the close-ups of small things were taken by my partner who loves her camera's micro capacity. I shoot the more distant shots. The guanacos at the end of the show were several hundred feet away.

Should the slideshow fail on your browser, you can see the set here.

U.S. Marines winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan

Western (U.S. and European?) troops and Afghan security forces were accused of desecrating a Koran during a night raid. There was a protest in Garmsir, in southern Afghanistan and apparently local Taliban leaders whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and some say they started throwing rocks at troops. Troops opened fire, killing 8 or so civilians. [2:32]

Two days later Marines and Afghan troops fired on a protesting crowd of civilians in the same area, killing five.

The Taliban may be instigating these incidents, but the dead people are Afghans and we can assume U.S. troops aren't making a lot of friends. Our government has dropped them in a hostile place where they don't begin to know how to cope. So they do what they are trained to do: blow away the hostiles.

This war is nuts and will end badly.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Senator who believed we can

Bumping along in a public bus over the pampas in Chile and Argentina over Christmas (a great form of travel; very comfortable), I read Senator Edward Kennedy's posthumously published memoir True Compass as an audiobook. It was a good way to encounter Kennedy's story -- and my idea of easy travel reading.

I should preface this by admitting that I've never been much of a Kennedy fan -- or even someone who thought of Ted Kennedy as a progressive champion. Despite my own last name and long-gone forbears, I don't like the dynasties in U.S. politics. And in comparison to his brothers whose times I do recall, "Teddy" never seemed more than the young pretender. Add to that, he kept getting into woman trouble. My lack of much sense of Kennedy probably had a good deal to do with being in California -- perhaps if I'd been an Easterner I'd have had a more nuanced sense of him.

Anyway, in consequence, True Compass contained a lot that was new to me. His childhood sounded, by turns, wonderfully supportive and just utterly awful for the last little boy in that enormous, hyperactive, striving family. It was a revelation that young Teddy was molested as a schoolboy; notably, he specifically describes the cruel acts a teacher inflicted on other students, but not what was done to him. Some details were too awful to reveal, even at the end.

I was very struck that, writing last year, Kennedy still presented 1963 -- the year President Jack Kennedy was killed, as a kind of fulcrum in his life. It took many further years, another murdered brother, a failed presidential run in 1980, a broken marriage, and standing up against Ronald Reagan's disdain for using government to improve ordinary life, before he came into his own.

In True Compass, Kennedy movingly records how, as late as 1994, the family legacy of achievement and tragedy inhibited him from claiming his own successes. In that year, he defeated the most serous challenge he ever faced for the Massachusetts Senate seat, one from Mitt Romney (these guys recur). In a spirited campaign he overcame voters' feelings that he had left their concerns to become a remote, liberal Washington pooh-bah, no longer a good Irish Catholic boy from white Boston. It took his second wife, Vicki, forcefully reminding him that he had won the campaign himself, not his family, for him to be able to feel the fullness of a difficult achievement.

Through a long career, he was there for a series of causes that needed a supportive Senator who was good at moving things through that dysfunctional legislative body. He was solid on civil rights, Native American concerns, women's rights (including choice) and gay rights long before it was commonplace for Democrats to say all the right things. Because he scarcely had to campaign to hold his seat, he had the opportunity to learn how policy works -- how to govern. That's more of a rarity than we realize in politicians; many never get the chance to dig into the jobs they scrap so hard to win.

Kennedy seems to have been a "yes we can" sort of person throughout, even when his personal life was a mess. He believed the duty of people in office was to inspire. In this respect, his assessment of Ronald Reagan expressed his deepest beliefs. Though he acknowledges that many revered him, Reagan "did not meet the ultimate criteria of greatness. .. he led the country in the wrong direction, sensing and playing to its worse impulses ..." He cites Reagan's kow-towing to Southern white racism and his scolding "phantom welfare-queens." Kennedy believed there was a better way to lead:

Experience has taught me that genuine, principled leadership can persuade our people that their enlightened self-interest lies to the left. The historic gains of the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society attest to that. I maintained my conviction that the working class majority forged by Roosevelt remained our best hope for justice and progress.

I have to admit, I wish I could hear a much better communicator, Barack Obama, say that so forthrightly. Maybe it took the assurance of a Massachusetts patrician to speak so clearly about class.

True Compass is too long, too detailed in places. I don't know if I would have got through it in print; there's more in it than I really wanted to know about Edward Kennedy's personal insecurities, especially as recounted with a mature distance from them. It is self-indulgent in places. Maybe if Kennedy had been more healthy, it could have been edited more tightly.

But I'm glad to have read the book. Kennedy was a better, more complicated man and politician than I ever realized. We already miss him in the dreadful Senate.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Season creep again

This was in the email this morning.

It seems a bit premature when much of the country still looks like this.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


The BBC is reporting that as many as half a million 50000 people may have been killed by the magnitude 7 earthquake that struck the capital of the impoverished Caribbean island. Because of longstanding pre-existing connections, this is an emergency in which donating through Episcopal Relief and Development will be as good an option as is possible in the context of horror and chaos.

2009 retrospective:
Why did the Obama administration blow the politics so badly?

I never expected the new administration to be unreservedly progressive in its domestic agenda. Way back during the primaries, I wrote:

Once in office, any of [the Democratic hopefuls] would require frequent kicks in the pants from progressives to keep them marginally on our side. You see, I think there are sides. Does Obama believe in his heart that there are sides?

Unhappily it looks like the answer to that is more straightforward than I hoped. In office, Obama's "bi-partisan" inclinations have turned out to mean that he has not fought for any of his potentially progressive initiatives if there was a whisper of corporate or conservative pushback. As a result, we have an economic stimulus too small to save state budgets or get people back to work, a Treasury Department that rolls over and plays dead while the banks it just bailed out pay exorbitant bonuses to the crooks who did the dirty deeds, and a health care "reform" that omits elements that might have made it popular but that does delight insurers and medical profiteers.

This is not the stuff of winning politics. Pissing off your base is no way to cement your power. Looking like you are not doing the job is sure to frustrate "independents" who may have supported you in the past.

And that is what I find so surprising about the Obama administration's 2009 performance. I think the particular flavor of dissonance I'm feeling may be strongest for those of us who have a genuinely left-leaning view of U.S. politics. We saw the 2008 campaign as an unimaginable triumph against the country's original sin, its pervasive and apparently permanent need to define African-Americans as unequal, lesser beings. We saw Obama as an amazingly deft, even dazzling, politician, successfully trekking through a minefield never before traversed.

And so we are simply astonished that the administration has not managed to mollify its friends while it made the compromises that enable it to govern. Maybe they had to cut lousy deals with insurers and the pharmaceutical industry in order to get most people covered by some kind of insurance, however poorly. But if Obama could sell himself to the nation as an unthreatening Black man, why couldn't he have found some way to sell policy compromises as steps on the road to progress, even if he also had to reassure corporations he wouldn't take them down?

I guess he really isn't a political magician, any more than he is really a progressive. Too bad, the country needed both.

I have to speculate whether some of the apparent political tone-deafness of the Obama administration might derive from the man's experience as a community organizer. While the world at large thinks his organizing experience means that he has a progressive past, those of us who have been there also understand that he very likely has an instrumental slant on popular mobilization.

Community organizers out of the Alinsky school (that is Obama's background) know very well that people in disenfranchised communities have a welter of resentments and also survival strategies that make them ripe to be molded into a political force -- but they also have very little information about how to aim that force. That's where the organizer comes in, "assisting" communities in "cutting an issue," choosing what policy objective to focus their wrath and vigor upon. An organizer has enormous leeway in where to point his/her troops; most people are pretty open to taking direction on how to confront issues until they've accumulated some real wins. After that they may get independent and feisty, but if organizing succeeds, by then they've moved from outsiders to ordinary local politics.

Presumably Obama and his people took from the extraordinary success of the 2008 that they merely had to point and their organized people would go. But once the election was accomplished, the politically active class receded to encompass only the already active -- and such folks don't take policy direction very easily. So now Obama has a base feeling badly neglected.

The new year brings suggestions that the Obama people have begun to appreciate how demobilized the folks in their potential grassroots have become. Today brought email from Obama-confidant Valerie Jarrett inviting the list to presentations on administration accomplishments. But if you have to convince your friends you've done something, you are already behind the eight ball. They need to show, not tell. That will be hard after this disappointing year in office.

Most everyone else in the blogosphere who indulged in 2009 retrospectives got them done between Christmas and New Years -- I went to Patagonia. So I'm going to allow myself a few such items over the first few weeks of this year.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

2009 retrospective: Obama disappointment.
"Dumb wars" and security fears make for a law-free executive.

Displays like this are still common in San Francisco.

Like most progressives, I hoped for a lot from the new administration. And we evidently aren't going to get it, especially in the realm of our country's continued efforts to control rather than live in the world.

As everyone knows, the President who once opposed "dumb wars" has endorsed the dumb Afghan adventure where he cannot convincingly assert he has allies (Europeans? -- they want out), or a local partner (Karzai? -- who couldn't survive election without fraud and can't get his cabinet through his own Afghan parliament?) to go after al Qaida, a formless collection of angry religious nuts who aren't even located in Afghanistan. The inertia of empire is a strong force indeed. Confronted with it, the best the new prez can do is is try to limit over-reach while feeding the beast.

I never really thought the guy was going to be able to turn empire around on a dime. Eventually this country will bankrupt itself in these idiot adventures and may be able to take back the blank check from the bloated military and its contractors.

But I did hope that an Obama presidency would restore some confidence that we have a government of laws, not men. This was not to be. Utilizing the same rationale as his predecessor -- the demands of a non-existent perfect "security" -- this president has continued to govern from the fiction that the threat of terrorist outrages means we are "at war" and consequently the executive should exercise unconstrained powers.

Dahlia Lithwick at Slate offers a recent rundown of the slippery slope we're embarked upon. Current powers the president claims, especially continuing to hold Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release, amount to a repudiation of both rule of law and common sense. She concludes that

We have come so far from taking and holding prisoners, based on their own alleged bad acts, that we are justifying holding them forever based on imagined connections to the bad acts of others. ...

...If one accepts the claim that Guantanamo itself, in the words of the president on Tuesday, "has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda," every last prisoner at the camp becomes a walking argument against his own release. Not just because of what he may someday do to harm the United States, but because of what he may say to someone else who may in turn someday do something to harm the United States.

Go read this entire article -- it is clear and devastating.

Sadly, the excellent talking dog who has done a magnificent job since 2002 of chronicling the legal ins and out of the emerging dictatorial system has concluded about his former college classmate that

... the Obama approach to counter-terrorism is the same as George W. Bush's. Period.

Okay, so why should we care? This law-free regime has largely been used on poor and dopey foreign Muslim men. Abuse of the poor, the black and the brown by law enforcement is hardly a new feature of the U.S. system.

The current form of executive over-reach matters desperately because it undercuts the myth of an ever-improving, more free, more inclusive, more equal democracy that is Obama's own necessary mytho-history. The story goes: progress toward freedom is steady; the United States never goes backward. Oh sure, there are obvious hiccups along this blissful route -- Southern reconstruction and segregation beginning in the 1870s, Japanese internment during World War II -- but the basic trajectory is always upward toward freedom.

The Bush-Obama security program says no -- we can't afford to maintain the rule of law when confronted with a threat of terrorism. That's the horror of Obama's backsliding on the rule of law; it is a deep affront to the very essence of the hope he claims to represent.

Most everyone else in the blogosphere who indulged in 2009 retrospectives got them done between Christmas and New Years -- I went to Patagonia. So I'm going to allow myself a few such items over the first few weeks of this year.