Monday, May 31, 2010

Long past time to boycott pariah nation

Hundreds of peace activists, some solemn, some angry, turned out on a few hour's notice in downtown San Francisco this afternoon to express their outrage over Israel's attack on ships carrying humanitarian supplies to blocked Gaza.

The assault, which killed some number of the people bringing the supplies, confirms the truth of this gentleman's sign.

As Naomi Klein says,

It's time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa.

A tale for Memorial Day

This non-fiction narrative gave me nightmares. That's alright; I needed to know. I hate these wars that our rulers have plunged the United States into for the last decade. I think a lot about the Iraqis whose society has been torn apart; I think about the Afghans whose seemingly permanent state of war looks to be prolonged into an uncertain future. And especially on Memorial Day, I think also about the U.S. troops who've been dumped into a chaotic vortex of death and destruction.

Kelly Kennedy's They Fought for Each Other tells the story of an infantry battalion assigned to pacify the contested Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya in Baghdad at the height of the Iraqi sectarian civil war and the anti-occupation insurgency. Kennedy served herself in the first Gulf War and Somalia before being embedded with these grunts as a reporter for Army Times. She knew enough of their world to be able to genuinely get to know them while they were seeing 31 fellow soldiers killed and more maimed during a 15-month tour of duty that left the unit shredded and broken. These men dealt with the pain by caring for each other; who else could understand?

One of the aspects of the Iraq war that has seemed strangest to me is knowing that along with the U.S. Army have gone computers, air conditioning, TVs broadcasting U.S. channels, coffee bars, Burger Kings and Pizza Huts for the troops. But the amenities are not everywhere. Many U.S. troops at war live under tough conditions. The folks Kennedy embedded with certainly did: men slept in a basement that filled with sewage when it rained and seem to have lived on MREs ("meals ready to eat") for long periods. She tells the story of three senior sergeants summoned to the Green Zone for a ceremony -- and how they responded to the luxuries at headquarters.

Because Hendrix and his soldiers had arrived in the middle of the night, their hosts took them down to the kitchen and unlocked it. "Take whatever you need," the soldier told them, grinning, and then left them n their own. There were shelves and shelves of food. "Hey," Hendrix said. "Fill your pockets. Let's take some back for the guys." Laughing like teenagers, they pocketed M&Ms, granola bars, and glass bottles of Coke, making sure to take enough for their own late-night feast

The next morning, they awoke with big plans: breakfast, swimming pool, shopping.

But they were again stunned by the dining facility, where they found Belgian waffles with any kind of topping. They could order scrambled eggs or poached eggs or fried eggs or omelets -- or all of it. They had a choice: bacon, sausage, hash, or ham; pancakes, French toast, or biscuits; oatmeal, grits, or cereal. "Fill your pockets," Hendrix reminded his guys when he spotted packets of peanut butter and Gatorade mix.

One aspect of the current wars that comes through vividly is the stress that non-stop fighting puts on an all-volunteer force. Kennedy explains

Combat stress appears to be cumulative. The army conducted studies that show the more often a person deploys -- especially those who deploy for a year or longer -- the more likely that person is to develop PTSD.

For many of the men in this unit, Adhamiya was their second tour in Iraq. At home, new recruits were not rushing to join up in those years; the guys already in uniform were sometimes stop-lossed, under pressure to re-up, and the troops had been shaken down to primarily those for whom being in the military felt right. Then those few who had stuck with it were sent out to be chewed up, again and again.

The contemporary military is justly proud of how high a percentage of its soldiers survive battlefield injuries. (Dr. Atul Gawande chronicled this very clearly in his collection of essays Better.) Much of Kennedy's book consists of the stories of soldiers blown up by IEDs, some of whom who survived even with feet or legs severed, and some of whom bled out. But while the medical system is remarkably competent to repair bodies, it left the medics working the front lines feeling utterly inadequate to deal with the emotional and brain injuries they were seeing.

As the medics sat in the center of their aid station living space, a card game devolving into a bullshit session evolving into a serious discussion about how they could better take care of their men, they expressed frustration. They felt their biggest job had become dealing with mental health issues, but they didn't have as much Big-Army support as they needed.

Mental health, Smith said, took a backseat to everything else that had to be done before deploying. "Army-wide, the attitude is, 'We don't have time for that,' " he said, but he was preaching to the choir.

"The Army is choosing not to acknowledge that it's a problem because they couldn't deal with the repercussions of acknowledging it. It's obviously really hard on the men -- the things they see and go through. If you started to acknowledge that, it would be combat-ineffective. There would be too many people who would need help."

Those who survived too often found the Army on the home front completely unready to deal with the condition in which they returned. The military estimates that 20 percent of Iraq vets have war-related traumatic brain injuries. Kennedy follows Staff Sergeant Ian Newland's experiences. Newland survived a grenade blast because his friend Ross McGuiness threw himself on the explosive (McGuiness was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously). Sent back to base in Germany, he could see his buddies, also returned from the war zone, failing to get what they needed.

Because of the brain injury, the trauma of shrapnel wounds, and the combat stress he'd faced, he had been diagnosed with depression, confusion, migraines, and flashbacks. Some of the bits of shrapnel embedded in his limbs worked their way out, feeling like thick needles tearing through his flesh. The doctors had removed some pieces. Some, the doctors told him, would remain trapped in his limbs for the rest of his life. His jaw had been broken, he had nerve damage in his wrist, and he walked with a cane because of the damage to his thigh.

Every day he would call someone in the chain of command and explain why his soldiers needed someone to take care of them. And he warned them that if they didn't have a better mental health system in place when his battalion returned home, there'd be trouble. He worried that marriages would end, people would drive while intoxicated and take other risks, and that someone would commit suicide. Based on his own experiences, he had no doubt of that. He made sure people listened.

These guys did everything they could to take care of each other. Two soldiers, Ryan Wood and Gerry DeNardi, summed up their days in a ballad:

War, it degrades the heart
And poisons the mind
And we're tossed aside
By governments' lies
But we continue to grieve.
Memorial Day should remind us of these guys, as well as of the start of summer.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Diamondbacks draw crowd urging Arizona boycott

About 500 people marched from Embarcadero Plaza to AT&T Park to express their horror at Arizona's "papers please" law yesterday afternoon. They were supporting the huge march yesterday in Phoenix.


It was hard to tell the protesters from the Giants fans -- because so many of the protesters ARE Giants fans.

As the march passed one of the shiny waterfront restaurants, a waiter seemed pleased.

So did this passing cyclist.

All that marching around in the sun can wear a person out.

Among other good news of the day, the Giants crushed the D-backs!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
People who need government

Congresscritters have gone home for Memorial Day weekend. They need their break.

And as a result, an economic relief bill -- extending unemployment benefits, health insurance subsidies, supports for Medicare payments to doctors, and small business loans -- won't be acted on until sometime in June.

On Wednesday, people who need government help, who have nowhere else to go, rallied outside San Francisco City Hall preparatory to going inside to ask their elected officials not to balance the local budget on their backs. They set up a mock grave yard for the nonprofit helping agencies that are about to be gutted because city revenues have crashed during the recession. (That's Zhang Huan's Three Headed Buddha statute in the background.)

Supervisor Chris Daly spoke to the crowd.

The vibe was serious ...

determined ...

... resolved.

These folks will take a hit from the city budget, despite all the good will in the world from Supervisors. And they will take a hit from State Government which, like Washington, is disabled by Republican obstructionism and without the cash to pay the bills. And they'll take a hit from the Feds, who needed a break today.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Where would we be without her?

Yesterday when President Obama addressed questions about how the government is doing at protecting Gulf Coast states from BP's oil leaks, veteran pesky White House reporter Helen Thomas insisted he address the Afghanistan war.

Q -- Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don't give us this Bushism, "if we don't go there, they’ll all come here."

The President's answer was boilerplate: Osama bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks under the Taliban regime and we had to go into Afghanistan in response and al-Qaeda still has "affiliates" there ... "network of extremists" ...

Thomas broke in:

Q -- a threat to us?

That question goes to the heart of the issues raised by the ongoing Afghanistan war.

Does sending more and more troops reduce or increase the number of terrorists who intelligence agencies seem to agree are not currently in Afghanistan? Can the apparently endless war in Afghanistan be "won"? What would that mean? Does prolonging stalemated fighting -- killing more Afghans, many of them only bystanders -- achieve anything except making more enemies? Not to mention killing more U.S. soldiers - the toll recently passed 1000 ...

Neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration has made the case that fighting a permanent Afghan war is winning anything for us or for Afghans. Eventually the U.S. will leave -- this imperial outpost will become too costly for a declining superpower. Which U.S. politicians will dare cut our losses?

Keep asking Helen!

They are both dark colored and uncontrollable ...

Republican Senator James DeMint compares immigrants to the Gulf oil leak. [:47]

If any member of the Senate stood up today and said that we should not seal the oil leak in the Gulf until we have a comprehensive plan to clean it up, we would all say that that is absurd. Certainly we need to seal that leak as quickly as possible to minimize the cleanup later. But that is exactly the kind of logic that the President and my Democratic colleagues are using when it comes to immigration.

H/t Wonk Room.

Another oil spill, another time

On a visit to the newly renovated Oakland Museum of California, I was brought up short by a display of artifacts from California's revelatory introduction to the perils of offshore drilling.

In 1969, Union Oil's Platform A blew up off Santa Barbara, the most visible and largest human-caused oil disaster up to that time.

For eleven days, oil workers struggled to cap the rupture. During that time, 200,000 gallons of crude oil bubbled to the surface and was spread into a 800 square mile slick by winds and swells. Incoming tides brought the thick tar to beaches from Rincon Point to Goleta, marring 35 miles of coastline. Beaches with off-shore kelp forests were spared the worst as kelp fronds kept most of the tar from coming ashore. The slick also moved south, tarring Anacapa Island's Frenchy's Cove and beaches on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands.

Don't we wish that the extent of the current Gulf gusher were so small.

Here, exhibited among other '60s relics, is a preserved specimen of the tar that washed up on southern California beaches:

genuine sb beach tar.jpg

Within days of the spill Bud Bottoms helped form GOO -- Get Oil Out, an anti-offshore drilling advocacy group. He contributed his pictures to the exhibit.

wide shot of SB.jpg

Fury about the Santa Barbara spill was thought to have contributed to the founding of Earth Day the following spring and continuing Californian hostility to drilling, however fond we are of our cars.

sb souvenir.jpg

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How far has the Gulf oil spread? Weeks have passed ...

Three weeks ago the spill's extent could be pictured like this.

On May 21, the spill's extent superimposed on the San Francisco Bay looks like this. Oil has covered almost the entire bay, is lapping at the southern suburbs of Sacramento, and pushing into the Sierra foothills. This thing is enormous!

Here's the Gulf view.

You can look at the spill's extent superimposed over your area at Paul Rademacher's clever widget.

Shameful legal hypocrisy

I've written before (here and here) about my bafflement about the case of one Omar Khadr, the Canadian teenager captured in Afghanistan in 2002, threatened with rape by a U.S. interrogator at Bagram, held at Guantanamo ever since, and now on trial before the improvised Military Commissions that are such a prominent part of the Bush administration's legacy of corruption of law and justice.

Khadr is charged with throwing a grenade at U.S. troops during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, killing one soldier. His Islamist father had moved the family from Toronto to Pakistan and then Afghanistan where his children apparently played with Osama bin Laden's children when younger. In 2002, Khadr was staying with other Islamist youths when he allegedly threw the grenade. The house where he was located had been bombed; entering U.S. troops shot him twice from the back.

The story of the events that included Khadr's capture is awful, frightening -- and very confused. The more I have read about this, the more I have wondered under what law this kid has been charged.

I mean, come on ... suppose the United States had been invaded by some very alien, very scary people -- say North Korean true believers in Kim Jong Il. And then a Canadian teenager had responded to these strange, dangerous cultists by grabbing up a gun that his survivalist neighbor had hidden away. If he shot one of the invaders, wouldn't we celebrate him as a precocious hero? Of course we would. Being on the other end of the grenade, we don't think that way -- but it doesn't take much imagination to flip the story.

Anyway, now we are charging Khadr with murder. Today Scott Horton spelled out in Harpers how U.S. authorities make that case.

In the military commissions prosecution of the Canadian child warrior Omar Khadr, the United States charges murder and attempted murder in violation of the laws of war, in connection with an incident in which a grenade was hurled at American soldiers, leaving one dead and injuring several others. The theory underlying this charge is that Khadr was not a member of any lawful armed force, and his throwing a grenade was an unprivileged act of homicide or attempted homicide.

It’s uncontroversial that throwing a grenade with the intention of killing others is a criminal act that can be charged as homicide or attempted homicide unless it’s a privileged act. However, there is a strong opinion among law-of-war scholars to the effect that it is not a violation of the laws of war, but rather a violation of the criminal law of the nation where the incident occurred.

Oh, I get it. George W. Bush said all these guys were "unlawful combatants" so prosecutors at the military commissions have to stretch and rejigger the laws to make the actions Khadr is charged with fit that pre-determined category. Maybe Afghanistan could have charged him with murder, but it seems very unlikely they'd bother, given the 30 years of warfare in that unfortunate country.

Horton goes on to explain that the tortured (!) distortion of the international law that the U.S. is asserting in order to have a case to charge Khadr is in direct conflict with what the United States claims about its right to designate individuals as targets for drone strikes in countries where we not at war. What's the difference between Khadr's crime and some civilian contractor or CIA spook who pushes a button on a computer console to kill a person somehow designated a terrorist? Where's the legal justification for that?

Horton is very convincing that the United States' infatuation with its ability to kill designated enemies at the push of a button is creating a legal contradiction.

Not only did contractors design and fabricate the drones, they also play the key operational role in maintaining the drones, in arming and piloting them. The finger behind the trigger that releases death on the villages of North Waziristan is likely as not that of a civilian contractor. Moreover, the United States is now relying heavily on at least six private security contracting firms to do on-the-ground work in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, much of it inside of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. These civilian contractors are collecting information used to guide the drones to their strikes; they serve as the “eyes” of the drone force. They are usurping a traditional core military reconaissance function.

All of this is occurring at the same time that the United States, as a matter of legal policy, denounces prisoners taken in the current hostilities as “unlawful” or “unprivileged” combatants and presses charges against them for using lethal force. But private security contractors and CIA operatives are every bit as “unlawful” and “unprivileged” under the laws of war. America’s posture on this issue is shamefully hypocritical, and needlessly so.

Both the Horton articles linked here are clear and succinct. And I didn't even go into his sensible discussion of the dangerous precedent the U.S. is setting for future wars by its reliance on drones -- after all, the U.S. monopoly of this technology won't last. Go read them both.

Image from the Vancover Sun which, like many Canadian papers, is following Khadr's case closely. The paper broke the story of dissension within the Obama administration over the confused legal theory behind the Khadr prosecution.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Budget follies short-takes:
Unlikely ally

A columnist for, the financial magazine, is not the first source who I'd expect to agreed with me about where any effort to curb the Federal deficit ought to start. But Bruce Bartlett, writing at Capital Gains and Games, has it just right:

...there are really only two options: slash non-entitlement spending on things like national defense or raise taxes.

Exactly. Empire needs to be cut back. The people who have the money have to contribute more taxes. It's obvious, though getting it through the thick skulls of bought-and-paid for politicians will take lots of work.

The difference between Mr. Bartlett and me is that he bemoans this reality, something he considers an unfortunate consequence of the growing political power of elders. His post is an admirably succinct explication of why cutting Social Security and gutting Medicare won't fly politically despite the hopes of most Republicans and those Democrats in hock to billionaire cat food purveyor Pete Peterson. We won't let them do it and we have the power! If interested in the coming political terrain, read the whole thing.

The likes of Nobel economist Paul Krugman have convinced me that deficit anxiety can be largely relieved by restoring economic prosperity. If the Feds still need more money when (if) the economy gets back on its feet, we know where they can find it. Mr. Bartlett has pointed the way.

Obama as organizer...

When I'm not blathering on this blog, I help people organize themselves to agitate and and sometimes win struggles for community empowerment. From that perspective, I want to do another post about David Remnick's The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. (A more book review-ish post is here.) The book is full of interesting material that says something about what his community organizing background may have contributed to our enigmatic President's trajectory.

For starters, if Obama learned what his mentor-in-organizing told Remnick, he knows more than most politicians understand about how ordinary people relate to politics. Richard Daley's Chicago is an old-fashioned machine town, perhaps the last of these. Civic spoils and power flow through those who have a deal with the machine. Meanwhile many people struggle to get by and life is often hard.

In such a grim and ironclad political culture, [Jerry] Kellman discovered, ordinary people go about their lives with little sense of community, cohesion or possibility. They do not express their self-interest because they automatically relinquish any hope of fulfilling it.

Alinsky-style community organizing, whose home turf is Chicago, teaches that powerlessness can only be broken by helping people understand, feel, and then demand their self-interest. But a young Black man in a white-funded organization undoubtedly also learned through community experience that there were forces of race and identity at play alongside mobilization for material self-interest. He never quite fit as a classic Alinsky organizer. He was well placed to imagine a more complex interplay of animating motivations for political action. People noticed.

"What I saw in Barack was caution, lots of caution," Kellman said. " ...he worried: am I being too confrontational? He didn't want to betray a relationship. That's why he wasn't Alinsky-like.

"There is a machismo which makes organizers afraid to admit that they are moved by ideals rather than self-interest. But most of what we do in life is, of course, a combination of both. Barack understood this ...What he did embrace completely was the need for power to get anything done and the operating definition of power in a democracy as organized people and organized money. He thought he could fold organizing into politics and saw himself as an organizer-politician. He still does, as far as I can tell."

The young organizer never took on organizing orthodoxy's frequent disdain for "electoral politics."

Obama may have spanned more worlds than most organizers, but he certainly also retained one of community organizing's central characteristics, one seldom mentioned by commentators: its methodology is not participatory or particularly democratic.

Organizing has a top down structure and methodology that outsiders may not understand. The organizer, almost invariably an outsider, "cuts the issue" -- defines how people might see their self-interest in their circumstances and might win an improvement. This is far easier within the organizing group if the issue doesn't actually inflame submerged passions or disturb internal entrenched interests -- organizers learn to prefer "small, winnable fights" to grand messy struggles.

My friend and former boss Gary Delgado wrote a succinct analysis how this plays out in organizing in an article called "The Last Stop Sign." Delgado made the point that as a consequence of the choices organizers instinctively made to fight for small wins, for "stop signs,"

...the world of traditional community organizing is almost completely separate from the parallel world of progressive activism.

Delgado's observation points to why Obama never seems quite in tune with the progressive activists who form such a large fraction of his base. A mix of machismo, detachment and caution are hallmarks of organizers from Alinsky-type groups. Political passions, the norm among people with far more confidence in their own entitlement than the folks he worked with in Chicago, are simply foreign to old time organizing.

On the other hand, organizers have to know how to get things done -- and the President's unusually hands-on approach to the nuts and bolts of campaigning comes through in the Remnick book. For example, there's this:

One of the things that Obama had learned since the congressional campaign was to sit down and make a long string of fund-raising calls. And when he went on fund-raising missions to the living rooms of wealthy supporters, he refused to stop at giving his usual stump speech and taking questions. Many candidates let their hosts or surrogates make the appeal for funds, but Obama would often say, "I like to do my own dirty work," and put the arm on supporters himself.

What I wouldn't have given for a little more of that spirit in most candidates I've worked for!

H/t NewsOne for "Obama as organizer" photo.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Being a Senator wasn't enough. But for what end?

I got really tired of seeing the President's mug stare out at me while I worked my way through David Remnick's The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. It's pretty amazing that Remnick could find 650 some pages worth of somewhat novel material about a guy who had written his own autobiography at 30 (Dreams from My Father) and a subsequent 380 page book about his ideas (Audacity of Hope). But Remnick (the editor of The New Yorker) has proved this more than possible. The Prez is a fascinating figure, a master manipulator of the political uses of his own life story -- and still there was much more for a diligent reporter to bring to light.

Remnick obviously worked at collecting the research for this book; he seems to have interviewed hundreds of people who encountered Obama in various settings. Not all were complimentary; one Chicago detractor, Maria Warren, concluded years before he ran for President:

"I've never heard him say anything new or earthshaking or support anything would require the courage of his convictions."

People who think of themselves as too cosmopolitan to be swept up in popular enthusiasms love Obama's Olympian aloofness; here's the high brow lawyer Cass Sunstein weighing in about the man he admires:

"I think with Obama it's more like [Judge] Learned Hand when he said 'the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.' Obama takes that really seriously. ...I can't think of an American politician who has thought that way, ever."

The most important new thing I learned from this book was that Obama apparently hated being a Senator. He couldn't do anything. Yet apparently he had something he wanted to do with executive power,

Greg Sargent recently highlighted a 2009 anecdote from Jonathan Alter's new book on the President (these books will keep on coming) that accords perfectly with Remnick's take. Obama was being urged to scale back the health insurance reform.

"This is about whether we're going to get big things done," Obama said. "I wasn't sent here to do school uniforms." Rahm then asked Obama if he still felt lucky.

"My name is Barack Hussein Obama and I'm sitting here," Obama answered. "So yeah, I'm feeling pretty lucky."

Yet this politician, so eager for accomplishment, seemingly remains happy to settle for the presently possible in most policy arenas, rather than seeking to stretch the imaginable. Have all those years of settling for the imperfect scrubbed away any aspiration to truly make a difference?

Therein lies deep disappointment for many who worked to elect him. Remnick observes this, though a person occupying his elite position can not admit to sharing the little people's angst.

Ever since the assassination of King, in April, 1998, and of Robert Kennedy, two months later, the liberal constituencies of America had been waiting for a savior figure. Barack Obama proposed himself. In the eyes of his supporters, he was a promise in a bleak landscape; he possessed an inspirational intelligence and an evident competence when the country had despaired of a reckless and aggressively incurious President; he possessed a worldliness at a time when Americans could sense so many rejecting, even hating, them; he was an embodiment of multi-ethnic inclusion when the country was becoming no longer white in its majority. This was the promise of his campaign, its reality or vain romance, depending on your view.

If you want to puzzle away at who this man is who we've put in office, Remnick's book is great fun. If your focus is on getting something done to correct the country's course, focusing on fighting for policies is probably more useful. Obama is likely to remain an artfully constructed blank space; what we need can more easily be discerned by looking around us and ignoring him.

The oil on her feet and the shoreline...

Mostly, local Louisiana law enforcement officers are keeping reporters away from horror that is BP's oil on Gulf beaches and in the marshlands. But Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland managed to walk right into the evidence of the spill. More on the surreal attempt to keep the reporter away from the evidence in this report.

Why is the Interior department is still issuing permits for offshore oil drilling? There is no evidence either the industry or the government can control the consequences. What will it take to stop this madness?

Monday, May 24, 2010

He's coming tomorrow

Tonight it was my task to pick up Bishop Christopher Ssenyonjo (retired) of Uganda from Grace Cathedral up on Nob Hill in San Francisco. Parking is never easy up there, but tonight there were signs at every spot warning that parked cars would be towed at 6 am -- President Obama is coming to the nearby Fairmont Hotel tomorrow evening.

We drove to the African American Art and Culture Complex where the good bishop was to attend a reception organized by the California LGBT advocacy organization Equality California. Bishop Christopher bravely speaks his conviction that "God loves everybody." including gays and lesbians, in his country which is the grip of a panic about homosexuality stoked by U.S. fundamentalists. As we went in, we lingered for a few minutes at an exhibit by local photographers of pictures from President Obama's inauguration -- shots of "energy, emotion, and enthusiasm."

I slipped away to a coffee shop with wifi to continue some work. Next to me there was a father trying to persuade his somewhat fidgety son to eat some dinner. I overheard this dialogue:

"Do you know what the President's name is?"

Some squirming from the boy -- "Santa Claus?"

"That's close. It's Obama; he's coming tomorrow."

This Presidential visit to raise funds for Senator Barbara Boxer's re-election commands attention. It's not like anyone is going to get to see him; he'll be whipped past the inevitable protesters and into the hotel. Donors may get their glimpse, but mere citizens aren't likely to see him.

There's lots of political disappointment with Obama around here. San Francisco really is a bastion of progressive thinking. But still he's our rock star. We know he's coming.

A call for new moral and political imaginings

Encountering Tony Judt's history Postwar was a mind-expanding experience for me. Here was a narrative that suggested possible understandings of my own lifetime that I had hitherto not considered. That's not an easy realization to invoke in someone over 60 who thought she had been paying close attention.

So I hoped for a similar intellectually exciting encounter with Judt's new volume, Ill Fares the Land. I can't say I found it, but Professor Judt (New York University) has forced me to work at thinking yet more about what has shaped my society and hence why I can't fully find accord with his prescriptions.

Judt's title is from a 1770 Oliver Goldsmith poem, The Deserted Village.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Goldsmith was bemoaning appropriation of common land by wealthy landowners in order to run their herds on land once shared by all, a movement that drove English peasants out of their rural villages and into wage labor in the rising industrial economy. This forced social change was an experience of violent degradation for most who involuntarily lived it, even if their descendants eventually benefited. Goldsmith looked on with horror -- and what to us must appear as hopeless nostalgia for a social system that was passing away/being killed.

This morning the New York Times led with a slightly gloating screed on the impending doom of the Western European welfare state. Is Judt simply striking a note similar to Goldsmith's, engaging in a sort of prospective nostalgia, seeing moral collapse ahead for a continent that since 1945 has replaced perpetual war and insecurity with a social contract that guarantees peace and prosperity to most people?

Judt bemoans the poverty of ideas we are able to offer in response to decline of trust in government and the accompanying privatization of what welfare state systems treated as public trusts -- education, poverty-reduction, health and welfare.

Why do we experience such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society? Why is it beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage? Are we doomed indefinitely to lurch between a dysfunctional 'free market' and the much-advertised horrors of 'socialism'?

Our disability is discursive: we simply do not know how to talk about these things any more. ...

Throughout, Judt lumps the social supports created in the United States by FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society into the same category as the much more developed welfare states of Western Europe. Though at times this seems plausible, I think my failure to embrace this book derives from a sense that the equation rings false. What was going on over here is not really comparable, for good or ill.

Thus, I think he is insightful about how the Depression and World War II did create a morally unified United States. and cooperation were crucial building blocks for the modern state, and the more trust there was the more successful the state. ...

Even in the United States the concept of trust and the desirability of fellow feeling became central to public policy debate from the 1930s forwards. It is arguable that the remarkable achievement of the US in converting itself from a semi-comatose peacetime economy into the world's greatest war machine would not have been possible without Roosevelt's insistence upon the shared interests and purposes and needs of all Americans. If World War II was a 'good war', it was not just thanks to the unambiguously awful character of our enemies. It was also because Americans felt good about America -- and their fellow Americans.

But Judt's insistence that young Western European beneficiaries of state-facilitated peace and posterity childishly chafed in the 1960s at the prosaic achievements of their elders, undermining them in favor of a selfish individualism, don't ring nearly so true about the 1960s generation in the United States whatever our psychedelic excesses. Here's the indictment:

The politics of the '60s thus devolved into an aggregation of individual claims upon society and the state. 'Identity' began to colonize public discourse: private identity, sexual identity, cultural identity. From here it was but a short step to the fragmentation of radical politics, its metamorphosis into multiculturalism. Curiously, the new Left remained exquisitely sensitive to the collective attributes of humans in distant lands, where they could be gathered up into anonymous social categories like 'peasant', 'post-colonial', 'subaltern' and the like. But back home, the individual reigned supreme.

However legitimate the claims of individuals and the importance of their rights, emphasizing these carries an unavoidable cost: the decline of a shared sense of purpose.

I can't evaluate how fair that is about Europeans, but it simply is inadequate to explain the 60s generation in the States. We fed off the energy of the civil rights movement, the struggle to overturn the country's original sin of white supremacy that had marked every phase of our society's development. And through the heroic efforts primarily of African-Americans, racial oppression's legal pillars were toppled. Subsequent movements for gender justice took their cue from this surprising, costly, victory.

And concurrently, that generation came to understand it lived in an illegitimate empire fighting an immoral war under lying leadership. Sure, not everyone, possibly not even a majority, ever took in the full implications of the perfidy of Vietnam -- but confidence and trust in the state was broken, probably for good -- and for good, legitimate, reason.

Judt simply doesn't seem willing to take these broken realities seriously. And the broken legitimacy of the United States, much reinforced under the post-democratic, strictly rapacious incarnation of state that has existed since Reagan, is the context in which people in the United States must struggle to imagine a moral state and moral society. I think this context is simply different than the European one from which Judt takes primary reference in this book.

He does offer a discussion that seems to offer a point of departure for future movements for a more just state and society.

As the reader may observe, I am using words like 'wealth' or 'better off' in ways that take them well beyond their current, strictly material application. To do this on a broader scale -- to recast our public conversation -- seems to me the only realistic way to begin to bring about change. If we do not talk differently, we shall not think differently.

There are precedents for this way of conceiving political change. In late-18th century France, as the old regime tottered, the most significant developments on the political scene came not in the movements of protest or the institutions of state which sought to head them off. They came, rather, in the very language itself. Journalists and pamphleteers, together with the occasional dissenting administrator or priest, were forging out of an older language of justice and popular rights a new rhetoric of public action.

Unable to confront the monarchy head-on, they set about depriving it of legitimacy by imagining and expressing objections to the way things were and positing alternative sources of authority in whom 'the people' could believe. In effect, they invented modern politics: and in so doing quite literally discredited everything that had gone before. By the time the Revolution itself broke out, this new language of politics was thoroughly in place: indeed, had it not been, the revolutionaries themselves would have had no way to describe what they were doing. In the beginning was the word.

Can we conceive of alternative sources of authority to the rule of force and private wealth? What would such a society look like? How would we live? Striving to answer those questions is as much part of winning a different future as organizing and agitating. On that, I can agree with Professor Judt.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Systemic indefensibilty

For some reason this riles me up. Among all the wrongs in the world, this is pretty minor, but there is something about it that feels like an indicator of broad social failings.

Apparently New York State requires that middle school students be taught, according to the New York Times, "the various behaviors that can transmit H.I.V./AIDS." The official school syllabus further

directed that students be encouraged to use sexual terms that they understood, so that they could relate those words to the more formal terminology. "If students use different terms," the syllabus says, "make sure they understand the relationship between both sets of terms."

A Staten Island teacher, a 26 year veteran who probably knows very well what her students understand, wrote the polite/scientific terms for "sexual organs, sexual acts and bodily fluids" on the board -- and asked kids what they called the same human equipment and behaviors.

Some kids wrote down what students answered in their notebooks -- and their parents decided to complain. The principal charged the teacher with "corporal punishment" and "verbal abuse" (huh?) and tried to remove her. She eventually was returned to teaching, but sued the city for anguish and loss of income. The city is defending itself this way:

In a statement, Blanche Greenfield, a senior city lawyer, said that the words the students used, some of which she repeated in the statement, were “entirely inappropriate. Their use in the classroom reflects unacceptable and extremely poor judgment by the teacher and is plainly not consistent with community values," Ms. Greenfield said.

To be appropriately colloquial, what the fuck? Kids knowing that unsafe sex can get them sick is not "community values?"

I guess I should assume that the city lawyer is only trying to do her job -- to defend the indefensible.

But this kind of nonsense ending up in court with attendant publicity for this dopey sequence of events is what undermines faith in both government and the good judgment of our fellow citizens. I know school systems are huge, unwieldy institutions, but can't everyone cut each other a little slack? The teacher's job was to communicate literally vital information; the principal's job was to communicate with parents and if need be mollify they -- they may be unreasonable people but they are also probably trying to save their kids from danger; the school bureaucracy's job was to get everyone to back off. If parents want their children to learn, they need to demonstrate this by being willing to learn themselves. Instead, the whole mess somehow ended up in court. This isn't working and dealing with such systems is the sort of thing that undermines community life -- and values.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
Birds of spring

This California quail called out repeatedly, wanting to be seen. Presumably there was a nest somewhere near by.

The young heron seemed oblivious to being seen, ambling across an open space in Golden Gate Park.

The pigeon had got itself trapped inside the fancy food court at the San Francisco Ferry Building. It didn't seem very concerned. As you can see, it was a glorious day outside.

Not really a bird -- we were glad to get to enjoy this bloom after we carried it inside. Often they get snatched from our garden just as they are emerging; we think they turn up decorating local restaurants.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Preposterous finance

This week, the Senate is apparently limping toward some sort of financial regulation package. Simon Johnson spells out the one point hardly anyone in power will assert and that we all of us need to use to evaluate whatever law emerges:

The idea that our economy needs banks at the scale and with the characteristics of JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley is preposterous.


The former International Monetary Fund economist has been on that message ever since the fall of 2008; he contends that if the United States doesn't break the political power of the financial oligarchy, we can only expect a repeat of the economic blowout we're currently suffering.

Curiously, I have carried away a somewhat more comforting message from Johnson and James Kwak's book on the crisis, 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown. The authors place current events within the longer story of our country's oscillation between polarities set early in our existence: Alexander Hamilton's insistence on the new nation's need for a central bank and Thomas Jefferson's consistent distrust of bankers and their phony money schemes. When it comes to banks, we can't live with 'em, and we can't entirely live without 'em. (They don't mention that Jefferson personally was usually over his head in debts in addition to having a wise understanding of how bankers might undermine democracy.)

Then they lead us through the story of how Wall Street became so big, so foolish, so powerful, and so greedy as to be able to crash global finance a couple of years ago. Their account is easy to understand; of the considerable number of books I've read on our current financial troubles, this is the one I'd recommend first. If you are still trying to figure out how the housing boom happened and what these derivatives are, this is the volume to read.

This one is an encyclopedia of stupidity and cupidity and Johnson and Kwak name names. Learn here where in the Wall Street system most of President Obama's financial appointees worked before joining the government, for example. They also paint a clear picture of the gusher of campaign money that flows to our politicians from the financial profiteers.

New to me were the outrageous institutional arrangements that have ensured that banks got what they wanted even if they were ostensibly subject to regulation. Washington has an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies, but before the crash,

financial institutions that fell under multiple regulatory agencies were allowed to select their primary regulator. As a result, regulatory agencies had to compete for funding [fees] by convincing financial institutions to accept their regulation, which created the incentives for a "race to the bottom," in which agencies attract "customers" by offering relatively lax regulatory enforcement.

No wonder Wall Street ran wild.

Yet Johnson and Kwak do not believe that all is lost to the power of the U.S. financial oligarchy. They counsel patience and persistence.

These ideas will not be adopted overnight. In 1900, almost no reasonable person thought there was any basis for capping the size of private businesses ...By 1910, the consensus view had shifted dramatically. The power of the industrial trusts and the details of their anticompetitive behavior were sufficiently obvious to provoke a political backlash. ...Our goal today is to change the conventional wisdom about enormous banks.

That seems right. If there is anyone in the Senate who is relaibly committed to the Jeffersonian democratic (small "d") vision of the country, it's probably Bernie Sanders. Today he commented on the emerging reform bill:

"I think this is a step forward, there's no question about that," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told reporters after today's vote [to move the bill forward]. "I think it brings much greater regulation, I think it brings much greater transparency. But I think, frankly, it is nowhere near as strong as it could be. I think at the end of the day we are going to have to address the need to break up these very very huge financial institutions, which I believe, that if they start teetering in the future they will have to be bailed out, and that's why you ought to break them up now."

You can follow the views of Johnson and Kwak daily at The Baseline Scenario.

Friday Cat Blogging


When you agree to talk with a class that meets in someone's living room, humans may not be the only participants.

Panther's person says this active feline looks as if he is "trying to wrap his brilliant mind around a fine point of anti-racist organizing."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

How big is the BP Gulf oil gusher?


That green spot off the familiar Louisiana-Mississippi delta shows the story as of yesterday.

Google has provided the tools to visualize the extent at the link.

All most of us can do is watch in horror -- and try to create the political momentum to prevent further resource extraction that kills the planet.

UPDATE: And here's what the escaping oil looks like, provided by Congressional overseers, Rep. Edward Markey and Rep. Henry Waxman.

Real world immigration

Immigrants aren't "an issue" -- they are people, as Michelle Obama saw on a visit to a school yesterday. (This very short clip loads slowly. After it says "loading" for a few seconds, click at the bottom left on the partially obscured "play" arrow.)

ABC News’ Karen Travers described the scene:

The student shyly raised her hand and said, "My mom … she says that Barack Obama is taking everybody away that doesn’t have papers."

Mrs. Obama replied: "Yeah, well that's something that we have to work on, right? To make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers, right? That’s exactly right."

The girl then said quietly, "But my mom doesn't have any …" and trailed off.

Mrs. Obama replied: "Well, we have to work on that. We have to fix that, and everybody's got to work together in Congress to make sure that happens. That’s right."

The exchange highlights what rabid nativists (and the Republican Party) refuse to understand. People in this country without papers are, by and large, not strangers or unconnected to communities here. Just about every perfectly legal Latino-American has undocumented relatives. Millions of U.S. citizen children have undocumented parents or grandparents.

We welcomed people to work. They set down roots. We need to give them a way to get citizenship. They aren't going away, despite however many cops, checkpoints and round-ups we set in motion.

Counter-intuitive health tidbit:
Healthy aging costs more!

Huh? Not staying healthy, but simply being healthy at 65 implies higher remaining lifetime health costs than being sickly at 65, according to a study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. They encapsulate the idea this way:

... the expected present value of lifetime health care costs for a couple turning 65 in 2009 in which one or both spouses suffer from a chronic disease is $220,000, including insurance premiums and the cost of nursing home care, and 5 percent can expect to spend more than $465,000. The comparable numbers for couples free of chronic disease are substantially higher, at $260,000 and $570,000, respectively.

These figures include Medicare copays, Medigap insurance, and an expectation that a quarter of us will require one year of nursing home care.


So why will those who start out healthy end up paying out more? For one thing, those awful dribs and drabs of copays, insurance, and drug charges will go on longer as the healthy live longer. This stuff adds up. And because those who start out healthy at 65 will mostly live longer, eventually more of them will succumb to the really expensive parts of the health bill: chronic disease treatments and the need for around-the-clock care.

I guess if you think about this, it makes some sense. But the difficulty of getting one's mind around it points up how counter-intuitive much about health care economics remains. No wonder much of the reaction to the Democrats' health insurance reform is pained confusion. The "system" is no system and understanding its implications is hard.

For myself, I am simply stunned by the sheer size of the costs projected for most of us. Even the lowest figure projected for a couple arriving at 65 pretty healthy is $260,000. (I hope I'll get there in that condition not long from now.) I realize the idea is that this expenditure will be spread over a lot of years (25?), but the sheer magnitude remains stunning. That's what we paid for a two unit house 20 years ago ...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Once upon a time there came a Dark Day ...

Two hundred thirty years ago a Connecticut legislator confronted one of the terrors that haunted the contemporary mind: the sun never properly came up on May 19, 1780 -- or so it seemed. Timothy Dwight of Yale described the event in Travels in New England and New York (1822):

“The 19th of May, 1780, was a remarkably dark day. Candles were lighted in many houses; the birds were silent and disappeared; and the fowls retired to roost. The legislature of Connecticut was then in session at Hartford. A very general opinion prevailed that the Day of Judgment was at hand. The House of Representatives, being unable to transact their business, adjourned. A proposal to adjourn the Council [Senate or Upper House] was under consideration.

When the opinion of Col. Davenport was asked, he answered, ‘I am against an adjournment. The Day of Judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”

Confronted with whatever the equivalent horror in our imaginations might be, somehow I suspect that our representatives would launch into denouncing terra-ists and then hightail it for a bunker in an undisclosed location. But maybe not.

The Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project (a 1930s Depression stimulus agency) commissioned a mural to commemorate Colonel Abraham Davenport's equanimity:

Colonel Abraham Davenport-Dark Day.jpg

Employment programs don't always produce high art but it is nice to know the painters kept eating.

There is some speculation that the Dark Day was caused by a Canadian forest fire.

H/t to The Thicket for this story and the Stamford Historical Society for the photo of the mural.

How long will the oil from the BP Gulf gusher last?

Scientific American has some answers. (All bulleted items are quotes from the SA article.)
  • "If the [oil] mousse gets into the marshes, it can last a real long time," says environmental chemist Jeffrey Short of environmental group Oceana, who has studied the aftereffects of the Exxon Valdez spill. "Once there's no oxygen, it doesn't break down fast at all; it's a long-term toxic reservoir."
  • There is no cure. "The only way to remove it is mechanically, and that will destroy further the whole habitat," says marine biologist Héctor Guzmán of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, who is part of a team that conducted a long-term study of the impacts of the Panama oil spill in 1986.
  • The toxic compounds in oil vary, but largely fall in the group known to chemists as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), such as napthalenes, benzene, toluene and xylenes. All are known human carcinogens with other health effects for humans, animals and plants. "These hydrocarbons are particularly relevant if inhaled or ingested," says environmental toxicologist Ronald Kendall of Texas Tech University. "In the bodies of organisms such as mammals or birds, these aromatic hydrocarbons can be transformed into even more toxic products, which can affect DNA." In other words, the effects of the oil spill will linger in the genetics of Gulf coast animals long after the spill is gone, resulting in mutations that could lead to problems ranging from reduced fertility to cancer.
  • In essence, PAHs act as catalysts to shovel energy from the sunlight into oxygen molecules, shifting them into a more reactive form and thereby oxidizing living cells. If oxygen naturally existed in that state "the whole Earth would burn up," notes Short. That's bad news for the millions of translucent sea creatures out there—zooplankton—and could ultimately end up having cascading effects up the food chain. "If you start removing pieces of this big food web out there, what's going to happen?" [marine biologist Thomas] Shirley asks. "We don't really know but probably not good things."
  • ... spring is breeding season for species ranging from migratory birds to sea turtles, all congregating along the Gulf shore. "This is the time of year for larvae," Shirley notes, meaning that entire generations of short-lived species such as shrimp or crabs may disappear. "It's going to take immigration to replace some of those lost-year classes for things to get back to the level they were."
  •'s when the oil gets into the marshes that the effects really start to accumulate. "That's your nurseries," Kendall notes, for species ranging from fish to birds. Adds Short: "It sets the stage for impacts from embryo toxicity. It gets into the developing eggs and induces aberrations in development. Even the smallest aberration in the field is lethal.... These marshes are important nursery areas for pretty much everything."
  • But "once the oil, because of high tides or high winds, gets into the coastal wetland, it gets trapped in the sediment," notes STRI's Guzmán. "Then for decades you continue to see oil coming back out, this chronic pollution." ...The most important task is stopping the oil from spilling—a prospect that remains out of reach nearly a month after it began gushing from BP's deep water well in the Gulf of Mexico.
Presumably, if we stopped assaulting the ocean, the atmosphere and their creatures in this way, they'd recover. Are we willing -- politically and economically -- to do what it takes to stop soiling our only home like this? Or are we too shortsighted to use our creativity to find other ways to live?

NDTV, the source of the video, is an South Asian Indian broadcaster.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"We can't let Arizona come to San Francisco"

So says county Supervisor Eric Mar. Notables gathered on City Hall steps this morning to denounce the County's inclusion in a Department of Homeland Security program that automatically vacuums up the fingerprints of everyone booked by local law enforcement and funnels them to immigration authorities (ICE). That's Sheriff Mike Hennessey speaking, backed on the left by Renee Saucedo from the Day Laborer Program, Eric Quezada from Dolores Street Community Services, Supervisor Mar, the Labor Council's Tim Paulson, and Supervisor David Campos.

Last Wedsnesday, Hennessey told the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Essentially this guts San Francisco's sanctuary ordinance in terms of criminal justice ..."

He has written to the Attorney General asking that San Francisco be allowed to opt out of the program.

This seems unlikely and the result will be big changes:

Under San Francisco’s current "City of Refuge" ordinance, local law enforcement officials refer individuals who are booked on felony charges, or have a history of felony charges, and are foreign born and have previous deportation orders or ICE holds.

But now everyone who gets arrested will be fingerprinted and referred to ICE, not through human intervention, but through a fingerprint database that connects to similar databases in Canada, Mexico and within Interpol.

... This fundamental change in policy means that any time anyone is booked in San Francisco, they will be fingerprinted and automatically reported, including folks charged with misdemeanors, such as minor drug possession, low level financial crimes and misdemeanor battery.

San Francisco Bay Guardian

What the Feds are doing amounts to removing any presumption of innocence -- whether of being out of immigration status or as regards the crime individuals were booked for -- from consideration by an agency, ICE, that can jail and deport people pretty much at will. That should be a stunning development, but panic about immigrants has enlisted far too many of us in this vain search for "security."

ICE's main response to concerns about the program seems to be that "it's biometric" and that the agency's staffing is not adequate to enforce deportation of everyone caught up in its web. So people are going to be caught in a dragnet in order to pump up ICE's budget demands? Seems likely.

Mayor Gavin was notably absent this morning. He's running for statewide office, so he's pro-mass deportations this week.
This morning the New York Times reported what it calls a new "Generation Gap Over Immigration."

Cathleen McCarthy, a senior at the University of Arizona, says immigration is the rare, radioactive topic that sparks arguments with her liberal mother and her grandmother.

"Many older Americans feel threatened by the change that immigration presents," Ms. McCarthy said. "Young people today have simply been exposed to a more accepting worldview."

... In the wake of the new Arizona law allowing the police to detain people they suspect of entering the country illegally, young people are largely displaying vehement opposition -- leading protests on Monday at Senator John McCain’s offices in Tucson, and at the game here between the Florida Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Meanwhile, baby boomers, despite a youth of "live and let live," are siding with older Americans and supporting the Arizona law.

This article seemed very true to me. For my Boomer generation, immigration was something you studied in history. It came right before World War I and consisted of pictures of crowded urban tenements and sweatshops full of European migrants (maybe even your grandparents). Maybe you were exposed to the melting pot theory of history. But whatever immigration was, it was in the past.

Immigration reforms since 1965 have opened up the country to people from Asia and Latin American, while business' appetite for cheap labor has drawn a flood of undocumented persons eager to work. This is a different society and some older people are having trouble adjusting.

The analogy to gay marriage leaped to mind while reading the New York Times story: do we just have to wait for some people to die off in order for panic about immigrants, about different people and cultures, to recede?

Actually, I think there is evidence that things aren't quite that bad. Immigration panic hit its peak in California in the mid-1990s -- since then, though there are certainly places where the generational fault line is a chasm, the acute panic has receded. The same people who rallied at City Hall today would have spoken out in the 1990s -- they did in fact -- but there would have been a lot more heat, a lot more fear. The new generation coming along ensures we can't go back to that.