Monday, November 29, 2010

You don't go to Nepal for the beer ...

It's pretty undistinguished stuff, analogous to popular U.S. brands like Budweiser and Miller. This does not deter tourists from drinking thousands of cans, even on the Everest base camp trek. Porters trudge uphill with case upon case of cans on their backs. Presumably the scant local earnings from the trekking trade also flow in some quantities to the breweries.

I 'm back in the States from Nepal from my trek on the edges of the Himalayas. Unfortunately I've brought a touch of pneumonia with me, so regular blogging won't resume for a few days.

Just one anecdote here which illustrates yet again why we need a single payer health reform. When my feverish body was dragged into the western travel medicine clinic in Kathmandu, I was asked whether the doctor would have to fill out forms for some U.S. insurance company. If so, it would cost $85 to be seen. If not, all I needed was $55 cash ...

Liberty, security or just foolishness

Instructions I received before flying ...

If all goes well, at the point at which anyone sees this post, I'll be flying over the Pacific Ocean on the way back from Nepal, via Hong Kong.

As someone who has had all to much interaction with airport security theater, I'll be keeping notes on what the experience of travel to and from Asia is like these days and will report on the blog anything interesting I observe when I get back.

Meanwhile, people might want to read the Atlantic Magazine's James Fallows who knows more about this than I ever expect to.

To wax earnest for a moment: here are things I know, first hand, about airport procedures in the rest of the world, versus what's becoming standard via the TSA.

In China, you don't have to take off your shoes (usually) or be patted down (that I have seen). Only the flights to the US have extra-special security drills. And this is Communist Red China with its locked-up dissidents I am talking about.

Same in Japan, when I was there this summer.

In Australia, for domestic flights you don't have to produce identification of any kind, take off your shoes, etc. Last week I flew from Sydney to Canberra and back on Qantas. It was just like Amtrak procedures in the US: you type in your confirmation number at a terminal, it spits your ticket out, and you get on board. That's it. (You pass through a keep-your-shoes-on metal detector, no pat-downs.)

In Korea, you go through security procedures when you get OFF the plane and go into the airport, but that's a separate story. As soon as the TSA learns about that...

And in Israel, the former head of airport security says the new imaging machines don't do any good.

Seriously, the security-versus-liberty situation is always a balance. But who in public life is speaking for the "liberty" side of the balance at the moment? Where is the check on new machines, procedures, requirements from the TSA -- or the politician who will ask, Is this worth it? Worth the money, worth the intrusion, worth the frisking of children, worth the frisking of uniformed pilots, worth the police-state air? Conceivably most Americans would still answer "yes," but I'd like to hear the question raised.

More soon.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A vision

If you build it, will the supporting infrastructure come? If you make the road, will people walk it? If the people begin constructing the road, will the people extend it?

I don't know.

But I don't know any other more grounded yet expansive efforts along these lines than those of Paul Farmer and Partners in Health.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
A stroll through the Mission Community Market

In addition to our Mission neighborhood street food vendors and our corner produce markets, since July we've also had a weekly (Thursdays 4-8 pm) street market on Bartlett Street.

The Mission Community Market (MCM) is a weekly, outdoor marketplace that celebrates the Mission District’s diversity with fresh foods, local businesses, and youth activities in order to improve family health, youth access to arts, and the safe, fun use of Mission streets.

It was fun to walk around during the second week of November.

Farm stands take over the street.

Only in California would these have been in season so late in the year.

There's something a little scary about salad greens this colorful, but I bought a bag; had to try 'em.

Vendors suspect they had better teach us how to cook their produce ... they will probably be quite right as we move into the season of root crops.

Musicians collected a small crowd of onlookers -- they were fun.

In the midst of all this food, time to stop for a bite.

Art for sale attracts interest.

Any market whose produce comes in this truck is a great addition to the neighborhood.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday cat blogging: we pass by for their amusement

We make pretty good TV.

Often they can see us more clearly than we can see them.

A passing bird would be more interesting.

Don't you know that staring at me is rude?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Turkey Day!

I suppose this sort of thing was a common sight -- presaging a good dinner -- for my New England ancestors.

Encountering this apparently healthy, apparently wild flock in California on the Marincello fire road last spring was a bit of a surprise. I've never seen them since.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Journalism, not toys!

The eve of the annual national pig-out seems the right time for this post: I admit it, I'm pleased that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is trying to legislate against toys stuffed in McDonald's Happy Meals. Conservatives and libertarians are wailing that this is yet another wacky San Francisco interference in people's autonomy, but I dare to think that in a few years many jurisdictions will follow suit. Banning promotions that target children seems a reasonable health measure. Why should marketeers profit off getting kids addicted to stuff that, in our culture of excess, will kill them?

It's worth passing on what the law would actually do. This important detail has been left out of many accounts. Here's the poop from KTVU.

The ordinance, which would go into effect in December of next year, prohibits toy giveaways in fast-food children's meals that have more than 640 milligrams of sodium, 600 calories or 35 percent of their calories from fat. The law also would limit saturated fats and trans fats and require fruits or vegetables to be served with each meal with a toy.

A couple of enterprising reporters from MissionLocal positioned themselves outside the 24th Street McDonalds and asked kids and adults what they thought about the toys. What a novel idea -- they perpetrated journalism.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An exploration of hope in better days

In this season of discontent with President Obama, it almost seems pointless to write about William Jelani Cobb's The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, published this year. Cobb, an associate professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta, explores what electing a Black American meant in 2008 and speculates a little about what this improbable achievement might mean going forward. I found the book a great reminder of much that the normalizing (and demeaning) of a Black family in White House had enabled me to forget.

Some conclusions first -- Professor Cobb was never under any illusion that Obama's election somehow meant the end of U.S. racism.

The historian David Levering Lewis told me after the election, "Of course race mattered in this election -- it just happened to matter in a good way." ... In 2002 reporters asked Denzel Washington what it meant for three African Americans to be in contention for Academy Awards in the same year. He replied, "It means that three African Americans are in contention for Academy Awards in the same year." I am tempted to answer the question about the meaning of a black presidency with the same terms: It means that the president is black. And anything beyond that will be left for time to tell.

... He is a president, not an antidote. We are not postracial; we are not postpartisan. We are American, with all the unwieldy, contradictory implications of that identity. The paradoxes are ours to assume; Barack Obama is simply a man and a president. His election is best understood as a passing respite, a brief moment of rest before it falls to us to once again turn our shoulder to the wheel of history.

That said, Cobb reminds the reader of the sheer improbability of the election of 2008.

The truth is that none of us really know how it happened. But the more compelling question is why Obama thought it possible in the first place. In a season in which historic developments seemed to occur almost weekly, the first and possibly greatest accomplishment of Obama and his team was their recognition that the political climate offered a path to victory.

Yup, that's where the audacity was located. Having dared to imagine a successful campaign, Obama and his people enjoyed astonishing luck (luck that seems to have run out now that he's in office). If the rest of us understood what happened in a mistaken way, it was that we underestimated the role of extraordinary and unearned good fortune that broke Obama's way -- a combination of G.W. Bush's extreme unpopularity, a financial crisis breaking in mid-season, and John McCain's entirely ham-handed campaign.

Cobb tackles the touchy aspects of Obama's rise, including his complex relationship with other African American leaders.

The most amazing development of the election cycle was not that a black candidate became a viable contender for the presidency, but that he received virtually no support from the civil rights-era leaders whose sacrifices made his campaign possible. Black America's "greatest generation" had made their momentous achievements in creating a new social landscape, but as the Iowa returns rolled in, their leadership mandate expired dramatically.

He plumbs the difficult issues the Obama family "brand" threw up for Black America.

The decline of the American family has been widely studied for decades, and no particular set of people is designated to shoulder its burden. But among black people every failed relationship becomes statistical grist, a data point in a broader indictment, to be examined in excruciatingly public detail. In America at large broken families are not autopsied; in black America they are given open-casket scrutiny.

In that context the Obamas appeared to represent a mythical ideal of "black love," one that has been a mainstay of magazines like Essence and Ebony and the ballast of Afrocentric poetry for ages. It was most immediately visible after the two shared dap in Minnesota, after Obama formally won the Democratic nomination. I saw that brief meeting of fists at a campaign event surrounded by an overwhelmingly African-American crowd. The gesture registered with them immediately -- they needed no pop culture interpreter to explain its meaning. It said to those arrayed around a massive flatscreen -- and those watching around the world that Michelle Obama was not only his wife but also his teammate and collaborator, his homegirl.

This is dangerous territory, akin to exposing the family secrets, but Cobb goes there.

I've quoted a lot here simply because I know of no other way to interest potential readers in a book that it is all too easy to dismiss as a quickly outdated peon to a man and a moment that seem to be fading even from out memories. Hope is battered these days, apparently dead or dying. But a pretty "big fucking deal" (thanks, Joe Biden) happened in the election of 2008, and even as hope withers, it is still worth trying to understand and appreciate it. Professor Cobb has done his part.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Forty-seven years ago today

Where were you on November 22, 1963? Many, most likely most, people who see this post will not yet have been around, or have been very young children, on that day. But those of us who were over perhaps age 10 almost certainly do remember.

That's the day that President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas -- the day that truly announced to white middle America that the sleepy, peaceful, Eisenhower era was gone for good, the day that really initiated the traumatic time we call "the Sixties."

I was sixteen. I am not going to pretend I understood much of what swirled through the nation over the next few days, but here's my remembrance of that time.

Being a budding politico who had not yet understood that my path was as an operative, not as an office holder, I was carrying out what I think was the only high school elective function I ever managed to wriggle into. I was a sophomore (11th grade) representative to something called the "Judicial Council" -- I think now that our job was to reinforce the school administration's behavioral norms by ostentatiously enforcing discipline on our fellow students. What that meant that day was that I, an underclass twit, was proctoring a detention study hall full of bumptious juniors and seniors. When someone slipped into the room to tell us the President had been shot, I wasn't upset because I doubted my own ability to control the room. The whole school was called to an assembly, then sent home. I don't remember whether they told us that Kennedy was dead.

I did not come from a Kennedy-supporting household. My mother was a Republican committee member and had turned out the vote for Nixon in 1960. My father was a disappointed aging white man, personally quite pleasant, but if he were around today he would be nodding agreement with Tea Party complaints. But for both parents the rise of Hitler and World War II which they understood as a struggle against barbarous dictators defined what mattered in the public realm. (Yes, such conservative anti-fascism made the space for such anomalies as "moderate" Republicans once upon a time.) For a U.S. president to be assassinated within the country threatened everything they trusted in.

I had more or less liked Kennedy's energy, but had no real opinion. Somehow, I had already absorbed the information that this "champion" was foot dragging on civil rights for Black people (Negros) and hoped for more. How little changes when it comes to presidents ...

My parents were glued to the TV. The day after the shooting, a Saturday, I therefore had a chance to borrow the family car to do some shopping. I had just gotten a driving permit and ventured downtown with friends. This also was a chance to indulge my new adult habit -- I could smoke while driving. As I lit up a cigarette, my attention wandered and I dinged a city bus' fender. Fortunately, the bus driver and I agreed that there was no real damage beyond a few scratches so we ignored it. There was an impulse to be gentle with each other in those awful days.

Mother dragged me to church on Sunday (my curmudgeonly father didn't do church) so I missed seeing Jack Ruby shoot accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV. But I didn't miss the replays. Nobody did.

Though like pretty much everyone else I must have watched the mourning and the funeral on the tube, I have no memory of the touching moments we are supposed to recall -- Jackie's dignity, young John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's casket, the burial at Arlington.

I do remember knowing that Lyndon Johnson would be President and not liking that because he was from the south. The rest of the country looked at the south much as we still often do, as a swamp of bigotry and reaction. Besides, hadn't the south just shot Kennedy? Of course I was wrong about Johnson though it took decades for me to understand that. He was undoubtedly the most successful progressive president of my lifetime until his imperial war brought him down. Would that the present incumbent would understand that going along with a little wars can be the undoing of all good intentions. It doesn't look that way today, but never say never ...

Where were you on November 22, 1963? Do you still care?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Of presidents, generals and recruiting ads

I watch a lot of football, so I see a lot of ads for the U.S. Army. Gotta keep recruiting for those endless wars ...

The USArmyMediaCenter puts these commercials online. I was curious enough to look up an ad that these worthies describe this way:

A brand new U.S. Army Officers career commercial showing you what it takes of becomeing [sic] and beign [sic] an officer in the United Staates Army.

I was surprised by the sloppy description, but that is an exact quote of their text.

What caught my eye was this shot from within the ad:

That's General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur heroically defended the Philippines during the Japanese invasion in 1942 and fulfilled his promise to fight his way back in 1944, later accepting the Japanese surrender in 1945 and overseeing the U.S. occupation of that defeated enemy.

MacArthur later led U.S. and U.N. troops in Korea in 1950-51 with considerably less success. After driving North Korean invaders back to near the Chinese border, his forces were surprised by and overrun when Chinese "volunteers" entered the war. The late David Halberstam vividly chronicled MacArthur's Korean stumbles in The Coldest Winter. Halberstam makes a strong case that MacArthur's miscalculations cost the lives of undertrained and poorly led U.S. troops. But it was MacArthur's political machinations when he tried to push President Truman into a wider war in mainland China that led to his replacement as commander.

Though MacArthur certainly served heroically, the trajectory of his service led in the end to conflict with civilian authority and a cautionary tale about how a lionized general can end up challenging the President who is his commander in chief.

Is such an arrogant and insubordinate leader who we want in an ad trying to attract officer candidates to the U.S. Army?

General David Petraeus also appears in this ad.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery: Dipsea Trail

If I'm progressing relatively comfortably on my Nepal trek when you see this, much of the reason will be my multiple jaunts over Marin County's spectacular Dipsea Trail. Here's an elevation map of the course which runs from a park in Mill Valley over steps, hills, and bluffs. It climbs and descends about 2200 vertical feet -- each way if you run or hike it out and back as I do, for about 14 miles and 4400 feet of climbing.

The more than 100 year old June race over this route has planted elegant stone markers along the way.

In reality, there is no fixed course; in the race, runners choose whatever short cuts get them over the hills most rapidly, at some risk to life and limb. I stick to the most conventional version of the trail. This marker is near the parking lot at Muir Woods National Monument.

Mile 3 is about half way up the long rise that's known as Cardiac Hill.

And Mile 4 is just about at the top.

One website describing the trail warns:

Before you attempt this course for the first time, on your own, know this: Most people who are familiar with the Dipsea Trail would advise that you do it with someone else who knows the trail. There are many opportunities to get lost ...

I agree, but getting lost in the section around Mile 5 is not likely to be a problem, unless perhaps there's a thick ocean fog coming in.

On the way to Mile 6, you come down what I find the trail's most difficult section, the slippery wooden steps on the way to the Steep Ravine (that's actually the name of the other trail that goes up along a creek from where the Dipsea crosses a bridge.)

At Mile 7 you are home-free, just outside the town of Stinson Beach -- except there's no way back to your car in Mill Valley except to run up all those hills you just came down ...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lesbians put their child on camera ...

This is kind of cute. I couldn't agree more with the analysis. But what will this young person make of this in 15 years? I have no prediction.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Listen to George Takai ...

Just hearing the actor say "douchebag" repeatedly is great fun.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Nuclear madness

One of the agenda items that may be acted on during the lame duck session of Congress is the new START (STrategic Arms Reduction Treaty). The Constitution makes treaties the law of the land, but only if they can muster 67 Senate votes.

What is it?

The modest agreement -- signed in April by President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev -- would reinstate ground inspections and reduce each country's deployed nuclear arsenal by 30 percent. The treaty has wide support from the national-security community as well as support from two former secretaries of state and a number of former lawmakers. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave its approval in September -- with three Republican votes -- but it remains unclear whether Democrats can attract enough GOP senators to reach the 67 votes needed for ratification...

Jamelle Bouie, TAPPED

Since we are apparently condemned to be ruled for the foreseeable future by the whims of unserious and often ignorant people, it looks like trouble ahead for the treaty.

It's interesting to contrast the lack of urgency even the more sympathetic among our rulers seem to feel about averting nuclear war with how the threat of it looked to a thoughtful observer writing only a decade after the only use of these weapons. William L. Shirer, the premier journalistic chronicler of Hitler's Germany, was certain in 1959 that nukes changed everything. This is from the introduction to his epic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

Adolf Hitler is probably the last of the great adventurer-conquerors in the tradition of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon, and the Third Reich the last of the empires which set out on the path taken earlier by France, Rome and Macedonia. The curtain was rung down on that phase of history, at least, by the sudden invention of the hydrogen bomb, of the ballistic missile and of rockets that can be aimed to hit the moon.

In our new age of terrifying, lethal gadgets, which supplanted so swiftly the old one, the first great aggressive war, if it should come, will be launched by suicidal little madmen pressing an electronic button. Such a war will not last long and none will ever follow it. There will be no conquerors and no conquests, but only the charred bones of the dead on an uninhabited planet.

Our leaders have lost touch with that urgency. We can only hope their complacency is justified.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Heading for the hills

Early this morning I flew off toward somewhere I've never been -- for no better reason than that there are mountains there and I can.

I will be trekking in eastern Nepal for the next couple of weeks -- Lukla to Namche Bazaar to Tengboche on the map above. If the weather cooperates I may be able to see Mt. Everest in the distance -- or not. This is not difficult expedition travel, just a little high, getting up to about 13000 feet where there is not much air. But in Nepal, some people live whole lives in these places. I know I can walk there.

I will be offline completely until I get home. There will be pictures and thoughts here when I return.

In the meantime, there are posts ready to go up on this blog -- of course these are not so timely as when I'm around, but I hope they are diverting.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Afghanistan end game?

Frequently peace activists in the United States are reticent about the question: what will happen if/when the U.S. departs the latest unfortunate country we've invaded? We're too busy pointing out that 1) going into wherever was wrong in the first place and none of our business; and 2) the United States will not stay forever, the contentious issue is when our troops will be pulled back because of some combination of opposition from home, heavy costs, or sheer imperial fatigue. Those are both truths and, especially the second one is something that we must remind our own confused population of. Evading this fact is way too easy here in the heart of empire.

But when it comes to Afghanistan, an Afghan-American might well have real insight into the "what happens after" question. San Francisco author Tamim Ansary has some suggestions:

To my mind, a confrontation between Afghans and Afghans is coming. America and NATO can on postpone it but not prevent it. There are many things Americans can do in Afghanistan -- garrison troops anywhere, re-supply them, bomb any building or village.

But there are things America can’t do in Afghanistan. Govern the country, for example. That’s a truism, hardly worth mentioning. ...

But here’s the thing: someone can govern Afghanistan. Not NATO, not America, but someone -- some Afghan. If all foreign forces leave, a battle will break out among the country’s many factions and forces, and out of this turmoil someone will emerge.

Whoever it is, this someone will not be a nice guy. He will be the meanest, toughest pit-bull in the yard. But he will also be an astute politician, a cunning diplomat, and a brilliant strategist -- because ruthless, tough, and mean won’t be enough. All the contenders will have that. The winner will have to be all that plus -- something more. ...

Go read the whole thing, now! And yes, he does care about the prospects for Afghan women.

Ansary is the author of West of Kabul, East of New York and Destiny Disrupted:A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.
In the last few days, the military establishment appears to have been laying down the law to President Obama that U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan through 2014. It's always worth remembering, their ironclad control of events is an illusion. Much may happen to change that which we cannot envision completely today, especially in a war zone which seems to defy understanding by anyone except perhaps Afghans.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The web as nursery for naivete ...

Did you know that when you use Google to search the net, you get results based on that engine's guess at what you want to see, taking off from your past internet activity? Last year, Gizmodo explained this "feature."

The next time you Google something, if the search results seem a little too good, a little too personal, it's because they are. While Google's always delivered customized search results to people logged into their Google account -- that is, search results tailored to you, based on your web history (yes, even outside of Google...), past searches and previous results you've clicked on -- it's now going to be doing that for everybody.

Google does offer a page explaining how to disable their customization, but naturally they make it cumbersome since the practice maximizes the effectiveness and price of their ads.

While the reality that numerous commercial and probably other entities track our activity on the net has awful implications for our privacy, I get almost equally concerned that the net's ability to give us what we want locks us away in little information niches of our own making. Google searches aren't, easily anyway, going to lead us to sites and people that challenge our prejudices.

One small example -- I'm not interested in getting my sexual kicks from the web, so I NEVER see anything that suggests that the web is largest pornography mart in the world. But it is.

More seriously, as I range about the net, I also very seldom see the festering swamps of hate and bigotry that many of my fellow citizens inhabit. And consequently, I'm inadequately aware of much that is going on around me.

With that in mind, I share this exchange that I ran across on a Yahoo forum by chance the other day.

I admit to being shocked at the casual smugness of the racism, though I shouldn't be. It doesn't do us any good not to know.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Brad's got a commercial!

I'm sitting back, watching football -- and darned if Brad Newsham of beach performance art fame and one of my favorite dogged critics of Nancy Pelosi turns up in a car ad. Not just any car though, but for his Prius Green Cab. You rock, dude!

Who said San Francisco doesn't have any characters anymore?

Friday, November 12, 2010

After that election, there's still more ...

Nine days on and it looks as if California did even better than we'd hoped. Democrats seem to have retained all the Congressional seats they held before the election. In Fresno, Jim Costa (CD-20) retains a small lead with all the votes in from Kings County, the only one of the three counties he represents where the electorate preferred his Republican opponent.

Meanwhile Central Valley Congressman Jerry McNerney (CD-11) (whose race I chronicled here, here and here,) has claimed victory with a still fluctuating lead of about 2000 votes and most ballots now counted.

This contest was one to watch because the district is famously gerrymandered. Slate just named it one of the twenty most peculiarly shaped in the country. It's boundaries were drawn in 2002 to preserve the seat for an incumbent Republican. (All the California districts were gerrymandered for incumbent protection that year. The two parties cut a deal.) McNerney captured it in 2006 in a huge upset win; it's the only one of those 2002 California Congressional districts that has since changed party. It's a tremendous validation of the GOTV campaign Democrats waged this year to get out union, infrequent, and Latino voters that McNerney was able to hang on.

Now all these Congresspeople face redistricting by a "non-partisan" commission before the next election; look for fireworks as some previously safe seats get redrawn.
In the other current too-close-to-call California race, that for state Attorney General, Democratic San Francisco D.A. Kamala Harris, currently trails L.A. Country D.A. Steve Cooley by about 20,000 votes out of nearly 8 million cast. She may yet pull this out, giving Dems a sweep of state offices. If she does, it will probably be because she ran about 13 percentage points ahead of Cooley on his Los Angeles turf. That margin reflects the intense efforts of African Americans and other people of color on her behalf out of a Crenshaw office. Committed boosters like these are particularly important in down-ballot races where many people never have a chance to know much about the candidates.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi actually surpassed her previous margins in winning her completely safe seat. This year's sacrificial Republican opponent was a libertarian crank who lost by 65 percentage points. Pelosi's last opponent ran against her from the left and did noticeably better; in 2008, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan lost by only 55 points.
Since San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom won his race for Lieutenant Governor and departs for Sacramento in January, we're now in for a season of extreme political silliness as a multitude of challengers jockey to succeed him. It's going to be a zoo! So far I've seen this extensive rundown of some of the possible candidates and been asked to contribute to the campaign of State Senator Leland Yee who is certainly a viable prospect and isn't even mentioned in the linked "comprehensive" article. San Franciscans can expect roller coaster ride local politics this year. For a lot of us, the local show serves as a sometimes significant, but always amusing, spectator sport.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pulling and hauling on a weak President

In this season of Presidential enfeeblement, it's not surprising that the permanent war establishment -- the military, hawkish neo-cons, etc. -- think this is their time to push back against any administration intent to complete withdrawal from Iraq or bring the Afghanistan mess to an end.

And there they are, right on cue, making noises. Here's Secretary of Defense Gates on Iraq:

The U.S. may be open to keeping American troops in Iraq past the end of 2011, the current deadline for withdrawal. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested today the timetable could slide,

PBS, 11/9/10

Meanwhile, someone is telling the usually reliable Nancy Youssef at McClatchy that "Obama officials [are] moving away from [the] 2011 Afghan date."

Clearly, war supporters are striking hard at what looks a propitious time for them.

The peace movement needs to understand that this time of Presidential weakness is also the time for us to be raising the temperature about the wars. The President knows that the Democratic base he must solidify for 2012 has had it with overseas adventures that don't plausibly contribute to U.S. safety at home. This is a guy who won office as the only plausible Dem who had not voted for the Iraq disaster. He can't afford to be the target of a Democratic left insurgency against a failed war that dribbles away lives and dollars.

And the White House has shown they understand the threat, quickly getting a denial inserted into the McClatchy story.

The White House vehemently denies that there is any change in policy. "The president has been crystal clear that we will begin drawing down troops in July of 2011. There is absolutely no change to that policy," said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman.

The fight over what Obama means is not something peace activists should shy away from. His political advisors are obviously scared of the right -- but they are also scared of us. We have a role to play.

The truly repulsive candidate loses in ranked choice voting

Now I get it: instant run-off voting (ranked choice) can ensure that an actively repulsive candidate in a multi-candidate election can't win office. That's what I take away from the victory of Jean Quan in the Oakland mayor's race. Congratulations to probable Mayor-elect Quan -- and I still think progressives fail to understand the implications of this voting scheme.

When the initial vote was counted last week, former State Senator Don Perata, a quintessential old school Democratic machine pol, had 34 percent of the first place votes to Councilwoman Quan's 24 percent and Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan's 21 percent. The rest of the tallies went to others with lesser amounts. But under ranked choice, that wasn't the end:

After 10 round of eliminating candidates and redistributing their votes -- with Kaplan the last go, and her votes breaking 3-1 in Quan's favor -- the preliminary results show Quan winning with 51.1 percent of the vote to Perata's 48.9 percent.

Bay Guardian

As the election resolved itself, Perata wasn't attractive to enough voters to garner a healthy share of second and third place votes. Perata's support, based in oldtime political horsetrading rather than voter excitement, turned out to be a narrower, minority slice of the electorate. Meanwhile the two challengers, Quan and Kaplan cleaned up. Whoever was second in the last round was going to get most of the votes from the last 3rd place candidate standing -- and Quan did. She wins.

Perata's people are clearly non-plussed; they admit they never understood ranked choice voting. Anyone remember that Mark Penn and Hilary Clinton's people apparently didn't understand that caucus states might offset their big wins in presidential primaries in 2008? This happens to folks too used to winning through established insider tactics.

In this instance, the desire of a majority of Oaklanders to vote for "anyone but Don" has had a progressive result. Among my Oakland friends, there seems solid agreement that Jean Quan is a sensible, honest and generally attractive political figure who they'll be glad to see as mayor, even if their first choice was someone else. They like what happened here.

However I think it is important that progressives understand that ranked choice voting is no panacea for electing their candidates. This outcome was very unusual; most ranked choice races go to whoever came in first in the first round. It takes massive revulsion from a candidate who initially leads to fail to pick up enough lower choices to win out.

"For a candidate to receive the most first-place votes but whose name doesn't appear anywhere on one-third of the ballots suggests what a polarizing effect he had on voters," said Corey Cook, executive director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco.

"It suggests that voters preferred three choices ahead of him -- and for a front-runner, that's astonishing," he said.

Chip Johnson, SF Chronicle

And this could easily work in a conservative direction. What if a candidate simply belonged to an "unacceptable" religion, or had a minority sexual orientation, or was the "wrong" race? These are the folks who usually have been unacceptable even as second choices to majority voters. Often they first break into office in quirky fields of candidates where minority voting blocks can make their weight felt. Ranked choice doesn't allow for that.

Straight up majority rule can cut a lot of ways. If there's a lesson, it's that candidates are stronger when they can make themselves attractive as well as convincing voters they are safer than the other guy. That's a little unintuitive, because being the lesser evil often works. Consequently, far too many candidates promote themselves not as "I'll be good for you" but as "I'm not XX." Sometimes they then find themselves without many friends when in office -- see for example California's most prominent recall victim, former Governor Gray Davis. Come to think of it, Don Perata is out of that era of Dems ...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tommorow is Veteran's Day

The date marks the armistice that ended World War I. That war decimated a generation, mostly of Europeans. It was sold as "the war to end war."

Our current wars drag on and on yet only one percent of our citizens and their families suffer the immediate damage. This is wrong. It is also wrong that paying for this imperal folly undercuts the living standards of all but the richest at home. How long are we all going to put up with this from Republicans and Democrats alike?

Five facts about immigration

At a Netroots California session on Saturday, Isabel Alegria from the California Immigrant Policy Center and Thomas Saenz of MALDEF facilitated a discussion of the vexatious problem of how to communicate about the need for humane, equitable solutions to the nation's scrambled immigration situation. MALDEF has issued a new one page fact sheet highlighting five facts they believe are not getting into the national discussion. I've reproduced these points below with my own ampification in following each in italic type.
  • We all know that the United States is primarily a nation of immigrants and their descendants. But, it is also true that the United States is an independent nation in part because of a reaction to a restrictive immigration policy. Among the grievances against King George set forth in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was a concern that the king had worked to prevent and discourage immigration to the colonies.

    Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence indicted the British king for trying to "prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."
  • Our status as one united nation also depends on having one immigration and immigration enforcement policy set by the federal government in Washington, DC. When the United States adopted its Constitution in 1787, the nation settled on being one united nation rather than a loose confederation of separate independent states. If each state, as Arizona attempted in SB 1070, could adopt its own immigration enforcement policy, we would cease to be one nation.

    Before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the country was governed under the Articles of Confederation [1781-1786] which gave most power to the states, effectively denied the national state the power to tax or regulate commerce, and made it impossible to formulate a unified national foreign policy. If this sounds like the program of some of the wackiest Teabaggers like Sarah Palin and Rand Paul, you'd be right. Back to 1786 we go ... it didn't work then, either.
  • Critical industries in the United States depend on undocumented immigrant workers. Agricultural farming has been an important part of our history and remains a crucial industry today. Several studies have estimated that well over half of all agricultural crop workers in the United States are undocumented. Moreover, there are no indications that American-born workers have an interest in adopting the lifestyle of migratory farm workers.

    There's no indication that U.S. residents will work, especially in a piecework system, for what growers will pay.

    Bob Brody, who has an apple orchard [in Washington State], says he thinks the visa system is too expensive, and the other alternative -- hiring Americans -- is a fantasy. "They won't do it," he says. "Talk to any grower." his productive Red Delicious orchards, he's offering $15 per bin. At that rate, a fast worker can make $120 a day.

    A bin holds half a ton of apples. Workers with rights won't do that work for that money.
  • There is no single “line” to wait to immigrate legally to the United States. Our current immigration system discriminates on the basis of national origin, or ancestry, requiring much longer waits for those from countries like Mexico, China, India, and the Philippines. For example, the adult son or daughter of a United States citizen who comes from most countries in the world currently waits four to five years to immigrate, while the adult son or daughter of a naturalized United States citizen from Mexico must wait almost 18 years to receive a legal immigrant visa.

    According to a National Foundation for American Policy brief on Family Immigration, the system is full of arbitrary inequities. Some are shocking: "the wait time for a U.S. citizen petitioning for a brother or sister from the Philippines [to enter the U.S.] exceeds 20 years." People who don't have to deal with the intricacies of the immigration "system" have little idea how convoluted and unfair the present mess has become.
  • More than two million undocumented immigrants came to this country as minor children. Many of these immigrants went to school here and were raised as American kids. Our national values have never punished or blamed children for acts that they committed while under the direction of their parents.

    How can we possibly treat kids who had no say in immigrating as lawbreakers? We do. The DREAM Act is meant to remedy this situation. It would put undocumented young people who came when they were 15 or under, who graduate from high school in the U.S. and who complete two years of college or join the military on a path to citizenship. The military provision looks like a rather coercive war draft to some activists, but for the country not to welcome the energy and initiative of these young people is simply national stupidity. See also Immigration as a generational issue.
The United States has created a rat's nest of regulations, policies and practices about immigration. We need more facts about the realities more widely understood. And we need the political courage to enact reforms.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Immigration policy as a generational issue

As a long time editorial page editor and political columnist for the Sacramento Bee, Peter Schrag has been watching immigration and the "immigration issue" as it ebbs and flows in California for decades. He's the author of two of the best books on this wacky state, Paradise Lost and California. And now he's issued Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America. More here on "race" and immigration in this valuable book.

In this post, I want to take up what Schrag writes about current policy debates. I learned a lot from his insights, though I don't always agree with him.

Schrag knows he's seeing nothing new when a Tom Tancredo or a Sharon Angle or a Lou Dobbs thinks they can make political hay by screaming about an "alien invasion."

The basic drama has been reenacted again and again. Replace Irish or Italian or Slav or Jew with Mexican or Muslim, and what comes from immigration restrictionists now could have come from the opponents of immigration a century or more ago; again and again history proved them mostly wrong.

But his study of the history has shown him something that seems contradictory:

At the same time, that history also tells us that the greatest social and economic progress of the last century -- and probably of any period in our history -- took place in the forty years [1925-1965] when the nation's immigration was the lowest it had ever been and, most likely, would ever be again. It was the period when new and old Americans forged the powerful industrial unions that helped produce the great middle class, sent their children to common schools, fought together at St. Lo and Anzio, on Guadalcanal and at Bastogne, often against their cousins and uncles from the old country, went to college together on the GI Bill, and became neighbors in the same developments. It was the half century of the New Deal and the Great Society and the period when the millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, the once-unmeltable ethnics of the prior two generations, were "whitened" and became Americans.

I read that -- and I think, yes -- but correlation is not causation. It's not surprising that the decades when the United States was reaching an historical pinnacle of prosperity and power were also a time that when space opened for great social progress, for greater equality before the law and in society, as well as economically.

What's that got to do with immigration policy? Schrag maintains that a sort of pause in immigration, created by the nativist restrictions of the mid-1920s that came in reaction to the vast southern and eastern European population influx of 1890s through 1920 helped calm people down and make them more able to assimilate progress. It's an idea that accords with human nature, but does it tell us anything about current debates?

Not really, because we aren't going to get another prolonged "pause." Since 1965, the most egregious of the racial restrictions built into immigration policy have been clipped back (though some remain.) Immigration both legal and undocumented has spiked because people want to come here -- and, until the current recession, there was work for them.

Schrag's formulation does however point to a significant way that the current political debate plays out that I haven't seen explicitly recognized. People who came of age in the United States before about 1970 lived in a country in which they had little exposure to immigrants. The previous waves of newcomers, for many their own parents and grandparents, were just part of the national landscape. I'm of this generation. The only new immigrant kids I remember being incorporated into my elementary school in the 1950s were a few whose parents were refugees from the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary. Immigration was about rare humanitarian emergencies. Mass migration to the United States as a "big deal" was history.

For people who came of age after 1970 (by which time the loosening quota policies begun in 1965 began to show results), this perspective is simply quaint. Ever since then, immigrants have come from all over the world and they don't look like the grandparents of long time residents. As current residents always have, younger people may fear the competition (both realistically and unrealistically), but they don't usually have the visceral recoil from the sheer strangeness of the foreign name or unfamiliar clothing that is so common in older citizens. (Click on the chart for a larger view.)

Since one of the themes of our present political moment is that Republicans are becoming the party of the frightened, the old and the white, it's no wonder that they'd also be the party of restricting immigration and of xenophobic reaction to the arrival of unfamiliar people. As so often in our history, the newcomers serve as a target for demagoguery.

Schrag points out another reality that ought to encourage the old to be more generous in envisioning immigration policies, even though it probably won't. demographer Dowell Myers argues, most of the millions of American boomers who will retire in the first two decades of the twenty-first century will have to be replaced in the workforce in large part by recent immigrants and their children and grandchildren. There simply aren't enough other Americans to fill all the jobs, which means that better education and training for that new generation become absolutely essential. By 2039, the nation's working-age population will be 50 percent minority, many of them now in school or college. It's not merely the general economy that will depend on them but the home values and the pensions of the retiring boomers. For for everyone's sake, that means the nation had better invest in their education. ...

For the boomer generation, it is simply in our economic interest to make migration to the United States more easily accomplished and to smooth the transition to citizenship for people already here. If we were smart enough to add our demographic heft to demanding this outcome, there'd be no stopping a more equitable, sensible immigration policy. We need this in our own way, almost as much as the rawest new arrival!

Monday, November 08, 2010

They keep on coming ...*

Peter Schrag has written the book I wish I'd had available when I was very suddenly thrust into doing political defense of immigrants nearly two decades ago. I knew I'd entered a hornet's nest; it wasn't hard for me to choose a side: who could support denying medical care or education to a child? (The voters of the state of California in 1994 tried, but that's another story.)

Aside from some vague references in American history classes to a "melting pot" and years of living in California where in the 1990s about one third of everyone was foreign born, I didn't have any strong awareness of the history and trajectory of immigration policies and immigrants in this country. Now that's all readily available, intelligently laid out in Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.

From the time of the first European colonists, some people in this country -- usually landowners and large employers -- have encouraged newcomers to migrate here to do necessary work. Other people, already here and working hard, have viewed newcomers as competition. Newcomers are more easily absorbed if they are religiously, culturally and racially similar to the previous wave of immigrants -- and experience resistance to their arrival in proportion to their differences. This pattern has repeated itself cyclically from the Massachusetts colony up through the present day. According to Schrag, immigration acquired an ideal status with the founding of the United States that still frames the experience.

In revolution we became Americans by choice, no longer Englishmen. From that moment on, becoming an American was far removed from the classic determinants of nationality and citizenship -- nativity, ethnicity, religion. It was and would continue to be an affirmative act, something previously unknown in the world and in many places still unknown.

Anyone who has registered new voters outside citizenship ceremonies, as I have, has seen the excitement generated in that "affirmative act."

But from the nation's beginnings, immigration has also intersected with the country's original sin: white supremacy. Racial categorization of individuals served to control persons with inferior status from the earliest colonial times, first during European colonists' failed efforts to enslave Native inhabitants and then through successful importation of bound Black Africans. Race served its purpose so well it has always been a feature of how current residents understand new arrivals, sometimes with what later seem almost comic results. Hardly anyone's ancestors were considered "white" (rightful members of the dominant category) when they got here. Schrag gives a run down:

.. the questions, confusion, and controversy about race that began even before the 1787 convention -- at first just about the black-white/north-south dichotomy, then about a growing multiplicity of ethnicities -- have long since crept into countless national policy areas, including, for the past 150 years, questions about immigration. Who qualified as White -- not just in the one-drop-of-blood sense -- but in determining whether Arabians or Armenians or Syrians or Punjabis or Filipinos or Hawaiians were white and thus eligible for naturalization? Was the Mexican white or, as part (or maybe largely) Indian, something else? (Under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Mexicans in the territory taken from Mexico after the war in I848 could choose to become Americans, so essentially they became white.) Was a person who was half white and one-fourth Chinese and one-fourth Japanese white? From the last decade of the nineteenth century to the I940s, federal courts confronted more than fifty such questions. ...

[There were] ... suits in which the courts ruled repeatedly that the Chinese weren't white, that the Japanese weren't white, that Hawaiians weren't white, that Filipinos weren't white, and that Burmese weren't white. There were also decisions that Armenians were white. ... In 1919 two courts ruled that Asian Indians were white (one other court, in 1919, ruled they probably weren't). After 1923, the courts ruled that Asian Indians, sometimes "Hindoos," weren't white, and in 1925 that Punjabis weren't white. Four pre-1917 decisions had ruled that Syrians were white, and three that they weren't. Then came rulings that Koreans weren't white; that Afghanis weren't white, followed in 1945 by a decision that they were; and that "Arabians" weren't White, again followed by a Board of Immigration Appeals ruling in 1941 that, because European civilization had originated in the Middle East, that they were white. By the late 1930s, Mexicans were considered white for most official poses.

Talk about a country tying itself in knots! Though earlier generations' conundrums over the "race" of immigrants are easy to mock, people's lives were constrained, disrupted and sometimes destroyed by the policies rooted in these decisions -- as they still are by our current immigration policies.

I'll take up Schrag's discussion of where we are today in my next post.

* The headline refers to California Governor Pete Wilson's nativist political ads showing shadowy figures leaping fences that helped him win office in 1994. Republican Teabagger Sharon Angle revived the meme in losing to Senator Harry Reid in Nevada in 2010.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Falling back

Today we dutifully "fell back" an hour with the end of Daylight Saving Time -- and I noticed that a change had crept up on me. We no longer fall back by resetting clocks -- the Mac, the iPhone, and my watch all do it themselves, without my intervention. My goodness, those chips are getting smart (though, curiously, the iPhone and the computer are 2 minutes apart ... oh well.)

I probably want to remember to reset the microwave. But essentially, switching times is now something our appliances take care of without our intervention.

Haunting the 'hood

This lay there for about 2 weeks before some Department of Public Works crew disposed of the tangled remains. U-locks are tough.

Such sights deter me from becoming an urban cyclist. But I should admit that drivers and sheer cowardice also play a role.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Nancy Pelosi: a leader for dazed Democrats

Just want to say, I'm delighted Nancy Pelosi has chosen to return to the fray as leader of the shrunken Democratic House contingent.

She's been my Congresscritter for a long time -- and I haven't always chosen to vote for her, as if that choice mattered. The only time it did matter, her first election, I worked for a more populist alternative. Though Pelosi prevailed, that campaign was one of the milestones on the way to progressive political power in our city.

Since Pelosi won the leadership job, San Franciscans might as well not have had a Congressmember because her constituency is less San Franciscans than her caucus, her fractious herd of Democratic members. I've been bitterly critical at times, distressed when it looked as if she was working the insider game to the detriment of both her constituents and progressives at large. From 2006 to 2008, it looked as if, though Democrats had won the House, she was more concerned with keeping the caucus together than with standing up to the odious President George W.

But, unlike most liberals with good intentions who play an insider game for years, promising they'll do good if they ever accumulate the power to do something, Pelosi spent her political capital over the last two years. Oh, she never was all we might want, wasn't pushing our cautious (dithering?) President to get the hell out of Afghanistan, prosecute the war criminals from the previous administration, or get serious about ensuring all of us health care, not just a chance to buy health insurance. But she reliably stuck up for what liberals could possibly win, never seemed to advocate just giving in to the naysayers, and herded her brood of Congresscritters far further than they wanted to go. It was an admirable performance.

Former Speakers don't always just go away if their party loses the majority. The Republicans who got in after 1994 have set that pattern, but this wasn't always the expectation. The legendary Democrat Sam Rayburn who ruled the House for his party in the 40s and 50s slipped in and out of the chair several times with changing electoral fortunes.

And apparently Pelosi is going to stay the course, rallying her caucus against the current crop of Teabaggers, know-nothings and corrupt fraudsters. The columnist E.J. Dionne summed up her attitude:

Democrats have nothing to apologize for, nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to regret. ...

[Republicans demonize her] "because I'm effective," she answers matter-of-factly. "It's why they had to do it...."

The entire column is worth reading.

If anyone can help dazed Democrats to remember they have spines, I suspect it might be my feisty Congresswoman. I won't let up on asking her to do more, but I think we'll all do better with her around and I'm glad she wants to stick it out a little longer.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Any embers still out there?

In an article on potential staff changes in the White House, the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder asserts confidently that

... at some point, senior adviser David Axelrod will return to Chicago to help run Obama's 2012 campaign, and David Plouffe will take his place.

Ambinder usually has good sources so we can probably take that as true.

Since managing Obama's 2008 campaign, Plouffe has published his account of that long, exhilarating slog: The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory. For campaign junkies, the book is remains delicious candy (and I think wise in its observations on how good campaigns do it.)

At this difficult moment in Obama's presidency, it is poignant to reread what Plouffe says he and his candidate were feeling on the eve of November 4, 2008.

Though the campaign had begun with little pressure or expectations of winning, I now felt weighed down by several factors that made the possibility of defeat unbearable. 1 worried that if we lost, we could lose for a generation all the young and new volunteers and voters who got involved in our campaign. They poured their hearts into it; for many, it was the first time they'd ever taken this kind of leap, or even fathomed it. They believed in Obama, and in their capacity to affect the outcome of the election. Obama had ignited something very powerful in young people throughout the country. If that spark could be preserved, I was convinced we'd be a much stronger country for it. As Obama often said: "I do not want to let them down."

Those inspired newcomers to politics apparently didn't vote this year. Tuesday's electorate was old and white and bitter, sadly.

So the question hangs in the air -- will Obama remember who brought him where he is -- or will he respond to a setback not entirely his fault by trying to play along with people whose aim is to destroy him? If he does, what happens to all those hopes once kindled?

I don't like to think about that.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Former President admits to crime of torture

In his book, titled "Decision Points," Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Mohammed, who Bush said was suspected of knowing about still-pending terrorist plots against the United States. Bush writes that his reply was "Damn right" and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives, according to a someone close to Bush who has read the book.

Washington Post, 11/3/10

Present President looks "forward, not backward."

I forgive the Obama administration much, but not this.