Friday, December 31, 2010

Here's to a better 2011!

disapproving frisker.jpg
Frisker certainly expects that cat food will arrive more frequently and promptly and her box will be cleaned daily. Laps should always be available, but humans should not expect her to sit on them unless she chooses.

I hope for an end to seemingly endless wars, continuing mobilization by people who are not getting heard by a corrupt political system, good friendships deepened, and more mountains!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Stories from their work

Accountability and White Anti-racist Organizing

Anything I write about this new anthology requires a preface: two of the writers are long time friends on whom I've leaned in the course of the political work I've done over the last three decades. In this volume, Sharon Martinas, with Mickey Ellinger, recount the theory and evolution of the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop. In the program's early years, I participated in a session of project; in subsequent years, I was boundlessly grateful that CWS was there as I worked on building political campaigns in communities of color. CWS provided a resource to which I could direct white volunteers who seemed not able to fit in to our work without getting in the way of leadership development in communities of color. "Go spend a session with Sharon," I'd say -- and I did not add, out loud, "come back when you know how to behave!" Perhaps most improbably of all, many of them did come back! The CWS Workshop deserves a lot of credit for the significant numbers of white, dedicated, quite sophisticated political activists who carry on multi-racial struggles of various sorts alongside people of color all around the San Francisco Bay Area.

In the book's preface, Ron Chisom of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond summarizes the problem this book addresses:

...if you give someone skills and tools and they have not dealt with their racism, they can become a skillful racist...

Lots of white people with good hearts and good skills have discovered this is true -- that technical sophistication in necessary work is no substitute for a political consciousness of how racism permeates our society. They discuss it here in chapters that cover a wide range of experiences including public schools, housing development, a rap group, social service bureaucracies and the Society of Friends. It's telling that the difficulties they encounter in such diverse environments seem so similar. The section heads in a chapter on "White Antiracist Organizing in a Social Service Agency" hit the highlights of what seem common experiences: "From Culturally Competent to Antiracist ... Beginnings of the White Antiracist Caucus ... We Benefited Disproportionately ..."

There are many lessons. This, from Jacquelyn "Adbi" Hermer who joined white volunteers trying to help rebuild in the New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, catches some themes:

Effective solidarity work can restructure resource distribution and power differentials. Participating in solidarity work implies that I am not from the community in which I am working, that I have skills or privilege to offer, and that I am constantly and consciously working towards developing others' leadership and access to resources.This process includes political advocacy, building valuable relationships, reallocating resources, being transparent in my actions, and being strategic and sustainable with my energy. The key word, accountability, means recognizing that this work is about supporting folks and their projects in a way that is not about me and my involvement, but is about the people directly affected and the way they wish to express their needs and greatest potential.

My emphasis. We can be of use in working toward a more just society when we can hang on to awareness that it is not just about us, yet somehow includes us. That goes for everyone, but invisible historic privilege means it is a lot harder for white people to find a good balance.

Happily, this anthology contains an essay from Shelly Tochluk and Cameron Levin of AWARE-LA/RJA that takes up some of the emotional and practical pitfalls that dog self-conscious attempts to build up white anti-racist activity and alliances. In this we encounter "Inauthentic Communication," "Unhealthy White Anti-racist People," and "Ineffective Collaborative Practices" on the way to describing what one political formation has done about them.

This is both a theoretical and practical book. Nobody is going to love all of it. But there is a lot here for any of us, especially white people, struggling to overcome our country's shared history of white supremacy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

If anything good comes of 2010, it will be this

In 2011, there will be only one way to be pro-Israel. That is to join those who are fighting the occupation. Supporting the status quo, defending the occupation, opposing direct US intervention to establish borders and end the occupation, is, in effect, about as anti-Israel a position as it is possible to take.

M.J. Rosenberg

Forty-three years too late, civilized people in the United States, including majorities of U.S. Jews, have stopped believing that Israel can be both a democracy and rule violently over a powerless subject people. It's no longer completely taboo to use the word "apartheid" to describe the occupation.

Will this do any good for Palestinians (and Israelis) on the ground? Hard to know, but this shift was a necessary precursor to any positive movement.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

U.S. vets talk about the AVF and their "service"

What's the AVF? It's the initials for the "All Volunteer Force," the present compostion of the United States military. Tom Ricks, former Washington Post military correspondent and current Foreign Policy blogger, has hosted a fascinating conversation among recent and current soldiers about what being part of such a military is like -- and what it does to the relationship between our soldiers and the country at large.

It used to be, until 1974, that if the country wanted to fight a war, it drafted a cross section of young men as soldiers. The system was never fair; privileged people could usually stay out of the fighting. But the big wars of the 20th century up through Vietnam drew in a pretty broad section of the population. Having experienced military service was almost a necessity for ambitious politicians, certifying their "man of the people" status. But since the draft was suspended, that's all changed. As a former Marine who calls himself "A. Scout-Sniper" explains:

The burden of fighting and sharing a war has shrunk to the point where 1 percent of our citizens and their families endure the permanent life-changing consequences of warfare.

He thinks that is wrong and calls for reinstatement of universal service. Some of the reasons he brings forward:
  • The "volunteer" force is not genuinely voluntary. There's a poverty draft.

    While I would like to believe that everyone volunteers 100 percent for only one pure reason, this is another extremist view of life. ... That is a semi-mythical belief all of us as civilians and military tell ourselves to avoid thinking about those we consciously and unconsciously target as recruits and then send half way around the globe while we shirk or exonerate ourselves of any responsibility. USMC, we often say to sleep easy at night: U Signed the Mother-Fucking Contract.

    ...Many Marines I served with, I'm talking Sergeants and down, enlisted to escape poverty and get a college education. Most young people do not know how relatively low military pay is, especially enlisted versus officer, but it's there, every hour for four or twenty years. It also comes with signing bonuses, the GI Bill, health care, or promises of a VA house or business loan after enlistment. Prior to signing up, most of my friends asked themselves how they could pay for college growing up in the poorest class. What if you are not a great student or a superb athlete? You probably won't get that education through McDonald's and you definitely won't get it from the school or your minimum wages of your dual working parents. ...

    ... I spent 30 days, after my first tour, as an assistant recruiter in Salt Lake City, UT and this only reinforced what I heard from my friends in boot camp... My recruiting NCOs and I only canvassed the poorest areas and crappiest high schools... We never visited universities or colleges, let alone middle or upper class neighborhoods. When I was ordered to cold-call various high school kids, the names on the list fit a profile: lower class, conservative families and 60 percent Latino immigrant or first generation Americans. All the stations in SLC are nowhere near middle or upper class areas and I suspect that this is the same in every major city.

  • The military sells itself as better -- more honorable, more profesional -- than civilian pursuits.

    In some sense, we have transformed the military from just a regular part of government service into a special interest group that believes in its own entitlement. ...Typically we use the high-society term "professional" to describe our military. Its overuse, by those inside and outside, sounds suspicious[ly] as if Americans in other periods were unskilled simpletons with mediocre public schooling and industrial skills who made average soldiers at best. This sets up a dangerous perception that the military is "better" than the government and, in turn, the society it serves. Part of this I-Am-Special mentality comes from the idea that we are all volunteers and thus better humans because we willingly and knowingly gave up our lives in both blood and time and joined a very small club. We don't honor our local EMTs, AmeriCorps students, Policemen, City Water Sewage personnel, teachers, and VA doctors, for instance, who give up just as much and sometimes more.

    A commenter who uses the nickname "Mixalot87" enlarges on this theme.

    His thoughts on entitlement are also chillingly on point. This isn't a new state of affairs, but this article conveys the realities of this phenomenon better than I've ever seen before. It isn't the soldier's/marines fault. They're inundated with this from the day the enter the service, particularly during briefing from Generals and CSMs that they are taught to emulate from Day 1. In fact, since I have been introduced to the military, I have always believed that one of the major reasons many career Soldiers don't want a draft is that it would end their monopoly on the bragging rights of being one of "the few." As the author alludes to, there is a dangerous sense of- dare I say it- martyrdom that has taken hold over the ranks in the past few years. Draftees made the world safe for democracy in 1918, defeated Hitler and Hirohito in 1945, pushed to the Yalu in 1950, and fought without ever losing a significant military engagement for over a decade in Vietnam.

  • A military whose social composition is as narrow as our current one, easily becomes politicized -- in just one direction. Again "Sniper":

    During boot camp, I was taught to hold civilians as nasty, sub-human liberals, which only distanced Marines from their own society. ... When my Marines asked me who I was voting for in 2004 I told them I wasn't voting because I didn't think it was okay to be engaged in politics whatsoever while in uniform. I said there was no pressure to vote or not vote and to make their own decision. A platoon commander overheard this, and instantly struck down my position and told them to re-elect the president or face the consequences of a lost war. It seemed unprofessional to me then and now.

    This is a pretty new development in our history and one that should trouble anyone who is trying to fight a war. Typically we want an apolitical military with lots of talented people because they can use those talents in the fight and because we don't want military coups. ...Talented people come from all walks of political life and whether we like it or not, a lot of the talent we need in this kind of war (historians, linguists, cultural anthropologists, union leaders, Islamic scholars, grass roots organizers, student teachers and agriculture specialists to name a few) are generally not all conservatives but that shouldn't matter. Why not have feminists, soccer moms, gay dads, retired generals, Islamic privates, psychologists, businessmen, and so forth talking about issues in the military in forums like this unlike the current situation: a small group of "professionals" or ex-military who are typically right of center and generally white men?

    A commenter who calls himself "Rubber Ducky" adds

    War is always ugly and the human fuel needed for the war machine will suffer, whether lured into uniform by economic need or drafted under law. But if the latter, if the nation has a real stake in the war's conduct, the war-makers are denied carte blanche to continue warring absent strategy, absent result. We didn't lose the war in Vietnam because of protests, we had protests because we were losing the war and the American people couldn't figure out what we were doing, why we were there, or how long we'd need to stay. Sound familiar?

    ...Let's try this as an either/or issue: either the US military is an intrinsic part of our American nation or it is a separate mercenary force employed for odd jobs and distasteful tasks. I certainly prefer the former formulation, but absent a draft and with the AVF, I fear the truth is much closer to the latter case.

These guys (I think the commenters are all men, though I could be wrong) aren't antiwar exactly, though they think their civilian bosses are doing a piss poor job of leading them and some think they may have done more harm than good for the country's interests in the theaters where they served. (In these suspicions, they are probably no different from many draftees in past wars if I have read my history accurately.) Most soldiers who have to do the actual fighting have a pretty low opinion of politicians and desk jockeys.

Mostly they feel out on a limb in a society that has no idea what their service has meant. One or two even wish there was more of an antiwar movement; that would show them someone noticed. David J. Morris writes one at home gives a shit and as a result, the wars go on and on without any real sense of accountability. Ours is not to reason why seems to be the operative philosophy. And life in unbombed America goes on and on, as if nothing at all has happened, a horrific incongruity that leaves many veterans to wonder which is the more obscene: the wars or the public's shameful ignorance of them.

Precisely because only one percent of people in the United States are directly experiencing the country's Iraq and Afghanistan adventures, people who oppose these wars need to work at getting a glimmer about how they are experienced by the fighting forces. I've rearranged and excerpted in these posts. Go read the whole thing and do go on to follow up posts, here, here, and here.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Insanity knows no limits

General Petraeus speaks to soldiers. ISAFmedia.

The U.S. will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.

New York Times, 12/26/2010

It simply cannot be irrelevant to ask, what are we getting for this expenditure of our national fortune?

Ordinary injustices

When Professor Charles Ogletree lectured last summer about his new book, The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America, I was an unconvinced listener.

Wasn't the subject matter a little thin? Yes, Professor Gates' brief arrest in Cambridge was a classic example of racial profiling. Obviously the Cambridge cop had a assumed a Black man had no business in Gates' upscale home. No less surprising was that Gates' class position and celebrity made the incident go away without many longterm repercussions. And equally obviously, President Obama had made a very rare mistake in his handling a race issue by responding candidly to a press question that the arresting officer "acted stupidly." On this topic, Obama saying the obvious had the effect of, in Ogletree's words, of "blackening" our so carefully non-racial President.

But a book about this stuff? I see poor Black men jacked up by police in my poor Latino neighborhood as often as once a week. Latino drunks on the street are sometimes ignored while the Black drunk gets stood up and his stash poured out. These scenes are a reality of urban life; what happened to Gates is unusual only because his prominence meant the world noticed this nasty little injustice.

But having just read Ogletree's book, I think my easy dismissal was partly wrong. The Harvard Law professor has done something different: he has collected stories of racial profiling from prominent, accomplished Black men and simply passes them on, four or five paragraphs each, over one hundred pages of text. These are people who, if they were white, would almost certainly never experience these kinds of routine humiliation that are so commonly visited on poor citizens. By themselves, each of these incidents is small -- collected together, they wear any thoughtful reader down. What would it be like to live with a niggling fear that something like this might happen at any time?

In this small way, Professor Ogletree's book "works."

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Big subject; big book

Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years was unequivocally my favorite new reading discovery of 2010, but I've barely written about it here. It's just too big -- this enormous work of astonishing erudition surveys the complete history of the world's numerically largest faith.

For Western readers, MacCulloch is perhaps most interesting when he retrieves the experience of the Eastern churches, showing no particular bias toward any of the religion's variants. Yes, Christians often slaughtered their adversaries both within and without the faith (and were slaughtered themselves when they didn't have the upper hand).That's all there, but it is not MacCulloch's focus. Rather he recounts the numerous odd byways of faith with unfailing interest in and often delight at their sheer multiplicity.

I'll skip trying to say anything more in summary, but I did want to share one passage that I frequently recalled during my recent travel in Nepal.

Modern globalization has produced a dialogue between world religious faiths which in the last century or so has become something of an international industry. But this is a rediscovery for Christians and not a novelty: there were once Christianities which had little choice but to talk to believers in other world religions, because they were surrounded on all sides by them and often at their mercy. These Christians nevertheless traveled thousands of miles east of Jerusalem and brought a Christian message at least as far as the China Sea and the Indian Ocean. One of those encounters produced a tale which went on to unite Christians everywhere in enjoyment of it for something like a millennium, though it has almost been forgotten in the form which those Christians knew. It is nothing less than the story of Gautama Buddha, turned into a Christian novel about a hermit and a young prince, Barlaam and Josaphat. Barlaam converts the prince to the true faith, but that true faith is no longer Buddha's revelation, but Christianity -- while the Buddha has become a Christian hermit in the desert of Sinai, though his prince is still from a royal house of India.

How can this extraordinary cultural chameleon have been conceived? What seems to happened is that a version of the Sanskrit original life of Buddha, probably translated into Arabic in Baghdad, fell into the lands of a Georgian monk some time in the ninth century. He was so charmed by the story that he rewrote it in Georgian in Christian form as Balavariani, and fellow monks who spoke different languages also loved it and moved it into their own tongues. When it made its way into Greek, it took on a spurious authorship and plenty of pious quotations from the safely Orthodox giant of theology and philosophy John of Damascus to lend it respectability and increase its selling power, and now it was The Life of Barlaam and Joasaph. The two heroes became saints, with their own feast days, hymns and anthems. Small bony fragments of St Josaphat acquired in the East by Venetian merchants can be seen in a church in Antwerp.

The tale's travels had by no means ended. It spread from the Byzantine Empire through western Europe and south via Egypt: one could pick up copies of it in Latin, Hebrew, Old Norse, Old Russian, Ethiopia, medieval Catalan, Portuguese, Icelandic, Italian, French and English. The pioneering English printer William Caxton showed his usual commercial good sense when, in 1483, he chose to print it in his new translation of the great collection of saints' lives known as The Golden Legend, and Shakespeare used an episode from it in The Merchant of Venice. Perhaps we can appreciate just how far the Eastern Christian legacy eventually reached if we join the cultured English Roundhead military commander Thomas Fairfax, third Lord Fairfax of Cameron, in his Yorkshire study in the I650s. Smarting from the end of his military career after a principled quarrel with Oliver Cromwell, Fairfax pulled his Latin or Greek Barlaam from his bookshelves and whiled away his retirement with his own English translation, some 204 folio pages long. Puritan (and Chalcedonian) Yorkshire was a long way from the home of the Buddha, and Fairfax would have had no idea of his debt to that long-dead Georgian monk.

Expect other tidbits of MacCulloch to appear here as life jogs my memory of this remarkable historical tour de force.

small golden Buddha.jpg
Small statue of Buddha seen at Durbar Square, Patan, Kathmandu

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sir Edmund Hillary on what lasts in a long life

1hillary statue copy.jpg
Before I visited Nepal and trekked in the Everest region, I knew little about the later life of Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander, who, with the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, first summited the world's highest mountain in 1953. Hillary died in 2008 at 88. I was glad to find in Kathmandu a dog-eared copy of Hillary's late-in-life autobiography View from the Summit and read it on the way home.

I'm just old enough to have a vague memory of the news of the two men's triumph on the mountain, all mixed up with the coronation of Elizabeth II, the first TV broadcast I remember. It took this book to make me aware of the complicated nationalist, post-colonial political ramifications that engulfed the returning climbers. It had been desperately important to Tenzing that a Sherpa should be one of the first people to reach the summit; on their return, he was pressed by Nepalese to sign a statement that the accomplishment was primarily his doing, while Hillary tried hard to credit both men. Hillary describes himself as an innocent, hyper-fit, somewhat sheltered, bee-keeper in those days, oblivious to the excitement their reaching Everest's peak would create.

Strangely enough, hearing it stated over the BBC made me realise positively almost for the first time what an achievement it had been. I had innocently thought that it would be of interest to mountaineers, but not particularly to anyone else -- but I was being proved very wrong. ...

Nationalist aspirations then ran into unpleasant realities of several sorts. Though Tenzing was fiercely proud of his Sherpa heritage, he actually lived in and was a citizen of India, and did not much identify as Nepalese. Meanwhile, the Brits, still harking back to empire, thoughtlessly gave more of their kudos to Hillary. Thanks to Tenzing's wife's insistence (Sherpa women don't keep mum), his family accompanied Tenzing to England for the excitement, but Hillary got the starring role. In later years, Hillary claims to have been aware something was wrong (racist) about this.

... A small stool was placed in front of the Queen, I knelt on it, a short be-jewelled sword was put in her hand, she touched me lightly on each shoulder and said, "Arise, Sir Edmund." Whether I wanted it or not, I was now a knight and expected to behave as one. It was quite a change from my early days as a bee farmer in New Zealand.

There was only one thing on this great occasion that made me feel slightly uncomfortable. It would have been nice if Tenzing had received a knighthood too. He was given the George Medal, the highest civilian award for bravery in Britain, but in view of his great contribution to the expedition it would not have been unreasonable for him to have received he same decoration as I did. After all, I could hardly be regarded as knightly material in those days either.

As Hillary explains in the autobiography, for the rest of his life, he was always viewed in the role of the conqueror of Everest. At first, he used his celebrity to win leadership of a New Zealand expedition to the Antarctic. Later he and his family spent summers camping in U.S. national parks as gear-testers and celebrity endorsers for Sears Roebuck. He organized a jet boat expedition that travelled the length of the River Ganges in India and eventually served as New Zealand's ambassador to that country.

But none of that was what he set his heart on. Rather rapidly, whatever the extraordinary physiological anomaly was that enabled him to acclimatize relatively easily to high altitudes as a young man deserted him. Quite a lot of the book is about Hillary hiking or being carried down from high Himalayan places with severe cerebral edema. The heights had turned on him.

He was well aware who took care of him.

... Mingma, and the other Sherpas he recruited to build and climb with us, tough and competent themselves in their mountain environment, never really believed we could cope on our own. They would try and ensure we 'sahibs' carried only light loads, and would worry if we were going any distance without Sherpa guidance.

I sure get that! I had the same sense that the Sherpas and other mountain people we met in the Khumbu region thought we'd die if left to our own devices. When I came down with pneumonia, they did anxiously assist me. This care felt willing, not in any way either servile or like a necessity to promote tourism: they simply understood themselves to be capable of living in these places and we were not, so we must be cared for.

So, beginning in the early 1960s, Hillary took up the work of his later life, raising funds and building hospitals and school in the remote Everest region.

1lukla landing strip copy.jpg
The regional airport at Lukla was his project. Before it was built, people and supplies had to travel on foot for two weeks over a 15000 foot pass to reach the area.

I was still energetic but no longer the lead climber. I was the planner and organiser and ran the whole operation. We built a hospital at Kunde ... In response to petitions from local villages we constructed half a dozen new schools. We built a number of bridges over foaming mountain rivers and brought fresh water to villages with plastic pipes. To save carrying hundreds of loads on men's backs for the seventeen-day walk from Kathmandu, I decided to try and find another suitable site for an airfield.

... Jim [Wilson, Hillary's co-worker] had a rather amazing experience. He was approached by a group of farmers from the small village of Lukla, which was located in a small tributary valley at 9,000 feet. They had some land for sale and thought it would be suitable for an airfield. They even suggested that the wind always blew in the right direction! How hill people who knew nothing about airfields could possibly make this sort of judgement I do not know. but when we went up to Lukla we agreed that they were right. And best of all we wouldn't be destroying a lot of arable land. One third was in rough pasture, one third in heavy scrub and the last third in terraced potato fields. It certainly wasn't flat, the rise from bottom to top was over a hundred feet, but this wouldn't be a problem to a STOL (short take-off or landing) aircraft. Even the negotiations for the land were relatively easy. I purchased it on behalf of the Nepalese government. for a total of $635 -- quite a substantial sum in that area in those days. ...

Altogether I had paid out just over $2,000 for land and labour. ...Lukla quickly became the busiest mountain airfield in Nepal and the gateway to Everest.

We visited the hospital built at Kunde.

2kunde hosptial-peak in rear copy.jpg

3kunde fee schedule copy.jpg
Their fee schedule made a lot of sense to me.

4stupa copy.jpg
From the hospital, we walked on down to the regional high school at Khumjung, another project built because of Hillary's work with international climbing groups and philanthropic institutions.

5welcome highschool copy.jpg
Sign on the entrance arch.

6school yard copy.jpg
The wide school yard easily accommodates several hundred studens.

7computer classroom-koreans copy.jpg
Korean climbers had contributed the most recent building.

8water tap, hillary, laundry copy.jpg
Back in Khumjung village proper, women washing clothes can thank the Hillary projects for running water.

I liked Khumjung the most of the places we visited on our trek. It seemed prosperous, enjoying some of the fruits of modernization, yet very much a town where Sherpa culture survived the relatively small trekker influx and thrived. Tourism and indigenous cultures often throw up ugly by-products, including a sense of mutual exploitation. In Khumjung, perhaps I missed things, but I didn't feel that common tension.

Sir Edmund Hillary was completely clear on what he valued most in his life.

It is interesting in these days, when I have a warm relationship with all the people of Nepal, to look back on the Everest era when I was largely resented by the Nepalese and I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about them either. ...

Achievements are important and I have revelled in a number of good adventures, but far more worthwhile are the tasks I have been able to carry out for my friends in the Himalayas. They too have been great challenges in a different way -- building mountain airfields and schools, hospitals and clinics, and renewing remote Buddhist monasteries. These are the projects that I will always remember.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas to all who pass by here

For the first time in ten years, we've given ourselves a miniature tree for the holiday.

For the next two days, there will be stories of generosity and good cheer here. Regular carping returns on Monday. May this season of recognizing blessings be a joy to all.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

During a wet California winter ...

even the beetles get moldy.

Once around the 10th Parallel, touching down lightly

I took two thoughts away from Eliza Griswold's The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, neither deep, but perhaps not utterly inconsequential either.

One: There sure are a lot of fascinating and wacky religiosities in the strip of Africa (crossing Nigeria, southern Sudan, and Somalia) and Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines) that borders Latitude 10 degrees north of the equator. Most obviously, Christianity and Islam often live side by side here. That encounter becomes violent all too often as beliefs about how to encounter God become mixed with differences in ethnicity, language, and economic status and simple survival. This is most clearcut in her reports from the Sudan and the Philippines. But there's also plenty of violence within the two great religions between adherents who hold different interpretations of their own one true way.

But those stories are not the ones that gripped me; perhaps I've read too much about Christian-Muslim conflict elsewhere. Rather, I was fascinated and surprised by some of the oddities she encountered. There's Bishop David Oyedepo, a Nigerian Pentecostal preacher who presides over a megachurch called Canaanland with its own university. His thousands of followers proclaim to a prosperity gospel.

"There's a kind of revolution going on Africa," said Prince Famous lzedonmi, a professor at Covenant University. I met him in the college cafeteria, where he overheard me asking my... tour guide questions. The professor was a Muslim prince who converted to Christianity as a child to cure himself of migraine headaches. He was also the head of the university's Accounting and Taxation Department and director of its Center for Entrepreneurial Development Studies. "America tolerates God. Africa celebrates God. We're called 'the continent of darkness,' but that's when you appreciate the light. Jesus is the light."

When I asked how this came back to money, he clucked at me. "God isn't against wealth. Revelations talks about streets paved with gold. Look at how Jesus dressed," Since the soldiers cast lots for Christ's clothes, they were clearly expensive. In Canaanland, clothes matter: the pastors are flashily dressed and drive fast cars as a sign of God's favor. ...

Okay, I know that prosperity-oriented Christian groups also thrive in some communities in the U.S. But Griswold's next subject is the Nigerian Islamic counterpart of the same sort of faith; that comes to me as a bit of a surprise.

The Christian gospel of prosperity is so powerful it has spawned a unique Nigerian phenomenon: an Islamic organization called Nasrul-Lahi-il-Fathi (NASFAT). The name comes from a verse in the eighth chapter of the Quran, "The Spoils of War," or al-Anfal, and it reads, "There is no help except from Allah." The kind of help NASFAT offers begins very much with this world. The organization is based on economic empowerment and prosperity, with an Islamic spin. Started with about a dozen members in the 1990s, NASFAT now has 1.2 million members in Nigeria and branches in twenty-five other countries. ...NASFAT is not modeled after Islamic charities such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which provides Islamic-based social services to its clients and propagates a conservative form of Islam. It is the opposite: a way for Islam to engage with the West on its own terms. As splits within Christianity are shaping the future of the faith, so is splintering within Islam. Most conservatives loathe NASFAT and believe that this engagement with the secular world is haram, "forbidden," and distinctly un-Islamic. Yet faced with the encroachment of Christianity, NASFAT argues that the only way to survive in the religious marketplace is by playing the same game. ...

Gesturing to the streets choked with more than a hundred thousand men and women in white as they came from a prayer service at the Lagos Secretariat Mosque, he explained that NASFAT meets on Sundays so that Muslims have something to do while Christians attend church. "The space on Sunday is usually not dominated by Islam, but other faiths and other values. But when our people come here, they come and drink from the fountain of Islam."

...The prayer ground looked like a fairground -- just like the Pentecostal churches did. Everyone among the throngs of thousands was clad in white, and except for the women's eyelet head scarves and the men's small white hats, there would have been no way to tell if this was a gathering of Christians or Muslims. Hawkers sold lemons from a wheelbarrow. Small booths offered those pretty, scalloped hijabs, embroidered with "NASFAT' in blue. Men sat on prayer mats eating rice, while women attended a lecture on ways to make money in keeping with Islam. NASFAT's primary mission is to reclaim those values the world sees as Western but that its members perceive as integral to the success of the global Islamic community, the Ummah. Foremost is education. ...

Apparently the human impulse to make the temple a center of commerce finds expression in the most austere of faiths.

That woman sure gets around! I was simply awed by Griswold's range -- to collect this material, she ventured into a myriad of situations where Western reporters seldom travel. And I was awed by her bravery. Lots of these places were deeply dangerous to their own residents and especially to foreign intruders. In most of them, she interviewed warriors -- overwhelmingly male warriors -- who define their battles as religious. Many of these men are not just aspirational killers. For this aging feminist, it's stunning to know we now live in a world in which a determined woman can do this work. Kudos to Griswold.

The book reads as if it had started life as series of magazine articles, which it almost certainly did. In consequence (and for lack of copy editing) there are annoying repetitions and a certain sense of skimming once over lightly among impossibly complex realities and people. (Griswold certainly gives every indication of knowing she has just touched surfaces.) But oh, what a tour! I live in a bigger world for having read it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

All I want for Christmas ...

is a few more thinkers and doers like this.

It's worth sitting through about a minute of Kiefer Sutherland's introduction to get to the meat. And it is not just for Canadians, though Canadians are justly proud of this man.

Tommy Douglas is credited with doing what it took to win single payer health care for Canada in the 1960s despite, among other obstacles, a doctors' strike; Canadians call their system "Medicare." It's useful for people in the United States to know that Canadians won this sensible, cost effective system in one province first, then carried it to the rest of the country. I wonder which state is going to go first here? Maybe Vermont? Or even California?

Tommy Douglas was voted "the greatest Canadian of all time" in a Canadian Broadcasting poll in 2004.

In 20 years, will we think any of our current leaders are "the greatest"?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Solstice has come

The moon got munched last night (ca. 11 pm, PST). But today light begins to return.

If you find yourself stuck in a hole, stop digging!

U.S. generals want to attack the bad guys in Pakistan, or so says the trial balloon in the New York Times.

WASHINGTON — Senior American military commanders in Afghanistan are pushing for an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas, a risky strategy reflecting the growing frustration with Pakistan’s efforts to root out militants there. ...

The proposal, described by American officials in Washington and Afghanistan, would escalate military activities inside Pakistan, where the movement of American forces has been largely prohibited because of fears of provoking a backlash. ...The decision to expand American military activity in Pakistan, which would almost certainly have to be approved by President Obama himself, would amount to the opening of a new front in the nine-year-old war, which has grown increasingly unpopular among Americans. It would run the risk of angering a Pakistani government that has been an uneasy ally in the war in Afghanistan, particularly if it leads to civilian casualties or highly public confrontations.

Still, one senior American officer said, “We’ve never been as close as we are now to getting the go-ahead to go across.”

Oh great. Anybody at the Army War College remember those "secret" wars in Cambodia and Laos and how well that turned out? No, I don't think they do.

As it happens, the reporter Anatol Lieven, who observed the defeat of Soviet forces in Afghanistan and its aftermath, has just written an essential discussion of why further destabilizing Pakistan is a likely result of the U.S. military's frustration -- and why this is a very bad idea.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the survival of Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the most important issue for Western and global security in that region. With six times Afghanistan's population, plus nuclear weapons, a highly trained 500,000-man army and a huge diaspora (especially in Britain), Pakistan would increase the international terrorist threat by orders of magnitude if it collapsed. There is a widespread (though exaggerated) view in the West that the weakness of the Pakistani state and the strength of Islamist support makes the country's collapse a real possibility. Leaving aside the danger (as exposed by WikiLeaks) of nuclear materials and skills reaching terrorist groups, the disintegration of the Pakistani army, with its highly trained engineers and anti-aircraft forces, would vastly increase the "conventional" terrorist threat to India and the West.

It was therefore with horror that I recently heard that the diminished threat from Al Qaeda means that some Western security officials are suggesting that the West can afford to put much more pressure on Islamabad to attack Taliban strongholds in Pakistan's border region, even though this may lead to greater destabilization within Pakistan. This is lunatic reasoning.

The diminished power of Al Qaeda should be cause for the United States and NATO to find ways to withdraw from Afghanistan, not step up the fight against the Taliban -- since it was to fight Al Qaeda that we went there in the first place. ...

Unfortunately, the current US strategy is headed in the opposite direction from using Pakistan to broker a settlement, and toward an intensified fight against the Taliban and intensified pressure on Pakistan. Even worse, there are barely the rudiments of a Plan B if that strategy fails. If it proves impossible to strengthen the Afghan National Army sufficiently within the next two years, the options will be stark: either US forces will have to fight on in Afghanistan indefinitely or they will have to accept the probable loss of the south and east of the country and either unending civil war or de facto partition through bloody war rather than negotiated agreement.

Among other things, all these options will be bad for Pakistan, especially if India is drawn into much greater support for the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan. This would in effect lead to an Indo-Pakistani proxy war in Afghanistan.

Lieven argues convincingly that a continued misguided effort to exclude all the Taliban from any future role in Afghanistan is driving the U.S. war toward broadening the violence. An Indian-Pakistan war set up by blundering U.S. imperial arrogance would be a crime against humanity -- even though most of the humans who would die would be "just" Pakistanis and Indians. President Obama needs to rein in his generals. And to get him there, we need a reinvigorated peace movement.

Photo shows a disabled Italian military vehicles, part of NATO's forces in Afghanistan. According to ISAFmedia, "Soldiers had to secure the area and fend of insurgent attacks." (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace)

Monday, December 20, 2010

My old home town

Here's an attractive short boosting the charms of Buffalo, New York. Enjoy it! I picked it up from Chris Clarke with whom I share the experience of being a former Buffalonian.

Clarke used the video to explore his ambivalence about the place he had left behind. I can adopt his first sentence as my own and am intrigued by the rest.

In Buffalo my neighborhood was about five miles across. In Northern California my neighborhood stretched from Oregon to the Mojave. In Buffalo i was circumscribed, by parents and by circumstance but mainly by my doubts about my own value. Once I got to Berkeley those doubts started to dissipate.

[Clarke's friend who shared the video] is a Buffalo partisan. ... trash Buffalo in his presence and he just might flare up. I get it. He’s stayed there, he’s made the city his lifelong home as others abandon the place in droves, all of them talking about how the places they landed are far superior. There's a character judgment implicit in that criticism, an implied "why are you not smart enough to leave?" People who used to live in Buffalo are worse than most at trashing the Old Country, it seems. ...

I recognize myself in that. Considering I haven't lived there since the 60s, I think quite a lot about Buffalo. (I visited frequently as my last parent survived there until 1999.)

My roots in Buffalo are deep. My family settled in the then-far-frontier town about 1810, managed to preserve a house when the British and native Iroquois burned the place during the war of 1812 -- and launched their fortunes out of the war ruins, renting lodging and creating a tavern to serve the returning United States settlers. Throughout the 19th century they prospered along with the city, becoming substantial members of the emerging governing Republican business class. Their fortunes, like those of the city, peaked around 1900 when Buffalo was the eighth largest metropolitan center in the country and a fount of industrial innovation because of its lead in electrical power generation. They took part proudly in the great Pan-American exposition of 1901 which showcased the city -- if this is now remembered at all, it is for the assassination of President McKinley, come to turn on the lights. My mother described with pride marching in a celebration of Buffalo's 125th anniversary sometime in the 1930's.

Yet when it came time for me to go to college and find my own adult way, it never occurred to me that way would be in the city of my birth. By the mid-60s, there was already feeling of decline about the place. Although I couldn't have spelled it out at the time, I was sensing an objective reality. From 1940 on, each census showed a declining population. Prosperity had hinged on grain shipping on the Great Lakes, steel production, auto manufacture -- all industries that have simply dwindled away over my lifetime.

And with the dwindling industries, economic elites left too. The companies once launched in Buffalo were sold out to multi-national corporations whose economic decisions were made far away, uninfluenced by the bumptious local boosterism that had characterized 19th century industrial leaders. Workers were treated as dispensable -- and gradually the dispensable went elsewhere if they could, seeking opportunity they couldn't find on what still calls itself "the Niagara Frontier." I certainly didn't think of myself as one of those when I joined the mid-20th century brain drain encouraged by cheap higher education at the then-prospering University of California -- but I was one.

So nowadays I talk about my old home town as a demonstration of what happens when the people who have energy and imagination all have to flee, leaving those who don't or can't show initiative to run the place. As my mother aged there, she hated the many instances when her proud city became a national joke, as when Mayor Jimmy Griffin's parks commissioner seemed to be running a comically criminal enterprise.

Yet Buffalo remains an attractive historic city. The video doesn't lie. It has escaped becoming a wasteland of identical cookie cutter mall stores. These suffocatingly boring enterprises dominate not only suburbia but also too much of "successful" cites like my own San Francisco or the Upper West Side in Manhattan where I often visit. Buffalo has lots of cheap housing, now empty. The housing bust came there years ago and never ended. If anyone came up with an economic reason for Buffalo, it could boom. But how a Buffalonian can make a living remains the question of this century as of the last.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A note from your blogger ...

I am sick and tired of being sick. Even since I got back from Nepal, I've had a lingering pneumonia with the usual nasal, throat and sinus complications. Every time I think I'm getting my energy and wits back, it rears up again.

When I'm depressed, politically or more generally, I often turn to the wonderful daily newspaper columns of Eleanor Roosevelt, available online in their 25 year (!) entirety. Now there's some faithful blogging!

Here's her sage admonition for dealing with my kind of sickness, from December 12, 1936:

Infections of this kind [sinus] are so slow and it is of course, very pleasant to have the doctors tell you not to worry but it makes it no less annoying to have an illness lengthen itself out into weeks which you hoped would be over in a few days.

Thank Eleanor -- I know this too shall pass.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Humanitarian contradiction

I'm watching something called the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl. It looks like it might be a pretty good football game (both teams have proved they can score).

But what is "uDrove"? Just what "humanitarians" want to promote -- spook software that keeps track of whether "knights of the road" -- truck drivers -- are keeping their noses (tires?) to the grindstone. From the company website:

uDrove® is a revolutionary new business and compliance management tool for the transportation industry. ...

uDrove® calculates and organizes important information associated with mileage tracking, fuel tax reporting, driver logging, inspections, expense capturing, and load tracking. You have the ability to easily capture the data on your phone and instantly view the information online through your uDrove account. uDrove is an excellent driver compliance tool for both owner operators and company drivers. And the perfect management tool for fleet managers, office personnel and Service Bureaus alike. uDrove pays for itself in its first day!

My emphasis. No unauthorized coffee and apple pie breaks for these drivers ...

So glad to know this company could buy the Humantiarian fest.

International Migrants Day - DREAM denied


Yes, it is today. According to a UN website,

On 4 December 2000, the UN General Assembly, taking into account the large and increasing number of migrants in the world, proclaimed 18 December as International Migrants Day. On 18 December 1990, the General Assembly had adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

UN Member States and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations are invited to observe International Migrants Day through the dissemination of information on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of migrants, and through the sharing of experiences and the design of actions to ensure their protection.

It would be fitting indeed if the Senate could manage to pass the DREAM Act today. I will update as the news comes in.

8:30 am, PST: On CSPAN, the Senate is voting on a cloture motion. Unless 60 Senators (most all the Democrats and a few Republicans) agree, the DREAM will die for this session, even though a majority supports it.

8:31 PST: The DREAM gets only 55 votes. It is over -- for now. DREAM deferred.

As is often the case, Adam Server has a sensible take on this:

DREAM has had a long life, and we'll see some version of it again in the future, because the problem won't go away. As long as illegal immigration remains a problem--a problem that can't be solved without shifting to a system that takes into account the realities of the labor market--we will have more undocumented immigrants. People will come here seeking a better life, and they will raise their children here who will, be American in almost every conceivable sense.

Hasta la Victoria Siempre!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday critter blogging:
The denizens of Swayambhunath

On the top of a hill in Kathmandu sits Swayambhunath, often called the monkey temple. Visitors and pilgrims climb hundreds of steps to reach the Tibetan Buddhist stupa at the top.

It's made abundantly clear whose home we are entering.

We were warned not to feed the locals or try to eat while ascending. The monkeys demand offerings and take what they can get.

They chatter constantly and move fast.

With a face like that, it's hard not to think we might be related to this primate, though I have no idea whether such notions inform Newar Buddhism's veneration of the monkeys.

This guy was as at home among the human artifacts as in the trees.

My pictures misrepresent the scene in that I did not capture the pack action of the monkeys. They dash about in a mob, asserting their rights to the site.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Vets offer themselves for arrest in war protest

On Thursday, Veterans for Peace-San Francisco, along with Code Pink and most every other peace group in town showed up at the new Federal Building to denounce ongoing U.S. wars, support Wikileaks' right to disclose government "secrets," and commit civil disobedience.

Charlie Liteky, a Vietnam era recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, spoke to the war opponents. If you think antiwar protesters are a bunch of wimps, read Liteky's citation for heroism under fire. He returned the medal in 1986 as a conscientious protest against U.S. wars in Central America and continues to work for a peaceful U.S. foreign policy.

Several dozen protesters were arrested when they lay blocking doors of the building.

This civil disobedience action echoed a larger protest by vets outside the White House as President Obama unveiled his Afghanistan progress review. A video of that action is here.

A caring look at torture

None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture by Joshua E.S. Phillips.

I found it hard to get into this book. It seemed a little incoherent, jumping from the fate of Sgt. Adam Gray, an Iraq Army vet who apparently killed himself after finding he could not reintegrate himself into civilian life, to a narrative of the Bush administration's (and the successor Obama regime's) growing enthusiasm for torturing people who it designated as enemies in the war on an adjective, to Phillip's efforts to get the victims of these policies to recount what had been done to them and the long term consequences.

Then I finally got it. Phillips cares. He cares about U.S. soldiers who, happily or grudgingly, did things to fellow human beings that will scar their humanity for life. He cares about miscellaneous Iraqis, Afghans and other designated Muslim "enemies" who suffered indignity, injury, and even, perhaps inadvertent, execution. He cares about what the gleeful brutality of U.S. policy does to our nation. Such a broad concern doesn't make for neat categories or neat organization.

But it did make for insights into the U.S. post 9/11 torture regime that I haven't seen so clearly spelled out in other sources.
  • Occupying Iraq, especially for troops who had been trained for tank warfare that never came and then were put to patrolling hostile towns, seemed simply meaningless. Phillips got some to talk about being detailed to manage Iraqi captives.

    "You would see people... get frustrated," said Nowlan. He remembered troops bringing in people they thought were guilty, "And I was the guy who said, 'I don't know anything about this guy. I don't think he's done anything -- there's no evidence. We need to let him go.' And the younger soldiers were very frustrated with that."

    Soldiers sometimes took their frustrations out on their prisoners.

    "It's not like I'd ever seen some guys go in and tell them to get naked and stack up on each other -- l think that's gross," said Sandoval. "None of us were that stupid. But there were other times when you wanted to pull out a pistol and put it to the back of their head. Everyone had that sort of tension. It was very uncomfortable, it was miserable."

    Several soldiers from Battalion 1-68 said they were numbed, almost dulled by their monotonous wartime routines. Shifting to more mundane work, such as patrolling and detaining prisoners, could make a soldier "bored ... so eventually you start to lose those feelings," said Keller. "And the only thing that really does excite you is when you get to ... torture somebody."

    Then Keller added, "Honestly, a lot of the things that were done to the detainees were... just someone's idea of a good time." ... "We were doing things because we could. That's it," said Keller. "And the objective just got less and less important."

  • Ever since our rulers decided to make us a torture regime, I've been impressed with how many of our soldiers and officers questioned and even resisted their trashing of the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions. Their proud professionalism did credit to the country. Phillips interviewed a West Point professor, Margaret Stock, an experienced national security lawyer and former Military Police officer -- she tells how the casual adoption of torture at the top of the command chain coupled with pop culture programs like 24 shifted attitudes among her students.

    Jane Mayer's article on the television drama 24 was published on February 19, 2007, in the New Yorker. ...The article also considered the impact of 24 on American culture and the military.

    Shortly after the article came out, Stock met with fellow teachers during one of their regular, informal faculty meetings on campus. She gave her colleagues a pop quiz to see how many of them knew about Jack Bauer, the main character in 24 who played a prominent part in the show's torture scenes. Only a few instructors had heard about him, so she circulated Mayer's article to her colleagues and asked them to poll their students about Jack Bauer. To her surprise, all of their students seemed to know about Jack Bauer and frequently cited the counterterrorism tactics that he and the other characters employed in the TV thriller.

    "They developed arguments based on what they (saw) on the show," said Stock. ...

    I told Stock how surprised I was to hear that West Point cadets would fall for such reasoning. Given the academy's strong reputation, surely most students there would have a more informed understanding of military events -- both historical and fictional -- and would therefore approach what they saw on the screen with more skepticism.

    "Okay. Wait a minute. Hold on, hold on," she replied. "They're just like everybody else at any college in America."

  • Soldiers wanted Phillips to know that the reality of torture was both more casual and more vicious than the Abu Ghraib revelations would suggest.

    Jonathan Millantz saw and took part in detainee abuse during his time at FOB Lion's jail. A native of western Pennsylvania, Millantz spoke in a low voice and often mumbled. He found it hard to describe what he had witnessed and what he himself participated in. As a medic, he was responsible for checking detainees' vital signs in their makeshift jail. "My job was actually to do their blood pressure," he said. "And make sure we weren't killing them."

    He remembered hearing officers say it was all right to break a detainee's arm if he touched any of the US troops, and he recalled how he and other soldiers pinned down prisoners while pouring water from five-gallon jugs into their mouths and noses. Prisoners had been subjected to long nights of sleep deprivation, beatings, and mock executions. Millantz routinely heard yelling and screaming, often witnessed men break down and cry, and saw prisoners soil themselves,

    "There's plenty of stuff out there that hasn't been put on the media that would make Abu Ghraib look like Disneyland," he said. ... "There were plenty of people who wanted to report these acts of misconduct through a higher chain of command, but were discouraged by many high-ranking people."

    Phillip's book ends with news of Millantz' suicide.
  • Phillips interviewed the same Iraqi victims of abuse by U.S. soldiers that I met in Jordan in 2006, including a man with a crippled hand who claims to be the guy connected to electrical leads on the box in the Abu Ghraib photos. He does a better job than I did of conveying the horror of the sexual humiliation that seems to have been a routine part of detentions.

    A young group of GIs clad in beige fatigues encircled Qaissi, cut his plastic flex cuffs, and ordered him to strip.

    They must be joking, he thought. Nudity is unbearably shameful in the Middle East. These Americans must understand. I cannot.

    When he would not undress, they threatened him, then kicked and punched him so hard he fell to the floor. Eventually he stood upright and removed his clothes with quivering hands. The soldiers cuffed his wrists behind him, fastened leg restraints around his ankles, and ordered Qaissi up a flight of stairs. He had to crawl on his knees and chin as the guards laughed. Qaissi heard voices screaming in the background. ...

    "You must help us to help you," a translator told him. "Work with us, answer our questions. Give us the names of all the people that are dangerous to us. We'll fix your hand if you help us. We'll try to make your hand work again. American doctors are good."

    "I don't know anyone. How can I name people that I don't know or know anything about?"

    And so the questions continued, coupled with regular dousings with cold water and beatings with a car antenna. While he was hanging by his wrists from the overhead pipe, they forced a rifle barrel into his rectum.

Phillips questions whether these horrors are really over under the new administration. Only ten U.S. personnel involved in "abuse" have been convicted and sentenced to as much as a year in prison.

And for many returned vets, the trauma doesn't go away. Jonathan Millantz' mother tries to put his suicide into some perspective.

"Their rage and the fact that they were given too much power, and the detainees were powerless, and the fact that there was no one protected them... that's how the abuses occurred," said Millantz's mother. "People might think, 'Oh, I would never do anything like that.' Wrong. It takes a very, very mature, moral, strong person to not abuse power... They are very young and they make very unwise choices, which they regret.

"And it is all for naught."

None of Us Were Like This Before is a very painful book. But even if the Obama administration refuses to "look backward" U.S. citizens must, if we are to have any kind of chance to look forward to a better future.

Surreal war to go on, and on, and on

Soldiers demonstrate how they are using the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE) to gather biometric information on Afghans who cross through their checkpoint in the Arghandab Valley. ISAFmedia.

Today the Obama administration is apparently going to share its rationale for staying the course in its lost, useless war in Afghanistan. Not that anything good is happening there:
  • New National Intelligence Estimates say Pakistan is still supporting Taliban and other fighters that attack ISAF (our side's) troops. Money quote re the estimates:

    "... We can’t make Pakistan stop being naughty.”

  • Meanwhile. Red Cross says Afghan conditions worst in 30 years

    Spreading violence in Afghanistan is preventing aid organizations from providing help, with access to those in need at its worst level in three decades, the Red Cross said on Wednesday.

    "The proliferation of armed groups threatens the ability of humanitarian organizations to access those in need. Access for the ICRC has over the last 30 years never been as poor," said Reto Stocker, Afghanistan head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which rarely makes public comments.

  • Last week Afghan President Hamid Karzai had a disagreement with General Petraeus. According to the Washington Post,

    As he spoke, he grew agitated, then enraged. He told them that he now has three "main enemies" - the Taliban, the United States and the international community.

    "If I had to choose sides today, I'd choose the Taliban," he fumed.

    That's the guy whose government we hope to turn security over to, some day that keeps receding into the future.
  • Dozens of academics, experts and members of non-governmental organizations who actually know something about Afghanistan (we haven't got a lot of such people) are beseeching the President to "implement an alternative strategy that would allow the United States to exit Afghanistan while safeguarding its legitimate security interests." Notably, Pakistani author and long time explainer of Central Asia to the West, Ahmed Rashid, is among the signers.
But no -- under Obama any plan for an end date keeps receding. The Prez may promise some withdrawals by June 2011, but the military says the Afghan Army will need us through 2014 and maybe beyond.

Who's in charge here?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Want young people to stay in school?

Give them a bus pass! Seems like a no-brainer, but of course there are obstacles.

Full disclosure: I'm a barely active board member of this organizing outfit.

Mega-medical monster called out

Jobs with Justice's Community and Labor Rights Board held a hearing at City Hall on Tuesday about Sutter/California Pacific Medical Center's planned Van Ness Avenue mega-hospital.

School Board member Sandra Fewer (l.) and the Rev. Deborah Lee of the United Church of Christ and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice sat on the panel along with other luminaries listening to community testimony.

Siony Servillon, R.N., testified to CPMC's ongoing cut-backs at St. Luke's Hospital in the Mission where she has worked for 35 years. One service after another gets cut away, leaving the hospital less able to offer complete care to patients.

Ed Kinchley, a social worker at San Francisco General, the county public hospital, explained how CPMC's intent to move nearly all its activities to the center and north of town would shift more burden for caring for the poor to his workplace. He argued that CPMC might be offering to increase the St. Luke's Emergency Room, but since they were concurrently cutting back on acute care capacity, they'd just be sending the people they patched up over to the county.

A good size audience listened to witness after witness. Martha H.Dominguez Glumaz described CPMC's refusal to consult with dialysis patients about a plan to sell off the service that keeps them alive. Ron Villanueva R.N., also from St. Luke's, testified that he had heard HR people from CPMC order supervisors not hire "foreign graduate nurses" -- like him. The hospital giant has long been charged with discriminating against Filipino personnel. Clifton Smith from the Community Housing Organizing Project wondered, if CPMC was going to build its huge project next to the Tenderloin neighborhood where he lives, would locals get any of the jobs?

The issue between the community and Sutter/CPMC is trust. The medical giant makes promises, but the people who work for it and the communities near it don't believe it anymore. They see CPMC rearranging its facilities to massage its own bottom line, not to provide health care for San Franciscans.

The power of monopoly medical systems -- integrated hospitals, doctor combines and various health facilities -- was barely mentioned in the recent national health insurance debate. If any of those policy wonks so enamored of the new legislation want to curb endlessly rising costs, these mega-institutions will have to be confronted. What happens with Sutter/CPMC in San Francisco is a test case of what a progressive municipality can get out of a hospital giant in return for allowing it to do business within its borders. We'll see.