Monday, February 28, 2011

Voter inattention

Last week the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein tried to pass on one of the facts of political life to the political junkie class: most people pay no attention to politics. He wrote

... if you're reading this blog, odds are good that you're at least in the top 10% of all Americans in political knowledge, and more likely you're in the top 1%. And for those of us in that group, it's hard to imagine just how little the median American knows about the day-to-day events that we pay so much attention to. Even when in some sort of abstract way it makes sense for people to know about politics or public affairs -- for example, it makes sense for Medicare recipients to know how ACA affects them -- they just don't. Sometimes that's because people aren't well-educated enough to feel comfortable reading or even watching the news ...

But often it's because people have other, more immediate things in their lives to attend to, or they pay attention only occasionally, or they have low tolerance for conflict, or they just don't see any connection between things happening in Washington and their lives.

Though this insight may be news to some in the blogosphere, it is not news to those of us who work in politics. When you work on elections, when you actually talk with ordinary voters, you rapidly discover that most don't have much idea what these issues and candidates you put so much effort into are all about -- and some actively don't want know.

Moreover, in my experience, there are two very different kinds of voters who can be persuaded to pay some attention. However what motivates each sort turns off the other.

There are voters who will only attend to politics if it gives them hope or inspires them. We know that Obama played to that set.

Then there is another set who will only engage with politics as a last resort effort in defense against feared consequences. The oh-so-active Tea Baggers of 2010 seem to fall in that category -- and currently we can only hope that the middle class is learning that it needs to defend basic features of its prosperity such as Social Security and public services like schools, parks and fire departments.

The indifference of the average voter is very much on my mind these days because I am working on a special election for a seat on a county Board of Supervisors -- and we just heard about a poll that showed that 90 percent of prospective voters have no idea even that the election is happening, much less who is running or what it might be about. In April they'll all get a postal ballot to return by May 3; whatever tiny percentage of the electorate returns these ballots will probably be deciding for many years who deals with county budgets and services that have a huge impact on their quality of life. But despite the eager (and expensive) efforts of the candidates, most county residents will never get around to noticing there is a vote happening.

In California, I think indifference to politics is encouraged by too frequent elections (there seem to be no such thing as off years or even off seasons) and too long ballots polluted by great lists of incomprehensible propositions. Even a political junkie like me can feel mystified by some of the stuff I've expected to vote on, especially the local measures. Too much direct democracy does not make for eager participation. California is proving the case that we'd mostly be better off attending to who we choose to elect to legislative bodies, then expecting them to do the policy setting and law making.

Moreover, I'm not sold on what some researchers call "convenience voting" -- vote-by-mail elections. Obviously they are inexpensive to run and strapped jurisdictions can hardly be criticized for not wanting to foot the bill for a lot of polling places. But Election Day and its hoopla can create an experience of collective citizenship that reminds us all that we're responsible for this democracy of ours. When voting becomes a private burden -- perhaps felt as a nagging obligation -- some part of an appreciation of the awesome potential power of the people acting together is lost. That's sad; people die to win that in much of the world.

If by any chance anyone reading this lives anywhere in San Mateo County, you should remember Richard Holober when that unexpected ballot turns up in the mail. He's a good guy with a long record of effective work for the common good, exactly the sort of person who we need in office deciding on how best to protect and extend our quality of life.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Solidarity in San Francisco

The revolt in Arab autocracies and the struggles of unionized workers in Wisconsin seem to have people thinking about "solidarity." I've noticed recently that an old post on this blog entitled "Pragmatic solidarity" (which has nothing to do with either, so no link here) is getting a lot of hits via Google.

There was a lot of solidarity on display Saturday afternoon downtown in San Francisco.


In front of City Hall, several thousand people mobilized by MoveOn and some unions shivered in the unusual cold temperatures while cheering for labor rights in Wisconsin.


Down the street, the small local Libyan community and friends denounced Gaddafi's murderous assault on his own people


There was plenty of a overlap among their concerns.


The shared dream: democracy for all.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

How about off with their heads?

Low crawl

Secretary of War [Defense] Robert Gates laid out what he really thinks about current US wars the other day.

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” Mr. Gates told an assembly of Army cadets [at West Point].

New York Times, February 25, 2011

I think it is time to bring back John Kerry's famous question from 1971:

How do you ask a [soldier] to be the last man to die for a mistake?

US Army photo.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Change happens: reflections from the dentist's chair

This week I spent some long hours in my dentist's chair. You can imagine the scene: I was tipped semi-upside down with an anesthetized mouth stretched by probes, drills and mirrors, rinse water and suction running through it all. A root canal feels uncomfortable and perhaps a little violent; I'm sure I bleed, but I don't really know. I do my best to blank out mentally while all this is going on. Since I have a lot of bad teeth, I've gotten pretty good at just drifting away in my head while in the dentist's chair.

This time, I found myself comparing the dental office of my childhood to my current scene. In the 1950s, my parents took me to a dentist who lived down the block. He was an upstanding member of the community, a leader in my mother's church. His dental practice seems primitive by modern standards: just one chair sitting completely upright, slow drills that rattled the skull when carving out a cavity, and, most unhappily for a child with bad teeth, a belief that good patients didn't require Novocaine. I hated him -- and I do sometimes wonder whether this ostensibly kindly, tall white man wearing starched white coats smelling like toothpaste wasn't a bit of a sadist.

This dentist employed a woman who answered the phone, made appointments and sent out bills but did no dental work. She wore an acrylic white "nurse" uniform and was referred to by her first name -- "Mary" I think. She called the dentist "Doctor." My parents called him "Bob." The neighborhood was slightly scandalized when Bob's wife died and he married Mary.

My current dentist's office is a very different place, the mirror of a very different location in a different time. My ultra-high tech dentist is a young South Asian-American woman who has just had a baby. She babbles happily about the delights and perils of being a new parent while she does my root canal. She has an assistant who provides tools and takes xrays, a Chinese-American woman. A young Filipina works as the receptionist and manages the complexities of dental insurance. This is an all women of color office, something that I think could not have been imagined in my childhood.

Drifting along in my addled state contemplating my current dentist's practice put me in mind of this video in which Loretta Ross explains the origin and implications of the term "women of color."

I was once on a panel with this woman, the subject of which I have forgotten. I was completely upstaged. There are people you can enjoy being overshadowed by.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Talking sense about Social Security

Somebody whose views matter has been talking sense about Social Security. Jacob Lew is President Obama's director of the Office of Management and Budget. Progressives weren't thrilled when the President tapped this guy for the job; he's a former Clinton administration proponent of financial deregulation who went on to be a Citigroup executive. That is, his biography makes him look like a Wall Street guy.

But here he is explaining the facts about Social Security to USA Today:

Specifically, looking to the next two decades, Social Security does not cause our deficits.

Social Security benefits are entirely self-financing. They are paid for with payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers throughout their careers. These taxes are placed in a trust fund dedicated to paying benefits owed to current and future beneficiaries.

When more taxes are collected than are needed to pay benefits, funds are converted to Treasury bonds — backed with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government — and are held in reserve for when revenue collected is not enough to pay the benefits due. We have just as much obligation to pay back those bonds with interest as we do to any other bondholders. The trust fund is the backbone of an important compact: that a lifetime of work will ensure dignity in retirement.

According to the most recent report of the independent Social Security Trustees, the trust fund is currently in surplus and growing. Even though Social Security began collecting less in taxes than it paid in benefits in 2010, the trust fund will continue to accrue interest and grow until 2025, and will have adequate resources to pay full benefits for the next 26 years.

There it is in a nutshell: Social Security is paid up old age insurance we have purchased through FICA taxes. If we take the view that because our insurance payments are invested in government bonds the money to pay benefits may disappear, we are saying that the U.S. government won't be there when we retire. Governments can't mess around with their bonds; when they do, they collapse. We are supposed to worry because China and other countries buy so many U.S. government bonds. They buy them because they are confident the bonds are safe and the U.S. government will be there. Can't we have at least as much confidence as foreign lenders around the world have?

Lew says something else important:

The problem is not Social Security; the problem is the mismatch between outlays and revenues in the rest of the budget.

If we're worried about the federal budget deficit, that's what we need to worry about.
  • Outlays: How about cutting meaningless wars and the bloated Pentagon? President Obama's budget doesn't scratch the surface of the money that could be saved there.
  • Revenues: This one is easy. If you need money, get it from the people who have it. There is no reason rich people can't be taxed heavily on the part of their income that is over perhaps $250000 annually -- no reason except that they buy politicians to safeguard their privileges.
It's a good day when someone from the Obama administration gets something right. It would be a far better day when Democratic bigwigs really stuck up for the majority of their constituents, but to achieve that, we have a lot of agitating and organizing to do.

In honor of the brave peoples

whose struggles are inspiring the world.


And in this country -- on Wisconsin!

Graphic flew by on Twitter from @rutevera via Al Jazeera English live blog of Libya developments.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Pizza solidarity in Wisconsin

This is a couple of days old, but in case you missed it, take a look.

Via The UpTake.

Warming Wednesdays: Watch a Siberian lake light up

Think about what permafrost releasing flammable "mee-thane" (if you are a Brit) or "meth-ane" (if you are an Amuurican) can do for you.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

War's desolation, then and now

During World War I, they called it neurasthenia or shell shock, the condition we now call PTSD. Somewhere on the web that I've lost track of, in some discussion of what wars do to those sent to fight them, I came across a recommendation to read Robert Grave's memoir Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography.

The prolific novelist and biographer Graves knew all about PTSD. Enlisting in 1914 at the outbreak of war, fresh out of an elite private high school (his class standing made him automatically an officer), he quickly found himself leading men into horror and death in the futile, inconclusive, deadly struggle that was trench warfare.

The war broke men down. Here's how he describes what happened to soldiers:

Having now been in the trenches for five months, I had passed my prime. For the first three weeks, an officer was of little use in the front line; he did not know his way around, had not learned the rules of health and safety, or grown accustomed to recognizing degrees of danger. Between three weeks and four weeks he was at his best, unless he happened to have any particular bad shock or sequence of shocks. Then his usefulness gradually declined as neurasthenia developed. At six months he was still more or less all right; but by nine or ten months, unless he had been given a few weeks rest on a technical course, or in hospital, he usually became a drag on the other company officers.

After a year or fifteen months he was often worse than useless. Dr W. H. R. Rivers [a psychiatrist who became well known for treating shellshock cases] told me later that the action of one of the ductless glands -- l think the thyroid -- caused this slow general decline in military usefulness, by failing at a certain point to pump its stimulating chemical into the blood. Without its continued assistance the man went about his tasks in an apathetic and doped condition, cheated into further endurance. It has taken some ten years for my blood to recover.

Officers had a less laborious but a more nervous time than the men. There were proportionately twice as many neurasthenic cases among officers as among men, though a man's average expectancy of trench service before getting killed or wounded was twice as long as an officer's. Officers between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-three could count on a longer useful life than those older or younger. I was too young. Men over forty, though not suffering from want of sleep so much as those under twenty, had less resistance to sudden alarms and shocks.

The unfortunates were officers who had endured two years or more of continuous trench service. In many cases they became dipsomaniacs [alcoholics]. I knew three or four who had worked up to the point of two bottles of whiskey a day before being lucky enough to get wounded or sent home in some other way. A two-bottle company commander of one of our Line battalions is still alive who, in three shows running, got his company needlessly destroyed because he was no longer capable of making clear decisions.

Graves was severely injured, so much so that his commander wrote his parents that he'd been killed. But, patched together, he insisted on returning to his unit as soon as possible. The war zone was the only place he felt himself.

Dr Dunn asked me, with kindly disapproval, what I meant by returning so soon. I said: 'I couldn't stand England any longer.'

He was lucky enough to contract severe bronchitis before his unit was again subjected to serious fighting and was sent home as an invalid. (Now there's scary word!) He greeted the Armistice that ended the fighting not with the joy felt by English civilians but with melancholy:

The news sent me out walking alone along the dyke above the marshes of Rhuddlan (an ancient battlefield, the Flodden of Wales), cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.

When we send troops to war, we break human beings. No one who serves is unmarked. For a contemporary account of how troops come to be deployed over and over even though they know they've reached their mental limit, read this blog post.

When do we stop doing this?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Something is happening here ... and it is not entirely material.

There is a line that keeps coming to mind for me from an insightful Washington Post oped by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley published the day the dictator Mubarak resigned in Egypt.

The grievance Arab peoples feel is not principally material ...

That rings true, not only for Egypt and Tunisia, but for Bahrain, for Algeria, maybe even for Libya (what do any of us know about Libya?).

Sure -- in these countries, there has been repression, there is economic inequality, there are vast numbers of young people with no future prospects, there are rising food prices. But something more animates these uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East; there's a yearning for a more honest national life, a hopeful desire to make their countries into places in which citizens can feel ownership and pride. As Malley and Agha put it:

Arab states suffer from a curse more debilitating than poverty or autocracy. They have become counterfeit, perceived by their own people as alien, pursuing policies hatched from afar. One cannot fully comprehend the actions of Egyptians, Tunisians, Jordanians and others without considering this deep-seated feeling that they have not been allowed to be themselves, that they have been robbed of their identities.Taking to the streets is not a mere act of protest. It is an act of self-determination.

Everything in my life experience (I am after all a product of the hopeful 1960s) tells me that insurrections happen when material and immaterial spurs to revolt coincide. That such revolts happen doesn't mean that they win, but it takes both factors to create an uprising that presents a vital challenge to the powers-that-be.
All this is the context in which I am trying to understand the protests now rocking Britain against the Conservative-Liberal Democratic government's attack on the welfare state.

These started among students. The Tories brought in (and passed) a downright diabolic plan to enforce market discipline on universities. They eliminated government support for educational departments they thought failed the test of usefulness to financial capital -- such luxuries as the social sciences, English literature, and the arts -- while funding "useful" subjects like engineering and mathematics. They also cut grants to help poorer students. Oh, but they had a plan for continuing to fund higher education. They'd make loans available if any student wanted to take them out that could be used to pay for the disciplines whose funding had been eliminated. Sure, you can study poetry in an English university, if enough students want to mortgage their future to repay the government to support a department of literature.

Higher education is defined as an investment made by students to enhance their employment prospects in a corporate world (while corporations start to take over and run universities for a profit). The student’s choice is dressed up as freedom backed by government-secured loans. But they are obliged to pay to enter what many understandably feel to be a choiceless world.

Anthony Barnett

A broad coalition was so enraged by these measures they stormed Parliament during the vote in December and torched the Tories' party office. They couldn't stop the government from passing its plan -- but they understood that next up was privatizing the National Health Service through strategic cuts that would kill it over time.

And so a creative resistance has been coming into being in Britain. Innovative flash mob eruptions have become the order of the day. And Open Democracy is promoting a downloadable book about the new forms of protest and new visions for a society where all past forms of political engagement -- the parties, the media, the left sects -- seem moribund. Again, Anthony Barnett from the foreword:

A new movement? Round up the usual gatekeepers! Quite an alliance of forces are darkly jealous of its potential energy and fresh celebrity -- stretching from News International through the Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and goodness knows how many NGOs and bloggers. The gatekeepers even include those on the far-left who helped it burst into existence but want to oversee it for themselves. But this baby, as the readers of this collection can see, is not so inarticulate or shapeless. Instead, there is a conscious sense of originality thanks to the power of the modern forces that have propelled its birth. These give credibility to its double wager of defiance: that what the state, the government, and the corporate media offer to the country and especially its young as our fate is unacceptable, and that the claim which accompanies it, that there is no viable alternative, is a lie. ...

Of course there is evidence of idiocy, over-optimism and simplification as well as the usual drawbacks of student politics. But the wider anti-cuts protests that began in late 2010 are not just about fees, and reached well beyond students -- thousands across the country who are not in higher education are helping to create it. Exceptional economic, social and technological transformations are underway. Will the budding movement have the energy, audacity, persistence, imagination and intelligence to make the best of these changes? ....

This movement is now planning a mass assemblage on March 26 -- though the adherence of the trade unions and the Labour Party to this demonstration raise the specter that it will the kind of broad-based, unfocussed fizzle we saw in the U.S. last fall with One Nation Working Together. Then again, maybe the creative energy Anthony Barnett celebrates will break through. Certainly some of the available propaganda logos are fun.

Just because they speak English across the Atlantic doesn't mean I know much about the ebb and flow of their politics either.

And then we have the current unrest in Madison, Wisconsin stimulated by a Tea Party governor's attempt to outlaw effective unions for public employees. Can a U.S. movement find that balance of material and immaterial factors that make an uprising a true challenge? Our labor movement has largely lost touch with the culture of class solidarity which serves working people as the immaterial glue when the going gets tough. Can we find it again?
I'm with that great '60s band, Buffalo Springfield:

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear ...

Lead photo from Cairo, via Digby.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Worlds meet in work of San Francisco artist

A book showcasing my friend Lenore Chinn's paintings was introduced at a small gallery party last night while the Chinese New Year's Parade outside was receiving its annual drenching in winter showers. I hope the publication leads to more awareness of Lenore's extraordinary body of photorealist art.

On large canvasses, Lenore shows us her world and its people. Online gallery here. Go look, now. Then come back.

Lenore's is a big world: a place where gay men, Chinese families, lesbian leftists, families of all colors of the rainbow, and manual workers mingle. She was born and raised in San Francisco; this shows. But merely naming this confluence of worlds can be a sterile, mechanical exercise. Not for Lenore. Somehow her portraits are a warm as they can be challenging to the limits of what we expect to see.

Cultural Confluences: the Art of Lenore Chinn is available from the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Introducing Wowser!

Yes, she's green. Very. In addition to the lovely color, she's also a hybrid, a Ford Escape Hybrid.

Her name -- Wowser! -- was given her by a friend when she first saw my new car in the driveway. It stuck.

When I pulled up outside where my longtime women's group was getting together, somebody said laughingly: "An old lady like you can't drive a car like that..."

"Yes, I can," says I. This vehicle is the least "sensible" car I've ever owned and I like her. If I wasn't going to be self-indulgent about a car now, I never would, considering I tend to keep cars for 10 years or so.

I knew I'd done it right when a Mission District homie pulled up beside me the other day, looked Wowser! over, and indicated a big thumbs up. I had to laugh. This boy was driving the kind of Subaru wagon someone like me is supposed to drive.

Several weeks ago in the New York Times I ran across an article about how engineers are trying to unobtrusively build adaptive features into ordinary products so as to attract aging boomers. This one pointed out that we find we can't turn our necks as agilely as we once did, so we might need help dealing with the blind spot beside our cars.

Wowser! has side mirrors that address this. The main viewing area works like any vehicle mirror. But a little cut out at the upper outer edge picks up anything directly adjacent to the car. If I can see something in that section, it is right next to me (as is the passing car in the picture.)

This was confusing when I first used it. Years of driving had trained me to screen out irrelevant information so I literally didn't see what was happening in the cut out section. But since I figured out what it is for, I can train myself to use this useful feature.

Wowser! and I are enjoying the attention we attract.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bay Area Congresswoman schools Republicans on abortion

Unlike these guys who want to prevent women from controlling whether we raise kids, Jackie Speier knows about abortion. She's had the procedure they seek to demonize. "I lost a baby."

There's more going on here than just the forced pregnancy crowd trying to stop abortions. They aim to prevent women from getting contraception counseling as well by stopping all support to Planned Parenthood. Yeah -- more babies for families who can't afford kids and who will lose all other government help if the Republicans have their way. Misery for poor people is so inspiring.

Just now the House passed the forced pregnancy amendment to the budget bill. Will President Obama sign this thing?

On solving the budget deficit

I haven't weighed in on the Presidents's budget. When a Democrat presents a budget that cuts heating subsidies to poor people in order to try to upstage Republican deficit scaremongers, why bother? Yeah, the Dems are better than the Republicans -- but only marginally. Neither bunch seems to think it is their job to help people get what they really want: a chance at a decent job, some security if they get sick or are growing older, a chance to live out unmolested lives with friends and family.

I've just heard that today the House, on a bipartisan vote, has eliminated all funding for the US Institute of Peace (USIP). This is not some hippie radical institution; it's a think tank Congress set up to study how to solve international disputes without war. Now that would be cost effective, besides being a good idea! USIP was responsible for the Iraq Study Group report in 2006 which was the establishment's vehicle for telling George W. Bush that he'd blown it with his little Mesopotamian adventure and should find a way out.

By voting down USIP funding, the government will save $42 million. That's about the cost of keeping 42 soldiers in Afghanistan for a year. Nobody has succeeded in explaining what those personnel are doing besides dodging roadside bombs, killing people, and ensuring that Afghans hate us for killing their family members. We have about 100,000 troops there at the moment, plus perhaps an equal number of contractors. Meanwhile, Congress plans to fund the wars to the tune of $158 BILLION this year. It's very hard to believe Congresspeople of either party give a damn about saving money or balancing the budget.

When politicians start in with the "precarious" condition of the national budget and the terrible deficit, there are two mantras we need to throw back at them, however many times it takes until they listen.

1. Stop throwing money down the military rathole. End the wars. Bring home the troops from the 155 countries where the U.S. has bases. Cancel expensive high-tech armament boondoggles. Reduce the nukes. When you can blow up the world, the difference between having 100o and having 100 is marginal. The U.S. spends more on maintaining military superiority than the rest of the countries in the world combined. This is mostly waste, amounting to theft from the taxpayers.

2. If the government needs cash to do what it should be doing, get it from the people who have it: rich people. U.S. rich people pay some of the lowest tax rates in the world. They should have to pay for the privilege of enjoying their wealth in this country. During the Eisenhower presidency, rich people's tax rates varied between 70 percent and 91 percent of annual income. Ever since, they've been buying politicians to let them hang on to more and more of their take. But if the country is in trouble, they could start paying what they are able again.

Friday cat blogging

How could I resist passing on this northern California nuisance's story? Meet Dusty, the cat burglar.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Gaza Mom in San Francisco


Leila el Haddad who has blogged at Gaza Mom since 2004 is visiting Northern California to promote her new book of the same name. The schedule for her West Coast tour is here.

She conveys eloquently the texture of daily life for the Palestinian inmates in Israel's human zoo -- small joys, small humiliations, a life that is at once "normal and abnormal" even "incomprehensible" to those outside the walled borders. This talented journalist has been forced to live a bifurcated life because her husband, though Palestinian, is not permitted to enter her Gaza homeland by Israeli authorities. So much of her life is in Baltimore where he works at Johns Hopkins, punctuated by stays in Gaza.

For a small sample of her writing (a bit she read last night), go check out her account of trying to explain to her two year old son why they, as Palestinians dependent on Israeli and Egyptian whims, cannot cross the border at Rafah to be with the child's Gaza grandparents.

Much of her writing is about that border with Egypt, Gaza's primary entrance and exit. Of course we, her audience, wanted her thoughts on the uprising and overthrow of Mubarak. But how could a Palestinian, dependent on passing through Cairo, accustomed to Egypt acting as co-jailer along with the Israelis of the 1.7 million Gazans, be anything but circumspect? Though naturally glad to have seen Mubarak fall, all she could or would say, sensibly, was

Palestinians have learned to be cautious ...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Introducing Warming Wednesdays: the climate of years to come

In response to a suggestion from Daniel at Autonomy for All, I'm going to try to offer some sort of content every Wednesday that recalls visitors here to "the big one" -- the fact that we have an economic and social system that is rapidly making our planet less habitable. I'm no scientist; those arguments will have to go elsewhere and they do. But whatever else progressive political activity seeks to accomplish, it must be grounded in the struggle to maintain a sustainable planet.

This January 2011 clip presents "the climate of years to come."

Neo-Slavery exposed

Don't take my word for it. The 2009 Pulitzer Prize committee gave its General Nonfiction award to Douglas A. Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. They called this work of history "precise and eloquent." I'd add "frightening and brave." There are truths we don't want to know and they don't make the messenger popular; Blackmon tells many of them.

Piling detail on detail, Blackmon has exposed a horrible reality: slavery in the United States thrived for nearly 80 years after the Civil War, defined by race (Southern whites enslaved African Americans) and disguised as debt peonage or criminal servitude. The record of what he calls "neo-slavery" was readily available in local records and musty Justice Department archives, but few had ever looked for it.

Hundreds of thousands of African Americans, mostly young men, labored involuntarily in mines, on farms, and in the forests to the great economic benefit of whites. They worked while shackled in chains, barely fed or clothed, under constant threat of whippings, water torture (yes, these slave drivers went in for Dick Cheney's favorite game) and outright murder.

Their condition was often worse than that of pre-Civil War slaves because they weren't the expensive, valuable, property of the mine or mill. Slave drivers -- whether industrial giants like United States Steel or local farmers -- simply rented these unfortunates from rural sheriffs for a small monthly fee, usually less than $20. If the private jailer worked or beat a laborer to death, they could just rent a new hand. Rural sheriffs and justices of the peace made good money by picking up Black men, fining them for "vagrancy" or some other unrecorded offense, and passing them on to paying slave drivers seeking workers.

Blackmon reports how this system was imposed by defeated Confederates after the Civil War to keep the freed laborers down and at work; how impotent to stop it were sporadic federal legal intrusions on the system; and how only national mobilization for war in World War II, a mobilization that perforce needed African Americans, helped bring the slave system down.
One of the most interesting facets of Blackmon's book is the reaction he records from whites and African Americans when he first published some of his research in the Wall Street Journal.

The article generated a response unlike anything I had experienced as a journalist. A deluge of e-mails, letters, and phone calls arrived. White readers on the whole reacted with somber praise for a sober documentation of a forgotten crime against African Americans. Some said it heightened their understanding of demands for reparations to the descendants of antebellum slaves. Only a few expressed shock. ...

The reactions of African Americans were altogether different. Repeatedly, they described how the article lifted a terrible burden, that the story had in some way--partly because of its sobriety and presence on the front page of the nation's most conservative daily newspaper--supplied an answer or part of one to a question so unnerving few dared ask it aloud: If not racial inferiority, what explained the inexplicably labored advance of African Americans in U.S. society in the century between the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s? The amorphous rhetoric of the struggle against segregation, the thin cinematic imagery of Ku Klux Klan bogey men, even the horrifying still visuals of lynching, had never been a sufficient answer to these African Americans for one hundred years of seemingly docile submission by four million slaves freed in 1863 and their tens of millions of descendants. How had so large a population of Americans disappeared into a largely unrecorded oblivion of poverty and obscurity? They longed for a convincing explanation.

Later in the book, he shares the story of an extended African American family coming to terms with each other about a history that had never been explicitly told. Several generations brought their different perspectives.

On a cool fall night, Pearline Danzey, the eighty-eight-year-old matriarch of the extended family of Martin Danzy, who died as a slave worker in a turpentine camp in 1916, welcomed me to her home. ...

"To kill a colored person then, it wasn't nothing," she says. "We was slaves too in a way." For most of the Danzeys gathered that night, this is the first time they have heard "Pearl," as Mrs. Danzey is known to them all, tell the harsh tales of her childhood. ..."Our daddy and momma never taught us to hate white people. . . . We just got taught who always got the job, who had authority, and we were supposed to address them with respect," explained Ida, one of Pearline's nieces. "Until the civil rights movement we didn't know life could be any other way," she said.

...The Danzeys live in a place where cotton has been grown for most of two centuries and where Mrs. Danzey's family traces its history back to 1832 and a slave, Frank, brought to the county by a local white farmer named John Danzey. Pearline remembered her uncle Martin mostly as a man who spelled his last name without an "e," as did one line of white Danzys who lived nearby. She said she no longer remembered his alleged crime.

"My granddaddy used to talk about him. He went off to prison and died there," she says. "They was real sad about it."

...It wasn't clear whether the elder Mrs. Danzey's recollection had failed or, as was the case in many black families in Alabama, the stigma of imprisonment makes her uncomfortable discussing the subject. One thing is certain: after his arrest, Uncle Martin never came back.

Reading this, I had to wonder how many Black children today, north and south, have a similar ghostly awareness that an uncle or a father "went away to prison and never came back." This is the contemporary truth that Michelle Alexander writes about in The New Jim Crow.

Mrs. Danzey's grandchildren had their own generational response to her stories.

The younger Danzeys aren't sure what to make of the story of Uncle Martin. "You can't go back and change the past. Just don't let it happen again," says Cynthia James.

Pearline's granddaughter, Melissa Craddock, disagrees. The companies that made money off the forced labor of Uncle Martin owe something, she says. "If there was something that came out of that, then there ought to be compensation," she says. "That was after slavery ended."

Cynthia's brother, James Danzey, a deeply religious forty-five-year-old, has listened intently as his great-aunt unspooled her stories. James Danzey brings up the talk of slave reparations he has heard recently and of other long-ago abuses of African Americans that have come to light in recent years.

"I believe it's God's hand," says James Danzey, who works as a counselor at a center for behaviorally disturbed children in a nearby town. "I believe there are some good true white people of God, who realize that their ancestors did bad, and they have to make right. ... Think about all the money those companies made on those people," he says later. "Those companies should be investigated for doing that. They should have to pay something."

We don't live in a world where it's likely anyone is going to have to "pay something" -- but at least we can all tell the truth about what was done.
I listened to Blackmon's history as an audiobook. As horror followed horror -- accounts of pointless humiliation and vicious "punishments" of the neo-slaves -- a concurrent debate rumbled in my head. Were the neo-slavers drivers so cruel because it was in their systemic economic interest -- or did they simply hate Black people? This is not a question Blackmon disentangles; there is evidence for both in the documentation he presents, intermixed without comment. And it is not a question with any meaning for the victims of the neo-slave system either; when someone is whipping you bloody, the torturer's motivation doesn't really matter.

But nonetheless I find it haunting. The economic interests involved are obvious; sheriffs, farmers and industrialists had a good deal going for themselves. But the unconstrained sadism takes the practice into some additional horrible cranny of human possibility

Many more pictures from the neo-slavery era are posted at the book's website.
Slavery by Another Name will be the subject of a PBS documentary in 2012 (assuming House Republicans don't kill off PBS.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Arrived ... now where to go?


Yesterday I pulled into Florence, Oregon, having "virtually run" the complete Transamerica bike route from Yorktown, Virginia. This site enabled me to track my daily mileage. The little pictures that have appeared on the right sidebar here showed my virtual progress. The trip took me a little less than four years; I've bumbled and stumbled 4064 miles since August 4, 2007.

On to the next adventure ...

Egypt afterglow


This Matson cartoon catches something all of us who struggle among the excreta of our plutocratic declining empire need to remember: somewhere underneath the indifference and ignorance, among most US people, there's a delight in liberty and an enthusiasm for freedom that can well up unexpectedly. If we want a better country, we need to nurture this, not just rave at our collective faults.
With this in mind, I think it needs to be said that President Obama's performance as the Egyptian revolution's most globally prominent spectator confirms the instinct that brought most of us around to supporting him rather than Hillary Clinton during the the 2008 Democratic primaries.

No one who could be elected as head-honcho of the world's dominant empire was going to dismantle it. So the question posed in that election was who among the options seemed to understand that the Bush regime had demonstrated the limits of imposition of US power by brute force -- and who would try to find less violent means to maintain a dwindling hegemony. That's not a very satisfying question to be forced to answer, but such choices are the fate of US progressives, until or unless we get our own uprising. Most of us plumped for Obama and I think the last few weeks have shown us we could have done worse. At least in this White House (as opposed to one with Clinton at the top), there was a set of advisers that didn't want to go down with the Mubarak ship. Weak tea, this -- but weak tea is what get until we change things.
Thank you Egyptians for a gift of hope.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day


They couldn't let go of each other: two German lesbians, tourists on a launch in a fjord in Patagonia.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt: Thinking about tactics for overthrowing despots

Crossed Out

Exhilaration from watching Egypt's so-far-successful revolution continues to grip me. As a friend wrote this afternoon: "I've been riveted by events there..." A blog commenter was moved to come up with a new word for what we're seeing:

... in time, sufficient numbers will do a "Tungypt". There, I just created a new word / noun. A Tungypt: where the people finally assemble, and through daily protests force the government to create a government for the people, of the people, and by the people.

Nobody knows how this will play out over time, whether in a flowering of democracy or in dashed hopes. Egyptians will fight that out. But even now we can begin to look at the tactical level, the nuts and bolts of protest, and try to learn something.

I was struck to hear Robert Malley pointing out on NPR on Friday afternoon soon after Mubarak "resigned" that "both opposition activists and the regimes across the region are already looking at Egyptian events and adjusting their tactics to take these events into account." [Paraphrase; can't find a transcript.] Yes, all sides are looking for lessons.

I encountered the following attempt to draw tactical lessons in comments on a Professor Stephen Walt survey of the Egyptian and regional situation. The poster uses the name "Belisariusorb." I have no idea who this might be or where these points originated. My comments -- derived from a distant past in student movements and years of organizing since -- follow each item in italics.

Decalogue for People-Power Revolutionaries

1. Don’t have a visible spokesperson or committee to speak in public for the revolution. A beast with one head can be beheaded, by assassination, arrest or smear. A many-headed creature cannot be killed.

But can a many-headed creature find its way? Maybe, for a while, in very simple circumstances. but without trusted leaders, how will most people know whether to stay or go (for example) when the going gets tough? Having visible leaders sets some people up to be picked off, but lack of visible leadership can create opportunities for infiltration and confusion.

2. Keep your aims and demands simple and don’t have too many. The more stated demands you have, the easier it is for the regime to satisfy some of them and split off support. Justice must be the first demand.

Yes. Simple broad demands are unifying; laundry lists are meaningless and boring. Appeal to broadly shared values.

3. Use ridicule, satire and contempt as your primary weapons. This has a two-fold effect -- tyrants are extremely vulnerable to embarrassment, and are unsettled by disrespectful attitudes; and at the same time a sense of humour will make you much more attractive to the outside world.

Yes, but using humor is not a spectator sport; make satire, don't just watch Jon Stewart!

4. Your principal strategy is to make the regime uncomfortable. Anything -- from striptease protests to pirate videos to simply violating existing etiquette and forms of address -- is valid here. Think big in your aims and think “small and many” in your actions.

I like the second part better than the first. The youth of the US in the 1960s broke taboos so successfully that the society has never retrieved either prudery or gravitas. But we sure didn't get a revolution. On the other hand, many small actions are great because you don't know what will work until you try it.

5. All despotic regimes have a state TV station -- that is the principal target. Cut the cables and power lines, jam it with radio signals if you can, blockade it to stop staff getting in.

Egyptian protesters never achieved this. State TV carried on -- until it became the vehicle for announcing that Mubarak was history. Does TV matter as much as it once did in the internet/twitter/cellphone era? We don't know yet.

I agree with this from TechCrunch: "The people of Egypt made use of what means they had available, just as every oppressed people has in history. Twitter and Facebook are indeed useful tools, but they are not tools of revolution — at least, no more than Paul Revere’s horse was. People are the tools of revolution, whether their dissent is spread by whisper, by letter, by Facebook, or by some means we haven’t yet imagined. "

6. All despotic regimes have nations that back them or trade weapons with them -- the public in those countries will be guilty about participating in your oppression. You must also target them with letters to newspapers in those countries, telephone interviews, blog comments, and all other media.

I like this. Soften up the enablers of tyranny! Recruit allies where you can.

7. Don’t attack or storm any regime positions -- swarm around them. Never harm anyone. Isolate anyone in your movement who urges violence, don’t allow them to act in your name.

Non-violence is essential -- not because you think it a moral imperative, though you may think so -- but because the other side always has more guns and you've got to find a way to take the struggle off the terrain of who has the bigger stick.

8. Don’t act in the darkness -- dictators love the night. Try to coordinate all events in the full daylight so that the videocameras can record any repressive or violent action.

Or make sure you bring floodlights and generators!

9. Find out which officers command the platoons and companies on the front lines, and try to find family members of those officers who will stand with them in the protest. Also sergeants and private soldiers if possible. This reinforces the idea that the army are the people, and discourages any violent response from the soldiers.

One of the most frightening aspects of the current US is that the military is becoming a society apart from civilian life. If we're serious about future progress here, we'll try to keep lines of communication with the soldiers open.

10. Believe no promises from the authorities. Ever. Even the most democratic of politicians lie to save their positions, and a despot will lie more grandly and more readily than any other.

Yes. Listen -- then test and verify.

Photo: Flickr: darkroom productions.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Enjoy this

Thanks to Jadaliyya.

When I saw this guy, I wondered whether he'd been embalmed somewhere since the early 20th century. He looked like something out of President William Howard Taft's era.

An unwanted visitor

She's been living to the left of our front door for a week, hanging in a web, a little above waist high. She is about the width of a nickel. As I unlock the door, she sits inches away.

Her proximity creates a conflict. You see, we afraid of spiders. We know we shouldn't be; they are almost all harmless to us; they eat insects; they have as much right to be there we do. But that doesn't still our visceral reaction to encountering one.

Inside, within our turf, we know our policy. We'll try to expel the eight-legged creature without harming it. We catch them and throw them outside. Sometimes this damages the creature, but we're pretty good at it. We certainly don't have the right to kill them just because we are afraid. We spend our lives trying to discourage the impulse to kill people and ideas we are afraid of.

But spending a week saying "hello" to a spider as we come in the door is wearing. We won't mind when she departs, as she must, as we all must ...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egyptians celebrate

Mubarak is gone. What's ahead will be hard -- and perhaps not everything these brave exhilarated protesters wish. But today the unimaginable has come about because the people demanded it.

The ripples of possibility that spread out from their achievement will lap at authoritarian governments across the world and discomfit every regime that counts on the immutability of existing arrangements. (Yes, that includes Tel Aviv and Washington!)

End of history, indeed!

Al Jazeera English live stream is here.

Egypt on my mind

I feared this Friday morning I'd wake up to news of a bloodbath by the Nile. Not yet. As the Al Jazeera commentator is saying at this moment of the crowds outside the Presidential palace, "every time these people come together, they raise shout of "Peaceful, Peaceful." So far, the men with the weapons haven't used them.

Yesterday's events -- the expected Mubarak resignation that evaporated when he spoke on television -- reminded me of something. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy told us:

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

Coming from a vigorous proponent United States world hegemony, this was a theory for understanding apparently unavoidable social change. It was less an endorsement of "revolution" than a prescription for a more or less democratic outcome. But that caveat does not make it false.

Cairo, end of Mubarak's speech via twitter.jpg

As Mubarak made it clear he wasn't going anywhere, the people raised their shoes in a sign of rejection. Graeme Wood, writing for The Atlantic, caught the moment as felt in Cairo's Liberation Square.

As Mubarak started his speech tonight, the crowd hushed and was ready to hear him out. They wanted celebration, not blood. They seemed ready to cheer and exult, and would surely have done so even if all Mubarak said was that he intended to resign immediately. He wouldn't even have had to agree to a fixed date for elections: A simple "I'm going" would have sufficed. Instead the crowd murmured in disbelief as Mubarak droned on, defiantly granting no substantive concession whatsoever.

Nervous tics in the crowd surfaced, and young mothers with toddlers up past their bedtime started packing their things in case the scene turned ugly. Tears gave way to anger in about 90 seconds, and by the end of the speech no one cared what Mubarak was saying. The protesters heard only themselves, yelling "Irhal," or "Go away."

The uprising of the last three weeks has focused the world media spotlight on putrefying corpse that is the Egyptian regime. I don't routinely look to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for revelatory accounts of dictatorship. After all, these are media outlets were set up by Congress to put out U.S. propaganda during the Cold War. But last week in Egypt, their reporters got a dose of the treatment that so many Egyptians associate with the regime. Picked up on arrival in the country by state security, their Arabic speaking reporter told what he heard while blind-folded in a lock-up with other prisoners.

He heard an intelligence agent ordering, "Get the electric shocks ready, this lot are to be made to really suffer," as a new batch of prisoners were brought in.

"In this hotel, we only have two things on the menu for those who don't behave -- electrocution and rape," the unfortunate detainees were told. ...

Then the screaming started.

New York Times reporters had a similar experience. That's what this regime is, a rotting structure that has nothing left except force to hold it up.

And it's dead, but the corpse remains unburied.
Al Jazeera is reporting that Egyptian state television is now grabbing world media reports on their own country. That is, not even the regime knows what is going on at this moment. Let's hope "Peaceful, Peaceful" prevails.

The picture flew by on the #Egypt twitter stream.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Protecting Social Security is a gay issue

As I was doing research for recent posts about Social Security (they are listed in the sidebar at the right), I kept thinking: Wow -- the kind of people this program aimed to help have so many of the characteristics of lesbian and gay elders!

Here's a passage from Nancy J. Altman's The Battle for Social Security that illustrates what I mean. She is describing the fate of old people before the insurance program was set up in 1935.

When Social Security became law, every state but New Mexico had poorhouses (sometimes called almshouses or poor farms). The vast majority of the residents were elderly. Most of the "inmates," as they were often labeled, entered the poorhouse late in life, having been independent wage earners until that point. ...

A higher percentage of men wound up in the poorhouse, even though women's life expectancies were longer than men's, just as they are today. The reason for this surprising result, according to a 1919 Pennsylvania commission, was that women's traditional work around the house was useful even as they aged. Consequently, the commission discovered, "Children or relatives will make greater sacrifices in order to keep an old mother at home and prevent her going to a poorhouse, than they would for an aged father or other male relative."

The poorhouse was a fate to be dreaded. ... "Privacy, even in the most intimate affairs of life, is impossible; married couples are quite generally separated; and all the inmates are regimented as though in a prison or penal colony," the [New York State Commission on Old Age Security] commission reported. It noted that "private possessions, other than the clothes on the back, are almost out of the question, since individual bureaus, closets, tables or other articles of furniture, outside of a bed, are generally not provided."

The poorhouse was always lurking in the background, haunting people as they aged.

Society expected families to take care of their old people. For gay people, that has never worked so well. Gay people who had ever publicly lived out their orientation might have lost contact with their families. It was a price we paid for being different and ourselves. We weren't likely to go on to high earning careers; we worked in society's economic backwaters. We were very likely to grow old in need. And we couldn't expect our society to respect in any way the social networks we might have built over the years. For gay people, old age might indeed mean the poorhouse.

Social Security changed that by ensuring we'd receive old age benefits based on our working lives. It gave gay people a chance to imagine an independent end of life that was the natural continuance of their earlier years. Getting old might still be hard, but it needn't mean being uprooted and dumped in a barracks to die.

From this perspective, I was thrilled to learn that the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce was collecting signatures on a petition to Congress in support of Social Security. Their email explained cogently why protecting Social Security should be a priority for lesbian and gay people.

Social Security is based on ONE simple promise: If you pay into the system, you're guaranteed benefits when you need them. Nearly all Americans will depend on Social Security at some point. Because we don't have the employment protection we deserve and we can't get married in the eyes of the federal government, LGBT people have less income when they retire and have to rely on Social Security even more than straight people. Threats to slash benefits, raise the retirement age and renew the push for privatizing Social Security will hurt those who need it most -- retirees, disabled workers and those who have lost a loved one.

Yes. Protecting Social Security must be a gay issue.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Retirement options narrow for dictators

Maybe Egypt's 82-year old Hosni Mubarak is sticking around despite his people's protests because retirement for used-up dictators just isn't what it used to be.

Since Jimmy Carter made the major mistake of letting the deposed Shah of Iran into the US in 1979 for cancer treatment, the US has stopped taking in cast-off potentates.

Other countries usually just don't want the bother of taking in these guys. Deposed dictators often face legal assaults from the people they've wronged. What country wants to bring that down on themselves?

Besides the little problem about where to settle, there are sometimes problems about money. Dictators loot their countries and they used to be able to live in security and great comfort on their stolen wealth when they went into exile. But that's gotten more difficult. Mubarak is looking at a scary example. When Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled his country earlier this year, the new Tunisian government issued warrants against him and the European Union froze his bank accounts. I'm sure he had plenty squirreled away they haven't found yet, but the international banking system has become much more cooperative with international policing than in the past. London courts in particular have pioneered a global account freezing legal order with real teeth.

There's even the remote possibility that dictators who are human rights abusers (and which are not?) might find themselves before the International Court of Justice in the Hague. So far the relatively new court has been more apt to move against repulsive African monsters -- and Slobadan Milosevic of Serbia whose atrocities embarrassed Europe. But no dictator can be sure this international legal system might not someday catch him in its sights.

Rumors that Mubarak is trying to overcome these hurdles have leaked out. Der Spiegel reported that he was considering a dash to a Baden-Baden cancer treatment facility. Or maybe that's just a feint.

Meanwhile, the Guardian in London is looking for Mubarak's money.

According to a report last year in the Arabic newspaper Al Khabar, Mubarak has properties in Manhattan and exclusive Beverly Hills addresses on Rodeo Drive.

His sons, Gamal and Alaa, are also billionaires. A protest outside Gamal's ostentatious home at 28 Wilton Place in Belgravia, central London, highlighted the family's appetite for western trophy assets.

Amaney Jamal, a political science professor at Princeton University, said the estimate of $40bn-70bn was comparable with the vast wealth of leaders in other Gulf countries.

"The business ventures from his military and government service accumulated to his personal wealth," she told ABC news. "There was a lot of corruption in this regime and stifling of public resources for personal gain.

"This is the pattern of other Middle Eastern dictators so their wealth will not be taken during a transition. These leaders plan on this."

But, ever so slowly, an international regime of the rule of law is ensnaring these rulers who abuse internationally recognized human rights and their own countries.
It was nice to see that the emerging international human rights regime apparently inconvenienced our own prominent war criminal over the weekend. Former President George W. Bush has admitted sanctioning what is unequivocally considered torture, a crime under the Convention Against Torture which the United States has signed. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) were prepared to present legal arguments for Bush's indictment in Switzerland when he arrived for a speaking gig. He skipped the event. The dude is going to have to be careful where he travels in the future.

There's a pattern in all of this. Bringing torturers to justice takes time. The project can feel futile. But there is more and more of an international framework within which they can be brought to some kind of justice. That's small consolation for their victims, but good for all of us going forward.

This post takes off from an article by human rights lawyer Scott Horton in Foreign Policy.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Maasai women

Sitting at home sick gave me a chance to read the sort of online news items that I seldom have time for. This one, via Reuters' Alertnet called up memories from a decade ago:

Kenya: Maasai women say they’ll combat discrimination, but it will take time
Cows are the bride price men pay for their wives, with the average around 10. According to community traditions, when the bride arrives, she does not enter the village, she stands at the gate until the man offers her a cow. She takes a step. He offers another, she takes a second step, until she is able to negotiate an acceptable number.

But the woman does not own the cows; she can feed her family or gain an income from their milk, but she cannot sell them. Women in Maasai culture own nothing, they inherit nothing and live their lives clamped under the authority of men. ...

...The women in Entara express their anger and frustration about the cultural practices such as genital mutilation, child brides and polygamy. They do not approve of them, but have no say. Kisieku says she was powerless when her daughter was given in marriage last year at the age of 16. Her husband just made the arrangements, challenging him was not an option.

The oppression of women is embedded in Maasai culture, despite the significant social and economic role they play within the community. They have to fetch water and feed the cows, build their houses, cook and maintain the home and look after the children. Looking after the animals is integral to the local economy although women face serious threats to their lives and security in doing this.

On a trip to Tanzania nearly 10 years ago to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro and see wild animals, we were offered the opportunity to visit "a Maasai village." I was uncomfortable. The encampment was set up just off a highway; it gave the sense of being a sort of human zoo. We each paid $10 to enter.

After greetings from a male elder, we were allowed to walk around and look at people. A few of us -- all women -- were encouraged by hand signs to crawl into one of the brush and hide structures that serve the Maasai as shelters. There, Maasai women asked for a little more money, anything we could give. A very old woman who spoke a little English explained that the women would get nothing from the men for hosting us and dancing for us -- could we give just a little more, for them? Of course we gave. I have no idea whether this was a ruse to get more out of the zoo's visitors or the women really managed to keep the money.

I am haunted by the condition of those women. I am haunted by the reality that a small minority group has to sell its culture as a tourist attraction.

The Alertnet article reminded me of the conditions women face in so many parts of the world.

Monday, February 07, 2011


I have the flu. Regular blogging will resume when the shivering, chills, feverish spikes and sweating stop. Has anyone else ever had strange scratchiness under the soles of the feet while running a fever? Just thought I'd ask.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Blow's "Revolutionary Measures"

The New York Times' Charles Blow has created an chart of various economic realities that may underlie the popular uprisings against autocratic and unrepresentative governments in North Africa and across the Middle East that we are now seeing. He calls it "Revolutionary Measures." Go take a look.

I was struck by one of his variables: the rate of economic inequality in these countries, otherwise known as the gap between the few very rich and the many very poor. I grabbed a very small amount of his data and reproduce it here:

The only country of the 24 on Blow's chart where economic inequality approaches the measure in the United States is Iran.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Saturday scenes and scenery: All sorts of weather

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was the source of some amazing satellite images of storms this week.

cyclone yasi over queensland coast.jpg
That's Cyclone Yasi hitting the Queensland coast of Australia on Wednesday. The coast is the obscure white line under the red eye at the left. The Category 5 storm was Australia's worst storm in a century.

Meanwhile a massive snowstorm covered the central United States. Pretty impressive: that's the Florida peninsula peaking out at the lower right. I just heard that falling ice injured six people at the Dallas stadium where the Super Bowl will be played Sunday. Probably not what the NFL expected.

sitting on the stoop.jpg
Meanwhile here in the 'hood, we're enjoying one of San Francisco's oddly timed tidbits of summer. They come along randomly, a few days here, a few days there, seldom in July or August when fog prevails, more frequently in the fall, otherwise without rhyme or reason.

Natives enjoy them when they can. An enthusiastic band played at 24th and Mission this afternoon.

celebrating spring.jpg
She's obviously enjoying dancing in the sun while spectators watching enjoy her.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Death of a man never tried or judged

An Afghan prisoner held at the United State's prison camp at Guantanamo died this week after exercising -- so says the U.S. military. Awal Gul had been held nearly nine years without a trial. Although no court had ever found that he had committed any crime, he was in the category of prisoner that our government apparently intends to hold forever, without any legal process.

Gul's volunteer U.S. lawyers had this to say about their client's premature death.

Awal Gul passed away on February 1, 2011, from an apparent heart attack, although we have no way of knowing whether the government is telling us the truth. It is ironic that Mr. Gul may have died doing the very thing that many middle-aged Americans so every day: exercising. Among the government's three categories of Guantanamo prisoners—court prosecution, cleared for release, or indefinite detention—I am sorry to say he was in the last category.

Mr. Gul was kind, philosophical, devout, and hopeful to the end, in spite of all that our government has put him through. He was in American custody from December 25, 2001, until now. The government charged that he was a prominent member of the Taliban and its military, but we proved that this is false. Indeed, we have documents from Afghanistan, even a letter from Mullah Omar himself on Taliban letterhead, discussing Mr. Gul's efforts to resign from the Taliban a year or more before 9/11/01. He resigned because he was disgusted by the Taliban's growing penchant for corruption and abuse. Mr. Gul was never an enemy of the United States in any way.

It is shame that the government will finally fly him home not in handcuffs and a hood, but in a casket. It is also a shame that Mr. Gul sat imprisoned for years while the Congress (including Democrats and Republicans), two Presidents (Democratic and Republican), the federal courts, and the Departments of State, Defense, and Justice failed to show the maturity and leadership necessary to resolve Mr. Gul's case. He deserved better. His family, including his many children and grandchildren, deserved better.

Mr. Gul's enduring hope for Afghanistan, and even the United States forces in Afghanistan, is captured in an Afghan proverb he quoted to us more than once: "You cannot wash blood with blood."

Gul never got to speak for himself. We can at least listen to his lawyers. Their complete statement is here. Guantanamo remains a blot on the world's hopes for the rule of law.