Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: where to find political muscle for the climate?

Enthusiastic consumers of national news (are there still any such people?) may have heard about the civil disobedience campaign being mounted by opponents of the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline. The project would bring tar sands oil from Canada to Gulf of Mexico refineries. Protesters worry about leaks and pollution -- but what this is really about is that, as we humans adopt more and more destructive technical means to extract every last drop of oil while we use up the last of the earth's black gold, we are likely condemning the planet to warming on an unknown scale through release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As I write, hundreds have been arrested in front of the White House while demanding that President Obama not approve the pipeline. (Full disclosure: one of them is a young almost-relative and we are damn proud of her!)

By raising the profile of the issue, climate change activists are attempting to use the same strategy that advocates for a more humane immigration policy adopted with some success in getting the administration to use its executive power to stop deporting highly desirable and innocent undocumented people. (A dissection of that strategic coup here.) That is, they are trying to show Obama's political handlers that there will be a cost in support in 2012 if he ignores their concerns.

... "The decision-making authority is solely the president's," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told other environmental groups on a Thursday conference call, according to Bloomberg. "It will be increasingly difficult to mobilize the environmental base and to mobilize in particular young people to volunteer, to knock on thousands of doors, to put in 16-hour days, to donate money when they don't think the president is showing the courage to stand up to big polluters."


I devoutly wish that I thought this was going to work, but I doubt it. Immigration activists were able to demonstrate that Obama was losing support among potential Latino voters; they consequently won at least the appearance of action.

The problem for environmental activists is that the constituency that is aroused about climate change consists largely of people who always vote. And, when faced with the intense scientific know-nothingism that exudes from Republicans these days, they mostly just won't resist voting for Obama, regardless of how disappointing they may find him. It's vaguely comforting having a president who knows the world is round, even if he won't take on the energy interests. Groups like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters do have some capacity to field volunteer election workers, but the Obama campaign found their own volunteers last time around and may still think they can do without such constituency groups in 2012. They may even be right.

Dave Roberts who writes at Grist has offered some very sharp observations about the climate change movement's political weakness.

A big part of the problem is precisely that climate efforts so far have been almost entirely driven by liberal elites. It's been an extremely intellectualized, top-down sort of undertaking ... what you need is a renewed left with genuine grassroots muscle, the ability to threaten politicians' reelections, and lots of money to deploy. You need a left that is greater than the sum of its siloed constituent parts, so that climate is no longer the sole province of "the environmental movement," gender equality no longer the sole province of "feminism," worker welfare no longer the sole province of "labor," etc. -- some good old-fashioned solidarity.

... the decline of the left's power is closely connected to the decline of institutions that used to create leftists and give them a sense of common purpose. I'd put two in particular foremost among them: unions and liberal churches. It's unions that brought people together -- in the real world, not in chat rooms -- and trained them to think and act as part of a political force devoted to the welfare of ordinary people against the iniquities of the rich and powerful. And it's liberal churches that brought people together -- in three-dimensional space, not on Twitter -- to convince them that there is a genuine moral imperative to fight for the interests of the dispossessed and disadvantaged.

... Ultimately climate action is about overturning the status quo and defending the powerless (including future generations) against the depredations of the powerful. It's a liberal undertaking. It relies on the strength of liberalism, in the U.S. and globally, which has proven itself frustratingly weak in recent years, particularly on economic issues (and climate is very much an economic issue).

If we are to keep the planet habitable for a human population anywhere near the present size, that's the way we are going to have to think. The climate needs a left capable of mass scale based on respect for diversity expressed as solidarity.

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" -- reminders of that inconvenient truth.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Where are elders going to live?

Over at Time Goes By, one of my periodic "Gay and Gray" columns is up today. If you are interested in likely futures for gay elders -- and all of us, gay and straight should be --go take a look.

While casting about for material for these columns, I read Dudley Clendinen's A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America, about his mother's last years living in an assisted living institution in Tampa, Florida. Clendinen came to my attention on the occasion of his moving and dignified description in the New York Times of his own descent into neuro-muscular failure due to A.L.S. -- Lou Gehrig's disease. Clendinen, a former national correspondent and editorial writer for the paper, also happens to be gay, though neither of these writings that delve into human intimacies make a point of that identity.

Canterbury is fascinating; if any reader is at all interested in assisted living communities or has friends living in them, I can highly recommend it. Clendinen spent long periods in residence; the product is indeed "tales" of ongoing life drifting toward death. Some stories are sure to delight and illuminate some corners we might not expect access to: relations with and among the staff; sexual outlets; how this community experienced and recovered from 9/11. It is full of gentle but wise observations; here's a sample:

There were, of course, many widows available to talk to one another about widowhood -- which usually meant talking about their late husbands. This was almost always a subject the talker enjoyed more than the listener. Most widows came to realize, after a while, that other people, by and large, didn't find their dead husbands that interesting. (Most of them had dead husbands of their own, after all.) Once they realized that, they moved on to other topics.


In order to write this book, Clendinen begins with an extraordinarily lucid description of what exists in the way of housing options for elders. Here he is a straight-up journalist doing a terrific job of exposition. I'm taking the liberty of passing on excerpts from it here because I know how well it contextualized these possibilities for me and I hope it might do the same for others.

The place I knew from childhood where old people sometimes went to live was the "Old PeopIe's Home." A quiet, old-fashioned exercise in noblesse oblige, originally founded in the 1890s, and now simply called the Home, it was by the 1950s, when I began to visit there, a rambling old stucco building of two or three stories, with high ceilings, individual or shared rooms, a dining room with ceiling fans, big overhanging trees, and deep shaded porches lined with rocking chairs, in which gently sat poor old white ladies in cotton dresses, and a few bent old white men in cotton pants. You had to be able to pay something to get in, and something a month, but like the local Children's Home, it was a nonprofit, subsidized institution, supported and run by a group of business -- and religious people -- Episcopalians, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, and Jews -- for a certain class of the elderly in need. ...

The low-rent housing for the elderly that began to be constructed in Baltimore, where l now live, and then in cities across the country in the late 1960s and the 1970s, often took the form of plain, or brick-faced, concrete buildings of ten to fifteen floors, with two hundred or more modest studio and one-bedroom apartments in each. Sponsored by churches or synagogues, community organizations, unions that wanted to provide housing for retired workers, or other groups willing to create nonprofit corporations to take advantage of the low-interest, long-term federal loans being offered under the Section 202 program, that housing now exists in almost every city and town in America. Most cities have a number of buildings. The rents are kept below market rates, and the basic requirements for admission are that the applicants be sixty-two which doesn't sound old anymore -- and be able to pay the rent. The apartments were intended for the low- or modest-income elderly: widows, retired blue-collar or public service workers, people living on fixed incomes or in reduced circumstances. It was essentially the same economic class that had been served by the Home, and places like it -- of which there were not enough -- before the federal government got involved.

There was another Great Society program created in the 1960s called Section 8, designed to subsidize housing for the poor, ages eighteen and up. Those who qualify and are at least sixty-two often live in designated apartments in the Section 202 buildings, with most of their rent paid by the government.

Regardless of whether the government considers them poor or not, the main, and often only, source of income for many of the older people living in those buildings seems to be Social Security. ... They are basic apartment buildings with small residential spaces, some nice group spaces, but little support structure, and an aging population of residents who, if they live long enough, will have to move to nursing homes for the help they will need each day -- in bathing, dressing, cleaning, cooking, eating, and taking the right medicines at the right times.

The nursing homes to which they will go are the ones that take Medicaid -- the federal/state program that pays for nursing care for the elderly poor. To qualify for Medicaid, someone has to demonstrate essentially no assets and low income. Then he or she pays all but a few dollars of that income each month toward the nursing home bill, and Medicaid pays whatever its formula allows as the balance. ...

The cost of nursing home care is a giant part of the federal Medicaid budget, which itself takes a huge bite out of the whole federal budget. But the Medicaid formula, which differs state by state in how much it will pay, almost always pays less per month than high quality nursing care actually costs, regardless of where the nursing home is. For that reason, commercial, for-profit nursing homes that accept Medicaid patients are less well staffed and equipped -- in order to make a profit -- than nursing homes that can charge more because they do not accept Medicaid. In other words, the quality of care in facilities that accept Medicaid is less than in those that charge more, to a more affluent clientele. That shouldn't surprise. The retail cost of top-flight individual nursing care can be astronomical.

Canterbury and other nonprofit life-care facilities were created to offer comfortable living and good nursing care by yet another formula. It was one designed to serve not the poor ... or the shabby genteel ... but the middle class ... at a price that they could afford when they entered and that would not impoverish them in the end. The equation on which life-care facilities are based is an actuarial bet -- a gamble. It doesn't matter at what age over sixty-two a person wants to enter, but new residents have to be able to walk through the front doors on their own power. No wheelchairs. They have to have enough money to afford the sizable down payment due when they come in, and enough income for the fee they contract to pay each month. The down payment buys them no equity, so if they die soon, they lose. Their estates get back some, but less and less for the first two years, and then none. But if they live long, they win, especially if they end up in the nursing wing, because the nursing care costs no more -- except for the extra meals, pills, and nursing supplies -- than the monthly apartment fee.

Most people aren't going to this last kind of facility, but I appreciated the clarity of this explanation.

It's not clear to me what the new federal health reform law will mean to these arrangements, although apparently existing nursing homes are complaining that they'll be required to offer their employees health insurance. I'm unsympathetic. We ought to be able to do better than to expect elder care to be solely the work of the underpaid and uninsured.

What "experts" fail to understand


An in-house description of a new Kaiser Family Foundation survey expresses "a real surprise" that nearly half of those currently without health insurance don't think the Affordable Care Act (ACA), known to detractors as Obamacare, will do anything for them.

We know from survey after survey that the uninsured want insurance coverage. And we know that the main reason they don’t have it is that they cannot afford it. Experts who have advocated for expanded coverage for decades probably envision the uninsured sitting around the kitchen table anxiously awaiting the implementation of coverage expansions under the ACA. But surprisingly, only three in ten of the uninsured say the ACA will help them get health care.

These "experts" just don't get it. Even if you tell people over and over that there will be insurance and subsidies to help them pay for it, folks who live close to the economic margin (or under it) won't believe you. All they've ever experienced with the dribs and drabs of insurance they may have occasionally had was that there were expensive deductibles and co-pays. Or insurers refused to pay if they tried to use the "insurance." And all they can imagine from the ACA is perhaps another bureaucratic mountain they'll be expected to surmount, complete with ugly insinuations that they are "failures" because they need help.

Plus, they listen the political noise and figure that, even if this thing someday comes into existence, the cheapskates in power will nickel and dime it to death, perpetually shifting costs from government to them. After all, if they've had any experience with state-run health programs like CHIP (federal children's health) or Medicaid, they've lived how that works.

Anyone who expects poor people to have confidence in a government program that doesn't exist yet is living in an ivory tower.

Now give them some experience of something that works for them and they'll fight tooth and nail to keep it -- just look how most of us feel about Social Security and Medicare. But that trust comes from experience. No wonder the party of NO taxes for the rich needs to kill Obamacare before it lives. If it's benefits become tangible, it will be lively indeed.

A puzzle

Have you ever let your mind wander, wondering what happened to a tree early in its life, with the result that it grew like this?

I have.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A stubborn man stepped out for justice

With the east coast under water and the dedication of the MLK memorial postponed, this is less timely than it might have been ... but here it is.

I won't really know until I see it, but I think I like the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

There are a lot of people who say I ought not to like it. The right thinks it is an example of totalitarian communist iconography. Feeding that thought, the artist selected by the private U.S. memorial foundation that raised the money for the project is Lei Yixin, a 57-year-old master sculptor from Changsha in Hunan province. He's done admiring figures of Mao, among others. U.S. artists and some African Americans thought the commission should have gone to an African American artist. The stonemasons union was appropriately horrified to learn that the sculptor imported not only Chinese granite but also Chinese workers whose pay arrangements seem dicey. Apparently during the planning the younger members of the King family caused a stink by demanding to be paid for the use of King's words carved in stone.

But I saw a picture of this panorama and instantly thought -- "the arc of justice is long -- and a man stepped forward to speed things up on the way to freedom!" Apparently the official metaphor is that "hope came out of a mountain of despair" so I guess I wasn't far off.

3king face.jpg
I had feared that any memorial would dilute the strength of King, would "domesticate, disinfect, deodorize, sanitize, and make [him] safe" in the language of Cornel West. I guess not. This figure is stubborn, determined, uncompromising.

After all, Dr. King had to be one tough guy. He not only led the movement for legal civil rights and racial equality in the south, he took the movement north to confront racial hypocrisy. He also denounced the Democratic party's Vietnam War. He was killed while supporting striking garbage collectors and organizing a Poor People's Campaign. As Adam Server summarizes, King was

a man of the left certainly, but not a man of the Democratic Party ...

He wasn't widely popular with a lot of U.S. people when he died and he wouldn't be popular now if he were around.

I like it that he looks a little annoyed in the new statue. I'm sure he'd find a lot to be annoyed about these days. I'm amazed that such a figure ever got implanted on the Mall.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saturday scenes and scenery: water over the dock

water patterns1.jpg
As the East Cost waits for Hurricane Irene, how about some photos of more tranquil waters, albeit water where no sea ought to be?

On this day in this August, an exceptionally high tide rose over the working dock at Menemsha Harbor on Martha's Vineyard.

Locals call it a "moon tide" -- apparently the phenomenon is not unheard of, though it certainly calls into question the viability of these maritime facilities with rising ocean levels.

working vessels.jpg
The dock on the left of this photo with the gas pumps, taken on a more normal summer day, is one of several that was covered by the "moon tide."

Friday, August 26, 2011

Go on, feed the fish

Click on the light blue water, repeatedly if you like, and watch them scarf down the food. For some reason, I find watching this absorbing.

Busy today; will blog tomorrow.

H/t Telling Secrets for the fish.

Something to ponder before the hurricane strikes

According to DC Park Police, the national penis is cracked. When the earth moves, all sorts of interesting things go on.

Evangelist Pat Robertson considered the issue:

Now there's a crack in it, there's a crack in it and it's closed up. Is that a sign from the Lord? Is that something that has significance or is it just result of an earthquake? You judge, but I just want to bring that to your attention.

We live in a crazy country.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Only cloying if you can survive without sugar

Photos President Obama with the Norman Rockwell painting that hangs in the White House are bouncing round the blogosphere, but I'm glad I happened to run this video from the scene that was the photo's origin.

Listen to what the girl in the picture, Ruby Bridges, says about the scene decades later.

In this season of discontent with Obama, we need to be reminded of the people who see something else. I'm broadened by the thoughts of a woman who writes as Bint Alshamsa:

Barack's identity as a mixed-race/mixed-ethnicity person of color gave my child something that every white child in America has been able to take for granted their entire lives: the ability to see someone who looks like her in the White House. The exhilaration and triumph that Irish-Catholic Americans felt when they got to see photos of the Kennedy family eating together, playing together, working together, and just being there now gets to be experienced by families like mine. It changed the way the entire nation eventually felt about the idea of having more Irish-American Presidents.

I suppose if an individual already had what most people of color didn't experience until Obama became President, his re-election might not be a very thrilling prospect. Maybe there isn't much for them to personally feel excited about. I can definitely understand that. However, having witnessed unprecedented positive changes rippling through every facet of my communities, I see many reasons why it would be beneficial for Obama to be re-elected.

I think it also needs to be understood that the first person of color to occupy a role in our society is never a true radical. A truly radical person of color would never have been elected President. Even the self-identified liberals and progressives wouldn't have allowed it. Sadly, it seems that the traits that made Obama electable in the eyes of white America are now the very same ones that many progressives and liberals are unhappy with. I wish that I could explain to some of my loved ones who are white that Obama's role is not to enact the kind of revolutionary policies needed to fix this society. His role is to make it possible for that revolutionary to be accepted by white America. It isn't Paul Robeson that changed the way white American sports-lovers viewed black athletes. It took Jackie Robinson to do that. Robeson was too revolutionary for most of white America to accept, but Robinson was malleable enough to endure the kind of abuse that America requires people of color to tolerate in order to achieve new levels of (begrudging) acceptance. Being anything other than a complete milquetoast and even white liberals and progressives will label a person of color "too angry", "uppity", or a "loose cannon".

In my eyes, Obama is doing exactly what people like me need him to do. ...

Not my eyes, but hers, reminding me we need sugar as well as bland nutrition.

H/t Coyote Crossing.

¡Eric Quezada PRESENTE!

Eric was always there, for the poor people of the San Francisco Mission District -- for the tenants, for the immigrants, for all the powerless -- for his people. He spoke with integrity; he smiled. He will be sorely missed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Beware of "reformers" if you like Medicare and Social Security

We've just passed the 15th anniversary of the "welfare reform" that Newt Gingrich and a bunch of conservative think tanks cooked up and that Bill Clinton signed in 1996.

Full disclosure: I worked alongside welfare mothers against this bill back in the day and I'm still mad about it. The former President's acquiescence in this punitive law took Hillary Clinton out of the running for me in 2008; perhaps that wasn't fair, but this seemed a core matter of principle: you don't advance your career by beating up poor people and get me on your team.

Just as we've seen lately that the Republican answer to sick people not being able to afford medical care is "just die," welfare "reform" said to poor mothers and their kids: "sink or swim."

There has been a lot of sinking. The law gave block grants to states with which they were allowed to assist the poor in a program called "Temporary Assistance to Needed Families" (TANF) -- these grants are no larger today than they were in 1996. Yes, that means inflation has cut the real value of the funding by 28 percent. Moreover, aside from a provision that barred most assistance lasting more than five years with federal funds, there were weak or no rules about how many poor mothers and children had to be helped, so states that were so inclined simply stopped paying for assistance.

The colors on this map follow a politically predictable pattern.

No state is generous -- how'd you like to try to live on 40-50 percent of the Federal measure of poverty in the better states? According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities:
In 2010, the monthly TANF benefit level for a family of three was less than the estimated cost of a two-bedroom apartment (based on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Fair Market Rent”) in all states, and less than half of the Fair Market Rent in 24 states.
The "welfare reform" has proved remarkably recession proof. You'd think that with a financial collapse and unemployment nearly doubling there'd be some rise in the the welfare rolls. But although in 2009 the food stamp program saw a 57 percent increase, TANF participation has remained flat as economic hardship has increased.

Welfare "reform" has achieved its goal: it has swept poor children and their mothers under the rug and out of sight and of political discussion. Democrats are no longer burdened by the charge that they support undeserving free-loaders; Republicans always wanted the poor to drop dead anyway. These folks seldom vote; they can be squashed like bugs and they have been.

Who's next?

This post draws on articles by CBPP, and Jake Blumgart at the American Prospect. Ezra Klein alerted me to the anniversary.

Warming Wednesdays: learn from the trees

Want innovation to help ween us off fossil fuels? Toss the problems to someone who is too young to be hemmed in by a bunch of fixed ideas!

Or so it seems from this feel-good story about a 13 year old whose solution to making solar energy collection more efficient was to observe how trees do it.
Inspired by the spiral leaf pattern he observed in the branches of an oak tree in the Catskill Mountains, 13-year-old Aiden Dwyer recently designed an award-winning solar panel arrangement that is up to 50 percent more efficient than traditional roof-top arrangements in use today.

[Dwyer explains:] "...The tree design made 20 percent more electricity and collected 2 1/2 more hours of sunlight during the day. But the most interesting results were in December, when the Sun was at its lowest point in the sky. The tree design made 50 percent more electricity, and the collection time of sunlight was up to 50 percent longer!"
Read more about it!

Thanks for Tina for the story.

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" -- reminders of that inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A woman and her country against the "Afghan Model"

Malalai Joya at a book signing, April 2011.

Robert Farley wonders whether "the Afghan Model" -- foreign airpower and special forces assisting local fighters to overthrow an international pariah regime arousing minimal nationalism in the target country and minimal domestic opposition in the imperial power -- has been vindicated in Libya. He doubts Gadhafi's end will prove an unqualified success for the stratagem; for now, " the grade is mixed."

Malalai Joya contends that the grade should be far worse than "mixed" in Afghanistan itself. Joya is the author of A Woman Among Warlords: the extraordinary story of an Afghan who dared to raise her voice. This really is an extraordinary book -- a detailed life story from a woman who has stood up against both the Taliban and the thuggish criminal warlords who the U.S. "Afghan model" has put in power in her country. I heard her speak last spring and put her autobiography away for summer reading; when I finally got to it, I was much rewarded.

Like many Afghans, Joya grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan where her family fled the war against Russian domination that lasted from 1979-89. Her father lost a leg in the fighting. While many refugee boys were being educated by fundamentalists whose rigid variant of Islam made them ripe to become Taliban, her family settled in a camp where there were equal educational opportunities for girls. She thrived.
As students, we didn't always realize how lucky we were. I have a vivid memory of how one teacher reacted after some of us complained that we were tired from studying. Her response was firm: "You should realize that these years, with the chance to focus on your education, will be the best time of your lives." I know now that she was right. I only wish that all Afghan children could have the chance to get "tired" by many years of education.
Unfortunately, these happy times didn't last. Victory in the nationalist war in 1992 didn't lead to a peaceful developing country. After the Soviets left, Afghans found they were largely ignored by the interfering powers that had funded the war --Pakistan, Iran, and the United States -- and left to the violence of competing warlords who had thrived on foreign subsidies.
It is difficult for outsiders to understand, but our people divide the mujahideen into two types: the real mujahideen and the criminal. In the early days of the Soviet-Afghan war, the majority of those who struggled against the Soviet forces called themselves mujahideen -- or "holy warriors." They were, like my father, Afghan patriots, united to fight against an oppressive invader. When the Soviet-backed regime of Najibullah finally collapsed on April 28, 1992, the real mujahideen laid down their arms, but it was on this date that the extremists and power hungry groups began their civil war. It is these criminals that today we call jihadis to distinguish them from the honorable mujahideen.

Even though the mujahideen were battling an atheistic Soviet empire, it is not true that they were fighting just for their religion, which is a personal matter. They were fighting for our right as Afghans to be free from foreign domination.
Joya never wavers in this perspective on what has happened to her country. It is her nationalism, mixed with a tolerant feminism, that has put her at odds in sequence with fundamentalists, greedy and violent warlords, and foreign occupiers such as the United States and NATO.

Joya secretly taught women and girls during the 1990s when Taliban ruled in the Herat region. When the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 by Northern Alliance warlords with U.S. help -- the Afghan Model's debut -- she was a known and trusted local figure. She was elected to an assembly, a grand Loya Jirga, where in theory new governing arrangements would be decided. There she bravely denounced the rapacious criminal thugs with guns who also sat in hall and was shouted down. This scene is available on video.

In the autobiography, Joya describes the welcome she received when she returned home from making this shocking and courageous outburst.
There were so many people outside the plane that it was difficult for me to move through them. Young girls had brought flowers for me, and many people shouted kind greetings my way. As I walked slowly through the throng, women called out, "Thank you for telling the truth!" ... There was a big tent and stage set up in the courtyard, and a huge crowd had gathered in our honor. My dear uncle Azad -- who in the coming months would take charge of my security -- greeted me warmly and helped me up to the front of the crowd.

Waiting for my turn to speak, I watched and listened to a number of speakers and performers onstage. There were tribal elders and young students making speeches, musicians dedicating songs to me. People were performing local traditional dances. The whole scene was almost unbelievable to me. I knew many of these people, but for every face I recognized there were many more strangers. These were the ordinary people of Farah -- the poor and forgotten who had inspired me to become active politically -- and they had obviously been moved by my message. Many had traveled great distances to attend the ceremony. I scanned the crowd in front of me looking for my mother and father, but I couldn't see them anywhere. ...

This was one of those moments where I could see the depth of support I had, and it confirmed for me that the power of people is like the power of God. In front of the clinic, waiting for me, was my father. I had never seen him so emotional. He was beaming and gave me a big hug. I asked him if he had been at the rally. "Of course," he responded. "I was behind the stage, but I heard everything."
I have quoted this passage at length because it contains an answer to the question which people in the United States immediately ask ourselves when we hear of Malalai Joya: how can such an outspoken champion of women's freedom and Afghan freedom survive in a country we've learned to think of as dominated by burqa-imposing, thieving fundamentalists?

The autobiography answers that question: this is a woman whose values are supported by her immediate and extended family and by a significant fraction of the Afghan population to whom she is known and whom she has served. If we were to pay attention, we would learn that we should understand that another Afghanistan is possible -- but only when all the outsiders get out and leave Afghans to sort out their own future. This does not seem to be imaginable to anyone in the Pentagon or Washington. But the U.S. will leave -- this is not a question of if, but when.

Meanwhile, catch glimpse a different Afghanistan in Malalai Joya's life story.
One more thought on "the Afghan Model" as carried out in Libya from Adam Server:
... nothing will vindicate the Obama administration's decision to ignore the advice of the Office of Legal Counsel, the Pentagon and the Attorney General that congressional approval wasn't required for war in Libya. ...Whatever the long term consequences of intervention in Libya, Obama has made it easier for his successors to unilaterally start wars without congressional approval.

Monday, August 22, 2011

All going or gone ...

4 bad guys gone.jpg
At a summit meeting in October, 2010 in the Libyan city of Surt, four leaders posed together for a photograph: Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali [Tunisia], Ali Abdullah Saleh [Yemen], Muammar el-Qaddafi [Libya] and Hosni Mubarak. [Egypt]
via The Lede; Sabri Elmehedwi/European Pressphoto Agency
Less than a year ago, they seemed to rule without challenge. Never say never.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Grudging step toward immigration reform shows way forward

A few weeks ago I put up a post titled "It was all about Obama" that got a fair number of hits, probably attracting folks who are mad at the guy for one thing or another. But this wasn't really an attack on the person of the President. It was a description of the way high-end politics works in our country these days, a system in which success at projecting individual charisma and individual fund-raising prowess has become more important than Party labels.

My beef with Obama is that, almost always, he has neglected making the moves that would strengthen his Democratic Party's standing with voters who might form a long lasting majority coalition, preferring to run on his "only adult in the room" persona rather than build a popular base of the excluded.

Last week he broke with that pattern; the example should be instructive for people who want the President to act differently.

What did Obama do? He used the powers of the executive to order immigration authorities to lower the priority of deporting undocumented people who came here as children, have gone to school here or served in the military, and who have committed no crime.
The Obama administration announced Thursday that it would suspend deportation proceedings against many illegal immigrants who pose no threat to national security or public safety.

New York Times, 8/18/11

(It remains to be seen how this will actually work out in practice: individual immigration agents sometimes seem to make low level decisions about who to deport that look on their face racist; private immigration prisons and contractors profit from throwing out anybody and everybody, as lawsuits by citizens unlawfully deported reveal.)

This policy shift from Obama came after a week of protests by immigration advocates that targeted the President quite personally (the picture shows the crowd outside his re-election headquarters.) The previous week, a leading Latino Congressman from Illinois got himself arrested outside the White House while protesting immigration policies.

So did all this agitation move the President to use his powers to move immigration enforcement in a more sensible direction? Sure, but not in a simple linear way. What years of immigration protest have accomplished is twofold.
  • The continuing agitation has successfully encouraged the Latino community to understand that what could seem random events form a pattern of racial and ethnic victimization. It's not just that your law-abiding nephew Jose who attended community college was stopped for an illegal right turn and ended up shipped to Guatemala. Latinos see that there exists a pattern of treating whole communities with suspicion and disrespect and of subjecting individuals to arbitrary deportation. The Obama administration's vigorous immigration enforcement policies mean that one in four Latinos know someone who was recently deported.
  • Rising distress about seemingly arbitrary deportations is seriously undermining the President's support among Latino voters. He has lost ten points from his approval rating among Latinos since January. Latino votes are crucial in many potential swing states in 2012, like Nevada and Colorado.
Bingo! Obama finds a way to modify immigration policy that Republicans will have a hard time blocking. Even if Republicans come after him, he still wins -- he "tried."

Progressives need to understand that we can move the system -- under some special circumstances. We have maximum leverage during the run up to elections and we need to use it. (If Obama is re-elected, don't expect much from the administration, but of course he'd be preferable to any visible alternative.) And our demands have to show signs of traction among a population that matters to the politician we're trying to influence.

Generalized liberal dissatisfaction with the administration isn't getting much traction with Obama because no political operative believes we'll defect in large numbers to a Perry or a Romney. In fact, we'll probably even work for the Prez's re-election, because we're properly scared shitless of the other guys. Liberal approval of Obama is only down three percent this year, despite the grumbling we hear and contribute to.

An important feature of the victory immigrant advocates have extracted from the administration is that it contributes to the long term health of a coalition (working of necessity if not choice through the Democratic Party) that projects a vision of the country that has not yet come into focus and is scarcely represented among politicians. Obama's disappointing trajectory says that the political numbers crunchers still believe that prioritizing the interests of Wall Street and anxious older whites is the only way to pull out a national majority. This seems just plain weird to those of us who live in a browner, more urban, more imaginative, yet also more in-need-of-government country, but the operatives won in 2008, so for the moment they have credibility.

It's not at all clear to me that Obama can be re-elected in 2012 given the continuing failure of his government to improve the economic prospects of most voters. His re-election is not where I intend to put my energy: there's a House of Representatives that would be much improved by a return to a Speaker Pelosi and that seems a worthy project to struggle for in the electoral arena. But meanwhile, if we have a beef with Obama, this is the time to have influence by getting in his face.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Obama in Democrat-land: signs of strain

Once again I've managed to get away just before the President (and his vacation entourage) descend on Martha's Vineyard. That's okay; I wander in the woods rather than frequent the tourist towns, so I'd probably not have much noticed the stir.

No wonder the President vacations on the island, just as Bill Clinton did before him. Martha's Vineyard is Democratic territory. In the 2009 special election to fill the seat made vacant by Ted Kennedy's death, the hapless Democrat got two thirds of the island's tiny vote total, while losing on the mainland badly to Republican Scott Brown. Dems on the Vineyard are a mix of rich urbanites who've chosen to find in the place a slice of country living and a solid indigenous working class of farmers, fishermen and tradespeople who keep the wheels turning.

In 2009, the Island greeted the Prez this way:

But these days, the outnumbered dissenters are feeling emboldened to express themselves. They are not happy.
2bend over for change.jpg

In Oak Bluffs, "Martha's Vineyard loves Obama" t-shirts are still selling. The t-shirt shops wouldn't carry an item that just took up space.
3martha hearts obama.jpg

The 2012 style bumpers stickers are beginning to show up. The Obama campaign has changed its typography. Get used to it.
4obama 2012.jpg

But, frankly, this prominently displayed t-shirt struck me as an amazing sight on this island. When "none of the above" turns up on Martha's Vineyard, there's disaffection in Democrat-land.
5none of the above.jpg

Friday, August 19, 2011

The story of China

Some things are just too much fun and too smart not to pass on. Enjoy this antic, reasonably accurate history. (The ad superimposed at the beginning only lasts about ten seconds.)

Hat tip The Mex Files.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Historical travesty in Oak Bluffs

When you disembark from the ferry into the Martha's Vineyard Island town of Oak Bluffs, this watchful life-size Civil War soldier on a pedestal stands directly ahead on the grass. He doesn't seem out of place; after all town is famous for its quaint Victorian-era gingerbread cottages. It's not at all odd that it would have a Civil War monument. Massachusetts sent almost 150000 men to fight the secessionist states of the Confederacy; nearly ten percent of those never came home.


But the meaning of the statue becomes a lot more murky if you actually read the plaque on the monument:
"The chasm is closed"
In memory of the restored Union this tablet is dedicated by
Union veterans of the Civil War and patriotic citizens of Martha's Vineyard
in honor of the Confederate soldiers

Whaa? What's a monument to Confederate dead doing on the green in Oak Bluffs?

Apparently it is a relic of a conservative political movement in the late 19th century that sought to "look forward, not backward" -- to re-remember the Civil War as some kind of huge national mistake that killed heroic brothers, to erase the reality that the war was fought to end slavery. That is, when we see this monument and its inscription, it is as if we're meeting a kind of "Fox News" from the 1890s, distorting reality for the benefit of the powerful, all preserved in heroic cast iron.
The prominence of this monument in Oak Bluffs is particularly odd given that Oak Bluff is where comfortable Black people have vacationed in New England for generations.
I became aware of this monument when I glanced through a throwaway newsprint tabloid called "School's Out," written, published, and distributed each spring by the 7th grade students of the Island's West Tisbury School. It's an impressive class project, over 50 pages of student articles and ads boosting the tourist attractions and life of Martha's Vineyard. I can imagine that I would have loved working on it as a child.

But I was stunned to read this sentence as the lead in one article:
The Civil War started in 1861, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law ...
Yikes -- where was this child's history teacher? Emancipation didn't come until two years into the Civil War, until 1863, by which time the murderous conflict had become a clear cut fight over whether the system of slave labor would survive or die. The story of our defining intramural war is emblematic of the country's lurching path toward broader human freedom. A child doesn't have to know or understand about all that, but it is up to her teachers to help her get the basic chronology right.

The student writer also enthused about the monument. Okay, I can imagine she needed a topic and a quick essay to finish a homework assignment. But some teacher ought to have offered some perspective on this very contentious subject. We do students no favor by glossing over our history, its shame as well as its accomplishments.

UPDATE: See the comment from Bruce Nevin below. Looks like I got this wrong.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: Martha's Vineyard musings

Yesterday we began the long trek home to California by taking the ferry from Vineyard Haven to the Massachusetts mainland. Looking back at the harbor, I thought about one of the articles I'd read about what climate change will do on Martha's Vineyard Island.
“When you live on an Island,” she said, “you have to be concerned that the sea is rising.”
shore hotels.jpg
This beach set up that attracts throngs of tourists will be among the first facilities to go with the projected three foot (or more) sea level increase over the coming decades.

MV hospital.jpg
But a few beach chairs and motels can be moved. Some of the Island's infrastructure is more permanent, but still at risk. This large building is the shiny new Martha's Vineyard Hospital. The people of the Island are properly proud to have raised the money to build it.

But as sea levels advance, there are expected to be more strong storms including increasing hits by category one and two hurricanes. And that suggests a problem for this fine facility.
A category two storm would cut off all routes but one to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
You can see why that's a concern here:
MV hospital approach better.jpg
This approach across a causeway and over a drawbridge is not likely to useable in a major storm. Approaches from other side are no less vulnerable.

As the sea rises, Martha's Vineyard is going to have to find new compromises with the sea around it. That's what islands do, perhaps setting an example for all of us who can forget we are living on a big island.

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" -- reminders of that inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Customer service from a cable TV provider?

On Monday morning the business section of the Boston Globe included this morsel:
Competition from satellite dish companies has led cable companies to put more emphasis on customer service, said Steve Effros, a Virginia cable industry analyst.

“The competition is hot and heavy,’’ he said, “and at the moment at least, all of the programming is in essence equivalent. Customer service is one of the ways to differentiate yourself.’’
With this in mind, I share this edited transcript of a live internet chat generated in this Massachusetts household with Comcast's cable service yesterday. While watching television, we saw a screen message that our longstanding cable service now must be upgraded with a digital box. As you'll see, that caused some confusion.

I've tried to be fair in cutting this to a moderate length. Some of the Comcast "analysts" might even deserve commendations -- others not so much so. The actual online process took about 45 minutes.

Live Chat
Status: ... your issue status is: working

user SALLIE has entered room

analyst Reygie.28399 has entered room

Hello SALLIE, Thank you for contacting Comcast Live Chat Support. My name is Reygie.28399. Please give me one moment to review your information. ... Thank you for choosing Comcast, where we are proud to offer our Customer Guarantee. You have reached the Order Entry Department. .. I am so happy to have you here on chat. How are you doing today?

Just fine. I'm helping my elderly stepmother get a cable box.

I am happy to know that your day is doing fine so far....I understand that you will order a digital box and a technician will be the one to bring and install it for you.

Yes, that is right. What will the fee be for this service?

Thank you.

I know how important it is for you to have your cable TV working, so let's go through ordering your digital box so that you can enjoy watching your favorite shows without interruptions.

Fine, but first I want to know what it will cost.

Thank you for the information.

You still haven't told me what the fee will be for the installation.

Rest assured that I will check the cost of technician visit right here.

Great. Thanks!

I am trying to check the system that we use to locate the cost of technician visit however the system is not allowing me.

How frustrating for you!

Could you please ask the account holder if she enrolled her account to seasonal program?... It seems like the account is not active.

It must be active. We have been watching television! ... She received a bill for service in July.

Here is what I will be doing to help you out with the appointment as well as knowing its cost: I am going to connect you to the billing department for you to be better assisted. Please wait, while the problem is escalated to another analyst

analyst Christian has entered room

We offer the Comcast Customer Guarantee.

Hello, Christian. What on earth is the Comcast Customer Guarantee?

For starters, Sallie, superb Customer Service is one of the them...if tech will found out the problem is a Comcast issue, there is no charge. Otherwise, its $30-$45.

That's fine. Let's schedule the installation. Then I have another issue I'd like to raise with you. ... It appears we've been paying for a digital box and remote already, but we don't have one.

Thats interesting, I will check on the account right after I'm done with the scheduled tech appointment. ... For this, I need to transfer you to the Retentions Office to remove the provisions of the remote and box and then credit you appropriately. No worries, I will notate our interaction so you wont have to explain again.

analyst Christian has left room

analyst Rowena has entered room

Welcome to Comcast Order Entry department. I am glad to have you on chat. This is our sales department supporting and website. How are you doing today, Sallie?

Hello, Rowena.

I'm fine, but I'd like to fix a problem with my bill. I've been being billed for a cable box and remote control, but I don't have either one. (Someone is coming to install the box on Tuesday, but in the meantime, I'd like the charges reversed for the period when I didn't have it.)

Thank you for bringing this concern to us. I will be more than happy to assist you. I have here your account and I am seeing here that you have cable service.

Yes, I have cable service. The cable goes directly into my television.

May I ask if you mean by the Digital Remote and box charge at $1.95/month, is that correct? ... Actually that is needed for the package that you have now as the equipment.

Yes, but I don't *have* the equipment!

The regular box we have cost $8.95/month. ... That is the remote that you have now.

But I don't presently have any digital box at all. And you cannot mean that you are charging me for the remote control made by the Sharp company that came with the Sharp TV.

Currently you are using your own remote, correct? ... Thank you for confirming. ... Sallie, my apologies for the inconvenience. I may be needing to connect you to our Billing Department for the charges. Will this be all right with you?

analyst Rowena has left room

analyst John Michael has entered room

John Michael
I understand that you have a problem with your the equipment charge on your bill. I am happy to help you. Our goal is to provide you with a consistently superior customer experience – that’s our guarantee.

John Michael
I checked your account inventory and see a cable box listed on the account with the serial number XXXXX

How odd. Because it's not here. The cable runs directly into the television.

John Michael
I noticed that the $1.95 charge started on 04/30. I will remove the charges starting from that date up until Tuesday. ...It’s been my pleasure to have assisted you, Thank you for choosing Comcast as your service provider and have a great day! ...Good bye for now. Take care!

Perfect. Thank you so much.

All's well that ends well?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Riot weather

After San Francisco's 7.1 earthquake in 1989, a friend who writes comic theater started a new movement, the Society for the Prevention of Seismic Events (SPSE). In those pre-internet days, this concept "went viral" in the way that gripping innovations did in those days: soon lots of Bay Area cars sported bumper stickers for this humorous response to fear, destruction and disruption.

I think about this as I read and listen to commentary on the awful riots in British cities last week. (Previous post on this topic.) The prosecutions and pontificating, the mourning and the recriminations, seem to me just as likely to prevent such eruptions as the SPSE was to prevent further earthquakes. People who've ever seen a riot on the ground know that, in the moment, riots consist predominately of ordinary people milling about and acting stupidly, swept along on a high tide of less than rational feeling that can seem to participants much like a party.

Open Democracy shared impressions from a Londoner, Nick Smith, who writes as Motown. He passed through this scene while trying make his way home from work.
Walworth Road - Only Fools no Horses
... I decided to head further down the street. There were a lot of people out on the street, but relatively few involved in looting. There were a lot of people (my estimate is 30% of people there) who looked as though they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time (like the two girls and the guy on the bike in front of the bus).

It wasn't really a scary environment, I'm not saying that people weren't frightened, but I think a better description would be shocked and disgusted. I saw a middle aged woman walking with her elderly mother through the worst hit area and they were obviously concerned, but I (and I hope they also) didn't feel that they were unsafe.

It sounds stupid to say it, but the atmosphere amongst everyone else seemed like carnival - I actually saw a girl getting chirpsed (chatted up). There were plenty of people (my estimate is maybe as many of 50% of people there) hanging around, fascinated by everything and enjoying watching the 'entertainment'. They didn't seem to be in the wrong place, they wanted to be there and to see what was going on.

I got the feeling that they wouldn't get involved in smashing any shops in, but if there were goods dropped by looters, they wouldn't hesitate to pick them up and I actually witnessed this later on. Lots of these onlookers were females and young kids (10-13) and they came from ALL races. I didn't notice any racial tension, Walworth is a very diverse area and white and blacks were mixing together whether that was in watching or in looting. ...

I'm really angry about ALL of those involved.
A messy situation, confusing, ripe for injury -- whether inflicted by the smash and grabbers or by law enforcement reasserting control -- but not terribly frightening at this location. That's most of a riot as seen on the ground. Post riot commentary from the heights of politics and the media invariably reads false if you've ever seen such a thing.

Social scientists naturally have weighed in on when we should expect urban riots. Their conclusions are pretty straightforward.
The connection between joblessness and violence comes to life in a timely August research paper Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009, which found "a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability." Authors Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth examined the relationship between spending cuts and a measure of instability they termed CHAOS -- "the sum of demonstrations, riots, strikes, assassinations, and attempted revolutions in a single year in each country."

Their conclusion: Austerity breeds anarchy. More cuts, more crime. ...
My emphasis.

We could wish that Republicans and the President would think about this as they slash budgets and refuse to tax the rich in the midst of economic carnage. But actually, conservatives rather like the riots that ensue from fiscal austerity: to them, disturbances just prove that the poor are undeserving.

Urban riots have a lot in common with weather: when the right combination of temperature and moisture come together, storms can gather force and break explosively. When the right (wrong) combination of unemployment, misery, and alienation coincide, riots become possible, even likely. At any given time and place, it's hard to predict whether the storm will break, but given the prerequisites -- youth unemployment amid social squalor and hopelessness -- the potential is very much there.

Photo from Motown.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Men without work

The features editor of The Atlantic, Dan Peck, has recently published a mammoth article entitled "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?"

The article is murky just where most U.S. writing about class is murky: "middle-class" here seems to include everyone who isn't either trapped in absolute destitution or living the life of the consuming elite. Few distinctions between various "middle" strata are clarified; in fact the article opines these are disappearing. The result is undifferentiated muddle. The utterly poor are invisible; the elite are floating above the flailing masses in Peck's world. Basically, Peck's "middle class" seems to include anyone who can hold a job, at least sporadically, but who doesn't earn a comfortable living wage. Peck believes this amounts to about 70 percent of us.

Peck thinks his "middle class" is in trouble -- and provides various proposed remedies. I'll spare you the remedies: they are inadequate on their face to what he describes, technocratic incremental "solutions" offered from on high. All this denies the agency of "middle class" people themselves. There's nary a mention of unions or organizing here. Our betters will discern what we ought to do and how we should live ...

Yet for all my quarrels with this article, I would urge anyone concerned with our current economic and social predicament to read it -- and we should all be very concerned. It's a great catalog of social observations and statistics that throw light on the depths we've sunk into while the very rich got richer over the last 30 years. For example:

A 2010 Pew study showed that the typical middle-class family had lost 23 percent of its wealth since the recession began, versus just 12 percent in the upper class. ... from 2007 through 2009, total employment in professional, managerial, and highly skilled technical positions was essentially unchanged. Jobs in low-skill service occupations such as food preparation, personal care, and house cleaning were also fairly stable.

Overwhelmingly, the recession has destroyed the jobs in between. Almost one of every 12 white-collar jobs in sales, administrative support, and nonmanagerial office work vanished in the first two years of the recession; one of every six blue-collar jobs in production, craft, repair, and machine operation did the same.

We tend to picture the decline of living wage jobs as being particularly deep in manufacturing and we're not wrong, but the reality is more complex than just that Chinese and Indian workers are now making goods for peanuts. Production of goods has simply changed, irrevocably.

... industry isn’t about to vanish from America, any more than agriculture did as the number of farm workers plummeted during the 20th century. As of 2010, the United States was the second-largest manufacturer in the world, and the No. 3 agricultural nation. But agriculture is now so mechanized that only about 2 percent of American workers make a living as farmers. American manufacturing looks to be heading down the same path. manufacturing jobs and semiskilled office positions disappear, much of this vast, nonprofessional middle class is drifting downward.

Factories don't need laboring people any more. More specifically, they don't employ men anymore:

The troubles of the nonprofessional middle class are inseparable from the economic troubles of men. Consistently, men without higher education have been the biggest losers in the economy’s long transformation ... One of the great puzzles of the past 30 years has been the way that men, as a group, have responded to the declining market for blue-collar jobs. Opportunities have expanded for college graduates over that span, and for nongraduates, jobs have proliferated within the service sector (at wages ranging from rock-bottom to middling). Yet in the main, men have pursued neither higher education nor service jobs. The proportion of young men with a bachelor’s degree today is about the same as it was in 1980.

As recently as 2001, U.S. manufacturing still employed about as many people as did health and educational services combined (roughly 16 million). But since then, those latter, female-dominated sectors have added about 4 million jobs, while manufacturing has lost about the same number. Men made no inroads into health care or education during the aughts; in 2009, they held only about one in four jobs in those rising sectors, just as they had at the beginning of the decade.

... In 1967, 97 percent of 30-to-50-year-old American men with only a high-school diploma were working; in 2010, just 76 percent were. Declining male employment is not unique to the United States. It’s been happening in almost all rich nations, as they’ve put the industrial age behind them. Weinberg’s research has shown that in occupations in which “people skills” are becoming more important, jobs are skewing toward women. ...

Not to surprisingly, the decline of male employment is playing hell with family life.

Women tend not to marry (or stay married to) jobless or economically insecure men -- though they do have children with them. And those children usually struggle when, as typically happens, their parents separate and their lives are unsettled. The Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has connected the loss of manufacturing jobs from inner cities in the 1970s—and the resulting economic struggles of inner-city men -- to many of the social ills that cropped up afterward. Those social ills eventually became self-reinforcing, passing from one generation to the next. In less privileged parts of the country, a larger, predominantly male underclass may now be forming, and with it, more-widespread cultural problems.

By the late 1990s, 37 percent of moderately educated [high school grad] couples were divorcing or separating less than 10 years into their first marriage, roughly the same rate as among couples who didn’t finish high school and more than three times that of college graduates. By the 2000s, the percentage in “very happy” marriages -- identical to that of college graduates in the 1970s -- was also nearing that of high-school dropouts.

Between 2006 and 2008, among moderately educated women, 44 percent of all births occurred outside marriage, not far off the rate (54 percent) among high-school dropouts; among college-educated women, that proportion was just 6 percent. The same pattern -- families of middle-class nonprofessionals now resembling those of high-school dropouts more than those of college graduates -- emerges with norm after norm: the percentage of 14-year-old girls living with both their mother and father; the percentage of adolescents wanting to attend college “very much”; the percentage of adolescents who say they’d be embarrassed if they got (or got someone) pregnant; the percentage of never-married young adults using birth control all the time.

White America used to decry the racially coded pathologies of the "underclass." What do you know? -- if white men without fancy college educations can't get and keep living wage jobs, their prospects begin to look like those of Black and brown men stuck in a racial ghetto. Large swathes of the population have been rendered essentially superfluous in the emerging capitalist post-industrial economy. That doesn't seem like a development that can be corrected by some tinkering around the edges. Nor do we yet have a picture of what might replace this unsustainable morass. But common sense says that the people who got us into this aren't likely to get us out of it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Saturday scenes and scenery: now that's hot!

There's a bit of New England folklore (that I've never found particularly accurate) asserting that, when the cows are sitting down, it means rain on the way.

close up wide!.jpg
But what does it mean when they take to a pond in which algae are in full bloom?

cows close!.jpg
Are they acting on some vestigial memory of ancestors that were more like African hippos or water buffaloes? Or did they just take a short cut to the other side?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Working women

Despite the dispiriting unemployment crisis, some women are working. Their lives are not romantic.

When the movie The Help opened this week, hundreds of thousands of viewers were swept up in the story of domestic workers struggling for dignity and respect in Civil Rights-era Mississippi. What those viewers might be surprised to learn is that across America, modern domestic workers are living out that struggle today. Learn more, and pledge to be there for today's "help" at National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Meanwhile, in factories across the world, women work in terrible conditions, subject to rape, torture and beatings. Listen to this Sri Lankan woman who came to Jordan to work in a factory and better her family. "That man destroyed me ..."

In the United States, the clothes these women sew are sold at Wal-Mart, Target, Macy’s, Kohl’s Lands’ End, and Hanes.

You can urge these companies to stop abuse of their workers by signing this petition.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

London riots

Someone who calls herself Penny Red writes about the British riots while listening to the violence come closer to her London flat:

It has become clear to the disenfranchised young people of Britain, who feel that they have no stake in society and nothing to lose, that they can do what they like tonight, and the police are utterly unable to stop them. That is what riots are all about.

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

No one expected this. ... The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong. And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. Let me give you a hint: it ain’t Twitter.

This seems highly believable to me -- though who can be sure from thousands of miles away in another country?

Unlike most younger white U.S. adults, I grew up with rioting. U.S. cities burned as the heat climbed, as reliably as summer came around each year during the latter part of the 1960s. As seems to be happening in Britain, mostly people burned their own neighborhoods, many of which have still not recovered. (This is a story told cogently in columnist Eugene Robinson's recent book on Black America.) Concurrently I saw (and ran within) what the media called "student riots" -- mostly protests that began peacefully, though some turned destructive when broken up by police force. I saw a man take birdshot in the back next to me as we tried to escape such a scene. When I went to graduate school to study modern European history, I remember a seminar that was discussing popular uprisings in 19th century cities -- there was a sharp divide in the room between our professors and most the students who had never seen street violence and the small number of us who had. Our experiences meant we saw the world differently.

Some of us knew, as Penny Red says that riots are about power and about catharsis.

Riots have remained part of my experience since. In 1979 there was the San Francisco White Night Riot touched off by lenient sentencing of the murderer of the city's mayor and first gay supervisor, a former cop. In 1992, when part of Los Angeles went up in smoke after the acquittal of policemen who beat Rodney King and were caught on video, I witnessed the smaller, gentler San Francisco sympathy riot. Just recently in 2009, Oakland protests against the shooting of unarmed Oscar Grant by a transit cop, again caught on video, resulted in what media called a riot soon after the fact. Police got some of their own back when the officer got a light sentence and a small band of protesters ran into a mass police pushback a year later.

Note there's a common factor in these events: police officers get off easy for killings that would get civilians locked up for life, if not executed. People feel they have nothing left to lose -- bingo, there's a riot.

But Penny Red gets at something more. Elites think they can do anything to people who lose all hope. That's just as true in the United States as in Britain. Eventually, something makes a spark. Then there will be a riot and no sophisticated surveillance systems and police preparations can entirely stop it.

Will rioting do anyone any good? Probably not. But when you've got nothing left to lose, who cares?
H/t open democracyfor leading me to Penny Red.

And for what it is worth, here's a link to the UK government's riot website. Yes, they are on top of things. They've put up a web page.