Monday, April 30, 2012

A victim of prosecutorial fantasy

It should not be possible, but these things happen. In 1986, a Texas jury convicted Michael Morton of killing his wife. The local sheriff and a prosecutor read a note he'd left to his wife on their bathroom mirror about their sexual problems and concluded he must be the perpetrator when Christine Morton was found murdered in their bed room. The note read:

"Chris, I know you didn't mean to, but you made me feel really unwanted last night. After a good meal, we came home, you binged on the rest of the cookies, then you farted and fell asleep. I'm not mad. I just wanted you to know how I feel without us getting into a fight about sex. Just think how you'd feel if you were left hanging on your birthday. I love you."

… Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson used [the note] to weave a sensational tale of unspeakable violence. In Anderson's version of the crime, Morton used a wooden club to viciously bludgeon his wife's head because she wouldn't have sex with him. Then, in triumph over her body, he pleasured himself. The mild-mannered pharmacy manager was transformed into a sexually sick, murderous psychopath. … none of it was true. Yet Anderson pounded his fists into his hands and wept to the jury as he described Morton's perversity.

At the same time, detectives ignored or withheld numerous bits of evidence that might have suggested Morton's innocence. Someone tried to use his dead wife's stolen credit card. The couple's four year old son described "a monster" coming into the house and killing his mommy. Police never bothered to collect a bloody bandana left behind the house.

Fortunately for Morton, he was sentenced to 25 years to life, not death. It took 25 years for lawyers to force the state to test the bandana for DNA, a test that turned up another suspect. Subsequently the District Attorney's files revealed the other bits of evidence exonerating Morton that had never been given to the defense. The man whose DNA showed up on the bandana had killed another woman nearby a year after Morton's wife. In their haste to convict the wrong man, authorities had let a real monster kill again.

This entire story was sensitively narrated by NPR's Scott Simon this Saturday. This 14 minute clip is absolute worth hearing in its entirety.

Yes, there are good reasons why it seems dangerous to allow the state to execute convicted criminals. What if the verdict is wrong? It can happen.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

If you thought #occupy was over, consider this

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In New York City, the tent city has been swept away (more than once, sometimes brutally). The discontented still march sporadically and perform street theater. But think about this:

As the more visible signs of the movement fade, with their encampments all but cleared from the country’s public spaces, the Occupy wonks have doubled down on their policy work behind the scenes. They’re slowly gaining attention for their efforts — not just from the news media, but also from the some of the financial rulemakers and gatekeepers they’re hoping to influence.

Most of the wonks in New York jumped into the movement like everyone else: They showed up at Zuccotti Park last fall, curious about the gathering, sympathetic to its cause and uncertain what would happen next. But as Occupy Wall Street evolved and branched off in different directions, they found themselves gravitating to the “working groups” that aimed to reform big finance from the inside out. And some saw an opportunity to make change in a very unlikely place: the regulatory process.

… Anyone is allowed to weigh in. But industry groups, lawyers and lobbyists issue an overwhelming number of formal comment letters to regulators, as they tend to have the most money, resources and technical expertise. The immense complexity of the Volcker Rule has proven daunting even to the country’s biggest banks and lobbying groups, which have devoted teams of lawyers and number-crunchers to puzzle out its impact on the industry. Occupy the SEC aims to be a counterweight to this deep-pocketed lobbying push. ...

These folks apparently are doing the drudgery of understanding the complexities of Congress' inadequate "financial reform" and influencing the process to make the new law begin to do its job. This is not everything we might want, but they've decided there's something to be done for the 99 percent by digging into the weeds. Go read the whole thing!

When I came up in progressive politics, we didn't do things like that. When we perceived injustice, we confronted the politicians and promised to keep afflicting them until they fixed it. We thought it was their job to come up with more just policies. Our job was to keep the pressure on. We were usually distrustful of any of our number who appeared to be making the transition from outsider to expert. We won some and we lost some.

Maybe I've mellowed excessively, but I'm glad some of the Occupiers have decided they have to demonstrate the same mastery of policies as their opponents. Now, if those folks can just remember that they still need the hordes outside to keep the pressure on -- and if the hordes of us who are the ordinary shock troops of progressive movements can give some of our number space to learn the ins and outs of how we get screwed, we just might get something done -- together.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday critter blogging

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Once there was just Nuzzle. Then there was a parade of different breeds of sheep.

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I wonder, are they like dogs, sniffing the butts of the one in front?

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Some sheep look impassive; others have amazing horns.

Naturally there's herding dog to keep them moving.

The sheep and their companions (the dog and the knitter) have gone off to be among their people, the spinners and weavers. I miss them.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

More on those TV campaign ads

Federal broadcast law requires TV stations to make available records of who buys campaign ads, for how much, and how often they air. But it only requires the stations to allow examination of paper records at their offices during business offices. This is not information that politicians, political consultants, and/or broadcasters divulge happily.

The non-profit investigative journalism outfit ProPublica has been encouraging student reporters and others to test how local outlets comply with the law. The stations are mighty reluctant. In Cleveland, three of four broadcasters refused a student TV crew's request to film their attempt to look at files. Moreover,

the stations also said copying the documents would cost 50 cents per page (over four times what FedEx Office charges), so the students couldn't afford to copy them all.

ProPublica is looking for volunteers to join the "Free the Files" project. "You do not need to be part of an organization or university to participate." Sign up here.

UPDATE: The FCC has voted to require stations to post ad purchase records to a national database, though only as .pdf files. And not for all stations this year. But there is progress toward transparency.

Just for fun, here's what one of my ancestors might have run if he'd had TV available for campaign spots in 1800.

In real life, lacking television, Thomas Jefferson paid newspapers and individual writers to tell wild lies about the incumbent Adams. Adams' party thought these "subversives" should be jailed. But they and their candidate lost out in the court of last resort -- public opinion -- and democracy survived and free speech thrived.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Taking the streets

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The 99 percent were on the streets of San Francisco today, greeting the shareholders of Wells Fargo Bank and its $19 million a year chairman John Stumpf. Here's the Chronicle report. My friend the Rev. Gloria Del Castillo is quoted:

"After banking with Wells Fargo for decades and having a great credit score, I asked them for a loan modification so I could stay in my home," she said. "Wells Fargo denied it."

She said she was praying for the bank's shareholders and executive officers.

"What affects one affects us all," Del Castillo said. "If we don't act like that, we will all suffer."

A lot of "all of us" were represented in actions that took much of the day: organized tenants, clergy, unions, Occupy stalwarts, and the usual lunch time crowd, attracted by spectacle and sun.

Here are a few random photos from a quick walk through the scene.
Bet the police got a lot of overtime for this day. Bet they sometimes felt silly in all that armor, also.

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Big aspirations for this movement …

and much marching about.

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Customers had to find another ATM machine today.

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Police barricades and locked wrists can really gum up a business district.

Warming Wednesdays: Trees?

This is another of those phenomena of our culture that I never would have known about if I hadn't been locked down in a dentist's chair for two hours, trying to distract myself by watching "Dr. Phil" on the overhead TV. I couldn't find that clip, but here, from CNN, is an introduction to the young man I encountered that day. Meet Felix Finkbeiner.

We want to know, why isn't there more action?

I don't know whether tree planting can save us from the results of our profligate burning of fossil fuels, but I know I like Felix. We could do worse than to follow his lead.

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, April 24, 2012

The coming TV campaign

The fall football schedule has been released -- so I know when I'll be watching those 49ers this fall (at least those days I'm not busting my butt on the campaign.)

And as we go into the guts of the presidential season, we can also have a pretty clear idea what we'll be seeing along with football -- lots of Republican political ads. A recent article passed along some interesting insights about which ads will show up on which shows:

Television is inherently problematic for Republicans. “The average TV show will deliver 15-25% more Democrats compared to Republicans,” according to Feltus. Republican spending on positive commercials wastes money because, on average, many more Democrats will be watching. There are, however, specific shows that are more Republican than Democratic in their viewership – which is one of the reasons that detailed data on the partisanship of people who watch individual shows is particularly valuable to Republicans seeking to spend money wisely.

The top-ten Republican-tilted shows are “The Office,” “Rules of Engagement,” “The Mentalist,” “New Yankee Workshop,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Castle,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Dancing With The Stars,” “The Biggest Loser,” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” The top ten most Democratic-leaning shows are “Washington Week,” “Tavis Smiley,” “Late Show with David Letterman,” “The View,” “PBS NewsHour,” “NOW” on PBS, “House of Payne,” “ABC World News Now,” “60 Minutes” and “Insider Weekend.” [Are we Dems really as grimly earnest as these preferences make us seem? Or have we massively given up on TV?]

…If the purpose of advertising is to reinforce commitments among voters likely to turn out – a strategy behind much last-minute media spending – Republicans have the edge. If, conversely, the goal is to mobilize sympathetic but not well-motivated constituencies – often the strategy behind early and mid-election spending – Democrats have the advantage because the data from nanotargeting provides a means to activate low-turnout pro-Democratic groups. …

…The television spending strategies of Obama and Mitt Romney will emerge as the campaign progresses. Given the highly polarized character of the electorate this year, both sides are likely to spend most heavily on their own base voters, seeking to get them to the polls, so that a viewer of “30 Rock,” for example, is unlikely to see any Republican ads, while a professional football enthusiast won’t see many Democratic ads. In effect, both sides will lay out megabucks preaching to the choir.

Oh heck -- you mean I'll be getting Republican ads with my football?

If the Romney campaign follows the pattern of his past electoral runs (according to The Real Romney about which more when I finish reading it) and the primary season, he can be expected to try to bury Obama in negative TV. He'll have the money; there are plenty of Republican sugar daddies as well as ordinary self-interested fat cats eager for the most cooperative president their money can buy. (For what it is worth, in February, Romney had raised 91 percent of his take in contributions od over $200 while Obama had brought in 47% from the small fry.)

It remains an open question whether all that Republican TV some of us will see, especially in contested states, will make much difference. Maybe football will bring the audience back, but this spring it looks as if broadcast and cable TV audiences were collapsing.

In the four television weeks starting March 19, NBC lost an average of 59,000 viewers (about 3 percent) in that 18-to-49 age category compared with the same period last year, CBS lost 239,000 (8 percent), ABC lost 681,000 (21 percent) and Fox lost 709,000 (20 percent). In the last few weeks, new viewership lows for network series have been recorded nightly among 18- to 49-year-olds, the group that still commands the highest advertising prices.

New York Times, 4/23/12

Monday, April 23, 2012

All together now! #Estamos Unidos!

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As the Supreme Court deliberates on Arizona's anti-immigrant law (SB 1070), a small determined band are making their way across the country on a bus, speaking up for the Constitutional rights of all people.

At 24th and Mission Streets yesterday morning, they were collecting signatures on their petition to President Obama. You can sign it yourself here.

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A young woman who has worked to pass the DREAM Act spoke out …

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as did one of the domestic workers from the house cleaning coop, La Colectiva.

Their cause was popular this sunny Sunday morning.

The van will carry the campaigners across the country speaking out and gathering signatures along the way.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Was Jesus gay?

Writing in the Guardian, UK, Paul Oestreicher suggested Jesus was gay.

Jesus was a Hebrew rabbi. Unusually, he was unmarried. The idea that he had a romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene is the stuff of fiction, based on no biblical evidence. The evidence, on the other hand, that he may have been what we today call gay is very strong. But even gay rights campaigners in the church have been reluctant to suggest it. A significant exception was Hugh Montefiore, bishop of Birmingham and a convert from a prominent Jewish family. He dared to suggest that possibility and was met with disdain, as though he were simply out to shock.

After much reflection and with certainly no wish to shock, I felt I was left with no option but to suggest, for the first time in half a century of my Anglican priesthood, that Jesus may well have been homosexual. Had he been devoid of sexuality, he would not have been truly human. To believe that would be heretical.

Heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual: Jesus could have been any of these. There can be no certainty which. The homosexual option simply seems the most likely. The intimate relationship with the beloved disciple points in that direction. It would be so interpreted in any person today. Although there is no rabbinic tradition of celibacy, Jesus could well have chosen to refrain from sexual activity, whether he was gay or not. Many Christians will wish to assume it, but I see no theological need to. The physical expression of faithful love is godly. To suggest otherwise is to buy into a kind of puritanism that has long tainted the churches.

Well, maybe. My wise partner says:

Nah ... Jesus was intersex.

The death penalty is being rewritten from coast to coast

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The death penalty has been a "colossal failure." Donald Heller told the New York Times of California's 34 year experience under the law that he wrote.

O'Donnell: "Do you really think it is okay to lay off school teachers so the state can afford to kill people?"

A last word from Lawrence O'Donnell. Terrific clip.

Get involved.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday scenes: heart of San Francisco

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Not long ago, someone painted a heart on a building down the street.

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Not long after, someone added their own caption.

Our relationship to the streets is interactive.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Pink or Blue?

Okay, most all of us hate those stupid TSA "security" lines and intrusive searches that have become part of flying since 9/11. Most of us know this rigamarole is not really about keeping us safe. It is some kind of crazy mixture of jobs program for the 58,401 (Wikipedia) TSA employees, reminder from the government that we should huddle in fear and surrender all rights and dignity, and precaution against brain dead malcontents too dumb to evade our ham-handed "protectors."

But have you ever thought about what it would be like to try to fly if the gender on your birth certificate didn't match the gender your appearance presents to the world? I do think about this, though not a lot. I'm an old lady who has frequently been (mis)taken for male most of my life and I'm used to embarrassed apologies from people who've assigned me the wrong gender. I know the look when they realize they goofed when they called me "Sir." Most folks who make this mistake are more uncomfortable about it than I am.

But think what it might be like if you were transgendered, perhaps in the midst of transitioning, trying to find your way into the gender that you feel is you and you had to deal with "screening." Alissa Bohling has published a terrific article about this situation. Some bits:
Because gender has become one of the first markers in the technology-centric race for body-based data - known as "biometrics" in surveillance-speak - transgender and gender non-conforming people have been some of the first and most directly affected. …

Transgender people's experiences vary as widely as the human mind and body, but trans communities have mapped out some common ground in language, experience and even documents such as the Transgender Law Center's (TLC) fact sheet Trans 101. The title might be considered a nod to the ad hoc teaching gig some trans people are thrust into simply by virtue of their identities - Is that your real name? Did you have a sex change? Why should I let you onto this flight? - and for a two-page crash course, it goes a long way in dispelling gendered assumptions that underlie security measures like body scanners and Secure Flight. …

Millimeter wave machines are designed to locate any "anomalies" on a traveler's person and superimpose them onto a generic image of a human form, leaving the traveler's body on the safe side of the digital curtain. But before someone sets foot inside a millimeter wave machine, security staff must press one of two color-coded start buttons: pink for women, blue for men. ...
Yeah, even the machines get into the act of trying to pigeonhole people by gender -- and therefore highlight that gender is not as binary as many would like to assume. Go read the whole thing. It's mind-opening.

Photo by Elaine Thompson / AP

Friday cat blogging: meet Chucho

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Our lives are not graced by the company of a cat at present. But our friends are luckier.

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We have a friend who is more fortunate.

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Chucho was quite tolerant of the visitor holding that thing up to his face.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why bother to support the current imperfect Democrat?

Now there's a hardy perennial question for a presidential season. For people of the democratic left, Democratic champions can be trusted, above all, to disappoint.

Political scientist and pundit Jonathan Bernstein takes a stab at it:

Supporting a candidate who you know will let you down is a lot harder than supporting one who you can pretend will be perfect if the impossible happened and she was elected, or just sitting out the election entirely because neither candidate measures up. It may take some courage to support someone despite important, serious, substantive reservations. It is, however, what needs to be done in a democracy.

That certainly doesn’t mean anyone should support imperfect candidates uncritically – and in a complex democracy such as the United States, there’s nothing at all wrong with choosing to focus one’s energies where it will make the most difference, which is not always the presidential contest. But to pretend that the president makes no difference is just as bad a mistake as to believe he is all-powerful, and to pretend that substantive differences that will affect millions of lives are meaningless is even worse.

I agree while feeling far more distress than a "serious" guy like Bernstein would ever admit to. Barack Obama is a very unsatisfactory president if, as I do, you think the United States should get over our addiction to acting as the world's policeman and, a corollary, building a global panopticon where everyone is subject to the arbitrary surveillance of the security state. I have important, serious, substantive reservations about the guy and the direction in which he is leading the country.

But I do still believe in democracy itself -- not as a perfect system nor certainly as delivering perfect results -- but as preferable to any alternative yet envisioned by any human society. So, as long as we have it, playing the democracy game seems the right way to go.

This year I'm focusing my energies elsewhere, trying to increase the sum total of civilization in our polity, if only by a smidgen. What I won't do is give up on the struggle.

H/t to Dohiyi Mir for the Bernstein article.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: you can't fool all the people all the time

... when people were asked whether they attributed specific events to global warming, recent heat waves drew the largest majorities. Scientists say their statistical evidence for an increase of weather extremes is indeed strongest when it comes to heat waves.

Asked whether they agreed or disagreed that global warming had contributed to the unusually warm winter just past, 25 percent of the respondents said they strongly agreed that it had, and 47 percent said they somewhat agreed. Only 17 percent somewhat disagreed, and 11 percent strongly disagreed.

New York Times, 4-18-12

After a while, people start believing the evidence of their senses.

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.

This has got to stop ...

The Los Angeles Times has been given photos of U.S. troops posing with the body parts of dismembered Afghans.

The soldier who provided The Times with a series of 18 photos of soldiers posing with corpses did so on condition of anonymity. He served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne's 4th Brigade Combat Team from Ft. Bragg, N.C. He said the photos point to a breakdown in leadership and discipline that he believed compromised the safety of the troops.

He expressed the hope that publication would help ensure that alleged security shortcomings at two U.S. bases in Afghanistan in 2010 were not repeated. The brigade, under new command but with some of the same paratroopers who served in 2010, began another tour in Afghanistan in February.

This is what happens when we send troops, over and over, to kill and be killed in a war whose goals and objectives have never been clarified by our political leaders. Firepower, anger and frustration are a bad mix.

Yesterday, when announcing that Australia would be drawing down its contingent in Afghanistan ahead of the U.S. schedule, Prime Minister Julia Gilliard used a telling phrase:

“the peoples of the world’s democracies are weary of this war.”

The peoples are weary; the soldiers are weary; the Afghans are the most weary of all. Just stop it!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A likeable couple in an impossible place

To my surprise, I greatly enjoyed New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor's The Obamas. This book about the Obama White House and the Obama marriage is my idea of light, enjoyable political reading.

Kantor's male Times colleague called this "chick nonfiction." Okay, it does have a woman's sensibility; what's wrong with that? People in politics are particular humans as well as celebrity creations sculpted by their pollsters and consultants. There's nothing wrong with trying to record the process of brilliant, tough, determined people trying to live into impossible roles. Kantor is just doing the same sort of human reportage that Walter Shapiro provided in One Car Caravan -- that tale is a fine male spiel and this is a fine women's yarn.

As a political history, The Obamas has some major omissions and what I consider errors. It's point of reference simply erases the Democratic Party's left constituencies (except Blacks) -- from this book, you'd never know that masses of people rose up in 2006 and 2008, alienated by President George W. Bush's Iraq war, mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, partisan corruption, and executive overreach. In the Obama-world portrayed by Kantor, Rahm Emmanuel cleverly and single-handedly won Congressional power for the Democrats in 2006 and Obama's campaign was entirely the product of his handlers' brilliance. Thousands of Democratic activists know better.

The only constituency segment that Kantor treats as a real factor in Barack Obama's rise is the Black community. Perhaps this reflects the attitude of the White House intimates? I'm not qualified to judge how accurate an observer Kantor is, but I sense truth in her portrayal of the isolation of African Americans who had achieved such a pinnacle of meritocratic success. No wonder that both Michele and Barack seemed to take awhile to find their selves in that oh-so-White mansion, built by slaves and tended by mostly Black servants.

Yet for all the book's obliviousness to the populist element in the Obamas' story, Kantor provides a telling vignette I've never seen elsewhere. Like many of us who put Obama in office, my greatest disappointment with this president arises from his failure to replace Bush's unconstrained, lawless "security" regime with the constraints of law and due process. She records this story of an Obama meeting with civil liberties lawyers in the spring of 2009:

After four months in office, it was becoming clear to him that the visions with which he had inspired millions upon millions of people during the campaign were going to be very difficult to achieve ….Obama had vowed to end Bush·era detention policies and close the Guantanamo prison, which years after the September 11 attacks still held untried terrorist suspects. Contrary to conservatives who argued that the United States could not worry about legal niceties when dealing with dire threats, Obama had declared, even after being sworn in, that there was no conflict between security and liberty. It was a classic Obama statement, following the same theme as his 2004 convention speech about red and blue America: once again, he was promising to resolve what seemed to be irresolvable.

He wasn't saying that anymore. The one-year deadline he had set for closing Guantanamo was still months away, but it was already clear he would not meet it. He had made that promise before administration officials read the classified files on the detainees, which showed that many of the cases would be much harder to resolve than he had anticipated. Congress certainly wasn't cooperating with the initiative to shut down the facility, even voting to deny funds for alternatives; no one wanted suspected terrorists housed in prisons in their states. Meanwhile, on a host of related matters such as releasing photos depicting detainee abuse, the administration seemed to be echoing Bush policies or adopting them with slight revisions. Obama shared little of the left's interest in prosecuting the former officials who had sanctioned policies such as "enhanced interrogation techniques," including methods denounced as torture, because it could criminalize those vital to counterterrorism efforts. …

He shared their constitutional concerns, he said, but Bush had left him a mess. Releasing the wrong detainee could result in new terrorist attacks, he said, and none of his options were comfortable ones. He urged his visitors not to overlook distinctions between Bush's policies and his own-for example, his ban on harsh interrogation techniques and the modifications he made to the military tribunal system set up by the former president.

… His face emotionless, he told his guests that he was considering an indefinite detention policy, allowing authorities to hold certain suspects without charges. It was an "oh my god moment," one guest said later. The legal rule was so basic, everyone knew it: suspects were innocent until proven guilty, entitled to speedy and fair trials. For a Republican president to violate the rule in the wake of a national catastrophe was galling to the guests. But for a Democratic president, a former constitutional law professor who had campaigned on protecting civil liberties, to make it official policy was shocking.

Before the gathering, the visitors had decided not to confront the president, for fear that leveling accusations at him would backfire. But Anthony Romero, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union, was deeply upset by what he heard.

"Mr. President," he began, eyes fixed on Obama, "I am a gay Puerto Rican American from the Bronx. In my entire life, you are the only politician in whom I have placed genuine faith. If you proceed the way you're indicating, I fear you will sacrifice your legacy and disappoint a generation." It was a well-crafted shot, aimed directly at Obama's belief that he was not like other politicians, at the fact that he had been elected because of the faith he inspired in others.

The president reacted viscerally, the attendees recalled. His jaw clenched, and so did the rest of his body. "Tony," he said, even though Romero went by Anthony, and launched into a reply about how he was doing the best he could, adding that ACLU statements comparing his administration to Bush's simply were not helpful. It wasn't the only time Obama snapped back defensively when confronted with supporters' disappointment. … The encounter ran far over its allotted one-hour time period, unusual for the Obama WhiteHouse. The president asked if anyone else had an urgent point to make before the gathering broke up. Romero urged Obama one last time to prosecute a Bush official. "Hunt one head and hunt it famously and bring it down to ensure we don't make the same mistakes again," he said.

"That's one man's perspective," Obama said dismissively, and the meeting was over.

When push came to shove, reinstating basic civil liberties was a project that Barack Obama couldn't rise to. In another passage, I think echoing how the White House approaches governing, Kantor writes that after Major Nidal Hassan's killing spree at Fort Hood (13 dead; 29 injured)

… the nightmare of regular domestic terrorism attacks seemed more and more likely, which sent tremors through the entire West Wing not just its political precincts: there was no higher presidential priority than keeping the United States safe.

My emphasis. So long as presidents let themselves be held in thrall by the occasional eruptions of mad men, this country hasn't got a chance of turning its attention to our vital problems. A mature country would catch terrorists and jail them, of course, but it would carry on. We need a mature President who can lead us in a grown-up direction. So far, we don't have one.

Kantor's book vividly describes an inexperienced executive and his uncomfortable spouse growing into their roles. He was unformed and she was uncertain when they moved into the White House. But by now they seem to have figured it out.

Kantor describes Michele as demanding a more disciplined, more strategic and more political approach to the Presidency than her policy-obsessed and oddly apolitical husband instinctively adopted. He sought expert management of a country in economic crisis and partisan division; smart people should be able to work out their differences. Michele, like many of the President's supporters, wanted him to find a better mix of policy and politics, perhaps even show a recognition that smart politics too was part of his project. She wanted him to find a way to transform the country in a more just direction, not just manage a cumbersome ship of state. Or so this author repeatedly asserts.

Kantor closes with an almost wistful anecdote from the dismal end of the failing 2010 midterm campaign. Michele was making a political pitch:

My husband could not do it alone, she declared, speaking for herself and for them. Like her, the audience had no choice. "Yes, we must," she said, instead of the familiar "yes, we can." "Get to work!" she called into the autumnal darkness by way of good-bye. ..

… In other words, would Obama finally start acting -- in the most necessary and overdue way -- like a politician?

As he fights for re-election, the President is acting like a politician these days, calling out the other guys for coddling the wealthy while making war on women. That's a President who sounds again like the guy who gave us hope in 2008. It is imperative to re-elect him, for all his failings -- the other guy is a conservative plutocrat who has lent himself to the right's project of erasing the 20th century.

But who will Barack Obama be if he wins a second term? Has he learned to mesh the best impulses of both Obamas with their impossible situation? The Obamas offers some insights, a very mixed bag. This book is far more than a puff piece and a terrific read.

Monday, April 16, 2012

In honor of tax season ...

Here's the real scoop about how the economy works -- from an Occupy Wall Street protester.

An unemployed engineer explains the current tax system, and debunks the myth of cutting taxes to create jobs.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Lightning bolts and acts of man

A friend passed along this photo of the dramatic turbulence that swept through the San Francisco Bay Area last Thursday. I haven't been able to find out who should be credited for this amazing image.

But I sure recognize the storm. I was driving across the Bay and into the hills on the east side as this broke. It was terrifying. My four wheel drive vehicle was a godsend as we plowed through sudden flooding amid the flashes. According to the SF Chronicle:

Bolts hit the Transamerica Pyramid, towers on the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge, the giant container cranes at the Port of Oakland and an airplane that had just taken off from San Francisco International Airport for London.

But the most amazing story from this storm comes over on the east side of the Bay, from the Contra Costa Times.

MOUNT DIABLO -- A lightning bolt ricochet hit two campers huddled in their tent on Mount Diablo on Thursday night, burning holes in the tent and shaking the brothers but not stirring them from their campsite.

The Oakland men told park rangers they each had temporary numbness in part of their body -- one in the leg and one in the shoulder -- and one had a rash consistent with burn symptoms.

Despite torrential rain and the lightning scare, the brothers told a park official they planned to stay on top of the mountain Friday night as well.

While they were lucky to miss a direct hit from the lightning bolt that sheared off a water spigot 40 feet from their tent, then careened into their shelter, that's where the good luck stopped.

Alfred Janske, 59, and his disabled brother George Janske, 57, moved into the campground a week ago. They said they have been without a permanent home since their childhood home in Oakland was foreclosed on in March.

The tent that now shelters them and their three dogs has two holes where the electric current surged to strike two metal objects inside.

"We're camping because we don't have anywhere else to go," said Alfred Janske, an unemployed accountant. …

You can read it all at the link. The Lesser Depression is not over.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Uneasy co-existence

I am not an urban cyclist. I wish I were, but replacing the car with the bike just doesn't work for me. In part this is because my primary use for a car is as a locker room: I drive to the city's green places; dump jacket and keys in the bowels of the car; and run long miles on foot, secure in knowing I'll have clothes to come back to.

But also, I'm simply scared of riding in traffic. My brave commuter partner has had two injurious bike accidents while riding to work. Cars too often treat riders as so much lint to be brushed off -- and every once in a while, a rider runs down a walker. It's a jungle out there.

I've seen Amsterdam. Cycling works as transportation there because the bikes and the cars have separate lanes. We're just beginning to get some of those here.
re-striped GGP.jpg
Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park is currently being re-striped so as put a bike lane along the curb, separated from traffic by striping. Parked cars sit well away from the street's margin. In the photo, the car on the right is legally parked in the new parking strip. It looks lonely in the early dawn, but when the strip fills up, the parked vehicles form a barrier protecting cycles.

gas pump.JPG
Some of the more difficult conflicts between bikes and cars happen when drivers are pulling in or out of locations adjacent to roadways. Drivers need to learn they may be crossing a striped lane reserved for bicycles. Here's a sign on a gas pump near the park explaining the right and wrong way for drivers to enter the gas station safely.

Additional bike use is going to require a mix of smart design and more considerate riders and drivers. As more people ride in cities, we're developing more of both.

Friday, April 13, 2012

We know what "works" to reduce poverty

My friend Catherine Cusic passed along some additional observations after reading last's Tuesday's post on the working poor.

Not only do poor people survive, one way or another, by working -- but government programs like Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty "work" to help people escape poverty. Econogeeks explain this various ways. Here's Matt Yglesias:

You can see two clear trends here. One is that macroeconomic performance makes a big difference. From 1982 on to the end of the Reagan administration, the poverty rate declined steadily in lockstep with economic growth until along came a new recession.

The other is that policy makes a big difference. During the years of the post-war liberal consensus, poverty went down a lot. And during the Reagan years, poverty never plumbed the depths seen in the seventies or in the Clinton years. And the cause of this relatively high poverty rate even during the Reagan growth years is precisely that Reagan believed the war on poverty had been a failure and did nothing to promote anti-poverty policies.

Ezra Klein put it more directly:

… the "war on poverty" might have failed to kill poverty, but it did a pretty good job wounding it. In 1959, 22.1 percent of Americans were beneath the poverty line. By 1973, 11.1 percent of Americans were impoverished. Medicaid has vastly increased access to health care among the poor. Head Start has done quite a bit to help children born into low-income households.

Catherine lived it:

It is always good to point out the big lie that the "war on poverty failed." In fact it was a great success where applied. Yet whenever any program is proposed for improving the lives of poor people, the halls of congress are filled with howls about how "throwing money at poverty never works. The war on poverty was a failure." All a lie.

I want to add my own personal story. In 1966 I had a 2 year old, a little over a year of college (which, as it was U.C. and then free, I had been able to fund myself.) I wanted to return to college and could have probably done so if I had no dependents. I lived in Watsonville, CA, a rural and very poor area (with the exception of wealthy growers).

What was the miracle that got me back in school? FREE, QUALITY GOVERNMENT FUNDED CHILD CARE! Yes, in Watsonville.

This was the same thing that helped the U.S. be a deciding force in World War II. When you see Rosie the Riveter have you ever wondered about the Rosies that had children? Where were their children? -- they were in Free Child Care! Here is one of those Rosies -- my mother! We know that the greatest predictor for poverty is to be a single mother. Time to start raising the issue of child care, not only for the earning power of the parents but for the health and educational benefits for their children

mom (Trish Cantrell) WWII.jpeg

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Could you live on $2 a day?

Do we really have any notion what it means that, during the current economic doldrums, the remnants of welfare that survived the "reform" of the 1990s have actually contracted? Following up on Tuesday's discussion of welfare, I came across this:

… The share of households living on less than $2 a day has doubled to 4 percent since the passage of welfare reform, according to a study by Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin of Harvard.

Which is all to say that cuts are cuts. Faced with welfare reform, states didn’t do more with less. They did less with less. Fewer people are getting help through welfare and much of the money intended for them is being diverted to plug unrelated holes in state budgets. “Somebody has to eat it,” says Ron Haskins, who helped Republicans draft the 1996 welfare reform law. “Someone’s risk has to increase. The federal government, the state government or the people who get the benefit in the future.”

Ezra Klein

And we know who is hurting worst -- the people who needed help the most. Would you want to live on $2 a day?

Trying to think about that question, I went looking for some idea what most of us spend a day. According to the Gallup organization:

Self-reported spending averaged $63 per day in February '12

Actually, if we made less than $90,000 a year (and well over half of us do) we had average spending of $55 a day, but spending by the rich lifted the average.

I agree with Paul Krugman:

It takes a monumental inability to imagine other peoples’ lives to blithely praise welfare reform’s results at a time like this.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: the 2012 elections and overcoming inertia

… a projection from 1981 for rising temperatures in a major science journal, at a time that the temperature rise was not yet obvious in the observations, has been found to agree well with the observations since then...Real Climate

It's not as if he's pushing some novel notions. RickyRood at his Weather UnderGround Climate Change blog casts a jaundiced eye on the prospects for a serious discussion of our growing peril in the 2012 campaigns.

Looking at the political landscape, climate change has fallen from the political discussion; it is a subject that cannot be talked about. … we have to talk about management of the climate if we are to address the problems of human-caused global warming. … As a strategy, addressing issues of clean energy, energy independence and energy security are more politically pragmatic than addressing issues of climate change. They offer a path towards addressing climate change; they are part of the best-we-can-do-at-this-time strategy. However, our inability to actually talk about solving the climate change problem means that we will not address the problem; we will elevate our risks; we will continue to impact negatively our economic and technological competitiveness. …

[We are seeing] the stunning inefficiency and ineffectiveness of our politically based determination of priorities in the development of knowledge-based environmental policy. We look knowledge in the face and deny its existence. We make our convenient arguments for the need for more research in the ill-posed pursuit of the illusive final facts. We fall into the diversion-motivated process of always asking for the next piece of information in what can be a never ending series of information discovery.

I found the October/November 1969 Technology Review in a box of Space-Age memorabilia I packed up from childhood. This issue was entitled “Man Among the Planets,” and the first article was “The Modification of the Planet Earth by Man,” by Gordon J. F. MacDonald. MacDonald in 1969 argued that we had already altered the planet, and that changes produced by humans were already at the scale “caused by nature.” He warned that we needed to do research into large-scale, man-made, and inadvertent changes to our environment. He called for the development of climate prediction.

Since 1969 we have taken the observations, we have developed the theory, and we have determined unequivocally that the Earth has warmed and that we the fuel-using people are the primary reason of the warming. As MacDonald called for in 1969, we have placed a lot of emphasis on climate and environmental research, and the results of that research have provided actionable information – knowledge. We look at that knowledge in eye and, as a society, we deny it. We look away. Perhaps, if we look away then it is not really there.

But though the national scene remains dismal, it's worth noting that California lawmakers have taken a different path.

California, long America’s environmental trendsetter, is about to push the envelope once again. On May 1, the state will hear from some of the nation’s largest insurance companies about the financial risks climate change poses, not only to the companies but also to their customers and investors. Some 300 firms, representing the vast majority of the U.S. insurance industry, are expected to reply to a survey that includes such questions as “how do you account for climate change in your risk management?” and “has the company altered its investment strategy in response to [climate change]?”

… [Dave] Jones [the California insurance commissioner] emphasized that the survey is “not prescriptive.” But analysts predicted the exercise “will inevitably cause the [insurance] industry to do things differently,” in the words of Andrew Logan of Ceres, a group of investors and NGOs that helped develop the survey. “What [insurance companies] choose to cover and not to cover, and what they invest in, has great influence over individual and corporate behavior.”

That is, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Can't persuade capitalists and other citizens to attend to a consensus of scientific opinion? Make them calculate their own material risks and watch them jump.

The issue then becomes, who pays for society wide efforts to mitigate the harm of climate change? That's the discussion the political class is shirking and seems unable to approach. It behooves all of us to demand it now, as it will only be harder later.

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, April 10, 2012

Worth calling attention to ...

Micah Cohen offers a "living autopsy" of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul's campaign for the Republican presidential spot, finding that Paul has "far exceeded the accomplishments of his 2008 campaign."

One reason: his opposition to the Afghanistan war. Paul is the only politician getting air time who opposes this imperial adventure. And in this if nothing else, he's go the people on his side.

Too bad the preferences of the majority of us are only spoken by a guy who is a rather nasty racist kook.

Guess what? Poor people work

It takes tremendous, disciplined effort to survive destitution; people work hard at it. In a significant article in the Times, Jason DeParle described how people thrown off public assistance by the 1996 "welfare reforms" -- initiated by Republicans and colluded in by Democrats -- keep themselves alive, mostly outside the consciousness of most of us.

Asked how they survived without cash aid, virtually all of the women interviewed here said they had sold food stamps, getting 50 cents for every dollar of groceries they let others buy with their benefit cards. Many turned to food banks and churches. Nationally, roughly a quarter have subsidized housing, with rents as low as $50 a month.

Several women said the loss of aid had left them more dependent on troubled boyfriends. One woman said she sold her child’s Social Security number so a relative could collect a tax credit worth $3,000.

“I tried to sell blood, but they told me I was anemic,” she said.

Several women acknowledged that they had resorted to shoplifting, including one who took orders for brand-name clothes and sold them for half-price. Asked how she got cash, one woman said flatly, “We rob wetbacks” — illegal immigrants, who tend to carry cash and avoid the police. At least nine times, she said, she has flirted with men and led them toward her home, where accomplices robbed them.

“I felt bad afterwards,” she said. But she added, “There were times when we didn’t have nothing to eat.”

One family ruled out crime and rummaged through trash cans instead. The mother, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, could not get aid for herself but received $164 a month for her four American-born children until their time limit expired. Distraught at losing her only steady source of cash, she asked the children if they would be ashamed to help her collect discarded cans. …

I see the can scavengers every Thursday night when I put out our recycling bin. They are just part of the urban economy.

This is what we get when the "survival of the fittest" crowd (of both political parties) make public policy. The very poor don't vote; you can do anything to them to keep life chugging along merrily for the one percent. "Welfare reform" -- pushing the poorest off government assistance and out of sight -- is deemed a great success. The poor are working too hard to pose any threat to their masters.

It is not that no one knew this would happen when cash welfare was destroyed in 1996. DeParle goes back and interviews Peter Edelman who quit the Clinton Administration in horror over its acquiescence in this Republican initiative. Like having been right about the immoral folly of the Iraq war or the housing bubble at the Wall Street casino, this prescience gets those who showed it little applause in retrospect.

Our "leaders" might do what they did to the very poor to any of us if we let them. We mustn't any of us ever forget that.

Monday, April 09, 2012

American Christianities

The historian Garry Wills describes U.S. religious history as a tale of oscillation and interplay between "force fields" broadly characterized as an intellectual Enlightenment and emotional Evangelicalism; Head and Heart: American Christianities lays out that story in a series of episodes. It's an interesting, somewhat uneven book. It is what I've called tendentious history, very much in conversation with the moment of its writing. That was the middle of the Bush II presidency when Karl Rove was manipulating the Religious Right as a means of taking power for his candidate and conservatism generally. The fact I cannot read this book apart from that moment which so evidently birthed it is not a criticism; none of us are ever fully apart from our contexts and our embedded consciousness of our present. The issues it casts the light of the past upon are clearly still with us, as the presumptive Republican nominee has spent months trying to make and remake himself to satisfy one of those religious poles.

I found Wills' explication of my intolerant Puritan ancestors' virtues and vices very illuminating. Looking at these highly educated and completely superstitious divines from a Catholic perspective, he points out something that I'd not previously understood.

The early settlers of New England faced many foes, visible and invisible. These enemies were leagued with one another against God and against his chosen people. This made for high spiritual drama in their lives, an exciting drama but also a terrifying one. Like Protestants everywhere, they faced this struggle in an almost naked state, stripped of many of the protections that their medieval forebears had worn. … Roman Catholic practice had supplied believers with many shields against devils and their evil power -- guardian angels, patron saints, exorcism, sacramental confession, holy water, priestly blessings, crucifixes and other sacred images. Protestant believers had rejected all of these as superstitions, but had retained the dark magic they were meant to counter.

No wonder these folks ended up hunting -- and burning -- witches, literally. Religion stripped of divine immanence via symbolic ritual left them terribly alone in the wilderness, surrounded by threatening "savage" foes.

These settlers had an enduring but paradoxical influence on the mental furniture of their new land. The colleges they founded, Harvard and Yale, embodied the Puritan intellect:

… formed to defend a pre-Enlightenment religion but [it] would forge tools later useful to the Enlightenment. The intellectual skills developed in the seventeenth century proved adaptable to the tasks of the eighteenth century. The subtlety, rigor, and erudition expended in exploring doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, predestination, justification (by imputed merit), the stages (or lack of them) in conversion, transubstantiation, or covenant did not lapse or fade when different concerns came into view. And the traits that went along with such energetic busyness of the mind would perdure in new and sometimes surprising ways. …

Their intellectual heirs were the religiously tolerant sages of the Enlightenment who founded the new country. Wills expounds in detail on Jefferson's and Madison's intent in drafting the Constitutional "separation of church and state," one of our country's signal contributions to religion and all of humanity, and one still under assault today.

For Wills, one of the great achievements of U.S. religion was overthrowing the Biblical justification for chattel slavery. He credits a little remembered 18th century Quaker, Anthony Benezet, for initiating questioning of millennia of Bible-based acquiescence in the owning of human beings.

Benezet seems to me the one unquestionably authentic American saint. The Quakers made possible all later forms of abolition by proving that one can be a sincere Christian and yet defy the scriptural endorsements of slavery. If reason says slavery is wrong, then it is wrong no matter what the Bible says. They also proved that Enlightened religion is indeed a religion. They are stellar exemplars of both religion and Enlightenment. And they prevailed. At the beginning of the eighteenth century slavery was legally recognized and actually practiced in all the Northern colonies. At the end of the century, only one state was still a holdout, and New Jersey would fall in line in 1804. …

In Wills' telling, the struggle within various U.S. Protestant denominations that led to North-South splits over slavery (Presbyterians, 1838; Methodists, 1844; Baptists, 1845) were the true first episodes of the Civil War that finally ended in 1865.

The nation was de facto divided from the time its principal religious bodies broke apart. In the past, some have claimed that the Civil War was not fought over slavery .… But the elephant in the room remains, and its name is slavery. The breakup of the religious bodies is clear proof of that, years before the war began.

Wills also chronicles the invention within late 19th century U.S. evangelical circles of the wacky notion of "The Rapture." In these days when so many have been exposed to the Left Behind novels, it's worth noting that this idea was a much disputed innovation.

I should not leave the Dispensationalists' theology without a look at their most distinctive belief, the Rapture, by which God's saints will be swept up to Christ before the world-rending Tribulation begins. Critics of Dispensationalism -- even other Fundamentalists -- argued that this belief is a strange one for believers in biblical literalism, since there is no one "proof text" for the idea in the Bible. It emerges, rather, from the whole concatenation of prophecy beliefs. Since the prophecies apply the Jews, they are the ones who will suffer the Tribulation. Christians have no real role in it. They will not, like the surviving mass of mankind, acknowledge the rule of Antichrist in his time of power, so they will be kept hors de combat. It was the total schema, too, that made [John Nelson]Darby [who created and popularized it] always refer to the secret Rapture. Not secret in the sense that no one would notice when thousands of people disappeared. But they would not know the explanation, since Jesus would not be seen except by those meeting him "in the air." This secret coming of Jesus is in contrast with his final coming in glory, which will manifest his power to all. Once the whole framework was in place, the Dispensationalists searched for biblical texts that can be made to conform with it. …

Possibly because I have more immediate experience of mid- and late-20th century U.S. Christianities, I did not feel the contemporary history sections of this book added quite as much as the earlier parts to my understanding of how we got where we are now. (That's the point of history, isn't it? Insofar has history has "a point," that is.) I did find interesting Wills' insistence that, despite the views of Republicans, Fundamentalists, and Catholic Bishops, we should remember that

much of the debate over abortion is based on a misconception, that this is a religious issue, that the pro-life advocates are acting out of religious conviction. It is not a theological matter at all. There is no theological basis for either defending or condemning abortion. … it is a matter of natural law …

Maybe so, but in this land of religious innovations, we seem to have generated a considerable number of "believers" -- some Catholic, more evangelical Protestant -- for whom opposition to abortion is their religion.

There's a great deal to think about in Head and Heart. I suspect my thoughts will often wander back to this book. We are a religious people; there's no evading that. Though I'm a Christian myself, I find it hard to be sure whether I see our national religiosity as more heartening than frightening.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Christ is risen!

Jesus is alive and his followers are exhausted and invigorated after the emotional rollercoaster that is Holy Week.

The artist, Dr. He Qi was a professor at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary and a tutor for master candidate students in the Philosophy Department of Nanjing University. He is also a member of the China Art Association and a council member of the Asian Christian Art Association. He has been committed to the artistic creation of modern Chinese Christian Art since 1983. He hopes to help change the "foreign image" of Christianity in China by using artistic language, and at the same time, to supplement Chinese Art the way Buddhist art did in ancient times. More here.

Regular blogging will resume tomorrow.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Public service announcement for my San Francisco friends

You don't have to receive those bulky, ugly, newsprint election "pamphlets" in the snail mail! Go to this San Francisco Department of Elections link and you can sign up to get your election materials over the 'net.

For my friends from elsewhere: these election books are one of California's growth industries. We have a lot of elections. Most of these include a lot of politician- and voter-proposed initiatives and referendums. (Hey, I'm working for one right now. They are not all bad.) Spokespeople, for and against, get to weigh in on these measures in the election book -- and I do mean "weigh" -- these things can run over 100 pages. They also have to include the full text of any proposed law.

There comes a time when transparency becomes just junk mail. Many of us have got to the point that we view the arrival of the election books as akin to the arrival of telephone directories -- just waste paper, to be carried straight to the recycle bin.

I'll opine that sending the books online may reduce their influence (if they still have any.) It may make us voters more dependent on "news" media and ads than we already are. But it has got to be good for the trees, even if bad for the post office!