Thursday, May 31, 2012

A nuanced optimist

The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes died in mid-May. He was a complicated man with complicated political views. That's not an easy stance for anyone.

From 1934-40, he lived in Washington, DC, the child of the Mexican ambassador. He learned to defend his country, but on moving home, he acquired a greater wisdom.

I felt that the country [Mexico] was above criticism because it was so assailed by the Americans. So assailed by the United States, I had to defend it constantly. Well, I arrived and I found that it was not a perfect country and that I had to deal with the imperfections as well as with the ideals of Mexico.

And I discovered very quickly that criticism is a form of optimism, and that when you are silent about the shortcomings of your society, you're very pessimistic about that society.

Fresh Air, rebroadcast

That seems the only healthy sort of patriotism to me.

At the age of 83, Fuentes took to Twitter. According to Noah Cohen this was his last tweet:

Debe haber algo más allá de la masacre y la barbarie, para sustentar la existencia del género humano y todos debemos participar en su busca.

There must be something beyond slaughter and barbarism to support the existence of mankind and we must all help search for it.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

President Obama's war … and ours

The New York Times shared a long piece yesterday that amounted to presenting and arguing the Obama administration's case for its strategy of war from offshore.

By withdrawing from Iraq and preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan, Mr. Obama has refocused the fight on Al Qaeda and hugely reduced the death toll both of American soldiers and Muslim civilians. But in moments of reflection, Mr. Obama may have reason to wonder about unfinished business and unintended consequences.

His focus on [remote drone] strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.

Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.

Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

Not a bad summary. The truly telling bit of the story describes how Obama reacted to the 2010 failed underwear bomber; he apparently demanded that his advisors become even more focused on low-casualty measures to destroy al-Qaeda. And it is clear what spurred him to action:

David Axelrod, the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.

If we don't like the President's policy of killing perceived enemies using drones wherever in the world our spooks identify targets, we have to change what Axelrod's participation flags: as a people we continue to insist that our government respond to every threat, however objectively inconsequential, as if it were existential. While the people continue to demand an illusory absolute security from all hostile dangers, Presidents will continue to twist historic assumptions about sovereignty and law like a limp strand of spaghetti. And our leaders will crow over the bloody results.
As for the drone war in Yemen, not all reporters are as sanguine about its success as the Times reporters. Jeremy Scahill from the Nation visited that country last year.

I'm very skeptical of reports that say, you know, 11 suspected militants were killed, because we don't have reporters on the ground that are going to the scene and are evaluating who was killed. The United States is relying entirely on its own imagery from its drones and satellites, as well as intelligence on the ground from Yemeni military officials and Yemeni government officials and intelligence officials who have an agenda to make sure that the United States believes that all the people that they're killing are suspected militants rather than, say, an important tribal leader.

And I bring that case up because there was a case where it appears as though the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen, fed the United States bad intel, telling the U.S. that there's an al-Qaida group meeting in a particular area, and they killed an important tribal leader who happened to be an opponent of the regime.

… the U.S. built up, and it began in the mid-2000s, ended up not fighting terrorism but actually defending the failing regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. So they were never operating in the territories where al-Qaida figures were believed to be but rather being used to defend the U.S.-backed regime of Saleh as it was crumbing to pieces.

And so there was a lot of resentment from Yemenis. They call them the Saleh family military, the U.S.-backed units. They call them the Saleh family military, not the national military. Anyway, so the U.S. builds up that, they have trainers on the ground, and then you have a network of Saudi informants that are inside of Yemen.

And then you have U.S. airpower in the form of drones, as we've mentioned, but also cruise missiles that are being launched off the coast of Yemen from vessels or submarines that are there ostensibly to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and there have been a number of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes. In fact, the most deadly strike that we know of in Yemen to date, authorized by the Obama administration, was his first strike in Yemen, and that was on December 17, 2009, and it was not the CIA, and it was not a drone.

It was cruise missiles launched from the sea, and it slammed into this village called Al-Majalah, which is in south Yemen, and the U.S. had intelligence that was given to it by the Yemeni government that there was an al-Qaida training camp there and storage facilities for weapons.

Well, it turned out that that wasn't true, and the U.S. bombed this village and killed 46 people, and we know the names of all of the people that were killed. I went there myself. I interviewed a woman who lost her entire family. An old man, 17 of those 46 people that were killed were members of his family. There were five pregnant women among the dead.

…I think that we're seeing the future of U.S. war fighting in Yemen. I think this is the model that has emerged over the past decade, where President Obama wants to draw down large-scale military occupations, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we are going to be, for decades to come, fighting special operations forces, CIA war of attrition against terrorism or against anyone determined to be an enemy of the United States.

Read or listen to it all here.

Warming Wednesdays: where there's a will, there can be a way

Juan Cole wants to remind us that some countries are making progress on reducing their carbon emissions to stave off the worst of human-induced global warming.

… there are responsible countries, like Germany and Portugal, who are investing in renewables in a big way.

On last Friday afternoon, because of clear skies and good weather, Germany was at one point producing 22 gigawatts of solar power, a new record. Today [Monday, May 28] is a holiday in Germany, and electricity needs will be only a third of normal. So, for a couple hours this afternoon, all Germany’s electrical power needs will be supplied by renewable energy. That must be a first for an industrialized, G8 country.

Germany has defied the predictions of those who said that mothballing its nuclear plants would cause it to produce more CO2. Its carbon dioxide production was down 2% in the past year. It replaced 60% of its formerly nuclear-generated electricity production with renewables, and became 5% more efficient in using energy. ...

Japanese firms, with the Fukushima nuclear disaster/tsunami in mind, are going into solar energy in a big way. Kyocera is planning the world’s largest solar power farm in the south of the country, which will generate 70 megawatts. If Japanese technical innovation and scientific ingenuity is turned, as it seems like to be, to renewable energy, they may well rejuvenate their lagging economy and become a big player in the burgeoning solar and wind turbine markets. The Japanese public has turned against nuclear pretty decisively, as have most companies there.

Cole's larger point is that switching to alternative energy sources is demonstrably possible in advanced industrial economies.

In China, the urgency of raising peasant masses out of enduring, terrible poverty turns the country toward coal and growing emissions.

But in the United States, progress on averting climate change is stymied by political gridlock and lack of will. Our inheritors will marvel at our folly.

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, May 29, 2012

A Lyndon Johnson tease

Probably only historian Robert A. Caro could publish a 736 page book -- and leave this reader feeling interested, occasionally absorbed, but largely left hanging by a volume that is just a prelude to the story that I truly hope to read. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson is volume four of his monumental biography, covering 1958 through 1964. In these years Lyndon Johnson left a position of nearly unchallengeable power as Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate to slip into frustrated impotence as John F. Kennedy's neglected Vice President, only to be lifted to the White House by Kennedy's assassination in December, 1963.

The guts of this volume is Caro's determination to show that Johnson came close to defying gravity by achieving a smooth transition of power for a nation nearly mad with shock and anxiety. He certainly makes a convincing case that Johnson's accession was both enormously daunting and remarkably smooth. It is probably a testament to Johnson's mastery of those awful days that Caro had to spend hundreds of pages arguing that a successful vice presidential succession was not just a given. Having lived those days (though quite young), I don't ever remember doubting the legitimacy of the constitutional system at the time. Of course power was passed on; that was just how things worked … for all I knew.

Since Caro does not completely convince me of the premise through which he organized the book, I probably don't appreciate the volume as much as I might have if I shared that premise. And yet I was gripped by this biography as story, as a record of the times, and as a portrait of a very complex central figure. Lyndon Johnson was amazingly complex: insecure, a bully, a con man, a racist, an exponent of civil rights under law, a class-conscious liberal, and a patriot. Maybe all very powerful figures are this complex if it is possible to drill into their souls as Caro seeks to. But I doubt it.

A few items leapt out from this huge work that I want to share:
  • Johnson was known as the great persuader -- even his opponents said that if he met with a person, that person would always come away convinced. Caro offers insight into Johnson's persuasive powers.

    When Lyndon Johnson was fighting hard for something … an aspect of the determination he always displayed during such efforts was conviction, a seemingly total belief in what he was fighting for. He felt that victory required belief. As a boy, friends recall, "he was always repeating" the salesman's credo that "You've got to believe in what you're selling"; decades later, in his retirement, he would say: "What convinces is conviction. You simply have to believe in the argument you are advancing; if you don't, you're as good as dead. The other person will sense that something isn't there." And Lyndon Johnson could make himself believe in an argument even if that argument did not accord with the facts, even if it was clearly in conflict with reality. … "It was not an act," [his close aide] George Reedy would say. "He had a fantastic capacity to persuade himself that the 'truth' which was convenient for the present was the truth and anything that conflicted with it was the prevarication of enemies. He literally willed what was in his mind to become reality."

    Must politicians have this power of efficacious self-deception to succeed? Do we want them to? I don't find those easy questions.
  • At 49 years removed -- and a couple of Bushes endured -- it has become hard to remember the suspicion much of the nation felt toward the state of Texas in the days after the assassination. The cowboy state had allowed a loved President to be shot and then allowed the alleged assassin to be murdered in custody on national TV. You couldn't trust a lawless, backwards place like that. These concerns led Johnson to establish the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination. Interestingly, Caro implies but does not expand upon the possibility that the Commission did a slipshod investigation that failed to reveal what really happened in Dallas. He seems to credit notions he imputes to the slain President's brother Robert that mobsters or Fidel Castro might have put out a hit on John F. Kennedy.

    Half a century after John F. Kennedy's death there is still speculation among his brother's intimates about whether he [Bobby] was aware of any hard fact that might indicate that his crusades against the Cuban dictator or the underworld (or the Teamsters' boss) had backfired against his brother …

    Meanwhile Texas has more or less escaped its unsavory associations, except perhaps as a place that goes in for executing people by the dozens.
  • The war in Vietnam necessarily hangs over all else Lyndon Johnson accomplished early in his Presidency -- voting rights legislation, Medicare, the War on Poverty. We know how it ended: a President shadowed by protesters yelling "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" and finally chased from office in 1968. Caro sets the scene in those early days when a fateful course of trying to "win" against the Vietnamese national revolution was set.

    "There's one of three things you can do" about Vietnam, the President would soon be saying in a telephone call from the ranch to John Knight of Knight Ridder newspapers, a supporter who nonetheless felt the United States might be "over-committed" in Vietnam. "One is run and let the dominoes start falling over. And God almighty, what they said about us leaving China would just be warming up compared to what they'd say now. . . . You can run, or you can fight, as we are doing, or you can sit down and agree to neutralize all of it. But nobody is going to neutralize North Vietnam, so that's totally impractical. And so it really boils down to one of two decisions -- getting out or getting in. . . . But we can't abandon it to them, as I see it."

    Fear of what "they would say" led to "the credibility gap, the "generation gap," and ultimately a far deeper delegitimization of the United States government than the one Johnson believed he was averting in his first days in office.
I found Caro's previous volume in the Johnson biography, Master of the Senate simply -- well I'll say it -- masterful. Reading it was a great preparation for watching Republicans stymie the Obama administration. The current volume didn't grip me in the same way, but it did leave me wishing avidly to read the next and final installment. Let us hope that Caro can finish the Lyndon Johnson story; he worked ten years between volumes three and four. He claims there will only be two or three years to wait before the final installment is published.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day: we remember our honored dead -- or do we?

memorial hillside-lafayette-6:18:11.jpg
On a hillside overlooking Lafayette, California, citizens have planted markers for each of the U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of dead in the photo is badly out of date (the photo is from last June). Today the total troop deaths number 6470 according to iCasualties.

But those troop casualties aren't the entire story. According to the Defense (War) Department:

National statistics show that veterans constitute about 20 percent of the 30,000 to 32,000 U.S. deaths each year from suicide.

In fiscal year 2009, 98 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan took their own lives. Their war wasn't over when they came home.

At Thomas Rick's "Best Defense" blog, guest poster Jim Gourley condemns both the military's instinct to hide the suicide epidemic -- and how that practice distorts the public's relationship to our serving military:

We hail those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but we don't consider how to account for the sacrifices of those who died by their own hand. It is a bureaucratic bridge too far for the army to ever establish a connection between combat events and an active duty service member's suicide in garrison, let alone the suicide of a veteran after separation. Yet countless are the mothers, fathers, spouses, and children who will say that these men and women "died over there" and "never really came home."

…a nation's day of remembrance would take on an unbearable melancholy were its citizens brought to remember that the preponderance of its fallen service members died on home soil. By living in denial we protect the greater population from bearing that burden of remembrance.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Golden Gate Bridge is 75 years old!

san francisco golden gate bridge mural.jpg
Detail from a mural in the San Francisco's Castro district.

The celebrations this weekend are making me feel my age. I remember vividly the 50th anniversary celebrations during which several hundred thousand people crowded onto the span, straining it close the breaking point. The authorities aren't letting the crowds near it this time!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

E. J. Dionne misses the elephant in the living room

Just as I called out a couple of California journalists for ignoring the obvious yesterday, I can't resist calling out a national journalist for clearly describing our political dysfunction -- and then ignoring the elephant in the living room. Washington Post writer E.J. Dionne asks "Conservatives used to care about community. What happened?" After sharing some of the history of conservatism's roots in reaction against unfettered individualism, he goes on

… until recently conservatives operated within America’s long consensus that accepted a market economy as well as a robust role for a government that served the common good. American politics is now roiled because this consensus is under the fiercest attack it has faced in more than 100 years.

For most of the 20th century, conservatives and progressives alternated in power, each trying to correct the mistakes of the other. Neither scared the wits out of the other (although campaign rhetoric sometimes suggested otherwise), and this equilibrium allowed both sides to compromise and move forward. It didn’t mean that politics was devoid of philosophical conflicts, of course. The clashes over McCarthyism, the civil rights revolution, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Great Inflation of the late 1970s remind us that our consensus went only so far. Conservatives challenged aspects of the New Deal-era worldview from the late 1960s on, dethroning a liberal triumphalism that long refused to take conservatism seriously. Over time, even progressives came to appreciate some essential instincts that conservatives brought to the debate.

So why has this consensus unraveled?

He goes on to describe the current partisan divide as a nasty bi-product of President Obama's effort to restore some comity in Washington. If the Democratic usurper wanted it, Republicans must strike back by utterly rejecting any serious effort to get along or even govern. Okay, well and good as description.

But what's different about the current President from any other? Oh yeah, he's a Black man.

For too many among us, that's impossible -- time for a war to save the white race. Sure, not all Republicans go there, but the prevalence of that sentiment gives energy to many Republicans' maniacal fantasy of regressing to a brutal dog-eat-dog society for happy heroic (male) individuals. They seem to have lost any concern for the collective good. They look toward a future in which citizens of the United States won't look like their children. It's burn it all down now time, all to overthrow the illegitimate Kenyan imposter.

Don't tell me the President's race is not a big part of "what happened?"

Friday, May 25, 2012

What's wrong with California?

A couple of political journalists, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul have made a stab at describing what's wrong with the political system of the Golden State and what might be done about it in California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. I found their description very cogent, but their prescriptions just another mess of gimmickry mixed with a stew of unrealizable ideas.

Here's a short summary of these authors' understanding of what's wrong with California:

[An] extraterrestrial would see that California is governed not by one system but by three.

On the one hand, he would see a system of single-member legislative districts elected by plurality. This structure is well known to restrict representation to the two major parties, exaggerate the majority party's strength, empower the ideological bases in each party, and render the votes of millions of Californians essentially moot in most legislative elections. The system's driving principle? Create a majority and let it rule.

On the other hand, he would see, superimposed on the first system, a second political system: a constitutional web of rules requiring supermajority legislative agreement about the very subjects -- spending and taxes -- over which the parties and the electorate are most polarized. The driving principle of this second system? Do nothing important without broad consensus. In practice, let the minority rule.

And then on third hand (here's where you need an extraterrestrial Tocqueville), he would see that, in response to gridlock, voters have repeatedly used the initiative process, another majoritarian institution, to override the consensus principle, which was itself put in place to check the majority-rule principle. …

California doesn't work because it can't work.

Good summary and the rest is amplification: our unrealistic limitations on the power to tax, coupled with our ever expanding demand for state services; our almost inadvertent sabotage of local government when we moved both budgeting and school funding to the state capital; the super-majority requirements which allow one third plus one member of one house of the legislature to dictate to the majority; the legislative term limits that destroy any vestige of political competence or policy expertise; the initiative industry that repeatedly saddles the state with poorly drafted laws that cannot be amended; and a state so large that its component communities have few shared values or even points of reference.

I believe that the last item is the fundament from which all the rest arises -- that what's wrong with contemporary California is that we have not come to terms with differences that we categorize as race. Some of those differences might more accurately be characterized as ethnicities, or home language usage, or immigration status. But the fact remains that there are not at present any values upon which most of us agree.

In particular, the dwindling fraction of our population that is white -- and still constitutes most of the electorate -- often refuses to recognize any social contract with the majority of color. So some of them -- not all white Californians by any means -- have captured the Republican party and use it to stamp their feet, refuse to be taxed for the benefit of all, and impede development of a new social contract more in accord with the needs and values of the current population.

California Crackup barely mentions the state's racial diversity. Come on guys, there is an elephant in the living room! By failing to take race into account, these writers undermine any serious credibility with me -- an undermining that was completed by their advocacy of such non-solutions as proportional representation, instant run off voting and even a constitutional convention. What California needs is not structural contrivances.

Rather, what we need is a functioning democracy. To get there, we need a new value consensus that is capable of assembling a relatively stable plurality, even a majority. When, and as, we approach envisioning such a consensus -- and living out our demographic changes carries us ever closer -- we'll figure out how to achieve structural reform.

Friday cat blogging: your weekly dose of Morty

morty in window.jpeg
Okay, eventually I'll stop with these, but the new resident is so photogenic that I want to share him. It's a wonderful thing that such an independent animal deigns to live with us. Don't be confused by the collar -- he sets his own terms.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A court in need of cover

A law professor named Mae Kuykendall from Michigan State writing in the NY Times proposes how the Supreme Court might dodge a bullet on gay marriage:

… there is a way. The Supreme Court, which will almost certainly have to take up the issue, should hold that while states may refuse to authorize same-sex marriages, they may not void — that is, refuse to recognize — gay marriages lawfully conducted in other states.

Yes, such a ruling would effectively make same-sex marriage legal throughout the country, because it would require Texas to recognize same-sex unions performed in Massachusetts. It would no doubt infuriate opponents.

But it would also be the best judicial solution. It would recognize the Supreme Court’s limited authority over marriage laws and leave it to state courts to resolve differences across states in areas like divorce, child custody and inheritance, as they have traditionally done.

I just don't see this flying.

I will make a prediction here: the Supremes will try very hard to find a way to thread the needle on gay marriage, somehow both allowing it and not imposing it. The Roberts court is very likely to be in need of showing that they are something more than partisan right wingers, bent on enacting a Republican agenda that hasn't won in the electorate. They have already tried to hand over our elections to their billionaire buddies with the Citizens United decision. If they find some wacko reason to invalidate the health care law duly legislated by majorities in Congress, they'll be visibly thumbing their noses at the democratic principle of majority rule. They are going to need a fig leaf, a display that they aren't just a thumb in the dike (figuratively) against the rushing torrent toward gay equality. Full civil rights for gay citizens are coming; some partial affirmation of marriage equality will offer the Court an some escape from historical odium -- and offer a lot of cover for many another tendentious decision.

For myself, Ms. Kuykendall's proposal seems to miss the main disabilities I suffer because I can't get married. Because of the federal law against recognizing gay unions (DOMA), I have to pay more and jump hoops in transitioning to Medicare. A heterosexual person covered by her/his spouse's health insurance can simply continue without penalty. I have to add Medicare Part B while continuing my existing insurance to avoid what amounts to a fine. (Maybe the zealots against the health law on the Supreme Court should look into that!)

And I haven't yet filed my taxes this year because the IRS requires extra joint returns (that they don't implement) from California (and some other states') domestic partners. We're still trying to figure it out.

All of that will go away when we get full marriage equality. That day can't come too soon!

Sometimes there's only one way to strike back

This is a little bit "inside baseball." If you live in a California media market, your TV viewing has been overrun with clips of actors in white coats telling you that you shouldn't vote to tax cigarettes (yes on 29) and use the proceeds for cancer research.

The folks who care about your lungs have a message for you.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Warming Wednesday: uneasy conscience

I'm on the road this week, dumping CO2 into the atmosphere.

I guess it is good to see that airports now have to advertise their efforts to mitigate the damage we cause. I guess....

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


On Sunday afternoon, the San Francisco Bay Area experienced a partial solar eclipse. According to the Chron,

At 6:33 p.m., roughly 84 percent of the sun was covered by a new moon, spreading a strange light over most of the Bay Area.

1projected through pinhole.jpg
We viewed the partially obscured sun carefully, projecting the shape through a pin hole onto a piece of paper. The sun remained far too bright to risk direct viewing, even through sun glasses.

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But it wasn't necessary to catch the sun's image to appreciate the strangeness of a diminished sun. A glance at the shadows on pavement would do.

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Tree leaves waving in the breeze cast strange crescent shapes.
I was reminded of the dystopian Mark Twain novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, in which a 19th century time traveler makes himself the ruler of Arthur's kingdom by pretending to bring on an eclipse (he remembered its history) just as the magician Merlin was about to have this scientific competitor from the future burned alive.

… a man knelt down at my feet with a blazing torch; the multitude strained forward, gazing, and parting slightly from their seats without knowing it; the monk raised his hands above my head, and his eyes toward the blue sky, and began some words in Latin; in this attitude he droned on and on, a little while, and then stopped. I waited two or three moments; then looked up; he was standing there petrified. With a common impulse the multitude rose slowly up and stared into the sky. I followed their eyes, as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning! The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man! The rim of black spread slowly into the sun's disk ...

The darkness was steadily growing, the people becoming more and more distressed....

But when the silver rim of the sun pushed itself out, a moment or two later, the assemblage broke loose with a vast shout and came pouring down like a deluge to smother me with blessings and gratitude ...

That strange light did evoke magical awe, even on an ordinary Sunday in San Francisco.

Not a rainbow, but not mono-colored either

Race and ethnicity 2010: San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley
Race and ethnicity 2010: San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley. Maps of racial and ethnic divisions in US cities, inspired by Bill Rankin's map of Chicago, updated for Census 2010.

Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents.

Data from Census 2010. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-S. From Eric Fisher's photostream.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Allies for full gay civil rights

One of Sunday's headlines was that the national NAACP board had voted to endorse marriage equality. This didn't seem so surprising; in many localities, the civil rights organization's leaders have long spoken up against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

This move may have something to do with President Obama's recent "evolution" on the question. And some recent polling from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life points to an additional set of data that may help explain why the NAACP could take its stance. Black Protestants (mostly evangelical) are nowhere near as set in their opposition to gay marriage as white evangelicals. Over twice as high a percentage (33 percent) approve as do white believers with similar theological underpinnings (14 percent).

Gay marriage is coming.

The NAACP announcement reminded me of the first announcement from a national civil rights organization in support of marriage equality that I know of. In 1994, before I'd much thought about gay marriage, I remember running across a notice of a pronouncement from the Japanese American Citizens League.

… at its national convention, the JACL passed a resolution affirming its commitment to and support of the basic human right of marriage, including the right to marry for same-sex couples.

That's getting out in front on civil rights!

Dumb Congressman wants us all as dumb as he is

Look, I know this country is largely innumerate -- we aren't practiced at thinking in numbers -- but this just beats all.

The American Community Survey (ACS) may be the most important government function you’ve never heard of, and it’s in trouble. …

It tells Americans how poor we are, how rich we are, who is suffering, who is thriving, where people work, what kind of training people need to get jobs, what languages people speak, who uses food stamps, who has access to health care, and so on.

It is, more or less, the country’s primary check for determining how well the government is doing — and in fact what the government will be doing.

NYTimes, 5/20/12

Some dimwit -- Republican, naturally -- thinks having the Census Bureau create smart, data-based snapshots of what's going on with us somehow threatens our liberty. And the ACS costs money; guess he thinks that is theft from the one percent. And above all, it is "random." Yup, it is a properly designed survey; Mr. Dumb Congressman doesn't get to decide who is interviewed; neither do our super secret security spooks -- the ACS surveys a "random" sample of us. The concept is beyond some people.

Last week the Republican House of Representatives voted to yank funding from the ACS. These people apparently want to trash the country and they are so stupid they don't even know they are doing it.

Here's how one development outfit uses ACS data.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

She's 96 and she thinks she should vote

A Republican state legislature is not so sure.

Since I'm a citizen, I think I should vote. … It make you feel kind of aggravated .. I feel mad.

To get one of Tennessee's new voter cards, she had to produce five pieces of identification. Five pieces of paper for one old lady who has been voting all her life!

I've been reading Robert Caro's latest installment of his enormous biography of President Lyndon Johnson. He remarks that Virginia Senator Harry Byrd never had to worry about re-election despite his vicious hatred of his Black constituents. In the 1960s, only 17 percent of the potential electorate voted in that state because of a combination of poll taxes and other impediments to voting.

There are politicians now in office who would be happy to go back to those simpler (whiter) days.

Whatever we may feel about the current President, we have to be glad that his campaign is organizing to help citizens get through the local hoops with this site. Check it out. It looks usable.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: Mission district critters

These days I'm getting more of my exercise than usual on city streets, gallumphing along at dawn. I'm repeatedly surprised by the numbers of stuffed critters I encounter along the way.

Was this bear unloved?

Perhaps someone can remedy my cultural blank spots -- what kind of a critter is this?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Breaking News: Still Fighting the Civil War

A guest post from my friend and WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras co-conspirator, Max Elbaum

The front page of Thursday's print edition of the New York Times is worth putting in a spot where you can pull it out and take a look every week for the next six months (at least). It provides a penetrating glimpse into how race and racism is going to unfold in this crazy country over the next while and beyond.

On the top right-hand column the lead story is that for the first time in history non-Hispanic white births do not make up a majority of births in the U.S. It's another key marker in the underlying demographic trends that are reshaping the country.

On the top left, meanwhile, there's a story under the headline GOP Super-PAC Weighs Hard Line Attack on Obama. The content is simple: this bunch thinks McCain lost in 2008 because he didn't utilize enough racist fear-mongering in his campaign and they don't want to make the same mistake twice. Anyone who thinks it's an accident that this feature runs on the front page the same day as the changing demographics story isn't familiar with the modus operandi of the New York Times.

What's not mentioned in the Times story are two new 'documentaries' about Obama; you can find information about those in Andrew Sullivan's short blog post which concludes as follows: "This is about rescuing white America from a black president. That's all it is. And it's as vile as it is potent." 

More in that vein just off the press from a Colorado Republican Congressman: "I don't know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America. I don't know that. But I do know this, that in his heart, he's not an American. He's just not an American," -- Congressman Mike Coffman (R-CO) at a recent fundraiser.

Of course, today's Times also contains plenty of stories that detail reasons why we on the left are mobilizing this weekend in Chicago to protest against Obama administration policies. To take just one example, the statement leaked yesterday by a U.S. official that, though Washington doesn't want to use them, plans for a military strike on Iran haven't just been made, they are all 'ready to go' if needed.

So there are lots of dilemmas and difficult challenges facing us over the next while. But one of the biggest is that as the proportion of people of color steadily grows in the U.S., attempts by the racist right to entrench white supremacy by any means necessary are going to grow as well - and it's squarely in that context that the next six months are all but certain to see the biggest outpouring of blatant, coded and every other kind of racism in a presidential campaign since George Wallace ran on his record as a militant segregationist in 1968.

As William Faulkner once put it: "The past is never dead. It isn't even past."

This country is still fighting the Civil War. Here's an article from a conservative commentator making exactly that point.
Addendum from janinsanfran:
In our outrage over the racist ad campaign revealed by the Times (and now walked back), it is easy to skip over this smidgen of wisdom captured in the demographics article.

“The question is, how do we reimagine the social contract when the generations don’t look like one another?” said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of Immigration studies at New York University.

That indeed is a question our politics is currently failing to answer.

Friday cat blogging: Morty emerges

morty on desk.jpg

That didn't take long. Morty has left his hiding place under the bureau and begun the process of marking his entire new home as his territory. He especially likes rubbing against our computers and walking across keyboards. After all, these machines distract us from taking care of him.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Let's hear it for these state employees

When I got the notice that I would have to renew my driver's license in person before my birthday, I was shaken. I hadn't had to do this for 12 years; for that long period, every year I'd mailed in the money and been renewed with the same document. Not anymore; I guess they wanted to stick me with a new picture as I approach "senior citizen" status.

Being forced to visit a California Department of Motor Vehicles office has long been my vision of hell. We do like our cars in this state; in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have about 1.85 cars per household. All those cars and the people that own them (or do the cars own the people?) require a lot of paper. And so, the city's DMV office has always been filled with pushing throngs speaking multiple languages -- Chinese, Spanish, English, and many more -- trying to complete forms, pay bills, or simply figure out what they are supposed to do.

Resigned, I consulted the DMV website and found I could make an appointment to pay for a new license ($31), have my thumbprint taken, take an eye test, and get photographed. I visualized waiting in line for each element of the process, jostled by other desperate people. But it had to be done.

My appointment was for 9 am. I dutifully presented myself at 8:52, ready to begin a process I assumed would take a least an hour. Handwritten signs pointed me to an "appointment ticket line." Okay -- I hoped that this was the right line.

No sooner than I'd joined the short queue than an older woman with a clipboard, a sort of traffic monitor, approached asking what time our appointments were for. (Guess this was the right line.) She pulled a woman with an 8:40 appointment up to the front, but otherwise assured us we'd move right up.

A couple of minutes later I reached the front and passed the woman at the desk the paper work I'd been mailed. She glanced and said "you have to fill out the front. Come back here to the side when you're done." A pen sat on a nearby desk, I filled out the form. As I approached the side of the appointment line, the woman at the desk glanced at my form and handed it back to me with a "ticket" -- a stub with the number "FO32" on it.

Seconds later, the loudspeaker announced, "FO32 will be served at counter Number 9." Finding Number 9, I passed my papers to the woman there. She asked if I wore glasses all the time (yes) and had me read an eye chart hanging from the ceiling. That was easy. I pressed my thumb on an electronic scanner. No more getting inky these days. It beeped. I handed over my $31. She printed a multipart form on a machine that clattered like an old dot matrix printer, separated and stapled parts of it together and said "go down to Window B and get your picture taken."

There was no line for Window B. I stepped up, had my thumb scanned again (guess they didn't want any identity switches) and stood rigid for the camera flash. "Here's your temporary license," said the operator, handing me my paperwork.

I was out the door at 9:02 am.

Don't get me wrong. The San Francisco DMV office remains pretty squalid. It's crowded with anxious people, the equipment is old; apparently there is no budget for directional signs so the employees write their own on sheets of paper. But some combination of workers who are doing their best and management that at the very least doesn't get in their way make the experience simple, efficient, totally bearable.

As the Governor Brown looks for ways to cut yet more billions from the state's budget -- because California's winners have found ways to avoid paying their fair share, but that's a post of another day -- it's great to encounter state workers and government itself just doing its job.

Judges risk making sense

Every once in a while judges demonstrate a regard for the quaint idea that people in this country ought not to have to worry that government officers will restrain them without legal process.

In New York, Federal District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin doesn't think the police ought to be free to stop and frisk people (mostly Black and Brown people) on the street without any cause -- except possibly to meet quotas set by NYPD brass. According to the New York Times, it was recently revealed in court that cops had made 200,000 such stops in the first quarter of 2012.

The judge said the evidence presented in the case showed that the department had a “policy of establishing performance standards and demanding increased levels of stops and frisks” that has led to an exponential growth in the number of stops.

But the judge used her strongest language in condemning the city’s position that a court-ordered injunction banning the stop-and-frisk practice would represent “judicial intrusion” and could not “guarantee that suspicionless stops would never occur or would only occur in a certain percentage of encounters.”

Judge Scheindlin said the city’s attitude was “cavalier,” and added that “suspicionless stops should never occur.”

She certified a class action lawsuit on behalf of everyone not charged with a crime who had been so stopped.

Meanwhile Federal District Judge Katherine Forrest blocked enforcement of the so-called "Homeland Battlefield" provisions allowing indefinite military detention without any legal process that Congress slipped into a recent extension of the post-9/11 law authorizing the "war on terror." She agreed with a group of civil liberties activists that the government should not be granted unreviewable authority to hold people indefinitely without trial.

During day-long oral arguments in March, Forrest heard lawyers for former New York Times war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges and others argue that the law would have a "chilling effect" on their work.

"Can Hedges and others be detained for contacting al Qaeda or the Taliban as reporters?" Forrest asked the government at the hearing.

The judge said she worried at the government's reluctance at the March hearing to specify whether examples of the plaintiffs' activities - such as aiding the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks in the case of Brigitta Jonsdottir, a member of parliament in Iceland - would fall under the scope of the provision.

"Failure to be able to make such a representation... requires the court to assume that, in fact, the government takes the position that a wide swath of expressive and associational conduct is in fact encompassed by [the law's section] 1021," the judge wrote.

It's good to know that at least one of our judges thinks it is time to resurrect the respect for due process and personal liberty to which, before a gaggle of terrorists scared the country out of its wits, we at least paid lip service. Should this country ever regain an even keel, we are going to look back in great shame the way we acted like scared rabbits while trashing the rule of law. For the moment, I don't have much hope these decisions will survive appeals, but they set a better standard than we've seen in such cases recently.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: "it's scary stuff"

Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, is known for worrying -- and for calling out people who he thinks are doing things wrong. At the moment he's on a frenetic book tour, explaining to audiences how blinkered economists and timid public officials have gotten the contemporary Depression wrong.

Ezra Klein seized the opportunity of the tour to ask him what else we should be concerned about:

Let’s step back for a moment. What do you think we should be worrying about in 10 years?
I really think 10 years from now the signs that we’re on a runaway climate change will start to become a lot more obvious. It won’t be big rises in temperature yet, but will be enough to make people look around and say, oh my God. But by then, it will be very hard to bring it under control.

Are you a technological optimist on this?
Well, there are different kinds of technological optimists. One kind of technological optimist says we’ll spontaneously develop technologies that give us perfectly clean energy. I think so long as fossil fuels are cheap, people will use them and it will postpone a movement towards new technologies. And then there’s geoengineering, which we may eventually use out of desperation, but is full of unintended consequences and political questions. That won’t affect all countries equally. It will hurt some countries and help others. It would be a helluva thing to throw into the global situation.

I’m a technological optimist in that I think if we had appropriate pricing, we’d find it remarkably easy. The cost of getting out of rising emissions would be much lower than legend has it. But I’m not politically optimistic that we’ll do that.

So you’re an economics optimist. You think if we got the price right, we could get the technology right.
Yes. But it’s scary stuff.

We'd be nuts not to be frightened by the tsunami of changes that our manipulation of the environment has sent barreling towards us. But Bill Blakemore has offered a prescription for moving beyond terror. Apparently the Air Force recognizes that in moments of emergency, flyers can freeze -- a kind of "brain lock." They teach pilots to "hug the monster" -- to learn to embrace that otherwise paralyzing fear so as to move beyond it. Applied to the recognition of global warming, "hugging the monster" has exciting implications.

…those who have also hugged this monster are finding that doing so transforms the crisis:

  • for government leaders around the world, into a wide field of ways to inspire action as they begin to find reasons for what the Holocaust scholar Philip Hallie calls “realistic hope.”
  • for climate scientists, economists and other academic specialists, into the most fascinating, challenging and complex puzzle they’ve ever faced together — fascinating and challenging, not least because its biggest unknown is “what will the humans do?”  (The world’s scientists have been the heroes and leaders of this story from the start. They’ve had to live longest with the fear it can induce.)
  • and for journalists, into what we call “a great story” – and please note that for us professional reporters, the word “story” is a term of art. This story is exciting professionally for its enormous and unprecedented journalistic problems, and for the variety it presents to our imaginations and skills, our art and our craft.  It may even be greater, in some ways, than the approach of World War Two must have been for journalists in the 1930s, given the projected effects of the rapid global change the world’s climate scientists report is now under way.

The whole thing is worth reading.

H/t to The Left Coaster for the Blakemore article.

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, May 15, 2012

Changing attitudes and politics among vets

Afghanistan visit
Is this what happens when a nation's fighting forces have to grind (and die) through two long wars in a decade -- one begun on false pretexts and exited ignominiously; the other trudging along without definable purpose long after most everyone has forgotten what the point ever was? Soldiers aren't dumb and they know enough to suspect their sacrifice is being misused.

Veterans have long been considered a Republican base constituency, a group among whom Democrats were lucky to get any votes at all. But the Washington Post reports that Obama political strategists think that the president can win far more current and former military voters than has been the recent norm for a Democrat.

Obama is attempting a novel approach to reaching veterans and to understanding who they are and what their concerns are. While most veterans are older and more conservative, younger veterans who served more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan include more women and minorities. Politically, they are more reflective of the nation overall: independent-minded, less socially conservative and more supportive of the winding down of the two wars the president inherited. …

“Before 2008, nobody talked about military families,” said Rob Diamond, who served in Iraq and is the Obama campaign’s vote director for veterans and military families. “Military families have become part of the national conversation. Americans realize that when you have an all-volunteer military, the sacrifice is not just by the service members but their families, too.”

The Obama campaign sees an opportunity to tout his record not only on foreign affairs but also on social issues such as his repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gay men and lesbians from military service. At the same time, the campaign is pointing to the president’s work on the home front, such as programs to help military families cope with long deployments.

While the Wapo discusses the 2012 campaign politics, Reuters/NewYork Times makes bold claims about what the current crop of veterans take from the wars of the '00s.

Disaffection with the politics of shock and awe runs deep among men and women who have served in the military during the past decade of conflict. Only 32 percent think the war in Iraq ended successfully, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. And far more of them would pull out of Afghanistan than continue military operations there.

While the 2012 campaign today is dominated by economic and domestic issues, military concerns could easily jump to the fore. Nearly 90,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. Israeli politicians and their U.S. supporters debate over whether to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities as partisans bicker over proposed Pentagon budget cuts. …

If the election were held today, Obama would win the veteran vote by as much as seven points over Romney, higher than his margin in the general population. …

"We looked real cool going into Iraq waving our guns," said McDowell, 50, who retired from the 82d Airborne Division in November with a Legion of Merit and two Bronze Stars. "But people lost their lives, and it made no sense."

It's hard to believe that the military has changed enough so Obama's lead among veterans will hold up when Republicans wrap themselves in the flag. Neither he nor Romney were ever in uniform, but Obama can certainly portray himself as a responsible Commander in Chief who did wind down one war. And his family friendly overtures should help him in the era of the overstressed "all-volunteer" force.

Vets are different than the nation's general demographic profile. Eighty-four percent of vets are white; 93 percent are men. Twenty-five percent have a disability (compared to 14 percent of non-vets.)

The largest demographic block of living veterans --34 percent -- are from the Vietnam era. Their war, whether they affirm or despise it, was a Democratic war. Vets of the wars of the '00s are 10 percent of the total. They fought Republican wars. Will their disillusionment realign their politics? This election may begin to suggest an answer.

Demographics from National Journal. Photo of the President at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan from US Army Flickr.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Living within "ambient anxiety" in Hitler's Berlin

For members of my age cohort, people who grew into awareness of a big and dangerous world around us in the 1950s and early 60s, a gnawing question lurked at the back of consciousness: what if we'd been Germans (or Americans) during the rise of Hitler? Would we have recognized the expanding barbarism that led eventually to the killing of 30 million Europeans? What would we have done?

Erik Larson's In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin is the story of one contemporary family that lived the question. William E. Dodd was not President Franklin Roosevelt's first choice to represent the U.S. in Berlin. In fact, the president had trouble finding anyone who wanted the job in 1933 just as Hitler took power. He finally settled on Dodd, an historian and a good New Deal Democrat, but not a conventional diplomat in a time when the State Department was still the bailiwick of men with propertied, inherited privilege. His tenure was never easy. The bureaucrats he reported to cared only about whether Germany might ever repay its World War I debts (it wouldn't). The Germans, rapidly being violently and only partially voluntarily Nazified, didn't have much truck with a mild small "d" democrat who had studied in their country in a more peaceful era. Dodd and his family never fit.

Larsen's book draws from the extensive record left in letters and other writings by Dodd himself and his flibbertigibbet daughter Martha. The other members of the family apparently left less record and remain vague presences in the narrative. Martha's life was a series of overlapping romantic encounters with attractive men; she did eventually figure out that the head of the Berlin Gestapo was not a nice beau. The Ambassador seems to have been befuddled by living inside fascism tightening its grip, though he comes across as a person of principle overwhelmed by his own powerlessness.

Shortly after the family arrived in Hitler's Germany, it's young members visited Nuremberg and encountered a sort of parade. The story is recounted though the memories of Quentin Reynolds, a reporter friend of Martha and her brother Bill.

From a distance they heard the coarse, intensifying clamor of a still larger and more raucous crowd approaching on the street. They heard distant music, a street band, all brass and noise. The crowd pressed inward in happy anticipation, Reynolds wrote. "We could hear the roar of the crowd three blocks away, a laughing roar that swelled toward us with the music." The noise grew, accompanied by a shimmery tangerine glow that fluttered on the facades of buildings.

Moments later the marchers came into view, a column of SA men in brown uniforms carrying torches and banners. "Storm Troopers," Reynolds noted. ... Immediately behind the host squad there followed two very large troopers, and between them a much smaller human captive, though Reynolds could not at first tell whether it was a man or a woman. The troopers were "half-supporting, half-dragging" the figure along the street. "Its head had been clipped bald," Reynolds wrote, "and face and head had been coated with white powder." Martha described the face as having "the color of diluted absinthe." They edged closer, as did the crowd around them, and now Reynolds and Martha saw that the figure was a young woman -- though Reynolds still was not completely certain. "Even though the figure wore a skirt, it might have been a man dressed as a clown," Reynolds wrote. "The crowd around me roared at the spectacle of this figure being dragged along."

The genial Nurembergers around them became transformed and taunted and insulted the woman. The troopers at her sides abruptly lifted her to her full height, revealing a placard hung around her neck. Coarse laughter rose from all around. Martha, Bill, and Reynolds deployed their halting German to ask other bystanders what was happening and learned in fragments that the girl had been associating with a Jewish man. As best Martha could gather, the placard said, "I HAVE OFFERED MYSELF TO A JEW."

Incredibly, this vicious display of racism and woman-hatred was not enough to disabuse Martha of her enthusiasm for the energy and apparent romance of the Nazi project of reviving Germany. She enjoyed collecting male admirers including the Gestapo boyfriend and a minor Russian diplomat who was also an NKVD agent assigned to attract her to Communism. But gradually the Dodds came to understand they had dropped into a society where suspicion and terror were omnipresent -- where everyone lived in a state of "ambient anxiety." They had no difficulty finding a magnificent house in Berlin to rent, because its Jewish owner had been forced to flee. They learned that if they wanted to be confident that no spy was listening they could only speak freely in the park, the Tiergarten, the "garden of the beasts" of the title. Dodd found that much of his work consisted of protesting attacks on U.S. citizens who had been inadequately enthusiastic about Hitler and were beaten by Storm Troopers.

Larson struggles to convey the incredible reversal of civilization that was the Nazi state. He draws on the understanding of a wise contemporary. Maintaining a state of constant fear of unspecified threats is a very effective means of controlling a people.

Even the language used by Hitler and party officials was weirdly inverted. The term "fanatical" became a positive trait. Suddenly it connoted what philologist Victor Klemperer, a Jewish resident of Berlin, described as a "happy mix of courage and fervent devotion." Nazi-controlled newspapers reported an endless succession of "fanatical vows" and "fanatical declarations" and "fanatical beliefs," all good things. Goring was described as a "fanatical animal lover." ….

Klemperer detected a certain "hysteria of language" in the new flood of decrees, alarms, and intimidation --"This perpetual threatening with the death penalty" -- and in strange, inexplicable episodes of paranoid excess … In all this Klemperer saw a deliberate effort to generate a kind of daily suspense, "copied from American cinema and thrillers," that helped keep people in line. He also gauged it to be a manifestation of insecurity among those in power. … Klemperer was struck by the fact that although Hitler was trying to convey omnipotence, he appeared to be in a wild, uncontrolled rage, which paradoxically had the effect of undermining his boasts that the new Reich would last a thousand years and that all his enemies would be annihilated.

It took "the Röhm purge" -- the convulsion in 1934 when Hitler's S.S. goons massacred the thugs who had served as muscle to put him in office and also some number of additional "enemies" -- to convince Ambassador Dodd that the Nazi regime was wholly evil.

For Dodd, diplomat by accident, not demeanor, the whole thing was utterly appalling. He was a scholar and Jeffersonian democrat, a farmer who loved history and the old Germany in which he had studied as a young man. Now there was official murder on a terrifying scale. Dodd's friends and acquaintances, people who had been to his house for dinner and tea, had been shot dead. Nothing in Dodd's past had prepared him for this. It brought to the fore with more acuity than ever his doubts about whether he could achieve anything as ambassador. If he could not, what then was the point of remaining in Berlin …

He didn't long remain; the mandarins in the State Department wanted a more conventional diplomat in the job -- someone with enough personal wealth to put on a display, someone willing to ignore the Nazi regime's horrors in the hope of mollifying the bankers. Dodd came home and broke his health touring the country, struggling to overcome the strong isolationist sentiment that the United States should ignore these faraway European upheavals. (I think that my mother, who greatly feared the rise of the Nazis, attended his speaking events in the late 1930s.)

In the Garden of the Beasts is a gripping tale, a successful effort to transport readers into a terrible time and place. My greatest quarrel with it is that that other histories of the period (for example, Shirer's) suggest that the U.S. simply didn't loom very large in Nazi calculations; Hitler thought us a decadent, racially-mixed society that couldn't matter much. Inevitably in telling the story through the eyes of a U.S. diplomat and his family, their doings in Berlin come to seem more significant than they may actually have been. But this is a haunting book, one that immerses the reader more deeply than most of us are likely to want in the impending horror; highly recommended.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A contemporary crisis of authority

Franklin Graham, the vituperative son of evangelist Billy Graham, is sure that, by declaring he'd come to believe that marriage equality for gay people could be in accord with his Christian faith, the President is throwing down on the side of evil. Graham is certain he knows the mind of God.

President Obama has, in my view, shaken his fist at the same God who created and defined marriage. It grieves me that our president would now affirm same-sex marriage, though I believe it grieves God even more.

I found it interesting to read that denunciation in the context of some observations from comparative religion scholar Stephen Prothero.

As Mark Noll argues in his book America’s God, the fact that the Bible seemed to most "commonsense" readers to support slavery brought on a crisis of authority that helped to produce what we now [call] liberal Protestantism. Many American Christians [in the 1800s] just knew slavery was wrong, so they learned to read the Bible in a different way.

We may be at a similar inflection point today. If you take a literal approach to the Biblical books and focus only at passages on sexuality, the Bible seems to support Graham. But if you focus on its broader message of love, it casts its vote for Obama.

As with slavery in the nineteenth century, public opinion in the twenty-first century is shifting rapidly on the gay marriage question, and not only among secular types. Billy Graham and other evangelicals who continue to insist that “the Bible is clear” in its opposition to gay marriage would do well to heed the lessons of America's most costly conflagration over race.

As they preach what they see as the "clear" meaning of scripture, they are not only swimming against the tide of history. They are putting their own religious tradition at risk.

Marriage equality is coming. Even the right knows this; except when performing ritual obeisance at Liberty University, Mitt Romney has downplayed gay marriage as a campaign issue. But do religious leaders understand how they are giving that which they claim to love a bad name?

It's not just the evangelicals. Do Catholic bishops and Mormon elders understand how choosing literalism over the Golden Rule makes them seem simply bigoted cranks? Religious understanding will evolve; it has before. But how many generations will equate the instinct humans have that there is something more -- an instinct we have named "God" and in some traditions "Jesus" -- with ignorance and intolerance?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Garbage and other election matters

My ballot has turned up in the mail (I'm a permanent vote-by-mail type) so there must be an election coming up. Around here, you'd hardly know it except for some random billboards telling us "No on A." And these attachments on the garbage cans.
No, there's no presidential primary any more (not that this Democratic town cares) nor any very interesting propositions. But there's the matter of garbage. Or rather, who gets paid to get rid of it. On this topic there's the usual waste of trees, multiple glossy campaign mailers. And twice over the last six months I've been polled about my attitudes to the garbage company -- the former "Sunset Scavenger" which apparently hired a branding company and mutated into "Recology."

Garbage is a long standing conundrum in San Francisco. By law, all residents are required to pay a private company for garbage service and the company was designated in perpetuity in the city charter of 1932 with no provision for review or competitive bidding. This seems like a cushy arrangement.

On the other hand, we have some of the most effective recycling and waste reduction in the country and rates that don't seem exorbitant for the level of service. Mostly our garbage system works. Who wants to think about how to organize municipal garbage?

When polled, I had no idea what I thought about "Recology." (I just can't use the name without the quotes; it is as bad as "tall" for a standard small coffee.) I didn't trust the company particularly, but I didn't trust any of the messages they were testing on me either. How do I know whether changing the garbage service provider would give us better service? I kept telling them I'd vote based on who the proponent was and which politicians lined up for and against it.

Well, it turns out the proponent is one of San Francisco politics' notorious curmudgeons, retired judge Quentin Kopp. An elected supervisor in the 70s and 80s, he was notable for having trouble uttering the word "gay" just when our community was getting some political traction. And the opponents of the garbage measure, Prop. A, run the gamut from leftish Assemblyman Tom Ammiano through the Chamber of Commerce.

Guess I don't have to understand garbage. I can just vote against Prop. A and leave the system in the hands of the ever-so friendly (these days) "Recology."
As for the other stuff, here's how I'm voting:
Prop. 28 -- a minor improvement to the state's dumb legislature term limits: YES
Prop. 29 -- tobacco tax: yes

San Francisco Prop. B -- advisory measure about Coit Tower: yes I guess. (Why do we have to vote on these things?)

Democratic County Central Committee: this always reminds me of voting for student council in grade school. The winners will decide who gets the Party nod in supervisorial elections in the fall. It looks to me as if the "moderates," who are actually big business shills, will win this round. On this one, it is probably worth reading the Bay Guardian though several of their endorsements go to people I'll never vote for (that's you Leslie Katz!)

I wonder if June 5 election turnout will exceed 30 percent?